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Beggars and Thieves

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It didn't start with the fucked operation in Damascus, not by a long shot; it was already too late by then. But later, when they stood in the smoking ruins, Damascus was the thing you could point to and say, there. There was when it all went to shit. James Trombley had been green, passed all his field tests but had no experience in the actual field, dealing with assets. But Brad had faith in him and how he'd taken to the training, and had backed him being selected for the operation. And because Brad had backed him, the Captain had backed him. When Trombley's handler in Beirut had called in the shooting, the loss of the al-Qaeda asset, and Trombley's body being picked up by police, the divisional shakedown had been spectacular.

When the dust settled, the Syrians were still insisting Trombley's body was unaccounted for, Brad had gone from second in command of their unit to working on his resume, and the Captain was swiftly 'reallocated' from Project Stillwater. Reallocated where, Brad had never been certain and didn't have the clearance anymore to know, but it was no longer his problem.

Not for over a year.

Then one morning he walked out of his bedroom, thinking about breakfast, and froze in the hallway because something was different.

All of Brad's Marine Corps reconnaissance training and the paranoia he'd picked up working in intelligence kicked in at once. He reached into the pot of the palm tree-thing sitting in his hallway and drew out his spare nine, cocking it as quietly as possible as he kept moving to the kitchen.

"Good morning," said the man sitting on the stool at his kitchen counter, looking disinterestedly down the barrel of Brad's gun before going back to the paper. "I started the coffee."

"Kocher, what the fuck," said Brad, putting the safety on the gun but letting it hang ready in his hand as he went to investigate the coffee pot. It was brewing; he'd probably caught a whiff of it.

"Your door was practically open," said Kocher. "All I had to do was pick the lock. Do you draw on all your visitors?"

"Yes," said Brad. "Keeps me from having more." He faced Kocher while the coffeemaker hissed and burbled. "What are you doing in my house?"

"We need you to come in."

"That's really cute."

"No," said Kocher, staring at him disconcertingly, "we need you in. Today. Like, go-get-in-the-shower today."

"You may remember my summary dismissal last fall," said Brad. "I have found gainful and sane employment elsewhere."

"They sent me ahead of the extraction team they budgeted, Brad."

"Who sent you?" Brad demanded.

"Schwetje. Griego. McGraw." Kocher's jaw set. "I know you still know which way is up."

"You do what those fucks tell you to do?" Brad retorted.

"I do what needs to be done," said Kocher flatly. "So are you coming with me or do I make a phone call?"

"This is the least flattering job offer I've ever received," said Brad as the coffee finished. He went to pour himself a cup and pointedly didn't get one for Kocher. "What are the benefits like?"

"It was a mistake to cut you loose, Brad. You're being welcomed back to the fold. Don't fuck it up with your attitude."

"I wouldn't dream of fucking up such a great opportunity with my attitude," said Brad. He took a sip of coffee. "I'll be there in an hour. See yourself out."

"I--"

"See yourself out," Brad repeated, going back down the hall to the bathroom.

***

Stillwater was holed up in a boring office building with a lot of cheap tile and laminate in the foyer. The doormen wore earpieces and the one at the desk--still that kid John, Brad noted--glanced at a computer screen before waving Brad on to the elevator. When the scuffed black doors closed on him, Brad opened the fire panel to reveal a card reader and swiped the card Kocher had left on his kitchen counter; the elevator started with a lurch. When it spit Brad out on the sixth floor the receptionist, Sarah, waved him to the door on the right with just a lopsided smile.

It was a layered mantle of boring facades concealing a three-ring circus, complete with clowns; when Brad opened the door onto Project Stillwater for the first time in a year he was hit immediately by a certainty that he'd never left. Four people stared openly at him as they walked past with files, and in under a minute Ray Person had stood up behind the wall of his cubicle like a meerkat scouting danger.

"Brad!" he shouted, raising his arms in greeting.

There was no point in evasion; Brad walked over to Ray's cubicle pod. Ray was beaming at him.

"Never thought I'd see your bitchy face again, sir," Ray said fondly.

"Congratulations on not getting fired or killed in my absence, Person," said Brad amicably.

"The key is not going out in the field," said Ray. "Being a handler is a lot safer. Not good for my stress levels, but safer."

"Has this place changed at all since I left?"

Ray's face tightened unexpectedly. "Homes, you wouldn't believe me if I told you. Suffice to say that while our heroic cabal of finely trained government agents may seem as animated as ever, this place is fucked six ways from Sunday since you and the Captain were taken away from us. Why are you back, anyway?"

Brad was a little surprised the knitting circle hadn't already learned everything about his visit. "I've been called in for some kind of meeting. I don't know anything else yet."

"Oh," was all Ray said. But he said it like Brad had just confessed he had terminal cancer.

"What?"

"Nothing," said Ray quickly.

"Person, you fucking know something. Spit it out."

"I don't know shit, dude. Nobody tells me anything. I only have strong suspicions." He peered around Brad's shoulder. "Kocher on your six. Guess you're gonna find out right now, anyway."

Brad spared a moment to glare at Ray before turning to Kocher.

"Good, you're here. Conference room," said Kocher, inclining his head that way before walking off. Brad made to follow but was arrested by Ray grabbing his elbow.

"Brad," Ray blurted, and then stopped, chewing his lip. "Be careful, man," he said finally, letting go of Brad's arm. It didn't seem like what he'd meant to say.

Brad nodded back at him carefully before following Kocher.

Brad had spent a hell of a lot of time in the conference room during his tenure at Stillwater. In fact, his work dreams had pretty frequently been set there. It was the same: soundproof tiles on the walls, a long, scarred table dominating the space and ringed with rolling chairs. Some of the people sitting around it were the same, too, but at the head of the table, where the Captain had always sat, was Craig Schwetje, and to his right, in Brad's chair (not really his chair but the spot he'd always gravitated to) was his favourite sycophant Ray Griego. Across from Griego was Dave McGraw, who was a proven idiot never allowed in this room during the Captain's administration. Brad took an empty chair next to Kocher.

"We're glad you could make it, Colbert," said Schwetje, whose office nickname had once been Encino Man.

"Where are Mike and Tony?" Brad asked.

Schwetje and Griego shared a look. "There's been some restructuring since you left, Colbert," said Griego. "But the Captain is confident in all of the men who sit in this room." The significant look he gave Brad was probably trying to indicate that Brad was being graciously included in the confidence, but Brad was stuck on the fact that Griego seemed to be calling Schwetje the Captain.

"You're in charge?" said Brad to Schwetje. "Who mandated that?"

"Godfather mandated it," Schwetje snapped. "Brad, I know and appreciate that you had a lot of respect for my predecessor, and now I am asking you to extend me the benefit of the doubt. For Godfather's sake, if nothing else."

Brad swallowed what he thought of that and just leaned back in his chair. "So why am I here?"

Silence fell. Schwetje was the one to break it, but he clearly didn't want to be the one who had to do it.

"It concerns my predecessor," he said. When Brad only watched him without comment, he went on, "According to Godfather, he's gone missing."

Brad's hands, in his lap, balled into fists so hard his nails started cutting into his palms. He kept his face composed and his voice even. "How long ago?"

"I'm told almost two months," said Schwetje.

"And?" said Brad.

Schwetje looked awkward again and McGraw--Captain fucking America here to save the day--took over for him, his face intense as it always, always was. "He may be dead or he may be rogue, either way Godfather needs to know. We're tasked to use our resources to find him."

And the penny dropped. "How the fuck do you think I'm going to find him? If the Captain's been AWOL for two months then you can't be stupid enough to think there hasn't been a search already." Brad hoped they weren't that stupid, anyway.

"Brad," said Kocher, and fuck, this was going to be it, wasn't it, "we all worked with the guy for how long, and yet we barely know anything about him. Godfather's the only one who has access to his personnel file but there were no leads that panned out. He was a secretive motherfucker about his personal life, and you were the only person here who was really close to him at all."

"Mike Wynn," Brad started, and Kocher spoke over him.

"Mike Wynn is not in play these days and refused to offer what little help he would actually be worth to us. You're it, Colbert. You or a wet crew, at this point."

Brad's mouth snapped shut so suddenly his teeth clicked. Obviously the popular money was on 'rogue', not 'dead'. "Jesus Christ," he said.

Kocher leaned in closer, lowering his voice a little. "For the Captain's sake, man. It's better if it's you. Just find him and bring him in."

Brad leaned into the hard cushion of his chair, his mind racing. It was rare that he floundered, unable to see the right play. He hated the feeling. "So I find him," he said, with a voice stronger than he expected, "and then what?"

"One thing at a time, Colbert," said Schwetje. He stood up, gathering together some files. "You report to us. Anyone in this room. Nobody else. Got it?"

Brad gave him a distracted thumbs-up as he got out of his seat, unwilling to actually act like he was accepting an order from Encino Man. He was the first one out of the room. Ray made eye contact with him as Brad made his way back towards the reception area, his face drawn with concern; Brad looked away and pretended not to have seen him.

***

The only good thing about Starbucks was that once one of its fetid franchises took root in a building, it never fucking left again; Brad made it out of the line and to a corner table with his twelve-ounce drip just as Ray walked in. He took his time joining Brad, going through the line for some retarded espresso drink first like it was just his usual coffee break.

"Just like old times," said Brad when Ray got to the table.

"Sometimes I worry this place is too close," said Ray as he took the chair opposite Brad.

Brad shook his head. "You have to pass two other Starbucks to get here. Always trust human laziness, Person." He'd said it a million times and yet it still failed to stick.

"What was the meeting about?" Ray demanded.

Brad sipped his coffee. "What do you think it was about?"

Ray made a face. "There's a rumour."

Brad sipped his coffee again.

Ray rolled his eyes. "I've just heard that the Captain's gone off the reservation. It sounded like at least sixty percent bullshit but it hasn't gotten far so I don't know, maybe there's something to it," he said miserably.

Brad studied his coffee lid. Ray was good; Brad had practically hand-raised him. He stayed at home though, directing assets from afar (and he likely always would) because he had no goddamn poker face and all of his thoughts were right there on the surface for viewing. It appeared Brad's decision had been made. He licked his lips before he spoke. "It's been two months."

He could see when Ray understood. "Holy shit," he hissed. "What happened?"

"Anyone's guess."

Ray's brows furrowed. "So you--"

"So me," agreed Brad.

"Fuck." Ray threw himself back in his chair. After a moment, he said, "I am just going to kill myself rather than continue to suffer those fucking retards."

"You can quit," said Brad. "There is a life outside the paradox of intelligence work. Look at my roaring success."

"You live off your military pension and occasionally charge people hilarious amounts of money to install and run virus scanners on their computers for them," Ray dismissed him.

And that was when Brad remembered that he was actually never going to get away from these people, even if he changed his name and left the country. "You make it sound like I'm taking advantage of people. I tell them not to play online poker and visit random porn sites and download toolbars. Then a week later, I get another call."

Ray laughed, but it was kind of mirthless.

"It's a living," said Brad.

"But you came back."

"They were going to send men in balaclavas into my house through the windows, so yes, Person, I came back," said Brad.

"And you're staying?"

"No," he said immediately. Then he paused. "I don't know. I just, I have to do this. Not for the cast of Gilligan's Island who runs that ship now, fuck them. But I need to know what happened to the Captain."

When he looked up again, Ray was nodding, apparently to himself. Ray said, "Let me know if you need any help."

"Yeah," said Brad, and then, "Hey."

Ray stilled, about to get up from his chair.

"Where's Mike Wynn these days?"

"Out to pasture, homes. He's running wiretaps at location Charlie."

"Those assholes," said Brad.

"You don't know the half of it, Brad," said Ray, and then he left.

***

Location Charlie was a row house in Hyattsville, maintained by the agency mostly as a safehouse, but a few rooms had been made into a listening post. Since the place naturally had security, the best time to lay hands on Mike Wynn was when he got off his shift. After two days of casing the place, Brad watched late one night from the backseat as Mike got into his car. Mike's exhausted sigh turned into a surprised choke when Brad sat up suddenly.

"Who the fuck--Colbert?" Mike whipped around in his seat, hand moving to his concealed shoulder holster but stopping in midair when he registered Brad.

"Don't let me delay you," said Brad, nodding at Mike to start the car. "I'm not jacking you, just go wherever you go."

Mike started his car with a shake of his head and adjusted the rearview mirror to look at Brad as he drove. "You're a sight for sore eyes," he drawled.

Brad grinned. "I was sorry to hear about your transfer."

"Well, they can't just shoot people anymore, can they," said Mike aimlessly.

Eventually they pulled up outside a bar. When the engine shut off, the silence settled in for a moment before a distant siren ruined it. "You know why I'm here," said Brad.

"Why else would we be at a bar? Come on." Mike groaned as he levered himself out of the car.

"Isn't your wife expecting you?"

"She sleeps like a coma patient," dismissed Mike, leading the way across the chill pavement and into the warmth of what was probably his favourite dive. "Scotch, please," he told the bartender as they made their way to the uncrowded bar. "Two."

Brad waited patiently while Mike consumed the first half of his drink in silence. "Was it that dumbass Schwetje who pulled you in?" Mike asked finally.

"Essentially. Kocher said they talked to you already."

"They did," said Mike, putting his glass down, "and I told them where they could go. I figured they didn't have enough reasons to fire me yet, anyway. Brad," he said, suddenly grave and looking him in the eye, "it's all fucking rotten. Just get out and get away now, while you still can."

"You know something I don't?"

"I know how that circlejerk carries out their business when they haven't got a babysitter. Maybe Godfather did pass down the assignment but I don't think there's any good purpose behind it, not for them. They're like a pack of wolves at the door."

Brad thought uneasily about that. "You're saying they're hunting the Captain for a reason?"

"He'd make a good wicker man, disgraced as he was. You too, for that matter, but you're harder to bring down because anyone can see you don't give a fuck."

Brad snorted in spite of himself. "You keep in touch with him?" he asked.

"Not really."

"You know where they put him when they took him off the project?"

"Straight to the archives," said Mike, glaring at his glass. "Working the North Korea desk, last I'd heard."

Demoted from running a hand-picked, off-books intelligence unit to a glorified librarian, pushing around outdated files. They'd done it knowing, too, that the Captain was never going to just quit. He cared too much. Brad could have believed in his working the North Korean archives desk till he retired. Not for the first time, Brad felt almost grateful he'd just been fired.

"I know you're going to look for him," said Mike, "so just keep your goddamn head up, okay? Expect the traps. Be smart."

"Do you know where he went?"

"Nope," said Mike, and who knew if it was the truth or not but it was all Brad was going to get from him. "All I do know is that the Captain's exactly who you think he is. He's done nothing. He hasn't sold out his country."

"So you think he's dead?" said Brad.

Mike shrugged. "I think he'd be hard to kill. He's a squirmy motherfucker."

"If he's innocent, why would he run?"

"Maybe he saw the shitstorm coming before anyone else did. He's the Captain for a reason."

"Shitstorm?"

"Won't be long, Brad," said Mike, "and you'll be able to see it too."

Brad left him at the bar and headed out into the street. It was starting to rain; he hunched into his jacket for the hike back to his own car.

***

It could easily be argued that Brad was paranoid even by the standards of other spooks, for which he usually blamed his time as a Recon Marine and the myriad ways in which humanity had already let him down in the past three decades of his life. Person used to mock him for his twitchy habits, which Espera and others would take as an open invitation to join in until even the Captain was smirking at them all. Brad would just roll his eyes and ignore them until they went away.

But every so often, his paranoia turned out to pay off. It had marginally paid off the morning he'd woken up to Kocher reading his newspaper and it paid off when he pulled up in front of his house after leaving Mike Wynn at the bar and jogged up the front steps in the rain to see that the piece of clear tape he always stuck to the door at the top of the frame was broken.

Brad stood a second, keys in hand, as water dripped off of his jacket collar. The only gun he kept in the house was in the potted plant back toward his bedroom. He always carried a switchblade on him; if whoever was inside was watching the door, he had to act fast to head off an ambush with only a knife. He breathed in slowly through his nose as he put the key in the lock, his free hand reaching into his jeans pocket for his knife.

The entryway was empty and dark; there were no lights on in the place that he could see, but the streetlights were shining in where Brad had left the blinds open and the orange-lit patches in the shadows of his house didn't reveal any intruders. Brad shut the door behind him and toed off his shoes, reassessing. Whoever had come in probably wasn't here to assault him, maybe wasn't here at all anymore. But they hadn't noticed the tape on the door. Or they had and wanted him to know they were here anyway. Goddammit.

He smacked the switch for the hall light, illuminating half of the house in one go as he crossed into the living room. A pair of shoes were hanging over the arm of his couch; he turned on the overhead light, shifting his grip on the switchblade still in his hand. Walt Hasser squinted up at him.

"Agent Colbert," said Walt, his voice scratchy as he sat up. His eyes were bloodshot and he looked even younger in his exhaustion, like a college kid on the other side of too many all-nighters. This was apparently one of Ray's best people.

"This is certainly unexpected," said Brad, putting away his knife as he moved to sit in the armchair opposite Walt. "What made you think showing up in my home at--" he glanced at his watch, "--two in the morning on a Wednesday would be welcome?"

"Agent Person said you were trustworthy, sir."

"How lovely of Agent Person. Weren't you posted in the Middle East somewhere?"

"Yeah," said Walt. "For a while."

"And?"

"I'm back."

They stared at each other in silence for a moment until Brad moved to dig out his phone. "Fine," he said, "I'll just call your esteemed employers--"

"No, don't!" Walt made an abortive move like he'd been about to dive across the floor for Brad's phone, maybe remembering last-second that Brad would probably win anyway.

"Agent Hasser," said Brad slowly, "are you playing hooky from work? I'm pretty sure you could pick better places than my living room to hide, with all your training."

"I'm out of other places to hide," said Walt desperately. "I've been stateside for a month, on the move. I finally made contact with Ray yesterday, through a dead drop, and he sent me to you."

Ray was either functionally retarded or a genius. "Did he give you any further instructions?"

"He just said to keep my head down."

Brad sighed and found Ray's number still in his phone.

Stop leaving your shit in my home, he texted.

The reply came fast. I'll come by for it later. Don't break it, it has sentimental value.

Brad snorted.

"What did he say?" Walt asked.

"Your handler cares far too much for your welfare, young Hasser. Now, if I'm stashing you, you can tell me why you're hiding instead of rejoining the sideshow with your fellow freaks."

Walt looked down at his hands, playing with a fingernail.

Brad waited a while and then said, "Ray told you that I'm trustworthy. So either you trust his judgment or you don't, but pick one, and if you don't trust his judgment then you should get out of my house."

Walt nodded, and was silent for another moment before he said, "I was in Syria, working some Hezbollah leads. My assignment was to try and turn this one guy they thought was buyable, a translator."

"What was your cover?" Brad asked.

"Russian gun runner. I've been maintaining it for a few years. Anyway, this guy, Meesh, he turned out to be useless as a Hezbollah source; he liked his drugs and booze a lot and they didn't use him for anything sensitive. He actually told me he's worked for the CIA before."

Brad snorted.

"So I got in contact with Ray and said it was a non-starter, but then it turned out that Meesh wasn't entirely useless. He used to work with al-Qaeda and Osbat al-Ansar and he'd heard some things about a shooting in Damascus last year."

Brad froze.

"An American," Walt nodded. "I thought--" He hesitated, then went on, looking embarrassed. "I had a hunch that he was going to have good information, so I stuck around, decided to play it out. He did have something we needed, but he wanted every kind of deal--money, protection, a plane ticket, a passport, a job--it changed by the hour. And he wouldn't talk to me at first. He kept saying it was good shit he had and he wasn't going to give it to someone low-ranking. He wanted a fucking face-to-face with Godfather, essentially. I had I don't know how many meets with him and he wouldn't budge on that."

"So you fed him a line," Brad assumed.

Walt scratched the back of his neck. "I tried to be above-board at first. Get someone higher-ranked--not Godfather, obviously, not even Schwetje, but maybe like Kocher would get on the phone with him, I don't know. I was still in country against Ray's orders and I knew he'd just wave me off, push paperwork to get another wrangler after Meesh as an asset but maybe he'd be in the wind by then. I went back to Beirut to the closest secure station to send a request, pissed off the guy working there."

"You went over Ray's head," said Brad.

Walt nodded uneasily.

"Who was working the station in Beirut?" Brad asked. Something had clearly hit the fan at the end of all this and that station was the obvious weak link in the clearance chain.

"Reyes," said Walt. "He's been there since...." He trailed off.

Since Trombley. Well, Reyes was the good kind. Brad had caught him on the rebound from the Marines to work for the project. "So you got past Reyes to send your message," he prompted.

"I encrypted it myself," said Walt, "but he helped me get it to the right office. I had to wait twenty hours for an answer."

"What did you tell them?"

"I said I had an al-Qaeda source with information on the Damascus op and top-level intel on al-Qaeda actions toward Stillwater, and he needed extraction with possible future considerations."

Brad laughed out loud, a sharp 'ha' he couldn't keep in. "You lied through your teeth?" It was a classic Ray move, actually.

"I didn't want it to be dismissed," said Walt. "Just because I'm a young agent. I wanted a chance to bring him in and go to town on him. Maybe he knew what the Syrians did with Trombley, maybe his other intel was worth something, but I didn't want to lose him to Osbat getting suspicious or his own druggie paranoia before we could find out for sure. Anyway, it didn't work. The only response I got after twenty hours was an acknowledgement of receipt. No follow-up, no extraction details, nothing."

That was not standard practice. Walt had turned Meesh into a level four source with mission-sensitive information and the minimum response should have been a request for follow-up, identification of the source, more detailed intel, something. You didn't shrug off a potential source like that.

"Who sent you the acknowledgement?" Brad asked, keeping his alarm out of his voice.

Walt shrugged. "It wasn't signed. Reyes confirmed it was official from the switchboard before he kicked me out of the post."

So either someone was getting fired from the switchboard or one of Schwetje's cabal (or higher) had seen Walt's communiqué before blowing him off. "What did Ray tell you happened?"

"I asked him about it when we made contact and he didn't know what I was talking about," said Walt. "We haven't been able to discuss it properly yet."

This was a mess visible from orbit. "And what happened when you got back to Meesh?" Brad asked, abruptly realizing the birds were starting up their morning barrage of noise. He shot a tired look at the window; it was still dark for the time being. His jeans had dried, though.

"I met up with Meesh in person and told him that I'd gotten in touch with headquarters and I had instructions to debrief him in country before he was handed off for extraction. I also told him he was getting a green card."

"And he said?"

"He said something unrepeatable in Arabic and told me I was a liar, there was nothing for him in America, and now the wrong people knew about him and he was going to vanish like the American agent. He said he had half a day and took off and I never saw him again."

"The wrong people?" Brad echoed, feeling like someone had dumped cold water down his back. Vanishing?

Walt was bent over in his seat with his head over his knees, his fingers rubbing at his temples. "I spent two days trying to turn him up and then I got out of Syria and made my way back to the States via Moscow. That was just over a month ago." Walt looked up and his eyes were red and beyond tired. "Brad, is there a mole in Stillwater?"

***

Brad pulled the living room blinds against the sunrise and Ray showed up at six, in a hoodie and a ball cap.

"You look like you got all your training in going incognito from spy movies," said Brad after letting Ray into the house.

"This is what I look like at this hour, homes," said Ray, pulling his hat off to dig his fingers through his bedhead. "Hey, thanks," he added as Brad turned to leave him.

"Just try and be quiet for once, for a few hours," said Brad, leaving Ray to go catch up on the clusterfuck-in-progress with Walt while he went to crawl into bed for a few hours. He wasn't sure his brain would shut up enough to let him sleep, but he could see he was going to need to take every opportunity that presented itself.

***

He woke up near ten in the morning with the pillow folded over his head, the smell of coffee in his nose and the realization that the night before hadn't been a bad dream and he was really standing inside a trap he'd let spring around him. Brad shut his eyes and breathed in and out slowly, once, before pushing himself up and out of bed and putting yesterday's clothes back on.

"Morning," said Walt, who was sitting in the same chair Kocher had occupied a few days earlier. He looked like stale hell. "Ray left two hours ago."

"Ray has things to do at the office today," said Brad. He poured a cup of coffee, knocked back half, and refilled the cup. "Okay," he said after a moment. "You can't stay here."

"I kind of like the idea of laying low in the most dangerous place," started Walt. "They'd never expect me to be here, right?"

"This isn't a fucking spy novel," said Brad, "and even Encino Man isn't that goddamned stupid. Or if he is, Griego isn't." He put his coffee down on the counter. "We're moving you. Do you have anything to retrieve?"

"No."

Brad glanced at the clock on the microwave. "I'm taking a shower and then we're oscar mike."

"Solid copy," said Walt with a distinct note of sarcasm.

Brad kept his spare bike helmet in the hall closet and handed it to Walt before leading the way to the back door.

"You own a bike?" Walt asked, examining the helmet.

"No, I just like safety in cars," said Brad. "Put that on to disguise your face, would you?"

Walt obeyed and Brad went down the back steps to haul the tarp off of his bike.

"Get the gate," he pointed as he started it, and Walt stopped staring at the bike long enough to obey. Brad guided the bike out onto the driveway and Walt shut the back gate behind them before climbing on behind Brad.

"I've never been on a bike before." Walt's voice was muffled through the helmet.

Brad snapped down his visor. "Hang on tight."

They went to a Motel 6 in Virginia, far enough off the radar to be discreet without also being a pain in the ass to drive. There were four cars in the lot of the motel; Brad left Walt outside on the bike, out of sight of the receptionist's office, and went in alone.

"Afternoon," he said with one of his best smiles. The forty-something woman at the desk looked mostly unimpressed with his shit.

"Smoking or non?"

"Smoking," he decided, giving Walt fewer excuses to leave the room. "You have a weekly rate?"

He paid with the credit card of one of the aliases he'd set up after leaving Stillwater and went back outside to lead Walt up to room 216. "You don't leave for anything," he said as Walt unlocked the door with the keycard. "You don't order pizza. You don't make contact with anyone via your room phone or mobile device. If anything in the room breaks, you fucking deal with it and don't attract attention. You put all the safety locks on the door. Got it?"

"Yeah," said Walt tiredly, pushing into the room and smacking the light switch on as he made a beeline for the bed. "Is this a smoking room? I don't smoke."

"Well, now you can start if you want." Brad yanked the curtains shut and grabbed the housekeeping card off of the nightstand, tossing it at Walt. "Write down your clothing sizes. Your handler will pick you up a few changes of clothes before he comes to handle you. He'll bring you food, too."

Walt looked up from writing down his pants size. "How long am I going to have to stay here?" he asked, looking younger than ever.

"As long as you can," said Brad.

***

He texted Ray from the Starbucks and sat drumming his fingers on his helmet until he showed up.

"Your package is secured," he said as Ray sat down, passing the Motel 6 keycard across the table in its little paper envelope. Ray opened it to glance at the room number before sticking it in the inner pocket of his suit jacket.

"Thanks, dude. I appreciate it. How are we gonna sort this fuckpile out?"

"He said you were completely in the dark until he made contact, right?"

"Brad, I'm still in the fucking dark. I have no idea what he's going on about. All I can confirm is that he stayed in Syria after I told him to come the fuck home."

Brad unzipped a pocket on his jacket and pulled out a flash drive he'd brought from home. "We need to find the records of this message he says he transmitted about having a source, and the response he got back. Maybe there's an indication of who saw it and responded."

Ray looked at the flash drive. "I haven't got clearance to get into the call logs, not even for my own assets. I learn what they choose to let trickle down."

Brad held out the drive. "You don't need clearance when you have this."

Ray took it. "The fuck is on this?"

"You take that into the server room where all that shit is logged and stick it in a terminal, and it'll be your clearance to get the logs we want. You dump the files onto it, too, and get it back to me."

Ray's eyes widened and he turned the drive over in his fingers. "You pulling some Swordfish shit here or what? Is this a virus, dude?"

This was what Brad dealt with daily: pedants barely qualified to run Windows. "It's not a goddamn virus, you idiot, it's just code I wrote that should skip past the network security. It was always full of glaring holes just waiting to be exploited and I doubt they fixed any in my absence."

Ray shrugged his eyebrows and tucked away the flash drive, too.

"August 13th of this year," said Brad. "From Beirut."

"I remember. I'll see if I can get it before I leave tonight. If not, tomorrow. What are you gonna do in the meantime?"

"Try another angle," said Brad. "I think I still know some people who haven't been tossed out with the garbage yet."

Ray stood up. "Maybe not for long."

***

After his ignoble departure from his career in espionage, Brad had been content not to look back, happily severing all of his ties to that life. He had, however, hung onto Tony Espera's personal cell phone number. He'd known Espera since Afghanistan and they hadn't stopped running into each other since; Espera was a good guy. Ran off at the mouth a lot but he was loyal and dependable. Brad hadn't called him once since he'd left Stillwater--he'd never really seen Espera as more than a work friend--but he'd kept the number, just in case it came in handy.

Brad sat back in his chair in the busy Starbucks and listened to his phone ring. He hoped the number was still right.

"Hello?" came a deep voice over the line.

Brad realized he was grinning to himself. "Poke, you motherfucker," he said warmly.

There was a laugh. "Colbert? Dog, I heard you came back but I didn't believe it was true."

"They can teach the fucking Corps a thing or two about keeping hooks in you. Where are they stashing you these days? I didn't see your ugly face around the sixth floor."

"I'm on logistics," Poke sighed. "Slumming with Doc and Dirty Earl while they do mad science and argue."

"More like Doc's slumming with you," said Brad. "Maybe Dirty Earl's not, though." He paused. "Regime change didn't treat you well, then."

"Shit rolls downhill," said Poke blandly. "What did you come back for, anyway?"

"Special assignment," said Brad, not trusting the phone. "Hey, meet me for a drink tomorrow night and we'll catch up."

"Okay," said Poke slowly. "Sure."

"And if you see Ray Person before then," Brad went on, "he told me he has something for you."

"Right. Tomorrow night, then."

They hung up. Brad and Poke had only ever gone drinking in DC at one bar; Poke would be there tomorrow night with the flash drive.

Brad's phone rang while it was still in his hand. The number was blocked; he frowned as he answered.

"Hello?"

The dulcet tones of Griego came over the line. "Colbert, we need you to come in."

"Funny, I don't remember giving you this number," said Brad, and then, "Why do you need me to come in again?"

"We want a report on your progress," said Griego.

Brad rolled his eyes. "I'll report right now. I haven't made any progress."

"Don't fuck around."

"I'm not fucking around. I am following some leads but there's nothing to tell you yet."

Griego was clearly losing his temper. "We didn't bring you in to waste time."

"You apparently didn't bring me in to keep me up to speed on the situation, either," said Brad. "I'm still catching up. That takes time."

There was silence on the line.

"When I have something for you, you'll be the first to know," Brad said sweetly, and then hung up.

Careful, he thought as he got up and grabbed his helmet. Watch for traps.

***

Brad was watching from the booth in the corner when Poke came into the bar the next night; Poke spotted him before he had to stand up or wave.

"Always gotta take the most tactical seat in the house, Brad?"

"Paranoia pays dividends," Brad grinned back. "I finished half a beer waiting for you."

"I'll catch up," said Poke, waving at the server. When she'd left their table with his drink order, he slapped Brad's flash drive on the table between them. "This the thing you were after? Person almost wouldn't give it to me. But then he said there's nothing on it."

Brad looked up from the drive sharply. "What do you mean, there's nothing on it? His task was simple."

Poke shrugged. "He was ranting about how Gabe Garza almost caught him in the server room--I don't wanna know why you had him in there, dog--and then the computer didn't even have the shit you wanted. I dunno, we were in the hallway and I kinda tuned him out."

"Fuck's sake." Brad pocketed his flash drive anyway; he'd get ahold of Ray to bitch him out later and find out what had actually happened.

"So what's all this cloak and dagger shit? Thought you were on the Geek Squad or something now." Poke's face was teasing. Mostly.

Brad deflected. "When did you get reassigned?"

"When do you think?"

"Did anyone get to keep their old jobs after Damascus?"

"Godfather, I guess," said Poke. They were silent for a moment. "It wasn't right, what they did to you and the Captain. It was some bullshit, dog. Something was hinky up in that whole mess."

"Something in particular?"

"Something in particular above my pay grade," Poke retorted. "The Captain's AWOL, you know."

"I know," said Brad. "You know where?"

Poke blinked. "You're back in on a special assignment," he said slowly. "Oh. Oh, damn. Those fucks."

"You know where, Tony?" Brad's voice was terse, more than he'd intended.

Poke put down his beer and pointed at Brad. "You let that man stay where he's hid. I know you two were all... whatever you were--"

Brad didn't know what that was.

"--But shit is heavy and the dogs are out looking for a scent, you get me?"

They stared at each other for a long time across the dinged-up, sticky table.

"Griego's up on my phone," said Brad. "I'm pretty sure."

"Burn it," said Poke immediately.

"I can't let him know I'm spooked. I'll keep it as a decoy. Get a burner for sensitive calls."

"How do we know he's not up on mine already, too? And Person's? And whoever the fuck else you're talking to?"

"How do we know he wasn't always?"

Poke glared.

Brad shrugged. "You're a big boy; you can cover your trail. So can Person. Do your own housekeeping, whatever needs done. But this is more than just finding the Captain." He'd apparently already decided to trust Poke, so he jumped in with both feet. "We've got a rogue asset who says there's a mole."

"From who? Al-Qaeda?" Poke rubbed a hand across his mouth. "Fuck."

"Probably high-level," said Brad. "The flash drive was supposed to give us some intel on what we're working with."

"So what now? What are your other leads?"

"I'm working on that," said Brad.

"How can I help you?"

Brad studied Poke, evaluated the earnest look on his face. "Be my go-between with Person," he said. "He's keeping a lot of balls in the air right now."

"You know, it's funny how often handlers need to meet with us fixers in the course of business," said Poke with a grin.

Brad grinned back. "And tell me what you know about where the Captain went."

Poke's grin fell off his face. "I don't know shit."

"You're a fucking liar."

"I told you--"

"Poke. Tony. You think he's in danger. Help me track him down before they do. Please."

Poke's face tightened. "He had a place in New Hampshire."

"They'll know about that," Brad dismissed.

"They won't," said Poke. "It was a secret."

"How the fuck do you know about it then?" Brad demanded. How the fuck did Poke know and he didn't? He'd been the Captain's right hand once.

"I saw some documents I shouldn't have seen when I was in his office one time." Poke in that moment was the picture of a kid caught with a hand in the cookie jar, prevaricating. "He keeps it off-book and off-grid. Or he kept it, at least. He could be holed up there."

"If he kept it so far off the grid the CIA doesn't know about it, then how am I supposed to track it down?" Brad demanded.

Poke scoffed. "All you white boys think you got all the superspy skills." He tapped his head. "I saw the paperwork, I remembered it. His place is north of this little town called Errol."

"How far north?"

"I think he'd be doing all his supply runs in Errol," said Poke.

"That's a start, anyway."

"You going up there?"

"I have some shit to take care of, first. But I don't see what choice I have."

"You could leave him be," Poke said again. "Focus on this mole."

"It's almost like you think these two things aren't connected," said Brad.

Poke looked down at his beer. "It's called denial, motherfucker. Because if the Captain disappearing has to do with the mole, then we're all more fucked than when we started."

"Keep your head in the sand if it makes you happy." Brad drained his beer and stood up. "I'll be in touch."

***

Brad called Ray at midnight, from the finest prepaid phone 7-11 had to offer.

"Who's this?" Ray asked. He sounded tired.

Brad looked at the flash drive in his hand. "I give you one simple task, Person."

"Shut the fuck up with your 'simple'," said Ray. "You made me commit treason. Attempted treason."

Brad grinned. "You didn't get caught."

"I almost did! Garza came down the hall while I was coming out of the server room and I had to duck back inside. I'm still not totally sure he didn't see me."

"You're not in custody, Ray, quit worrying. What the hell is this 'the computer didn't have what I wanted' shit, anyway? Computers don't log shit selectively; they're not people."

"That must be why you get along so much better with them. Look, I got into the logs and looked at the right day and there was nothing there from Beirut. And then I checked the rest of that week and there was still nothing. So I guess either Walt fucking lied or someone deleted that shit. That part's up to you, because I'm not cut out for this James Bond shit. Break in yourself."

Brad got off the couch and switched on his desktop. "My code ran properly?" he asked.

"I guess so. No sirens went off or anything. I got into the logs just fine, the stuff just wasn't there."

"Congratulations, Person, this wasn't all a complete waste of time." Brad logged in and opened his VPN client.

"What? Why not?"

Brad talked distractedly as he typed, the phone trapped between his cheek and shoulder. "Besides giving you high-level security clearance, that flash drive dumped some code onto the server that will give me remote access." Brad had done it to wait for a rainy day but he'd use it now if that was what needed to happen.

"So you did do some Swordfish shit!"

"I'll hang up and never speak to you again."

"Fine, fine. So you can look at the logs yourself now?"

"Yes," said Brad, frowning at the screen. Christ, what an ugly database. Finally, he found the day he wanted. "You were right for once," he said, scanning the logs. "There's nothing here."

"I told you," said Ray.

"In fact, there's a suspicious lack of something. I'll be in touch," he said, hanging up on Ray and cutting him off in the middle of saying something else obnoxious.

With both hands and all of his brain free, Brad went digging through the system. He was pretty sure the log of Walt's communiqué and the response had been real but deleted. The kicker was that not any idiot with server access could delete that kind of thing; it hadn't been Garza or anyone like that. In fact, he could think of five people with the power to erase that message and he doubted it had been Godfather. The problem the message-deleter faced was that their message was in all likelihood not correctly wiped. How fortunate that one of Brad's specialties was data recovery.

Three hours later, Brad hadn't recovered the contents of the message Walt had sent, but he almost didn't care, because he had recovered the headers that proved there'd been a message in the first place, and that there had been a response, and that the response had been authorized by goddamn Captain America. For the coup de grace, Brad tried to figure out whose login had been used to delete the messages, but it had clearly happened close to their time of receipt, and that data was already overwritten on the server. Still, Brad had something.

He texted Ray: post office definitely received the letter but it got lost in transit, and then got out of his chair and stretched. It was getting light outside and he shot a look at the computer clock. It was after four again.

"Fuck," he muttered, and shut down the computer before stalking off to bed.

***

The next morning, Brad stumbled out of bed and nursed his coffee while booking a flight to LA and a hotel online; he forwarded the confirmations to Kocher's email and by the time he got out of the shower, there was a reply.

Brad,

I assume I'm signing off on this as expenses for you. Have you heard something about the captain going to california?

EK

"What the fuck did I already tell Griego?" Brad mumbled to himself, pulling a clean t-shirt over his head. The flight left in three hours. Brad grabbed a duffel bag out of the bottom of his closet and tossed in a few changes of clothes, some extra cash. He turned off his phone and removed the SIM card, keeping only his prepaid burner turned on just in case. Within a few minutes he was out the door and on his bike, aiming north for New Hampshire.

***

It had been a chilly trip, especially once he hit Vermont and started speeding, but he'd made it through traffic easily on the bike and late the next morning he was killing the engine on a dirt driveway, fifteen minutes north of Errol, NH. There was a small pickup truck parked in a carport to one side of the house, which was squat and looked like somebody's getaway. The people in town, all approximately twelve of them, had all recognized the Captain from Brad's description and the guy at the Sears had given him the directions to the house. The Captain had done a good job laying groundwork for his cover and they all appeared to think he was some kind of accountant who worked in New York; he only used the place a few times a year, they said. Came into town occasionally but seemed to like his quiet. Some thought he was a widower and some thought he was 'a confirmed bachelor', as one old lady inside the Sears had phrased it, giving Brad a piercing look.

Brad looked up at the house. If it was occupied then it seemed like his arrival should have been noted; his engine had echoed in the trees with only the occasional hiss of a passing car coming from the highway. Probably the truck was a permanent fixture of the place. He knocked on the front door anyway, and when there was no answer after a few minutes he knelt down to inspect the lock. Brad appreciated the privacy of being in the trees, right then.

It was a basic hardware store deadbolt and he picked it easily, letting the door swing open over a brown rug in the entryway. The Captain obviously counted on the seclusion of the place to provide security. From the dust on the visible surfaces, he also apparently wasn't in residence; Brad had ridden twelve hours for nothing. Still, he found himself going inside, kicking his boots off on the rug as he took in the place. It was one storey, glossy wood beams crossing the space overhead while the ceiling rose to a point beyond them. The kitchen met the living room met the office with neat, dark furniture dotting the wood floor; a row of doors to the left led to bedrooms and bathroom, probably. There were books everywhere: stacked on the coffee table, scattered on the desk, ranked on wooden shelves that spanned most of a wall, and even one left carelessly on the kitchen island.

Brad liked it immediately.

First he checked behind the doors, finding what he'd expected. The bathroom was plain and contained a stacked washer and dryer and there were bedrooms on either side of it; one contained a double bed, an antique sideboard and a tower of free weights and the other was clearly the master bedroom. The curtains were drawn and it was gloomy, dark and warm. The bed took up most of the space, there were yet more books stacked on one of the night-tables and he spotted a stray sock lying on the floor near the closet. There were clothes inside the dresser drawers but they smelled like they spent most of their time just sitting in there.

The next thing Brad looked at was the office area. If there were going to be any clues to be found, they would be there or in some hidden space. Brad had an uneasy feeling he'd find himself checking the long, long row of bookshelves before he was through with the place but gamely tried the desk anyway.

The surface was policy journals, old newspapers, three scrawled shopping lists, some old receipts from places in town. The drawers yielded pens, envelopes, old bills for the property--the bottom left drawer was locked. Brad picked that too and yanked it open, wondering if the Captain kept a laptop at his hideaway if he brought work there with him, but there was no computer stashed in that drawer, either. Instead, he found a thick stack of files. Files stamped with Stillwater security measures. He hauled it all out with a frown and spread it on the desk. The Captain didn't seem like the kind of idiot who took top secret files out of the office so that he could 'read on his own time' and increase the chances they'd end up in the wrong hands, but these files were stamped even above Brad's old clearance, and on top of that the Captain himself hadn't had access to any of this for a year. Brad flipped open the top file and was faced with an image of James Trombley.

Was it a sign of some kind that everything kept leading back to Damascus? Brad leaned back in the creaking desk chair and began to read.

The operation file was accompanied by copies of personnel files for Trombley, Trombley's handler, Brad, Espera, Wynn, Schwetje, Griego, McGraw and Kocher. They didn't contain a great number of revelations and Brad couldn't understand why the Captain had stolen them. Obviously he'd been trying to conduct his own secret investigation into that operation and into Stillwater but the reasoning wasn't clear. Trombley was KIA. The organization had been shaken down thoroughly. But the Captain wasn't here to explain himself and his house wasn't providing any insights into his thinking, so Brad put the files away where he'd found them. He looked at the bookshelves but the time it would take to go through them... it was getting dark already. Besides, he thought he might have already discovered all there was of importance to find.

He felt strangely reluctant to leave the place. It was so comfortable. But he was trespassing, after all, so he got up to go; he made it two steps before halting.

It just felt awkward to come and go like a thief. Brad found a notepad on the desk that was probably used for grocery lists and grabbed a pen. When he was done scribbling his note, he left it on the kitchen island and locked the door behind him. His bike roared in the quiet evening as he bounced up the driveway and opened it up on the highway pavement, heading for a motel for the night.

***

Brad got back to DC the same afternoon his return flight from LA was supposed to land. When he judged it safe to turn his phone back on, there were two voicemails and a text message from Kocher. They were just going to keep hounding him if he didn't throw them a bone; he threw himself down on his couch and texted that he'd be in the next morning and then tossed his phone on the coffee table. His legs were stiff. He hadn't ridden his bike that far in years. If this was getting old then he was going to kill himself.

After half an hour, he got off his ass and went out for a fresh burner phone, dispatching the old one with a hammer on the back steps. The first thing he did was text Poke.

Back from NH. No news is good news right?

The response came pretty fast.

At least if you can't find him no one else can either. Beer tonight.

Brad raised his eyebrows. Okay, then. He left his phone on the couch and went to shower off his road trip.

***

Poke was sitting at the same table in the bar, although he'd stolen the door-facing seat from Brad. He'd ordered a beer for Brad, too; the glass bottle was beaded with sweat that soaked through the beer mat it was sitting on.

"You didn't find him?" Poke asked without any preamble.

"He wasn't there. He hasn't been there in a while," said Brad. "It wasn't a totally useless trip, though."

"Why's that?"

"Turns out he stole copies of a bunch of personnel files. And the files from Damascus."

Poke visibly wilted. "Whose personnel files?"

Brad took a pull from his beer. "You. Me. Wynn, Kocher. The three stooges. And Trombley and his handler."

"That was Pappy, right?"

"Yes," said Brad, remembering. "He was the first one fired."

"He was good," said Poke thoughtfully. "Caught in the fucking crossfire."

"If I'm any judge, he's better off out," said Brad, putting his beer down with a thump. "Anyway, the files were in the desk at the Captain's secret house."

"Why keep them?" asked Poke. "Was he doing some extra-credit homework?"

"Fuck if I know. The files were all I found, and they didn't have any answers."

"You sure you don't know? Dog, you know him better than any one of us."

But Brad obviously didn't know him as well as he thought he did, if the Captain was keeping this many secrets. He shrugged. "I can only guess. I wasn't privy to all his thoughts."

"You obviously don't wanna guess. I'll guess. I guess that Damascus wasn't what we thought it was."

"How's that?" Brad asked. He didn't enjoy hearing his worst fear coming out of Poke's mouth. His beer became suddenly undrinkable.

"You were right, Brad. This mole thing and the Captain pulling his little vanishing act are all tangled up together. Either he's the mole and his collection of files doesn't make any fucking sense in that context, since he lost his position of power, or he knows something was up with Trombley getting made." Poke looked troubled. "It never did seem right to me. This makes sense in my gut, you know?"

"Does your gut know what the fuck to do next?" Brad sagged back in his seat.

"I can think of one person who might know what happened, and not only is he definitely still alive, we also know where he is. Goddamn Wright."

"I don't suppose he stuck around Stillwater."

Poke shook his head. "They canned him six months ago. He's a journalist now. A war correspondent."

"He's in fucking Iraq, isn't he?"

"Afghanistan," said Poke with a giant grin. He shifted to get out his wallet. "You can email him, though. He keeps in touch with me." Brad watched as Poke went through his beat-up wallet and finally flipped a crumply business card at him.

Brad picked it off of the table. "What the fuck," he said flatly as he read it. "Rolling Stone? They have war reporters? What does that jackass do, ask Army POGs for their top ten albums?"

Poke shrugged. "I know he was embedded with a couple units, I never read his shit or anything. But that's his email on there and apparently reporters get more internet access than we ever did. He replies on the regular."

Brad put the card in his ass pocket. "So did you just miss my company or was there something urgent you had to tell me tonight?"

"Somehow I can make it through the days without your bullshit clogging them up, but I just wanted to give you a heads-up about the precarious tactical situation at home."

"Did Ray fuck something up?"

"No, he seems to be keeping your asset out of anyone's way. It's just you really pissed Schwetje off by fucking off without saying anything. California, is that where you pretended you went?"

"Were they looking for me there?" Brad asked, wondering if this was going to become a problem.

"Not as far as I know, but the Dingaling Brothers seem to think you're not far enough under their collective thumb."

"Fuck them," said Brad, "I emailed Kocher my flight plan. Encino Man's probably just mad someone's more intelligent than him again."

Poke winced. "I think it's really Griego doing all the pissing and moaning. He hates you almost as much as he hated the Captain."

That was a concern. While Encino Man wasn't anything to be worried about, Griego was smart enough to fuck things up if he got far enough up his own ass about it.

"I have a meeting with them tomorrow," said Brad. "I guess I'll find out how far downhill the shit's rolling."

***

The meeting was the expected shitshow. Brad ignored first Kocher and then Captain America trying to be chummy with him as he swept into the conference room and took a seat near the door. Encino Man presided over the room from the head of the table again with Griego on his right and Captain America on his left; Kocher sat across from Brad beside Captain America.

"You wanted to see me," said Brad shortly. "Here I am."

Encino Man started up with his usual bleating and as he talked, Brad glanced around the room. He was sold on the idea of a mole. He didn't want to know what was going on if there wasn't a mole. Walt had heard about it and the Captain had apparently been investigating all of his senior staff on the sly. Brad had been shitcanned and Pappy, Poke and Wynn had all been removed from positions of knowing anything.

It was one of these motherfuckers, Brad thought viciously. One of them was betraying their country and had sold out a junior agent and signed his death warrant. He was sitting around the same table as a traitor.

Brad's money was on Griego.

"--And we'd just really like to be kept in the loop on what you're doing," Encino Man finished, looking earnest, maybe trying for assertive.

"I'm doing what you contracted me to do," said Brad.

"We're not convinced," said Griego. "You're not convincing the room of your dedication to the task."

"Why the fuck do you want to find him so badly?" Brad asked.

"That's above your pay grade."

"What's my pay grade?"

"Goddammit, Colbert," huffed Griego.

Brad grinned.

"Why'd you go to California on no notice?" Kocher asked, apparently trying to mediate. "Did you think he might have gone there?"

"I think you asked me to find him, not profile him." He let his smile grow tight as he looked at Kocher. "Anyway, California was a wash. Dead end."

"Did you try seeking out his family yet?" Captain America asked, and Encino Man started nodding in agreement.

"No, because the first thing Godfather would have done to try and track him down was talk to the family," said Brad with more patience than he felt. "That clearly didn't work so I'm not going to bother." His head was starting to ache already.

"Well, what are you going to try next?" Encino Man asked.

"Does it matter to you?" Brad asked. He wanted out of this room.

"Answer the question, Colbert," Griego snapped. "We're beginning to get the impression that you don't have a game plan. We may need to cut you loose if this continues."

Brad lost his grip on his temper. "Which one of you is pretending to actually be in charge here?"

Encino Man's mouth worked silently for a moment. "Uh, that would be me," he stuttered.

Brad pinned him to his seat with a look. "Why did you call me in on this?" he demanded.

"You know him best of anyone here," said Encino Man slowly, as though he wasn't sure he had the correct answer.

"And what the fuck did you tell me the last time we were in this room?" Brad's finger jabbed the conference table. "I'll tell you what you said. You said I was it. I am the only ace you have in your hand. You know what that means? It means you have to be patient while I do your heavy lifting for you."

"I..." Encino Man trailed off.

"Colbert," started Griego, his face flushing, "you don't have the power here anymore and you need to get that unprofessional attitude squared--"

Brad pointed at Griego, his eyes still locked on Encino Man. "Put a fucking lid on him right now or I walk."

Encino Man looked overwhelmed for a second and then sighed. "I think you should go clear your head, Ray," he said quietly.

Griego gaped at him. "But--"

"Now." And Encino Man nodded toward the door.

Griego got up slowly and stalked out of the room. Brad was slightly amazed that the glare he was getting didn't set the back of his head on fire.

When the door slammed, the room was silent. Captain America looked like he might cry. Encino Man looked despairing, like the saddest bovine. Kocher looked slightly amused.

"We'll be patient, Brad," said Encino Man quietly. "But you have to work with us a little more. We're trying to foster an air of cooperation around here."

Brad sagged back in his chair. "I'll keep running travel plans through Kocher," he said. That was all he was offering. Air of cooperation. As if they'd been a dictatorship before.

As the meeting dismissed, Kocher kept pace with Brad out into the bullpen. "Talk to Person since you came back?" he asked.

"Why would I talk to that redneck halfwit?" Brad asked, keeping his eyes fixed on the middle distance.

Kocher shrugged. "I remember a time when you used to tolerate him over most of the douchebags here. He's the canniest redneck halfwit I ever met, that's for sure."

Kocher could remember times, all right. Brad had known him off and on since Afghanistan, through the Marines. Just like Poke. Kocher had been good in the field and his lack of patience for incompetence was endearing. Brad couldn't understand how he'd reached the point where he was playing politics with the three biggest retards in the DoD.

"I regret to inform you that I have not been socializing with Agent Person," said Brad. "My life remains blissfully quiet, unmarred by his lunatic wailings."

Kocher laughed. "Yeah, okay," he said, and left Brad with a friendly thump on the shoulder.

No one else was coming to intercept him, so Brad left the building at speed. He got in his car and headed to a public library, where he had to wait several minutes for an eighty-year-old man to finish learning how Google worked before there was a free computer to snag. He settled into the ergonomic abomination of a chair as best he could and logged into a free email account he'd created the night before. Waiting in the inbox was a reply to the email he'd sent off to Evan Wright; thank god one part of his day was devoid of fuckery.


Hello,

Hope you're keeping well. I wasn't sure when I saw your email address who it was. Yes I'm in Afghanistan right now, I'm about to embed with an Army platoon for a couple of weeks to get hazed by 20 year olds and shot at while I try to take pictures of sand. I find I kind of like being on the ground with the troops instead of just compiling reports about them so people with medals in Washington can order them around. Also, the 'bleeding heart liberal media cesspool' pays for better hotels than the DoD does. Not that I had a choice about the career change. I was out on my ear in the spring and I was lucky I knew a guy at RS. It was this or Hustler, I'm not shitting you.

Anyway, it's good to hear from you and I hope you keep in touch, tell me what you're up to these days. I thought I'd enclose a bit from a piece I'm working up right now. It's rough, so be nice.

-EW

There was an attachment, a PDF. Brad tried to open it and saw that it was password protected, probably encrypted, too. He smirked to himself and set to brute-forcing the password. Trying 'damascus' brought no joy. He tried 'trombley' and the PDF opened, showing gibberish as expected. Wright had been a really good analyst and had a sense of paranoia about data security that Brad had nurtured to full flower; one late night at work several years ago, they'd jointly designed an encryption key that they'd then used all the time. He'd used it on this, too.

Brad kept a flash drive on his keyring; he got it out and saved the PDF before logging out of the email account and clearing the browser data. He left the library computer for a teenage girl and went back out to his car. There was a laptop in the trunk and he pulled it out before getting into the front seat. He'd hung onto the encryption key he and Wright had made and ran it on the text from the PDF, staring out the windshield at the traffic while the laptop hummed in the passenger seat. It decrypted without a hitch, and he hauled the laptop onto his lap to read.

I remember Damascus because I was on duty that night. The Captain came to me before my shift started and told me to watch the Middle East traffic, if anything came across urgent I was to take it to him directly. You were out of town somewhere and it was a long weekend so we were on skeleton staff as it was. It didn't seem odd to me to be ordered to hand him sensitive information directly. But he seemed anxious, kind of. And then around 3 in the morning the lines lit up like Christmas. I had the White House press office calling with an AP blurb about an American agent being shot in Syria that was already running on Al Jazeera and the DoD had sent them our way and they demanded to know what the fuck was going on. I decided this was what the Captain wanted to see so I gave it to him, and he took one look at it and kicked me out of his office, told me to handle the wire and say we had no idea what was going on, pass the blame to the CIA even. Wynn and Kocher both came in within twenty minutes and I guess he must have called you back in too. Kocher ended up helping me with the traffic and Wynn stayed in the office. My best guess is that he was waiting on some kind of message from Trombley or Pappy and he knew after the shooting that he wasn't going to get it. And he looked so tired.

I got put on training duty for the baby analysts not long after they fired you and then they let me go in April because of operating costs or some horseshit like that. Schwetje tried to ask me questions about what I was doing on the switchboard that night but he didn't like the non-answers I was giving him. I'll tell you what, though, and I never told another soul this, and I don't know why I'm telling you but I guess I always liked you, Brad. Not one of the news reports I saw that night said that Trombley was dead. Some of the data traffic I saw before they pulled the rug out from under me were about an asset codenamed Sinon that I knew nothing about, but based on the movements and the signoffs from inside, I'm 70% sure that he was Sinon, and he's still alive.

Brad reread the last sentence three times with his hand over his mouth. If Wright was 70 percent sure he'd found a connection then past experience told Brad that the connection was real.

Trombley was alive. He was alive and he knew something.

Brad shut the laptop and started the car.

***

They'd had some early snow in Aurora, Colorado; Brad made a face at the crunch of it under his shoes as he walked up to a stucco-sided bungalow and knocked.

Jim Trombley froze when he opened the door and looked up at Brad. He was still wearing his work clothes, grungy jeans and t-shirt with construction site dust on them, although Brad had graciously waited fifteen minutes after seeing his truck pull into the driveway to approach. There was a faint scar over Trombley's right eye and he looked like he'd aged much more than a year. It was probably harrowing, being dead.

"Not going to invite me in, Trombley?" Brad asked lightly.

He glanced around Brad's shoulder to make sure he'd come alone before apparently being satisfied enough to step out of the doorway. "My name's David Ellis now," he called over his shoulder as he disappeared through an archway, leaving Brad to shut the door behind him and toe off his shoes. "Want a beer?"

Brad smirked to himself as he followed Trombley into what turned out to be the kitchen. He'd always liked the way this kid could roll with a situation when he decided to. "Beer's fine," he said, and a bottle of some local Denver nonsense was plunked on the kitchen table in front of him as he took a seat.

"I thought you said you had beer," he said, picking it up to peer at the label, which was plaid. It was called 'Hoss'. Jesus fucking christ.

"That shit's good, don't knock it," grinned Trombley as he collapsed into the seat across the table with his own. "So how long did it take you to track me down?"

Since he'd known to start looking? "Four days," said Brad. Trombley shook his head at that.

"On the other hand, I'm very good," Brad amended. Trombley had been fairly well hidden. Just not well enough. "Who put you here?"

"Schwetje," said Trombley.

"Well, there you go. Incompetence will out. Maybe you should disappear some more."

"I like Denver. I mean, I wasn't allowed to go back to Michigan. But the mountains are pretty nice."

Brad decided to cut to the chase. "What the fuck happened, Trombley?"

"I got shot. In the back. It hurt like a fucker." Trombley put down his beer and sat up straight. "It was during my meet with the asset. I could kind of tell things were taking a dive but I couldn't decide what to do. Finally I just... I don't know. I decided it was time to cut and run, and so I got out of my chair--we were in this cafe thing--and I was going to leave, go make contact with Pappy. I heard some guy behind me shouting in Arabic, he was saying, 'Secure the street,' and then I heard the gunshot and...." Trombley trailed off, his hand coming up unconsciously to his left shoulder. He noticed after a second and dropped it. "The last thing I remembered was the same guy yelling that they wanted me alive. I already told Schwetje all this," he said suddenly.

Brad blinked. "I haven't seen his report."

"Why wouldn't the Captain share that with you if he was gonna send you after me?"

There was silence as Trombley apparently struggled his way to the truth and Brad marvelled silently at how in the dark Trombley was for someone who'd been the catalyst of everything.

"The Captain didn't send you here, did he? And neither did Schwetje," said Trombley flatly. He'd gone tense in his chair.

"We thought you were dead. You've missed a lot. So did we," said Brad, eyeing him. "I'm gonna remind you before you try anything that I taught you everything you know. But I didn't teach you everything I know."

"What did I miss?" Trombley asked, not moving but wary.

"Schwetje's in charge of Stillwater. The Captain and I and some other guys got rearranged after your op went south." Brad kept his voice calm and level.

"Who sent you here, then?" When Brad didn't answer, Trombley went on, "Was it the Captain? Have you seen him lately?"

Silence was one of Brad's favourite gambits, on either side of an interrogation. When he kept returning Trombley's stare, calmly and without a word, Trombley started making assumptions. Thankfully, they were the right ones, and he relaxed. "I woke up in a holding cell in I don't know, someplace in the middle of nowhere, still in Syria I guess," he said. "Al-Qaeda had me. They knew I was American. They held me for a long time, I guess over a month. They were trying to get information out of me."

"What kind?"

"Any kind, I guess. What I had they didn't really seem to care about, though. They tortured me." He pointed at the scar on his face. "That one shows. They were executing people but they just hung onto me. I thought maybe they wanted to trade me. And then one day they tied me up and put a hood over my face and threw me in the back of a van, and when the door opened later there was McGraw, and he put me on a plane. We met Schwetje on the fucking airfield and he took my report while some doctor looked me over. Then he gave me my new identity and put me on a plane to Denver."

Brad was missing something, here. "What information did you give them?"

Trombley hesitated.

"Was it about what you were doing in Syria?"

"Yeah."

Brad's knee had started jiggling under the table, channeling his frustration. "And what were you doing there?"

Trombley looked at Brad like he was trying to make up his mind about something. "That's between me and the Captain," he said finally.

Several things clicked for Brad all at once, right then. "Was it about a mole?"

Trombley's jaw tightened. "What happened to the Captain?" he asked. "You haven't seen him, have you? You're here for some other reason."

"He disappeared," said Brad, a little sharply maybe. "And it had something to do with you. And this mole. That's why I'm here. We need to figure this out."

"I don't know who the mole is," said Trombley. "I got shot before I could find out. But that op was top secret. Only me and the Captain and Pappy knew about it, that it wasn't just asset wrangling, and Pappy didn't know much. The Captain met with me in secret to brief me on it. We had codes that no one else knew for me to pass back the information. But I couldn't."

"And what did you tell al-Qaeda?"

"I told them I was looking for a mole. But they didn't really care. I guess they knew we'd figured out that part. They just wanted to know if we knew who it was yet." He looked Brad in the eyes. "It might have been you."

"It's not me," said Brad, standing up. "I don't even work for Stillwater anymore. They canned me because you were my recommendation for the op and it was my ass when you got compromised."

"I don't know what to believe," said Trombley, sounding tired as he stood up too.

"That makes two of us," said Brad.

Trombley sagged some more, and Brad remembered all at once how he'd joined Stillwater fresh out of the Marines and eager to train, how stoked he'd been for his first solo op. And then he'd been compromised, shot, captured and tortured for a month, and had come back home to a finished career in national security and the news that he was dead and could never see his family or friends again.

"You want me to send a message to anyone you knew?" Brad asked, surprising himself a little.

Trombley blinked. "No," he said after a moment. "It's been almost a year. There's no point."

"I can help you move," offered Brad. "Better identity. No one will find you again."

Trombley shook his head. "I like it here," he said. "I've got a job, friends. I've got a girlfriend. I might ask her to marry me."

"What's she do?" Brad asked as they walked to the front door.

"She's a ski instructor." Trombley's eyes lightened for a moment and Brad couldn't really begrudge him any happiness he'd scraped together.

"I could do a pair of identities, too," Brad ventured.

"I'll keep that in mind," said Trombley. "Say hi to the Captain, when you find him."

Brad hesitated in the doorway. "Did you tell Schwetje anything about what you were doing in Syria?"

"No," said Trombley. "He might have been the mole, too."

***

Brad made it back to DC late the same day, taking a cab home from the airport. He was tired. He had too much on his mind, and for all the legwork he did he only got more questions, no answers. He was ready to give it all up for lost and skip town; if he was learning anything from this wild goose chase it was that Stillwater ruined lives.

His key was in the door by the time he noticed the tape at the top of the doorframe was broken again. Brad glared at it as he twisted the lock, ground his teeth as he shoved the door open. What the fuck did he have to do to keep his home from being invaded? These sons of bitches had no sense of boundaries.

"Who the fuck's in here now?" he said out loud as he walked inside. He'd moved his sidearm from the plant pot in the back hallway into the closet by the door, and he pulled it out and chambered a round, stalking into the dark living room. It was empty. Maybe he'd actually been robbed for a--no, the TV and computer were still there.

"Brad?" he heard from behind him, toward the kitchen, and he turned with the gun trained on the doorway before the voice registered. He watched one of his visitor's hands rise to shoulder height, open and palm out, as the other one moved along the wall that obscured it. The overhead light in the kitchen flipped on and backlit the Captain, standing at the edge of the linoleum warily.

Brad lowered the gun, flipping the safety back on. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

The Captain lowered his hands and reached into his pocket. "I got your note," he said, holding out a folded piece of paper. Brad walked around the couch and took it.

'Nice place,' he read in his own handwriting. 'Bit hard to find.'

He looked up from the note he'd left on the kitchen island in New Hampshire. "I was looking for you," he said, his voice coming out scratchy.

"I gathered that," said the Captain. "I wasn't staying there."

"I know," said Brad. "I just thought--I don't know."

"Well, I dropped by briefly for some stuff I left there. And there was your note." The Captain arched an eyebrow. "I was almost surprised that I wasn't surprised to find it. So. You were looking for me. You've found me."

Brad didn't know where to start. "I wasn't sure I was ever going to find you."

"No one was supposed to be able to. That was the idea behind disappearing. I wasn't anywhere I had ties to, Brad; I basically threw a dart at a map of the United States."

"Where did you go?"

"Does it matter?"

It didn't, not really. "Why did you come back?"

The Captain looked away for a moment, apparently composing his thoughts. Brad took the opportunity to look him over; he looked exhausted, wary, but otherwise the same. He'd let his hair grow out a little. When he spoke, he tore Brad's attention away from the slope of his shoulders. "I think the only way you could have found the place in Errol was if Tony told you. And if Tony told you about it, then you were safe and Stillwater didn't send you." He met Brad's eyes; his were arresting in a way Brad had forgotten, they pinned you in place until you gave him what he wanted. "So I came to you," he said, "because if you were looking for me, there was a reason."

"Stillwater did bring me back to find you," said Brad. His voice was rough in a way he hated. "But I've been leading them on a wild goose chase because I figured out there was something wrong."

The Captain smiled but it was a sad expression. "Did you find Trombley?"

"He had nothing to tell you," said Brad.

The Captain nodded, looking down at his feet. "There's a mole," he said. "Godfather knew. He said our ship had a leak and it was up to me to patch it. So I watched and I waited, and then I sent Trombley into Syria because there was an al-Qaeda friendly with information for us. But he was compromised. It was the mole; I tried to keep it all under wraps but whoever it was, they found out somehow and got word to al-Qaeda to take Trombley out. There was no way they'd have figured out so fast he was American otherwise; he was in there on one of our best Turkish identities. I found out ten weeks ago that he wasn't dead after all, that Schwetje and Godfather had hung me out to dry, effectively."

"And then you vanished," said Brad. "Godfather's trying to pull you in."

"I couldn't find the mole. I compromised an agent trying to dig him up. Now I'm out in the cold. It's all politics."

"It is one of them, isn't it?" Brad asked. "It's Griego or Schwetje or McGraw or Kocher."

"We were getting all of this intelligence from a supposed double in al-Qaeda," said the Captain. "For over a year. Good stuff, on the face of it. But it was a little too topical with the things we needed to know, sometimes. Godfather bought into it at first and of course so did the CIA, and we took down some big targets with that intel--hell, some of that intel got us bin Laden--but then we got wise to our own leak going the other way. They were just one step ahead of us when it really counted. And the CIA is still buying that source, as far as I know, but I don't think Godfather's told them about the mole." He smiled ruefully. "Whoever it was, though, they made a bad play throwing everyone under the bus when they had the chance, because the intel's still flowing but half of the suspects are out of the picture now." The Captain gave him a sober look. "I'm glad it wasn't you, or Mike or Tony. I always liked to think I was a better judge of character than that."

Brad valiantly ignored the warm feeling in his chest. "What if they're trying to pin it all on you?"

"Why do you think I left town?" the Captain asked, his voice soft.

"Goddammit, sir."

"I'm not your 'sir' anymore, Brad."

Brad took in his sad, defeated face. "Nate," he said, glad his voice didn't break.

"Go to bed, Brad. You look bagged."

Brad wasn't going anywhere. Not when all the answers were standing in his kitchen like this.

"I promise I'll still be here in the morning," said Nate.

"Why don't I believe you?" Brad asked, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"You never did trust people for shit," said Nate. "I've always kind of admired that about you."

Brad made a choked noise, something like a laugh that snagged hard in his throat. Nate pulled at his shoulder and led him down the hallway to his bedroom. "When did you sleep last?" he murmured.

Brad grunted something, shuffling through the doorway of his room. Nate lingered there, watching him go sit on the bed.

"I promise not to leave," said Nate again. "Not yet."

"What are you doing?" Brad asked. Sleep was filling his voice; he was so done with today.

"I have some things to take care of."

"Yes, sir," said Brad vaguely, giving up and reaching for his pillow.

He woke up to quiet, lying on top of the covers. Brad realized he could feel a warm touch; he opened his eyes as the Captain--Nate's--hand slid down from his shoulder to cup his elbow. Nate was sitting on the edge of the bed, his face grey with predawn light as he leaned over Brad.

"I'm sorry you got dragged into this," Nate said softly.

"S'fine," Brad mumbled, not entirely sure he wasn't dreaming. "You're okay."

Brad leaned up on one elbow to meet Nate halfway; their noses bumped in the dark before their lips met, warm and desperate.

"M'sorry," said Nate against his lips.

"Shut up," Brad breathed, sliding one hand around the back of Nate's neck and the other around his hip to pull him down. Nate moved to straddle him, knees bumping Brad's thighs and chasing his lips down until Brad was lying stretched out again and Nate's arm pressed into the pillow near his head. Brad slid a hand up under Nate's shirt to the smooth, hot skin of his back and fuck, they were both still completely dressed. Brad was still wearing shoes. "Off," he said into Nate's mouth, fumbling for his belt. Nate started undoing Brad's jeans for him.

"I've wanted to do this for years," Nate said, mouthing the words into Brad's jaw as Brad tried to kick off his shoes and attack Nate's pants at the same time.

"I'm not going to stop you," groaned Brad.

***

Brad woke up in a beam of sunlight; the curtains hadn't been closed all the way. Rolling onto his back made his arm brush against Nate's naked back and Nate stirred and stretched. The way the muscles shifted under his skin was fascinating, and Brad blinked several times when Nate rolled over to face him.

"Time's it?" he murmured, squinting in the light.

Brad flailed his phone off of the nightstand. "Eight thirty."

Nate hummed acknowledgement and they lay there in silence for a moment, arms brushing. Brad studied his ceiling.

"Now what?" Brad asked finally. His voice came out husky and quiet.

"Now would be a good time for me to find my pants and hit the road, I guess," said Nate blandly.

Brad glanced over at him. "Are you going back under?" He wondered if the things Nate had needed to do the night before had been prep to vanish again.

"This isn't a safe place to be."

"So you're just going to stay on the run? Hope they never find you and maybe kill you? What kind of plan is that?"

Nate sat up, hunching over his bent knees as the sheets pooled in his lap. "It's the kind of plan that keeps you safest. God, Brad, I'm so fucking sorry you got dragged into this. That I've dragged you in further. I was trying not to."

"I look after myself just fine," said Brad, watching the curve of Nate's spine. "I don't need protecting. Anyway, you're clearly not that good at it."

Nate snorted. "You think I should stay in DC, then?" He turned to look at Brad over his shoulder.

"I think you need to fix this," said Brad. "And now you don't have to do it alone. You have allies. More people than you have been burned by this."

"Trombley," said Nate.

"He's not in play, but all the rest of us who got cut down with you, we can help. Walt Hasser, he almost got too close to the mole. We've got him under lock and key right now. I think the mole might know Walt's got some intel, so if we don't fix this we'll have to disappear him, too."

Nate went back to staring at his knees as he apparently absorbed this, and then he laid back down beside Brad with a huff. "I'm fucking tired of people having to disappear."

Brad rolled onto his side, facing Nate. He was tired of it, too, and he didn't want it to happen again. Not to Nate, and not to himself, either.

Nate gave him a slow grin that warmed Brad across the few inches that separated them. "What are our assets, Colbert?" he asked quietly.

"Me. You. I've got Mike, Tony, Ray and Walt in play. That's not bad," said Brad.

Nate looked thoughtful. "I've done more with less," he agreed. "I think we can do this."

"Do what? You have a plan?"

"You're not going to like it," said Nate.

"What won't I like?" Brad demanded, raising his head off of the pillow a little.

"We need to get up," Nate decided, ignoring him. "There's shit to do. And you need to make a pot of coffee."

"Nate," Brad started, and Nate cut him off with a kiss.

"Trust me," Nate breathed against his lips. "I'll make the plans. You make the coffee."

***

Brad hated Nate's plan.

Unfortunately, he didn't have a better one.

"Talk to me, Poke," he said, answering his new burner.

"Person's ready to move," said Poke on his own burner phone. "I'm rendezvousing with Hasser right now, and I think we're good for time."

Brad glanced at his watch. "All right," he said. "Tell Person to get his ass in gear, then."

He and Nate had taken showers and then they'd retreated back into the bedroom with their coffee, leaning against the headboard while Nate had sketched out all the horrifying details.

"Ray Person's still Hasser's handler, right? Okay, so Ray bursts in on the four of them in a panic--it's got to be all four at once, or this won't work--and says Hasser's back in pocket, he's at a safehouse and he's got intel on a mole, and he told Ray that the mole made contact with him and wants a meet. Ray's asking for orders on what to do." Nate had stopped to sip his coffee and had left Brad staring in dismay at the depths of his deviousness. "The mole knows this can't be right, he's in the room. He should be highly placed enough to know what other assets al-Qaeda has in country and so either he's been lied to and there's a second mole threatening him, or," and here Nate had shrugged, and Brad had suddenly gotten it all at once, "or it's me. Regardless, he's going to be the one who insists on going to the meet with Hasser. And he'll insist on going alone."

Brad hung up the phone on Poke's call and got in his car. He was pretty certain he'd looked pissed off all day. He'd made the decision to embrace it. This was insanity. He texted Nate a quick affirmative that they were ready to go as he started the car, and then he threw the phone onto the passenger seat.

It was getting dark and Hasser and Poke were in position when Brad arrived at Location Charlie; he took up his post, put in his earpiece, checked his sight-lines and then texted Nate.

Are you sure about this?

The text alert popped up silently on his screen. No but it's too late now

Not funny, Brad texted back.

The winking face he got in reply was uncalled for. He put the phone away, vaguely aware that he was grinding his teeth.

Before long, a car pulled up in front of the safehouse. The streetlights didn't cast far enough for him to tell who got out of the car from his position, but whoever it was went into the house unchallenged and came out a few minutes later with Walt. Brad readied his sidearm and waited.

"Looking for me?" Nate's words came through Brad's earpiece as Nate walked out of an alley. The man with Walt froze and turned to face him. He probably said something but Brad couldn't hear it.

"I don't want to know what kind of wet team you'd have at the other meeting place," said Nate. "I'll take your confession here."

Nate was close enough to the other person for Brad to hear the response, faintly. "I'm not confessing to shit."

"You came here to cover up your mess," said Nate reasonably. "I bet you couldn't get out of the office fast enough. We both know I'm not the mole. It's you."

The other guy shoved Walt up against the side of his car and pulled a gun on Nate. "I'm going to cover up my mess, all right," he said. "Should be easy enough to make it look like you killed each other. Then, poof! No more mole. Maybe Hasser's family gets a medal." He was louder but Brad couldn't make out his voice.

"I don't have a gun on me," said Nate.

"I brought enough for everyone," the guy said, and Brad moved from the shadows, his aim settled on centre mass.

"Drop your weapon," he called, watching Poke come from the other end of the street out of the corner of his eye. The mole's head turned at the sound of Brad's voice and he was looking down the sights of his weapon at Kocher, for the second time in two weeks. Brad was very proud in that moment that he didn't waver. "I said drop it," he snapped.

"What the fuck kind of sting is this?" Kocher demanded. "Colbert, Espera, didn't he drag you down far enough?"

"It's the kind of sting where the Captain's wired up, dumbass," said Brad, raising his non-dominant hand to point at his earpiece. "You're done. It's over."

Brad was worried for a split second that Kocher was going to turn the gun on somebody anyway, before he held it out to the side, switched the safety on and lowered it to the ground. Brad kept his weapon trained while Poke moved in to pat Kocher down, finding another nine mil but nothing else. When they were clear, Brad looked down at him, kneeling on the pavement.

"Seriously?" he asked.

Kocher kept looking down at the concrete. The silence pretty much said it all.

"Why?" Brad prodded. This was a man who Brad had seen over and over in Afghanistan, in Iraq. He'd been doing great work in Stillwater. Too good, apparently, planting cheap al-Qaeda intel like Easter eggs. But it didn't make any fucking sense. If he was the fanatic type, he hid it well.

"My wife," said Kocher after a minute, brokenly. "She had lymphoma, man. I--we couldn't pay for her treatment."

"That was almost ten years ago," said Brad in shock.

"They don't really have a severance package, Brad," pointed out Nate. He sounded calm for someone who'd just had a gun pointed at them by a desperate man. For an instant Brad was angry again.

Mike came out of the safehouse, followed by a junior CIA agent. "I called it in; there's a team on the way with Godfather," he said, and clapped Nate on the shoulder. "Sounded nice and clear, boss. Should have recorded well."

"Thanks, Mike," said Nate.

Kocher was still looking at the ground.

***

It was three days later when Nate walked back in Brad's front door; Brad was at his desk, running diagnostics on a teenage boy's laptop.

"Thought I'd find you here," said Nate as he walked through the living room doorway.

"I think that door was locked," said Brad, glaring at the screen. It was looking like it'd need to be nuked and paved after all.

"Was it?" Nate's voice was the picture of innocence. "I locked it again behind me. What are you doing?"

"Work," said Brad, giving up and shutting the laptop.

Nate was leaning on the back of the couch, almost close enough to touch if Brad reached. "Oh, right. Ray said something about you charging people hundreds of dollars to run their virus scanners for them."

"When they fuck up their computers by going to porn sites, which is eighty percent of the time, I also bookmark safer options free of charge and leave a little how-to on their desktop for deleting their browser history," said Brad, patting the laptop lid.

"Doesn't that hurt repeat business?"

"Unfortunately, no. Did you just get out of your debrief and brainwashing?" Brad had finished his own song and dance for Godfather in three hours, the day after they'd taken Kocher in.

Nate rubbed a hand over his face and looked suddenly more tired than ever. "Yes. More or less. There were a lot of meetings."

Brad got up. "There's still coffee," he said, even though it was three in the afternoon. "I think it's even warm yet."

When Nate nodded, Brad pointed him to the couch and brought him a cup.

"So?" he said when they were settled.

Nate sighed. "Kocher told us everything he had. Some of it was good. He was still an active Marine when al-Qaeda got to him, so the Corps is going to court-martial him and they'll throw him in Leavenworth."

Brad felt dizzy and sick as he contemplated that, not for the first time in the past few days; he swallowed hard and fixed his eyes on the way Nate's fingers curled around the coffee mug until he felt like he could breathe again.

"Schwetje handed in his resignation and he's basically taking the fall for the CIA's embarrassment about the whole thing. McGraw was sent back to the CIA. We reassigned Griego."

"To where?"

Nate's grin turned a little bit evil. "The archives seemed to be the best place for him. And there was an opening on the North Korea desk."

The sick feeling went away for one brief, bright moment.

Nate went on. "Mike and Tony have their old jobs back to plug some of the holes left in the upper ranks. Ray and Walt are both getting promotions. Godfather got in touch with Evan Wright and offered him an analyst job again, but Wright turned him down."

"He realized how much liberal pussy he can get working for Rolling Stone," Brad dismissed.

"He was apparently in a firefight in Helmand before Godfather called him," said Nate, "so he's probably made of sterner stuff than you give him credit for. I mean, he doesn't carry a weapon."

Brad smirked and Nate added, "I think they're going to offer you a job again, too."

That was something Brad didn't even want to contemplate just then. "What about you?"

"Me? I got a ten-minute lecture about going AWOL," said Nate. "And then Godfather asked me to come back as head of Stillwater."

"Finally, some sense being made around there," said Brad.

"Brad, I told him no."

"What?"

Nate set down his coffee. "I'm done," he said. "It's not for me anymore. Someone else can deal with it."

Brad's brain hung up on trying to picture Stillwater in a post-Captain world. He realized faintly that his images of 'the Captain' and 'Nate' were all tied up together in a possibly fucked way, but it just didn't work for him. People like Nate, people who gave a damn, they needed to be in charge of these things. Or worse things could happen. He tried to express this idea.

"Worse things than what?" Nate asked, with a definite edge in his voice. "Having a mole with access to sensitive data and throwing bodies into danger for their own ends? Creating a blast radius of people fucked over by operational incompetence? That all happened under my watch, Brad."

Brad was certain that it had all been the fault of Godfather and the CIA and not Nate, but Nate was shaking his head.

"I'm not ruining any more lives. I never wanted anything like this to happen while I was at the wheel. I hoped in my career--" he cut himself off. "It doesn't matter. I'm retiring."

That was quite a thing to hear from a guy who was maybe thirty-five, by Brad's best guess. "What the hell are you going to do? Politics? A think tank?"

"I'm going to New Hampshire," said Nate. A faint smile traced across his lips. "It sounds like a nice place to be right now. I might read some books. Maybe write some. I haven't decided yet." He paused. "I put a lot of my money into that place, you know."

"It doesn't look that expensive."

"It's not. But there's a safe in the floor under the couch. And a few passports inside my copy of Turn of the Screw."

Brad huffed out a laugh. He'd known there had to be something hidden in the bookcases. "So who's going to be the new Captain if you're leaving?"

Nate went back to his coffee. "I think they're going to offer it to you."

"Me?"

Nate nodded like it was a given. "They asked me who I recommended, and I finally said either you or Mike, but Mike would tell them where to stick it. But Godfather clearly wanted it to be you, anyway."

"Why the fuck would that happen?" Brad demanded. "Do I look like leadership material?"

"You were my go-to guy, Brad, and you still would be. You can do the job, there's no question. You'd be good for it. It's up to you. If they ask," he amended.

"If I said no," said Brad, "who else would they ask?" And what else would he do instead?

"I can't bring myself to care at this point. I'm going to wash my hands of the whole thing." He finished his coffee and stood up. "In fact, just being in DC is starting to make me hate myself. It's time to go."

Brad stood with him. "Right now?"

"Yeah," said Nate, and then reached into his back pocket. He pulled out a keyring with one silver key hanging off of it. "Here," he said, holding it out.

"What's this?"

"I prefer not having my locks scratched up via forced entry, and you may have noticed there's room at my place for visitors."

Brad stared at the key to Nate's house in New Hampshire, glinting newly in the sunlight, and finally Nate grabbed his hand and pressed the key into his palm. "You're welcome anytime," he said with his fingers still folded over Brad's. "Please don't be a stranger." And he leaned in.

Brad's eyes slipped shut of their own accord when Nate kissed him; it was light and sweet, and promised more, later, sometime. Brad just had to come and take them. Nate was still holding Brad's hand, the outline of the key pressing into his fingers, and Nate's other hand was on Brad's shoulder, sliding toward the curve of his neck. The pressure of Nate's lips suddenly lightened and Brad realized he was going to pull away; before he could think about it his fingers were pushing through the hair at the base of Nate's skull, keeping him there and turning the kiss a little desperate.

Nate smiled against Brad's lips and Brad was never going to let him go.

When they came up for air, Nate pulled away with a ragged-edged, "I'll see you, Brad," and slid around him, leaving out the front door with a final-sounding click.

Brad opened his hand and saw the red outlines the key had pressed into his skin.

***

Godfather offered Brad the job. Brad had spent a few days agonizing over what he'd say, figuring he'd have to think about it if it happened, but when it did he was saying, "Thanks, but no thanks," almost before Godfather was done asking.

And then Godfather said, "I figured as much," and shook his hand, and Brad had to figure out what happened next. He was starting to miss the joys of bitter ignorance he'd been living with a month ago.

***

Ray's phone call, a week later, caught Brad almost on the way out the door.

"I wondered if you were still around, homes," said Ray. Brad walked from the front hall back into the living room, shifting his phone against his ear.

"Still around," he said. "What do you want, Ray?"

"I just, I have news," said Ray, ignoring a perfectly good chance to act faux-wounded by Brad being mean to him. Something was up.

"They had Kocher's court-martial," Ray said. "He pled guilty. But while he was being transported to Leavenworth, a sniper got him."

"He's dead," said Brad, not quite asking.

"Very dead. I guess it was pretty much instant."

"Who did it?"

"We don't know, man. It was all pretty under wraps; not a lot of people knew about him. They thought it might have been someone from the agency trying to be Batman or whatever, but Godfather's decided it was al-Qaeda cleaning up what was left of their mess. Anyway, the shooter got away clean. Whoever it was, they were trained." Ray paused. "I just thought you should hear it from, you know, someone. That's all, dude."

"Thanks, Ray," Brad managed.

"Take care, Brad," said Ray. "Keep in touch this time."

"Yeah," said Brad, and hung up.

Kocher was dead. Kocher who'd had Brad's back in the Corps (but not really), Kocher the traitor, looking at life in prison, was dead.

It might have been al-Qaeda, Brad reasoned. It made sense. But the fact remained that after the shit had started to clear up, he hadn't been able to keep himself from tying up one of the last loose ends, and sending a postcard to David Ellis in Aurora, CO with one word on it: the codename Nate and Trombley had arranged for Kocher.

***

The ride north seemed to go faster the second time Brad did it, of course, but it was cold as fuck on the bike with winter closing in. Still, it wasn't like he intended to leave it behind.

The house looked the same as he'd left it, sitting back in the trees from the highway and almost invisible in the encroaching dark. The truck was parked in a different place; maybe it had been used to go into town recently. Brad parked the bike to the side of the carport and hauled his bag off of the back, walking to the front of the house in long, slow strides.

He hesitated at the door; should he knock? Did having a key mean he could just walk right in like he owned the place? There was a light on through the curtains. Hell, maybe it wasn't even locked, and he should try the knob.

In the end, he knocked, feeling awkward.

Nate answered the door in a faded t-shirt and jeans that had seen a lot of years. He looked Brad up and down. "I don't remember calling the Geek Squad," he said finally.

"The Geek Squad doesn't wear leather," Brad answered.

"That's really unfortunate." Nate hauled him inside by the front of his bike jacket, stealing Brad's helmet and bag and tossing them somewhere before slamming the door behind him and dragging him into a kiss.

Brad got with the program fast, opening his mouth to Nate's tongue and shoving his cold hands up the back of Nate's shirt. Nate's skin felt hot under his fingers and Nate tensed up and made a sharp noise, shoving Brad up against the door. Brad started laughing into his mouth and they broke apart.

"You're a dick."

Brad wheezed out another little chuckle into Nate's neck. "It's so fucking cold outside. How do people live here?"

"It's not even snowing yet."

"I grew up in San Diego," said Brad.

"So go back there and stop whining," said Nate, his hands light on Brad's hips. "You expect me to keep you warm?"

"I thought that was the deal," said Brad, nuzzling the underside of Nate's jaw. His hands already felt warmer.

Nate tilted his head to improve Brad's access and said quietly, "Is this a visit, or...?"

"You were right. He offered me the job." Brad was glad for the excuse to look at Nate's ear and not his face.

"And?"

Brad leaned back against the door, letting his hands slide around to bracket Nate's waist. "And I guess I realized I could think of exactly one thing that I knew Stillwater hadn't ruined yet. So I told him no, and then I came here."

Nate looked suddenly happy, and Brad knew he'd been hoping for this.

"Well," said Nate after a moment, "it does snow here, but I imagine there's a few people around who use the internet dangerously. I'm sure you'll get by."

"I'm sure I will," said Brad. "Now, are you going to be a good host and give me the tour, or what?"

"You've been here."

"I haven't seen much of the bedroom," said Brad.

 

THE END