Pulling The Strings

This site is..

Based on an original series and alternate future by Sonny & Ais called In the Company of Shadows.

The story contains..

Slash (M/M), het (M/F) and graphic language, violence and sexual situations. Not intended for anyone under 18!


Book One: Evenfall See Evenfall chapter list.

Book Two: Afterimage
See Afterimage chapter list.

Interludes list

Book Three: Fade
See Fade chapter list.


Our AFFN profile

Site hosted by 1&1

Pulling The Strings

Interlude 3.22

Uploaded on 10/13/2009

Carhart sat across from Vivienne, a deep scowl on his handsome face as he stared down at a panel computer and thumbed through the data. His cerulean blue eyes were narrowed and his typically youthful features were twisted into a tense and very frustrated expression, the sides of his mouth drawn down tightly.

"This is incomprehensible," he said out loud, shifting in the chair and glancing up at Vivienne. She was staring at him with the same unreadable expression on her coldly beautiful face, the only indication of displeasure the slight narrowing of her ice blue eyes.

"We just became privy to the information on Aidric. Agent McAvoy acquired it last night for fuc-- for goodness sake."

Carhart shook his head and stared down at the panel, forcing himself to stop bitching out loud. She didn't want to hear his whining-- she wanted answers and he honestly had none.

Aidric Eide was a terrorist who was well known for carrying out massive attacks that focused on major cities and areas within those cities which would cripple them for quite a bit of time. He'd arranged numerous bombings of metros across the country and there were even signs of his work in Europe. The death toll for his crimes were reaching the thousands by now and he was quickly becoming one of the most dangerous men on the Agency's agenda.

The most interesting thing about Eide and the most frustrating, was that he seemingly worked alone. He didn't have a group or an affiliation and he didn't even seem to be aligned with any political faction. If anything he appeared to thrive on the chaos he caused, targeting places at random without any message to explain why he did it like so many other terrorists did when they wanted to garner attention and be heard.

The fact that he operated solo made it difficult to find information on him and zeroing in on a location had proved equally impossible. However, the previous night Toby McAvoy had followed up on a random tip while on an unrelated undercover assignment in Berlin.

His cover as a reporter had allowed him to overhear an account of a raven-haired man stalking a particular metro station for days in a row. Toby lurked at the station for an entire night and came face to face with Eide himself. He'd shadowed the man and had gotten a location but within a few hours of Toby reporting in-- Eide had cleared out entirely.

Every belonging had disappeared, along with Eide.

"This is the fourth time this has happened," Vivienne said, tone coolly displeased. She crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. "Agent Finch in Peru, Agent Kelly in Greece, Agent Finnegan in Rochester, and now Agent McAvoy in Germany." Her eyes narrowed. "The only connection between the missions was the Agency's involvement."

"And that's only the most obvious anomalies," Carhart replied wearily, rubbing a hand across his face. "There's been minor, more subtle problems since the start of the year. So far they've been charged as intel discrepancies or given fault to the agent in charge of the mission but now..."

He trailed off and looked at her squarely. "Now I think we have a problem and I think it got overlooked for months."

Vivienne nodded curtly, seeming unsurprised by the conclusion; she had probably already reached it herself. Her jaw tightened and she leaned forward, the look in her eyes making her appear especially vexed. "The original theory that perhaps it was based on information received during the raid is no longer viable. It has become undeniable that we have a serious breach of security that I can only conclude is due to a traitor within these walls."

Carhart hesitated, loathe to bring up the incident and the gross misconduct that had followed, but said it anyway: "The consensus among the data analysts has been that Hsin's framing was a personal attack by one of his many enemies. But the timing-- the coincidental and highly convenient network virus that occurred only days before, it makes me believe otherwise. I think it was a choreographed stunt, not something pulled off by someone with a simple grudge. It may be paranoia but I'm starting to believe these things are connected. After the virus, these anomalies have grown more frequent and more obvious."

Vivienne watched Carhart intensely and at first she did not respond. At length, she set her hands on the desk in front of her, clasped tightly. "Unfortunately, I believe you are correct. The question we must ask ourselves is whether this is a single person acting alone or if there is a group of dissenters causing trouble from within."

Carhart didn't break eye contact and didn't try to hide how much the possibility disturbed him. If there was truly a traitor within the compound, who knew what level of clearance they had, what talents they possessed and most of all, what exactly they were after. Judging from the events so far it seemed as though the individual or individuals were leaking information, ruining missions but even then...

Even then, it didn't entirely make sense. None of the missions had been related. They'd involved different groups, different people, different countries. It would be next to impossible to narrow the perpetrator down based on allegiance to another party. Unless...

"Do you think this may be a ploy by the European Division to decrease our efficiency levels?" He asked, eyes narrowing at the idea. "To cause a complete white out of our administration and replace us all?"

Vivienne's expression twitched, her lips curling down and eyes turning a hint colder. "It is possible," she admitted, studying Carhart intently before she shook her head once. "But I have my doubts unless it is not orchestrated by the administration. From my conversations with her, Seong Jae-Hwa does not appear to be the type to play games. Were she to have done so and should our superiors discover that she was involved, it would compromise her reliability as potential Marshal. That does not, however, rule out the possibility of the traitors having a similar mindset regardless of where they originate. Even within our compound, there are agents who are displeased with what is expected of them or who may dislike the current administration."

"It's true," Carhart said with a low sigh. He shook his head again and his eyebrows drew together. "What do you want me to do?"

"I want a detailed list of every mission that may have failed due to this as well as every time intelligence may have been leaked," Vivienne said without hesitation. "I want to know when it happened, where it happened, who was involved, who gathered the intel, who had access to the plans. I want this information to go back to the point when we first started noticing these issues. Do not worry about vetting the information; if it is simply intuition, doubt, or rumor, I want that listed as well."

She narrowed her eyes, spearing Carhart with a firm look. "And I want you to do it alone; I do not want anyone else to have access to your list or to even be aware you are gathering the information. This includes your support staff, Emilio Vega, your unit..." She leaned back in her chair, her arms crossed and a grave look making her naturally cold expression seem more serious than usual. "As it stands, we cannot trust anyone else until we can determine who exactly is involved."

Carhart nodded. "Anything else?"

Vivienne shook her head. "Finish it as soon as possible and report back to me. And keep me advised of any new incidents as they develop. We must start gathering information sooner; whoever is doing this is adept and likely is removing any traces of activity. We must find a way of predicting what will come next if we are unable to apprehend them immediately. If you can find the information without tipping this person off, that is the best course of action."

Once again, Carhart nodded sharply and stood. He started to turn towards the door, knowing a dismissal when he heard one, but cautiousness made him hesitate. He looked at her sidelong and couldn't ignore the worry that nagged at him. Despite how cold she could be and how hard she was, he couldn't deny that over the years he had maintained a certain protectiveness of her even if she likely didn't want it. Despite that, he couldn't help it. In many ways she was alone; she had no loved ones, no friends, and nobody aside from him and possibly Boyd truly gave a damn about her.

It was something that derived from his own personality in a lot of ways; his instinct to always try to protect the people who had no one else to protect them. But in the past there had also been something in him that had gone slightly beyond admiration. He'd squashed that over time but the protectiveness had increased dramatically since the raid.

Even more so now that there was a traitor on the compound.

"If you don't mind me saying, Vivienne; perhaps you should heighten your own personal security for the present time."

Vivienne looked up at Carhart and for a moment he could see past the cold mask and glimpse some of the weariness she was hiding. She studied him, and he didn't know if she was caught off guard by the comment or if it was for another reason, but a rare, faint half smile curved her lips.

Even that small of an expression softened her features and made her seem more her age-- a few years younger than Carhart himself. Her beauty seemed less harsh and she almost appeared approachable. But it was there and gone within a blink of the eye and Carhart wasn't entirely certain he hadn't imagined it.

"I will," she said calmly.

He returned the brief smile with one of his own. "Good. Take care of yourself."

Carhart turned away and left, not able to stop the nagging thought that it was late for her to be leaving the compound alone but even if she stayed in-- who knew if the Tower was even safe anymore?

He felt troubled and distracted as he made his way back to his office, eyebrows drawn together and face a stone mask as thoughts stampeded through his head. His mind was focused entirely on the possibility of a mole within the compound. A traitor with high-security clearance, which narrowed it down to a few dozen people.

It was a group made up of officers and the highest-ranking field and R&D agents. It was a group that he had always believed he could trust implicitly.

The possibility of one of them being a traitor angered him, not only because they had turned against the Agency's goals but because they were actually getting people killed in the process, civilians and agents alike. And for what? To cause the Agency to fail? To start a massive takeover of power whenever the new admin came in?

Did they really think that would change or improve anything? And where the hell did framing Sin fit into any of it? Why was he included in the puzzle if it was just about Agency efficiency dropping? Unless the mole thought that having an Investigator killed on the compound was a bigger blow than failed missions.

Carhart nearly stopped in midstep and realized that it was true.

Not only had she been killed on their property but her killer was still at large. It showed definite weakness on their part; weakness of their network security staff, weakness of their physical security if the murderer had escaped the compound and a lack of awareness if the murderer was one of their own. Even more damning was the fact that the investigation had focused entirely on Sin for the first couple of days-- Carhart didn't even think the compound had been locked down to prevent the murderer from escaping. Then again, due to the surveillance blackout, they hadn't even been aware of the murder for quite some time.

No matter which way anyone looked at it, the Investigator's murder was a damning blemish on an already tarnished record.

The tension in Carhart's shoulders was nearly painful by the time he entered his office. He wanted nothing more than to temporarily put everything out of his mind. He would start on the entire inquisition tomorrow morning. He foresaw a long, tedious process that would likely amount to nothing but clues that ran in circles.

It could wait for the time being and he was too tired to think straight at the moment anyway.

"Good evening, General," Victoria greeted him with a wan smile.

She was sitting at his desk and typing on his computer. Her top had the first several buttons undone and she'd ditched her high heels at some point in favor of a pair of flip flops. She looked visibly weary and the fact that her long blond hair was tied back in a messy ponytail was only a testament to her tiredness. The woman was typically nearly obsessed with the state of her hair.

"Why don't you go home?" he asked her, shrugging off his jacket and tossing it on a chair.

She gave him a skeptical look. "I have stuff to finish. My computer is acting gross, by the way. That's why I'm on yours."

"IT didn't come up yet?" He sat in the chair across from his desk and slumped down, resting his arm on the armrest with his face against his hand as he watched her.

 "No. I guess they're busy." She glanced up at him distractedly before focusing on the computer screen again.

Carhart frowned slightly. "Whatever they're working on can wait. You need your computer. Tell them if they don't--"

"No!" Victoria stopped typing and gave him a pleading look. "I don't want to get anyone in trouble, General Carhart. Please."

He glared at her, wondering how he'd gotten such a bleeding heart admin. Amy would have stormed down to IT herself and personally dragged the offending tech down to the incinerator. "Fine. Then I'll get Ryan to handle it."

"Oh! Good! I love Ryan," she enthused, looking very pleased. "He's such a cutie. Too bad he's gay."

Carhart raised an eyebrow at that. "Somehow I can't picture you with Ryan Freedman even if he wasn't."

"Why?" she asked with a laugh, going back to typing even as she held his gaze. "Because a tall bombshell like me needs a big manly man?"

He shrugged.

Victoria shook her head, clearly amused by this. "Well I'm not so superficial, I'll have you know. It's about the person, not what they look like. And me and Ryan actually have stuff in common."

"Is that so?" Carhart asked doubtfully, still sitting in the same slumped position.

"Yes," she replied arching one eyebrow at him. "We both like to travel, or at least to dream about traveling, for one. We both like to bake and also, we both suffer from the same affliction."

For a moment Carhart stared at her blankly but then it dawned on him. "You have the lung disease," he said flatly.

"Yup," she replied, clearly unaffected by the topic. She actually met his eyes and smiled. "They give me a couple of years. So just think-- in a very short amount of time, this tall bombshell will be a withered set of bones six feet under."

Carhart blinked at her. "I see you're taking the news well."

Victoria's full lips lifted in another smile and she tilted her head to the side, a fall of golden blond bangs tumbling over her forehead. "C'est la vie, right?"

He shook his head and shifted in the chair, suddenly uncomfortable with what she was saying.

Although she'd annoyed him at first, he'd realized after awhile that the annoyance had stemmed more from him having to get accustomed to someone new than her actually doing something wrong.

Now he was used to her-- more than used to her, he actually found himself fond of her. In the past few stressful weeks he'd begun to lean on her more than he'd typically be comfortable with but work had been so overwhelming he'd had no choice and she'd been there every step of the way.

From digging up old files, to going over mission reports with a fine-toothed comb and even bringing him food when he hadn't even realized he was starving until it was in front of him. She even appeared with pain killers when she'd notice the crease between his eyebrows that almost always meant a migraine.

Carhart glanced at Victoria again, watching as she peered into the screen in concentration.

He'd become very attracted to her too. It was difficult not to be; she was gorgeous. But when they began having actual conversations, when she stayed at the office with him well into the wee hours of the morning, he'd realized that he actually liked her as a person as well. And he wasn't going to deny that he'd included her in more than one masturbatory fantasy. He hadn't had sex in months so those were more frequent than not.

"Why don't you stop doing whatever you're doing and we go have that drink?" he asked her abruptly.

Before she had the opportunity to reply, there was a sharp rapping at the office door. Both he and Victoria glanced up before he called out for the person to enter in a tone that wasn't entirely welcoming.

Sin appeared in the doorway and stepped inside. Victoria jumped to her feet almost immediately, probably because she was sitting behind the top general's desk but also because Sin made her nervous.

She edged away from the desk until she was in front of it and hovering awkwardly at the side, self consciously poking at her hair.

Sin didn't even look at her but that was the typical case. He didn't acknowledge anyone on the compound unless he had a specific reason to and she was no exception. It was almost amusing to behold the two of them and Carhart smiled wryly behind the hand that was cupping his face.

Victoria looked completely diminutive beside Sin's tall, strapping form. The fact that she was staring pointedly at the carpet even though he appeared to not even register her existence made it even more amusing.

"What now?" Carhart asked him, eyebrows rising and expecting some kind of trouble as was the typical case with his unit.

"I need to discuss something with you," Sin said vaguely.

There was a beat of silence and Carhart gave him a pointed glare. "So discuss it."

"It's about downtime."

Carhart didn't have his computer in his line of vision and he flitted a quick, questioning glance at Victoria. She kept track of every high-ranking agent and officer schedules for him, especially people in his unit.

"Agent Vega has several weeks of accrued downtime, sir."

Sin finally shifted his stare to her but he didn't speak and she fidgeted with the collar of her shirt under the hawklike gaze.

"Shouldn't it be longer?" Carhart asked skeptically. "I don't believe he's ever taken much time in his entire career."

Victoria nodded and glanced at Sin almost guiltily. "Yes but it seems HR detracted time from when he was in the coma."

"What!" Carhart sat up, scandalized. "That's ridiculous. Get them on the--"

"Forget it," Sin snapped, looking impatient at the course the conversation was taking. "I don't need extra time. I only want to request two weeks."

Carhart settled back against his chair, still simmering with irritation and indignation. He was convinced that the people in HR were just as subhuman as the torturers on the Fourth. "When?"

"As soon as possible."

There was another moment of silence as Carhart rubbed his chin thoughtfully, studying Sin. It was conceivable considering there was still a lull in Janus-oriented activity. Anything else, Emilio could easily take over. "I'll look into a date for you."

Sin nodded and Carhart averted his gaze, thinking the discussion was over. However, Sin didn't move an inch. He continued to stand there, staring at the General. Except now he was idly fingering the sleeve of his hoody.

"Yes?" Carhart asked, impatience creeping into his tone.

"I wasn't just asking about me," Sin said flatly.

Carhart stared at him blankly for a moment before it dawned on him. His eyebrows drew together and he shook his head wearily. "You can't both go on downtime for two weeks, Sin. It's not going to happen."

"Why?" Sin demanded, eyes narrowing. "There has been one and two week-long lulls of activity for the last several months. Why is it a problem if we take an official leave?"

"Because," Carhart retorted sharply but hesitated after saying the word. He frowned deeper. "Because getting it approved for two level 10 field agents in the same unit will be a bitch."

"You're second in command. Make it happen."

Victoria snickered off to the side and Carhart shot her a warning glare. She clammed up and busied herself at his bookcase. He had a filing machine for all of his electronic data sitting on it and she compulsively organized it.

"I can't show such obvious favoritism."

Sin gave him a scathing look. "Why not? Everyone knows you do shit for us anyway."

Carhart's lips thinned into a tight line and he fought the urge to throw something at the agent's head. "Sin, it's not a good idea. And besides, you know my stance on your relati-- on the--"

Sin raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"

Carhart stumbled over the words, not wanting to cement any rumors in front of a third party. "You know what I think about this situation."

Thunderclouds seemed to gather over Sin's head and his expression went from impatient to stormy. His eyes narrowed further and his full lips curled as he took a step forward. "I don't care what you think about the situation. He has the time and so do I. There isn't anything to do anyway. You have Jon, Trovosky and my father to cover any assignments. If it were anyone else, you wouldn't be questioning them this thoroughly."

"Because they wouldn't be going off together."

"So? They'd still be gone at the same fucking time."

As their voices rose, Victoria's brief amusement faded and she continuously shot glances at the door. But going to the door meant getting close to Sin and the waves of irritation that were pouring off him likely warded her off.

Carhart crossed his arms over his chest and stared up at Sin. He couldn't deny that a part of his hesitance to even look into the idea was because he had reservations about their continued relationship. As much as he favored the two of them when it came to taking chances, he also was biased against the danger of their feelings for each other.

But he also knew that wasn't fair to either of them and when he took into consideration everything that had gone on lately, they deserved time to relax. Especially away from the Agency.

Sin sighed and looked away briefly, his posture rigid. "Please."

The word came out stiff, unnatural sounding and resentful. But the fact that Sin had actually allowed the word to cross his lips was practically a miracle.

Carhart caved almost instantly with a long-suffering sigh. "I'll look into it but no promises. Especially for a full two weeks."

Sin nodded shortly, his expression unchanged. "Good."

He walked out without a goodbye or an expression of gratitude.

Victoria stared after him long after the door had been shut and she smiled slightly. "I like watching you two interact. You're like a father and son."

Carhart didn't respond and instead returned to the previous matter as she slid back into the chair at his desk. "So, how about that drink?"

Victoria didn't look up as she focused on the computer. "I didn't tell you about my illness so you could pity me, General."

Carhart made a face. "It has nothing to do with pity," he said irritably. "But I'm in one of the worst moods I've been in for awhile and I'd like to attempt to relax, preferably with company so I don't just end up stewing about the situation and downing a bottle of Jack."

She looked up, concern written all over her pretty face. "What situation? What's happened now?"

He shook his head. "It's something I'm going to be dealing with on my own."

Victoria nibbled on her lower lip and watched him from under her sleepy, heavy-lidded cobalt blue eyes. "I have a confession-- I don't really drink all that much. I take a lot of medication and I tend to get drunk really fast. I mean I still drink socially or when I'm upset but I don't think having to pick up after me would help you relax because I can get pretty out of control," she said apologetically.

"Okay," he said, unconcerned. "Coffee then."

Her eyebrows drew together and she actually looked confused. "What's going on?"

Carhart nearly laughed at her worried tone. "Something has to be going on for me to ask about spending time with my assistant?"

She shrugged. "Well I'd been kind of hinting around, flirting for a couple of months before finally deciding that you seriously weren't interested and now you're acting like you're asking me on a pre-date. Drinks, coffee..."

"So what if I am?" he asked, arching an eyebrow, encouraged by her bluntness. "I barely knew you before."

Victoria watched him suspiciously for a long moment before she shrugged her slender shoulders and began shutting applications. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Well okay, then."

Pleased, he rolled his shoulders and watched as she got herself together. "Would you like to go off compound or just go to my quarters and spend time there?"

Her mouth practically fell open from surprise. "You'd let me go to your place? I heard you were really funny about that."

Carhart didn't want to know where she'd heard that and he didn't ask even though it was true. Before Emilio had started using his apartment as a motel, he'd been very selective about bringing anyone to his home but now it didn't matter anymore. "It's fine."

"Okay, then I'd rather stay in if you don't mind. I don't want to have to put on my face and change and stuff," she replied, standing finally and following him out the door. She grabbed her tote bag from her desk and paused briefly. "But what about..."

"He's on a mission," Carhart said dryly.

"Oh. Good." Victoria looked visibly relieved.

For the first time in the past few months, Carhart saw the point in eating in the living room.

They'd had the Service staff deliver crab linguini from the cafe and after Victoria assured him that a glass of wine wouldn't turn her into a completely sloppy drunk, they'd finished the last of the Chianti that was left over from the days of Morgan regularly visiting him. Now Victoria lay stretched out on the sofa with her hair loose and falling messily around her face, feet in Carhart's lap as he idly rubbed them.

She chattered lazily about different topics-- Agency gossip, work, even her family. Although for the first couple of hours Carhart did more listening than speaking, he found the sound of her low, feminine voice to be soothing. And her ability to carry on a conversation nearly solo while still sounding thoughtful and interesting was endearing.

His mouth rose in a slight smile as he worked his thumbs down the arch of her foot, watching as she shivered in appreciation.

He had no idea why he was massaging her feet. She hadn't asked him to, but it'd given him an excuse to touch her and watch as she melted in a puddle of bliss.

"I don't get why you're single, General Carhart."

 "You can call me Zach, you know," Carhart said with a raised brow. "This isn't exactly a formal setting."

Victoria gave him a slow smile, her full lips twisting upwards as she looked at him from beneath her eyelashes. "It seems weird, though."

He just shrugged and ran his fingers along the delicate skin of her ankle, enjoying the feel. Everything about Victoria was soft and feminine and he couldn't stop running his eyes over her now that she was laid out before him. He couldn't take his eyes off her long shapely legs or the way her full breasts pressed against the button-down shirt she wore.

He even realized that he liked the way she dressed. He liked that she didn't take herself too seriously the way Morgan used to. He liked that unlike Morgan, Victoria didn't seem to equate self care and pride in her appearance with a lack of intelligence.

And he realized quite belatedly that he was comparing the two of them and that probably meant he was more intrigued with Victoria than he'd previously thought.

"It's up to you," he said finally. "But you don't need to address me by title."

"Okay," she said with a hint of a teasing smile. "But you still didn't answer my question."

"It seemed like more of a statement than a question."

Victoria gave a long-suffering sigh and stretched, arching her back and causing her shirt to rise up and expose her flat stomach. "Okay, why are you still single, Zach?"

He tilted his head back against the sofa and watched her seriously, debating the question. It was one he was accustomed to hearing in one form or another and he never really knew how to answer. "Is it surprising that I don't need continuous companionship?" he asked instead.

"It's not surprising that you don't need it. Nobody needs it," Victoria said with a one-shouldered shrug, smiling at him coquettishly.  "But most people want someone for one reason or another whether it's just for company or for sex."

"So then what's your reason?" Carhart asked, studying her. "Why are you single? Don't you need those things?"

Her smile turned sly. "I get them. I'm just not as in the spotlight as you, Gen--Zach, so not very many people notice my business. You don't even notice and you're my boss."

 "Really." He leaned forward slightly, intrigued. "Who is it?"

Victoria hesitated only briefly before saying casually, "Chester. I stopped hanging out with him a couple of months ago, though."

Carhart stared at her blankly for a moment and went through a mental list of staff members named Chester. The only person who sprang to mind was Agent Chester Merdak, a level 7 field operative who'd been recruited out of a military prison four years ago. He'd been serving a life sentence for shooting three people in cold blood after they'd already surrendered. The Agency found the combination of his training and ability to perform executions appealing. He was in his mid twenties and athletic, a couple inches below six feet tall, and typically wore his ash blond hair in a mohawk.

"Isn't he a little young for you?" Carhart asked.

She gave him a dirty look, mouth drawing down. "I'm not that old."

"You're 32, he's 25, and he has the maturity level of someone far younger," he replied with a raised eyebrow.

Victoria smiled again. "So you think I need an older man, eh?"

Carhart gave her an unimpressed stare and pushed her feet off his lap. "If I was trying to use this information for my own gain, I would be a lot more direct."

She sat up slightly and leaned her arm against the back of the sofa, resting her head against it and watching him with a small smile. "I know, General. I'm being silly. I'm just not entirely sure how to flirt with you."

He raised his blond eyebrows slightly. "And why is it necessary for you to flirt with me at all?"

"To show interest."

"Well, I'm aware of your interest so what is the point of flirting?"

Victoria shrugged slightly, her lips twitching. "So then what do I do to get you interested in return?"

"If I wasn't attracted to you I highly doubt I'd be rubbing your feet."

She nodded slightly, her deep blue eyes focused on him as she seemed to consider her next few words carefully. "I'll be blunt, General. Do you just want to sleep with me?"

Carhart nearly said yes but realized it wasn't entirely the case. He wanted to have sex with her but he also wouldn't mind entirely if that didn't occur at all. She was relaxing to be around and he genuinely liked her personality.

"I'm sexually attracted to you but very rarely do I act on that unless I have interest in other areas as well. I'm not one for random casual sex partners. I never have been."

"That, I believe," Victoria said with a nod, shifting closer slightly. "Do you have any idea how many women on the compound are completely in love with you?"

Carhart rolled his eyes. "So I've been told."

"You sound skeptical but you shouldn't be," she chastised softly, reaching out to touch his arm gently. "You're a great catch. Handsome, smart, powerful but not a douche--"

He laughed out loud at that.

"--and you're just so... I don't know." Victoria paused, frowning as she tried to gather her thoughts. "I've met most of the top people on the compound and all of them have that coldly superior air but you're second in command right now and you're never like that. You're so... real. So straight up. Everyone knows it and that's why everyone respects you so much. I can't begin to tell you how jealous a lot of my friends were when they found out I got the post as your assistant."

"And why is it," Carhart asked, raising his eyebrows, "that you wanted the post again? You don't get paid any more than you did in Data Retrieval and you do five times more work."

Victoria smirked, raising one perfectly arched blond brow and curving her full red lips into a smile. "For one, DR is incredibly dull. For twelve hours out of the day, my only interaction was with a keyboard and a computer. Secondly, I also applied for a spot in Unit 16 but Rebecca from Payroll landed it. I think it's because she has nicer hair."

Carhart stared at her blankly and Victoria laughed.

"Thirdly, it's because I honestly did want the honors of working for you and no, I'm not saying that just to kiss your rear end. Like I said, you're one of the most powerful people on this compound and you're a good person from what I can see."

"And what is so good about me?" he asked skeptically, leaning over to pick up his half full glass of wine from the coffee table. "Just because I don't throw my weight around and act like an insufferable jackass does not automatically categorize me as a good person."

She just grinned. "You're a nice guy, just admit it."

"I'm nothing of the kind. You're fooling yourself in an attempt to satiate your need to rationalize getting into some kind of non-platonic relationship with your boss."

Victoria laughed, throwing her head back and looking incredibly gorgeous in the process as her entire face lit up. "Oh, please. I don't need to rationalize that. It's not like I'll be canned from the Agency even if you decide to fire me. They'd have to expend resources having me shadowed forever unless they decide to just terminate me, but since I have living family they'd have to then expend time to come up with a cover story. In the end, they'd just transfer me to another position."


She gave him an arch look. "I am. And getting back on topic, if you're not a nice guy then why on Earth would you have granted simultaneous downtime to two level 10 agents who also happen to both be in your unit? That's a serious favor, Zach, and one I'm sure you granted just because you wanted to be... nice."

An expression of discomfort crossed Carhart's youthful features and he swallowed the last of his wine, setting the empty glass back down onto the coffee table. "They've had a rough few months," he replied evenly.

"I don't doubt that but it isn't your job to care," she replied.

Carhart didn't respond and he stood up, grabbing the empty plates and glasses and taking them to the kitchen. Her eyes followed him the entire time, her expression thoughtful and slightly hesitant.

The conversation was beginning to irk him. He knew Connors, Vivienne and the other generals felt the same way about him-- he was compassionate, the nice one. Although he couldn't honestly deny that in some cases he was, it wasn't something that he wanted to be so well known.

People often took kindness for weakness.

"I didn't mean to annoy you," Victoria said after a moment, following him to the kitchen area and leaning against the archway. "I was mostly just teasing."

Carhart let water run on the sauce-covered plates for a moment before turning to Victoria and giving her a narrow-eyed stare. "If I invite you over for non-work-related reasons, I would prefer it if you didn't discuss work-related issues or I'll be forced to return to my work-related frame of mind."

"I'm sorry," she said again, seeming genuinely apologetic.

He shrugged and said nothing.

They stared at each other for a moment and he couldn't help noticing that she was beginning to look uncomfortable under his no longer casual scrutiny.

"Maybe I should go," she muttered.

"If that's what you'd prefer."

Victoria gave him a frustrated look, eyebrows drawing together. "You're so confusing."

Carhart raised his eyebrows in surprise. "What did I do that was confusing?"

"You--" She broke off, frowning deeply. "I don't know what's going on, that's what's confusing. You're obviously attracted to me but that isn't exactly earth-shattering news. I thought you didn't want to become involved with your admin so I left you alone, then you invite me out on a date pretty much and now you're back to acting like it wouldn't bother you if I'd never come over at all."

He sighed and leaned against the counter, wondering why women had a tendency to jump to conclusions and assume things just because they didn't hear precisely what they'd expected to hear. "We enjoyed dinner and a drink, for the most part had pleasant conversation-- at what point did I give that impression?"

Victoria's frown deepened, uncertainty flickering in her eyes. "Well you didn't exactly look disappointed when I said I was going..."

Carhart arched a brow again. "Should I beg you to stay when you obviously are feeling uncomfortable?"

She made a face. "I don't think you'd beg for anything, ever. Probably not even for your life if someone had a gun to your head."

He smirked. "So then what's the problem, Victoria?"

"Do not use that... that I'm-older-and-wiser-than-you, you-silly-child voice."

"Well, I am."

Victoria scowled and he couldn't help a low chuckle at the expression on her pretty face.

"Did you expect me to make a pass at you?"

When she didn't respond, Carhart knew he'd hit the mark. It was always the case, all the time. Even if they had no intentions of sleeping with him, for some reason an absence of the invitation seemed to strike some of the women on the compound as an insult.

"Would you even go along with it if I had?" he asked instead, giving her a pointed stare.

Victoria surprised him by giving an almost automatic, "Yes."

This time it was Carhart who wasn't sure how to respond and she smiled at him, walking closer. "The way I figure it, General Carhart, if I only have a short time left to live I may as well live for every moment I have."

He nodded, resting his elbows on the counter as she stopped directly in front of him, placing her hands on either side of his arms. "That's pretty heavy for a first pre-date," he observed idly, eyes skimming over her face and focusing briefly on her full, bee-stung lips.

"It is," she agreed. "But apparently girlish subtlety doesn't work with the General of Field Operative Activity so I've decided to switch to extremely forward, confident woman who borders on creepy."

Carhart laughed and she leaned forward in the midst of it, kissing him full on the mouth.

He didn't respond at first, didn't even react, and she reached up to place her hands on his shoulders, pressing against him slightly as she slipped her tongue into his mouth. It was then, when the taste of her invaded his mouth, that he responded.

It had been months since he'd had any kind of intimate contact, since he'd felt a soft, warm body beneath his hands. Since he'd felt the heavy fall of a woman's hair against his face as they shared breath. And although there had been frequent twinges of desire, Carhart hadn't realized how much he'd missed it.

His arms wound around her, one hand sliding down to cup her ass as the other clenched the back of her shirt. All his pent up sexual frustration released itself in an explosive and fiery kiss that left Victoria panting against his lips as soft moans escaped her own.

Her hands moved up to slide into his short blond hair before moving down to cling to his back. She didn't seem startled by the ferocity of his response; if anything it seemed to turn her on and it wasn't long before her lips were swollen and red from their hungry kisses.

Carhart pushed her forward slightly, backing her against the kitchen table, and lifted her up effortlessly to sit her on top of it. She wrapped her thighs around him as she captured his mouth again, reaching for his belt buckle. He undid her shirt, pushing it off her shoulders and down her long, tanned arms.

The next few seconds blurred in the rustling sound of her skirt being pushed up around her waist and his belt buckle clanking against the side of the table as it was pushed hastily aside.

All thought of standard protocol and consequences and the Agency was gone from his head, replaced by an undeniable desire to just be inside her.

But just before that moment could occur, just when her underwear was being yanked down, inexplicably her body stiffened and all lust-filled, frenzied motion stopped.

Carhart frowned and looked at her face. Her expression was frozen in a mask of something that was closer to fear than embarrassment and when he followed her gaze, it wasn't difficult to figure out why.

For all Emilio managed to fool mostly everyone else on the compound into believing he was a charismatic and misunderstood guy, Victoria had been present for one too many blunt conversations between the General and the Senior Agent to buy that. She knew how spiteful he could be-- she knew how he could cut like a knife with his words alone. She knew all about his interference with Morgan.

"What the hell are you doing back here already?" Carhart demanded irritably, glaring at Emilio.

But Emilio didn't answer right away. His eyes were on Victoria, watching coldly as she slowly slid off the table and began straightening her clothes. Emilio took in how nervous she was, noting the lack of embarrassment and the way she put a hand on Carhart's arm.

Pale green eyes shifted to Carhart and they narrowed as Emilio's well-formed mouth twisted. Emilio's nostrils flared slightly and his fingers flexed seemingly of their own accord.

"Zach--" Victoria started but Carhart cut her off with a look.

"You don't have to leave."

Carhart expected Emilio to say something then-- to begin peeling off quick retorts and insults that would likely leave Victoria simmering with humiliation and rage.

But he didn't.

Emilio simply turned around and disappeared into the small office that they'd eventually converted into a makeshift bedroom for him, closing the door behind him.

"No," Victoria said firmly. "I'm going to go."

Carhart released a long, low breath and shook his head. "This is my home. Not his."

"I know, Zach," she said and looked genuinely sympathetic, almost even guilty for making the decision to leave. "But I know my limits and I can't take on a pissed off Emilio Vega. I don't know what that was all about just now but he clearly doesn't want me around at the moment and I'm not about to wait until he decides to tell me why."

Carhart nodded after a moment. "Okay."

Victoria smiled and planted a soft kiss on his jaw. "Maybe next time we should take a break at the office. It may be safer and more private there."

He arched an eyebrow, intrigued by the idea of having her spread open and willing on his desk. "Maybe."

She was gone from the apartment within minutes, leaving only the faintest scent of perfume and the sting of pent up desire.

Carhart stood in the middle of the living room for a long stretch of time, glaring at the door to Emilio's temporary bedroom and wondering what the other man's problem was. It occurred to him that the mission may have gone South, that Emilio may not have been in the mood for company. That he possibly even wanted to vent to Carhart and was thrown off by the presence of Victoria.  

Carhart started to move forward and knock on Emilio's door, to inquire what was wrong, but he stopped just outside.

He was too pissed off to care at the moment. Emilio could come talk when he was ready.

With that thought in mind, Carhart went to his own bedroom and closed the door behind him, stripping off his clothing and laying face down on the bed. He turned his head to the side, staring out what he could see of the glass panes of the window through the dark curtains that surrounded them.

He couldn't remember the last time the sky had looked so clear and he stared in silent amazement for awhile. His cerulean eyes traced the midnight blue of the sky, actually able to pinpoint tiny, faint specks of light that signified stars-- stars that had been shrouded in layers of smog and debris for years.

But even as the sky was clearing, it seemed his life was getting foggier and more confusing.

It seemed that he'd come to a point in his life and career where nothing would ever be simple again.

Every decision he made at the Agency had so many consequences and every incident had a million probability lines stemming from it. It was difficult to focus on the greater good when the people he cared about were constantly involved. Sometimes he didn't know which way to turn, what the best thing to do was and when to get involved at all.

But the confusion and aggravation didn't only stem from work. It was just as ingrained in his personal life as well.

The stress of being the head general had left him wanting, no, needing an outlet and it was that desire that had allowed him to finally move on with his life after mourning his dead wife for years. He'd had casual flings, a number of them, for a couple of years and had found himself involved with field agents both rookie and ranked, civilian employees, captains...

Carhart had never racked up the impressive number of some of the more determined players on the compound but it had been widely known that he was available and willing.

And with that knowledge came the attention seekers, the women who wanted to have sex with him just to be able to say they had sex with the head general, who thought they would gain something from getting entrenched in his life-- thinking he would help them move forward in their career or help them weasel out of something they didn't want to do.  

He'd tried not to care but over time he'd become distrustful of any woman who showed interest in him, thinking surely she must have some ulterior motive. Morgan had been the exception to that but her personality had conflicted too much with his.

Victoria was the kind of woman he could see himself spending time with on a longer term basis but with her, there was more of a possibility that she was using him for notoriety or for some other personal gain. He knew it was likely his own paranoia but still, it wouldn't stop him from turning over her words in his head, analyzing the things she said as he tried to figure out if she had something else in mind.

Carhart closed his eyes and tried to push the thoughts away.

He had a busy day tomorrow-- a day of inquisitions and suspicion, of looking into the people he should be able to trust; yet another day of tough calls and hard decisions and complications that hadn't existed back in the days when he'd been nothing more than a field agent.

He dozed off with the faintest of memories of missions and living life for the moment with nothing more to worry about than his next assignment and the next phone call.

He didn't know how long he slept, how long the cool October breeze blew over the planes of his bare muscular back, before sudden pressure on the bed and the feel of hands on his naked skin caused Carhart's eyes to snap open.

Every muscle in his body tensed and his hand shot to the bedside table to grab the gun he always kept stashed between the frame and the side of the mattress. Before he could make contact, a strong hand caught his wrist and wrenched it around violently.

Carhart strained backwards on the bed, attempting to buck his attacker off but his other hand was wrenched up and before he could even comprehend what was happening, powerful hands were keeping his trapped behind his back.

Carhart took a long deep breath, his mind racing and heart galloping as he tried to figure out how someone had gotten into his apartment. Before the thought could complete itself, the person leaned heavily forward. Carhart inhaled the scent of tequila, cigarette smoke and very familiar cologne.

"Emilio, get the fuck off of me," he snarled.

"Shut up," Emilio growled low in his throat, his voice slurred and thick as he shifted position and knelt up.  "Just shut the fuck up."

Carhart exhaled slowly, closing his eyes and trying to rein in the fury that was coursing through him. "Emilio, if you don't get off me now I'll break every bone in your body."

"You could try," came the slightly slurred response.

"Get. Off. Me."

Emilio mimicked the words in a low dangerous voice, his tone angry and resentful. His body was stiff and unyielding as he trapped Carhart against the bed. "Do you know what I could do to you right now, Zachary?" he whispered in Carhart's ear, nuzzling the side of the other man's face as he did so.

Carhart growled and turned his face away from Emilio's lips.

"I could flexicuff you to the headboard and fuck you whether you liked it or not," Emilio murmured in his other ear, pressing his mouth hard against it.

The general grew very still at the words and a flash of apprehension shot through his body. "You wouldn't do that."

"Think so?" Emilio demanded, jerking Carhart's arms violently and painfully. "I should. I should fucking take your ass raw and fuck you until you fucking bleed, baby. I should shove my cock up your tight ass and give it to you nice and hard like you liked it back in the day, right? Not that you would ever really let me give it to you. Nah, you liked riding me too much. Liked feeling like the big man--"

Carhart shifted and his mind began to try to figure out a strategy for how he would get out of this. He would like to delude himself into thinking that Emilio wasn't capable of raping him but it would be a lie. The first time they fucked in Brighton had practically been rape. And Emilio had trouble seeing the wrongness of something if he wanted it bad enough.

"--always wanted to be the one thinking you was controlling the situation, pulling the fucking strings. And now you got to be the one fucking with my mind, leading me around like a fucking dog trying to get a bone, knowing goddamn well that-- that I'm not fucking-- that you--"

Emilio's voice was starting to sound thick, emotional; frustrated and angry. The alcohol was making his tongue loose and making him say things he'd never say sober. All he ever said sober was that Carhart was hot and that they should fuck. It never went beyond that.

"That I, what?" Carhart demanded against the mattress. "What have I done to you? How have I messed with your mind?"

"Don't fucking bullshit me, Zach!" Emilio growled in his ear, twisting his arms again until Carhart actually cried out in pain. "I know you get off on it. You know I want you, you know-- you fucking know it."

"I know you want to have sex with me just to prove that you can," Carhart replied darkly, gritting his teeth together in frustration. "And you want to play the victim because for a change you can't get what you want."

"And then you brought some fucking bitch over here," Emilio went on, his voice taking on an even sharper edge.

"You always have 'some bitch' over here," Carhart retorted.

"But that's different. They don't mean anything to me," Emilio said from between grit teeth, digging his fingers into Carhart's arms.

"And what business is it of yours if Victoria means something to me?" Carhart demanded, voice rising in indignation as he began to once again strain against the grip his former partner had on him. He could break it if he wanted to but at the risk that Emilio would break his arms in the process.

Emilio didn't respond immediately but he kept his face pressed against the side of Carhart's. Carhart could feel his lips moving as if he wanted to respond, could feel him trembling slightly as he tried to work out his own reasons and whether or not he'd own up to them.

But in the end, Emilio just released Carhart and climbed off the bed. Carhart got up almost immediately, turning to face his friend and staring at him with barely concealed anger. He stood there for several long, furious minutes before speaking in a coldly angry voice.

"If you ever do that to me again, I'll tear you apart, Vega. Or die trying. You have no right to put your hands on me. You have no right to threaten me. I don't care what connection you imagined we had after Brighton. None of it gives you the fucking right and if you pull any shit like that again, you will be dead to me."

Emilio didn't respond. His face was turned down, his arms hanging loosely at his sides and his hair shadowing his face. He was still wearing the same clothes he'd worn when he'd arrived back at the apartment.

"Do you fucking understand?" Carhart shouted, his voice echoing in the silent room. "Or do you need a goddamn Spanish translation, you little bastard?"

Emilio flinched away from the words and he looked up briefly. His lips were parted slightly, his round eyes wide and slightly unfocused. He looked distraught, confused, and slightly frightened. Carhart didn't think he'd ever seen so much raw emotion on the other man's face. The other man's mood swings were going faster and more dramatically than ever.

"I'm sorry," Emilio said finally, his voice so low it was nearly a whisper. "I'm-- I'm fucking-- fuck."

Carhart didn't say anything. He had nothing to say. The resentment and anger he felt was too strong to crack even in the face of such obvious drunken confusion. He couldn't tell if Emilio was really sorry and Carhart didn't truly believe that there wouldn't be a repeat performance of this the next time his former partner got angry and drunk.

They stared at each other and finally, without another word, Emilio turned and left the room. He shut the door quietly behind him and silence swept the apartment once again.

Every trace of exhaustion seemed to have vanished from Carhart's body. After what had just happened, he knew he wouldn't be sleeping any time soon.

Continue to the next interlude: 3.23, Sub Rosa