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It's Only the Truth

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“I thought you said this was going to be easy,” Gaby said through a tight smile, barely glancing sideways at the passenger sprawled bonelessly in the seat beside her beneath the drape of an incongruously fluffy sheepskin jacket. Napoleon pursed his lips a fraction, a soft hum his only immediate reply before Gaby turned her attention back to the road. Snow was falling thick and fast and, worst of all, wet on the roads, and the most she could say in the Oldsmobile’s credit was that it was moderately heavy; so far they hadn’t hydroplaned atop any icy slush yet. And at least the heat worked, sort of. Gaby was cold, but it kept her focused and awake, despite the snow-ghostly dark. She kept her attention on the road, but she could picture Napoleon going through the motions of putting on an expression meant to mollify her.

“I distinctly recall you saying this was, what did you call it? Something about…cake? A cake walk, was it?” she said, unable to resist the urge to needle Napoleon a little. He shifted a bit in her peripheral vision and she smiled, then. It was satisfying, at times, to see him unbend a little and admit to being mistaken, or to demonstrate a little uncertainty. If she had to sometimes aim low to see it, well, most of them didn’t land, anyway. They’d been working together for months, now, and she was getting pretty good at discerning the bland smile that meant she hadn’t bothered him at all, and the slightly different bland smile that indicated cover for fleeting discomfort.

“I suppose we should have counted on this being more complicated than we expected initially,” Napoleon only said mildly, sitting up straight and gathering up the folds of the heavy jacket in his lap. “When does T.H.R.U.S.H ever make it easy on us? Anyway, lean forward a bit.”

“What?” Gaby frowned, disconcerted by the admission and only half-hearing the last bit of what Napoleon had said.

“Keep your eyes on the road and lean forward,” he repeated, and as Gaby hunched forward toward the steering wheel, she felt the heavy, body-warmed bulk of the sheepskin jacket settle around her shoulders.

“It’s just a little further, now,” Napoleon said, settling back into his seat and peering out the frosted windows curiously. “It’s turned quaint and colonial instead of rural and rustic. That’s a telling sign,” he added dryly.

“How do you tell the difference?” she asked, curious.

“Mostly by how much money the owner has. Or how much money their forebears had, in certain contexts,” Napoleon replied, rubbing his hands together briskly.

“I suppose Senator McCormick’s family farm by definition falls under “quaint”, then? On both counts?” she asked. Napoleon nodded.

“We should have expected T.H.R.U.S.H to know we were getting involved. To count on it,” he said, mouth twisting in a grimace. Gaby stifled the urge to growl. They’d arrived at the senator’s Boston home earlier in the day prepared for Napoleon to take on the guard duties for the senator’s person while Gaby upgraded the house’s security systems, only to find the senator in a full-throated, red-faced argument on his secured line with Waverly himself.

Gaby had shouldered past the knot of milling assistants and servants while Napoleon stood back and watched, entirely bemused, and plucked the phone from his hand without hesitation. Somehow her boss communicated a tremendous wealth of relief in a single syllable. “Ah. Miss Teller. I’m glad you’ve arrived, you see, mission parameters have changed, I’m afraid– Oh, one moment, Mr. Kuryakin is insisting that he speak to you directly–” Gaby had twisted the cord around her fingers tightly as the other phone was juggled, holding up a finger at Napoleon’s quirked eyebrow and stepping back from the senator’s huffing, half-hearted attempts to snatch the phone back while hearing only muffled sounds heard for a few moments, until–

“Gaby. There is new intelligence to report. The target is not the senator, at least not directly. They intend to kidnap the granddaughter to use as leverage against him,” Illya had said grimly. “Waverly says that the mission has not changed; you are to prevent T.H.R.U.S.H from compromising the senator through the child. I will bring a team up to guard the senator myself. That means—”

“We apparently have a grade schooler to go find. We’re on it,” she’d replied briskly, while Napoleon’s left eyebrow had arced up to join the right

“Be careful,” was all Illya had said—the words heavy with the sort of sentiment that a spy should be much better at hiding just in front of his boss, she thought fleetingly—before the line cut off and she’d dropped the phone into the cradle abruptly, looking up at the senator with an impassive expression.

“Where is Sarah, senator? She’s at risk, and we need to get to her now.”

The play of intense fear and regret that had passed over McCormick’s face at the question almost allowed her to forgive him for the admission to follow–he’d sent the child, with her father, his own son, to the family farmstead over 200 miles north, ostensibly to get them out of harm’s way.

The long, chilly drive had given them plenty of time to digest the new report, and while there was still light to read by they’d turned fresh eyes on the dossier on the senator’s family, paying new attention to the photos and brief reports about the man’s son, Michael McCormick, and his daughter Sarah. While the elder McCormick’s photo was a bland and formal image of a blandly-handsome man with cropped blond hair from an ID card, the picture of the girl, aged 11, was different. It was clearly taken at range, snapped as she played in a schoolyard, and registered only the impression of a sturdy frame, a long plait of brown hair, and intense focus on the blurred forms of the other children swirling around her in a game of tag.

They’d discussed contingencies, considered options, and generally run down every possibility for what they would find, how T.H.R.U.S.H would make their move, and what they would do about it. They’d finished that hours ago, and Gaby still held the image of the girl in her mind, one of a hundred she’d seen in the course of her work, but this one, somehow, sticking in her mind. Sometimes their assets had children. Sometimes their targets did. It wasn’t the existence of the child in the mission that felt strange, but that the child was the focus of it, not a possible complicating factor to consider, was new.

“It would be nice if this was a feint. Maybe they leaked something so that we’d go off after the girl while they still intended to target the senator,” Gaby said finally as they drove through a small village, the shopfronts draped in snow, some still twinkling with holiday lights, candles burning in the windows of a few houses

“Poor Illya. You hoping he sees all the action and we get to relax out in the boonies?” Napoleon chuckled, bending down to consult a map and then squint out the windows toward a street sign. “Left here. It’s west of town a few miles.”

“Illya can take care of himself. It’s not that, though. I just…” She trailed off and shrugged, carefully, not wanting to dislodge the jacket. “She’s young.”

“She is,” he agreed. “But kids sometimes have to grow up fast.” He didn’t bother giving her a significant look, or any look at all, really, but Gaby felt it all the same and bit at her lip. They drove away from town into gently rolling hills, the lights from the car all they had to see by, save for the occasional distant glimmer of a farmhouse.

“It’s the next on the right,” Napoleon said finally. “Take it slow, though. There are no lights on. Smoke from the chimney, though. Someone’s here, or was recently.” On impulse, Gaby doused the car’s headlights, relying on a waxing moon’s reflection on snow to see by and scanning the grounds even as Napoleon reached for the weapon stowed beneath the front seat. There was a car of some kind in sight in the long gravel driveway, but it hadn’t been moved in days, to judge by the blanket of snow covering it. Gaby coaxed the car into a parking space next to it, and killed the engine, shrugging off the jacket and reaching for her own weapon. A questioning glance, a small tilt of the head, a boneless shrug–they were out and moving for the main door, Napoleon hanging back a little to offer her cover while Gaby half-ran. She stepped up to the porch lightly, listening and hearing nothing–no voices, no movement, nothing that suggested the house was inhabited. Napoleon came up behind her and fell to one knee, quickly picking the simple lock on the door, pushing it open with a muffled creak as Gaby slipped inside—

—to come face to face in the faint moonlight’s glow with a pale-faced child holding a shotgun trained on her chest. Gaby froze, the muzzle wavered as the girl’s eyes widened, and over her shoulder Napoleon’s hand shot out to shove the weapon’s barrel up and to the side, holding is steady and well away.

“Your grandfather sent us,” Napoleon began, pitching his voice into the smooth, soothing cadence all too familiar to Gaby these days, but before he could say any more Sarah McCormick dropped the gun, launched herself into Gaby’s arms, and began sobbing hysterically. Awkwardly holding her own weapon well away from the girl’s back, Gaby tentatively patted her shoulder, which did absolutely nothing to stem the torrent of tears.

“Sarah,” Gaby began, and the girl looked up with a sniffle. “Where’s your father?” As the girl’s face began to crumple anew, Gaby looked helplessly toward Napoleon, who had already turned away, peering through the window blinds with a frown.

“I don’t know!” Sarah cried. “He left yesterday, said he had to make sure we were safe, and he never came back!”

“Okay, okay,” Gaby whispered, trying to ease herself free of Sarah’s clinging grip even as Napoleon prowled around the front room of the house, closing up the door and locking it, and shouldering the shotgun.

“Did he take a car, or did he go on foot? Do you know where he was going?” Gaby asked, trying to keep her voice low and unthreatening, and leaving her free hand on Sarah’s shoulder, not least to try to keep her from clinging to Gaby again if the questions proved to be too much. But the girl just shook her head, looking lost.

“Easy,” Napoleon murmured, and Gaby looked over gratefully, realizing somewhat belatedly that the single word was more warning for her than meant to soothe. Napoleon holstered his sidearm and pressed the long gun on Gaby with a significant look, gently setting his hand on Sarah’s shoulder and urging her further back into the house.

“Like I said, your grandfather sent us,” he repeated, voice pitched low. “We’re here to make sure you’re just fine. Can you show us where the kitchen is, Sarah? I’m sure a pretty house like this has a nice tin of hot chocolate in the cupboards, am I right? It’s cold out. Let’s get something warm to drink…” Napoleon continued with a steady stream of inoffensive, quiet chatter as Sarah sniffled and nodded, managing a wobbly smile and leaving Gaby silent and open-mouthed in their wake, a gun in each of her hands, and snow melting from her boots onto the coiled rag rug on the floor.

An hour later—after hot chocolate with marshmallows, toasted cheese sandwiches, and a briefly renewed spate of tears even with Napoleon’s deftly delicate wording of questions about how she’d spend the past 48 hours—Sarah was asleep in her grandmother’s sewing parlor on a chaise lounge under a pile of blankets. A call to Waverly to relate what they knew had him insisting that they stay put, for now, given the vagaries of the weather and the situation. Another team was coming to pursue the father’s absence, but it would take them hours to reach the remote farmstead. Gaby moved around the kitchen, cleaning up after Napoleon’s cooking while he put the girl to bed; it was a familiar task, if an unnecessary one, but it gave her something to do while the kettle heated for a second time and eventually Napoleon settled at the kitchen table with a sigh and slumped shoulders.

“If the father has been–” Napoleon began as she turned back to the table, but Gaby cut him off.

“What was that?” she asked, dropping a steeping cup of tea in front of her partner with a wary glance.

“What?” he said, face screwing up a little in confusion. His hair was slipping loose from the hold of the morning’s product application, and he’d rolled up his sleeves in the kitchen’s close warmth. He hadn’t bothered to put on the checked apron hanging in the corner, but there was something familiar about their tired bustling about this kitchen, all the same. Gaby sat down across the table from him with a thud, raising a tea cup in salute and trying to stifle every complicated feeling rising in her chest down back where it belonged, under lock and key. Things were different now, she reminded herself silently.

“The cheese sandwiches were a sight better than that risotto, at least. Is cooking for the problem always the path of least resistance for you?” Napoleon only shook his head.

“Was anything about Berlin the path of least resistance?” he replied mildly. “It’s not the same. Children are not simple, no way and no how, but feeding a hungry mouth is an easy shortcut for some situations, even ones as strange as this, to coax out the necessary information between bites. You, on the other hand, just drank all my wine and confirmed absolutely nothing I didn’t already have on file that night.” Napoleon half-smiled at the memory, picking up a small spoon to stir his tea.

“She was cold, and tired, and hungry. And she’s used to people being certain, that’s a comfort for her. But she’s also not likely often listened to, not in any meaningful way. Few kids are, no matter what their situation.”

“Nobody wants to listen to children,” Gaby agreed, pushing her teacup toward the middle of the table. “Not anyone with good intentions, anyway.”

Gaby took Napoleon’s jacket when she walked the farmhouse’s perimeter, the bulky fit trapping heat close to her body against the still-falling snow. She looked for evidence of the girl’s father’s departure (nothing) or of any watchers (still nothing) or, most significantly, any kind of security system or features (unfortunately, nothing). She slipped back inside the farmhouse after a brief detour to the barn to confirm that it only stored farm equipment and no livestock. Shaking snow from her jacket and pulling off her soaked boots, Gaby slipped to the guest bedroom where they’d stashed their bags for a pair of dry socks, only to stop short in the hallway outside the parlor where the girl slept when she heard quiet voices in the dark.

“I can’t sleep,” Sarah said miserably.

“You were,” Napoleon replied gently. “You could again, if you tried, I think.”

“I won’t,” Sarah said with a child’s stubborn certainty.

“Why not?” There was no hint of accusation in Napoleon’s question, only curiosity.

“Every time I hear the wind, or the snow slide on the roof, I think it’s someone coming for me. My dad, he said they would come for us. That he had to go and stop them, that only he could,” Sarah said, her voice pleading. The hair on Gaby’s neck prickled uneasily, and she peered carefully into the dark room. Sarah was curled up on the chaise lounge, still wrapped in a swath of blankets, while Napoleon perched on the edge of a chair just next to it, his head bent low next to hers.

“Gaby and I, we’re here to make sure that if anyone comes who isn’t your dad, or sent by your grandfather like us, that they won’t get in, or come anywhere near you,” he said steadily.

“But if they do come, that means something’s happened to my dad, right?” Sarah replied, hugging her blanket-covered knees to her chest. “He said he had to fix it. And if they come, it means he didn’t fix it. What if he can’t?” Gaby had a feeling that whatever Michael McCormick had done, this problem—which he was likely responsible for causing—might well be beyond his ability to fix now, for several reasons. But Napoleon’s response betrayed no hint of the conclusions he was certainly also coming to in that moment, his voice steady and gentle.

“I understand you’re scared. But you did really well without your dad here to help you. You listened to what he told you to do and you stayed safe. But you won’t be able to keep doing as he asked unless you rest now. Even Miss Teller and I need to rest to be at our best,” he added, with a soft exhalation that suggested a smile.

“Lie down again and close your eyes. You can’t help us keep you safe if you’re exhausted tomorrow,” Napoleon continued, the blankets rustling as the girl obeyed the suggestion, and Gaby slipped past the open doorway to the bedroom, boots in hand.

“If he did fix it, it’s only because he put himself in their hands,” Gaby said some hours later, murmuring the words so quietly that even if the girl was playing possum in the next room she couldn’t make out what she said. Napoleon dipped his chin in the smallest of nods.They shared a couch in the formal living room just across from the parlor. Napoleon watched the girl; Gaby took regular turns around the room and the larger house, checking the windows and the locks. Napoleon had offered to alternate with her, but Gaby didn’t want to be here, alone, if the girl woke again.

Gaby was afraid she would tell Sarah the truth.

“Probably,” he agreed. “I didn’t tell her it would all be over soon. I didn’t tell her her father would be fine. I didn’t tell her what I think, only what I know. That she did good, for a little girl, and we are here to help. Hell, she did good for a junior agent. I had partners in the CIA that couldn’t manage to be half so steady with a shotgun,” he added with a wan smile. He fell silent for a while before continuing.

“Rule one with children—don’t lie to kids unless you won’t need their trust again or it’s a matter of life or death. Kids know when they’re being lied to, and they don’t forget them. Most kids just get lied to so much that they half distrust everyone,” Napoleon added.

“Only half?” Gaby snorted.

“Well. Some kids get lied to so much more that they learn how to lie just as well, right back at ‘em.”

“Her grandfather is a politician. I expect she’s heard a few lies, in her time,” Gaby said, narrowing her eyes, but Napoleon only shook his head at her a fraction.

“She still expects the truth, though. Lies might be a game, or a frustration, or hurt her deeply–what her dad’s told her, even with the kernel of truth in it, will leave its mark– but they’re not every other word for her, not yet.” Napoleon paused.

“On the other hand, she’s not hungry for the truth so much she’ll risk herself for it. She’s a normal kid.”

“Good for her,” Gaby said, surprised, a little, by the feeling in it.

“Right?” Napoleon murmured, tugging a quilt from the back of the couch down and around Gaby’s shoulders as she glanced at him sideways.

“It’s going to be a shit-show for her in a few hours, when the sun rises and the other team gets here. And us. But for now, she trusts us enough to sleep. I napped in the car on the way up, why don’t you catch a bit of sleep? We’re good.”

“I’m fine-”

“You’re driving us out of here, and it’s only getting colder out there. The slush was bad and the ice will be worse. Get a little rest, Gaby. Tomorrow’s gonna be a day, and I'm not doing it alone," Napoleon said gently.

"Damn right you're not," Gaby replied with a sigh, leaning her head back against the couch and closing her eyes, settling into the room's warmth and drifting into a light doze.