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Yellow Flower

by cgb

[Story Headers]

As the fire alarm sounds around her she comes to two conclusions:

One: she's in this for real now. No turning back, no second chances. She's officially enmeshed in a covert operation to save a politically challenged yet extraordinarily well connected senator from a gruesome death at the hands of an a globally influential, all powerful, yet completely unheard of, clandestine organisation. And to think, yesterday she thought the Senator's campaign lacked spark.

Two: she's very, very smart. She doesn't really need to be reminded of this, but in the thick of what is probably the craziest thing she's done since she agreed to be White House counsel in a Democrat White House, it's nice to be reminded she has the intellect and strategic savvy most politically operatives would sell their grandmothers (and possibly even their offspring) for.

The difficult part was setting an actual fire. Staffers in the campaign office of potential Republican Presidential nominee Senator Reid were planted so hard in their seats it would only take real smoke to shift them - actual fire had to be part of the plan.

So she dropped a piece of bread into the toaster in the staff kitchen, set the toaster to "dark" and accidentally dropped a tea-towel on top before heading back to her office, crossing her fingers that no one would find it before it had the chance to cause some serious smoke. As a method of smoke generation she knew it to be very effective. She'd accomplished the same feat in her apartment only last month.

In the back of her mind she hoped she wasn't about to burn the campaign office to the ground (taking campaign staff with it) but it was a thought silenced in the interest of national security.

*

It began with the woman in her apartment: tall, attractive, alluring and with the lilt of an unidentifiable accent. Possibly Russian but heavily diluted.

Ainsley had just walked through the door, flipped the light switch and there she was. Her arms were folded in front of her and she leaned with her weight on one leg like she'd been there an indeterminate amount of time, waiting patiently for Ainsley to arrive.

She wore black: a hip-length leather jacket (zipped) and fitted pants. Her hair was knotted at the back of her head, a style that added to the severity of the woman's manner and appearance.

Ainsley's reaction was less than dignified. She screamed. The woman moved an eyebrow upwards.

Ainsley found her voice. "Who are you? What are you doing here? How did you get in?" And as an afterthought, "are you secret service?"

"No." The woman smiled. "Not lately."

Ainsley moved slowly forward, putting her bag on the coffee table. She took a moment to scan the room for accomplices, weapons or signs of forced entry, and determined that for now she didn't appear to be in immediate danger.

The apartment looked exactly as she had left it this morning, although without the strange woman in black leather, of course. "Let's start from the beginning," Ainsley said. "Who are you and what are you doing in my apartment?"

"Call me Laura," she said. "And I need your help."

Ainsley edged toward the phone. Could this woman kill her with her bare hands? She looked like the ninja type. A little older than Lara Croft (and somewhat less endowed, but who wasn't?) but no less capable looking.

"My help?" Ainsley echoed. Her hand reached out for the receiver.

"Miss Hayes..." Laura's eyes gestured at the phone. "Please listen to me before you do something we both regret."

Ainsley froze.

Laura nodded approval. "I need your assistance to save the Senator's life."

Ainsley was momentarily stunned into silence. Eventually she said, "Senator Reid?"

"The Senator is a key player in a covert government organisation whose objective is to solve a five hundred year old puzzle with consequences for all life on this planet. Don't worry," she answered Ainsley's horrified look. "Senator Reid's motives are patriotic."

"And you need my help because...?"

"An international organisation with a similar objective is trying to kill him. They call themselves the Covenant."

There was possibly a hidden camera somewhere in her apartment, recording the entire scene for the benefit of some politically orientated prank show - which seemed redundant but she'd seen stranger things on television. Either that or there was a group of her co-workers and friends hiding in the bedroom waiting to jump out yelling, "Gotcha!" at the right moment.

"Did Sam Seaborn put you up to this?"

"Who?"

Ainsley moved toward the bedroom. "Do you mind if I look in there?"

"Of course not."

She flicked the light switch in the bedroom and determined it to be empty. She repeated the process with the bathroom and study and found them similarly empty.

"Okay - assuming I do believe you which, I should point out, is a remote possibility right now, why aren't we contacting the proper authorities? I can call someone at the FBI, the Senator has two members of the secret service on his security detail..."

Laura's eyes shifted left, as if something Ainsley had said had prompted a memory. "That's not an option. I have contacts in the CIA that I can utilise when I need to but the Covenant's reach extends into every corner of power in this country. I need an unknown element."

Ainsley's reputation in capital politics had been based on her uncanny ability to think on her feet. She was disappointed to realise that in this situation that skill amounted to naught. "Look - you seem like an intelligent person..." Laura raised eyebrows for the second time. "...it's something in the eyes - so you have to understand that this is all a little - and I mean this in the most respectful manner - weird."

Laura nodded. She put a hand inside the pocket of her jacket. Ainsley instinctively stepped backwards. Noting Ainsley's reaction, Laura slowed her movement and carefully reached into her pocket, extracting a business card. She profferred the card to Ainsley. "I need you to call this person."

Ainsley took the card, turning it over to reveal the circular stamp of the Central Intelligence Agency and a name: Jack Bristow.

"You want me to call the CIA?"

"I want you to call Jack Bristow."

"How do I know he isn't in on it?"

Laura tilted her head a degree to the side. "In on what?"

Ainsley threw up her hands. "A Russian takeover, an international terrorist plot, a bank heist, a train robbery, the resurrection of Lord Voldemort!" Laura blinked. Ainsley let out a breath. "How do I know he isn't one of the bad guys?"

"Would it help if I told you he would grind you underfoot for questioning his loyalty?"

"Not particularly."

"In that case..." Laura picked up the phone, and held it out toward Ainsley. "I suggest you call him."

Ainsley took the phone and dialled, ignoring the phone number on the card in favour of calling information and asking to be put through to the Langley office of the CIA.

"You should tell them Laura Handel wishes to speak to him."

Ainsley nodded. The hold music was Vivaldi's "Summer" which she didn't particularly care for but it had something of a calmative effect and was in desperate need of something calming. She did as she was told, asking for Agent Jack Bristow and instructing the person on the other end of the phone to inform him that Laura Handel wished to speak with him. The phone clicked twice before announcing, "putting you through now, Ms Handel," and was immediately replaced by a deeper voice. "Agent Bristow."

Her knees shook. "Mr Bristow, do you, by chance, know of a woman called 'Laura Handel?' You see, we've just become acquaintances - so to speak - and she's asked me to..."

"Who is this?"

His voice demanded obedience. He reminded her of her father - which was entirely alarming. "Sir - my name is Ainsley Hayes. I'm Deputy Chief of Staff to Senator Reid..."

"Is Laura there right now?"

"Yes, and she seems to think the Senator might be in danger from some kind of..."

"Do whatever she says." There was an abrupt click and he was gone. The phone continued to beep in her ear for what seemed like an eternity before she returned it to its cradle.

Laura didn't look surprised. "He doesn't talk much," she said.

"It's not what he says it's how he says it." Ainsley shook her head. "Okay - presuming I go along with this, what do you want me to do?"

"There's an assassin on the Senator's staff. Within the next week..."

Ainsley held up her hands. "Whoah. Hold it right there. That's just not possible. I interviewed many of these people myself, I would know if one of them wasn't who she or he claimed to be and - wait, how do you know it isn't me?"

"My sources obtained your FBI file - your history convinces me you could not be swayed to turn against your country."

"That was good enough for you?"

"I'm a very good judge of character."

"And you can't tell me which of my staffers is the assassin?"

"They don't all have FBI files."

She worked at the White House. Her background check was extensive. "Ah."

"In the coming days a message will be sent to the Covenant's contact in the Senator's campaign office. The message will a sign, something ordinary but unexpected. When the assassin sees this he - or she - will know to complete the contract."

Ainsley found herself fascinated with the way Laura spoke of assassins and secret organisations with slow deliberation. She was endowed with the even tone of a doctor delivering bad news to the family of a critically ill patient. No doubt an asset in the covert operations profession.

It was settling, if not relaxing. "And what is it you expect me to do?"

"You have to stop him."

Ainsley let out her breath in puff. "Phew! For a minute there, I thought you were going to ask me to do something impossible like single handedly foil an assassination attempt on a key political figure. Oh wait - you just did."

Laura's facial expression didn't change. Ainsley wondered if she just didn't appreciate her southern sarcasm.

"I wouldn't ask you if I didn't think you could do it," Laura said.

Ainsley's heart pounded noisily in her chest. There was something inexplicably appealing about being flattered by this strange woman in black. She found herself compelled to please her. "In that case, I'm open to suggestions."

This time Laura smiled. "Of course. You need to catch the assassin before he acts. Preferably by intercepting the message from the Covenant."

"And how will I do that?"

"By looking for the sign - it will be something unusual, something worthy of comment but nothing that could cause alarm."

A man in a monkey suit? A woman with a polka dot umbrella? A Democrat? "That doesn't really limit the possibilities."

"You will know when you see it. When you do you should watch your colleagues, see how they react. I don't expect you to identify the assassin but if you do, it would be to our advantage."

"'Our' meaning who?"

Laura smiled. Ainsley swallowed.

Laura's hands fell to her sides. "I believe I've told you everything I can. The rest is up to you." She reached for Ainsley's face, cupping it under the chin. Her touch was firm, purposeful. She met Ainsley's eyes. "Don't let me down, Miss Hayes."

Her touch left Ainsley disorientated. She came to her senses just as Laura was about to disappear through the door. "Wait - how do you I contact you if I need you."

Laura turned, her hand rested seductively on the doorframe. Ainsley thought she had the longest fingers she'd ever seen. "I'll find you."

And with that she was gone.

*

Laura was right about one thing: it was easy to spot the sign when it came. Although Ainsley isn't so sure Laura's faith in her ability to do something about it was well placed. Even as the fire alarm sounds and the office empties around her she finds herself tempted to run after them.

Three days since her unexpected visitor and the sign itself is sitting on Mirril Davey's desk. Mirril is the office coordinator and personal assistant to the Chief of Staff so all deliveries find themselves on her desk to begin with. Mirril's job is to hand them to security for inspection. Of course, the important thing in this case would be to find the person whom the "sign" was intended for.

Provided it's not Mirril. Ainsley dismisses the thought. Mirril cried when the Senator's dog had to be put down. Cold-hearted assassin wasn't a description that readily fitted her.

She joins the throng headed for the exits and lets herself fall to the rear of the group. When no one is looking she slips inside Mirril's office.

The "sign" or rather "signs" are on Mirril's desk: flowers, nasturtiums to be exact. Flowers aren't uncommon in the office - someone is always having a birthday or an anniversary - but the odd arrangement caught Ainsley's eye when they arrived: nasturtiums. Not exactly romantic. Not exactly death lilies either, but she knew nasturtiums had symbolic value even if she couldn't remember what it was. She had plugged the name into a search engine on her computer and came up with two meanings that resonated: "conquest," "death to the infidels" - a symbol of the Spanish conquest of South America. Moments later she knew she had to devise a plan to empty the office.

She sniffs the air. The smell of smoke is evident without being intolerable. If anything it appears to be thinning which suggests her small fire has either burnt out or someone has sensibly unplugged the toaster and thrown a bucket of water on it. Still, she doesn't expect anyone to return to the office until an all clear is announced. She has time.

The flowers are in a bunch, and displayed in a box. The box sits atop an assortment of stuffed envelopes and at least one large express delivery box - the morning's mail. She checks inside the box and finds a card with a name: Leanna Townsend.

She gasps. Leanna is a friend of the family. She was sent to school in England with the Senator's daughter and they've remained close friends.

Ainsley fingers the card thoughtfully. What if she's wrong?

She opens the card and reads the message inside: "Thinking of you on this day of all days." Innocuous, but vaguely sinister.

She frowns as she places the card in her pocket wondering vaguely if she should have worn gloves. Or black leather. Black leather, as it turns out, has a strange effect on her. She wonders if she would be doing something quite so hazardous if Laura had been wearing tweed.

Mirril has a collection of the Senator's campaign posters in her office. Ainsley takes one and wraps the flowers in it, crushing the box flat. She bundles it a small as it will go and stuffs it under her not-leather jacket.

She listens for sounds from outside the office, trying to determine if it is safe to exit the office. The silence convinces her to open the door and step out into the hall. She does so and finds herself face to face with a representative of the local fire fighting service.

He looks as surprised to see her as she is to see him. "Have you been here all the time, Miss?"

Ainsley regains her composure. She clasps her hands in front of her, pressing the flowers hard against her side with her arm. She hopes it look inconspicuous. "I got all the way outside and I didn't see Mirril. You know, some times she wears an ear piece..." She gestures toward her ear. "... and I was worried she didn't hear the alarm - but she's not in there..."

"Miss - you really should be outside. If you friend is still here I'll find her."

She smiles gratefully, a hint of a flutter in her eyelashes. "Thank you."

She leaves him behind to search for Merril while she heads for the fire exit at the back of the building.

Outside she looks around quickly before finding a dumpster and throwing the package inside. She finds the rest of the staff congregated at the front of the office.

She notes Leanna Townsend is nowhere to be seen.

*

That night she enters her apartment with a vague feeling of deja vu, a sense of something ominous. She flicks the light switch and once again is dismayed to find herself making a sound she hoped never to make in civilised company.

Especially if the civilised company looks like Laura Handel. She's wearing brown leather this time with a red polo neck underneath that matches her lipstick. Her hair is down and she looks softer than she did three days ago although no less imposing. She could be going on a date and Ainsley finds herself more than a little curious as to the kind of person this woman might deign to date.

Ainsley indicates the door. "You know, last time I checked, my doorbell worked perfectly and even if it didn't, most of my friends would knock..."

"You talk too much," Laura says.

"I'm aware of that."

"I heard there was a fire at the Senator's campaign office today?"

"You heard correct." Ainsley tries not to sound too satisfied with herself. "I have something for you." She takes the card from the flowers and hands it to Laura.

Laura looks at the name on the card and then looks back at Ainsley. This time her smile is for Ainsley alone. "Impressive."

In her mind Ainsley turns cartwheels. "Do you know her?"

"I had my suspicions."

"I disposed of the message in a dumpster. You were right - I knew it when I saw it."

"What was it?"

"Nasturtiums."

Laura's brow creases. And then she laughs - a flowing sound, like a waterfall. "Of course," she says. "You've done well. We owe you a great debt." She moves toward the door.

"Wait." Ainsley catches her by the arm. "Where are you going?"

Laura looks purposely at the spot where Ainsley hand has grasped her jacket and then she looks at Ainsley. "Is there something else I can do for you, Miss Hayes?"

The tone of her voice is slightly provocative. Ainsley doesn't know how to answer. She wants to ask a thousand questions but most of all she wants something - needs something more. "Why me? I mean, you knew - you knew I could do it. How did you know?"

"I met you - one Christmas," Laura says. The hint of a smile hovers around the corners of her mouth - her usual beguiling look.

Ainsley gapes. "I don't remember..."

"You wouldn't." Ainsley's hand is still on Laura's arm. Laura reaches for it and lifts it gently, but instead of letting go she intertwines Ainsley's fingers with her own. She leans closer, filling Ainsley's vision. "You were just a child," she says softly, her voice has a sensuality incongruous with her words. She presses her lips against Ainsley's, softly but with enough pressure to make Ainsley's knees shake, holding Ainsley there for a timeless moment with nothing but a kiss between them.

And then she lets go. She pauses briefly to meet Ainsley's eyes before turning and disappearing as effortlessly as she arrived.

Ainsley catches her breath.

*

The next day she finds herself in the office kitchen staring at the blackened patches on the counter. The Senator is alive, Leanna has disappeared, and if Mirril misses the nasturtiums she certainly hasn't come to Ainsley to find them.

One of the Senator's aides stops when he sees her in the kitchen. "Ainsley - I saw the Senator on Capital Beat last night. Great work."

"Thanks." Her voice is hollow. She barely remembers the Senator's media appearances from last night. The fire scare gave the Senator something other than politics to talk about, and she knows that's always a good thing but she can't remember anything about his performance that distinguishes it from any other television appearance he's made in the last year.

For the first time since she was old enough to point to DC on a map of the United States she wonders whether politics is the only life she was born for.

She returns to her office, puts the tape of the Senator's television appearance into the VCR and sinks back into her chair to watch. The Senator is promising tighter controls on immigration and tougher penalties for parol violators and it's all standard political-speak, designed to be swallowed in one easy gulp. It makes her wish she were working in Bartlet's White House again where issues were not only given due respect for being complex but the staff did their damnedest to tell people that was the way it should be.

That night, and for the months that follow, she finds herself letting the lights in her apartment stay off just a little longer in order to delay the inevitable - when she turns the lights on the room will still be empty.

End

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Fandom:  Alias, West Wing
Title:  Yellow Flower
Author:  cgb   [email]   [website]
Details:  Standalone  |  PG-13  |  *slash*  |  19k  |  07/05/04
Characters:  Ainsley, Irina
Pairings:  Ainsley/ Irina
Summary:  "Black leather, as it turns out, has a strange effect on her.”
Notes:  For the Wing Swing 2004 (http://www.bluejello.org/wingswing/). Events are set circa early season three for Alias and post season three for the West Wing.

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