"Hidden Agenda" Part VI November, 2000 New Freedom, PA Al maneuvered the rental car into a parking slot and scanned the area. Celia had insisted they meet in a public place and he'd agreed, telling her to choose a spot. She'd selected a park where, despite the temperature and the biting chill of the wind, several people still seemed to visit on a regular basis. He got out and started looking for her. All she'd told him was to show up in uniform and she'd find him - with the heavy coat he wore, he wasn't sure they'd thought that plan through in its entirety. Still, the Naval cap would serve as a dead giveaway. He shoved his gloved hands into his pockets and walked away from the lot, watching his breath freeze before his eyes. He leaned against a tree and tried not to look too cold, but he was aching for the heated car and a cup of steaming coffee. He waited a good five minutes before he heard a female voice to his right. "Admiral Calavicci?" she inquired. He pushed forward off the rough bark and turned to look at the mystery woman. "Ms. Gray," he greeted her, vaguely surprised. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but what he got wasn't it. She had long brown hair that fell in waves over her shoulders and neck, bright green eyes that held his on even terms, maybe just a touch too much makeup, and a confident expression on a gentle face. She pulled her thick overcoat more tightly about herself and raised her chin. Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad after all. He offered his hand and she took it, breaking the formal gesture quickly in favor of tucking her bare hands back into her pockets. "I trust you have a car?" "Yes, it's-" "Good," she interrupted. "Then let's get out of this cold." He clenched his jaw, thinking his original thoughts about this meeting may have been more accurate after all, but didn't comment aloud. He led the way back to the vehicle and they got in quickly. Without the harsh wind combined with the fact that the interior of the car was still relatively warm from when Al had it running, it served as a comfortable environment. "Do you have coverage on this thing?" she asked tartly. "I hardly think someone's going to take a pot shot at you on the way to the airport. Unless you were followed here." "I wasn't followed." He narrowed one eye at her. "Are you sure?" "I wasn't followed," she repeated, forcefully. She raised one eyebrow, then pulled a set of keys from her pocket. "That's my car on the other end of the lot - the white Neon. My luggage is in the trunk." Al stared in amazement at the keys she dangled between them. "Good for you." He expected her to insist that he get her things, but she only waited another few seconds, shrugged, and held them loosely in her left hand. "I hope you brought luggage." "No," he said slowly, frowning at her, "I didn't. We have a flight out in..." he glanced at his watch "...four hours." "No," she replied in the same tone as his, "we don't." "I beg your pardon?" "I don't fly. We're driving there. I suggest you get coverage." Al was aghast. He stared for several long minutes before realizing his mouth was hanging open. "You do realize you don't actually fly the plane," he managed. "They have a pilot to do that. All you do is sit in a chair and have people wait on you." She folded her hands in her lap and gazed unflinchingly at him. "Much as you're doing now," he added sourly. "I don't fly," she repeated patiently, as if waiting for a slow pupil to catch up with the rest of the class. He switched from sarcasm to anger, certain that if he had to spend 3 or 4 days in the same vehicle as her, whoever was trying to kill her wouldn't have to worry - he'd do it for them! "Look, lady, that just doesn't cut it! Do you know how long it would take to drive from Pennsylvania to New Mexico?! I can't stay away that long - it's just not an option. You're flying whether you like it or not." "Then you'd better make a choice now, because I'm not getting on any plane." "Why didn't you tell me this before?" he raged. For the first time, her neutral, emotionless mask slipped. "I didn't think you'd come if I did," she said, sincerity saturating her words. He wasn't in the mood to cut her any slack, though. "You're damn right I wouldn't have! It's important that I be in New Mexico - I can't afford to stay away for more than a day or two." "Okay, fine." She fumbled for the door handle. "I'll go." Al pushed back his pride with considerable effort and impressive speed. "Wait... Look, getting Sam back - or the possibility of getting him back - is important to me. Let's just get your things and get going. Every minute we sit here is a minute longer I've got to be in this car with you!" She didn't ask for help as he pulled up next to her car, but he got out anyway. As it turned out, she only had two bags, something else that surprised him: he'd expected her to be the type of woman who had a trunk for an overnight trip. "What are you doing with the car?" he asked. "It's staying here." She stared at it, and then seemed to recall he was there. "Let's get going." ~~~~~~ November, 2000 Mount Sterling, OH They drove the first three or four hours in silence, Al behind the wheel and Celia staring absently out the window. He didn't even turn on the radio. After a while, he began to feel weary enough to know he needed something to occupy his attention. He glanced over at her, straining to think of something neutral to say. He couldn't. "So what's this whole deal you're running from?" he asked her. *So much for tact.* "I don't want to talk about it," she said tightly, not showing the slightest bit of surprise at the question. "Look, we're going to be around each other nonstop for a while, so we may as well get used to it." "I'm used to it." He hazarded a glance at her. "Oh, yeah, I'm glad to see you so relaxed." "If you could please..." She turned to look at him. "Look, I'm putting myself on the line here for you. And if someone really is after you-" "What do you mean ‘if'?" she demanded angrily. "-Then I at least deserve to know-" "I said I don't want to talk about it," she said again, more quietly this time. He slammed his palm against the steering wheel, venting frustration, and she flinched. "And I said I do!" he blurted before he could think of what he was saying. He wasn't normally one to be so pushy, especially on a matter that was so sensitive, but the woman was making him absolutely insane. She laughed bitterly. "Oh, this is rich! This is just what I expected!" He readjusted his position. "And just what does that mean?" "Your attitude - your whole personality! It's just what I'd expect from someone like you," she responded, a touch angry. As for Al, he'd passed `a touch angry' five miles back. "Someone like me? Oh, this I've got to hear! Someone like me as in...a scientist? An engineer? An admiral? Or are we just male bashing now?" "Take your pick," she muttered. He clenched the steering wheel with both hands. "You've got a lotta nerve, you know that? I'm going a long way on this in blind faith that you're telling me the truth." Before she could reply, his cellular phone rang. Grumbling to himself, he fished around inside his coat pocket behind him for it. "Do you want me to-" Celia started, but he shot her a warning look. "I've got it," he responded stiffly. Finally, his hand closed around the small device and he pulled it out, flipping it open with his thumb. "Calavicci." "Al? I got your message - what's going on?" It was Verbena. "Hey, ‘Bena, looks like this trip is gonna take a little longer than I thought," he said, pronouncing the last words with force directed at Celia. "You're gonna have to observe for Sam if he lands before I get back." "What's going on?" "We're doing this the hard way: we're driving back." She whistled. "What should I tell the Committee about-" "Nothing. I'll handle it when I get back, all right?" "Okay, then," she agreed. "Then what do I tell Sam?" He exhaled heavily - he hadn't really thought that far, yet. "Just tell him... Tell him the truth. But don't tell him about the retrieval part - I don't want to get his hopes up just yet on this one. Kid was a little down over that last leap and I didn't want to add any more to it, especially if this flops." "Got it. Oh, you should know that Ziggy refuses to deal with anyone until you get back. So we may have trouble getting data if he does leap back in." Al groaned. He was definitely getting it on all sides this time around. "Her Highness has a heck of a hard time showing her loyalty when I'm around - had me running in circles this last leap." She laughed. "What was it I once heard you tell Sam? You only pull the pigtails of the one you love." He had to grin at that. "I don't know whether to yell at you for spying on me in the Imaging Chamber or yell at you for inferring that I have pigtails," he retorted, ignoring the look that comment drew from Celia. "Do you want me to talk to her?" "No, let's just let her sulk for a while. If Sam leaps in, I'll call you back." "Yeah, keep me updated, okay, hon?" "No problem. Be careful, Al." He closed the phone and tossed it in the back seat in the general vicinity of his coat. "Where were we?" he asked her tartly. "I'm going to try and get some sleep," she responded, choosing (wisely, Al thought) to close the earlier conversation. "Yeah, you do that because I'm only good for an eight hour stretch today. I'm already tired from traveling. And, so help me, if you tell me you don't drive, you're walking there." "I'll take the next shift," she said tiredly. "We are going to stop at a motel for the night, aren't we?" "We'll see." "Why do I bother?" she sighed, pushing the seat back into a reclining position. He gritted his teeth, but didn't reply. Once she fell asleep, the tension in the car all but evaporated. He knew this was going to be a very, very long drive.