Frea's A/N the First: Hi! It's been exactly three years since I published the first chapter of That Which is Greater, which was just a tiny little story that I was writing at the time to relieve some of the tension from writing Fates. I thought that seems like a pretty good day to post the newest story. Updates will be on Tuesdays (and maybe in between if I get bored).
Thanks to my awesome beta reader, mxpw, and to all of my wonderful pre-readers who've tolerated me sending random snippets their way. You guys are all awesomesauce.
Just for reference, this takes place in March, about two months after That Which is Greater: The Happiest Place on Earth.
Most of the family was still asleep when Sarah let herself into the Bartowski house, but she still wasn't surprised to find Chuck in the kitchen. Sure, he almost had his nose buried in a cup of coffee and there were bags under his eyes, but he was there. It had become a habit that was uniquely theirs. Spies, as a rule, didn't have habits, as habits could get you killed. But Sarah had also never realized how comforting they could be.
"You don't actually have to get up just to see me," she said as she knelt to unclip Sir. They'd survived yet another morning run together. She liked to think they were even improving, and clearly the elephantine puppy agreed, for he flopped onto his back and offered his belly up for a rub.
"Nah, I needed to be up. S-stuff to do, codes to…code. Mmph." He yawned, put his head on his crossed arms, and made snoring noises.
Sarah grinned. "Sleep is important, too, you know."
Chuck's head popped up. "Just kidding. Want some coffee?"
"I've got it." Abandoning Sir after his belly rub, she grabbed the purple mug Violet had drawn bumblebees all over when they'd visited the clay firing place the month before and poured herself half a cup, dosing it with milk. She took the seat farthest from Chuck at the island. The longer their relationship-under-the-cover-relationship progressed under the watchful gaze of the government, the more being touched reminded her of how needy she felt—and besides, she didn't exactly smell like daisies at the moment. "What's up? Any reason you got up at—and these are your words, not mine—the butt-crack of dawn?"
Chuck's smile was tinged with sleep at the edges in a way that made her ignore her libido. "Not really. Just wanted to see you."
"And it's peaceful. No pitter-patter of gigantic paws. Lets me get my thoughts in order."
Sir chose that moment to nudge his head into Sarah's lap. Clearly, her obligations to him had not ended with the run. She scratched his ears. "Oh yeah? And what are you thinking about?"
"Oh, stuff. I'm in charge of snacks for play group next week, there's a pattern I spotted in the Intersect programming yesterday that might produce results, who'd win in a fight between Megatron and Godzilla, you." Chuck shrugged. "Whether you actually know who Godzilla is."
"I know who Godzilla is. Dork."
"Nerd," Chuck said, but he grinned. "But, that misnomer aside, I must say, I'm relieved. I don't think I could date somebody that doesn't know who Godzilla is."
"Good thing it's just a cover, then."
Chuck's eyes cut to the camera mounted in the corner. The All-Seeing Eye, as he had referred to it on one of the very, very few times they'd managed to escape surveillance. It was like having a third member in their illicit still-stuck-in-the-beginning-stages-because-holy-hell-was-the-government-good-at-running-surveillance-on-an-asset-nobody-was-aware-it-had relationship. Every action, every word, every gesture and look had to be measured against what an analyst sitting in a cubicle in Washington might see and interpret, when really Sarah honestly just wanted to grab Chuck and engage in a little mutual clothes removal. Judging from the way Chuck sighed and fiddled with his coffee mug now, he agreed.
"Yeah, just a cover," was all he said.
Sarah spotted the way his mouth quirked to the left, and knew what that preceded. "Don't you dare make a joke about me being out of your league otherwise," she said, half-serious.
"I could be for inter-league play," Chuck said, squinting at her. A challenge made his face light up. "You know, I could be out of your league. After all, I have not only a five-year-old that I'm quasi-single parenting, but I also come with both mommy and daddy issues pre-loaded, and for the low, low price of three payments of twenty-nine ninety-five, you get a model of me equipped with most of our government's secrets, including the true identity of the subject of Carly Simon's chart-topping hit, You're So Vain."
Sarah blinked. "Did you actually flash on that?"
"It was on the radio."
"So who is it?"
Chuck tapped his temple. "Twenty-nine ninety-five, remember?"
"Why is that even in the Intersect?"
"Last week I flashed on directions to the nearest IHOP. If I weren't being paid the big bucks to disassemble the Intersect code, I'd say the person who designed the whole system was on crack—a theory, by the way, that I am not fully counting as off the table yet."
"Good to know." Sarah rose to put her mug in the sink. "I'd better get back to the Spy Casa. Casey wants to go over some reports after breakfast."
"I'll walk you to the front door."
"No, no, it's okay. I'll see myself out. You stay put and think about Godzilla or something." Sarah squeezed his wrist, the only contact she dared make, before she left the kitchen. Sir followed her, nosing at the treat pocket in hopes that another kibble bit would be forthcoming. And if she stopped at the door to give him a face-scrunch (and maybe a treat), she figured it was okay.
Halfway across the lawn, though, she stopped when she heard Chuck calling her name. "Are you crazy?" she asked, watching him cross the lawn in his bare feet. "It's freezing out here! Get back inside."
"Quick question." He hopped from foot to foot.
"You're going to catch a cold," Sarah said.
"I will if you keep interrupting." His grin flashed. "I just want to know what I need to do to go about getting vacation."
Sarah stared at him. "Vacation."
"Yeah, you know, that thing you do where you go somewhere else, either really warm or really cold, and depending on the climate of the place you're visiting, you do things that annoy the locals, like crowding the beach or skiing or renting a scooter and shouting rude Italian phrases back at the people who shouted them at you first."
"I know what vacation is."
"Well, here's the thing." Chuck hugged his arms closer to his chest, shivering openly. "Ellie and Awesome have a timeshare up in Tahoe."
"I thought they weren't going to be able to use it?"
"Somebody else offered to trade with them, and Ellie and Awesome can get off for the new time." Chuck's breath emerged in a fog around his face, and Sarah was tempted to shove him back inside. But he barreled on at ninety words a minute. "And they've invited Vi and me to go, and Vi loved it so much last year that I really want to take her again. Oh, and you. You're invited, too."
"Oh." Vacationing together when they were still keeping their cover to sleeping over every once in awhile—nights that had basically become torture—seemed like a big step, but Bartowskis never did anything in half-measures. Sarah frowned. "I've never had to ask for vacation before. It was assumed that if you came back from a mission and there wasn't another one waiting, you were on your own time."
"But what's the procedure here?"
"When would you want to go?"
"Er, um, it's next week. Super last minute notice, but…" He stopped hopping from foot to foot to meet her gaze, deadly serious now. "But I'd really like to go. To Tahoe. With you."
Sarah's stomach fluttered at the thought of what he wasn't saying.
"And of course my sister, her boyfriend, Violet, my best friend, and the life of the party NSA agent we all know and love because apparently a cabin meant for four people is even better if you cram seven in for funsies."
"Go with me here. So, do I need to talk to the bosses? Is it even possible?"
"I'll talk to Beckman and Graham," Sarah said. "I can't promise anything yet."
"You're a lifesaver. Any idea when you're going to do that, so I can tell Ellie something?"
"I'll set up a conference call today," Sarah said.
"Thank you." Chuck stepped in for a hug, which made Sarah take a step backward. His brow creased in confusion. "What? I didn't think there were cameras in this part of the yard."
"There aren't any. I'm just—you know, sweaty." Sarah gestured at her jogging gear. "And you need to get inside before you lose a toe to frostbite. See you later, Chuck."
"Bye." His parting smile was warm enough that Sarah didn't even feel the cold on the rest of the way to the Spy Casa, though she did have to take a minute just inside the doorway to gather her bearings. Casey was far more astute than either of them liked. Once she had collected her wits, she headed upstairs to take a shower and figure out how she was going to broach Chuck's request with the bosses.
"Vacation," Casey said, as though the word was one that should not exist in any language known to humankind. "The nerd wants to go on vacation."
"To Lake Tahoe. Apparently, Ellie and Devon have a timeshare on a cabin up there, and they want to get away for a few days next week."
Casey's scowl deepened to Twilight Zone Marathon Night levels. But he stayed silent as he shoved a clip into one of the backup Glocks and placed the gun on a set of pegs. Cleaning the armory was a task carried out every two weeks. There were, of course, rules: Casey wasn't allowed to touch the knives, Sarah wasn't allowed near the Sig Sauer shelf, and the armory could only be cleaned when it had been confirmed that Violet was either in Pre-K or would be at least five miles away for the next three hours.
"Tahoe," Casey said.
"You got a problem with Tahoe?"
"Civilian." Casey sneered. "We should at least at least convince the asset to let us pull some strings and make it a real vacation. Tahoe. Ugh."
"They like Tahoe. They went last year." Sarah brushed grit from the box of smoke grenades, though that particular box was filled with a model they used in Afghanistan. Grit was the least of their worries. "I scheduled a conference with Beckman and Graham, and I've downloaded a map of the area so we can look over any security concerns."
"You're a little too excited about this, Walker."
"Casey, I've been stuck in the suburbs, tracking down an inexplicable amount of drug dealers, weapons kingpins, and internationally-hunted terrorists that have all somehow managed to come into Los Angeles and have magically wandered into contact with Chuck." Sarah shoved her hands through her hair, pushing it back away from her forehead. "I don't feel like being excited to take a vacation is all that unreasonable."
"Point." Casey's expression was more of a grin than a smirk, which was surprising in its own right. "Never thought I'd hear Wildcard Walker whining about the number of scumbags she's had to sucker-punch."
Sarah rolled her eyes at the nickname. The only 'wildcard' thing about her life now was the games of Uno she sometimes played with Violet. "Supposed to be some pretty good skiing up there."
"You think we're actually going to have time to ski?" Casey scoffed.
"I'm sure as long as we're within a certain distance of Chuck, Graham and Beckman will let us keep surveillance duties minimal."
Casey put the final Sig back on the shelf. "Nah," he said. "They'll never go for it."
"That sounds like an excellent idea," General Beckman said.
Beside her, Sarah felt Casey stiffen in surprise. "I beg your pardon, General?"
Beckman looked up. It was impressive that a woman no taller than five feet could regularly look down her nose at a giant like John Casey, really. "Did I stutter?" the woman asked. "I said a vacation sounds like an excellent idea. It's become apparent that the operation end date is not in sight, which means that the temporary measures we undertook at the beginning of the Intersect project are not sufficient. Having the asset and his relatives away will give us time to set up more sustainable options."
Despite her initial spasm of happiness, Sarah felt a chill at the back of her neck. "What options are these, General?"
Beckman lifted an eyebrow, as though Sarah had acted insubordinately. Sarah didn't feel like her question was all that impudent. She was an operative on a long-term assignment. It was only fair that she knew what sort of changes were coming so that she could prepare for them.
"I'll have a list of schematics and plans sent to your base by the end of the day tomorrow," Beckman said. "There is no need to inform the asset. To give the agents enough time to work, we'll extend the time-share for a full week—on the government's dime, of course—and see that Doctors Bartowski and Woodcomb have the vacation time. I'm sending agents ahead to scout the area for any security concerns and to prepare the house for any surveillance. Major Casey—"
"General, if I may?" Casey said, interrupting.
Both Beckman and Sarah gave him surprised looks.
"I'm led to believe we'll all be staying together in close quarters. Wouldn't digital surveillance be overkill, General?"
"I fail to understand what you mean, Major Casey."
"It's vacation, General." Casey said. "By this point, we've been on this op for six months. You either trust us to watch the Intersect or you don't. Beg pardon for speaking out of turn, but I could use a break."
If it was at all possible, Beckman managed to look sourer than usual. Maybe they were serving lemons for lunch in the DNI boardrooms today, Sarah thought. But after studying both agents for a moment, their commander eventually nodded. "I will expect you to report in daily."
Though an intense flood of relief filled her from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet, a relief so strong she could almost taste it, Sarah managed to keep her features perfectly cool and professional. "Verbal sitreps or do you need reports, as well?"
"It's vacation, Agent Walker," Beckman said, and she may not have looked pleased about it, but at least she had stopped the 'sucking on something sour' face. "I think we can manage with verbal sitreps. Alert Director Graham or myself if any problems arise. I expect your reports on the area and how you plan to run the minimal surveillance on my desk tomorrow morning."
"Yes, ma'am," they both said, and Beckman ended the conference.
By habit, both she and Casey waited to speak until they'd ended the connection on their side. Chuck's blurted out comments had gotten the team in trouble a time or two when Beckman or Graham had had last minute additions for a set of orders. But the minute they stepped into the kitchen together, Casey turned and gave her an annoyed look. "You owe me," he said.
"You heard me. We speak of this no more, do you understand? I need to hit something." And true to his word, he stomped off, already cracking his knuckles in anticipation of giving the training dummy a thorough beating.
For a moment, she stayed in the kitchen, absolutely unable to move while the inescapable truth stared her in the face.
And he wasn't going to turn them in.
For a moment, she nearly turned on her heel and chased after him, to demand how he'd figured it out and more importantly, how long he'd known about her illicit relationship with Chuck. But she stopped herself mid-turn. Maybe Casey didn't know. Maybe he only suspected and this was some sort of test. She didn't want to confirm that for him or—
"Since Disneyland, by the way," Casey said, sticking his head in the door. He was wrapping his fist. "You didn't quite avoid the cameras."
Sarah whirled around. Her heart was pounding erratically in her chest, way too loudly for a simple conversation in the kitchen. "Disneyland was two months ago."
"And you haven't let it affect the mission at all, and more importantly, neither has the nerd, so as far as I care, it's none of my business." Casey's scowl deepened into a look of pure crankiness. "If you'd slipped up, I'd have reported your asses already, but now I just don't care. So keep it out of my direct sight and don't ever give me details about anything—anything, I mean that—and we're cool here. Got me?"
"And you owe me, so you get to make the recon run to Tahoe to check out the cabin, not me." He seemed oddly cheerful about that as he walked away, whistling.
Sarah remained in the kitchen, her mind absolutely blank. She and Chuck had talked about the ramifications of Casey finding out, a scenario that had always ended with Chuck stuck in a bunker and Sarah manning a desk in Siberia. It had always been one of those End of the World things, as Chuck was fond of putting it.
But Casey had known almost the whole time.
And finally, she broke: a laugh bubbled up as it hit her all at once. Casey was fine with their relationship and even better, they were being sent to a remote, snowy cabin for an entire week, away from surveillance, on the government's dime. Sarah sat down at her kitchen table and laughed until she felt sick.
Frea's A/N the Second: oh god he knows everybody run.