A/N the First: Sorry that this chapter was a couple of days late. Thanks to my beta readers, to everybody that left reviews, my awesome friends on Twitter and Tumblr, and everybody that was patient with my brief hiatus in the middle of this story. You're all incredibly swell.
"Home again, home again, jiggity-jig," Chuck said, his jaw cracking on a massive yawn as he climbed out of the car. Even though it had only been his head that had been hit, his body felt like Casey had used it as a punching bag, so he stretched out his shoulders and groaned. When he opened the back door, he had to dodge out of the way to avoid being trampled. "Whoa!"
"Sir!" Sarah clicked her tongue and the dog plopped his butt on the ground.
"I need to learn how to do that," Chuck said. "How are you doing?"
"Little tired." Sarah put her hands on her lower back and stretched. Because he was still on painkillers, she'd driven the entire way. "Can't wait to sleep in my own bed, honestly."
"Yeah, I can't wait to sleep in your—" Chuck broke off, remembering that they were no longer in the clear. "My bed, either. Hey, Megabyte. Megabyte, we're home." He leaned in to jiggle Violet's foot. When she opened her eyes, her brows immediately lowering in grumpiness or confusion, he grinned. "We're home. You ready to get out of this car?"
"Home?" Violet perked up. "We're really back? With Mr. Hoppy Horse and Mr. Nightingale?"
"And Cecil the pig-lizard, Jerry the monkey, and all of those Polly whatsits," Chuck said, and Violet cheered as he unbuckled her car seat. She wormed free, slipped past him, twirled around Sarah once, and ran for the front door. "I'd say she's not excited at all."
"Nope," Sarah said, her voice dry. She grabbed Violet's bag from the trunk while he picked up his own. "I'll come in for a couple of minutes. I want to check and make sure everything's…"
"Everything's what?" Chuck asked. He moved his one good eyebrow—they'd figured out he was going to have a scar dissecting his right eyebrow and he wasn't sure how he felt about that yet—to give her a confused look.
Sarah leaned close. "You remember the renovations, right?"
"I thought it was a couple new camera angles," Chuck said. More ways, he thought, to keep them apart.
Chuck's eyes widened. "Sarah? What did they do to my house?"
"They put a safe room in it," Sarah said.
Chuck blinked. "Where?"
"I'll show you later. C'mon."
Chuck walked in and a cold tingle crawled down his spine because he couldn't sense anything different about his house. Not a single item sat out of place. Violet's extra blanket was still tossed haphazardly over the back of the couch, and there was the print-out with directions to the cabin that they'd forgotten on the end table. "I don't see anything different," he said.
Sarah shook her head at him. "You wouldn't. These guys are good at their jobs."
"That's mildly—and by mildly, understand that I mean incredibly—unsettling."
The other car had beaten them back thanks to getting separated on the freeway, so Ellie was already in the middle of throwing together dinner. Though Ellie invited her to stay, Sarah gave Chuck a quick kiss before she left, making sure to stay where the others could see them (and making the kiss justifiable), and headed back to the Spy Casa.
That time right after a vacation was always a strange one, Chuck decided as he spent his evening doing laundry, checking his email, and catching up with everything that had fallen to the wayside in their time away. Violet took over an hour to greet all of her toys, checking them over and promising to never, ever leave the sad toys again. Chuck was occasionally called in for extra reassurances.
The tantrum at bath time told him that the nap in the car hadn't been long enough.
"Daddy?" she asked after the trauma had passed and she was wrapped in a giant blue towel, waiting for him to pick out pajamas.
"Yeah?" She'd outgrown another set, Chuck realized as he dumped the too-small clothes on the floor.
"Is Sarah—are Sarah and Major Casey Sir going to live with us all the time now?"
"What makes you say that?"
"They went on vacation with us and we all stayed in the same house," Violet said.
Chuck picked up his old Batman T-shirt. "They did, but they have their own house, Megabyte. Arms up."
She obliged and he pulled the shirt over her head. "How come?" she asked.
"That's just the way things are." For now, Chuck thought. Sarah had probably come to the same conclusion he had: if he stayed the Intersect long enough, they would have to escalate their cover relationship and move in together, likely away from Ellie and Awesome. And while the idea thrilled him, he couldn't stop the sinking pit in his stomach. They'd avoided talking about their future in Lake Tahoe. There had been no mentions of what would happen, how they would go forward, or if their relationship even had a chance of surviving. She knew that he was throwing his every resource into decoding the Intersect so that he could get the files out of his head, but then what? Would she go off and continue being a spy? Was he enough to keep her around? Was Violet? He didn't want to be the one to hold her back, as much as he selfishly wanted to hold on and never let go.
It was a mess.
"Here, let's braid your hair so it's not a rat's nest tomorrow," he said, shoving all of those thoughts aside. "You got the Bartowski curls. You're cursed for life, kid."
"I like 'em," Violet said.
"You say that now but one day you'll wake up with a clown afro and you'll come after me with boxing gloves."
He could tell Violet was still deep in thought as he ran the comb through her hair, as she didn't whine when he encountered snarls. He tapped her on the top of the head with the comb. "What's going on in that skull of yours? It makes me nervous when you get quiet. Thoughts of world domination aren't far behind."
"Our inevitable future if you keep getting smarter at this exponential rate."
Violet twisted and gave him the what have you been smoking? look she'd perfected as a baby. He grinned and started to braid her hair, yet another skill he never thought he would ever pick up. "Just thinking," she said.
"And things, I'm sure," Chuck said.
Violet took a deep breath. "How come if Sarah's not my mom, she loves me more than Mommy does?"
Chuck's stomach dropped. "Where's this coming from? You know your mom loves you."
"But she was only in Tahoe for a day and Sarah was there the whole time."
"It doesn't mean she loves you less than Sarah." He wasn't, he thought, even going to touch the idea of Sarah loving Violet. Ever since Violet had learned to speak, things got repeated in startling volume, both aurally and quantitatively. "Sarah's able to be around a lot more than your mom. That's all. And it means sometimes life isn't fair and we don't get what we want, even when we're really good."
"I don't like that."
"Me either. But that's life, kid."
Violet frowned. "Can't I do anything about it?"
"Nope, you're five, it's the law."
"What can I do?"
"Tell you what, I'll let you pick the bedtime story."
"But you always let me pick the bedtime story."
"And don't you feel privileged?"
Violet gave him the look that told him she knew she was being played, but she was going to go along with it until she could outsmart him. Chuck figured he only had about a year left before that happened. He'd deal with that problem when it came up, which he figured was the ultimate rule of parenting, really. But for now, he read the adventures of Benny, Henry, Jessie, and Violet Alden until Violet was breathing quietly, curled up against her gigantic dog and buried under the stuffed animals they'd had to leave behind for an unconscionably long time.
Downstairs, he found Ellie making her bedtime tea and checking something on her laptop. She raised her eyebrows when he went for a beer instead. "Rough night, sailor?"
"She asked why Sarah loves her more than Sophie."
Ellie blew out a breath. The expected barb about Sophie, however, didn't come. Instead, she sipped her tea. "And you didn't reach for the hundred proof instead of the beer?"
"Thought about it. She also asked why Sarah and Casey don't live with us full time. I feel like I just went ten rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard."
"Well, things are getting pretty serious between the two of you," Ellie said. "She's five. She's going to have questions."
"Can I buy her stuff to distract her? Is that a valid ploy?"
"Not if you don't want to see her mug shot all over the news in ten to fifteen years."
"Knew that plan had a flaw." He set the beer down and took a seat at the island, working at the kinks in his shoulder. "How come you're not all 'grr, argh, Sophie is evil' right now?"
"She came all the way up to Tahoe so she didn't miss her weekend. I can give her a break." Ellie took another sip. "For a little while. How's your head?"
"Fine, but I'm going to avoid hitting it with a rock again, if that's okay with you."
"The photographer emailed over some of the proofs she took yesterday," Ellie said. She turned her laptop screen to let him get a look. The photographer had posed the family, Morgan, Casey, and Sarah included, on a giant rock behind the cabin. "She offered to Photoshop it out, but I don't know, I think it tells a story."
"Of how I got into a fight with the Chinese mafia over the kidnapping of a diplomat," Chuck said, admiring the rainbow of purples and blues over his temple, "and how I fell into allegiance with a Chinese spy who's never been spotted on US soil before."
Ellie blinked at him.
"Too specific?" Chuck asked, cringing inwardly.
"Weirdly so. Something you want to tell me, Charles?"
"Nope, nothing," Chuck lied. Sarah was going to kill him if she found out. He gulped down more beer. "Just took a big knock to the head. It addles things a bit."
"But you're feeling okay?"
"Feeling fine, sis. No need to worry."
"But I'll worry anyway." Ellie gave him a kiss on his good cheek. "And on that note, I think I'm going to sleep. Early shift tomorrow. G'night, Chuck."
He stayed in the kitchen after she left, taking her tea and her laptop with her. He liked these moments when the rest of the house was quiet and settled because it gave him a few moments to himself, time to gather all of his thoughts. He knew he should take the beer and go take a crack at the Intersect code, but he was still on vacation until the next day. It could wait. He was just going to enjoy being alone for a minute.
Until Sarah's head popped around the corner. "Gosh," she said, "I thought she'd never leave."
Chuck jumped a very unmanly two feet in the air, his arms flailing. "Where did you come from?"
"The basement," Sarah said.
"We don't have a basement."
"You do now." She moved over to the fridge and grabbed a beer. That was another thing he had noticed in the past week: Sarah had relaxed around him. Before the vacation, the tension in the air—and trying to hide that tension—had been thick, but in Tahoe, it had been almost like seeing a different Sarah, one that was quicker to grin and laugh, and if he was completely honest with himself, he was a goner, head over heels, the whole nine yards, any cliché he could possibly think of. She shot him a grin. "Well, are you coming?"
"To the basement." She grabbed his wrist and pulled him out of the stool, hauling him toward the living room.
"I repeat, we don't have—" Chuck broke off when Sarah tapped the door jamb with the side of her fist and a keypad made out of blue light appeared in a space that he knew for a fact had just been a wall previously. "What the hell?"
"Secret base," Sarah said. She keyed in six numbers and the wall slid to the left, revealing a doorway.
"C'mon." She tugged him after her. The door opened into a dark staircase that led down below his house, lit by fluorescent lights. Everything had an industrial feel, as the walls were stamped sheet metal. Chuck gaped, his jaw dropping farther when the stairs led into a giant, hollow room that contained an entire wall of computer monitors, a conference table, an armory, and what looked like three separate office cubicles. Casey stood by the wall of monitors, arms crossed over the chest of his black polo tee (apparently vacation really was over if Casey was back to dressing as Death's minion).
"What the hell is this place?" Chuck asked.
"Our new base," Casey said. "It's a little rudimentary yet, but they only had a week to perfect it."
"They built this place in a week?" Chuck asked, gaping as he looked up at the halogen lights overhead. Then he spotted the servers in the corner. "Are those—did they—"
"Built to your specifications," Sarah said, looking proud. "I made sure."
Chuck ran his hand over his face, his mind whirling too fast for cogent speech for a long moment. "Do you know what this means?" he asked, fingers itching to open up the front of the server racks and view the shiny interiors. "Do you know what this means?"
"Nerd stuff, probably," Casey said.
"I heard that," Chuck said, but he was too busy goggling at the secret bunker under his house to take offense. "I'll be able to create a much smaller scale of an Intersect simulator, which is good for all of us. This is amazing. How much did this even cost—actually, don't answer that. When you said there was a safe room, I wondered, but this is—this is impressive."
"Thank you," Sarah said. "It was the bosses' idea, but we had a hand in the design. That hallway leads to our place, that hallway leads to a safe exit two blocks away, and that hallway, obviously, goes back into your living room. There's a secondary safe room built off of Violet's room that I'll show you later."
"And the computers?" Chuck asked, gaping at the wall of monitors.
Sarah gestured in an 'All yours' sort of way that had him bouncing forward. "Obviously, it's connected to your computer upstairs, we looped the system."
And the government would be watching his every move, Chuck knew, but he couldn't contain the sheer amount of pure nerdy excitement as Sarah explained all of the features of the room, including the monitor for Violet's bedroom that could be activated when he was down there. "Can't use the base all the time, but it's a good alternative," Casey said. "No letting the spawn down here."
"Hey," Chuck and Sarah both said.
He rolled his eyes. "I've had enough of you two. Walker, give him the manual. Bartowski, try not to break too many laws while I'm asleep."
"Such a happy soul," Chuck said as Casey left through the hallway that led to the Spy Casa. "That vacation really did him wonders. His skin is practically glowing. Like a whole new man that was just waiting for a week of R&R to get out of the old man and stop hiding his light under a bushel."
"Oh, stop," Sarah said, though she laughed and took a seat on the desk beside the keyboard. He'd already started playing with the computer during their explanation of Castle—that was what they were calling the brand new underground bunker beneath his house, apparently—but Sarah had kept her distance. Now she sat so close he could practically feel her body heat. She held out a giant book.
"Holy crap, he wasn't kidding about there being a manual. This thing weighs more than my old C++ book." Chuck grunted a little when he picked it up—it was bigger than the phonebook—and started flipping through pages. "Oh, interesting. And yes, I realize it makes me a nerd that I look at a manual and think it's fascinating. No need to point that out."
"I marked some important passages for you," Sarah said.
"You read it already? I'm starting to think I'm not the only nerd that…" Chuck trailed off as he flipped to the first post-it, his eyebrows drawing low over his eyes. The page was a diagnostic on the camera systems, including the possible ways they might be overridden without a single glitch in the system. When he looked up in confusion, Sarah had an eyebrow raised.
It took him a full twenty seconds after that to understand. "Wha-oh," he said. "Interesting. Pretty helpful book, this. I'll have to read this section very carefully."
"I'm sure I can provide some incentive," Sarah said, smirking.
Chuck breathed a couple of times to lower his blood pressure, though internally he wanted to jump around. Sarah had found a way to circumvent the cameras in his room. Sure, they would have to be careful, but he wasn't going to have to go months on just the power of a look or a stolen kiss alone. He let out a long, relieved breath.
"Yeah," Sarah said. "Exactly. How long do you think it'll take you to…read that?"
"The page or the whole—oh, the whole thing? Uh." Chuck scratched the back of his head. "Couple of days? At most?"
"Might want to get on that, then." Her hand grazed his, very lightly, and he felt goosebumps prickle up his spine. "I trust you'll be very efficient about it."
"Uh, yeah, I mean, completely, yeah. E-efficient." He felt very much like squirming in that moment, which apparently only made Sarah grin harder. "Stop that," he said under his breath.
She leaned close. "But it's so much fun."
When the computer screen behind her beeped, she jolted and for a split-second, Chuck had his revenge. The vindication faded when he actually glanced at the screen. It had been showing a schematic of Castle two seconds before, but now it was completely blank.
"What'd you do?" Sarah asked.
"I didn't do anything." Confused, Chuck entered a simple ping command, but the screen stayed blank. Around them, lights began to dim. Every monitor blinked out, except for the monitor showing Violet's room.
Words in giant, blocky text began to flash over the screen: AM I INTERRUPTING SOMETHING?
Chuck's heartbeat began started to accelerate. "Sarah? Have the bosses been watching War Games lately?"
WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME?
"Very funny, General," Chuck said, typing another command into the computer. "Also I would not have guessed you'd be up on that particular oeuvre of eighties films."
Sarah rose to her feet. "Chuck, I don't think that's Beckman," she said, resting her hand on the small of her back.
The command Chuck attempted did absolutely nothing, but the screen changed anyway: VERY GOOD, AGENT WALKER.
"Who is this?" Sarah asked, pulling her gun free. "What are you doing in our system?"
"What the hell?" Chuck asked, and the goosebumps that rose along his arms had nothing to do with Sarah's effect on his blood pressure now. He checked the monitor to Violet's room out of instinct; she was still there, clutching one of Sir's giant paws while she slept. It didn't do much to relieve the tension locking his spine together, though.
I AM A FRIEND, the computer screen read.
"Friends don't hack military-grade firewalls to play games," Sarah said.
I MEAN NO HARM. I WOULD LIKE TO HELP.
"Help with what?" Sarah asked.
Sarah's shift in stance was immediate; in an instant, she had her gun pointed at the monitor. "How the hell do you know what that is?"
Chuck cleared his throat. "Shooting the monitor won't do anything, just for the record."
"Not now," Sarah said. "Tell me how you know about the Intersect, you son of a—"
BECAUSE I CREATED IT.
For the space of three heartbeats, Chuck remained absolutely still, staring at the words on the monitor with a strange whooshing noise in his ears. He'd done extensive research on the creation of the Intersect, anything the bosses were willing to give him, but they'd led him to believe that the creators were all dead, that everything had perished in the explosion that had taken the original Intersect and left it wallowing between his ears.
"Prove it," he said. "Prove it right now or I will destroy every computer in here."
Instead of a line of text, though, the screen went completely black. Chuck didn't dare breathe, not until a symbol slowly faded into focus in the center of the monitor. He had approximately a half second to gather details—a circle with stylized lines sticking out of it that weren't unlike the state flag of New Mexico—before the flash hit. Information embedded in a photograph of breakfast, schematics of a room, architectural floor plans giant circuits, audio and sound from an old lecture on subliminal imagery and psychology, all of it filtered through his brain and just like that, Chuck knew.
"Orion," he said, gasping as he sagged back in his chair. "Orion, that's—he created the Intersect. They thought he was a ghost, like a myth or a—a story that was passed around the intelligence communities, but he's real. You're Orion."
"They told me the Intersect creators were dead," Sarah said, her grip on her gun tightening.
I HAVE DIED MANY TIMES, AGENT WALKER. IT NEVER STICKS.
"Why do you want to help me?" Chuck asked. He knew Orion wasn't in the monitor, just like he was sure the scientist was powerful enough to override Castle's security protocols and use their own system against them. He was probably somewhere in Malaysia or London or something, but looking at the monitor gave him a point to focus on. His heart had started pounding in earnest and he could feel his hands shaking, but he didn't care. He'd never been this close to anything that might help him get the Intersect out of his head before.
On the monitor above Chuck's head, Violet let out a sigh in her sleep and Sir nosed at her.
BECAUSE THE INTERSECT IS MY MISTAKE. AND I MUST FIX MY MISTAKES.
"How do you know who we are?" Sarah asked.
"He's Orion," Chuck said, tapping his temple. "There's nothing this guy doesn't know."
"He's that good?"
I AM, the computer screen read. BUT I MUST GO. TIME IS RUNNING OUT.
"Wait!" Chuck leaned forward. "If this is your mistake, can you help me? I want it out of my head, can you help me with that?"
There was such a long pause that for a moment, Chuck feared that Orion had vanished entirely. He stopped breathing, teeth clenched while the air seemed to thrum around him.
Finally, though, words appeared: THIS IS ALL I CAN DO FOR NOW. And a complex mathematical equation scrolled across the screen. Chuck yelped and scrambled for a pen, scribbling frantically. The second he wrote out the final variable, the code vanished. The words I'LL BE IN TOUCH appeared and vanished just as quickly, and the lights came back up as each monitor sprang back to life, showing precisely what they had before Orion had visited.
Sarah whirled to look around. "What the hell was all that?"
"I don't believe it," Chuck said, staring at the messy scrawl on the paper in front of him. His hands shook even harder as he launched the latest strand of code he'd been trying to decrypt before the vacation in Tahoe. He'd been working with the Feitzshans Theorem, trying to figure out if there was a correlation he could use, but he'd approached all of it all wrong. His base theory between the subliminal imaging and the data transfer was complete crap. If he used this equation…
"Chuck?" Sarah touched his shoulder and he realized that from the tone, it wasn't the first time she'd said his name. "Chuck, what's going on?"
"He gave me…he gave me the key to figuring it out, Sarah."
"Who the hell is he?"
"According to my flash?" Chuck blew out a breath, still shaking his head. He couldn't believe it was that simple, that it had been right there in front of him the whole time. "He created the Intersect. And I think he's the one that's been looking out for me, you know, online."
"I can't think of many hackers that would be powerful enough to delete pictures of Violet and me like he did," Chuck said. He pointed. "Why would he take everything down but leave that running? First thing I would have done is race out of here to get to Vi. So it makes sense, doesn't it? If he created the thing in my head, he'd have reason to want to protect me—and by default her—too."
Sarah blanched. "I have to call Casey."
"And the bosses. They're going to want to hear this." Chuck took a deep breath. "Sarah, I think I can reverse-engineer the Intersect."
Sarah grabbed his shoulder, her fingers digging in like five sharp points of pain. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying the game has changed. Don't freak out, but I think I can get the Intersect out of my head."
A/N the Last: TO BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT That Which is Greater STORY. Yes, two stories left to be posted. One takes place on Violet's fifth birthday (previous to this) and the epic that will cap this series and build on Chuck, Orion, and the future of the Intersect in this 'verse. And because I promised there would be Godzilla in this chapter: RAWR. There you go. Thank you for sticking around.