A/N: Welcome to story no. 2! I want to thank everyone who left thoughts and comments on my first. The overwhelming support was what pushed me to continue to write and also to begin a few new projects. For now we have this. It came to my attention that Sarah repeats often in the show how she fell in love with Chuck not for the Intersect, but because he was a 'normal guy'. Well if that's true, then what if the Intersect never existed at all? Or at least what if it had never come Chuck's way? Would he and Sarah still meet? Would they still find a way to connect? That's the alternate universe I intend to explore with this fic. A few familiar faces will appear down the line, but obviously they will be used to different roles than in the canon storyline of the show.
What started out as a random one shot has now become a fully realized multi chapter AU adventure, all thanks to beta master michaelfmx. With all that said, I hope you all enjoy the story! Let's begin.
August 1, 2008: Malibu, CA
Graduating Stanford was supposed to be Chuck's ticket to prosperity. His way out of Nerdom and obscurity. That's what all the brochures had said anyway. That's what his advisors and professors had told him. That's what the dozens of alumni had said when they lectured Chuck's freshman class with ridiculously optimistic smiles plastered on their tired faces. Chuck supposed he should have seen through the masks back then, but he'd been too naïve, too hopeful for a future that was supposed to be laid out before him like a red carpet.
Well the brochures had been wrong and the professors had lied. Getting a job wasn't as easy as pointing to his Stanford diploma with a big shit-eating grin and promising some corporate executive that he had what it took to be a part of their company. The few times he'd tried to appear in front of those leering, suited business men, he'd felt like a child playing dress up. Suddenly his favorite suit didn't fit quite right; the cuffs were worn and the suede patches on the elbows were out of date. His pant legs were a tad too short, revealing the wrinkled socks he wore underneath scuffed shoes. He'd caught a glimpse of his unruly hair in the mirror behind the receptionist's desk and would have bolted for the door had she not called his name right at that moment. The interview was quick. So quick that Chuck barely had a moment to gather himself before he was shooed out the door, all the while being fed the tired lie that they would "be in contact" with him soon. It didn't take long for Chuck to stop trying to pretend he belonged in that world. It seemed that all Stanford had done was offer him a very expensive piece of paper with the words 'Software Engineer' printed above his name in fancy lettering.
Almost five years after leaving Stanford, he was still living with Ellie and working at the Buy More. And as much as it hurt to admit to himself that he'd hit rock bottom, the Buy More was safe. He didn't have to strive for success and cringe in fear of failure. He could slide by with mediocrity…Even be rewarded for it. Every day he told himself he'd start the search for something new and every day he wandered the Buy More aisles aimlessly, scanning merchandise and organizing displays while his life ticked away. It was macabre, Chuck knew, but it was hard to feel any differently. Even his promotion to head Nerd Herder had come at a price. For $11.00 an hour, Chuck was given all the benefits of a Shift Supervisor and simultaneously ostracized by his friends. Jeff and Lester had been the first to turn against him, Anna followed suit, although Chuck suspected it was only because she had nothing better to do than involve herself in store drama. Even Morgan, his best friend since childhood, acted a little aloof towards him these days. Especially after he and Anna spent last week's poker night together in the home theater room, while Chuck was left to the mercy of Jeff and Lester. No friends, no esteem, no girlfriend…
Nope. Stop right there, Chuck. He hadn't thought about Jill since….well, last week. But that was saying something. Jill had been Chuck's whole world for two long years. There wasn't a thing he hadn't loved about his Stanford girlfriend. She was beautiful, intelligent, funny and not to mention a huge nerd. They'd met during a freshman club fair; more specifically at the 'Tabletop Roleplaying Club' and while Chuck struggled to find the courage to ask her out, they built up a friendly connection playing Everquest with the other club members every Saturday night. And then, out of the blue, she'd broken his heart. Remembering the day he'd walked in on her and Thomas Sunderson, captain of the football team and popular frat boy, was a constant nightmare. A reminder that he wasn't good enough. Not even for the girl who promised she loved him.
It was then that Chuck decided he was thinking far too much. Although considering he was, right at this moment, buried up to his chin in sand on a beautiful Malibu beach, there wasn't much else he could do but think. Craning his neck as far as he could, he was able to catch a glance of the Buy More guys prancing around the beach without him. Buy More Beach day was in full swing, but he'd been tricked into sand prison and then left …to die apparently as no one had expressed any interest in him for the past two hours.
It was late in the afternoon, but the sun was still bright and, without an umbrella to protect him from the rays, Chuck's nose and cheeks were beginning to itch and burn. Chuck realized he should suspected foul play when Jeff and Lester asked him to help measure the hole they'd spent nearly three hours digging near the shore. He'd been stupid to climb in, but by going along with their odd request, Chuck thought it might be a start to patching up their relationship. But they'd packed the sand around him and then dashed across the beach cackling like hyenas before he even had a chance to fight back. Chuck had tried to laugh it off at first, assuming they'd come back and free him after taking some embarrassing snap shots, but now he was certain they intended to leave him here unless he could escape by himself….Which he'd tried to do multiple times. But sand was surprisingly heavy and Chuck was, not unsurprisingly, weak.
Maybe I should hit the gym with Awesome soon, he thought, shifting his shoulders in an attempt to move the packed sand. Glancing around again, Chuck searched the beach for Morgan, only to find him more than occupied with Anna on a faraway beach towel. Chuck sighed and turned back to face the ocean, watching the crimson waves crash upon the shore. In the distance he could see a figure, silhouetted black against the evening sky. The figure was on a surfboard, as far as Chuck could tell, gliding over the waves with uncanny grace and skill. The thousands of thoughts spinning in Chuck's head went silent as he watched the figure cut through the ocean. It was hypnotic. Chuck found himself wondering how it felt to be out there with so much power over a force of nature. Becoming one with it. His thoughts were interrupted when he finally realized the mysterious surfer had returned to the shore and now strode toward him, ignorant of his presence.
Great, Chuck thought as the figure came closer. The last thing he needed today was a foot to the face.
Sarah Walker hadn't been to this beach in years. The last time she'd visited it was with her father, only days before he'd been arrested by the ATF. Part of her was happy to be in the only place she'd ever really felt connected with her father. The other part struggled to keep bitter memories of his manipulation at bay. Everywhere else, she'd been nothing more than a tool for his con games. But here, he bought her ice cream, he called her sweetheart, he rented her a longboard and helped her paddle out past the large waves, cheering when she surfed back in on her own clinging to the board like a life line. She'd never forgotten the day they spent on this beach because it was the day she had felt like Jack Burton was her father and not just another criminal.
Of course, being able to surf again certainly helped to lift her spirits. Being an agent in the CIA didn't allow her much free time, but whenever a mission took her somewhere near a beach she did her best to get out onto the waves. Being able to feel the salt spray against her skin and the wind whipping through her hair was incredibly therapeutic, especially after the stress of her most recent mission. The CATs had officially disbanded and it was all because of Zondra. It had been nearly a week since Director Graham split the girls up, but even thinking the woman's name set Sarah's teeth on edge. She'd trusted Zondra Rizzo as a comrade and a friend, and how was she rewarded? With a transmitter in the heel of Zondra's boot. Fingers were pointed, accusations thrown, names and insults flung…the childishness of it all made Sarah's head ache. Now, she was forced to twiddle her thumbs and await further instruction. Zondra was undergoing heavy questioning, a fact that Sarah took no small sense of satisfaction from. Amy was being put to use somewhere in Madrid and Carina…well who knew where Carina was off too. She rarely listened to orders and even if she was given a new mission soon, Sarah knew she'd be spending as much time as she could on this rare 'vacation'. Sarah, on the other hand, could hardly wait to be reassigned. She didn't do well with time alone. Time without a goal or a purpose. It felt wrong, like she was wasting her life away.
Not exactly appropriate thoughts for a beach day, she decided as she rode the last wave onto shore. Wringing the excess water from her ponytail, Sarah tucked her board underneath her arm and strode up the beach searching for a suitably sandy-and preferably secluded-spot to rest. She didn't want to be bothered today, least of all by brainless beach dudes looking to score.
She plopped down a good ten yards away from the shore, setting her board down and drawing her knees up, hugging them against her chest. The wind was picking up now, carrying a slight chill, but not enough to penetrate Sarah's wetsuit. She watched the sun sinking below the waves, making them glow orange and red and setting the clouds above on fire.
"It's really pretty this time of day."
Sarah Walker was not easily frightened. She'd been shot at, stabbed, threatened and even tortured. She was an agent for the CIA, a trained assassin. She knew how to hide fear and keep her calm in almost any situation. But no training could have prepared her for the talking head at her side looking up at her with a wistful grin. Sarah shrieked. She tried to scramble away, but lost her footing on the slick sand and landed with a thud that knocked the wind out of her
"Wait!" the talking head shouted. "Oh my god I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
Struggling to right herself and catch her breath, Sarah whirled around to face the bodiless anomaly, taken aback when she finally realized what she was seeing. The head, or man as it were, was staring at her with wide brown eyes, his goofy grin replaced by a worried frown.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Sarah asked when she'd finally regained her composure. "Is this your idea of a joke?"
"No, no, no!" the man interrupted her before she could continue, his impossibly large eyes widening even more. "I'm so sorry. My friends…er…those guys," He jerked his chin to gesture behind Sarah. "They kind of…buried me here for fun? It was just a prank. Sort of. Honestly, I'm pretty sure they just forgot about me."
"A prank?" Sarah frowned, looking over her shoulder at the group of scrawny, nerdy looking men gathered farther down the beach. "Your friends buried and left you…for fun."
"Well, we're not really friends, per say," the man continued. "Just acquaintances. Coworkers. I kind of figured it would be like a bonding exercise. But it turned out to be a bit more malicious, I suppose."
"Wait," Sarah held up her hands, still trying to figure out if this was all real or if she'd knocked her head on her surfboard and was currently having some strange unconscious dream. "You got into this hole willingly?"
The man's face was already red from the sun but Sarah swore she could see a blush rising up underneath. "Uh…Yes. Yes I did."
Sarah blinked. "Why?"
He looked away from her and pursed his lips. It looked to Sarah as if he were debating whether or not to tell her the truth. "Those two guys over there," he said finally, jerking his chin again towards a small Indian man and his larger, balding companion. "They're a little bit crazy. They started digging this hole hours ago and when I came over to see what they were up to they asked me to help them measure how deep it was….By climbing in it."
Chuck paused, gauging Sarah's reaction. She didn't bother to hide the smile growing on her face. "And then?"
"And then I got in the hole. Jeff, the big guy, seemed really excited that they'd managed to dig one nearly six feet deep. I decided not to point out that if it was six feet deep, the sand would have to be past my eyebrows." Chuck heaved a weary sigh. "Before I could climb back out, Jeff pinned my shoulders and Lester, the little guy, filled and packed the hole…with me in it."
Sarah couldn't hold in her amusement any longer. She burst out laughing. It was one thing to have found a helpless stranger buried neck deep on the beach, but quite another to realize that he'd hopped into the hole willingly. It was only when Sarah caught Chuck's slightly wounded expression that she managed to calm herself.
"I'm sorry," she said still chuckling lightly. "I'm not laughing at you. It's just…I'm not sure I've ever heard anything so ridiculous."
"It's not the most ridiculous thing that's happened to me, believe it or not," Chuck said, finally returning her smile. "Okay, let me start over. My name's Chuck. I would shake your hand but-"
Chuck trailed off, looking down at his buried body and then pursing his lips at her. His expression was so comical that Sarah couldn't help but laugh again.
"Call me Sarah. Do you want me to help dig you out?"
"That would be fantastic. I haven't been able to feel my toes for about an hour," Chuck admitted with a sheepish grin. Sarah shook her head and scoffed. Did this kind of stuff actually happen to normal people? Was it common to find a ridiculously adorable man on the beach buried neck deep in sand?
Adorable? Sarah paused to consider her choice of words. Adorable, or any sappy sort of adjective, wasn't commonly found in her vocabulary. She began pawing at the sand around Chuck's shoulders, focusing on loosening the tightly packed sand.
"I saw you surfing out there. You were amazing." Sarah smirked at the awe in Chuck's voice.
"You were watching me?" She asked, watching Chuck's eyes widen again as he realized what he'd said. Okay, so adorable had definitely been the right word.
"No! I mean, yes, I was. I was watching but not staring…Or I was staring a little, but not at you. Just in your general direction. I was just looking out at the waves and then you were there and then I watched you whenever you crossed my line of vision and-Okay. That was mean." Chuck had caught the grin breaking out on Sarah's face.
"Are you always this articulate?" she teased, pulling a large clump of sand away and accidentally flicking a large clump of it onto Chuck's cheek.
"If by articulate you mean socially stunted and awkward as hell, then yes." He finished with a cheesy grin that faded the second Sarah set her fingertips against his cheek to brush away the sand. "Um….Are you always this nice to passing strangers you find buried in the sand?"
"Don't know," Sarah shrugged. "You're my first."
Silence filled the air around them and Sarah watched Chuck from the corner of her eye. He seemed to be trying to look anywhere but at her, although it was proving to be exceedingly difficult considering how close she had to get to continue digging him out.
"So you work with those jerks?" she asked finally gesturing with her thumb towards Jeff and Lester and the rest of the Nerd Herders.
"They're not jerks. They're just a little miffed that they were passed up for the promotion to Head Nerd Herder," Chuck sighed wearily and his face took on a tired expression. "Not exactly the dream job I had in mind, but it's something."
The sudden sadness in his eyes startled her. She hadn't expected such a drastic shift in emotion from such a simple questions.
"So what is the dream job?"
"…I'm not sure I know anymore, to be honest," Chuck said and Sarah was relieved to see his smile returning. "Something that puts the dumb degree I worked my ass off for to good use."
A college guy, Sarah mused. It wasn't something she'd experienced herself. High school had given Sarah her fill of essays, social drama and pointless testing. After she was recruited by the CIA they'd given her all the education she needed, without having to suffer through frat parties or dorm life. Vaguely she realized that Chuck was still talking about college. She caught the tail end of his sentence as she came back to reality; something about software engineering.
"Impressive degree," she said. Chuck shrugged, as well as he could now that the tops of his shoulders were uncovered.
"How about you?" he asked. "Do you work around here?"
"I, uh," Sarah paused. It wasn't like her to hesitate but Chuck's friendliness had almost drawn a real answer. Oh, I'm a CIA agent, no big deal. 9 to 5. Puts bread on the table! "I do some work for the Government."
"Wow," Chuck seemed genuinely impressed. "That's cool. I always imagined government people as really old, grumpy bearded men. Not kickass ladies who go surfing in Malibu."
Sarah laughed, "Well, I'm on vacation."
A strange expression came over Chuck's face as she spoke.
"Nothing. It's nothing," he said quickly, averting his gaze. Sarah could see the corners of his mouth quirk into a smile.
"What did I say? What's so funny?" she asked, now genuinely too curious-and a little too self-conscious-to let it go.
"It's just….Well, now I'm just imagining old bearded government dudes on vacation, riding the waves in wetsuits." Chuck's explanation left Sarah speechless. It took her a moment to mull over what he had said before she burst out laughing.
"Is that seriously what crossed your mind?" Chuck nodded embarrassedly, drawing another bout of giggles from Sarah. "Wow. I can't decide if you're hilarious or just plain weird."
"Why not both?" Chuck suggested, beginning to squirm back and forth to further loosen his shoulders and upper arms. "I like to think I'm a pretty unique guy."
"Definitely," Sarah agreed without the slightest hint of cynicism in her voice. "I think it's safe to say that I've never met anyone quite like you, Chuck."
"I'll take that as a compliment," he grunted, finally freeing his left arm from underneath the sand and wriggling the rest of his body loose as well.
"Good," Sarah replied, although she was pretty sure that Chuck was too busy unearthing his lower half to hear her. In another moment he'd wriggled out of the hole, his hips and legs caked with wet sand.
"Gross," he moaned looking down at the mess. "I hate sand. And before you say anything, yes I know I'm on a beach, but I was trying to fit in okay. I will make sacrifices for the approval of my peers."
Chuck's tone made it obvious that he'd intended to make a joke, but his words hit a little too close to home for Sarah's liking. Her entire career as an agent had been spent telling lies and pretending to be someone she was not. She knew just how awful it could be to sacrifice her identity for success. Chuck wasn't even close to dealing with the sort of duplicity she'd experienced, but Sarah was sure he could relate at a very base level.
She watched him totter towards the ocean to wash his legs free of the grime. It struck her then just how very tall he was. She hadn't been able to tell when he was buried up to his neck in sand that he was taller than her. His body was lean and long, not necessary muscled, but still seemingly fit. Sarah quickly realized she was staring and she tore her eyes away before Chuck had a chance to notice.
Chuck waded out into the waves and took an enormous breath before diving headfirst into the water. He surged upward a moment later, shaking his head vigorously, and throwing dozens of water droplets from the ends of his flattened curls. He rejoined her on the beach, shivering so violently that his teeth chattered when he tried to grin at her.
"T-t-t-hanks f-f-for the help, S-s-sarah."
"Don't worry about it," she said, standing quickly and pulling him towards the parking lot above the beach where she'd parked her Porsche. "Come with me, I have a few spare towels."
Chuck stiffened when she grabbed his hand, struggling to make some sort of excuse as to why he couldn't go with her, but failing when his teeth began chattering too hard to continue speaking. Sarah led him up the beach, paying no mind to the few concerned looks thrown their way by passing strangers. Once they reached the Porsche, Sarah popped open the trunk and withdrew a large pink towel, standing on her tip toes to drape it around Chuck's broad shoulders.
"Thanks," he said in a quiet voice, pulling the ends of the towel around himself tightly.
"Pink is your color," Sarah teased trying to put him at ease as she reached to grab a towel for herself.
"That's what they tell me," he replied with a crooked grin. "Did you know that pink actually used to be a masculine color and blue was used for baby girls?"
"Whatever makes you feel better about wearing a giant pink towel, Chuck," she grinned, throwing him a look over her shoulder.
Chuck rolled his eyes and looked back out at the beach, his playful expression fading when he noticed a large white van pulling out of the parking lot and speeding down the highway. "I guess they really were planning on leaving me…."
Sarah moved to stand beside him, watching the white van disappear down the road. She didn't want to look at Chuck, or see the way his bright brown eyes must have dulled as he watched his friends abandon him. It wasn't that she pitied him. Rather, she knew the feeling of abandonment and of loneliness all too well. Out of all the many people she'd met in her years a spy, Chuck seemed the most genuine. His honesty and kindness was almost unreal. It felt even more exaggerated to Sarah, who'd spent years dealing with liars and traitors. Sarah hardly knew this man standing next to her, but she felt strongly that he didn't deserve this sort of treatment.
"Come on," she said, tugging lightly on his wrist to draw his attention. "I'll give you a ride home."
Chuck's head snapped around so fast that Sarah thought he might have injured it. "What? No, you don't have to do that. I live in Burbank, it's a long drive. I'll just call a cab or-"
"Chuck," Sarah interrupted him with the most angelic smile she could muster. He met her gaze and she could see his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed nervously. "Shut up and get in the car."
He didn't look any less nervous, but he did offer her a tiny smile. Once Sarah made sure Chuck was settled, she peeled off her wetsuit, replacing it with the thin pullover sweater she'd brought. Throwing the suit in the trunk, she dashed back to the beach to retrieve her surfboard and stowed it atop the board rack on the roof of the car. Finally, she joined Chuck, sliding into the driver's seat but not before catching the sidelong glance he gave her. He straightened when she looked over at him, eyes snapping forward, his lips forming a thin line.
It took a while for Chuck to regain his composure and after nearly ten minutes of silence he finally said, "Thank you again. For the ride. And for digging me out of the sand."
Sarah smiled. "You're welcome. Thank you for giving me some interesting stories to tell when I get back to work."
"Do you live around here?" Chuck asked, turning his attention away from the lights of the highway. "I don't want you driving all over the state of California just to take my sorry butt home."
"No, I don't live around here. But, really Chuck, it's not an issue."
"Ah," Chuck paused for a moment. "Well then you'll have to come back to Burbank sometime and I can show you around. We've got great coffee shops, strip malls, Large Marts…."
Sarah snorted, "A Large Mart tour?"
"It's more interesting than it sounds, especially with me as your tour guide." He gave her a large grin. "So if you don't live in Burbank then where do you live?"
"Right now? Nowhere. I'm staying in hotels mostly."
Chuck's thick brows were drawn low now. "You don't have a home?"
"No. I move around too much to put down roots. It's not a big deal. My employers always manage to find me accommodations," Sarah replied with a shrug.
"But you don't have an actual home? A place that's all yours?" Sarah wasn't sure why it was such a difficult concept for Chuck to grasp; he seemed truly shocked that she didn't have a permanent residence.
"No, I don't."
Finally seeming to sense that he wasn't getting anywhere with this particular topic, Chuck decided to switch tactics. "Then it's settled. You'll have to come back to Burbank when you have the time and I'll introduce you to the Awesome's. There's no one I know who appreciates the idea of a cozy home more than my sister and her fiancé."
"Are their last names really Awesome?" Sarah asked, taking her eyes off the road to glance at Chuck.
He laughed. "No, but my brother-in-law to be is quite literally the most awesome dude you'll ever meet. Captain Awesome is his nickname. My sister will soon be Mrs. Awesome."
"Captain Awesome…."Sarah mused quietly, trying to imagine what a man with that nickname must be like. "Would you really take some stranger you met on the beach home to meet your family?"
"You're not a stranger," Chuck argued, sounding genuinely appalled that she'd even suggest such a thing. "You practically saved my life today. What if I'd been stuck there until the tide came in? I could have drowned."
"I doubt you would have gone unnoticed that long," Sarah said. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
"Turning down 'Everyday Hero' status…How humble of you." Chuck pursed his lips. "Although, you do make a good point. I guess technically we're still strangers. I mean I don't even know your last name."
"Walker," Sarah said quickly, almost biting her lip afterwards. Every answer sprung forward so easily around this man. It was a little unnerving.
"Walker." A slow grin was growing on Chuck's face. "I'll be honest, I was almost expecting you to say Connor."
Sarah just shrugged, unsure of what Chuck was getting at. She looked over in time to see his mouth drop open as he gaped at her.
"You've never heard of Sarah Connor? From Terminator? She's, like, the original badass sci fi lady! Oh come on! Sarah, you've never seen Terminator?"
"I don't have a lot of free time to waste on movies."
"Waste? Waste time on movies? Oh, Sarah….This literally hurts to hear."
Sarah snorted again. "How many of these Terminator films are there?"
"Films? There are five. But there's also a television show centered around Sarah Connor. Seriously, you should check it out."
Sarah wasn't sure she wanted to watch a movie about a badass warrior woman when it was the kind of action she lived in every day. Perhaps to a normal guy like Chuck, it was an exciting prospect. But the reality of it wore Sarah down.
"So tell me something Chuck," she began, changing the subject. "If you've got such a great degree in software engineering, why are you still working at a Buy More?"
Chuck's entire body seemed to slump the moment she brought up the Buy More. He leaned back against the seat, pulling the pink towel he still wore tightly around his shoulders and toying with the frayed ends.
"It's tougher than I thought it would be to land an actual job in my field," he mumbled. "I've been to a few interviews here and there but I haven't had much luck with the actual 'getting hired' part of the process."
"So you're giving up on it?"
"No," Chuck said quickly, his brow drawn in a contemplative frown. "Not really, just taking a break, I guess."
"Uh huh," Sarah nodded, trying to keep her tone neutral. "And how long have you been taking this break?"
"A while….Five years." Chuck sounded ashamed and Sarah was quick to hide her surprise so as not to damage what pride he still had.
"Don't you think it's about time you get back into the game, Chuck? Five years is a long time to sit around waiting for life to hand you an opportunity."
"I'm not waiting around!" he said, voice rising defensively. "I'm...preparing."
"For what?" Sarah didn't give him a chance to respond before she continued. "You're never going to get where you want to be if you don't fight for it, Chuck. It's not going to be easy. But you worked hard for your degree and you deserve the payoff, don't you think? Who cares if you fail during one interview? Maybe you'll fail the next one too—"
"Are you trying to cheer me up? Because your pep talk skills might need a little work," Chuck interrupted hoping to steer the conversation away from this topic. No such luck.
"-But you have to pick yourself back up each time you fall down," Sarah continued, ignoring his interruption. "You can do it Chuck. You can land your dream job. I don't know much about you, but you seem smart and friendly and more than anything it's obvious you're tired of just getting by. Get yourself back out there as soon as you can. You have what it takes, trust me."
Sarah was almost as surprised by her little speech as Chuck was. It had been ages since she'd been able to speak so openly with someone and there was something about Chuck that she felt drawn to. A kinship of sorts. Encouraging him to chase his dreams inspired her to return to her own work, despite the CATs treachery, there was still so much she could do for the Agency if given the chance. Soft laughter from Chuck drew Sarah's attention. He was smiling at her, but not with the 100-watt grin he'd been giving her all day. This smile was much gentler, almost vulnerable.
"I'm glad I bumped into you today, Sarah." He didn't need to say more than that. This strange chance encounter had done wonders for both of them and part of Sarah wondered if there was some sort of larger force at work here. Not that she was necessarily an advocate of that sort of thing. There was no such thing as fate. Everything that she'd gotten in life, she'd worked for. Sarah Walker carved her own path. And even as she told herself all of this; it struck her how timely it was that she'd come across such a genuine human being after being so unexpectedly betrayed by her very own teammates. "Me too, Chuck. Me too."
They arrived in Burbank a short while later and Chuck directed her into a small apartment complex called Echo Park. Sarah pulled into a narrow parking space and shut off the Porsche.
"Come on," she said. "I'll walk you to the door. Wouldn't want you to fall into another sandpit so close to home."
"Oh ha ha," Chuck drawled, smiling as he climbed out of the car, leaving her pink towel in a messy ball on the seat.
Sarah's voice abandoned her as they strolled through the dimly lit apartment complex. There was a chill in the late night air, and it hit Sarah now that all she had on were her swimsuit and the thin pullover. Chuck had it worse, a pair of swim trunks being his only protection from the cold. She could see goosebumps rising on his bare chest and arms. It suddenly struck her as they walked that this was the last time she would ever see this man.
She wasn't sure if it was fate, chance, destiny or whatever the hell people called it, but something about meeting Chuck after everything that had happened recently felt momentous. After tonight, she would return to Washington to receive orders and Chuck would go back to the Buy More. Or with any luck, she thought, continue to pursue his dreams. Either way, it wasn't likely that they'd ever meet again. They led two very different lives. Sarah was used to saying goodbye. She was used to closing herself off and forgetting people she'd met. But something told her she'd remember Chuck for a long time to come. He was different than anyone she'd ever come across before. He was special.
Sarah wanted to find a way to tell him this, but the words just wouldn't come. Her chest felt tight and her hands were beginning to tremble as they approached the door to Chuck's apartment.
"Well," Chuck heaved a huge sigh and Sarah wondered if he'd been thinking the same things she had. A large part of her hoped he was. "This is my place."
He looked down at her and Sarah was once again struck by his height and the way his brown eyes seemed to hold a thousand different emotions at once. She could see it clearly in his expression that Chuck knew this was the end. He was a goof to be sure, but not a fool, and he'd felt the connection as clearly as she had.
"Thank you again, Sarah. For everything really. I think I'll also have to thank Jeff and Lester tomorrow for burying me in the sand. How else would I have met you?"
"Somewhere normal maybe?" she teased. "You mentioned a Large Mart earlier."
"Imagine a life altering meeting in the dairy aisle," Chuck laughed. "Sounds like a bad sitcom."
Silence fell over them again and Sarah knew she had to leave. The longer she stayed, the harder it was going to be. But before she could say her goodbyes, Chuck cleared his throat and said, "Look, I know you have to go but it's freezing out here. And I feel like I owe you something for saving my life today. Do you want to come in for a quick cup of tea? Or coco maybe?"
Sarah was about to say no. She should say no. If anyone else had asked her she would have said no. But Chuck was staring at her so earnestly; she could see him practically holding his breath as he waited for her response. She couldn't say no.
Chuck's eyes widened and then he blinked as if he couldn't believe what she'd just said. Regaining his composure, he dug into the pockets on his swim trunks, scooping out handfuls of damp sand as he searched for what Sarah assumed were his keys. "Okay? Okay, great! I make a mean hot chocolate. We have tea too…Or coffee, if you're an espresso kind of girl. Anything warm really."
Sarah smiled as Chuck continued to ramble. Truthfully, she'd found it a little odd at first, but now it was endearing, especially considering he only seemed to stumble when she did or said something to make him nervous. He managed to open the door without any further fumbling and made his way inside. Sarah followed close behind, nearly running right into him when he stopped short and squeaked, "Ellie? Devon? What you are guys doing home? I thought you were going out tonight."
Stepping around Chuck, Sarah found herself in the entryway of a small, neatly decorated apartment. It was certainly 'homey', as Chuck had put it. The living room was surrounded by various cozy chairs and a large, plush couch. The kitchen was decorated with tile and various knick-knacks, clearly only meant to decoration, and Sarah could still smell the remnants of what must have been a delicious home cooked meal.
"We were out Chuck. I don't know if you've noticed how late it is, I expected you to be home much earlier." Sarah deduced that the woman speaking was Chuck's sister. They had the same soft brown eyes and hair, although Ellie's hung straight and not in wild curls like her brother's. The man curled next to her on the couch reminded Sarah of a magazine model. He could only be the infamous Captain Awesome. Sarah almost laughed when she heard the deep voice with which he spoke, "How was beach day, bro?"
"Never mind the beach day. Who's this?" Ellie's eyes had targeted Sarah. Her expression was friendly, but still, Sarah squirmed under the intensity of her gaze.
"Oh, Ellie this is Sarah. Sarah, this is my sister Ellie and her fiancé Devon." Chuck gestured back and forth between the assembled group as he spoke. Ellie finally rose from the couch and reached out to shake Sarah's hand.
"Hi, good to meet you, Sarah. Make yourself at home!" Sarah searched for any insincerity in Ellie's tone, but there was none to be found. Chuck's family had no reservations about inviting a stranger in with as much familiarity as if she were family. It was disconcerting for Sarah, who was used to dealing with people who always hid an ulterior motive, but her anxieties began to vanish soon after as Ellie sat her down on of the large armchairs and set Chuck to work in the kitchen to steep tea; after he'd donned a t-shirt and shorts that weren't still covered in sand.
"So Sarah?" Ellie asked once she'd settled back on the couch with Devon. "How did you run into Chuck?"
"She literally almost stepped on my head," Chuck piped up from the kitchen, leaning over the countertop and winking amiably at Sarah. She felt her cheeks beginning to burn.
"Stepped on your head?"
While Sarah struggled to understand the unfamiliar feelings bubbling up in her chest, Chuck explained the prank Jeff and Lester had pulled, Sarah's subsequent rescue and the ride she'd given him after the Buy More guys left him behind.
"Looks like we owe you for saving the day, Sarah," Devon said after Chuck had finished his story.
"I'd hardly say digging him out of a hole counts as saving the day," Sarah mused. If only she could share some of the things she'd had to do as an agent.
"Counts in my book," Chuck said, finally joining them in the living room and handing Sarah a hot cup of tea. She smiled her thanks and ducked behind her cup, watching him from the corner of her eye as he plopped down in a nearby chair and stretched out his long legs.
"So do you live around here, Sarah?" Ellie asked over her own cup of tea. Even if Sarah hadn't been trained to read people, it was painfully obvious that Ellie was trying to deduce her feelings for Chuck and if there was a possibility for a second meeting.
"No. I'm on vacation," Sarah said, wincing as Ellie's face fell. "I work mainly out of the D.C. area."
"When do you leave?"
"Well," Ellie smiled after a brief pause, trying to regain her enthusiasm but Sarah could see she sensed a lost cause. "You'll have to visit us again sometime. It's been a long time since Chuck's brought company home."
"Okay, wow, El," Chuck drawled, a blush creeping up his neck. "Are you really doing this to me right now?"
"Oh, come on, that's not what I meant!" Ellie corrected quickly. "I just mean ever since Morgan got together with Anna and the Buy More guys started acting like jerks, you haven't had many people to talk to."
"Making it worse sis…."
"Chuck, I'm just saying-"
"It's alright," Sarah interrupted before the situation could get any worse. "I understand. I recently went through a bit of a rough patch with some close…friends…of mine. It's been nice having someone I could really talk to after I lost touch with them." She flicked her gaze towards Chuck, who smiled gratefully at her. Even Ellie looked pleased that she'd managed to right a potentially disastrous conversation.
"Sounds like you two were both in the right place at the right time today, huh?" Devon beamed, his blue eyes flipping between Chuck and Sarah like a metronome. "Maybe it was fate."
Ellie rolled her eyes and Sarah snorted, but Chuck looked down at his lap and ran his thumbs around the edge of his teacup. Ellie was quick to revive the conversation and, once the final vestiges of awkwardness had cleared, Sarah found herself feeling more relaxed and at home than she could ever recall having felt before. It was strange to feel so connected to a group of people she hardly knew, but they'd taken her in so earnestly, it was impossible not to be charmed. It struck her then just how hard it was going to be to walk out of their lives after tonight; and not just for them, but for her as well. This feeling of belonging was new and comforting….and another thing she'd have to leave behind the moment she left.
Sarah figured she'd long outstayed her welcome when the grandfather clock in the corner of the living room chimed midnight. Rising from her chair, she thanked Ellie and Devon for their hospitality and turned to Chuck. "I should get going. I've still got to pack for tomorrow."
"Right, of course," Chuck climbed to his feet and placed a gentle hand on Sarah's elbow guiding her to the door. "I'll walk you out."
Sarah hadn't expected the simple touch to affect her as much as it did. Her breath caught in her throat when Chuck's fingers brushed over the thin material of her sweater. She felt her heartbeat quicken in her chest and her mind go blank. She was too distracted to catch what Ellie and Devon said when she walked out the door and suddenly she and Chuck were standing once again in the cool night air, underneath the soft lamplight of the courtyard.
There was silence. It was thick and full of unspoken passions that were making Sarah fidget. "Look, I don't know when I'll be back in the L.A. area, but if I am I think I'll take you up on the Large Mart tour. Or coffee."
Chuck's smile was bright enough to light the courtyard without the aid of the lamps. "Sounds great. You know where I live and I….well, I know your name….So I guess the ball is in your court."
And in spite of everything inside Sarah screaming for her to turn on her heel and walk away without another word, Sarah stepped forward and cupped Chuck's face in her hands. Time seemed to slow down as she moved closer to him. Her eyes met his, deep brown, framed by long, soft lashes. Then they traveled down the long bridge of his nose to his welcoming lips; just slightly parted and trembling with each breath he took. Letting her eyes slide shut, Sarah threw caution to the wind and closed the final distance between them, touching her lips to his in a tender kiss. It was brief, barely more than a second, but to Sarah it felt like a lifetime. She could taste honey from the tea still on his lips and the softness of his curls against the tips of her fingers. Before she could lose herself to the moment further, she forced herself to pull away, taking a step back from Chuck, leaving him slightly unbalanced and confused.
"Goodbye, Chuck. Try to keep yourself out of sand traps from now on, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah." Chuck's voice was distant and his eyes looked a little glassy. "I will."
Turning on her heel, Sarah strode away from Chuck, down the sidewalk and out of Echo Park. It wasn't until she was safely back in her Porsche, speeding back down the highway that she let loose the trembling breath she'd been holding. Her throat felt tight and her eyes burned, but she took a few deep calming breaths to steady herself. It had been a long time since someone had drawn these emotions from her. As Chuck had so aptly put it, Sarah had saved him from drowning-or more realistically a very nasty sunburn-today, but more than that she realized that Chuck had given her something far more important today. Faith that there were people in this world worth saving; people with honest hearts and genuine kindness. People unlike herself and her former teammates.
She turned off the highway, heading towards her hotel in Santa Monica. Whatever came next for the both of them, she was glad they'd shared this strange day on the beach in Malibu. Thank you, Chuck, Sarah thought to herself, hoping that somehow he could feel her gratitude. Good luck.
Chuck stepped back inside and shut the door, leaning back against it as he tried to understand what had just happened in the courtyard.
"Chuck?" He didn't realize Ellie had been calling his name until the fifth time, when she nearly shouted it. He blinked at her with huge round eyes.
"You okay, bro?" Devon asked, his worried voice deeper than usual.
"Yeah. I'm good. I'm great. I'm gonna go to bed."
Devon and Ellie stared after him, but Chuck payed them no mind. He continued down the hall in silence, closing his bedroom door, flopping down onto his bed and rolling onto his back to stare at the ceiling. It was only then that he finally allowed the enormous smile he'd been holding in to spread across his face. Sarah Walker had kissed him. Sexy, mysterious, friendly, beautiful, amazing Sarah Walker had kissed him. She kissed him. The logical part of Chuck that knew it wasn't likely he would ever see Sarah again was drowned out by the rest of him, currently whooping for joy. He hadn't felt this happy in five long years. Right now it didn't matter that Morgan would spend his break time with Anna instead of Chuck. It didn't matter that Jeff and Lester would spend the day mocking him for falling into their trap and it didn't matter that he still worked at the Buy More with no future prospects for an actual career. What did matter was that he had met Sarah Walker today and she had kissed him and she'd done something to make him feel alive again. Chuck decided then, he was going to prove to her that he could do what she'd said. Whether or not they met again, he would know that Sarah had not been wrong when she told him he had what it took to achieve his dreams. Tomorrow he would walk straight into the Buy More and hand in his two weeks' notice. No more wasting time. No more wasting his potential. Chuck was finally ready to start again; and it was all thanks to a girl he'd met on the beach.
And there we have it. This is not the end friends, expect more updates to this fic soon. As always any thoughts, comments, or critiques are more than welcome and I appreciate anyone who took the time to give this a read.
To be continued...