A/N: Welcome to the improved (hopefully) and significantly expanded Chuck Versus The Plan. Chapters, of course. A prologue half as big as the original story. Five completely new chapters at the end and some serious rewrites of some of the chapters between the two.
Even though I use dates and time quite a bit in this story, I like to emphasize that this timeline is my own. I use events and references to fit my story, not always the way canon did.
I bounce back and forth time-wise. Hopefully the dates (all the same year) in the Chapters and the story line itself will help make it clear where we are in the narrative.
This takes place in a kinder, gentler world then some. Do not expect any overly graphic descriptions in any of the scenes.
As I have promised before, this story is finished, (Yeah!) and I will release a new chapter every 3-4 days. Some are fairly short, but I hope the promise of others to follow quickly will make that OK.
Thank all of you for reading and reviewing.
A BIG thanks to michaelfmx for his beta services and his thoughtful and kind suggestions.
PS I do have a totally new story in the works. Early next year, I hope.
Don't own Chuck et al. Do this just for fun. Names used aren't intended to reflect real people.
CHUCK VERSUS THE PLAN
"Beckman was right, Casey. I should have known!"
"How were you supposed to know the guy had a complete plastic surgery redo? You saw the file photo. He didn't look anything at all like he used to. Stuff happens that you just can't foresee."
"I should have recognized something about him. His mannerisms. His voice. Maybe the shape of his ears." Her volume drops a little, but her blazing anger diminishes not a whit.
"I should've noticed his walk."
"Walker, the guy had obviously worked on that too. It was only when he panicked that Bartowski picked up on it. That's why we're a team, to help each other out. No one can catch everything. You've been in this business long enough to know that. I personally think Beckman was way out of line on this one."
"Maybe. Still, I should have known." She snaps out the words, still fuming.
It's obvious that Casey's attempted mollification has done little to curb Sarah's temper and her self-recriminations.
The mission was a failure, the first they'd experienced as a team. It had hit them all hard, but it was pretty easy to see who was hit the hardest. Chuck can hear the frustration in her words. Can see it in her body language, clenched fists. He now knows for a certainty that Sarah Walker hates to lose. He had inklings of this before, but this particular incident has aptly demonstrated the accuracy of his suspicions.
It's also quite apparent that when Sarah Walker loses she gets frustrated. And when she's frustrated, she gets angry. Very angry. And one thing Chuck has learned is that when she's angry, especially to this degree, one does well to tread lightly. So this morning he'd held back and said nothing. He'd done so not only because he wanted to avoid her wrath, (although that was a large part of it) but mostly because he felt his inexperienced opinions wouldn't carry any real weight anyway.
He knows his other partner well enough to understand that Casey certainly isn't happy about the situation either, although his anger is nowhere close to those levels of incandescence that Sarah is displaying at the moment.
Failure is not in either of their vocabularies. But in Sarah's, he is fairly certain, all the synonyms have been removed as well. Or, for that matter, any other word or phrase that comes even remotely close to meaning the same thing.
Certainly, none of them had expected the mission to end the way it had. A bust, maybe, but a failure, no.
It had seemed to be a simple operation, similar to a number they'd handled quite well before. At the briefing, they'd been alerted about a certain Radek Bonk, a Czech national. As the intel flashed up on the screen, Chuck had blurted out that the name would be a great one for a Bond villain. He'd been met with stony stares from Beckman and Casey but he was almost certain he'd seen a quickly concealed smile on Sarah's face before she'd turned away.
Bonk had suddenly appeared in L.A. two days ago, triggering a few low priority alarms. While there was very little information about him, an analyst in Langley had stumbled across some intel which had indicated it was possible that he might have some sort of connection with Fulcrum. So an alert had been put out to watch for the man. When he'd shown up here, it was decided that the team would investigate and try to ascertain if the man had intel of any real value. To Chuck, it had all sounded so vague that he wondered if they were wasting their efforts on what was most likely a low-value target.
Nevertheless, they'd set up a scenario where Sarah would run into Bonk at his hotel bar, a place the man seemed to enjoy, given the number of times he'd been observed there. Thereafter she would see if she could charm him into revealing if he likely had any information they wanted. If so, they would extract Bonk and remove him to Castle where the serious interrogation would take place.
Casey would be behind the bar to watch over things. Chuck would blend in with the customers and see if he could flash on something about the man, as neither his face nor name had triggered anything. It appeared his identity had been created out of thin air sometime after Chuck had received the Intersect. They were all wired, so if Chuck came up with anything they'd all know quickly.
He's already sitting on his stool, waiting, when Bonk walks in. Unfortunately, a group of young partygoers comes in at the same moment, temporarily blocking his view of their quarry. Bonk quickly takes a small booth and now all Chuck can see is the head and shoulders of their target. The words bland and nondescript immediately come to mind. Someone you'd pass on the street and never notice. Nothing in the man's appearance brings on a flash and Chuck begins to think the whole thing is a waste of time.
A few minutes later, while still sneaking surreptitious glances the man's way, he senses that Sarah has arrived. Turning his head he sees her standing in the entrance, appearing a little indecisive as she looks around the crowded room.
As usual, the sight of her takes his breath away. Her hair is down in soft curls, his favorite style (although he likes them all). She's wearing a deep blue dress with a ruffled hem that falls to her knees, held by a single strap over her right shoulder. It isn't overly daring or flirtatious, but as always, she is absolutely gorgeous, the most beautiful woman in the room. A fact that doesn't go unnoticed by the men in the bar (and the women for that matter, judging by their envious looks.)
The only one who doesn't seem to notice her is their mark, totally absorbed as he is in his Scotch on the rocks.
The lack of available seating makes it reasonable to approach Bonk with a request to share his booth, which is exactly what she does. The man appears disconcerted, almost stunned by her presence. Chuck can easily empathize with that reaction, thinking back to the first time he'd laid eyes on her.
What he does find puzzling is how Bonk continues to be unnerved by her company, even looking quite pale as their somewhat banal conversation goes on. It seems that the man may be afraid, although, of what, Chuck has no idea. Most, if not all men, would be happy, no, ecstatic, to be in Sarah's company, at least once the initial shock of her presence had passed. But not Bonk.
It's only a few minutes later that he hears the man nervously excuse himself to use the restroom. Apparently, Bonk really has to go, for he almost breaks into a run as he passes by Chuck. As he does so, his gait changes. It's a curious one, almost as if he's waddling.
Unexpectedly, Chuck flashes.
Petr "The Penguin" Klima. Former low-level agent in the Czech UZSI (Úřad pro Zahraniční Styky a Informace) Intelligence Service. Disappeared September 23, 2007, after allegedly absconding with two hundred million Korunas belonging to the Czech Government.
Chuck speaks quietly into the mic in his watch, "Guys, I've got a name. Petr Klima. Used to work for the Czech intelligence service. Looks like our guy might just be a simple thief. Stole a bunch of money from the Czech government."
"Chuck, a couple of years ago I ran an op on a UZSI agent named Petr Klima. This guy looks nothing like him. Are you sure?" He hears Sarah's puzzlement through his earwig.
"You're right. The photo didn't match. It was his weird walk that gave him away."
Sarah's sharp intake of breath catches his attention. "What do you mean?"
"They call him the 'Penguin' because he kinda walks like one. I bet it would be really amusing to see him run in a tux because—"
He's cut off by Sarah's command. "Casey, check the restroom! He made me! He's making a run for it!"
Chuck, who from his seat can see the restroom doors, whispers into his watch, "He hasn't come out. He should still be in there."
Casey, in the middle of taking a drink order, quickly excuses himself, muttering something about a spastic colon. He hands off the customer to the other bartender and heads towards the facilities.
Less than a minute later Casey's gruff voice informs them, "Walker, he's flown. Window to the alley broken open here. I'll check if he's in sight."
"Damn! Damnit to hell! Alright, Casey. We'll check his room. Chuck, come with me."
As he glances towards the booth, he can tell, even from behind, that the woman who spoke those words is absolutely furious. Sarah stands and, after opening her small clutch purse, throws a few bills on the table. She starts to walk towards the lobby. Chuck gives her a second or two, then follows.
He catches up to her as she walks towards the front desk.
"What are you going to do?"
She stiffly replies, "We need to get into his room. Quickly. There's a small chance he might come back to get his stuff. Barring that, there may be something that'll give us an idea where he'll go."
"Sarah, the locks on these doors are electronic. Did you bring a gizmo for that?"
Frowning, she says, "No. Didn't think we'd need it. I'll have to do this the old fashioned way. Wait here."
Chuck stops where he is as she covers the last thirty feet on her own. As she approaches the solitary, mousy looking man behind the desk, he notices that Sarah subtly changes her walk. He can't be sure exactly what she does but somehow it suddenly becomes utterly captivating and he finds it impossible to tear his eyes away from her. The desk clerk appears to be having the same problem, for when he looks up from his computer and sees her approaching, his stare never wavers.
Chuck's earwig allows him to clearly hear the conversation which Sarah starts, using a mild accent. He can't exactly place it, but thinks it might be middle European.
"My miláček, my darling Radek, just went to use the restroom and accidentally took both of our room keycards with him. Today is his birthday and I'm planning to give him a special gift. I need to go ahead of him because what I bought is a little complicated to put on. If I wait for him to come out, I will not have time to get ready and my surprise will be ruined.
"Is it possible for you to give me a copy of the keycard so I can go up and prepare? The room is under the name Radek Bonk, number 924." Here she pauses for a moment, and judging by the dazed look on the clerks face, Chuck thinks she's just given him one of her glorious megawatt smiles.
The clerk sounds unsure at her request. "Well, I can't really do th—"
Sarah cuts him off as she places her hand over his on the counter, then leans in and says in a pleading tone, "Please. I would not normally ask, but I find that I always have some problems with the little straps, you know, the ones that hold up the stockings. The length of my legs makes it a little difficult, so I need a few minutes." She sounds almost apologetic about this, that it is somehow her fault that her legs are so long.
Chuck can see the clerk visibly gulp at the mental picture that she's just given him. He can't be sure but it appears the man may have just broken out into a sweat as well. He stammers, "I...I don't know...I guess it would be OK. Just this once."
"Thank you, so much. You too are a miláček, a darling. If you happen to see my Radek heading to our room, please text me so I can make sure I am ready for him." She quickly writes down a number on a notepad. "But only after he has left the area. You mustn't tell him you spoke with me. He gets very jealous when I speak with good looking men like yourself."
A few seconds later, the man gives her the key card, still looking bewildered at what has just happened. As she walks towards Chuck, he sees her smiling as she turns to wave, looking back towards the desk. The man, seemingly rooted to the spot, manages a small return wave before using his fingers to loosen his apparently tight collar.
She walks past him, heading for the elevators. He waits for a few seconds before following, making sure the desk clerk doesn't think they're together. As they wait for the car, he can see she's back in agent mode, quiet, her concern over the state of the mission obvious, her anger under rigid control.
He can tell she's blaming herself for what's occurred. Even though he doesn't know exactly what has happened here, he does know her well enough to understand how overwhelmingly competent she is, how unlikely it is that this is her fault. How many times has he witnessed her accomplishments and never had the courage to let her know just how awesome she really is? But not today. She deserves to be reminded.
When the doors open, they find they have the elevator to themselves, so he's able to speak freely. And even though he knows his timing isn't always the best, that they're in the middle of what could turn out to be a real mess, he won't let that stop him.
"You know, you're quite amazing."
His statement seems to snap her out of her distracted state. She looks at him a bit quizzically. "What do you mean?"
"How you handled the desk clerk back there. Poor guy didn't stand a chance. It's incredible how you can become this whole other person just like that." He snaps his fingers.
"Well, I'm well trained."
"I'm sure you are. But it's not only that. It's you. You're just this…force of nature."
He thinks he sees a faint blush, but it's hard to tell with the elevator's subdued lighting.
"When you put your mind to it, I don't think there's a straight man who would be able to resist you." That he includes himself in that group is left unsaid.
Nonetheless, it appears she picks up on that. After a few quiet seconds, she looks to his eyes and softly says, "I hope you know, Chuck, that I've never played you. Not since our first date, anyways."
Chuck is surprised by her sudden openness. In truth, he had, at first, wondered about that, concerned that their friendship was actually just a sham, just part of her duties. But in the last few months, he's come to appreciate how close they truly are. It's a long ways from all he hopes for, but he's not going to let that stop him from enjoying what they do have.
"Don't worry. I know that. But thank you for telling me."
She looks a little uncomfortable, perhaps fearing she's said too much. Not wanting to embarrass her any further, he changes gears. "So, you were saying you ran an op on this guy. Is it alright to ask what that was about?"
She hesitates for a moment, but then apparently deciding there's no harm in telling him, replies, "A few years ago we hoped to cultivate an informant inside the UZSI. Our investigative team believed that Bonk, rather Klima, would be a prime candidate. I played up to him at a coffee shop and let him invite me to dinner. About half an hour into the meal, I realized he was useless to us. He was just a poseur with delusions of his own importance. His access to information was no better than we could get off the internet. I was really, really annoyed with our analysts for even thinking he was worth cultivating. Just a huge waste of time."
"What do you think his problem was tonight? He can't be certain you're an agent, so he couldn't be sure you're after him. Right?"
"No, he doesn't know for sure, but he's probably suspicious. And a little paranoid. Running into me again halfway around the world has probably set off his alarm bells. It seems he remembers me from that dinner."
Chuck thinks how unlikely it is that any man could forget Sarah Walker, but asks anyway. "Why do you think that?"
She answers, "I probably traumatized him. Apparently, Klima thought that paying for a meal entitled him to certain privileges, so he started to get a little handsy at the table. Well, actually a lot more than a little. Once I'd determined he was of no use, I wasn't about to put up with that. So I dealt with him."
At this moment, the elevator stops at their floor and the door opens. The hallway is deserted, so Chuck feels there's no harm in continuing their quiet conversation as they step out and walk toward Bonk's room.
"What did you do?" he asks, looking her way.
This time, Chuck can definitely tell she's blushing. She avoids his gaze and doesn't speak for a few seconds. When she does, her voice is low, to the point he has a little trouble hearing her.
"I may have sort of threatened to emasculate him."
"What do you mean? Were you going to belittle him in front of the other patrons to take away his manhood?"
She looks at him, smirks a little. "No. Literally. With a steak knife."
"Yikes!" Chuck does wince but is able, just barely, to stop the instinctive physical reaction. He clears his throat before going on, "I can see now why the man didn't want to spend any more time with you. Probably thought you were going to recognize him somehow and carry through with your threat."
"It does appear he took me seriously."
"Trust me, Sarah. I've seen you in action often enough to know that I would take any threat very seriously."
She shrugs her shoulders. "At dinner, he did the same thing he did just now. Went to the restroom and by the time we thought to check, he'd flown."
He smirks. "Which is kind of ironic, considering that penguins are flightless birds."
This earns him a groan from Sarah. "Really, Chuck? That's the best you can come up with?"
"Well, Bonk is kinda uninspiring."
"I couldn't agree more."
As they reach room 924, Sarah stops him, her hand held palm outwards. "Wait here. Don't think there's any chance that he's in there, but I need to check."
A gun appears in her hand as if by magic, leaving Chuck wondering, not for the first time, where she manages to hide the weapons that seem to so mysteriously appear just when needed.
She knocks on the door and, in a convincing Latino accent, says, "Housekeeping. I've come to turn down your bed." There's no response from within, so after a few more seconds elapse, she slides the key card through the lock, pushes open the door and quickly enters the room, pistol held high. He catches the door before it fully closes.
It's only a couple of moments later that he hears her voice giving the all clear. He goes into the room, letting the door shut behind him. She's already going through the suitcase on the stand near the bed. He doesn't say anything, not wanting to interrupt her concentration.
A few minutes later, visibly frustrated, she moves to the dresser and checks the drawers, slamming them shut as she finishes. Then she moves to the bathroom. He hears the medicine cabinet door slam shut as well, just before she rejoins him.
"Nothing at all. Not a single clue to where he might be going. There's not a passport or any other documents that might be of use. Room safe's open, so he probably kept them on him. Might be a hidden compartment in the suitcase but I doubt it. We'll have the lab guys check everything out anyway."
He nods his head, agreeing, staying quiet so she can vent.
She's almost growling as she goes on, "And you know what the stupid thing is about all this? My gut tells me this guy has no Fulcrum connections, none at all. But now we can't chance it. We'll have to tear this room apart and spend resources to try and find him. All for nothing. Another complete waste of time!"
She stops for a moment, so Chuck decides it's safe to speak up, "Maybe Casey caught up with him?"
"No. He would have told us if he had."
Trying to be helpful, he offers a possibility. "Perhaps he's out of range for the earwigs?"
She brightens a little. "Maybe. Let's hope he did better than we did."
Just then, they both hear the man in question come online. "Walker, I'm back at the hotel. Anything on your end?"
He sees Sarah's shoulders slump. "No, Casey. Same for you?"
"Roger that. By the time I got to the street, he was nowhere in sight. A couple of taxis and buses were exiting the area and he could have been in any one of them. I checked around just in case, but didn't get a sniff."
"OK, Casey. It's safe to assume he won't be back. Put out the alert for Bonk and arrange for a cleaning crew to come to the room to pick up his stuff. Maybe there's something here that'll help. Chuck and I will wait here until they arrive."
"I won't call Beckman tonight. It's already well past midnight in D.C. Let's meet tomorrow at Castle. 0800. I'll call her then and we'll see what she has to say."
Even through the earwig, Chuck can hear the slight apprehension in Casey's voice as he agrees.
Seeing Sarah running her hands through her hair in exasperation, he's quite certain that neither of them is looking forward to their meeting with Beckman tomorrow. For that matter, neither is he.
The next morning, Chuck arrives at Castle at 7:30. He'd slept only fitfully after Sarah had dropped him off the previous evening, so felt he might as well show up early, perhaps be the first to arrive rather than his usual last in. But as he descends the stairs, he realizes he's not alone. He can hear an irregular pounding coming from the gym, so heads there to see what's going on.
Walking by Sarah's workstation, it's easy to tell that she probably got even less sleep than he did. The desktop is covered in files, ones, if he had to guess, she'd hoped would help them track down Bonk.
As he approaches the gym, the pounding sound he heard earlier becomes more rapid, louder, as if it's reaching some sort of crescendo. Opening the door he sees Sarah, dressed in exercise gear, landing a rapid series of hard jabs to the heavy bag. Then she stops and grabbing the bag to stop it from swinging, leans her head against it. Obviously, she's just finished pummelling the poor thing into submission.
He doesn't say anything right away, instead thinking, quite inappropriately, how breathtakingly attractive she is right now. He pushes those thoughts aside and is about to make himself known when, without turning, she says, "Hi, Chuck."
As he steps into the gym, he wonders, certainly not for the first time, how she does that. This time, he decides to ask, "How did you know it was me?"
She turns to face him, requiring him to push away the inappropriate thoughts once more. After pulling off her gloves and brushing away some of the hair escaping from her messy ponytail, she replies, her voice flat and hard, "Heard the door open. Knew it could only be you or Casey. Casey would've said something, not just looked at me. You do know it's a little rude to stare?"
"I didn't mean to—"
"I'm not certain that's good enough, Chuck. You could have told me you were there. Better yet, you could've knocked before opening the door."
Cutting him off again, she continues, "What if I'd been wearing the exercise outfit I prefer when I'm alone? Or at least, when I think I am. It's quite minimal, but it gives me the freedom of movement I need for some of my exercises."
He gulps. "You mean less than you have on now?"
She's firm. "Yes. How would you have felt then?"
Part of him, he knows, would've have been jumping for joy, but he also knows how embarrassed he would've been if he'd intruded on her in such a state.
Looking at the floor, he quietly says, "You know, I really am sorry, Sarah. I'll try to be more respectful next time. I really will."
Her gentle laughter catches him by surprise. He jerks his head up to see her grinning at him.
What the hell?
"Chuck, do you actually think that I could possibly have an outfit any smaller than what I'm wearing right now? Might as well wear nothing at all if that was the case."
That image he pushes out of his mind very quickly.
He shakes his head, wondering why she's kidding around with him. Not that he minds, of course. It's not side of her he's seen very often but he likes it. A lot.
"You really had me going there."
She's still grinning. "Yep, I did."
He grins back. "You know, I truly am sorry about the staring thing."
"It's OK. I imagine I'm quite a sight, all sweaty and gross."
"Yes, you do look kinda hot." Curse that mouth of his! He just manages to avoid clapping his hand over it. Couldn't he have said something other than that? Like maybe "I can see you've been working out?" Nope, almost as bad.
"What I meant was that exercise will do that to you. Of course, how would I know? Mr. Couch Potato here." He stops himself again.
"What I really meant to say is that you look alright. You're not too gross."
There's a look of mild amusement as she waits for him to wind down.
"I'll stop talking now if that's alright with you."
She smiles, nodding her agreement. "I think that might be a good idea."
Just then, there's a chime from her watch. Looking at it, her expression changes. There's no amusement in her voice as she says, "Beckman is expecting us at 0800. I'll grab a shower, change and meet you in the briefing room."
"Sarah, I hope she'll be understanding about what happened last night." It's as close as he'll venture to say it wasn't the team's fault, and especially not her fault.
"Would be nice, but somehow I doubt it."
And, as usual, Sarah was right.
"…I personally think Beckman was out of line on this one."
"Maybe. Still, I should have known." She snaps out the words, still fuming. Abruptly she rises from her chair. "I'm going to check Klima's files again, see if I can somehow get a handle on him. Maybe figure out what he'll do now that he's on the run." Without another word, she leaves the briefing room and heads over to the workstation area.
Chuck's eyes follow her as she walks away. When she's safely out of earshot, he blurts out, "Wow! I'm not sure I've seen her quite this intense before."
Instead of the expected grunt or a terse "Deal with it, moron" (or some such), there's only silence from his partner. Chuck turns and sees Casey contemplatively looking in the direction she'd gone.
"I heard through the grapevine about a mission she led in Panama a few years ago. They were after some low-life arms dealer. It blew up in their faces and the guy went to ground. Wasn't her fault, but she wouldn't let it go then either." It appears that the big man is in, what is at least for him, an expansive mood.
Chuck just nods, afraid his words might break into Casey's train of thought. And he really wants to hear this story.
"She hardly slept, barely ate for three days. She was relentless. Drove the Chief of Station crazy. Requested all sorts of files from the records at Langley. In the end, she somehow managed to connect some scattered bits of intel. Saw a pattern no one else recognized. Went solo for twelve hours and tracked the guy down. Dragged him into Station, kicking and screaming. Literally. He apparently said he'd rather be sent away for life then spend another second near 'la perra rubia loca'."
Chuck furrows his brow as he tries to recall his high school Spanish. Loca, loco is pretty easy. Rubia, he thinks means light-haired, blonde. Perra? What was perra? Female dog? That's it! Why would he call her-
Then it clicks and he blushes a little. He can only imagine what she must have done to earn such an epithet.
"In any case, the whole incident eventually leaked out and Walker became the local version of the bogeyman, as in, if you do something wrong 'la perra rubia loca' will get you. Apparently, that had a noticeable effect on the crime rate for quite a while."
Chuck is completely unsurprised by that. What does surprise him is Casey being so open about stuff he would normally never discuss.
"Why are you telling me this, Casey?"
"Because, while that guy in Panama probably deserved her efforts, Bonk, Klima, whatever we're calling him, certainly does not. He's just a scummy little thief who isn't worth her time or energy. She needs to put it behind her. Move on. But she won't listen to me right now."
"I noticed. What do you think we should do?"
"Not us. You."
"Me?! What can I do?"
"She listens to you, considers your view on things."
He's astonished by Casey's words. "Why would you ever think that? She's never given me any indication she feels that way. Wait. Did she say something?"
"No. In case you haven't noticed, Walker's not the most talkative person."
Chuck, while thinking this is an excellent example of the pot and kettle thing, doesn't comment, just replies, "Trust me. I've noticed. So, assuming you're right, what have I missed?"
"Well, if you weren't so busy making goo-goo eyes at her all the time, you might have noticed how often she goes along with your moronic ideas. How many times she's defended your idiotic actions to Beckman. That she's willing to do things with minimal physical violence, if possible, just so she won't hurt your pantywaist feelings."
There's the Casey he's used to. Three sentences. Three insults. Four if he counts the goo-goo eyes. Those thoughts, however, are quickly pushed aside when he realizes just what Casey is saying.
Sarah Walker actually believes he and his ideas are of value to the team? It's a novel concept, one he's never truly considered before, especially when he remembers how many times she's chewed him out over one thing or another.
That thought impels him to further disagree. "I'm not sure you're right on this Casey. It seems to me that there are lots of times she rags on me for the stuff I do, like leaving the car to help you guys."
Casey gives him a strange look, almost, it seems to Chuck, like one of pity. "I see you still haven't figured that one out, Bartowski. One day you will, unless, of course, you're more of a moron than I think you are. Though, I doubt that's possible." He almost growls the last few words.
Chuck is puzzled by the man's response, but upon hearing the growing irritation in Casey's voice, decides to drop it for now.
"OK, Casey. What do you think I should do?"
"Well, you'll need to figure that one out. Whatever it is, it'll have to be a hell of a lot more than you did in the briefing room. Why didn't you back me up, try to help her understand it wasn't her fault?"
Chuck, surprised by his sudden vehemence, stumbles a bit over his next words. "I-I thought she wouldn't listen to me. I don't have any real experience, nothing like you two guys. She was really angry and would've just shot me down."
"And what's wrong with that? If you want to reach a woman like Walker, you can't be afraid to step up to the plate. Sure, you'll get knocked down a few times by the high hard ones, but you'll gain her respect if you pick yourself up, brush off the dirt and take up your stance again."
Mouth agape, Chuck just stares at the big man. A baseball metaphor about what, exactly? How to get closer to the volatile and puzzling Sarah Walker? How to become more than just a friend? He reins himself in. He's fairly certain he's misreading the meaning behind Casey's words, that all the man is referring to is the situation at hand.
He wills himself to concentrate on the reality, not some unrealistic daydream, so he mulls things over for a few seconds. "So, Casey, I need to make her listen to me, help her to see it's not her fault. Maybe getting her out of Castle would be a good idea. Get her mind on something else, maybe. Yeah, that sounds good." He says these last words to himself, concentrating on his plans and almost forgetting the man sitting across from him. So he's a little surprised by Casey's next words.
"Does sound good. But none of that macho crap, like you're telling her what to do. Persuade her. She'll respond better that way."
He's again surprised by Casey, being all sensitive and such. For a moment, he's tempted to tease him but decides against it. If he does, it's unlikely the man will ever be so open again. And even though it's been a disconcerting experience in many ways, it's also been fascinating. Besides, he doesn't feel like getting shot right now.
Standing, he says, "OK, Casey, I'm off to beard the lioness in her den. Tell mother I died game."
"Don't know your mother, moron."
Chuck says nothing, just smiles as he walks away. A smile, however, that quickly dies when the thought that facing an actual lioness might be less dangerous than what he's about to do.
Sarah, though deeply absorbed in the files (both physical and electronic) before her, is nonetheless well aware that she's being approached from behind. It's easy to tell by the pattern of his steps that it's Chuck.
She's quite certain the two of them have been talking about her, about her reaction to this whole mess.
Beckman had, in fact, been less harsh than she had anticipated. The General, although pointing out more than once that Sarah should have recognized the man, had, in the end, grudgingly accepted that losing Bonk would likely have no lasting repercussions. Beckman had then decided that the mission was to be considered as a write-off, something to be put behind them.
But not for Sarah. No, it's personal now.
Sarah Walker simply hates to lose. She honestly doesn't care if the mission was one of major or minor consequence, whether it's officially over or not. She's going to make the time to track this man down.
Sarah knows she's always been goal driven. Recognize the objective. Make the plan. Execute the plan, trusting in her own intelligence and abilities to carry her through.
She's also well aware of the reputation she's earned; that if you're partnered with her and you screwed up or got in her way or slowed her down, you'd better ask God for mercy because you certainly weren't going to get it from Agent Walker
She's always hated even the thought of any sort of setback being attached to her record, her reputation as one of the CIA's best. So she'd gone to extraordinary (many would say well beyond needed) measures to clear herself, to remove even the slightest whiff of any failure connected to Sarah Walker.
The footsteps from behind her stop.
She doesn't turn, just replies, "Yes, Chuck?"
"I'd like to apologize to you."
She's caught by surprise. There's no need for him to apologize. He'd carried out his part of the mission perfectly well last night. Much better than her, in fact.
She swivels her chair around the face him, and in a puzzled tone of voice asks him, "For what?"
"Last night, I may have given you the impression that I only thought you were amazing for how you handled the desk clerk. The truth is that you're the most incredible person I know. Period.
"But, Sarah, no one's perfect. So I would like to apologize for not standing up for you after the briefing. I let you down."
"What do you mean?"
He takes a deep breath. "I should have said that what happened last night wasn't your fault. No one, not even you, could have realistically anticipated the kind of situation you found yourself in."
Sarah detects something in his body language, hears it in his tone of voice. Defiance? No, that's too strong a word. Determination. That's it. He's determined to say his piece.
"You were wrong to think you could have done so." He pauses and takes another breath. "You're overreacting and being much too hard on yourself. Beating yourself up over this is a waste of your time and energy. You need to let it go."
He's never been this direct, this firm with her. To her surprise, Sarah finds she kinda likes it.
She looks at him closely, can clearly see that he's apprehensive as he waits for her reply. But she can also see the courage in his bearing. The willingness to bear the brunt of her wrath, if needed, to get his point across.
It's clear he cares for her, genuinely wants her to stop punishing herself for what she perceives as her failings. And in the face of this sincerity, this boldness, her recent stubbornness abruptly fades.
She's always been willing to acknowledge the team's successes happened because they are just that, a team. Then why is she so determined to put on all the blame on herself for this failure?
Was it really reasonable to expect that she should have recognized the man? Maybe not.
Is capturing Bonk really all that important? Probably not.
Is it realistic to think she can be flawless? No.
And then it hits her.
Something has happened to her since she arrived in Burbank, something she hasn't fully understood until this very moment. The satisfaction she gains from being around genuine people who genuinely care for her, the sense of camaraderie amongst the team, the feeling of belonging somewhere, all of these have somehow insinuated themselves into her life.
She's not sure how or when it happened. But it has, and it's changed her.
She's not the same Sarah who walked into the Buy More that day. That Sarah Walker would never have even entertained any of those questions she'd asked herself a few moments ago, let alone answered them in the negative. That Sarah Walker would've slapped down any asset who'd dared to speak to her like Chuck had just done.
And because she's no longer that Sarah, she can admit to herself that Chuck is right. Casey, too, for that matter. She did overreact. She did take on too much of the blame, as she has always done when a mission went south.
He's still standing there, waiting for her to reply. Probably seems like an eternity to him.
Well, if he was expecting her to be angry with him, he's about to be surprised.
"You're right, Chuck. I do need to let this go. Thank you for helping me see that."
He appears to be taken aback, but it's only for a moment, for he grins and says, "You're welcome. We're friends and that's what friends do, help each other through the rough patches. You've done it often enough for me, so it was about time I returned the favor.
"And as a friend, I suggest that we get out of this place for a while. It's a beautiful day in sunny LA and we're both off. I think we deserve a break. Take our minds off the whole cloak and dagger stuff for a while. I've been told that spending time with me can be quite enjoyable. So whaddya say, Miss Walker, ready to have a day of fun in the sun with Chuck Bartowski?"
What she should say is no. Inform him that it's in excess of what is needed to sustain their cover. Tell him there are more important things for her to do.
And even a few weeks ago she would've done just that.
But not today. She feels…reckless. When was the last time she had some actual fun? Besides, how can she say no to those adorable (where did that word come from?) pleading puppy dog eyes.
Quickly swiveling her chair, she turns back to the computer. She logs out and closes the files on her desk.
She stands and, turning to face him, says, "OK, Mr. Bartowski. What do you have in mind?"
Sarah's quite certain that if they weren't buried in the depths of Castle, his surprised grin would've been visible from outer space.
For that matter, so would hers.
Closing the Porsche's door, she turns to him and says, her voice betraying her disappointment, "The pier, Chuck? This is your idea for a day of fun?"
Even as she says the words, Sarah realizes how unkind they sound. He briefly winces, but, in keeping with his new-found boldness, doesn't let her disapproval get him down.
Instead, he grins. "Hey, don't knock it until you try it. I've come here many a time in a rotten mood and left feeling much better. I'm pretty sure we'll find something that'll make you feel better as well."
Folding her arms in front of her, she asks, disbelievingly, "Such as?"
"Come with me and I'll show you."
It's on the tip of her tongue to say no, to tell him to drop the whole idea and return to Castle. But then she imagines how even this courageous version of Chuck would try so hard, unsuccessfully, to disguise his hurt feelings and tell her it's OK that she changed her mind.
Well, I did say yes. And really, how bad could it be?
She finds out when he leads her to the entrance of one of the businesses.
"Chuck, I'm not going in there. I'm really not in the mood to have a bunch of teenage boys staring at me."
"Sarah, it's early and it's a school day, so I think you'll be spared most of that." He grins. "However, you do have this tendency to attract attention no matter where you go, so I can't guarantee there won't be any inappropriate staring going on."
"From you or the other guys in there?" She asks, smirking at him.
He holds his hand over his heart. "You wound me, Sarah. We've spent so much time together that I'm well past the staring stage. Nowadays, I hardly even notice that you're around."
"Sure. Like you didn't notice me walking towards the front desk last night."
He's a little puzzled. "How?"
"Mirrors on the columns in the lobby."
"Well, Miss Walker, I'll have you know that it wasn't what it appeared to be. I was simply keeping an eye on you for safety's sake. Just making sure I had your back. You know, like any good partner would."
She snorts. "And this morning? What partner duties were you carrying out then?"
"Thought I might learn something from your excellent technique."
"Chuck, I'd pretty much finished by the time you opened the door.
"Sarah, Sarah. It's not the quantity that counts, it's the quality."
She can't help but smile at him. "Well, Mr. Bartowski, you seem to have an answer for everything. I guess that earns you the opportunity to try and distract me."
He smiles back at her.
"But," his face falls a bit, "I'm not playing any games that involve aliens, robots, fairytale princesses or magic spells. Am I clear on that?"
His smile comes back full force. "Not a problem. There are games that will be a little more up your alley, so to speak."
Holding the plastic weapon in her hands, she skeptically says, "Chuck, this isn't anything like a real AK-47. It's much too light for one thing. And you won't be fighting any recoil that affects your aim. Not very realistic at all."
He grins. "Just give it a shot, Sarah." She bites off a groan at his bad pun.
"On the screen there's going to be a steady stream of ducks to shoot down, coming from all directions, so you have to watch for the unexpected ones."
"Will I have to reload?"
"No. You'll have an infinite number of rounds."
She huffs. "Like I said, not very realistic. Besides, no one uses an assault rifle to shoot ducks."
"It's not a simulator. It's just for fun. The game will keep track of our scores. Sarah, I know you haven't played many video games, so I'll take it easy on you to begin. Then we'll see how it goes. OK?"
She grumbles, "OK."
Sliding the faux-rifle back into its cradle, she says, grinning, "You're right, Chuck. That was a lot of fun."
At his somewhat unenthusiastic reply, she turns to him. "What? Did I do something wrong?"
"Do you realize that you had a 99.5% hit rate on that last round?"
She replies with just a tiny bit of sarcasm. "Thanks for drawing that to my attention, Chuck. I was already annoyed enough for missing that one."
He gapes at her, realizing how his words had been interpreted. "No. No. Sarah, I wasn't being critical. That score was fantastic. No one has ever done it before, at least on this particular console. Look at the leader scoreboard."
Sarah looks at the list and sees the initials SW at the top of it, right beside the 99.5%. Just below her score she notices the initials CIB at 93.5%. It suddenly dawns on her.
"CIB. Is that you, Chuck?"
"Yeah. Had to invest a lot of hours to reach that score and you beat it in," he looks at his watch, "about thirty-seven minutes. And you did it on single shot, not full auto mode."
"It was getting a little too easy using multiple rounds." Seeing his crestfallen expression, she hastily adds, "That's only because I'm a quick study and you're a good teacher. Thanks for taking it easy on me." She gives his arm a little squeeze.
That seems to perk him up a little, and he chuckles. "Yeah, we'll pretend that's what happened. OK, Miss-I'm-no-good-at-video-games, you choose the next game.
Sarah looks around, somewhat overwhelmed by the cacophony of the different game sounds and all the blinking, flashing lights. Then something catches her eye in the far corner.
She points. "There. That one."
He follows her gesture. Shaking his head again, all he says is, "Figures."
Their cars temporarily stopped, he watches intently as she demonstrates. "Chuck, you need to turn the wheel like this," she shows him, "and use the handbrake if you want to drift through the corner. That way you're perfectly set up for the straightaway."
Chuck turns back to his screen and accelerates towards the next corner, then mimics her actions. "Like this?"
"Good, Chuck! That was much better. You're getting the hang of it now."
A minute or so later, he crosses the finish line. Turning to her with a big grin, he says, "That was much better. I only finished one lap behind you this time."
She looks at him and smiles. He seems perfectly happy with that, uncaring that he lost again. Both games had followed the same pattern. He would win until she caught on and then rapidly surpass him. Obviously, her real world skills had helped her out. If the games had been on other themes, she knows she wouldn't have done nearly so well. Chuck must have known that too, consenting as he did to play the ones where he knew she would already have some of the requisite skills. She's sure he did so just to make her feel better.
"You want to go one more time?"
"Sounds great! But I'm warning you that you'll be pushed a bit more this time."
"Bring it on, buster."
A little while later, Sarah again crosses the finish line first, but this time Chuck is only a few seconds behind her.
He whoops as he pumps his fist. "Yes! My best time ever!"
Sarah grins back, happy to see she seemingly hasn't damaged his male ego too much. It's a refreshing change from those times she'd outscored Bryce on the range or won their sparring matches in the dojo. The man had moped so badly that she started to make it her practice to let him win more often, just so she wouldn't have to put up with his bellyaching. With Chuck, however there's none of that ridiculous posturing that Bryce so often displayed. She had actually eased up a bit in the last race, (although her competitive spirit had prevented her from actually letting him win) not because she'd thought he'd act like Bryce, but rather just to repay his earlier thoughtfulness.
As they clamber out of the racing seats, he asks, "So, is this what it's like to drive your 911?"
She laughs. "No, Chuck. It's not bad, but the real experience is quite different. Here there's no real feel for the road, no g-forces when you turn, no wind in your hair when the roof is open. Still, this is a lot of fun."
"Well, thanks for teaching me. It seems the student has surpassed the master." He makes a little bow.
She grins and, holding her hands clasped in front of her, returns his bow.
"So, what's next, Chuck? Your turn to pick."
"Let's take a look around, shall we."
They stroll together up and down the aisles, checking the various games. Chuck stops in front of a game which appears to involve robots fending off an alien invasion. He looks her way, tries the pleading eyes thing. She's not falling for that again.
She laughs. "Uh-uh, mister. That violates two of the stipulations we agreed on. Move along." She gives him a little shove.
They round a corner, suddenly coming upon two young girls standing on a platform, using a support behind them as they move their feet in time to the blaring music and the lights flashing on the floor below them.
Sarah's eyes light up. "Oooh! What's that one?"
"That, Sarah, is Dance Dance Revolution. And there's no way I making it my choice."
"You've seen me dance, right? And I've seen you dance. I'd like to try something where I don't look like a complete klutz alongside you."
"Pleeeease?" This time she tries the puppy dog eyes. And with considerably more success than Chuck enjoyed.
He grumbles good-naturedly, "Oh, alright. I doubt anyone will be looking at me anyway."
The two girls finish as they speak, so Chuck and Sarah step up on the platform.
"OK. So you have to move your feet to the beat and the pattern of lighted arrows on the floor." He points to the screen in from of them. "That's your Dance Gauge. That starts half full. Make really good steps, like I'm sure you will, it goes up. Really bad ones, like I'll likely do, it goes down. Keep it from going empty and you keep playing. Alright?"
She nods. "Yeah, I got it. How does the scoring work?"
"Don't worry about it. It's complicated and nobody really understands it. Just dance the best you can. Ready?"
There's an air of determination in her voice as she answers, "Ready."
Chuck almost manages two songs, his Gauge emptying just before the second one finishes. Her Gauge, on the other hand, had not only never dipped below its starting point, but only kept going up. He looks to her score, totally unsurprised by where she ranked. Eleventh best on her first dance. Seventh on her second.
Sarah turns to face him, a huge smile on her face. The only evidence she just engaged in some serious exercise is a slight rosiness in her cheeks, the color accentuating her eyes. She's absolutely stunning and Chuck has to work hard to avoid invalidating his earlier assertion about the staring thing.
"Chuck, I really love this game! Can you set it for a more difficult dance?" Her almost childlike eagerness surprises him. It's like she's a different person. A real person.
He returns her smile. "Sure, Sarah, but I'm going to have to sit this one out. I'm a little thirsty. I'll grab a drink and be right back. OK?"
"Promise. Not going far. You know, if you want a little more difficulty you can use both sides of the dance stage."
"You can? Can you set that up for me?" she says, eagerly.
"Sure. I'll also set it for three consecutive songs. Do you think you can handle that?" He doesn't tell her that the added benefit is some recovery time for him.
Sarah looks a little uncertain for a moment, but then firmly replies, "Yeah, that sounds like fun."
He inputs the necessary commands and then tells her, "Back in a minute."
She just nods, concentrating on the game's countdown. Chuck walks quickly to the snack area. Unfortunately, there's a bit of a line and it's more like five minutes before he returns. As he walks back, he senses a bit of a buzz in the air. A couple of young teenage boys (obviously playing hooky) slide by him and he overhears their conversation.
"I heard there's a smoking hot blonde killing it on DDR. Let's check it out."
"OK, but be cool. Don't want her to think that we're a just a couple of kids. Maybe we can talk to her after."
His friend replies, "Yeah, sounds good."
Chuck smiles, their words bringing back a memory of those many days he'd spent in the arcade. Donna McCulloch was her name, and she was great at PacMan.
Come to think of it, she was blonde with blue eyes too.
He comes around the corner and sees things have dramatically changed in his brief absence. Although the arcade is sparsely populated this particular day, a considerable crowd has gathered around the DDR machine, fifteen to twenty he'd guess. All, except for a couple, unsurprisingly belonging to the male of the species.
It's easy to understand why. Sarah attracts attention just by being Sarah, something Chuck had learned very early in their odd relationship. During their fake dates, he'd always been aware how the men in their vicinity would be stealing glances at her, if not staring outright. (He'd also been aware of how those same men were sizing him up, almost certainly wondering how someone like her could possibly be with someone like him.)
So seeing Sarah doing what she was doing now would be bound to gain the undivided attention of any male in the area. The current song has a frenetic techno-beat but she has no trouble keeping up, her long legs allowing her to easily reach both sides of the platform, her feet moving so quickly as to almost be a blur. On the screen flows an almost continuous series of Perfect!'s.
There are a few phone cameras out, recording the action but the light is poor and Sarah's face can't be seen from their position, so he feels there is no danger of her identity being compromised. Later could be an issue, but he's got an idea for that.
First off all, though, he wants a little clip of this for himself. Taking out his phone and juggling his soda, he shoots for thirty seconds or so, happening to catch a particularly difficult section of the song. Not for the first time, her graceful athleticism astounds him, making him realize once again just how far out of his league she is.
But even as the thought enters his mind, he knows that's his own hang up. She's never deliberately said or done anything to make him feel inferior. Instead, she's gone out of her way to encourage him and bolster his confidence. He grins. That is, of course, when she's not busy chewing him out for another stupid risk he'd taken.
Wait. Casey was right, I am a moron. Why didn't I see this earlier?
He remembers how angry Ellie was with him for thinking that a cape would miraculously enable a ten year-old boy to fly. The chewing out he'd received as she cared for his cuts and bruises seemed harsh. It had taken him quite a while (and a few more similar incidents) before he finally figured out why she'd acted that way.
It appears he's been equally dense with Sarah. He's suffused with a sudden warmth at the possibility that she might care for him more than she's let on. He stows away the idea for now. Maybe he'll save it for the next time he feels down about this unorthodox relationship he finds himself in.
The last song is coming to a close, so, after tossing his drink cup into the trash, he works his way through the crowd. Just as he reaches the platform, the music stops and her score flashes up. As he'd expected, her initials occupy the top spot, and the crowd behind them bursts into applause.
He can tell this catches her by surprise. But before she can turn to see what's going on, he reaches down, picks up her purse and hands it to her. Quickly, he says, "Please put on your sunglasses."
She appears puzzled by the request, but, after a second of hesitation, does as he asks.
Then she turns, and sees the gathered crowd. From the side, Chuck can see her eyes widen as she takes in what's been going on around her.
Chuck realizes that this is the first time he's ever seen Sarah in a situation where she'd been even marginally unaware of her surroundings. He suspects that she'll likely take herself to task over it at some point. From his point of view, though, he's selfishly glad that he got this rare glimpse of the real girl.
As the applause continues, (combined with a few catcalls and cheers) he can see that she's a little embarrassed. She gives a little wave as she steps down. As much of the crowd starts to reluctantly disperse, Chuck see the two boys from earlier, along with a number of others, make their approach. All of them are obviously eager to make Sarah's acquaintance.
"I think it's time to get out of here, Sarah."
"Yes, I think you're right. Enough games for today."
They rapidly walk, almost run, through the exit doors, bursting out into the sunshine. Chuck is temporarily blinded by the noonday sun, so stops to slip on his sunglasses. As he does, Sarah looks behind them, sees they're still being closely followed by a couple of persistent individuals.
Grinning, she shouts, "Run, Chuck, run!" Grabbing his hand, she drags him along as they dash down the pier, both laughing as they dodge the clumps of other patrons. Very quickly, his long legs and her superior conditioning enable the two of them to outdistance her fans. After they duck into a small passageway between two stores, she peeks around the corner, looking back the way they came.
Turning to him, she grins. "I think we lost them, Chuck."
He grins back. "You know, Sarah, all those guys wanted to do was to say hello. It's not very often that they get the chance to actually speak with a woman like you. Or given that chance, can even muster up the courage to do so."
She looks at him thoughtfully for a few moments, then gently asks, "What was her name, Chuck?"
He's caught off guard by her perceptiveness. He's not sure he feels comfortable in telling her the whole embarrassing story, but as he returns Sarah's gaze, her empathetic expression tips the balance.
"Donna McCulloch. Went through high school with her. Well, not with her, but we were in a lot of classes together."
"You liked her?"
"Yeah, I did."
"What was she like?"
He hesitates before replying. "Tall, blond, blue eyes. I thought she was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen."
He sees something flicker in Sarah's eyes, but her expression doesn't change. She doesn't say anything, just nods to show she's following.
"She was a cheerleader, the kind of girl the captain of the football team winds up dating."
"Did she what?"
"Date the captain of the football team?"
"Huh! You know, I really have no idea. I didn't really travel in those circles. I just assumed she would."
She stares into the distance for a moment, pensively says, "You know, Chuck, assumptions can be crippling. So often they stop us from actually seeing what we could have. What's right in front of us."
He looks at her closely, wondering what's behind this seemingly personal admission. He waits, but she doesn't elaborate, so feels the need to fill the silence.
"In all the years I knew her, all the times we saw each other in and outside school, I never even said hello."
She raises an eyebrow. "Not even once?"
"Nope. And you want to hear the stupid part? She used to spend time in the arcade we were just in. She was actually quite a good gamer. I'd watch but never had the guts to just walk up and talk to her. Sad, isn't it?"
Sarah nods. "Yes, Chuck, it is."
"Looking back, I often wish I could have been a different guy, even for just a minute. Someone self-confident enough to just go up and say hello, not one afraid of being rejected. Maybe we could have been friends if nothing else."
Sarah places her hand on his shoulder, gives it a little squeeze. "All you had to be was be yourself, Chuck. Any girl, including Donna, who got to know you and passed up the opportunity to spend more time with you would have been a fool."
Warmed, but at the same time a little embarrassed by her compliment, he covers it by joking. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sarah. Where were you when I needed you back then? Let me guess. You were in high school beating the boys off with a stick, right?"
She doesn't reply, just smiles, but he notices it doesn't reach her eyes. There's a story there, but Chuck is gradually learning not to push. She deserves her privacy, not some insecure nerd badgering her day and night.
Of course, that doesn't mean he'll turn down anything she or others are willing to offer.
"Still, I wish I could've been at least a little bit like you were last night."
She looks a little relieved that he doesn't pursue the topic. "In what way?"
"You know, being able to put on that whole different personality at the drop of a hat. How did you do that? Did you have 'Seductive Middle-European Woman #3' all mapped out and memorized beforehand?"
Laughing, she replies, "No, Chuck. Like I said, we're trained at The Farm, but it was primarily in the aspect of improvisation."
"Well, you're great at it. Not exactly in my wheelhouse, though."
"I wouldn't say that. You've done pretty well on a couple missions."
"If I did, it was only because you guys prepped me so well. Improvising's a different matter."
"You're better than you think, Chuck. In fact, I believe you're a bit of a natural."
"Thank you for that. Coming from someone like you, it means a lot."
He glances at his watch. "You hungry?"
"OK. There's a good place at the end of the pier."
Sarah can feel Chuck's eyes on her as she pops the last bit of the burger into her mouth and pushes her empty plate away. Grabbing a napkin, she catches his bemused expression from across their small table. It appears he's just finished the first half of his burger and has seemingly forgot about the remainder on his plate, engrossed, as he is, with staring at her. He doesn't say anything, so, after a few seconds, she asks, "What?"
"Sarah, I had no idea you had such a powerful affinity for cheeseburgers. And extra pickles. Aside from the occasional slice of pizza, I kinda thought you always ate healthy."
She smirks. "You got me. A little weakness of mine. Promise not to tell?"
"Cross my heart." He nods.
He stops to take sip of his drink. "I'm curious, though."
"Where do you put it? You couldn't weigh much more than—"
"Careful, Chuck." There's just the slightest note of menace in her voice.
He visibly gulps, then starts again. "You don't weigh very much at all. So how come you don't weigh a lot more than not much?"
She grins. "You know that part of Castle where you found me this morning? The part that might as well be terra incognita as far as you're concerned?"
He nods reluctantly, seems to be sensing where this is going.
"One day, if you like, I'll show you around. Help you see what it takes to burn off a cheeseburger."
"Not sure I'm ready for that. However, I might be persuaded if you could see fit to be my personal trainer."
"We'll see, Chuck. We'll see. In the meantime, are you going to finish the other half of your burger?"
He just shakes his head, pushes the plate her way.
As hard as she tries, she's unable to hold in the laughter bubbling up within her.
"Chuck, stop. That man is not The Flash's alter ego! He's gotta be in his eighties!"
They're sitting on a bench, soaking up the afternoon sun and watching the people walking by.
"First of all, kudos for knowing who The Flash is. Our TV date nights have obviously not been in vain. But, I will have you know that The Flash has been around since the Fifties. At least, the Barry Allen version has been. And that was the name on the man's driver's license, the one I couldn't help but see when I returned his dropped wallet to him. He fits the bill perfectly. A retired superhero enjoying his golden years."
"But, Chuck, the poor man uses a cane and walks so slowly. Surely, The Flash wouldn't move like that."
"Sarah, I have to say that I find your naiveté quite surprising. Surely, a woman such as yourself must understand that this is the perfect cover. No arch-villain would ever suspect that he is the fastest man alive. Thus, he needn't worry about his vengeful foes, or more likely, their grandchildren, tracking him down and launching a dastardly assault."
She arches an eyebrow. "Dastardly assault? Does anyone outside of comic books actually talk like that?"
"I'll have you know that the correct term is graphic novel. And yes, I have heard someone use those exact words."
"I'm not at liberty to say."
"So, in other words, yes, it was Morgan."
"I can neither confirm nor deny your statement."
"So, it was Morgan."
He says nothing further.
She chuckles. "OK. Let's assume that this Barry Allen is, in fact, The Flash, now retired. Why do you think he's here? Is it to meet with Captain America over there?" She gestures towards a muscular, blonde-haired man, leaning against the railing of the pier.
The look of horrified disbelief on Chuck's face mystifies her. "What? Did I say something wrong?"
He shakes his head, woefully. "Sarah Walker, I'm very disappointed. I thought you knew better."
For some reason, his words make her catch her breath.
His expression is solemn. "The Flash and Captain America cannot co-exist in the same space-time continuum. One lives in the DC universe and the other in the Marvel one. I fear our world implode if they were to ever meet."
Looking at her, he shakes his head again. "And to think, I had such high hopes for you, especially after you showed me how well you knew the Scarlet Speedster. It's quite clear that we haven't spent enough time going over this. Next movie night, I'll have to explain the various graphic novel cosmos' to you in more detail."
She laughs, relieved, but still puzzled by her earlier reaction. "OK, wise guy. Any other superheroes hanging around that I should know about?"
"Sarah, you do understand the whole secret part of a secret identity, right? They're not supposed to be easy to spot."
"Uh-uh, you're not getting off that easy. You started all this, so find me another one."
He nods, looks around for a few moments before bringing his eyes back to hers.
"Well, it's possible there's one more in the vicinity."
"I'm not familiar with that one. What kind of superhero is he?"
"First of all, it's a she."
"OK. What's she like? Is she some kind of mutant that can change into a bird or something?"
"No, nothing like that. She can emit this high pitched scream that can incapacitate her enemies. Just imagine the sound Ellie makes when she gets excited about something. For instance, like when I told her we were spending the day together. Then multiply it by a factor of ten and you'll have the idea."
Laughing, she places her hand on his forearm. "Chuck, you'd better be careful. I could use that to blackmail you into staying in the car."
He smirks. "Won't work. She already knows how I feel about the 'Ellie Squeal'."
Still chuckling, she asks, "Is that it? That's all Black Canary does?"
"No. Amongst many other things, she's an expert martial artist. Has no trouble taking down guys twice her size."
"I'm happy to hear that. The scream thing by itself would have been kinda lame. Alright. Tell me what she looks like and I'll see if I can spot who you think could be her."
"OK. She's tall. Strikingly beautiful. And while I don't think this will help you identify her, she prefers a skin tight costume and fishnet stockings."
Sarah rolls her eyes. "Figures." She then looks around, spots an attractive brunette looking in a store window.
She gestures with her head. "That one?"
"Nope, wrong hair color."
She scans their surroundings once more, spots a redhead who could fit the bill.
"Wrong again. Black Canary is a blonde."
"Chuck, are you sure? I don't see any tall blondes in the area. Did she leave?"
"Nope, she's still around."
She looks again, still seeing no one that meets the description. A little exasperated, she turns back to Chuck.
"Chuck, there's nobody—"
His grin is so big that she's sure it must hurt his face, at least a little.
"What?!" Then it finally hits her.
"You…you," she splutters as his grin somehow becomes even bigger.
Recovering, she sternly says, "Mr. Bartowski, I'll have you know I've never worn fishnet—" She pauses. "OK, there was one mission where I had to, but never by choice."
Abruptly, he scrunches up his face, closes his eyes and presses his fingers against his temples.
Suddenly concerned, she asks, "Are you alright, Chuck? Did you just flash?"
Without opening his eyes, he replies, "No, but I'm trying to."
He opens his eyes. "That mission you just mentioned. But it's not coming to me. Could you give me more of the details?"
It seems that this morning's boldness has morphed into this afternoon's cheekiness. She finds she kinda likes that too.
He covers his face with his hands as she playfully swats at him. "You are in such trouble, mister. It's fortunate for you that we're in public place, otherwise, I'd be kicking your butt right about now."
He grins through his fingers, "Ooh! Is that a threat or a promise?"
For a few seconds, she can't do anything but stare at him, mouth agape.
But then an idea comes to her and she changes gears. "Chuck, I believe we should go with your suggestion."
"What suggestion? The one about installing a pizza oven in Castle?"
She shakes her head, a little wearily. "No, Chuck. I've told you numerous times that Beckman won't go for it. The one I'm talking about is me becoming your personal trainer. I think that some conditioning may be in order, you know, to help you get away from Casey when he's in a bad mood. Or, for that matter, anyone else intending to launch a 'dastardly assault' against your person." She actually uses the air quotes.
He face lights up. "Great. I'm on board. I think it'll be a lot of fun."
"I'm sure it will be." There's a wicked gleam in her eyes as she adds, "At least for one of us."
Suddenly, Chuck is very much afraid.
They stand close, crossed arms on the railing, watching the sun go down. Neither speak, but it's a comfortable silence, even for Chuck, so used to filling empty spaces with words.
As the last bit of the distorted disc of the sun dips below the horizon, the wind suddenly picks up. He notices her shiver, rubbing her arms. The day had been so warm that both had left their jackets in the car. Now they're paying the price.
Chuck's natural inclination is to put his arm around her and try to warm her a bit. But he hesitates. It's been such a fantastic day that he doesn't want to take the chance of ruining it by doing something stupid. After all, there's no one around that they need to fool, so he couldn't blame it on trying to strengthen the cover.
She shivers again.
Throwing caution to the wind, he places his left arm around her shoulders, gently pulls her close. He holds his breath, expecting her to pull away. But she doesn't. Instead, she turns a little and comes closer, nestles her head into his shoulder. Emboldened, he brings his other arm around, pulls her more tightly to him. She says nothing, but he notices she isn't shivering anymore.
Chuck doesn't move, barely breathes, so afraid he'll break the spell. The smell of her hair is so intoxicating that he feels dizzy for a moment. Or maybe he's dizzy simply because his heart is about to burst from pounding so hard.
He doesn't know and he doesn't care. What he does know is that holding Sarah Walker this way seems like the most natural thing in the world. He can't think of a single thing he'd rather be doing than being with her, right here, right now.
He has no idea how long they stand there. Truth be told, he wouldn't care if he ever moved again. But he knows it can't last forever. He has no idea if he'll ever get a chance like this again, so he desperately tries to commit every sensation to his memory. Every little detail of the way she feels in his arms. The warmth of her head against his chest. The way a few of her stray hairs tickle his nose. How the top of her head is in the perfect position for him to kiss it. (Not that he would dare do that.) He closes his eyes, breathes in her scent.
In the end, it's a group of rowdy frat boys who ruin it. Seeing the two of them standing so close, they start with the standard comments on getting a room. When Sarah gives them an annoyed look, one suggests she join the group, learn what it's like to be "hugged" by a real man.
He tenses, is about to angrily reply, when she quietly whispers, "It's not worth it, Chuck."
He nods choppily. A few moments later, the group, after making a few more suggestive remarks, moves on. He glares after them.
Chuck looks back to her, but it's clear the moment has passed. He loosens his embrace and she steps away, crosses her arms in front of her.
"It's getting late. We should go back."
She says it so oddly; go instead of get. It's probably just a slip of the tongue, but he finds himself looking for some hidden meaning. Maybe she's implying they need to go back to where they were before today. That's precisely what he doesn't want, but can't exactly say that to her.
"Yes, you're right. I didn't realize how much time has passed."
They walk back to the car in silence, one that's less comfortable this time. Sarah doesn't appear to be upset, but rather, seems distracted, lost in thought about something. What that might be, though, eludes him. Her mood is so very different then it was earlier.
They're quiet during the whole time it takes to return to Burbank. A couple of times, he thinks about trying to start a conversation, but after seeing her concentrating on the road, decides against it.
They pull into a parking spot in front of the Echo Park apartment complex and Chuck reaches for the door handle. They've done this so often that it's almost become a ritual, one where he can predict every move. First of all, he'll thank her for the day. Then she'll say a quiet goodnight as he gets out of the car. Then she'll drive away as he watches her car disappear into the night.
He doesn't want this day to end, and he especially doesn't want it to end that way.
Chuck opens his mouth, is about to ask her if she wants to come in, have a beer, watch some TV, anything just to keep her from leaving. But before he can say a word, she speaks, catching him off guard. It's not her turn yet.
"Chuck…would it be OK if I came in for a while?" She's quiet, seems almost tentative, almost as if she's unsure that this is a good idea.
He's so surprised that he can't think of anything to say for a couple of seconds. Probably taking that for indecision on his part, she quickly goes on. "I just don't feel like going back to my place right now. I thought we could sit at the fountain and maybe talk a little."
She seems a little shy. "If that's alright with you?"
He finally manages to regain his wits. "Of course. Absolutely. That sounds great." He opens the door, slipping out before she sees the idiotic grin that he's quite certain is plastered all over his face right now. By the time she joins him to walk through passageway, he manages to tone it down to a simple smile, although, clearly, a very happy one.
Ellie peeks through the curtains for what is probably the tenth time, sees the two of them laughing so hard that they're wiping tears from their eyes. She bites her lip to stop herself from squealing with joy.
Turning to her boyfriend she excitedly says, "Devon, they're still there! It's been almost three hours!"
Devon turns away from the TV, lazily says, "Babe, maybe you should let them have some privacy. The Chuckster has always done his best to give us that."
"That's mostly because he doesn't want to see anything that might scar him for life."
"True, but he still does respect our private time."
"I know. It's just that I think this might be the night."
"What night, babe?"
"The night. The conversation. The breakthrough."
"What makes you think that?"
"A couple of things. First, when they've gone on dates before, she almost always says goodbye out front and does so quite quickly. How many times have we heard her Porsche pull up and take off only a few seconds later? Right?"
"And secondly, well just come and look at them."
He gets up from the couch and ambles over. He sneaks a quick peek.
"They look happy."
"Happy? It's much more than that. Take another look, especially at her."
He obliges Ellie.
"She's sitting pretty close to Chuck. Is there anything else?"
Ellie just shakes her head and rolls her eyes. "Men can so oblivious sometimes. Look again." He does. "She has her hand on his arm. She's turned towards him, leaning in close. See that! She just tossed her hair a bit. Oh, and look, she's tilted her head, smiling at him."
"Does that mean she's into him?"
"Well, duh! Of course it does. I've never seen Sarah this open before. She's always been kind of reserved. But not tonight. That's why I think this is the night."
"But how about Chuck? Think he's ready?"
"Don't worry about my little brother. He's been gaga over that girl from the get go."
She sees them stand. "Quick, duck down. She's leaving."
Ellie sees the two of them walk through the passageway together.
She mutters under her breath, "Good, Chuck. See her to the car."
Five minutes later, they see him return to the courtyard, heading for the apartment door. Ellie and Devon, rush back to the couch, throw themselves on it. They both try to look nonchalant as Chuck opens the door.
Ellie looks his way, trying to appear somewhat bored as he asks, "Oh. Hi, Chuck. How'd you day with Sarah go?"
He appears somewhat dazed, just stares blankly at his sister for a moment, then mumbles, "Good. Really good. I going to bed now. Goodnight." He slowly walks down the hallway, enters his room and closes the door.
"What's up with him?"
"Didn't you see the lipstick on his cheek? She kissed him!"
"Mark my words. Within a few weeks, at most a couple of months, those two are going to be inseparable."
TBC in Chapter One.
A/N: A little long, I know. Next chapter we'll see if Ellie's prediction comes true.