From where he was sitting, Chuck could see Sarah laughing as a wave rolled in and almost knocked her over. Grabbing at Casey's arm to steady herself, she looked carefree and beautiful in a conservative navy tank suit. Casey, too, seemed to be having fun as, holding onto Sarah's shoulder, he splashed water in her face and grinned.
They were still both smiling and chatting animatedly as they came out of the surf and approached Chuck, who was sitting fully clothed on a big blanket under a beach umbrella stuck in the sand.
"So do you think a Pap smear is a walk in the park?" Sarah asked Casey in a challenging yet playful voice.
"You've got it easy," replied Casey. "You'll never have to have a prostate exam with some guy sticking his finger up your –"
"Hey, kids, kids, no fighting now," interjected Chuck. "How did you get on that topic, anyway?"
"I found out this morning I have to go for my annual medical exam," said Sarah ruefully. "I'll be away for a couple of days."
"If they're as thorough as the NSA medicos, it should be a pretty busy couple of days," observed Casey. "I almost feel sorry for you."
"Thanks for the sympathy, I think," said Sarah, picking up her towel and rubbing it on her hair.
"Here, let me," said Chuck, springing up to help.
"Easy, fake boyfriend. Don't sprain anything," snarked Casey as Chuck proceeded to thoroughly dry Sarah off.
"Thanks, Chuck, that's good," said Sarah, taking the towel from him once he started to go over spots that were already dry. "I'll get it from here."
"Tell me again why you wouldn't come swimming," challenged Casey with an evil grin.
"I'm just not very sporty," said Chuck. "Besides, it takes a lot of work to maintain this sallow nerd complexion."
"That and the fact that you don't want to be seen in a bathing suit on a public beach," Casey commented dryly.
Chuck sighed as he compared in his mind the body of the tall, fit man in front of him to what he perceived as his own skinny definitely non-muscular frame. He didn't want to give Sarah the chance to make those comparisons. Casey was starting to get a nice tan, which made Chuck feel even paler than usual.
"So I only get one handler for the duration?" asked Chuck.
"No. You're far too valuable," replied Sarah, sneaking a look at Casey out of the corner of her eye, "and far too vulnerable as well. Director Graham has arranged for you to have a substitute while I'm gone."
"The general mentioned it in passing this morning. Anyone we know?" inquired Casey as he pulled a tee-shirt on over his head and put on a hat.
"Long Shore," replied Sarah, looking worried.
"I thought he was dead. Didn't that pita girl shoot him?" observed Chuck.
"Nice of you to ask, Mr. Sensitive," growled Casey.
"He was in the hospital for a couple of months but managed to pull through," said Sarah. "It was touch-and-go for a bit. I think they wanted to give him an easy assignment for his first one back."
"Yeah, so don't give us a hard time," said Casey, glaring at Chuck.
"When do I give you guys a hard time?" asked Chuck with what he hoped was an innocent look. Before either Casey or Sarah could respond, he turned his head to look in the direction of the public parking lot. Excitement in his voice, he observed, "Oh, great! Here come Ellie and Awesome with the food."
Ellie and Devon were walking down the beach carrying a large wicker basket between them. It looked heavy, and when they reached the trio at their picnic spot, they dropped it nearby.
"How much food did you bring, sis?" inquired Chuck as he lifted the lid to peer inside.
"Enough to keep the hunger pangs at bay," said Ellie, smiling brightly. "I figured with all the swimming and running around we're going to do today that everybody would be hungry."
"And maybe beach volleyball later or some Frisbee tag," added Devon enthusiastically.
This just depressed Chuck further. He knew he couldn't do any of those things for more than about three minutes and, what's more, he didn't even want to try. But at least there would be sandwiches.
"Aw, have you already been swimming? Why didn't you wait for us?" complained Ellie, pulling off her crocheted cover-up and wide-brimmed hat to reveal a compact, shapely body, her curves barely concealed by a pink bikini dotted with little white flowers.
She dug her toes into the sand in anticipation, almost completely covering her matching pink toenails. "Come on back in with us before lunch!" she cried, racing off towards the water.
"Don't need to ask me twice, babe!" shouted Devon as he pulled off his shirt, the muscles of his torso rippling and flexing with the movement. "Last one in is a med student!"
He sprinted lightly after Ellie. Catching up with her and scooping her up in his arms, he ran into the water and they both fell together under a wave, bobbing up a moment later, laughing into each other's faces.
"Shall we?" asked Sarah, looking at Casey, her eyes twinkling mischievously.
Casey threw down his hat and peeled his shirt off in one smooth motion. "Why not?" he said. "This is supposed to be a day off."
With that, the pair turned and jogged towards the other couple bobbing in the surf. As they went, Chuck could hear Casey saying, "Maybe you could get one of those bikini things, Walker, you know, for a more convincing cover profile," as he gave her a mock leer.
Sarah swatted his arm, laughing as, with the grace of a gazelle, she turned their run into a race, beating Casey into the water by a fraction of a second.
A couple of minutes later they were water jousting, Ellie perched on Devon's wide shoulders with Sarah looking a little too comfortable for Chuck's liking on Casey's. The girls gripped each other at the upper arms, pushing, trying to force the other off, as each man did his best to blind his foe with salt water spray, all the while supporting their respective combatants with one hand on slippery bare thighs. Their shrieks and squeals of laughter carried on the wind to Chuck as he disconsolately knocked sand out of his PSP and checked to make sure he was still in the shade.
Everybody was dozing except Chuck. The four swimmers had returned to the picnic area and the little group had eaten most of the wonderful food that Ellie had prepared. Ellie had reddened not a little when Casey had complimented her cooking. With a faint, "Oh, John, thank you," and a self-satisfied grin, she had packed away the used plates and utensils.
Then the games had begun. Donning their various shirts and hats against the sun, Captain Awesome looking even more awesome with blue zinc cream on his nose, they had played first Frisbee tag and then a little doubles volleyball, using a net that Devon had collected from the car.
Chuck had watched them jumping seemingly effortlessly in the sand, hitting the ball back and forth, sometimes colliding in their quest for the ball. He was a little unnerved at the fervor with which Sarah chased the volleyball, sometimes beating Casey to it when it was clearly his to hit. Chuck good-naturedly cheered and clapped his hands, all the while wishing he could get up the nerve to join them.
But now they all were worn out from their exertions. Chuck's shoulder was serving as a pillow for Sarah's head. He gazed down on her as she breathed gently in and out onto the base of his neck, his arm cradling her tenderly, as if he were holding a little kitten. A little kitten that could turn into a tigress at a moment's notice.
He contemplated brushing a tendril of her now-dry hair away from her eyes but decided against it, not wanting to wake her. He selfishly wished he could prolong this moment. A tender smile curved the outside edges of his mouth upwards as his eyes drank Sarah in, confident that no one else was looking. He liked the boyfriend-girlfriend cover today, even though he knew it was false and would end as soon as their picnic was over.
Suddenly, a round yellow object soared through the air and landed in the sand about five feet on the other side of Chuck. Before Chuck knew what was happening, Casey who, moments before, had been snoozing like the others, was wide awake. He jumped up, yelling "Cover!" at the top of his lungs.
Sarah immediately awoke and threw her body over top of Chuck's, protecting in particular his head. Out of the corner of one eye, Chuck saw Casey leap into the air and throw himself bodily onto the little object. Sarah held him tighter, her eyes squinched up, her face turned away from Casey, waiting for the explosion that never came. After a few seconds, Casey, too, realized that nothing was going to happen, and he raised himself off of the sand, trying to appear sheepish for the benefit of Ellie and Devon, who only now had roused and were looking around to find out what was going on.
"Just a tennis ball," said Casey, wiping sand from his face and the front of his shirt.
"What did you expect, a grenade?" asked Devon. "Better cut back on the war movies, big guy."
Ellie, her face clouded with concern, inquired, "Are you all right, John?" Neither Ellie nor Devon had noticed that the two agents had been trying to protect Chuck, which, thankfully, left them with a little less awkwardness to explain away.
Just then, the attention of the group was diverted by the sight of a lovely young woman climbing over the dune, coming from the same direction the tennis ball had. She was followed by a large, muscular man, several inches taller than Casey, who had a deep scowl on his face.
"I'm sorry. Panos here has a wicked serve," the woman said, offering her hand to Sarah, who took it in a shake. "My name is Delphinia. I see we have disturbed your party. I am so sorry."
"Not at all," said Chuck, extending his hand towards her. "I'm Chuck, and this is my girlfriend Sarah, my sister, Ellie, her fiancé, Devon, and our neighbor, John Casey."
The moment the woman's fingers touched Chuck's palm, images began to flash in his mind. There were only a few and then it was over. Sarah had noticed and her brows angled downwards as she saw the telltale signs, but she said nothing about it, once again displaying a sunny smile as she turned her face back to the strangers.
The large scowling man had retrieved the yellow tennis ball and, ball in hand, leaned towards the woman and said something to her in rapid Greek.
"Panos thinks we should not linger and I agree. Once again, I hope we have not disturbed you too greatly," Delphinia said, turning away. They walked back over the dune as the man hurried her along with an insistent hand pushed into the small of her back. At the crest of the dune, the woman turned her head, looked back wistfully at the little group, and gave a small wave of her hand before they disappeared from sight.
"Sarah, I'm freaking out," whispered Chuck out of the side of his mouth.
"Not here," returned Sarah quietly. "Wait for just a little bit."
Casey, who had noticed by Sarah and Chuck's behavior that Chuck had flashed, was suggesting to Ellie and Devon that they call it a day, and they all began packing everything up to go home.
Once Ellie and Devon were in their car and on their way, Casey finished packing up the back of his SUV. Then Sarah, Chuck and Casey got in to ride home.
"Well, what was it, Intersect?" asked Casey gruffly, aware that his brief holiday was now over.
Chuck stuck his head between the two captain's chairs into the front seat. "You sacrificed yourself for me," he said to Casey.
"No, I didn't. It wasn't a real grenade," returned Casey.
"Yeah, but you didn't know that. Thanks, John," said Chuck, reaching around the seat to pat Casey's upper arm.
"Just doing my job," muttered Casey, jerking his shoulder out of the way uncomfortably and trying to sound as if it had been a routine occurrence. "Drop it, will you."
"Okay, but I'm still grateful, and you'll just have to live with that," said Chuck, grinning into the rear-view mirror, enjoying himself as he watched Casey's efforts to avoid his eyes.
"So what was the flash, Chuck?" inquired Sarah, who was also grinning in Casey's direction while he tried unsuccessfully to appear stern and nonchalant at the same time. "Anything good?"
"Not much, really. No creepy bad-guy stuff, anyway. Her name is Delphinia Tzavaras. She's a Greek shipping heiress, 23 years old, and she's been living in L.A. for five years now. She is a clothing importer and fashion designer who hasn't hit the big time yet. No inheritance until she turns 30 but in the meantime she gets an annual income of 250,000 just to make ends meet. The shipping concerns of her father are worth around 3 billion," said Chuck, his eyes rounding as he realized what those figures meant.
"Just goes to show that money can't buy you happiness," continued Chuck wistfully.
"What do you mean?" asked Sarah.
"Didn't you see her? She looked really sad," said Chuck.
"Poor little rich girl," snarled Casey, sounding anything but sympathetic as he pulled the SUV into the driveway. "Come over at eight o'clock tonight for a briefing, you two. The general said the substitute agent is staying at my place. Cost-cutting or being close to the Intersect or something."
"That should be cozy," commented Sarah, unable to resist the temptation to bait Casey. "See you then."
Taking Chuck's hand, Sarah lifted her beach bag out of the back of the SUV and walked with him to the door of his apartment. "Should be a little time for cover-building before dinner, I think," she said.
"If you're talking about pretend sex, then let's go," said Chuck good-humoredly, going ahead to hold the apartment door open for her. "Except this time I get to wear the pretend French Maid outfit."
Sarah laughed as they entered the apartment. "You're a funny guy, Chuck," she said, going ahead of him down the hall to his bedroom.
At eight o'clock sharp, three agents and one Buy More computer specialist were lined up in Casey's apartment watching and listening to the red-haired, no-nonsense woman on the large screen.
"This doesn't sound serious, Mr. Bartowski," she said. "We were keeping a small eye on the daughter when she first came to America. She seemed clean. Let me check something and, Major, I'll let you know in a day or so if there's anything worth pursuing. No need to put the Intersect to any unnecessary risk."
"Yes, General," intoned Casey dutifully.
"So, General, you're asking us to stand down until further notice?" inquired Sarah.
"No, Walker, I'm asking Long Shore and the major to stand down until further notice. As you already know, you have been pulled from this assignment for a couple of days, and I advise you to not involve yourself any further in this particular situation," said the General sternly.
"Yes, ma'am," replied Sarah, risking further displeasure by adding, "it's just that I've been on this assignment for a while now and I've gotten to know how to handle the asset."
Turning to Sarah, Chuck mouthed, Me? The asset?, and pointed to his chest in an exaggerated manner.
Everyone ignored him as the general said, "Who knows, Walker, it may all be over by the time you get back."
The screen flickered to darkness.
"That's what I'm afraid of," whispered Sarah to no one in particular.
"Chicks like guys that are helpless. They can mother them," observed Morgan as he stood hunched over the Nerd Herd counter with his chin resting on his fists.
"How did you suddenly become the Obi-Wan of female motivation?" asked Chuck, looking at Morgan sideways.
"I watch them. All the time. I study their habits. When they least expect it, I pounce!" said Morgan, suddenly jumping up into the air and landing in a Ninja crouch.
"Seriously, though, Sarah said I was vulnerable and it wasn't in the chicks-dig-it kind of way," said Chuck sadly. "What can I do about that?"
"Self-improvement!" exclaimed Morgan. "I've been meaning to do it for years. We could do it together!"
"Thanks for the suggestion, Morgan, but I really don't know where to start. I've looked up the name of a gym," said Chuck, proffering a slip of paper with an address on it, "but those places scare me. The last place in the world a scrawny guy like me would want to go is a gym that attracts fitness freaks like bees to honey."
"Find a mentor, dude. That's what I usually do. Except mine always come from movies so it's a little hard to ask them for advice," said Morgan reflectively. "But they do wear really cool costumes. Hey, you could ask Awesome! He practically lives at the gym, doesn't he?"
"I'd be embarrassed to ask him, but you have given me another idea. Thanks for the help," said Chuck, turning away to greet the customer who was approaching the counter.
"Any time, any time, my friend. Just ask old Morgan. Problems solved while you wait," said Morgan as he turned and proceeded to the lunch room. "Solving other people's problems always makes me hungry. I wonder what Jeff brought for lunch?"
Chuck couldn't conceal his nervousness as he knocked on Casey's door later that afternoon. He rapped quietly a few times and then quickly shoved his hands into his pockets. Silently counting to five, he was about to turn away when the door was opened by Long Shore.
"Uh, can I ask you something?" asked Chuck, stumbling over the words.
"Sure, Chuck. What can I do for you?" replied Long Shore, opening the door wider.
"Is Casey here? I wanted to talk to you alone," Chuck said, craning his neck to look over Long Shore's shoulder into the apartment.
"He's out right now, Chuck. He'll probably be gone for an hour or so. He said something about a bonsai show at the convention center," replied Long Shore, taking Chuck's elbow and guiding him into the apartment. "Now, what is it I can do for you?"
"Well, I need some help with bodybuilding," confessed Chuck. "They're all so fit, Ellie and Awesome and Casey and, you know..." said Chuck, his sentence trailing off at the end. "Anyway, I think if I can learn how to work out a bit, I could keep up. Could you come to the gym with me and get me started?"
Although he didn't show it by any change of expression, Long Shore had immediately guessed that Chuck was more concerned about the opinion of the fourth unmentioned person – Sarah – than those of his family members or male handler.
"Sure, Chuck, I can help you out. Would you like to go Saturday? We can get started early before anybody knows you're gone and come back before lunch, how's that?" suggested Long Shore.
"That would be great, just great, thanks, man," gushed Chuck. "You don't know what this means to me. Oh, and especially don't tell Casey. I'm thinking I don't have to explain why."
"Top secret," said Long Shore, winking conspiratorially as he showed Chuck out the door. "Not even under torture."
"Thanks, Long Shore," said Chuck, smiling broadly. "You're looking at the new Chuck Bartowski!"
Quietly, so as not to wake Ellie and Devon, Chuck pulled the apartment door shut behind him. He was relieved to see Long Shore ready and waiting for him in the courtyard. When they pulled away in the Nerd Herder, Chuck finally felt free to talk.
"Thanks again for doing this, Long Shore. I know it's a lot to ask," said Chuck in an apologetic manner.
"Not at all, Chuck," replied Long Shore. "I was awake early anyway. Casey snores so loudly I could hear him all the way into the guest bedroom."
Chuck smirked to himself and filed the information away for future use as he pulled the car into a parking spot near the gym entrance.
"I brought my regular sneakers and gym shorts. They're all I have. I hope they're okay," said Chuck.
"They'll be fine to start," said Long Shore. "It's not a fashion show, although some people can get carried away."
"Yeah, like that guy there. He looks like he stepped out of a time warp," observed Chuck, pointing to a short man in yellow leg warmers, pink spandex tights, blue spandex shorts and a pink spandex shirt and wearing a yellow terrycloth sweatband around his forehead. With a full beard. Morgan.
"He looks familiar. Do you know him?" asked Long Shore as Chuck's expression changed from one of amusement to dread.
"I wish I didn't," replied Chuck. "He must have seen the address of the gym."
"Hi, guys, how's it going?" greeted Morgan. "I thought since you wanted company, Chuck, I'd come along and see what this exercise caper was all about."
"Yeah, Morgan, that's great," said Chuck, opening the door to the gym and going inside. "Morgan, this is Long Shore. He's a, uh, friend of Casey's who's visiting for the weekend."
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Longshore," said Morgan, "but I didn't think I'd ever hear the words 'friend of Casey's.' No offense."
"None taken," returned Long Shore as they signed in at the front desk.
Suddenly, a petite blonde in a workout outfit similar to Morgan's came through a door to their right and bounded up to the three men, smiling broadly.
"You must be here for the Like, Totally '80s Aerobics Experience," she chirped, flipping her shag-cut hair out of her eyes. "Come right this way. All the girls will be so thrilled to see you. You can be our John Travolta."
An unresisting Morgan was led away to another room where a woman's voice shouting instructions and encouragement could be heard over the strains of Olivia Newton John singing Let's Get Physical.
"Well, let's get to work, then," suggested Long Shore, leading the way to the change room.
Chuck's gym shorts had seen better days, but after an hour of instruction from Long Shore on the various weight machines, Chuck's mind was on other things, like his aching muscles and the ache of the muscles he never knew he had.
"You're doing great, Chuck. Just remember to start out slowly and build up gradually so you don't hurt yourself," said Long Shore, "and pay attention to form."
"I guess it's worth it for the payoff but I'm not too sure about the process," groaned Chuck.
"If you stick with it, it can actually be quite fun," said Long Shore, adjusting the pin in a stack of weights attached to the machine. "Ten more times on this one and then I think we're done for today. No sense overdoing it."
After showering and changing back into their street clothes, Chuck and Long Shore headed for the car.
"I wonder if Morgan's finished his aerobics class?" said Chuck. "I think I'll see if he wants a ride home."
Just as Chuck was about to re-enter the gym, Morgan came out, a girl on each arm.
"Well, my friends, I think I will be attending the gym from now on. It's not as scary a place as you thought, Chuck," said Morgan. Smiling at his two escorts in turn, Morgan wheeled them away, deep in a conversation punctuated by their giggles.
"So no ride, then?" Chuck called out after him, but Morgan didn't hear.
Turning back towards the car, Chuck's attention was caught by a lovely young woman, the woman from the beach, Delphinia, approaching a door beside the gym entrance. This time she wasn't with the scowling muscleman but an older man wearing an expensive tailored suit, chunky gold jewelry and dark glasses.
Chuck immediately began to flash a long series of images. The onslaught was so great Chuck faltered and stumbled backwards, stunned by the mental impact. Long Shore steadied him, his brow furrowed.
"Whoa, whoa, Chuck, is this a flash?" inquired Long Shore. "I didn't think they would hit you like this."
"Mucho grande bad guy," muttered Chuck, wiping the back of his hand across his brow as he tried to catch his breath and not throw up. "I saw ships, all kinds – freighters, sailboats, cruisers – and pirates, not the yo-ho-ho kind but the kind with submachine guns. They're stealing money and jewels on the high seas and bringing them into the country through Delphinia's import business upstairs. They kill the people, throw them overboard and sink their boats." Chuck's look of horror and disbelief was heartwrenching.
"I'd better call for backup," decided Long Shore. He pulled a cell phone from his pocket and quickly dialed Casey's number. "Chuck, you stay in the car while we go in."
"Good, good, stay in the car. I need to sit down anyways," said Chuck, groping for the car door. For once, he actually felt like obeying this particular order as he slumped into the passenger seat.
"Remember, keep the window up and the door locked. It shouldn't take too long to check this out," said Long Shore as he peered down the street in search of a black SUV. "And, Chuck," he added with a note of admiration in his voice, "that's a pretty neat trick you have there."
Chuck was gratified by the remark. It made him feel a bit more like a part of the team than usual. But as Casey pulled up and parked, Chuck was reminded that he wasn't a real spy to the agencies, just a tool, and he began to sulk a little as he watched the two men enter the building and climb the staircase to the second floor.
Slowly ascending the stairs, gun hand at the ready, Casey, on point, whispered, "I checked in to let the general know what was happening," to the man behind him.
When they reached the landing, Casey motioned to Long Shore in tactical handspeak to stay to the side and back as he looked left and right through a glass door with gold lettering that read Tzavaras Mode, Importers and Exporters of Fine Fashion. Seeing nothing untoward, Casey pushed the door open and entered, followed by Long Shore.
They stepped into a large open room full of light let in by tall windows all around. About two dozen women were bent over sewing machines assembling a variety of dresses. The sound was like a hive of angry bees as the machines pushed their needles in and out of the cloth. Design and cutting tables were in evidence covered in fabric samples, ribbons, colorful trims and tissue paper patterns. None of the women looked up from their work to see who had come in.
As Casey and Long Shore were about to explore the premises a little more thoroughly, about a half dozen ominous clicks could be heard. The agents couldn't see the guns but they knew the sound and froze in place as the well-dressed man stepped through a doorway across from them. Raising their hands slowly into the air and allowing their own guns to be taken, the agents stood passively while they were quickly and expertly frisked by two henchmen. When the goons indicated to their boss that Casey and Long Shore were now clean, the man spoke in a clear, slightly accented voice.
"Gentlemen, welcome. I am Tzavaras. My daughter tells me she recognizes one of you from the beach. I am sorry you had to find out about our little business enterprise. I am sure you will understand if I have my men tie you up."
Gesturing again, the man calmly turned and went back through the doorway. He paused at another door, a metal one, long enough to punch in the code on the lock's keypad. As the door swung open, he went through, looking back over his shoulder for a moment.
Casey and Long Shore were hustled through after him into a back room with no windows. Inside were four women busily tearing the seams and hems out of dresses. Beside each woman was a pile of jewelry, coins and notes in various currencies to which they were adding more pieces taken from the disassembled garments.
"Now there is no harm in your seeing what we do here as you will be killed later," said Tzavaras, indicating the room in general. "And we also have a very efficient disposal system, both for the merchandise and for people who interfere in our business."
Tzavaras said something to the four women in Greek, who stopped their work, stood up, and left the room quietly.
"Tie them up and take them out on the next boat. Kill them and throw them overboard," he ordered.
With that, Tzavaras left the room, trusting his men to carry out his orders.
Click. "Stay in the car." Click. "Stay in the car, Chuck." Click. "Stay in the car, Bartowski." Click. "Mr. Carmichael, would you be so kind as to stay in the car." Mimicking the different voices of Casey, Sarah and now adding Long Shore to his repertoire, the litany recited by Chuck was anything but soothing to his nerves as he fiddled with the car door's lock. In fact, it helped him to disobey the familiar order a little more quickly than he usually did.
Chuck opened the door and got out. After locking it securely behind him, he turned towards the building and looked up, shading his eyes. All of a sudden, he saw a movement in the far left window on the second floor. It looked like some kind of a small flag waving. Focusing intently to get a better look, Chuck realized it was a piece of sparkly fabric jumping around like a marionette. The woman who held it had her back turned to the window, concealing her actions from those inside the room, and when she turned her head and looked at him for a brief moment, Chuck instantly recognized Delphinia, who telegraphed a look of fear and panic before she turned her face away from him again.
Without stopping to think about what he was going to do once he got there, Chuck entered the building and raced up the stairs three at a time. When he got to the landing, he was relieved to see Delphinia coming through the glass door.
"Shhh, they'll hear you," she whispered, taking his arm and making sure he was out of the sightline of the door.
"Where are Casey and Long Shore?" asked Chuck, craning his neck to try to see what was happening in the other room.
"They're not in there," said Delphinia, her eyes wide and full of panic. "There's another room beyond with a coded lock. My father's men have them in there."
"Are they tied up?" asked Chuck, his mind racing.
"Their guns have been taken," the woman replied. "They are standing up to the right of the door in the corner. They are not bound, though I believe their hands are."
"Front or back?" asked Chuck.
"Front," came the terse reply.
"Good. They'll be able to move around, then," observed Chuck. "You walk ahead of me and open the door. Then get to one side out of the way," he ordered.
They both pushed through the glass door, Delphinia trying to shield Chuck from the view of the busy seamstresses. The women had been well-trained to ignore everything but their work, however, so Chuck had a chance to look around and see what he could use to storm the back room. He darted around to various tables, picking up a box of large rhinestones, dressmaker's scissors, straight pins and a bolt of fabric. Then Chuck spotted a rack of dresses on wheels.
"Perfect!" he exclaimed as he loaded up his pockets with the makeshift weapons, tucking the bolt of cloth under one arm. "Now go, quickly. I'll be right behind you," he said to Delphinia, getting in behind the dress rack and pushing it ahead of him.
Delphinia went to the door of the back room and deftly punched in the key sequence. She pushed the door open and, in one smooth movement, swung the door wide and got out of Chuck's way by ducking behind it.
The armed men guarding the two agents were startled when a dress rack suddenly appeared in their midst. Taking advantage of the unexpected diversion, Casey and Long Shore kicked the guns out of the hands of the two men nearest them and locked tied wrists around the surprised men's necks. As if they had rehearsed it, they banged the heads of the two men together and eased their inert bodies to the floor.
Meanwhile, Chuck rammed another one with the rack of dresses, causing him to drop his gun and yell loudly from the pain in his toes where a wheel had hit. He fell to the floor, holding his foot with one hand and scrabbling under a desk with the other hand, searching for his lost gun that had spun far out of reach.
Chuck's adrenaline was high with his success. He flipped the bolt of cloth into the air, hitting one of the goons in the face with the heavy cardboard spool. It wasn't enough of a blow to knock him out, just to disorient him, but it gave Chuck a few seconds so he could take the long end of the fabric and wrap the bad guy up mummy-fashion, pinning his arms under the colorful red and gold stripes. He then quickly tossed the open box of rhinestones so they cascaded over the floor, causing a couple more of the approaching gunmen to slip and slide, dropping their guns as their arms wheeled in the air for balance.
In the corner, Long Shore was trying to free Casey's hands from the rope that tied him. While the agent concentrated on his task, one of Tzavaras' men leveled his gun from across the room and aimed straight for a spot between Long Shore's shoulder blades. Seeing this, Casey raised his tied hands to the back of Long Shore's head and crouched quickly, drawing his fellow agent downwards with him and out of the path of the bullet that smashed harmlessly into the wall above them.
While the gunman's attention was on his aim, Chuck snuck up on him and stuck a handful of dressmaker's pins into his thigh. As the man yelped from the pain, Casey, who had leaped across the room, dislodged the gun from his hand with a two-fisted right cross and then knocked the man out with a corresponding two-fisted left cross.
Feeling cold metal on the back of his neck, Chuck froze in place and slowly raised his hands into the air.
"Now we shall stop all this nonsense, hmmm?" said Tzavaras as he pushed the gun barrel a little harder into Chuck's flesh to help make his point. "Back away, gentlemen, please," he instructed Casey and Long Shore. "Let's not make this any more difficult than it has to be."
Suddenly, the barrel of a Glock slid into place behind Tzavaras' ear.
"You're right, it's really very simple," said a voice that caused Chuck's frozen muscles to relax and a big smile to appear on his face. "Put the guns down and you'll only go to prison."
As Tzavaras' gun was uncocked and thrown to the floor, Chuck wheeled around and exclaimed, "Sarah, how did you know where to find us? I thought you were gone until Monday!"
"Yeah, Walker," added Casey, catching the dressmaker's scissors that Chuck pulled from his pocket and flipped to him, then using them to awkwardly snip at Long Shore's bonds, freeing the agent, "what brings you here?"
"I missed you guys, you know how it is," replied Sarah wryly, prodding Tzavaras towards a pipe running up the wall to which she handcuffed him.
"No, really, Sarah," said a mystified Chuck, "I'm not complaining. I'm really glad you came when you did, but how did you know?"
"I didn't know. Call it intuition or instinct or something," said Sarah. "I just knew I should be here, so I got through my medical quickly and came back early. When I checked in at Headquarters, they told me about where you had gone, Casey. I just thought you guys might need some help."
Casey began to bluster something about not needing any help when Long Shore stepped in and cut him off.
"Well, Walker, we did need your help even though, I must say, Chuck was doing pretty well all by himself," he said, patting a blushing Chuck on the shoulder. "His methods may not be by the book but he was getting the job done."
Casey muttered something under his breath that sounded vaguely like "Don't encourage him."
Remembering Delphinia, Chuck turned to see she was still cowering behind the door.
"Are you all right?" he inquired, gently drawing her out into the room.
"I am not wounded but I am hurt. Father," she exclaimed, "I always suspected you were involved in criminal activity but I never thought it would be murder also!"
"Wait a minute," interrupted Chuck, "if you aren't a part of this, how did you know the combination for the door?"
"A girl doesn't tell her father everything she knows," replied Delphinia, directing an unforgiving glare at the handcuffed man.
"I hope you don't mind, old friend, if I don't go to the gym with you again," said Morgan, addressing Chuck as he approached the Nerd Herd counter. "It's just not my scene, I'm afraid."
"What happened to those nice girls you met there?" asked Chuck, his attention half-focused on his paperwork.
"Aw, they were cute and all, but I think their expectations were a bit too high," replied Morgan.
His attention fully captured, Chuck's whipped his head up as he said, unbelievingly, "You don't mean –"
"Oh, but I do mean, amigo. They wanted me to go to aerobics classes every day," stated Morgan. "A man has only so much stamina!"
"You said it, brother," agreed Chuck, shaking his head and laughing to himself.
Just then, Delphinia entered the Buy More and approached the counter. In the background, the television news was airing a piece on the capture of her father.
"Chuck, I wanted to thank you for your help," Delphinia said, smiling.
"You're welcome," interjected Morgan as Chuck opened his mouth to reply. The bearded man quickly slipped in front of Delphinia and, smiling his widest smile to her, asked Chuck, "What did we do?"
"We didn't do anything," said Chuck, quickly signaling from behind Morgan's back to Delphinia with his finger raised to his lips. She understood immediately and changed what she had been about to say.
"Chuck and I met at the beach last week and he helped me find something I thought I had lost. I wanted to say thank you by extending an invitation to my first fashion show at the end of the month. I am hoping it will be a big success as my livelihood now depends entirely on my skill as a designer," explained Delphinia.
She glanced at the wall of television screens and Chuck turned his head to see a handcuffed Tzavaras being led into a courthouse, his lawyer at his side.
Understanding immediately what Delphinia's enigmatic statement meant, Chuck's face fell.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said, his voice full of compassion for the young woman.
"Not at all," she replied, smiling brightly. "I'm actually quite happy, on the whole. I have my freedom for the first time in my life. It is a new experience. I intend to enjoy myself."
"Then I'm happy for you, and Sarah and I will come to your show," said a smiling Chuck.
"And I would be honored as well," said Morgan, looking like a lovesick calf.
"Perhaps you could be my date, uh, Morgan," suggested Delphinia, reading his Buy More name tag.
"That would be great, and maybe Delphinia could help you pick out what to wear, she being a designer and all," suggested Chuck to an unresisting Morgan.
"Well, Chuck, thanks to your quick thinking, we have been able to shut down a major pirating operation," announced General Beckman at the debriefing.
"Yes, ma'am," replied Chuck, a large grin splitting his face.
"But if you ever endanger the Intersect like that again, Bartowski, I'm sure we can find a nice, quiet bunker for you to cool off in," she added.
"Yes, ma'am," repeated Chuck, his grin dropping away.
The general stared at Chuck with a grim expression for a couple of seconds, slowly allowing the hint of a smile to tug at the corners of her mouth when she thought her message had had time to sink in.
"Do we understand each other, Mr. Bartowski?" she asked when she was finally satisfied it had.
"Yes, sir, ma'am!" answered Chuck, straightening his spine as his face formed another even larger smile than before.
The picture blipped out as Long Shore turned to Chuck.
"It's been a pleasure working with you, Chuck," he said, shaking the younger man's hand.
"Come back any time," said Chuck. "Maybe you can sub for Casey when he has a vacation."
"I don't do vacations," growled Casey, his possessive tone causing Chuck and Long Shore to laugh as Sarah, Long Shore and Chuck left the apartment.
Chuck and Sarah watched as Long Shore, carrying his single piece of luggage, walked down the passageway from the courtyard to the taxicab waiting at the curb.
"Chuck," said Sarah softly.
"Hmmm?" inquired Chuck, turning around to face her, eyebrows raised.
"Chuck, Long Shore told me what happened while I was away," admitted Sarah.
"You mean about me not staying in the car again?" asked Chuck.
"No, I mean that you asked him to help you at the gym," said Sarah, searching Chuck's face for his reaction.
Chuck felt like he wanted to turn around and run away, hide somewhere where nobody could see him. Instead, his face flushing, he shoved his hands into his pockets and looked down at the ground for a minute. When the silence had become almost unbearable, he looked up to find Sarah's concerned eyes on him. It was obvious she was only trying to help.
"I thought you might like me – I mean, find me a little less – I mean – I don't know what I mean, actually," stammered Chuck, finally giving up trying to explain. He searched her face, hoping for reassurance.
"I think I know what you mean, Chuck, and I just want you to know that you're fine the way you are. You're cute and funny and, most of all, smart, and if that doesn't count for something, I don't know what does," said Sarah, punctuating her statement with a warm smile.
"Well," said Chuck, trying to explain further, "all I know is that a brain isn't much good with a weak body under it."
"And all I know," added Sarah, "is that a well-built guy with no smarts is just a bag of muscles."
"Let's make a pact," proposed Chuck, brightening at the idea. "I'll teach you something brainy and you teach me something brawny."
"Agreed!" exclaimed Sarah. "I want you to teach me all about music. I didn't know there was so much to know until I met you."
"And I want to learn how to rollerblade," said Chuck.
"Really? Okay, we'll start tomorrow," declared Sarah.
"Tomorrow?" squeaked Chuck, looking more than a little frightened by the proposition. "Shouldn't we wait for a bit, you know, so I can get used to the idea?"
"No time like the present!" exclaimed Sarah, tucking her hands into the crook of Chuck's arm as they turned to go into Casa Bartowski.
Just before going through the door, Chuck suddenly had a thought and paused. "Hey, I didn't mean to imply that just because you're physical you're stupid," said Chuck apologetically. "It's just that –"
"I know, and I didn't mean to imply that just because you're smart you're some kind of 90 pound weakling either," countered Sarah.
"Yeah," said Chuck, getting excited, "You should have seen me on those weight machines. I think I got up to 10 pounds on one of them!"
Sarah, smiling, replied, "Oh, well, in that case, I'm impressed."
"Come on, Chuck, you've almost got it!" encouraged Sarah as she skated easily along the cement path beside the beach.
Holding Chuck's hand to guide him, showing him how to move his feet, Sarah had gradually gotten him going. Chuck, protected by a large helmet and knee, elbow and wrist pads, moving his gangly limbs in strange directions, somehow still managed to go forwards and stay more or less upright. Gradually, he began to coordinate his movements a bit more and look almost graceful. But not quite.
As Sarah let go of his hand and moved ahead of him down the path, he faltered a bit but recovered quickly, once again finding a rhythm.
"Hey, I'm getting it, Sarah, look!" Chuck cried as he gained more confidence.
"That's great, Chuck! Now speed up a little bit," called out Sarah as she reversed and skated backwards in front of him along the path for a bit and turned again to skate forwards and away from him. Suddenly, the path dipped down a small hill. Chuck did indeed speed up thanks to the pull of gravity, and he was soon out of control, arms flailing wildly as he careened towards a group of trash cans to one side of the path.