Ellie flailed one arm above her head, spilling a little red wine from the glass she clutched with her other hand as she tried to do her best imitation of a teenaged Chuck Bartowski while simultaneously convulsing with laughter.
"And… and he's s-screaming, 'SPIDER!! SPIDER!!'"
The Casa Bartowski living room erupted in laughter from the majority of its inhabitants. Devon, Morgan, and Casey joined Ellie in practically falling over from their various spots on the couches or floor. Chuck grinned sheepishly and shrugged as Sarah patted him on the shoulder.
"Hey, what can I say," he said, a bit weakly. "Not a big fan of spiders."
"Not many teenaged girls are, Bartowski," Casey forced out between gut busting laughs. The others burst out laughing again. It was the happiest Sarah had ever seen her partner, although she couldn't quite justify the means. The playful ribbing had been focused on Chuck for a bit too long.
Sarah looked out of the corner of her eye at Chuck. The rest of the group, having had a bit too much to drink, probably couldn't see through Chuck's good-natured shrugs and laughs. But Sarah could see his shoulders slump a bit with every round of laughter.
"Oh, I love you, Chuck," Ellie sighed when she'd recovered, "but bravery isn't exactly your strong suit." As she took another sip of wine, Ellie missed what Sarah could plainly see - Chuck's eyes darted down to the carpet, and the last trace of a smile disappeared from his face.
"Hey, know the best recipe for an instant courage infusion?" Devon chuckled. "Base jumping. What do you say, future brother in-law?"
"Are you kidding?" Morgan laughed. "You're inviting the guy who gets dizzy on the third step of the stock ladder to jump off a thousand foot precipice?"
The room exploded again. Casey covered his forehead with his palm. "Ha! I forgot about that. 'I can't stock the Wii's! I can't stock the Wii's! Don't make me stock the Wii's!'"
Sarah looked over at Chuck again as the others laughed even harder at Casey's high-pitched impression. He was smiling again, a half-smile, but Sarah knew the effort it had to be taking. He was a hero, many times over, and couldn't say a single word about it.
"I have a story about Chuck being brave," Sarah calmly said. The room suddenly grew quiet. Chuck and Casey both stared at Sarah - one look of surprise and one look of warning. Sarah ignored both.
"Yes!" Ellie squealed, sitting upright and clapping. "A brave Chuck story! I want to hear it!"
Morgan looked stunned. "How could you not tell me about a display of courage from your past, Chuckster? Am I not the Chewbacca to your Han Solo?"
"Ah," Chuck stammered. "That's because… ahem... you see…"
"Chuck… didn't want anyone to know about this," Sarah interrupted, "but I think, considering the current topic of conversation, the story deserves to be told."
"But… Sarah," Casey growled, her first name obviously uncomfortable on his lips, "if Chuck doesn't want you to tell the story, perhaps you shouldn't get yourself into trouble… with Chuck."
Sarah leaned over and ruffled Casey's hair. "Oh, John," she smiled, her voice suddenly saccharine sweet. "I think Chuck is going to be just fine with the story, the way I tell it." Sarah could hear an indeterminate number of Casey's teeth crunch together as his jaw clenched. Sarah turned back to the rest of the group.
"So," she said. "Here's my story."
"It was about a month ago. A really gorgeous night. We had decided to go out to dinner. Afterwards, Chuck and I were walking along the beach, talking about… um…"
"It wouldn't be professional, Chuck. You're an asset, and I'm your handler."
Don't you ever get tired of saying that?" Chuck asked. "I mean, seriously, the specific muscle groups that are responsible for making your mouth form those words must be exhausted."
Sarah couldn't help it. She laughed. She knew that she shouldn't; that she should stay neutral and on subject, but the guy was just so funny sometimes. Of course, her laughter just spurred him on.
"What you should do, is you should record yourself saying that. Carry around a little digital message taker - we sell 'em at the BuyMore, on special this month only for the low low price of 24.99 - and when I ask you why we can't be a real couple, you whip that baby out, and it plays your voice, saying 'It wouldn't be professional, Chuck.'" Chuck raised his voice several octaves for the last part. Sarah smacked him playfully on the arm.
"My voice does not sound like that."
"It does in my head."
"Well, to be honest, it only sounds like that when you're crushing my hopes and dreams. It's a defense mechanism to help me deal with the rejection."
Sarah stopped and looked at Chuck, her lips a tight line. A look of regret crossed Chuck's face. Before he could say anything, Sarah spoke.
"You know that it's not-- that I'm not--" Sarah sighed in frustration. Why did she have such a hard time talking about this? She saw the expectant look on Chuck's face. He wasn't about to bail her out, either. She took a deep breath.
"This isn't me rejecting you, Chuck," she finally said, sincerely. "I just - I've been one way for so long. I've followed the rules, and seen everything in black and white, and here comes this whole big…" Sarah trailed off as she gestured vaguely with her hands.
"Shade of grey," Chuck said, smiling sadly.
Sarah smiled back. "Shade of grey," she repeated.
Chuck stepped closer. "Grey's not a bad color, you know."
Sarah knew what was about to happen. She knew she shouldn't, but something compelled her to match Chuck's movement, to step closer to him. "I do like grey," she whispered. "I have a couple grey sweaters, actually."
"Yeah," Chuck said softly, leaning in close. "There's that fuzzy turtleneck you wear sometimes."
"You like that one?" Sarah asked, closing her eyes.
"I like all of them," Chuck said, as he touched his lips to hers.
"I guess the topic of conversation isn't really integral to the story. In any case, we had wandered kind of far down the beach from where we'd parked. We… weren't really paying attention to our surroundings, and suddenly we heard this voice."
"Do not move."
Chuck didn't even turn around. He just sighed, exasperated. "Have you noticed how often this happens? Every time we're about to kiss, a bad guy shows up. The government seriously needs to harness this power we have. They could send us to Afghanistan, stand us next to a mountain range, and tell us to touch noses. I'm sure Bin Laden would suddenly appear out of nowhere."
"Are nonsensical rants another one of your defense mechanisms?" Sarah asked, tensing to spin around and draw her gun.
"You're seriously asking me that? How long have you known me?"
"Do not move," the accented voice repeated. "If you reach for your weapon, you will both be killed. Turn around slowly." Sarah's heart sank as she recognized the accent. She turned around, her fears realized when she saw…
"Christu Verandt," she said, her voice dripping with contempt.
"There were three men standing there, and one of them had a gun. He was… well, he… seemed to be the leader of the group. At least, he was the one who did all the talking."
"Sandra Wexler," Verandt said, smugly. "Or, at least you were Sandra Wexler when your country sent you to infiltrate my organization in Moldova."
Sarah remembered the mission, a covert op to infiltrate Verandt's smuggling operation. She and Bryce had been sent to Verandt's base of operations in Moldova purely for intelligence gathering purposes, but when Sarah realized that Verandt was running a slavery operation, sending young girls to the US against their wills to work in brothels there, she had lost her temper and started shooting. Bryce had recovered quickly enough to provide backup for her to take out the guards and release the girls, but not before Verandt got a good look at her. Her cover had been blown, and even though she and Bryce had escaped with the girls, the mission had been a failure. Verandt had disappeared without a trace.
Sarah could feel Chuck tense up next to her. It appeared that Verandt was the only one armed, but his henchmen were certainly formidable enough. The good news was that they weren't here for Chuck. If she could spin this the right way, she could keep him safe.
"You will be coming with us, Ms. Wexler," Verandt said. "You cost me quite a bit of trouble with your interference, and you have much to do to repay me that debt."
"They were after… my purse. And just as I was about to give it to them…"
Sarah moved to step forward and give herself up, but felt Chuck's hand on her arm. He stepped in front of her and faced Verandt.
"You didn't really think this through, Christu," Chuck said, confidently and calmly. Sarah almost didn't recognize his voice.
"You I do not know," Verandt said, amused at Chuck's display. "You will get on your knees, count to a thousand, look up and we are gone. This is my final offer."
Chuck leaned closer to Verandt. "You're not listening to me. I said, you didn't think this through." He looked briefly at the two henchmen, seemed to shudder for a moment, then addressed Verandt again. "Your gun doesn't have a silencer. And this beach is quiet, but not even close to deserted. So, if you fire that weapon, you'll never make it out of here unnoticed. You'll be caught within blocks."
"Chuck told them that the only way they were getting… my purse… was to go through him. And he wasn't going anywhere."
Verandt laughed, an oily sound. "There are other ways to kill you. Much more quiet." One of his henchmen cracked his knuckles. Sarah gripped her gun discreetly, hiding the motion behind Chuck.
"You," Chuck said, pointing to the first henchman, "are Alexi Drakot. Mercenary from the Ukraine, primarily hired as low level muscle for minor players. Christu here is the biggest player you've ever worked with. And you're probably hoping he doesn't find out about Yugoslavia."
Drakot's face drained of color. Verandt looked at him out of the corner of his eye.
"You," Chuck continued, pointing at the second henchman, "are Linu Gruben. German national who's spent most of the last three years as a collector for mobsters in Prague and Athens, scaring gamblers into paying their debts. But as an international bad guy, you barely register as a blip on the NSA's radar." Gruben's mouth dropped open.
"So," Chuck said, stepping closer to Verandt. "If you're holding the gun, that makes you the toughest guy in your little group. But you see, I know a little something about you that no one else knows. Care to guess what that is? Or should I just tell your boys here, and see how they feel about it?"
A bead of sweat ran down Verandt's face. He shook his head.
"Turns out they weren't so tough after all."
"Give me the gun," Chuck growled into Verandt's face. Sarah stared in disbelief as Verandt handed his weapon to Chuck. She immediately drew her gun.
"Down on the ground! All of you!" The men complied immediately, and Chuck stepped back behind Sarah.
"Sarah," he whispered.
"How-- how should I hold this so it doesn't accidentally go off?"
Sarah leaned forward in her chair and tousled Chuck's hair. "So, you see," she said, smiling. "Chuck is a lot more heroic than you think."
The room was silent. Ellie, Devon and Morgan stared, stunned. Casey rolled his eyes. Ellie got up from her position on the floor, moved over to Chuck, and knelt down next to him, a shocked look on her face. She reached a hand out…
…and smacked Chuck upside his head.
"Ow!" Chuck yelped. "What the--"
"What is WRONG with you?" she shouted. "You could have been killed, over what? A few dollars and some credit cards?"
"Yeah, dude," Devon said, disapprovingly. "Not awesome to risk your life over material things."
"Chuck! What were you thinking?" Morgan asked, wide-eyed. "Those guys could have murdered you both, and where would that have left me? Alone in the world! No one to comfort me but--" He looked up at Ellie, starry eyed. "We would have had to lean on each other for support." Suddenly it didn't seem like Morgan minded the idea.
Ellie stood up. "Don't you ever, ever do anything that foolhardy again. Do you understand me?" Without waiting for a response, she turned and stormed towards her bedroom. Chuck watched her go, mouth agape.
Devon shook his head, patted Chuck on the shoulder, and followed Ellie. Morgan stood up as well and sighed.
"I'm not one to lecture you, my life partner," Morgan said, stretching, "but life is a precious commodity. It's not to be wasted on trivial things." He scratched his belly, and looked around the apartment. "Well, I'm gonna lock myself in your room and play Halo for about eleven hours." Morgan shuffled into Chuck's bedroom and shut the door. The distinct sound of the lock clicking resonated into the living room.
"Locking the door seems unnecessary," Chuck grumbled.
Casey chuckled softly and made his way to the apartment door. "Rule number one of dealing with civilians, Walker. Keep the stories to yourself." He walked out, shutting the door behind him.
Chuck and Sarah both stared forward in silence. Sarah drew a deep breath.
"Wow," she said.
"I'm really sorry about that."
"I appreciate what you were trying to do."
"Do you? Because I saw it going so much better in my head."
"Upon initial investigation, I'm sure it did seem like a really good idea."
"It did! It really did."
Neither spoke for a moment. Finally Sarah slid down off the couch and sat next to Chuck on the floor, leaning against him. She tilted her head towards his.
"You know, I don't think I ever really thanked you for what you did that night."
Chuck waved his hand. "Oh, god. Don't worry about it. I'm sure, you know…"
Sarah turned to look at Chuck. "You're sure about what?"
Chuck shrugged. "I'm sure Bryce would have, like, I don't know, knocked them all out with a magic judo kick or something."
"Chuck," Sarah said, sliding her arm around the back of his neck.
"Yeah," Chuck sighed, closing his eyes and enjoying the feel of Sarah's closeness.
"For all of his training, and experience, and… magic judo kicks…"
Chuck laughed. Sarah did too, but stopped and let her expression go serious. She looked deep into Chuck's eyes. "Bryce never… protected me… the way you did that night." She brought her hand down onto his cheek, caressing it gently. "It was a nice feeling."
Chuck leaned his head close to Sarah's. "I do like nice feelings," he whispered.
Sarah closed her eyes. "I'm having a nice feeling right now," she said softly.
"Is that a fact," Chuck said.
"You do realize," Chuck sighed, as their noses touched, "that as soon as we kiss, Fulcrum's going to knock that door down. It's Bartowski's law."
"Worth the risk," Sarah said, kissing Chuck deeply.