'Get your coat, Chuck,' John snapped, pulling the door closed behind him.
The young man looked up from his perch at the side of the fountain. 'A mission?' he asked, shaking water from his fingers.
'Pancakes.' The agent strode through the courtyard towards his car. 'Now!'
Chuck scrambled to his feet and ran after his handler.
'Where are we going?' He tugged open the car door and folded himself into the passenger seat.
John stared at him.
'What? Oh, right!' Hurriedly, Chuck fastened his seatbelt. 'So, is that a code word, or something?'
The older man grunted and pulled smoothly into traffic. 'Or something.'
Chuck watched him as he drove. It was a short journey; five minutes later, John signalled, turned into a parking lot, and Chuck's eyes widened.
'I'm buying.' Flashing a rare smile, John turned off the engine and opened his door. With his customary expression of confusion, Chuck followed.
Once they were seated in a booth which provided John with an excellent view of both the entrance and the kitchen door, Chuck leaned forwards.
'What's going on? Are we meant to be watching for someone? John? Casey?'
John pressed a menu into Chuck's hands and picked up another. 'Pick something.'
With a sigh, Chuck looked down at the menu. A minute later, a waitress came by.
'Coffee. And I'll have the harvest grain and nut pancakes with cinnamon apple,' Casey rattled off. 'Chuck?'
'I, uh... Coke? And the strawberry banana pancakes, thanks.'
Declining whipped cream, they sat in silence until their drinks were placed in front of them.
'So what's all this about, John?' Chuck asked, toying with the straw in his glass.
'You've stopped talking.' The agent leaned back, took a sip of his coffee.
'No I haven't!' Chuck protested, voice high with indignation. 'I was talking! I asked you where we were going, why we're here, and you didn't answer! If anything, I'd say that makes you the one who's stopped talking, but you never talk much anyway.'
John raised an eyebrow. 'You avoided talking with Ellie yesterday evening. Today you actually blew off Morgan when he asked you what sandwich worked best for zero-g. If it's not work-related, you haven't said it. What's going on in there, Chuck?' He leaned forward and rapped a knuckle on the young man's forehead.
'Hey, stop it!' Chuck scowled. 'What if I just don't have anything to say?'
'Hah! The day you run out of things to say about sandwiches is the day I turn in my NRA membership.' John leaned back again as the waitress returned with their orders.
'I just... have a lot to think about,' Chuck said quietly, staring down at his pancakes. 'I know I'm under surveillance, but I just didn't realise it was quite so...'
'No surveillance here,' John pointed out, gesturing around the restaurant with his fork. 'Beyond the CCTV over the register, that is. You want to talk, it goes no further.'
Chuck's shoulders dropped as some of his tension left. Poking at his pancakes with his fork, Chuck sighed. 'I never meant to get Sarah in trouble.'
'That's not all your fault. Chuck,' John said. 'Sarah being partnered with Bryce is the reason why her bosses kept such a close eye on her, not you. She was off-balance from before he ever went rogue, from the time they first started working together. No matter what, her motivation's going to be suspect.'
'That's not fair. Sarah's a damn good agent,' Chuck said vehemently.
'And the General knows it, so you don't have to worry on that score. Easy, tiger.' John took another bite of his pancakes.
Chuck cut a piece out of a pancake with the side of his fork and speared it. Eyes fixed on it, his mouth twisted into a bitter smile. 'I didn't know it was going to be this hard.'
John put down his fork and waited.
'I know I can't go into a bunker. It'd kill me, being locked away from everyone I love. I just didn't know it'd be so... painful... here.'
'Then you should try staying in the car,' John said mildly.
'Not - not the running and the being shot at and kidnapped and tortured, although that is pretty painful-'
'I didn't know this would break my heart,' Chuck whispered, eyes fixed on his food.
'It tastes better hot,' John said. 'Try it.'
Numbly, Chuck did as he was told, putting the forkful into his mouth and chewing mechanically. He swallowed it down with a swig of coke and went back to poking at his pancakes with his fork.
'You really care that much about Sarah?' John reached across the table and pulled Chuck's plate towards him. He swiped Chuck's knife and fork and quickly cut the pancakes into bite-sized pieces before pushing the plate back. 'Eat.'
'I'm not five, you know,' Chuck frowned, spearing another chunk of pancake.
'That'd be why you're playing with your food, then,' John said drily, going back to work on his own plateful.
'Hah, very funny.' They ate in silence for a couple of minutes before Chuck spoke again. 'I don't just mean Sarah, he explained, finally meeting the agent's eyes. 'It's Ellie thinking I'm never going to grow up and become a responsible adult. It's Morgan thinking he's a terrible friend when it's me who's never there for him. It's everyone having secrets, being agents and double agents. It's not being able to trust anyone ever because even the pitta girl is out to get me. It's Jill and finally doing something right, being a good spy, getting the girl, only she turns out to have been Fulcrum all along. I'm starting to doubt everyone, even me.'
He sighed, took a sip of his drink. 'At least you're you. Sarah's not Sarah, and no matter how I feel about her, that won't change. We can't ever have a normal life, a normal relationship, because even if I manage to get the Intersect out of my head, I'll still have been the Intersect and she'll still be a spy who can't even tell me her real name. We won't ever be together.'
They ate in silence again for another minute before Chuck spoke again.
'Even that's not it, not really. I guess it's the way that she could just disappear. Did disappear. And just for a moment there was a part of me that felt relieved that I wouldn't have to face living with her, that I could stop with this whole emotional rollercoaster ride.'
'But she came back again,' John pointed out. 'And she's not going anywhere. Neither am I.'
'Until your orders change,' Chuck responded. 'Or until there's a new Intersect. Or until I die. Or until you put me in a bunker. Or until you die. And I won't see you again, any of you, and I'll never know what's happened.'
'So that's it?' John leaned forwards. 'There are no guarantees for anyone, Chuck. Morgan could get knocked off that stupid bike of his on the way into work tomorrow. Hell, Big Mike's a candidate for a heart attack if ever I saw one and how no-one's murdered Jeff and Lester I don't know.'
The corners of Chuck's mouth twitched.
'No, you don't get to have a normal life, and we all get it that you didn't sign up for this. And Sarah and I have done our very best to keep you alive and in one piece and living as normal a life as possible. But in a normal life, love isn't a given. You find it if you're very lucky, and if you're even luckier, that person loves you back and stays with you, but before we came along, you weren't even trying to date. So don't blame us for all of your heartache.'
'Thank you so much for reminding me how pathetic my life was before you brought guns into it,' Chuck said sarcastically. 'I feel so much better now.'
'My point is, Chuck, most people don't get a happy-ever-after. At least you have two people in your life who are dedicated to you. Just you.'
'Yeah, right. You guys are here to protect the Intersect, I get that. And it's more than most people have, I get that too...'
John snorted in disgust. 'For a genius, you're such a moron. Listen to what I'm saying, idiot.'
Chuck frowned. 'You're saying I'm stupid.'
'Right now? Hell, yeah.' John scraped up the last scraps of pancake and popped them into hs mouth. He watched as Chuck stared down at his own plate, then around the restaurant, then back at the man sitting opposite him.
'Enlighten me,' Chuck said with a sigh. 'I'm obviously so stupid I just don't get it.'
'Sarah's life revolves around you. My life revolves around you. You think I'd take a damn computer for pancakes?'
'So you brought me out for pancakes because... you like me? You actually care about me?' Chuck's voice was full of disbelief.
'You called it.' John deftly forked up a piece of strawberry from Chuck's plate. 'I'm the one watching over you. I'm the one who hears all your bad dreams. I get to listen to you sighing and moping around. I save your ass day after day and I let you annoy the heck out of me without pounding you into sushi. So yeah, I care about you. Now, you have a choice. You can either wallow in self-pity and loneliness, or you can man up and take what Sarah and I have to offer. It might not be flowers and romance and holding hands, but it means something.' He paused, staring hard at the young man. 'It means a lot.'
Chuck blinked. 'Just so that I'm clear, what, what exactly is it that you're... offering?'
'Sarah cares about you. She'll even kiss you on occasion. She's tuned in to your emotional needs, and she does her best, but there's only so far she can go because otherwise she will be reassigned. Her emotional attachment to you will always be suspect to our bosses. But everyone knows I'm a professional. I don't get attached. I don't have feelings.'
'You mean apart from anger and a really scary sense of humour?' One corner of Chuck's mouth quirked up in an almost-smile.
'All part of the reputation,' John admitted.
'But you do have feelings and you have grown attached?' Chuck asked. 'To me? Wow.' They sat in silence while he ate some of his pancake. 'Really? Because I thought you only liked really hot, scary lady-spies, not nerds. Male nerds. Me.'
'Yeah, well, you aren't getting flowers and if I'm holding your hand I'm checking for a pulse,' John grumbled.
'So... this would be a date?' Chuck asked and finished up his pancakes.
'You planning on putting out?'
Chuck laughed at the agent's leer. 'On a first date?'
John grinned and opened his mouth to say something, but the return of the waitress interrupted him. 'Just the check, please,' he said instead, pulling his wallet from his pocket.
Leaving the money on the table, the two men stood and walked back to the car. 'I'm not suspect, Chuck,' John said as they crossed the parking lot. 'I'm not Sarah, but I feel the same way about you she does, and if you want to sleep over, I won't just stick to my side of the bed in my pjs.'
Chuck was quiet until they reached the car, then, leaning against the door, he said, 'I never thought of you that way, John. I mean, you're a handsome man and I... I have noticed, but...'
'That's okay,' John said, opening his door.
'No! No, that's not it. I just, I... Tomorrow. Pancakes. If we aren't running for our lives yet again, you can take me for pancakes. Second date.' He smiled, hesitantly.
John nodded and Chuck's smile spread. 'Second date it is.'
After Chuck was safely back in his room, John switched on his tv. General Beckman stared at him.
'Job done. He'll be okay,' the agent replied.
'I don't want to know the details, Major Casey. Just keep the asset happy by any means necessary.'
The connection cut and John picked up his headphones and put them on. He could hear Chuck talking over the surveillance feed.
'I'm telling you, you can't have a wet sandwich filling in space! It'd float off and get caught in the air recycling systems. It'd be Apollo Thirteen with ranch dressing!'
Morgan's voice sounded tinny over Chuck's speakerphone. 'Dude, it has to be gloopy enough to stop breadcrumbs from going everywhere!'
John smiled. He was looking forward to tomorrow's pancakes.