author's note: i've made a slight modification: you know that emergency decon shower scene in chuck vs the fat lady? well, we all know the only reason they weren't naked was because we were watching it on NBC. ;) in this story, the Hi-C panic trumped modesty.
also, i've borrowed a little detail from Notorious JMG's "Bright Side" Chuck universe.
this has been edited down from the nc-17 version. warning: some adult language and situations, violence.
Agent Jack Shelton was, by far, Chuck's least favorite teacher at Langley. That wasn't saying much. For a month Chuck had been toiling away at the Agency's training camp, limping back to his dorm at night with fresh bruises and sore muscles, learning to do things that, he'd found, he was only proficient in when a game controller was in his hand. He was a crack shot when it came to zombies, not so much when his red-handled gun was slick in his sweaty fist and he could hear his own heart echoing in his ears. The teachers at Langley were all uniformly dour and snippy, as though the entire place had run out of coffee years before and they still hadn't figured out how to deal with it.
Shelton himself was no better or worse than the rest, really. He wore the standard uniform, khakis and a polo, tinted aviator glasses, cocky grin. He had a salt-and-pepper bristle-brush of a mustache and a very high opinion of himself, and Chuck had yet to figure out why.
Considering that Shelton taught seduction, and had yet to demonstrate. Not that Chuck wanted him to demonstrate. Chuck would rather bitch-slap Casey with a baseball bat and accept the consequences than see Shelton work his magic on a lady. Though, from what Chuck could see so far, it wasn't magic. Supposedly it all boiled down to trust and confidence and alcohol.
And Shelton's own opinion of Chuck hadn't improved at all when Chuck had admitted that he might have had a few lessons from Roan Montgomery, whom Shelton railed about given even the slightest provocation.
Five minutes of class left to go. Chuck glanced down at his watch, foot tapping nervously under his desk. After class he was heading straight to the airport; after four weeks of grueling training they were getting the July fourth weekend off, and he was eager to leave the humid soup of the Virginia summer behind.
"Not so fast, gentlemen. You have an assignment this weekend."
Shelton's aide started wheeling a cart full of equipment up the aisle, passing down bulky transponders and what Chuck recognized as primitive bugs in the GL series. Josh, two seats down, turned the transponder over in his hands and glanced up at Shelton, agape.
"What is this, Cold War surplus?"
A few of the other students chuckled. Shelton's grin went from smug to dangerous. It was all in the dimple, Chuck had realized.
"Close, Campbell. But it works. For homework, you are to take the GL-400," Shelton held up the bug, "and the transponder," he hefted the bulkier piece of outdated equipment in his other hand, "making sure to keep the transponder within 400 feet, see, easy to remember there," he grinned, "and seduce someone."
Most of Chuck's classmates grinned. Chuck dropped the transponder so suddenly that the brittle plastic crunched in protest. Chuck gave a vague apologetic smile and turned his panicked gaze back to the front of the room.
"Ground rules. No exes, acquaintances, friends, or current partners! None of your classmates! Keep the bug on for the entire time. Bonus points if you seduce someone of the opposite gender from the one you usually go for. It's up to you whether you go for the whole enchilada, or just stick to the foreplay." He reached into his breast pocket for a toothpick and clamped it between his unnaturally white teeth. "When you come back from your break, turn in two things: the transponder, and one piece of moderate- to high-level intelligence on your mark. I will accept e-mail addresses and passwords, account numbers and PINs, or another piece of information the mark would be highly unlikely to tell anyone of first acquaintance. And I will be checking. Good luck."
Chuck shoved the transponder into his backpack, groaning. Right. Awesome.
He was just shifting his pack to the other shoulder when he reached into the pocket for his iPhone and nearly dropped the whole thing. It was on silent but vibrating, and Sarah Walker's image was grinning at him from the backlit screen. It slipped from his grasp and Chuck made one fruitless snatch for it before the Intersect kicked in and he plucked it gracefully out of the air, two inches above the floor.
Casey and Sarah and Beckman had all warned him to resist using the Intersect if it was at all possible. With the first Intersect that had been entirely out of his hands, but with this one, he could will the flashes. Even so, in the week before he'd left he had been unusually clumsy, and every time, every single damn time, he hadn't been able to stop it, even though in the end it hadn't been much help at all. He felt like Neo, like one of the X-Men, something fantastic.
Something he wasn't allowed to show anyone at Langley, under any circumstances, because they still weren't sure just how deep the Ring's recruitment went.
"Hello? S-Sarah?" Chuck stammered as he brought the phone to his ear, but she was already gone. Chuck sighed in frustration as he turned a corner and almost slammed into Mike Crane.
"Hey, buddy, you're in a hurry."
"Yeah, sorry," Chuck sighed, watching his phone's screen go blank. He had a cover here, too, as Nathan Carmichael, his hair was so close-cropped that it was practically a buzz cut, and his red-handled gun thumped awkwardly on his belt as he shifted his pack again. The red-handled guns were part of the uniform, a way to get the recruits used to the feel of a gun on them at all times, but Chuck would be glad to lose the weight for the next few days.
Mike started rambling on about something and Chuck let his mind wander. Why had Sarah called? They had spoken a few times since he'd left, but only briefly. Being at Langley made him feel like he was moving backward, but then Sarah hadn't wanted to be with him when he was a normal guy, had she. He just wasn't sure if having another Intersect rattling around in his head was too high a price to pay, for having her.
Or not. Between Casey, CIA, and his family, he seemed to be doomed when it came to Sarah and what he wanted.
Sarah Walker frowned at her iPhone and hit the "End Call" button, the point of her hip resting against the high table. In Castle's main room, Casey was going over satellite and infrared for their next mission, allotting firepower, plotting entrance routes. He was like a kid in a candy store, with Chuck away. She had to admit, despite the cognitive dissonance of working with an NSA agent without being at gunpoint, and in the absence of the one reason they had been paired in the first place, John Casey was probably the best partner she'd ever had.
Above their heads a hammer struck the floor and someone let out a string of muffled curses. The Orange Orange had closed a day after Chuck left and her office space was "undergoing renovations, get ready for an exciting new taste experience coming Fall 2009!", and so she had been able to forego the orange tank and white jeans for her preferred outfit of unrelieved black on black. Casey had made some comment about how she'd stopped wearing the low-cut stuff now that Bartowski wasn't around to see it, and had been on the floor five seconds later.
He might be a good partner but that didn't mean he knew when to shut his mouth.
Still frowning, her brow furrowed the tiniest bit, Sarah reholstered her cell and strolled back into the main room. "Has Beckman said we need to take Chuck along for this?"
Casey snorted. "We'll be in and out before Recruit Spazz gets off the plane. Besides, after last time?"
Sarah nodded absently, pulling up a blueprint of the El Rey estate, checking for alternate exits as she pointedly tried not to remember what a huge mess that last mission had been, the mission that finally convinced Beckman to allow Chuck into spy school, even with the risk it could be to his cover, and finally convinced Chuck that he needed some formal training beyond the occasional bout of sparring or makeshift target practice. It had been simple, really, like all their other missions, but it had ended when, at three o'clock in the morning, she and Casey had tracked Chuck's GPS watch to a quarry in the middle of nowhere, because he definitely had not stayed in the car, and in the spy version of rock-paper-scissors, unexpected taser still beat hand-to-hand combat. She'd had to perform CPR on him, until he sputtered out half a lungful of water and gasped his breath back and she had been drenched anyway, and blinking water out of her eyes, she definitely had not been crying.
One lie to Ellie, two suitcases, and twelve hours later, he was on his way to Langley.
"Is his new place set up yet?"
Casey chuckled. "Yeah, no. Guess the stimulus money hasn't trickled down into the federal government yet."
Sarah's phone chimed from her hip and she frowned at it, smoothly unholstering it. "Damn spotty reception," she snarled, swinging on her heel and heading for the stairs before she remembered that she had to take the back entrance.
Chuck's voice on her voicemail was the first time she'd heard it in over a week. "Hey, Sarah, sorry I missed your call. Look, after I get in tonight, Ellie and I have some plans, but I was thinking maybe we could meet... tomorrow? Ish? Like late-- maybe early afternoon, catch a movie, y'know?" He chuckled nervously. "Anyway, I'm about to board, but I'll call you tomorrow. Punch Casey for me. Lightly."
Sarah tapped "Call back," but Chuck's voicemail clicked on immediately. She headed back into Castle, chewing her lower lip. Casey was loading a duffel.
"Didn't you tell me Ellie and Devon left this morning?"
"Yeah, Devon came over and asked me to watch their place while they're gone. Wine country, destination wedding, blah blah." Casey's eyes lit up as he tossed a few mags into the duffel.
"As in, for the whole weekend?"
"Why, Walker? Got some plans for Chuck's old room while he's away?"
Sarah picked up the crumpled wrapper from Casey's morning biscuit and tossed it at him, smirking as he turned, the waxed paper bouncing harmlessly off his shoulder. "If Ellie's going to be gone, why would Chuck lie and say he'll be with her tonight?"
"Don't know, don't care," Casey returned, heading to the armory for his vest.
"You think you can handle this by yourself, cowboy?" Sarah called, bringing up the familiar surveillance feed from the courtyard outside Ellie's place.
"You're not coming? I'm heartbroken," Casey grinned. "All the more for me."
Sarah considered going for one of her throwing knives, but decided against it, as she checked Chuck's flight schedule.
"Hey," Casey called, heading for the back entrance. "You know, it's probably real simple. He just has a hot date tonight."
Sarah's knife thudded into the doorframe, dead centered on the space where Casey's nose had been two seconds before.
At first, Sarah had been intrigued.
She hadn't exactly been all that secretive about it, but once she'd spotted Chuck leaving the terminal, she hadn't had time to intercept him before he'd gone immediately to the rental car shuttle. Once there, she watched him debate before choosing a late-model coupe, maybe a little flashier than she would have expected, but nothing too over the top. Not that she had particularly been the best example in that regard, she smirked, gunning the Porsche's engine.
His next stop was a department store. He walked in looking beaten but resolved, his t-shirt and jeans wrinkled and shapeless from the long flight. He walked back out with a plastic-shrouded garment the same bulk as a suit tossed over his shoulder, a shoebox tucked into the crook of his other elbow.
Curiouser and curiouser. She knew for a fact that the one suit he owned didn't fit him all that well and that he'd always left his various disguises in Castle, whenever possible, to avoid raising Ellie's suspicions about his suddenly prolific wardrobe.
She thought again of Casey's parting jab and shook her head briskly, adjusting her binoculars.
Sarah could follow Chuck back to his sister's apartment in her sleep, and practically had a few times before. She kept well back in the traffic and continued up to the next exit, looping around, finding a vantage point near his probable route, well concealed since her car would stick out to him like a sore thumb. When he came back out he was wearing a lightweight summer suit she'd never seen before, hair freshly done, smoked aviators in place, and Sarah actually bit her lip.
It was different when she knew what he was doing. She had no clue what his game was, now, and that frightened her. He stowed a duffel bag in the trunk, pushed something into his jacket pocket, and swung behind the wheel. When Sarah's phone rang she answered it without looking at it, her gaze still trained on him.
"Bartowski getting ready for his date?"
"Don't tell me you're already done."
"In and out in an hour flat. Told you it wouldn't take long. Just one last thing I have to check on. You on Intersect detail tonight?"
"You available for backup?"
"He's home for the weekend from spy school, Walker. What do you think's gonna go wrong?"
Sarah snorted. "This is Chuck we're talking about, remember? He's barely able to go twenty-four hours without running into an agent."
"Yeah," Casey grudgingly admitted. "I'll be on standby."
Once he was inside the bar, Chuck stood still for a moment, letting his eyes adjust, taking in his surroundings. He was in a brand-new, so shiny it probably still had a tag attached that he'd missed, summer suit, nice shoes, freshly shaved, and felt like a total asshole.
It was bad enough, doing this when he had been dating the girl for three months straight, had a good idea that she was interested in going to bed with him, and had a bottle of good wine (or, maybe, a white dinner jacket and a single red rose) at the ready. This? He wasn't made for this. Shelton had continually emphasized that enemy agents were always on their guard and ready for this kind of attack, that it had to be perfectly natural, and that in the morning, it was just a matter of spycraft and short-term cons and the game. Everyone involved already knew the rules.
This? This felt like being a whore. For a homework assignment.
The sun was still just visible above the horizon, and it was really too early for this, but Chuck scoped out his possible marks anyway, as he sauntered to the bar, narrowly avoiding being bowled over by a hastily pushed-out chair on his way. He ordered whatever was on tap and slid onto a barstool, long legs perched awkward and gangly, knees out. A trio of female workmates giggled and sipped margaritas in a booth near the door; none were particularly attractive and Chuck didn't like his chances, so he let his gaze drift again, covering with a long sip of beer.
He just wanted to get it over with. He just wanted to have this behind him so he could go see a movie with Sarah, maybe, if some enormous national emergency didn't intervene, and they could laugh about it (except there was no way in hell he was ever going to tell her anything about this), and if this worked, well, maybe he'd have something new to try out on her, besides honesty, which didn't really seem to work out all that well.
He studied a redhead perched at the other end of the bar by her reflection in the mirror. She wore a bright tank-top but kept tugging at a cropped short-sleeved cardigan buttoned over it, and she periodically fiddled with her drink, checked her watch and cell, and shifted on the stool, glancing down at her outfit. When she glanced up, her gaze lingered on the bartender, and she was pretty, if shy and moderately overweight.
Oh, oh God, break some wallflower's heart and this will really eat you alive.
Chuck shrugged, tossing back the rest of his beer as he shifted his attention to the game playing on the television angled in from the corner. Redhead would be a good candidate, even though he could already feel himself becoming apologetic and sympathetic and utterly remorseful over what he was about to do, if someone else didn't walk in.
And then she did.
Sarah was leaning forward in the driver's seat, peering into the vanity mirror and expertly smudging her eyeshadow to give that sultry-not-slutty look, debating between the auburn and the chestnut wigs, when she stopped and shifted the phone against her shoulder. "Casey, what?" she asked, brusque and clipped, a bad feeling crawling up her spine at his silence.
"I have Bartowski on GPS, are you still with him?"
"I'm not—" Sarah stopped, started again. "I'm at his location. Does this have anything to do with that little 'thing' you had to 'check on'?"
"You know how we thought the buyer was Sanchez? He was the intermediary. All I could get out of Gomez and his idiot team leader was a code word, but it's not returning anything in the database. If we don't get to the real buyer—"
"I know, I know," Sarah cut him off impatiently, snapping her mirror back up. "What's the code word?"
The woman (Chuck noticed only then that he was thinking of the redhead as a girl) who stalked into the bar was angry, bristling with it, her light eyes flashing, the pierce of her gaze turning everyone else's away. She was almost quivering with indignation as she slapped a metallic fringed clutch onto the bar and ordered a mojito, her voice carrying just that slightest hint of an exotic accent. She shifted on her heels, revealing an expanse of tanned and toned inner thigh, and Chuck's gaze went back to his drink so fast he practically got whiplash.
There was out of his league (Sarah Walker), and then there was out of his league (Sarah Walker, most of the Pussycat Dolls, Angelina Jolie). This woman was definitely the latter.
Then Shelton's commanding bark of a voice came back to him, and Chuck flinched.
Confidence is the key. There are no women out of your league, even if they think they are. And they can feel it when you are sure of yourself. Sometimes you have to knock it up a notch to smug bastard, but start low key.
And no matter what, remember that you are not desperate. There are always other women, even if she's the only one who has the missile launch codes you need stuffed in her bra.
And, Chuck made a mental note, no matter what happened between him and the exotic woman on his right, he was sure there was no way he was going to break her heart. He put a smile on his face and, when the bartender, wide-eyed, brought her drink over and she snapped open her bag, Chuck made a swift motion.
"It's on me," he said, and turned to nod at her. Her gaze flicked over him, and when it rose back to his face, a slight, almost predatory smile was on her lips.
On the pretext of finding money for the bill, Chuck reached into his pocket and managed to turn on the transmitter. "Charles Carmichael," he nodded, offering his hand.
"Charles Carmichael," she repeated, and oh, there was definitely some gleam in her eye now, like either she'd heard of him or all her favorite lovers had been named Charles.
He had a definite feeling it was the former.
Sarah swiftly opened her glove compartment and went for her backup piece, looked down at her dress's silhouette, and shrugged. Where Chuck was concerned it was always better to have more firepower than less, but the bulk of a gun under the eggplant jersey definitely wouldn't stay hidden for long.
She sighed as she slotted her mic into a bracelet, secured the earwig, and shut her eyes. Just once... well, one more time, she amended, she'd like an evening with Chuck that didn't involve Casey barking warnings into her ear and Chuck himself dodging bullets. Not that this would ever have counted. Whatever was going on in there, he hadn't wanted her in on.
She couldn't blame him.
Well, yeah, actually, she thought, tossing her keys into her clutch and sweeping the door shut behind her, she could. He didn't have to upload the Intersect before destroying it. And she hated, on the one hand, that her speech to him about being a hero had probably had a lot to do with his choice, and on the other hand that she had been ready to walk away from all this and give them a chance, and he would never know that, and he had taken it out of her hands that night. She couldn't walk away while he was still in it, and he just couldn't walk away, period.
She had no illusions that he had done it for her.
Except that every night since he'd left for Langley, she'd dreamt about all the ways this could end badly, and then she was terrified that he had done it for her.
Sarah gathered her newly auburn hair gently in one fist and let it fall, squared her shoulders, and walked into the bar.
Without her even trying, her gaze immediately centered on him, sitting at the bar, turned on his barstool so he was facing a dark brunette woman, also facing the door (at least they'd been able to teach him something), and Sarah's eyes locked with Chuck's, and she saw the grin that began to light up his face before he successfully quashed it, but he kept glancing over at her, and she was exasperated (and charmed) at how badly he hid it.
She was wearing the dress he'd brought her, to wear to her high school reunion. She hadn't planned on it, it had just been the most convenient, she'd already planned on hissing to Casey when he inevitably made some crack about it.
And it was taking everything she had, not to grin back at him.
She tucked a strand of synthetic auburn behind one ear and tapped her lobe, giving him the signal to go along with whatever she was about to say, and saw absolutely no hint of recognition in his face. Maybe he was getting better at this. Maybe he was about to blow it.
Sarah walked over to the bar and ordered a martini, keeping her gaze trained on Chuck through his reflection, then turned around to study the rest of the patrons.
She just needed five minutes with him, probably less, but Chuck seemed entirely enthralled with whatever the brunette was saying, and Sarah didn't even know her smile had frozen on her face until she caught sight of her own reflection again. He was flirting with her.
In one blindingly angry second Sarah cursed Bryce for sending Chuck the Intersect in the first place, for going and getting himself killed so that Chuck would feel somehow compelled to upload the second one, at Chuck for ever telling her that he loved her, at all of it. She hated the fact that the CIA and NSA had gotten along just fine until this damn stupid project, that she was still involved in it, that she cared at all about what he was doing tonight. That if they didn't intercept that intel, countless military bases would be at risk.
And one martini wasn't anywhere near enough. She tossed it back just as the brunette's cell phone started to ring.
And then she saw Chuck's eyes close in that long blink that meant he was having a flash.
Chuck had had many, many more near-death experiences than he'd ever in his wildest nightmares expected to have, and one moment that kept coming back to him, during the montage, was the pure electricity that had sizzled over his skin the first second he had ever seen Sarah Walker. It had been entirely unlike anything else he'd ever felt, the kind of thing he'd thought only existed in sappy romantic comedies, or, maybe, for his sister Ellie when she saw Devon. That was it. Sometimes he thought he'd just been chasing that feeling for two years, that spark, even though it had been subtly different every time he'd seen her.
Locking gazes still did it to him, even moreso after a month away. And there was just something about seeing her in the dress that he'd picked out for her, purple like the bridesmaid's dress she had been wearing when they had been dancing in the courtyard and she'd told him that he was a hero, no matter what else he thought.
From the second he'd had this—thing—in his head, she had been angry, so angry it was a relief to leave. Nothing had been right.
And there had to be something wrong because he could see it in her face, now, in a way he'd never been able to before, that she was vulnerable and angry. Her body language was screaming and if she was ever a deep-cover operative, singlehandedly he had managed to crack her in half.
Chuck cursed everything, the darkly seductive brunette at his left practically vibrating with her anger and sensuality, the bug in his pocket, Shelton, Sarah for not taking his phone call at face value and tracking him here, here of all places, the worst possible second—
And then the woman, she'd introduced herself as Lana, her bag started ringing, and she flipped one smooth wing of dark hair over one shoulder and answered her phone, her voice going lower, clipped. She slipped off the stool, shooting him the most perfunctory apologetic grin before ducking into the hallway outside the restrooms, and he managed to nod back normally.
When her voice was lower like that, the Intersect had started vibrating in his head. It wasn't true, but that was how it felt, like a hard drive kicking on, taking the enormous silver and ruby ring she wore on her left hand, a birthmark on her neck, the voice—
He could actually feel the heat radiating off Sarah's skin, which should've been impossible.
"Her name isn't Lana," he muttered under his breath, keeping his gaze on the hall where she'd disappeared as he angled his body slightly toward Sarah.
"Chuck, Casey and I were assigned to intercept some intel and our timetable is off, we need to find it before midnight, do the words—"
Noche roja, he saw at the top of the file, likely candidate for—
"—noche roja mean anything to you?"
Chuck swung off the barstool without even glancing back, knowing Sarah would follow him. "I can give you a pretty good guess," he sighed, heading for the hallway. "I was probably just trying to pick her up."
"What do you mean, you don't have a gun?"
Chuck glared at her, shifting his weight as they ducked behind a rickety crate. "I'm sorry, you mean the red-handled training-wheels gun they give you at spy school? Yeah, it looks really intimidating. What do you mean, you don't have a gun?"
Sarah mumbled something.
"It didn't really go with this dress," she said, just loud enough for him to almost hear, and he snickered.
"You really have gotten soft since I left, haven't you."
She punched him in the shoulder hard enough, she hoped, to leave a bruise, especially when he winced and rubbed it, glaring at her.
Noche roja had taken one look at the two of them and bolted. Sarah didn't know who had been at the other end of the phone line, but they'd obviously tipped her off. After what should've been a gunfight, that left Sarah with one knife, they had trailed her to a deserted office building. A lumbering brute of a guard stood at the front entrance, scowling in their general direction.
Casey was on the way, and he was good with lumbering brute guards.
"Oh, I don't know, a few dozen guns?" Sarah hissed back.
There really was no challenge when she and Casey were working together. He motioned that he would take the back entrance while she stormed through the front, and that was what happened. No surprises. Chuck, on the other hand—
had come out from behind the crate and was walking over to the guard.
Sarah opened her mouth to hiss his name, then bit her lip. They didn't have a gun. But she'd seen what Chuck could do, with her own eyes, even without a gun. As long as no one here was prepared for him.
Nothing in the two years of their uncertain relationship had prepared her for how nerve-racking it was to watch him when he had even the vaguest inkling that he knew what he was doing. But then, he'd been away at Langley (it would never have been a choice, it would always have been her choice, she and Casey had always ever wanted to keep him innocent of all this), he had to be learning something.
How to chat up slutty brunettes who turn out to be enemy agents.
He always goes for the slutty brunettes, doesn't he.
Chuck was making his gait intentionally lazy and uneven, like he was drunk, his aviator sunglasses dangling from his hand. He walked up to the guard and Sarah watched with her heart in her throat as Chuck patted him on the shoulder, laughing loudly at whatever lame joke (she was sure it was a lame joke) he'd just made. Sarah managed to slowly inch around a barrel, keeping her line of sight to Chuck clear, when he brought up his hand so fast she could barely see the glint of gold, did something complicated, and the guard fell over, barely a groan having escaped his thick lips, and Chuck stood over him, an awestruck look on his face.
"Didn't think that would work," he marveled, turning to gaze at his hand, wincing when he saw the livid, bruised skin.
Sarah brought herself to her full height, glaring at him, but her gaze softened as Chuck grinned at her. She heard the scrape of a shoe sole in the alley and pivoted so fast her hair flew, a knife already in her hand, to see Casey walking toward them.
"What'd I miss?"
Sarah dropped her hand to her hip and sighed. "Someone showing off his training," she snipped, stalking toward Chuck, whose grin was fading. "'Didn't think that would work'? Chuck, you're the—"
"I know," he groaned, bending down to root through the unconscious man's pockets for the key. "I'm the idiot. Come on, she's had enough time to get out of here."
They all tended to blur, Sarah realized, once they were inside and making their careful way around the warehouse. Storage cage, decrepit office equipment, thick heavy chains, overhead hooks at the perfect height to hoist a captive off their feet. Water dripping, metal on metal, metal on concrete, the echo of their own breath as Casey cleared another dead end.
The only thing left to do was to take out the other guard at the loading dock, which Sarah and Casey did with more than their usual level of violence, frustrated at the setback. A white delivery van, battered and rusting, stood at the back, but Chuck noticed the mud still damp and clinging to the tires and circled it, looking for clues.
"No signage," Sarah remarked, reassured by the heft of the gun Casey had brought for her. Although it might as well have been a butter knife for all the good it was doing her now.
"The plate's still on it," Chuck called, his brown hair haloed in the sodium lights.
"I better look up the tag," Casey grunted in annoyance, shifting his pack off his shoulders to pull out his laptop.
Chuck looked up from his iPhone, still absently tapping the touch screen. "Don't bother. Didn't you know?" He held the phone up to face them, a record already displayed on the screen. "CIA has an app for that."
"Why did you lie to me about where you were going to be tonight?"
The three of them had hopped into Casey's Suburban and were rushing toward the most probable drop-off point. In the backseat, Chuck kept his gaze on his right hand as he wrapped another layer of gauze around his bruised knuckles, instead of meeting Sarah's gaze. "Keep your head in the game, Walker," he heard Casey mutter from the driver's seat, and he glanced up just in time to see Sarah's blue-eyed glare cut from Casey back to him.
"I was embarrassed."
"That's not a good reason for you to go off-grid," Sarah snapped. "Besides, if I hadn't been there, when you flashed on her, what would you have done? Gone after her yourself?"
"I'm here on vacation. I didn't know the government wanted to be even further up my ass—"
"What if you'd been hurt—"
"Hey," Casey barked, taking a left so hard it practically slung Chuck across the seat. "Can we stop discussing the lady feelings long enough to finish this mission? You two can fight it out later."
Sarah's tense silence lasted only thirty seconds. "You know, I don't really care what you do on your own time—"
"Good!" Chuck shot back, angrily defensive. She wasn't supposed to have been there anyway. God, he hated his life sometimes.
"But when you're trying to pick up terrorists—"
"Like I knew she was a terrorist!"
"Like you don't have the Intersect in your head! Come on, Chuck! Aren't you taking this seriously at all? If she'd caught you in a slip, you'd be halfway across the ocean by now, sold to the highest bidder!"
"And two years of running for cover haven't convinced me of that enough already! I know it's dangerous!"
"Then you should've called us for backup!"
"It was just a damn homework assignment, Sarah!" Chuck shouted back, their fight pumping his adrenaline so high that the Intersect was ready to lash out at anything that seemed even vaguely threatening.
And then Casey burst into laughter, swinging into the next lane, almost sideswiping a tiny foreign car.
"Don't tell me they've already got you in seduction school."
Sarah swung around to stare at Chuck so fast her hair flew, the color already high in her cheeks. "At Langley?"
"Yeah, at Langley," Chuck agreed, still angry. "What?"
Sarah shrugged, turning back to face forward, her fist clenching and unclenching on her thigh. "Ours was in Monterrey," she said. "Prep for deep-cover."
"This is short term." Chuck still felt like punching something, but the anger was starting to bleed off.
"That's what you were embarrassed about?"
"Yeah," Chuck replied.
"God. You almost got yourself killed on a homework assignment. Nice work, Langley," Casey said, jerking a shoulder in Sarah's direction.
She shot him a dirty look. "Homework? Does that mean someone's trailing you for the weekend?"
Chuck shook his head. "Probably not. That, or the GL-400 is just a decoy."
Casey guffawed. "No wonder you had performance anxiety."
"Didn't you say something about keeping your head in the game?" Chuck shot back, his fist tightening.
Sarah was going to stab Casey to death with one of her ricin-tipped hair-skewers.
"It's not so bad. Just drink a scotch, maybe two, before you get started. Lots of eye contact, but not enough to make you look like a lunatic stalker."
"I hope these aren't Roan Montgomery tips, because Shelton pretty much despises him."
"That's just because Roan came out looking like Wilt Chamberlain. They made a little friendly wager—"
Sarah shook her head, muttering to herself, as they stalked very slowly through the thick foliage outside the Laskey estate. Noche roja would probably be at the pier for the drop, and this was their closest vantage point, with enough cover to keep them alive long enough to get out of there.
Of course, if she obeyed the impulse to stop, turn, and scream "Shut up!" at the top of her lungs, she'd negate all that, but at least then she wouldn't have to hear Casey's seduction tips.
"Did you do deep-cover prep too?"
"Oh yeah. And it was thorough. I could get anything I wanted out of you. Believe me."
Sarah could just imagine Chuck's eyes popping out of his head.
"Not that I'd want to," Casey was quick to add.
"All part of the training, Langley-boy. Shelton's teaching you how to pick up needy women in bars. Deep-cover? Building trust when your mark is already half convinced you're a spy? There's a challenge."
"I'm sorry, I'm still stuck on the mental image of you trying to seduce anything out of me." Chuck audibly shuddered.
"I wouldn't have to. I'd send Walker."
"You both realize this is an open comm line, right?" Sarah hissed into her bracelet.
"Better be," Casey replied.
Sarah reached the treeline first and hesitantly peered between the branches, motioning for quiet, and was relieved when Chuck and Casey stopped talking. The brunette was on her phone, pacing, one hand on her hip, with five henchmen, armed in various degrees, flanking her. When one looked directly at her, Sarah gritted her teeth and kept still until his blank stare moved on. Sudden movements were the best way to get spotted.
"Casey, circle back. Chuck, stay behind me."
"What if I have a better idea?"
It should've been a better idea. It would have been. Until Chuck tripped over the tree root and did some amazing mid-fall twist and ended up on his back, laser sight perfectly, randomly trained into the center of the startled henchman's forehead.
The alarm gave the brunette enough time to run, and Casey took off frantically after her. The guide lights of her boat were just visible. If she reached it, it was all over. They wouldn't find her again.
"Get back to the car!"
"Not on your life!"
Sarah shot a fierce glare over her shoulder, but Chuck was unfazed, his long legs eating up her lead as they raced to the beach. One of the men, they were all interchangeable and broad-shouldered and uniformly bad-tempered, came after Casey with fists like knots of hard wood, and Sarah took a second to weigh her options.
Noche roja was clambering onto a rubberized raft, the sides stretching under the stress of her stilettos, when Sarah grabbed her ankle. "Oh no you don't," she hissed, just as Chuck jumped onto the raft, predictably losing the gun in the process, his impeccable slacks wet to the knee and dusted with sand. With a tug the brunette toppled into the shallow surf and came up sputtering, just as the raft bolted from shore, Chuck squeaking with surprise as another henchman took a break from aiming kicks at Casey's head to come over and lasso the raft.
"Great," Sarah hissed, just as a stiletto jabbed straight through the air, in a direct line to her nose.
A busted lip and a bruised rib later, Sarah glanced up. Casey was quipping, which meant he felt confident that he was winning, grunting something about kissing his mother with that mouth. Chuck was flapping and making those little hissing noises that meant the Intersect hadn't quite kicked in yet and he was just doing his best to pretend. It was so odd, to see him when it clicked over, to see Chuck turn into something that wasn't quite Chuck anymore, and sometimes he was able to make it happen, to will it. The brunette's wrist slipped out of Sarah's grip and Sarah swept the leg, almost spraining her other wrist to keep her head from smacking the ground, and when she was able to glance back, Chuck was flipping the henchman over his shoulder. The flailing man did a bellyflop into the shallow water and rolled over, groaning, and Sarah caught a glimpse of Chuck's face in the moonlight.
It made a thrill radiate through her spine to her hips, and she shook herself before delivering a savage punch to the brunette's collarbone. The other woman brought her knee up, and though she was able to avoid the slam of a kneecap, Sarah was brought off-balance and fell to one knee in the sand.
The gun had been kicked away. Sarah's hand hooked under the hem of her dress to find her last backup knife, but she felt an elbow in the pit of her stomach and all the breath went out of her in one terrible gust, leaving her eyes brimming with startled tears. She brought her knee back and slammed her heel straight into the brunette's shin, waiting for the give and crack of bone, throwing all her weight into a kick that took her momentum and centered it right into the other woman's stomach.
Chuck was defenseless; Sarah and Casey both knew it. One glance at the surf, through her swimming eyes, her lips parted, was enough to show Sarah that at least Chuck was just puttering in a circle.
Although the spotlight on the boat shifted enough to reveal the silhouette of another raft full of backup henchmen.
Headed straight for Chuck.
Sarah turned just in time to catch the glancing blow of a fist, her mouth filling with the coppery salt of her own blood. "Casey!" she howled, putting all her rage into it, her nails scraping the back of the brunette's neck as she forced her face into the sand, just in time for her to let out an shriek and flip onto her back, her hands shooting up to wrap hard around Sarah's neck.
"On it," Casey called back, as Sarah's vision started to blur.
How long since his plane landed? How long? God.
"Just get, down, you bitch," Sarah screamed, driving the heel of her hand into the other woman's jaw, boxing her ears and maneuvering her knees up to drive the woman off her.
And then Casey was half-dragging Chuck to shore, and with one sweep of his arm he brought the gun butt down on the brunette's head, and her hands slipped off Sarah's throat. Sarah coughed her breath back, sand grating into her scalp and her dress sliding up her thigh, and Chuck, sagging and pale, gazing down at her with obvious concern.
"Want a job done right," Casey muttered, bending over and coming back up with Noche roja draped over his other shoulder.
Chuck was the one who offered Sarah a hand up.
Sarah let herself into Ellie and Awesome's the next morning, catching a glimpse of herself in the television screen. She self-consciously touched her lip. Usually she made at least a token effort to cover the scratches and scrapes with makeup, but she hadn't felt up to it this morning, not knowing she was going to have to talk to Chuck. Especially on three hours of sleep, since Casey's interrogation sessions had gone long and not very well. Between she'd watched Chuck on the surveillance, his skin green in the night-vision landscape, hardly moving save the occasional snuffle or snore.
Sarah poured her third cup of coffee and sat down on the couch, waiting. Less than thirty seconds later, she heard Chuck stumble out of his room, and soon he was sitting on the other end of the couch, a matching mug of coffee in his own hand.
White shirt and boxers. She wasn't going to think about what that reminded her of.
"So," Sarah agreed, wincing a little as she took a long sip of coffee. Her throat still ached a little from being choked. In fact, there wasn't much of her that didn't hurt today.
"Fun night, huh," Chuck began, blowing on the surface of his coffee. "Real break from training, I have to say."
"You just have remarkable good luck."
"Yeah," Chuck laughed, "I have the best luck ever. Morgan only wishes he had this kind of luck. Shipped off to Virginia for the summer! Like summer camp for sociopaths!"
"What else would you call a homework assignment that involves seducing a total stranger?"
"Uh, normal," Sarah admitted. "It's just that, out of all the women in that bar, you managed to pick the one who, oh, was most likely to murder you."
"I have razor-sharp instincts," Chuck said mock-proudly, tucking one leg under him as he took a sip of his coffee. "What can I say. Like a duck to something that definitely isn't water, that's me."
"Yeah." Sarah finished her coffee and put the empty mug on the table. "Look, in the interests of national security and the fact that I'd like one night out of three hundred that doesn't involve a seventy-five-percent chance of having my hair ripped out or getting a fun new scar, can I just, maybe, suggest that you fail this homework assignment."
"You gonna write me a note, Mom?" Chuck asked, shoving her shoulder lightly as he scooped up her mug and his, taking them back to the kitchen.
Sarah turned around to watch him. "Seriously."
"I should think you'd want me to. With any luck, tonight I'll pick up Osama bin Laden in drag."
Sarah smiled and ducked her head, despite herself. "And you'd take one for the team."
"I, Miss Walker, am an expert at taking one for the team." Chuck brought her another cup of coffee, but her stomach roiled in protest and she shoved it a few inches away. "Although if you have any actual way to get me out of doing this, I would love to hear it."
It was her sleep deprivation talking. It had to be. "Just go out with me tonight."
"Like cover maintenance."
Based on what Casey and General Beckman had been saying, there wasn't going to be any cover maintenance, not anymore, but Sarah didn't have the heart to tell him. Not yet, not when he had that look in his eye. "Right."
"I'm not supposed to..." He didn't meet her eyes. "Seduce someone I know."
Sarah propped her chin on her hand. "Yeah, because your teacher is so going to know," she drawled, batting her lashes at him. "And you actually have to—"
"Oh, no, no," Chuck backpedaled, his brown eyes wide. "No. I'm supposed to get close to someone and find out some piece of intel."
"Mmm-hmm." Chuck was studying her eyes, her mouth. Sometimes it was just too damn easy. "And Sarah Walker—"
"Won't be the one you pick up at eight tonight," she purred, pushing herself up on her knees and leaning in toward him. His eyes fluttered shut and her heart ached, just a little. "Wear the green shirt with the stripes," she suggested, and when he opened his eyes she was standing, her coffee mug back in her hand.
"So who will be?"
"Katie," Sarah said, with a little smile, a very little smile. "Katie Connell."
Katie Connell didn't have a legend, not the way Sarah Walker did. Katie had been out of Sarah's mind for so long that she had been reduced to a set of facts. Brunette, shy, wore a horse charm on a gold chain around her neck, liked country music and dark lipstick. She had existed for eight months in northern California, long enough to find a new boyfriend and make it almost through a year of junior high, while her father charmed his way through a series of small-time jobs.
But Katie was not part of Sarah Walker's legend, not anymore, and when Sarah prepared for Katie's date, she put on a low-cut fluttery turquoise dress that shimmered with her every step, a set of gold chains that pooled invitingly between her breasts, strategic dabs of a deep musky perfume. When she was smoothing on her final layer of lip gloss, Sarah met her own dark-lashed eyes and gave herself a pep talk she hadn't needed to go through in ages.
He is your asset.
This is a mission.
Keep him alive and get him through this date and put him back on the plane to Langley. When he gets back everything will be—
Ahh, but she couldn't even hold her own gaze when she started down that path. Most of the time she hated being Chuck's cover girlfriend; it seemed to do nothing but hurt him, no matter how hard she tried to keep things professional, and she was so afraid to slip that she couldn't be anywhere near natural around him.
Whatever natural meant. She had spent more than half her life going by various legends, living other people's lives. If she had the freedom to do what she wanted...
Well, she didn't. She wouldn't anytime soon. And as soon as Chuck was back for good, everything was going to change, again. It would be a relief to stop pretending, at least when it came to this.
It will be a relief to stop pretending.
That hadn't always been a lie.
"Hey, baby. Buy you a drink?"
Sarah lowered her gaze to the brilliant pool of liquid still in her martini glass and smiled. "I'm waiting for someone."
"You must mean me."
Sarah kept the smile on her face and turned to the guy, who was sporting the trifecta of soul patch, satin shirt and sunglasses. "I must mean someone who hasn't been raised on Miami Vice reruns," she said sweetly, swirling the vodka in her glass and downing it in one sip. "Why don't you go drink until the fireworks start."
Sarah's hand swept up in a brisk violent arc and the guy's face crinkled in pain. "If I have to blow you off again, it'll hurt," she promised, and twisted, and he made a high moan. "Get out of my sight or I swear you'll regret it."
She'd been told there was a term for it, something like misdirected anger, but when the guy sidled away, cursing her under his breath, she had to smile.
It was eight-oh-two on July fourth, and this bar was only two blocks from the pier, the best vantage point for the fireworks. The sidewalks and parks were crowded with families and picnic baskets, blankets and folding chairs and ice cream and sparklers, flags on wooden dowels and shirts and coolers. The bars were crowded with frat boys catching the last few minutes of the game, singles desperate to find someone to share the view with. Sarah knew Casey would be celebrating with a beer and brats from the safety of his own apartment.
This, just like every holiday, was one she would be spending alone, if not for Chuck.
She had been aware of him since the moment he walked in; gooseflesh had rippled up her bare spine, under the weight of his gaze. He was nursing a beer, in a corner booth, wearing the green shirt she had suggested. His hair was a little too short. It would be the right length by the time he finished training.
She laughed at herself, and it was a mirthless sound.
"From the man in the corner booth," the waitress said, her eyes dancing a little. Sarah had been pointed about her refusals since she'd arrived, and her little shows had entertained half the bar. If he had been anyone else, Sarah would have threatened to throw it in his face. Instead she smiled and took the dirty martini, three olives, and nodded to Chuck over the rim. The waitress's smile faded a little, but her eyes were alight with interest.
He waited for her, and when Sarah sauntered over, the last swallow of the drink still floating in the bowl of her glass, Chuck shifted his attention from the game to Sarah. "Happy fourth."
"Nathan," Chuck introduced himself, holding her gaze.
"Katie," Sarah replied, perching at the end of the opposite seat. "Thanks for the drink."
Chuck leaned in. "I just had to see what would happen," he admitted, and Sarah couldn't help but giggle a little.
"So what brings you here?"
"In town on business," Chuck shrugged, taking a sip of his beer. "Looking for a little company."
Sarah's eyebrows went up a bit on that, but Chuck kept his expression neutral. "Missing a girlfriend back home?"
Chuck's response was a little too slow to be a lie. "Not tonight," he said, raising his glass, and she clicked her own against it. "You waiting here for a boyfriend? Although you seem to be very, very capable of taking care of yourself."
"There are other reasons to have a boyfriend," she teased him with mild outrage.
"Careful there, cowboy," she winked.
"Unless I want to be next."
Chuck waited a beat. "So you're just at this charming little sports bar to exercise your sparkling wit... Katie."
Sarah hooked her index finger around the strands of her necklace and traced them down to her cleavage, dropping her eyelids and peering at him from beneath them. "I was going to meet my brother and his girlfriend here, but..." She shrugged, noting with some amusement that the motion sent an inviting shiver over her chest and that his gaze slid immediately to it. "At least I'll have a good view for the fireworks."
"If you're lucky. There's a lot of people already out there."
"If you're not doing anything, want to watch them with me?"
Chuck smiled, and it was the kind of the smile Carmichael would give, but it was close enough for her. "Love to," he answered, tossing back the rest of his beer.
Chuck couldn't answer the most innocent question without filtering it through a dozen layers, and he was surprised Sarah hadn't elbowed him in the ribs, shooting him a wry smile and demanding they start over. To his own ears he sounded rusty, stammering, uncertain, and he was jealous of Sarah's cool ease. But then, maybe this was her, underneath it all; he just wasn't sure.
"Pretty unfair for your boss to send you out of town on the holiday."
Chuck shrugged. "He's a real winner that way."
Sarah's arm was tucked into his, warm against his side. The lure of another bar down the block had been too much, and two martinis for her and another beer for him later, Chuck was a little flushed and very happy. The transponder in his pocket kept pressing into his thigh, reminding him that whatever this was, it wasn't real.
Now they were picking their way between couples and families on the beach, looking for an empty square of land with a good view. Chuck's windbreaker was folded over his other arm to serve as a blanket, although with the dress Sarah was wearing, and those heels, he couldn't imagine any way it would work. Unless she never actually meant for them to get back to an apartment.
"...seen the fireworks from here before?"
She was talking. Most of this assignment was about listening to her. "Not from here, no," he finally answered, and she squeezed his arm a little tighter, drawing it up to brush under her breast. She really didn't have to do anything, he thought wryly. She radiated sincere interest and suppressed desire. Just as she had on their first date.
It was so strange, how he kept wanting to ask her things that should never be recorded, ever. Especially not for a damn homework assignment.
"I hope your boss was nice enough to put you up at a good hotel."
Chuck had to smile at that. "It is a great hotel. Two soaps, towels that don't feel like sandpaper, the best minibar I've ever seen." He waited a beat. "You have to see it to believe it."
"Sounds like I have to see it," she almost purred, and he could feel her gaze on him.
Ahead of them, a lanky, long-limbed boy chased a barrel-chested counterpart, ducking and weaving between the blankets and coolers, attracting the glares and mutterings of the disapproving adults. Chuck watched and suddenly missed Morgan. He missed Ellie, missed Sarah, sometimes even missed Casey a little, but at least ten times a day he turned to make some snarky comment or observation to Morgan, but he was never there.
"Not getting tired already, are you?"
"Definitely not," Chuck choked out, responding to the thinly veiled insinuation in Sarah's velvet voice. "I know we'd have an amazing view out here, but I haven't seen an empty square foot, and the view is probably pretty spectacular from the balcony of my hotel room."
"I'm sure it is," Sarah said, so close her lips were brushing his cheek.
They were on their way back to the street where his car was parked, whispering half-promises to each other, and Chuck was only able to do it because his gaze kept following the two boys, still chasing each other around. He'd explained to Sarah how this was supposed to work; as soon as they got back to her place, they'd order a bottle of champagne, and she, giggling, would tell him some secret, and after another minute or two he'd turn off the transponder and head back to the apartment, so unnaturally still and quiet with everyone gone.
The boys darted out onto the pier, brushing by a little girl, who dropped her doll in shock. She leaned over to pluck it from the side, under the railing, and no one else was watching her, Chuck knew that, and he was just as certain of what was going to happen next. Chuck scanned frantically for her parents, but the pier was a crush and half the adults had a bottle in their hands, and in half a second she had fallen off balance and dropped straight into the water without a sound.
"Hey!" Chuck shouted, but his voice was swallowed in the loud, raucous conversation going on around them, and he'd already dropped Sarah's arm and kicked his shoes off, running straight for the shore without any regard for the blankets or bottles he was kicking over. He waded out into the water, breaking cleanly through the black surface, and distantly he heard Sarah calling his name, his actual name, from the shore.
He found the doll first, her blonde hair catching the light of the full moon, and dove in, groping around for the fluttering spread of a water-soaked dress. The sea wasn't deep, but the tide was persistent, and when he found the little girl, her skin pale and mouth fallen open, limp, he couldn't get to the shore fast enough; walking was like running in slow motion, like a nightmare.
"My little girl!"
Finally, Chuck thought, laying her on the wet packed sand. Sarah was on her knees immediately, checking the little girl's mouth and pulse, and Chuck was almost shouldered entirely aside by a frantic mother whose breath still smelled like wild cherry wine cooler. He backed off, nervously sticking his hands in his wet pockets, only to find the transponder, obviously waterlogged and ruined.
"Sarah, she gonna be okay?" Chuck raked his hands through his wet hair, combing it straight back.
Sarah paused with her hand on the girl's chest, blinking at his use of her cover name, but she smiled. "Yeah, I think so," she said, as the girl sat up, coughing and crying.
Yeah, Chuck thought. That's about right. If it's not a car crashing into a restaurant, it's a little girl falling off a pier.
Then the mother hugged them both, insisting on buying them both a drink, and Sarah and Chuck looked down at their water-streaked sand-crusted clothes and laughed.
When she had first accepted this assignment, Sarah had expected nights like this. She and Bryce had had them all the time. Come back to the safe house, wash off all the blood and dust, tumble into bed. It had been different; she was Mrs. Anderson and he was Mr. Anderson and the line between partner and lover had blurred until it was indistinguishable anymore. She'd shared so much with him. She'd shared almost nothing with him. Just a set of particular and awful circumstances. She'd seen Bryce naked more times than she could count, undercover, in the shower, nights when neither of them could sleep. It was a hazard of the job.
Then Casey was her partner, really, but he wasn't interested and she definitely wasn't interested, and the first night they came back grimy and sweat-drenched from another assignment, Chuck had gone back to his apartment and Casey had gone back to his place and she had been left to shower off in the dusk and tend to her own bruises and meet her own eyes in the mirror.
Life was easier like that. Everything was simpler from that. But sometimes she still thought about it, imagined how Chuck would be after a mission, still babbling out his wonder and fear as he tugged his shirt over his head, winding down as she scrubbed her makeup off and he brushed his teeth, mumbling some sleepy thanks that they were both still alive as he drifted off to sleep.
The only time she had ever even glimpsed Chuck Bartowski naked had been when they were scrubbing what turned out to be fruit punch off and she'd stripped down without a second thought, and the slippery lather of the soap and the warmth of his touch had done nothing because she was just too aware of everything to center her attention on just him.
When Sasha Banacek had held her hostage along with Casey, keeping them to exchange for the cipher, after they'd tried everything and they were sitting a few feet from each other on the concrete floor, hands still bound, too keyed up to do anything more than doze off, and Casey had said "Look, it's obvious you have feelings for the nerd. As far as I'm concerned, long as you can keep it from affecting your work, what Beckman doesn't know won't hurt her. Just keep it away from the bugs. And the cameras.
"Not that I don't think it's a monumentally bad idea," he'd tossed off, as an afterthought.
And Sarah had made her token protest, knowing he could see through it the entire time. She'd admitted to herself, a long time ago, during that bad time after Bryce's first, less than permanent death, over a bottle of good silver tequila, that she wouldn't still be stuck in some L.A. suburb if Chuck had been anyone else. If he'd been ugly, strikingly handsome, confident, smooth, overly suspicious, or bitterly hostile, she wouldn't have questioned Graham's order to kill him if he ran. But he was none of those things, and for the foreseeable future, he needed her.
She didn't need him, but that was only because once she told herself something enough times, she started believing it was true.
She hadn't thought she'd needed Bryce, either. But her grief over him had been real and hard, tender as a bruise.
She felt a pang of it again when she walked into her bathroom, wrapped in her terrycloth robe, and saw Chuck's silhouette in the shower. "I'm leaving some clothes in here for you," she called above the drone of the water.
"Oh, I hope it's the satin teal," he called back, rubbing his knuckles against his scalp.
She wasn't even sure how she'd ended up with a pair of his boxers and one of his faded, well-worn Stanford t-shirts. Chuck walked out of her bathroom five minutes later with his hair clean and mussed and too short, and there was something vulnerable about the sight of his bare legs and damp feet. Sarah kept her arms wrapped around her belly and her eyes low.
"It'll just be a minute."
"You want me to wait? Mission debriefing?" There was a smile in his voice but he was sweeping the room with his gaze. "Where's my clothes? My shoes?"
"I sent them down to be cleaned," Sarah explained. "Just keep yourself entertained. I'll be right out."
"Keep myself entertained? You don't even have a TV," she heard him muttering as she closed the bathroom door. The air was still hot, cloudy with steam, the tile slick under her feet. She slipped out of her robe, overly aware that Chuck was on the other side of an unlocked door and she was naked.
And that, definitely, didn't mean anything.
Sarah came out of the bathroom still scrunching her damp hair in her hand to find Chuck pecking lazily at her laptop. Her momentary burst of panic subsided when she remembered that nothing Chuck could find on her computer would be anywhere near as dangerous as what was already in his head.
"Do I need to order a cot?"
Sarah shrugged, keeping Chuck's face in her peripheral vision as she shrugged out of her robe. She didn't mean to do it, but seeing that look of slightly awed worship on his face always made her feel just a little high.
"You can just sleep here."
"On the floor?"
"The floor is gross and I don't want you sleeping on it," she said slowly, and smiled a little. "It's all right. We'll just keep to our sides of the bed and we'll be fine."
The fireworks were setting her teeth on edge, just a little. Even with the lights off, the mirrored walls echoed golden starbursts, trails of red sparks, the distant whirr and whistle cutting through the charged air of her hotel room. They lay on their backs, gazing up at the dim ceiling.
"Happy Fourth," she echoed back, snuggling deeper under the comforter.
It wasn't like Chuck had enough sleep anyway, but on the nights when it didn't come easily, even when he was bone-weary and exhausted from another day of grueling training at the academy, he tried to figure out where it went wrong. How they'd gone from that morning in the Barstow motel room to Sarah blinking her big blue eyes up at him, still in her tight shell-pink bridesmaid's dress, telling him that she was leaving in the morning, that she couldn't go on vacation with him.
He couldn't bring himself to wish that morning hadn't happened, even though it nagged at him every time he thought about her. He'd never been anything but transparent about the way he felt about her. Sure, he'd "broken up" with her a few times, but for Pete's sake, she was only his "girlfriend" anyway. And she'd made it clear that he wasn't allowed to expect anything else.
Except that when she kissed him, it didn't feel like cover. It couldn't have felt further from cover.
He could smell her hair. His eyes fluttered open. They had definitely been on their backs, a foot of space between them, when he'd gone to sleep. Now, somehow, his face was pressed against her spine and his knees were tucked up with hers and his fingertips were just under the hem of her tank. Just above her underwear. God, she was so warm, and she smelled so good, her still-damp hair brushing his forehead.
He held his breath for a moment, but she didn't move, didn't turn over and make some bright patently false comment about how she needed space.
For so long, the last vivid memory he'd had of her was at the edge of that quarry, pale and shocked, her face wet as she stared down at him, his throat sore and his lungs aching, woozy, drained like he'd felt after the uploads. If Sarah felt anything, he'd have sworn that her expression was tinged with both anger and regret.
And they were back to where they'd started, pretending they'd just met, even though that hadn't worked any better than the first time.
He'd still had the intersect swimming in his head, and it hadn't been as though she'd known they were so close to getting it out.
He'd dreamt once that they had been on the run together, still, that Casey had never found them, that they had never been interrupted. That they spent all their nights like this, folded up together, breathing each other's skin. That she wasn't his asset anymore, he was just a man with a thousand secrets locked in his brain and no key.
She hadn't been his handler anymore. Not really.
But there was no hope of that now.
Chuck closed his eyes again, all too painfully aware that soon he'd be back in Virginia and this, just like Barstow, just like that horrible night at the edge of the quarry, would just be another memory.
Soon this would just be another memory.
Sometimes Sarah wanted them back, those other lives. The last memory of her mother. The first time her father's con hadn't worked out quite right and she'd spent the night on a bench in a police station. She'd burned it all because it was easier to forget, and it made her sick that tonight was going to eventually hurt more than not, to remember.
General Beckman had made it very clear that Chuck had never been meant to upload the new Intersect, and Sarah's leadership of the project had been contingent on Bryce Larkin's involvement, and Beckman was already concerned that Sarah and Chuck's cover relationship had become too complicated to maintain. Only Casey's lobbying had kept both of them on the project, Sarah knew, because no matter how vehemently Casey protested that he just wanted to be leading his own team again, he'd never had another assignment like the Intersect.
For that matter, neither had she.
When she saw Chuck again, the pretense wouldn't exist anymore, and if Sarah knew General Beckman at all, she'd be the one who would have to break it to him, as gently as possible, as dispassionately as possible. Tonight was it. After tonight she wouldn't have the next breakup to look forward to, the next time he'd wake up from the haze and realize that their relationship was all a lie and break her heart just a little again.
(This isn't a lie. Isn't.)
She'd spent her entire life lying. Sprawled under cars and shopping carts and armored trucks. Turning on the tears in restaurants, in hotels, at wedding receptions, while her father pocketed jewelry and blank checks and bank account numbers. She lied when it came to Bryce, about how much she cared about him, about her impartiality, about how much his death had affected her. And none of them had eaten away at her like this, like the lie she had to tell Chuck every day, every single day she saw him, wishing with all her heart that he'd see through it, really through it, to the core of her. And that scared her most of all.
That he never would.
That he would, this time, tonight.
She could feel him breathing against her back, and when she turned over, under his arm, she had to squirm her hips to put her face on level with his. He was still pretending he was asleep, but she knew, and when she put her palm against his cheek, his eyes opened.
"Hey," he responded, the slightest apology in his clear voice.
"I'm so sick of lying."
"It's pretty hard, isn't it," he said softly. "I've been doing it for a month and it still sucks."
"Try twenty years."
"No thanks," he replied, tucking her hair behind her ear. "With you, twenty minutes, twenty seconds is too long."
She sighed. "But this is what you picked."
Chuck shook his head. "What I picked, Sarah, is you."
She froze when he said it. And it had sounded so good in his head.
"No," she whispered. "That can't be true."
Chuck took a deep breath. "You know, I'm not sorry. It's a miracle I'm still alive, and I'm not gonna take it back. If this is the only way we can be together right now, that's fine. I've made my peace with it. I know you don't want to leave CIA, but maybe, by the time they've scrubbed this thing out of my head again, maybe you'll have changed your mind."
From what he could see in the dark, her brows were knit, and she buried her face against his shirt. "I already had," she whispered into his chest.
"What?" She didn't answer, and Chuck moved back, peering down at her. "Sarah, what do you mean?"
She didn't answer him, just kept her head down, and when he hooked a finger under her chin she shrugged his hand away.
She shivered. "We'll be lucky if we live that long."
"That's not what you were talking about."
She shook her head. "It doesn't matter."
"It's in the past. We can't change it."
"Are you mad at me? About uploading it? You've seemed so—"
"Yes I'm mad!" she burst out. "It wasn't supposed to be you!"
"It was supposed to be Bryce."
Their eyes met and Chuck felt his breath catch the way it always did. He didn't like being so close to her when she looked so angry, but at his mention of Bryce's name, she seemed to deflate in front of him.
"I'd give anything to change it."
"I would too."
He pulled her to him, closing his eyes as she pressed her face against his chest again. He always knew exactly what to say to ruin everything, it seemed.
Sarah was quiet for a long moment. "No matter what, I'll always be here for you," she said softly. "For as long as I possibly can, I'll have your back."
"I thought that was the whole point," he joked. "Sending me to Langley. So you wouldn't have to spend every second watching my back."
"Have they taught you how to stay in the car yet?"
She smiled. "Go to sleep. After the weekend you've had, you need your rest."
"Sure thing, Mom."
She cupped his jaw in her palm and kissed his forehead, and when she lowered her face, it was on level with his. She held it too long, held his gaze too long, for it to be a mistake.
He'd been thinking about it for too many nights to let it pass.
She tasted like toothpaste and vodka and warmth and her body rose against his, and her response to his touch was almost savage. She buried her hands in his hair and he rolled on top of her, hips fitting snugly between her open thighs, his tongue in her mouth. Waiting for an errant firework to strike the roof of her hotel, waiting for Noche roja to burst through the door with murder in her eyes—
He pulled back, found her earlobe with his teeth, and whispered into her ear, "Please tell me you have condoms."
"Please swear that no matter what, we're not going to stop. Not even if Casey barges in right now."
She buried her hand in his hair and made a soft, almost whimpering sound. "Don't even say it," she panted out.
"So how much of that was you?"
"How much—" Chuck started untangling himself, gingerly pushing himself up. "Oh. Yeah, I was kind of wondering about that too, it's not in the instruction manual or anything, but I don't think anything kicked in."
"You don't think?"
"I don't know how this never came up, but," he looked away, rubbing a knuckle against his scalp, "the sensations are not entirely dissimilar," he finished carefully.
"Yeah, you did look kind of like that."
"I looked like I was having a flash?" he said incredulously, gazing down at her. "What?"
"No, you..." She drew her legs back together, pushing back until her back was against the headboard. "I mean, when you have a flash, you kind of look— you didn't know?"
"I've never seen myself having a flash," he told her, sounding somewhere between amused and horrified. "Wow. How exactly were we able to keep this a secret for so long? Blame it on priapism?"
Sarah giggled, her eyes sympathetic as she watched him search the room. "If you need a towel, they're in the cabinet in the bathroom."
"You're not making me feel any better," he called as he followed her directions.
"Sorry," she called back, straightening out the covers, dropping their discarded clothes onto the floor. "Well, damn. I guess I don't have anything else for you to wear."
"What a shame." He stopped in the doorway, leaning casually against the frame, just taking her in; she hadn't bothered pulling the covers back over her, and for once, he wasn't cringing or apologizing, and she let her own gaze wander the way she hadn't when they'd been in the shower together. The training was starting to sharpen the lines of his already spare frame, and she could see the faint indentations of muscles that hadn't been there before, the suggestion of his abs, the flexed heft of his biceps.
"You are so beautiful."
The hushed awe of his voice stopped her from shrugging off the compliment, from brushing it off. He held her gaze for a moment, holding it as he walked back to bed, sliding in next to her.
"Tell me we didn't just ruin everything."
"We didn't. I did."
He touched her cheek. "Because you're my handler and you should have stopped me, because what you want isn't important."
She closed her eyes and dropped her chin a little in acknowledgement.
"You know, when Morgan asked me to come work at the Buy More with him after Stanford, well basically he insisted, it was just a means to an end, and I was so damn depressed that it seemed like penance, you know? Even though I didn't know what I'd did to so thoroughly piss off the universe. Every now and then I'd do something awesome at work, and I'd feel like I actually accomplished something, but it never lasted. So you know what, Sarah? I've already done my penance for this and as far as I'm concerned, the universe and I are paid up and I actually deserve to have something go right for once. Okay?"
"And you deserve that too. So, starting now, what we 'should' do? Fuck that."
Despite herself she laughed. "It's really not that simple."
"Maybe not. Not a lot has been simple for the past two years. But this, this can be that simple. Just let it go." He tilted her chin up. "Look at me. I swear right now that I will never, ever, do anything again that could ever jeopardize this."
"What we do every day jeopardizes this."
"No." He shook his head. "How I feel about you, that hasn't changed. Has not ever changed. And it won't, either."
"You loved Jill. And that changed."
He put his cheek on the pillow and looked away for a moment. "I loved who I thought she was," he finally said. "I loved who I thought I was when I was with her. I felt like everything would fall into place, as long as I had her. Because everything just came crashing down around me when she broke up with me. But you're not Fulcrum, and this life, as frustrating and scary as it might be, beats anything I could have imagined by a mile."
She smiled, at that.
"I know, with Bryce and everything..."
She cupped his face in her hands. "I did love him," she said. "And I am so sad, so angry that he's dead. It was so useless. He was an amazing agent and he was a wonderful man." She smiled again. "But I told you before, what he and I had was in the past, Chuck."
"And what changed," he parroted back, draping his arm over her hip.
"You," she said softly. "Finding you."
He hadn't slept so well since he'd left, even with the bruises. He was still drained when he woke.
She'd never said it, but whatever was going through her head meant that tonight wasn't going to happen again. It wasn't because she hadn't enjoyed it, he knew that. And he'd never be able to look at her again without remembering her sprawled on her bed, gazing at him through her lashes, the incredibly toned body he'd seen her use against anyone who had ever threatened him loose and sated from their lovemaking. That was exactly what it had been, for him.
He realized belatedly that he'd never actually said the word, but then, neither had she.
He let his hand drift over the comforter, but she wasn't next to him, and his heart was pounding as he, elaborately casually, sat up, to see her sitting at the table beside the window, fully dressed, a cup of coffee in her cupped palms. A matching cup sat at the other chair and his clothes were hanging from her bathroom door, still in the plastic wrap.
Save for the fact that he was naked, from the distance in her eyes, he could easily believe that he'd dreamt the night before.
He felt cold as he swept his shorts off the floor and pulled them on under the covers. It shouldn't be hard to meet her eyes, but then, she wasn't even trying to meet his. It was as clear an indictment as he'd ever seen.
Chuck pressed his lips together, ran a hand through his hair. His chest was tight. Like running uphill.
His voice came out more harshly than he'd intended, and she raised her head. "Morning," she said, her voice pale.
At least she wasn't faking it, he thought, and stalked into the bathroom. A five-minute shower later and even her scent was gone, but he smelled like her soap, her shampoo.
It took more effort than he thought possible to put a smile on his face when he walked out again, still playing with the cuffs of his shirt. "That was fast."
"They're good with laundry." She drained her coffee and stood. "What time's your flight?"
He checked his watch. "In about three hours."
"So we should leave now if we're going to beat the traffic."
"Sure." He cringed but he couldn't stop himself. "I mean, I have to return my rental car."
"So you don't really need a ride, then."
"I'll need one over to Ellie's. And... I guess that GL-400 is worthless."
Sarah gave him a very small smile. "Casey pulled some strings and found one. I think he said something about '80s Soviet Russia when he brought it to me."
"Uh... actually," she said, fussing with the hem of her shirt, "we managed to take care of that, too. So at least you won't fail the assignment. Because it really wasn't your fault."
"Oh my God."
"What?" Her eyes were wide.
"Please tell me... you and Casey..."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "Do you know how much recorded wiretap we have? It's okay."
"Guess I'll have to listen to it on the plane to see what I have to brag about. Or not."
"Yeah, considering it was Casey who took care of it, brag might be the wrong word."
Their gazes met and they smiled at each other, tentatively, but he knew it wasn't going to be what it had been. Maybe once he came back, though.
"I'm gonna go get the car. Have your coffee." She flashed him one last smile, then ducked out, her keyring in her hand.
Chuck drained his coffee in three swift gulps and found his wallet on Sarah's dresser, the leather still faintly damp to the touch. Chuck made a face, sliding it into his pocket, when his fingers brushed a slip of paper he didn't remember being there.
No matter what, Chuck.
Just don't let me down.
When he closed her door behind him, he was smiling.