A/N the First: Hop on my blog this week if you have any questions about Fates. I'll be doing an open forum over there. Link's in the profile.
Happy birthday, Crumby. I worked hard to get this done by your birthday, even though I have to figure "No more Fates" is probably the worst present I could give you. But I wanted to do something to say thank you and let you know how excellent you are and how much everything has meant to me. I hope your birthday is wonderful.
B/N the First: Crumbles, I just want to wish you a Happy Birthday. I know that I tease you a lot for your love of Fates, but you have always been a good sport about it. Thank you for making this whole experience more enjoyable for me (and I'm sure Frea too). You deserve to be recognized today, not just because of your amazing support of the story, your never-ending devotion, but because you are an awesome person that I have been fortunate to get to know. Happy Birthday! -mxpw
Life is either a great adventure or nothing. — Helen Keller
In Venice, In Love
25 JULY 2008
"Next time I pick the place for the meet, please shoot me," Chuck said as he took a generous pull from the water bottle they were sharing. He handed it back to Sarah, who took it gratefully.
"Not your fault," she said, once she'd finished drinking. She'd been wearing a summer-weight blazer, but she'd stripped down to a tank top, her skin glistening with sweat just like his. "Ellie wanted to see Venice, too."
Chuck brushed a hand over his brow, and it came away dripping. "I don't care how disgusting the water smells, I'm still tempted to jump in."
"I'm not jumping in to save your ass when whatever sewer monsters that live down there drag you under," Sarah said. "No matter how good the sex is."
Chuck laughed. "Living with a nerd has really rubbed off on you," he said, and they began to walk back over the Rialto bridge, which was one of the most crowded places in the city. It hadn't stopped him from wanting to see it, though.
"God help me," Sarah said, but she didn't sound upset. She grabbed his hand, twisting her fingers around his like she did now whenever they walked somewhere. They'd begun to differentiate the locals from the tourists in their temporary home in Riomaggiore; Chuck wondered what the locals thought, if they figured Chuck and Sarah were on some sort of extended honeymoon—which sent a burst of pleasure through him—or if they just regarded the pair as together for a long time and happy. Sarah gave him the smile she never wore around Casey now. "Okay. Maybe I'd save you."
"Because of the sex?"
"I feel so cheap. Only wanted for my body."
"Your mind, too. Since you rarely turn it off, and all. Speaking of which, how much sleep did you get last night? Every time I woke up, you were awake."
"I got a couple hours," Chuck said, not mentioning that the couple of hours had been patchy at best. He felt like crap, which wasn't helped by the fact that Venice felt like a sauna after their ocean-breeze-cooled paradise of the Riviera they'd left behind. "I think I kind of missed our bed."
"What? The rock mattress of torture? You're kidding."
"It holds a special place in my heart," Chuck said. They both knew why he'd been awake all night; not only were Ellie and Devon flying in to meet them in Venice, but they had set up the meet with Orion. Since they weren't entirely sure that Orion was Stephen Bartowski—and it had been a huge mental adjustment on Chuck's part to think that his absent-minded father who'd never really been there might have created the Intersect—they hadn't told Ellie. She'd always been closer to their father than him, and Chuck didn't want to get her hopes up.
In that way she had of understanding him without needing the words, Sarah tightened her grip for a second. "Want to go meet Casey? He should be finished setting up."
"Sure. You know, when we promised him he could bring any firepower he liked, maybe we should have included a clause or something about gun size," Chuck said, as they made a left and began the winding trip through alleys and courtyards that would take them across Venice and to where Casey waited at the meet location.
"Don't let him hear you talk bad about Bitchin' Betty."
"But that's exactly what I mean. Does he really need the mini-gun?"
"He's Casey. In his mind, he needs it."
"His mind is a scary place," Chuck said.
Sarah handed him the water bottle. "You finish it off."
"I did the last one. We can buy another one next time we pass a shop or something."
With a shrug, Chuck polished off the water. "Damn, it's hot," he said, unnecessarily. He liked Venice. He liked how everything was brown brick, but each building was slightly different, how it seemed like a tourist town time had forgotten. He especially liked how the town had seemingly been built by a madman cartographer, or at least a drunk one. And for some reason, he loved the idea of streets of water, no matter how much they smelled when it was almost August.
Best of all, he liked walking through the town with Sarah, even though she'd already been there before and had seen most of it. It was exciting to share travel when they weren't being chased or expected to run a mission. Okay, that wasn't precisely correct, he thought. They had a mission. They were going to meet Orion. They were going to see if Orion was Chuck's father, to see if the various clues about Chuck's childhood buried in the various clippings did mean what Sarah suspected. They were going to see if Orion could remove the Intersect.
They were going to see if Orion could remove Lincoln.
"So what's really on your mind?" Sarah asked.
He should have known she wouldn't drop the subject. Maybe she was right not to. As much as he had a habit of keeping his worries to himself, these days, he needed to get better at telling more of the full story. So he stopped by a cistern in a courtyard that was as eaten by acid rain and time as the rest, and said what he'd worried about for far longer than he knew.
"What if Orion can't do it? If he's my dad, if he's not, either way, what if he can't remove Lincoln?"
"Then we keep looking," Sarah said.
"You and I are the only ones that know the Lincoln phrases," Sarah said. "All of your research said that Graham only knew the same ones I did. And if he knew more, don't you think he would have used them?"
Chuck remembered how cold Graham's eyes had been on their final meeting, hours before the man had been killed. "Maybe."
"Maybe? No. He would have. He was my mentor. I know how he worked, and I knew how to work him. And besides, it doesn't matter. Ellie's going to get that stuff out of your head. If Orion is your dad, that means he's a Bartowski, too, and you're a tireless lot." Sarah paused. "Which can be a very good thing, in some cases."
Chuck felt a blush rise. "Hey, that was at least half your fau—"
"Either way," Sarah said, laughing now. "We'll figure it out. Together. And then I'll go become Instructor Walker and you'll do that video game thingie you tried to explain the other day."
Since she'd grown bored of his admittedly over-technical explanation and had distracted him the best way she knew how, he had to figure "video game thingie" was the closest she was going to come to understanding Dave's business idea. It made him want to laugh, but he didn't mind.
But that was the best case scenario, and there were far too many chances for this to go wrong. If this fell through, Sarah was still CIA, he was still joint NSA/CIA, and they were exactly where they'd started. "It feels a bit late to ask this," he said, "but you do know what you've signed on for, right? And I'm not just talking about me, here. My sister in wedding planner mode is included in this package, as are all of my issues, the fact that my best friend is a gaming deejay who has no idea that I'm a spy, and oh, right, I'm pretty sure we have Casey for a pet."
"He does growl a lot," Sarah said, sounding amused. "But at least he's house-trained."
"And easily placated by shiny firearms. But on the serious side, you're okay with what you're getting into?"
"I have to be," Sarah said, folding her arms over her chest and giving him the look. "After all, I'm it for you. You'd be lost without me."
Chuck groaned, as she'd brought these words up at least four times in the past two weeks. "One throwaway phrase, and you never forget it for the rest of your life."
"Right, because you never repeated 'Just say the word' at me." Sarah gave him a quick kiss. "But here's a phrase that comes in handy: one thing at a time. We'll meet Casey, we'll pick up Ellie, and then we'll handle Orion. Just like that, see?"
"I have a feeling it won't be 'just like that,'" Chuck said, though some of his worries had subsided. Not all of them, of course, but he suspected Sarah knew that. Just like he suspected she'd made her peace with it, as well.
"With you, Chuck, it never is," Sarah said, and, grabbing his hand, began to pull him along. "But that's the beauty of it all."
Casey was waiting for them in the water taxi he'd procured "legally" (as legally as paying a driver to be scarce for a few hours could be) at the meet location. Though he gave them the typical sneer at seeing them hold hands yet again, he didn't have anything to say about it. "Anything interesting?"
"Nobody followed us," Sarah said, climbing nimbly onto the boat. "Any trouble on your end?"
"Betty's acting up. I had to leave her behind."
"I'm sorry, Casey," Chuck said, though he wasn't terribly apologetic about the thought of Casey meeting his father without an M-134 mini-gun in tow. "Is she going to get better?"
"She's a gun, you moron, not a person."
"But you call it a her and—never mind. My mistake." Chuck settled back against the front of the cabin. Taxis in Venice had a rain-proof area for passengers, but he liked staying out in the open, watching all of the fascinating buildings go by. Besides, Sarah was out here, just a couple feet away, as Casey piloted the boat out into the canal. "Ellie's got to be going nuts. She's been so excited about seeing Venice for forever."
"I'm sure she is." Sarah brushed at a flyaway strand of hair, which was a useless gesture as the wind tossed the blond around her head. Though he knew she probably noticed every little detail around them, and her spy senses were telling her a thousand details his own brain automatically filtered as well, she looked relaxed. She glanced at him with a secret smile, raising an eyebrow. "Do you think Casey would notice if we—"
"Don't you dare finish that sentence, Walker," Casey said without looking over.
Chuck and Sarah laughed.
"Airport straight ahead," Casey said after twenty minutes had passed.
"Ready?" Sarah asked Chuck.
The nerves were about to eat him from the inside out, but Chuck gamely put on a smile for her. "Even if I'm not, it's going to be okay, right?" he asked.
The look on Sarah's face was one he recognized well. It was the same one she'd given him right before he'd left the bunker, and when they had gone to D.C. the first time. A hundred times, he'd seen that expression on her face, and he'd probably see it thousands of times more, if they were lucky. "It's going to be okay," she said.
His smile turned genuine. "Then I'm ready."
Casey rolled his eyes at the both of them as they drove through Venice, off to face the next adventure together.
B/N the second: Thank God it's finally over!
I should probably be serious for a second and thank all the people who have stuck with the story all these years. Also, I want to thank those who voted for me in the Awesome Awards, since it's probably likely my work with Fates is responsible for that. So thank you all! I'm glad I could take this journey with Frea. I've learned a lot and it's been a lot of fun.
A/N the Final: I've never been great at picking out song lyrics to explain how I feel, but I wish I were, so that I could say something concise and meaningful and everybody would know how grateful and relieved and excited I am to have reached this point with all of you. But I don't think the words exist in any language on earth that can explain that concisely, so I'll fumble around.
There are so many people to thank, and I'm going to forget names, and if I forget yours, I apologize. It's not a slight: I really am grateful, I just have the attention span of a gerbil on speed.
Let's see, where to begin? Thank you to Ma and Pa O'Scanlin, who were polite if a bit puzzled that their daughter went insane for two plus years and wrote what could justifiably be called an epic. To my sister Graceless for being herself and my brother Van for his ideas. To my future brother-in-law, who helped me choreograph fights. To my sister Chelsea, for playing an extra in fight scenes so that I could see them more clearly. You make a delightful red shirt, Chels. Don't let anybody tell you differently.
To every single one of my readers: thank you.
To my first beta reader ohtheconspiracy.
To my Twitter friends, the other members of the Cabal, and those who came to the blog or talked up my story, answered questions, and were generally there as the awesome people you are: thank you. I'm sorry there are too many of you to mention by name without eyes glazing over, but please know you are loved and appreciated.
To Ayefah, Aardie, quistie64, and all of my other pre-readers: you're darlings and I love you. I also kind of picture you as the greatest cheerleading squad ever. Aardie, that skirt looks great on you. quistie, I think 64 cartwheels is a bit much, don't you? Crystal, I still laugh at Chuckoodle, and that says it all. And Ayefah, you've kept me quasi-legal in an insane world, which tells me you must be superhuman, and nobody can tell me different.
To mxpw. I couldn't have done this without you. I know I certainly didn't make it easy on you, but you were always willing to talk Fates, even when I was grumpy or tired or depressed because the end was nowhere in sight, and you always knew what to say, which sometimes was nothing at all. The greatest thing this story did was introduce me to you, as I count you among the best of my friends, and am honored to know somebody as cool as you. Also one more time, for old times' sake: Stupid goat!