Quick timeline note: This story is set somewhere between 3.05 ("Chuck Versus First Class) and 3.07 ("Chuck Versus the Mask").
"I'm fine, Chuck," Sarah said as they all piled out of the car in front of the apartment complex. "Really. Stop worrying."
It was at least the fourth time she'd said it, and it was no more convincing than it had been the first time. Already limping across the courtyard, Casey repressed a snort. None of them were fine; they'd been in the car for the last six hours and on duty for the last four days, and had discovered too late that the entire mission had been based on bad intel. Everyone was exhausted and frustrated, Shaw was going to have their hides for going so long without reporting in – to say nothing of the chewing-out he and Chuck were going to get when they went back to the Buy More, which was probably worrying Chuck more at this point – and Casey was only mostly sure he hadn't broken his foot when a Ring operative had deflected him into a wall.
In other words, this week had only been marginally more stressful than every other week in the last three years. It was really not worth complaining over.
And yet Chuck was still giving Sarah that helpless, worried look that always seemed to melt her. "You don't look fine," he said, furthering Casey's suspicion that he had no idea how to talk to women.
"I just need a little sleep," Sarah reassured him. "And so do you. Go on home; I'll see you in the morning."
Casey didn't point out that it was technically morning already. "You've got an early shift in the morning and no cover story, Bartowski," he reminded. "No point in worrying about Walker if you can't even take care of yourself." They both glared at him, Chuck offended and Sarah scolding, but he simply shrugged. "Tell me I'm wrong."
Sarah sighed and shook her head. "Just get some sleep, okay, Chuck?"
"Yeah," Chuck finally said, giving in. "You too."
Neither of them said another word to Casey, which suited him just fine. He stayed in the courtyard, though, pointedly watching to make sure Chuck really did retreat into his apartment. Sarah did the same, slumping against the wall and folding her arms. Slowly but visibly, her head started to droop. Great. Casey grunted, just loud enough to get her attention. "Walker."
"Hmm?" She jerked her head up, smiled faintly in response to his disapproving look. "I'm all right. Just a little tired."
"No, I'm just a little tired," Casey corrected. "You're going to kill someone if you try to drive in your condition." Sarah had gotten the worst of the deal over the last couple days, doing all the driving – Casey's foot had started to throb after about an hour and Chuck was just plain not allowed to drive – and more than her share of the legwork. Casey sighed as he advanced on her, taking in her pallor and the hollows under her eyes. The fault was half his anyway; he should have recognized the signs that she was pushing herself too far well before it got this bad. "Come on."
She gave him a questioning look as he put an arm around her, the gesture more forceful than affectionate. "What?"
He turned her around, steering her towards his door. She didn't resist, or, more likely, couldn't. "You're not going anywhere."
She glared at him, face as stern as she was capable of making it when her eyes would barely stay open. "Casey..."
"Telling, not asking. You need sleep, you need somewhere safe to get it, and apparently you need someone to babysit you to make sure you don't do anything stupid while you're exhausted."
She patted the hand that gripped her shoulder. "Not that I don't appreciate your worrying about me, but I don't need the extra concern."
He gave her a look of the purest disdain he could muster, which didn't even faze her. "I am not worrying, I'm doing my job. You're my partner. I'm supposed to look out for you."
"Yeah, but I think this goes above and beyond."
"You're my partner," Casey said again, pressing her just a little closer against his side for emphasis. "I'm not in the habit of letting my partner go off and do something stupid." He dug in his pocket for his keys. "Or at least I wasn't before I met you."
"Oh, please. I'm not that bad."
He let his silence speak for itself as he stepped away from her and gestured for her to stay back as he flicked on the light. The apartment was silent, save for the faint electronic hum of his surveillance setup and the growing beep of the security system. He entered the code to silence it and listened into the ensuing void. No suspicious sounds, nothing immediately apparent as being out of place, no indicator that the apartment had been breached in his absence. He checked the windows anyway, just in case, and waved Sarah in.
Sarah didn't roll her eyes, but she looked like she wanted to. All her pretense at being perfectly awake and alert disappeared as she entered the apartment; Casey could see her sinking into the warm quiet of it even before she sank into the brown recliner in the living room. "You do that every time you walk in?"
He dropped his duffel bag and kicked it into a corner. "When I've been gone for four days and didn't get enough warning to break out the big guns? Yes."
She smiled gently, hands spread in a 'not gonna argue' gesture. She was already leaning back in the chair despite herself. "Just asking."
He grunted. She could accuse him of paranoia when she was stationed thirty yards away from the government's most frequently kidnapped asset and sharing living quarters with surveillance equipment that cost more in taxpayer money than he was likely to earn in his life. "I'm gonna be out here for a little while," he said, pulling up the security log for the last four days on the main console. A full examination could wait, but he wouldn't sleep comfortably without at least making a cursory check of the alarms and informing Shaw that they'd returned. He opened up a secure line to Castle and typed out a quick message: Mission failed. No casualties. Recovery time needed. Full report tomorrow, usual time. Then he looked up at Sarah and nodded towards the second floor. "Bathroom's upstairs, so's the bedroom. Make yourself comfortable."
Her laugh was half amusement, half surprise. "I am not taking your bed."
"I wasn't planning on giving it up. You don't take up much room."
"And you think that's a better arrangement? You snore and you might have a broken foot," Sarah reminded him. "And I kick in my sleep. It's not a good combination. Or did you forget the last time the three of us had to sleep in the car?"
"The snoring was not me," Casey insisted, although her point was well made. Even if he was going to be generous and believe her when she said she'd been completely out of it at the time, he didn't want to relive the bruises. The two of them had agreed that they'd let Chuck drive before they'd try sleeping on the side of the road again. He gave her a softly serious look. "You really think you'll sleep okay out here?"
It really shouldn't have mattered to him as much as it did. It wasn't worry, exactly. Agent Walker hardly needed anyone to fret over her and it wasn't as if waking up with a stiff neck would do her any lasting damage. It's not like she'd even complain; she was a good agent and she was used to coping with much worse conditions. And maybe that was why Casey was so insistent on offering her something better: She was a good agent, probably a fairly good person, and he hadn't been exaggerating when he'd called her the best damn partner he'd ever had. On the rare occasion when comfort was an option, she deserved it. Not like anyone else was going to be handing out little rewards for her service.
That seemed to him like a reasonable explanation for his behavior. The other option – that he was beginning to like her – was certainly possible, but history suggested that the odds were against it.
He could barely see her face now, she'd collapsed so far back into the chair. "'M good," she murmured, finally starting to sound as tired as she looked. "This may be the most comfortable chair ever."
"Damn straight it is. All the hours of my life I have to spend sitting there and listening to Bartowski and his useless friends, and you don't think I'm gonna make it as painless for myself as I can?" Casey moved away from the computer and came around to stand behind her, leaning on the chair back until the recliner snapped open. "The rest of the furniture came with the apartment, but this one's mine."
Sarah made a soft, startled sound as the chair tipped her backwards. Then there was a long, slow exhale that was so contented it was practically obscene. "You have good taste," she said, looking up at him with a muzzy smile. "Don't think I'd make it all the way upstairs, anyway. You want me to move, you're probably gonna have to carry me."
It was tempting. Just for a moment, and only because it was hard not to feel tempted if she was going to phrase it like a challenge, but still. "If I was willing to make that much of an effort, I'd just carry you to Bartowski's apartment and dump you in his bed, make you his problem."
"And leave me to deal with Morgan first thing in the morning?"
It was a cruel thought, even if he'd been kidding. "Have it your way." He came around to the front of the chair and held out a hand. "Shoes off, and hand over whatever you're packing. I don't want you stabbing yourself in your sleep and bleeding all over my upholstery."
"I'm touched by your concern." She sat up slowly and with some difficulty, taking just long enough that Casey was debating whether or not to offer assistance by the time she pulled herself upright. She gave a good-natured sigh as she handed over her gun and began procuring enough knives to arm a street gang. Eight in total, including one in one of the shoes she kicked off, and Casey couldn't be sure there weren't one or two she was refusing to part with. He'd long ago given up trying to figure out where she hid them all.
"And your phone," he added when she'd finished.
"You sleep in my chair, you play by my rules. If it's an emergency, anyone who needs to contact you will be calling me anyway."
Once again she gave in, although not without making it clear how ridiculous she thought the whole idea was. "Since when are you my mother?"
"Since it became obvious that you occasionally need one." He turned the phone off and left it on his desk, stowing the weapons safely in a drawer. "For God's sake, Walker, you can defuse a bomb and fight off a guy three times your size, but you can't even be trusted to take basic care of yourself."
There was no response. Sarah had lain down again and her breathing was slowing, settling into an easy rhythm as she gradually gave in to sleep. Casey grunted, a sound that had the barest hint of a chuckle behind it. "Told you."
Even when he'd been young and in love, Casey had never really understood the appeal of watching a woman sleep. But he watched Sarah for a moment or two anyway, just for the novelty of seeing her completely unguarded. It was the first time since Operation Bartowski had started that Casey really believed her as the ordinary young woman she presented herself as undercover. The edge that Chuck never seemed to notice was gone; she was so tired that she couldn't even carry it anymore. What replaced it wasn't vulnerability but simple comfort, the look of someone who had no more than her fair share of everyday worries and had allowed herself to let go of them for the night. Casey wondered when the last time was that she'd looked like that on a regular basis, and guessed that it was long before the first time he'd met her.
He couldn't help it. The seldom-heard voice in his head that said there was a time and place for softness, even from him, had woken, and it would not be silenced no matter how much he argued with it. Sarah was a guest now, technically, and he hadn't been raised to neglect a guest's comfort. He dragged a blanket and a spare pillow out of the closet. The blanket he draped loosely over Sarah's shoulders, and the pillow went just behind her head, where she'd be able to shift onto it if she chose. Casey wasn't about to actually lift her up to put it under her head. There was a line.
He turned away and reached for the light switch, but paused when there was a murmur behind him. "Casey?"
Not quite as asleep as he'd thought. "What?"
"You make a good mom."
He knew he was smiling just a little now, and as he flicked off the light he was grateful nobody could see it. "Go to sleep, Walker."
Casey let himself fall out of sleep naturally, without alarm clocks or a sense of urgency. It was the first time he'd woken up relaxed in a week, finally back in his own bed and with no pressing business that needed his immediate alertness. He'd only slept for a few hours, but it was all he needed. He got out of bed slowly and carefully, testing his foot before trying to put his full weight on it. He was in for another day or two of limping, but the pain and swelling had receded enough for him to determine that it definitely wasn't broken. One less thing to worry about, at least.
Suitably awake and aware of his own state, Casey paused and listened in for any sounds that might indicate that Sarah had woken. He didn't expect she would have, though, and the quiet from the first floor seemed to bear out his guess. He tried to match that quiet as he went through his morning routine, starting with a shower that probably did as much to improve his mental state as a decent night's sleep had. There was nothing quite like the feeling of cleaning away the sweat and dirt of a mission, especially a failed one, and starting fresh. He paid a little more attention to his dress and grooming than he usually would during his down time, out of consideration to his guest. One of them should be presentable, at least.
He limped into the living room with soft caution. Yes, Sarah was still asleep in the chair, curled up with the blanket tucked securely around her body. Her hair had come loose from its utilitarian knot and was a rumpled mass of fuzz spreading across the pillow. And she was, Casey noticed with smug satisfaction, snoring. It was a light sound that someone more infatuated with her would probably find utterly adorable, but the little rattle was unmistakable. And Casey was absolutely certain that she'd deny it outright if he ever said anything about it. Shame that all the good recording equipment was focused on Chuck's apartment. It would have been a fitting revenge for the picture of him handcuffed to a hotel bed that he knew she still had saved somewhere.
After a brief moment of temptation to wake her right there and then, Casey left her be. He didn't want her there, honestly; even if she'd been invited and she was currently little more than slightly loud furniture she was still deeper into his personal space than he liked. But at the same time he'd promised a safe place for her to recover, and the only way to truly honor his word was to let her determine how much time she needed for that. And he had to admit, he didn't mind her presence as much as he could. Maybe the possibility of actually liking her was beyond what he was willing to consider likely, but he certainly didn't dislike her, and that in itself was saying something. He trusted her, which was saying even more, and he was getting used to having her around. Overall, she was the closest he'd come to liking someone in a long time. He could live with having her around a little while longer.
Which didn't mean that he wouldn't do what he could to speed her along on her way once she woke up. On the subject of making her short stay easier on her—and on him, by extension—he remembered the overnight bag in his trunk. There was one for each of them, Chuck, Sarah, and himself, in all three of their cars, and they had come in handy more than once. He did a quick check out the window, and one more on the monitors, to make sure neither Morgan nor Ellie was around to catch him before he knew what Chuck was planning on telling them about his absence, then made his way to the car as casually as possible.
Casey didn't even have to look at the luggage tags to know which one to grab. Sarah's bag was the smallest of the three, but also the heaviest. She always packed with brutal efficiency, a skill almost as valuable to a spy as it had doubtless been to a conman's daughter. The thump as he set it down next to the chair was louder than any of the other sounds he'd made all morning. Whatever. She could pack bricks in it for all he cared, as long as it meant she wasn't going to be borrowing his toothbrush when she woke up.
Immediate concerns for his guest dealt with, Casey turned his focus to more important things. Coffee first, a frozen bagel to tide him over until he figured out if there was anything else in the apartment that was edible, and then to the computer. He was getting almost as bad as Chuck, rolling out of bed and immediately checking his messages, but he wasn't going to be accused of lacking a sense of duty if Shaw had sent a reply and he failed to acknowledge it.
Yes, there was a 'message received' flag when he accessed the encrypted line, and a one-line response: I look forward to hearing your version of events, Colonel. He'd have to wait; Casey wasn't going to report in on the problems with the mission without Sarah and Chuck there to give their input.
The computer was pulling up the full version of the security logs he'd skimmed the night before, and while he was waiting his attention was drawn to the phone on the desk beside it. Or, more to the point, the weapons cache that accompanied it in the drawer underneath. Sarah would be looking for those knives when she woke up, probably even before she remembered that he'd taken her phone as well. He was a little surprised she'd given them up so easily, even if he was sure he hadn't gotten all of them. She could give him all the flak she wanted about being paranoid and gun-crazy, but he knew that she wasn't much better. This was her hobby, her professional specialty, and her security system all rolled into one.
And Casey didn't feel like calling her out on it. He collected her weapons from the drawer and tucked them into her bag, where they'd be the first thing she saw when she opened it.
He glanced back at the computer, watching it cycle between cameras – his front door, Castle, several rooms in Chuck's apartment – as it flashed through the previous four days at high speed, looking for anything out of the ordinary. It had taken months to customize a filter sensitive enough to pick up the subtle indicators of enemy activity, but fine-tuned to ignore the particular brand of weirdness that passed for 'normal' around here. Nothing unusual so far. He rolled his eyes again at the message from Shaw. Promising a report had bought them a little time, at least; Casey was sure Chuck was no more ready to face Shaw again than Sarah had been, and it wasn't like he was exactly relishing the prospect himself. The next step was buying a little time from – Casey growled inwardly – his other boss.
The automated answering system at the Buy More put him on hold for a good three minutes before someone finally picked up. "Buy More of Burbank, assistant manager speaking."
"Grimes. It's John Casey."
"John? Where have you been?" Morgan dropped his voice to an urgent whisper. "I've been covering for you all week, man! I figured you were helping Chuck with that family emergency Sarah had, but he said he didn't know where you were."
"Car accident," Casey said easily, wondering what Chuck thought he'd done that merited being cut out of his cover story. He didn't have to fake the faint wince as he stood up, suddenly restless, and made his way towards the fridge. "Broken foot. I've been housebound for four days." Close enough to the truth to cover his injury, and the medical records would be easy enough to fake if someone demanded proof. Which, at the Buy More, was unlikely.
Morgan winced. "Yikes. You okay?"
"They had me on so many painkillers that I couldn't remember my name for a while," Casey said as he went through the fridge, figuring out what was salvageable and what had gone bad while he was gone. "But I've been worse." The milk would probably last another day or two. The bread was past all hope. "Give me a couple days, I'll be fine." He should have known better than to open the carton of leftover pad thai. His sudden fit of coughing would either keep Morgan from asking questions or make him think Casey was trying to fake multiple health problems.
The concern in Morgan's voice was surprisingly genuine. "A couple days? You sure? 'Cause if you need extended medical leave I can totally swing that."
Casey paused as he dumped the entire contents of the crisper into the garbage, considering his options. Eventually he shook his head. As alluring as the thought of an extra week or so away from the Buy More was, he shuddered to think what kind of state he'd be leaving the store in. Cutting off the head had significantly crippled the body, but the rebellion wasn't completely quelled. Besides, he'd never been good at faking injuries for longer than he had to. "I'll be fine," he repeated.
"If you say so. You take care of yourself, John."
Casey grunted in acknowledgment and hung up the phone. That had been a little unsettling. He'd already grudgingly accepted the idea that Chuck was going to worry over him whether he liked it or not, but the idea that Morgan might do the same was more than he wanted to think about. Might be time to remind the little gnome that using John Casey as your pit bull didn't make him your lap dog. Bad enough having one nerd following him like a puppy, let alone two.
Sarah was still asleep, Casey noted as he passed her on his way to take out the garbage. Either she'd been even more wiped out than he'd realized, or her subconscious wasn't about to let a good situation go to waste, and was going to take advantage of his hospitality while it lasted. He shook his head at his own mental wording. 'Take advantage.' Those would be her words, not his. He knew that her security was his responsibility just as much as Chuck's was, and even when she was imposing on him she wasn't imposing at all. And the sooner she figured that out, the better.
His phone was ringing as he came back inside with the mail. He growled at the caller ID. It was like Chuck had been waiting for his cue. Which, come to think of it, he probably had been, in a sense, waiting for Casey to make the first move and then for Morgan to give him the 'news.' It really wasn't a bad strategy. Not that that lessened any of Casey's irritation. "What?" he snarled, punctuating the word with the violent sound of a stack of junk mail tearing in half.
"Hey, Casey." Chuck's voice was slightly too loud, the one he used when he knew he was being overheard and wanted to sound casual. The ambient noise in the background suggested that he was still on the sales floor. "Morgan just filled me in, so I wanted to call and make sure you were holding up okay." The other sounds cut off like a door had closed, and Chuck's voice dropped to its usual, nervous level. "Is your foot really broken, or is that just what you're telling Morgan? Because if it is, you really should take some time off."
Casey rolled his eyes. "I did manage to take care of myself before you were around to mother me, Bartowski." He gave the living room window a speculative look, then adjusted the blinds so the sunlight wasn't hitting Sarah in the face.
"Well, excuse me for caring," Chuck said indignantly.
Casey was silent for a moment, heading to the sink and preparing to tackle the stack of dishes he'd left the morning of their unexpected departure, before it became clear that Chuck really was going to wait for an answer. "My foot's not broken," he said. "I'm fine. I just had to come up with a story pretty quick."
Chuck was bright enough to catch the unspoken accusation, at least. "Look, the guys have somehow gotten it into their heads that you're stalking me and Sarah. Not that I can imagine where they'd get that idea," he added dryly. "So unless you're not bothered by the thought of Jeff and Lester thinking you're creepy – let me repeat that, Jeff and Lester are accusing you of being creepy –then it's probably a good idea for us have separate cover stories for a while, at least until something else comes up to distract them."
It was actually a pretty reasonable plan, Casey thought, trying to ignore the way that being compared to the Buy More brain trust made his skin crawl. He wrung out the dishcloth in his hands with more force than was strictly necessary. Definitely time to tighten his grip on the store's reins. "Good thinking," he said grudgingly.
"Thank you." There was a pause on the other end of the line, the kind that happened when Chuck was trying to come up with a clever segue so he could bring up a subject while still sounding casual about it. It almost never worked, and this was no exception. Eventually he gave up and just started talking again. "Hey, while I've got you here, do you know where Sarah is? I tried to call her earlier, but her phone was off."
Which hadn't stopped him from calling a dozen more times, Casey was willing to bet. "She's right here."
"Really?" Chuck sounded confused. "I thought you were at home."
"And Sarah's there with you?"
By now far more interested in the stubborn residue inside one of his coffee mugs than in Chuck's nattering, Casey rolled his eyes. "That would be what I meant by 'she's right here.'"
There was a long pause. "Okay," Chuck said slowly. "Well, I was just saying to Sarah the other day that you two should hang out more. I guess it just seemed kind of early in the day for a social call. Can I talk to her?"
"She's asleep." Casey attacked the mug again, this time armed with baking soda. "She stayed here last night."
Chuck's sudden, panicked squeak and the clatter of his phone bouncing off the floor made Casey's stomach drop and his hands clench. He'd had too many phone calls end with a hand around the other party's throat not to recognize the sound. "Bartowski!"
There was more fumbling, a faint curse, and a frantic, "I'm okay, I'm okay! I got it!" Casey exhaled quietly, concealing his relief. He should have known better than to attribute to enemy action that which could be easily explained by Chuck being a clumsy idiot. Even after Chuck cleared his throat a couple times, his voice was still an octave too high. "So. Sarah, huh?"
In the split second before he opened his mouth to ask Chuck what the hell his problem was, Casey abruptly made the connection between what he was saying and what Chuck was hearing. The kid was incapable of playing his hand close to the vest. Casey relaxed into a lazy, smug grin that he knew would carry over into his voice. "You know how it goes, Bartowski. After you went home we started talking, and…. Well. One thing led to another."
It was kind of heartbreaking that he couldn't see Chuck's face; judging by the sounds he was making his expression must be priceless. His short burst of stammering was utterly appalled, and Casey half expected him to drop his phone again. "Oh," he finally said, still in that high, helpless voice. A short cough brought it down to a more normal pitch, though he continued to stumble through his words. "Well. Okay. Um. I guess…good for you two?"
Casey let the grin deepen. "I certainly didn't hear any complaints."
"Oh." Another squeak, suppressed more effectively but not entirely. "I guess it's not really any of my business..."
"Damn straight it's not."
"...but what about the professional standard of conduct you're always giving the rest of us grief about?"
Casey suppressed an approving grunt. It was a good dig, delivered without overt aggression and as casually as Chuck could manage under the circumstances, and it would certainly have gotten a rise out of him if this had been a real confrontation. Maybe there was hope for Chuck yet. "I think it's clear by now that Operation Bartowski works under a different set of rules," he said.
"Uh-huh." Chuck sounded a little calmer now, some of the horrified shock turning into offense. "So when I do something unprofessional it's just Bartowski screwing up again, but when you do, it's because the standards have changed?"
"No. If I'm doing something, you can safely assume it's not unprofessional," Casey said. "You, on the other hand, have a long way to go before I don't assume you're just screwing up again." He paused just long enough for Chuck to draw in an indignant breath. "You're still ridiculously easy to wind up, for one thing."
He could hear Chuck deflate as that sank in, his offense turning to sheepishness and his shock turning to relief. Casey finished the last of the dishes in the pause, waiting for Chuck to be the one to continue the conversation. When he finally did, it was in a strained voice. "You were playing me."
Casey snorted. "It's not a game if there's no challenge to it. I should be embarrassed that I enjoyed that."
Chuck exhaled a short hiss of irritation. "The sad thing is that I'm still surprised every time you remind me that you're a man of infinite cruelty."
"If you can't handle a little psychological torture from me, how are you going to cope out in the field? For God's sake, you were actually thinking –"
"Horrible things that will never leave my head now, yes."
"Hate to destroy that fantasy for you," Casey said with another nasty smirk. Chuck made another softly horrified noise. If it wasn't so funny, Casey might have taken offense. "Just because you can't resist going after every attractive woman who smiles at you doesn't mean the rest of us are that desperate."
He'd expected more indignant sounds, but Chuck merely sounded thoughtful. "Hunh. Really? You think Sarah's attractive?"
It was such an unexpected question that it brought Casey up short. "You've been drooling over he for three years, and you act like that's so hard to believe?"
"Well yeah, I think she's gorgeous, but..." Chuck trailed off with an audible shrug. "It just never seemed like you noticed."
Casey rolled his eyes. "I'm not blind, idiot." He dropped his voice and turned away from the living room, as if hearing herself talked about might jolt Sarah out of sleep. "Of course Walker's attractive," he growled. "It's her job to be; why do you think they send her after guys like you? Just because I notice doesn't mean I take it personally."
"My mistake," Chuck said dryly. "For a moment I thought you might actually be expressing a normal human response to someone. Don't know what I was thinking." There was a pause, in which he apparently ignored Casey's warning growl. "So, Sarah's okay, right? I mean, I'm assuming the part about her being asleep in your apartment is still true."
"Jesus, Bartowski, she's fine. Just sleeping off the mission. She wasn't in any shape to drive unsupervised, so she spent the night here."
"Oh!" It was a sound of pleased surprise, not the poorly-concealed relief Casey had been expecting. He was wearing that goofy smile, Casey could tell, the one that lit up his entire face and made him inexplicably irresistible to a certain breed of woman. "Well, that's...unexpected. And kind of sweet, too."
Casey rolled his eyes. Having Chuck call him sweet might be worse than having the rest of the morons calling him creepy. "Nothing sweet about it."
"Come on," came the response in Chuck's most teasing, playful voice, the one he'd never dare use if they were face to face. "The scariest man in the world, stepping up to take care of a friend in need? That's practically the definition of 'sweet.'"
"I did not 'step up,'" Casey lied. "She invited herself in." He said nothing about the 'friend' part; it was too absurd to dignify with a denial that would go unheeded anyway.
Chuck snorted. "Yeah, because that sounds exactly like something Sarah would do."
Another warning growl. "And going out of my way for someone sounds like something I would do?"
"Apparently." Chuck's tone was equal parts sarcastic and indulgent. Casey could hear his smirk. "I just wonder how she managed to take care of herself before you were around to mother her." He laughed slightly when Casey was incapable of coming up with a response to that, and then his tone softened. "Listen... Thanks. For looking out for Sarah. I know sometimes she pushes herself too hard, and, well, sometimes it's good to know that she has someone else pushing back."
Once again, Casey was hard-pressed to reply. His job was a thankless one as far as he was concerned, which had never bothered him; knowing that he was doing his part to defend his country was reward enough. It had taken him a good while to get used to Chuck's gratitude when it was directed towards Casey's efforts to keep him alive. Being thanked, especially with such sincerity, for something so simple, that he'd done for someone else entirely, was outside of Casey's normal experience. One more thing that made this asset different from any other he'd dealt with before. "I'll tell her you called," he finally muttered before hanging up the phone.
He checked on Sarah again, unsurprised to see that she still showed no signs of waking. He shook his head. "Even Bartowski is bright enough to know when you need a break. What's your excuse?"
Casey was tending to the bonsai when Sarah finally began to shift. The rhythm of her breathing changed abruptly, which startled him for a second. He hadn't realized how accustomed he'd become to that little rattle and sigh, the loudest sound in the apartment once he'd finished puttering in the kitchen, so steady that it was practically meditative. Further proof of what he was starting to think of as the central theme behind Operation Bartowski: the realization that there was nothing in the world so annoying that he couldn't eventually get used to it.
She woke more quickly than he had, no doubt spurred on by the disorientation of being only half asleep in an unfamiliar place. He heard her faint questioning noise, followed by sounds of movement and a little breath of relief as she took in her surroundings. The chair protested as she sat up, the shift in her weight forcing it closed and nearly pitching her forward. Casey caught her by the shoulder and held her steady. He crouched slightly, making sure she could see his face as he pressed a glass of water into her hands. "Drink this. You look like hell." She was a mess, all bleary eyes and tangled hair and rumpled clothing, but it was still an improvement over the way she'd looked last night.
Sarah downed the water quickly, with a look that suggested she wished it was something stronger. "Good morning to you, too."
Casey eyed the clock. "Technically."
She groaned, raising a hand to her head. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Eleven hours, give or take."
"Oh, jeez. Shaw –"
"Isn't expecting us until after Chuck's shift is over," Casey cut her off, more sharply than he'd intended. "I told him we'd report in after everyone had some time to recover."
The smile she gave him was soft, sheepish. "Which I apparently needed."
He grunted, accepting her concession gracefully. "Feel better than you did?"
"God, yes." She looked him over, focusing on the way he was shifting his weight to one side. "How's your foot?"
"Not broken," he said, concealing his surprise that she'd even asked. He didn't elaborate and she didn't ask him to, but she nodded, taking in the more significant meaning: Nothing that won't heal.
She handed the empty glass to him and then held out her hand. He stared at it uncomprehendingly for a moment before taking it and helping her to her feet. She wavered for a moment before standing up straight, stretching out her back. Before she let go of his hand she gave it a little extra squeeze, a quick 'I'm okay.' Not that Casey needed the reassurance; it wasn't like he worried about her. She glanced back at the recliner. "Definitely the most comfortable chair I've ever slept in."
"And you said the bathroom's upstairs?"
Funny, the things even a fearless spy looked awkward about asking. Casey indicated the overnight bag on the floor. "Take your time."
She brushed back her hair, wincing as her hands found the worst parts of the tangle. "Do I really look that bad?"
"You look like you spent the night here," he said.
A dry look. "Point taken," Sarah said as she picked up the bag. She eyed him speculatively for a moment, then smirked. "Although I suppose there are plenty of women who've made worse choices on the rebound."
He snorted. "Do I even have to say anything?" She rolled her eyes, but he thought he could see a twinge of a smile as she turned away.
Sarah was in the bathroom long enough for Casey to unpack his own bag, remove and sort a truly epic pile of dirty laundry, replenish the essentials, brew another pot of coffee, and take care of a handful of other odds and ends that needed his attention around the apartment. She might be one of the most efficient people he'd ever met in the field, unafraid of getting her hands dirty – or bloody, as the situation called for – but on her own time she was an absolute girl about her personal hygiene.
And he had to admit that the end result was worth it. Casey had no particular problem with saying that Sarah was attractive. Like his own skill with guns or Chuck's girlish scream, it was just something that was part of who she was, and it was pretty damn useful on certain missions. It wasn't as if he considered it a value judgment, or even anything she'd be surprised to hear, and it just wasn't something he felt the need to acknowledge or deny.
But sometimes she was the woman who was striding towards him now, crisp and combat-ready in fresh black clothes, with damp hair, bare feet, and the keen and dangerous look of a seasoned fighter ready and able to take on anything or anyone, and that woman was beautiful. And Casey knew he would never tell her.
He leaned back against the sink and let himself watch her walk, overt but not leering, maintaining his usual unsmiling expression to conceal his flicker of admiration. He simply gave her a silent nod and held out a cup of coffee.
She trapped his hand with both of hers as she accepted the coffee, gently forcing his arm to bend towards his chest and pushing herself past the barrier he'd unconsciously raised between them. "Hand," he started to warn, his usual strategy with Chuck, but before he could get the word out it was no longer the most pressing issue.
The kiss Sarah pressed against his cheek was as gentle and solid as her grip, and it held him just as immobile. "Thank you," she said softly, pulling her hands – and the cup – away from his and settling in next to him. She flashed him a smile, warm and genuine, and the beautiful assassin faded into the background behind the pretty young woman she usually presented herself as.
Casey resisted the urge to raise a hand to his face as if he'd been slapped. A slap would certainly have surprised him less. "It's just coffee, Walker." He took a too-fast swig from his own cup to cover his reaction, suppressing a wince as it burned.
"Not about the coffee and you know it." Sarah had relaxed into a near-perfect mirror of his own pose, her back against the counter and her weight on one foot, facing out into the living room. She was close enough to him that a subtle shift in her weight bumped her hip up against his, and he could feel something flat and solid under the fabric of her pants. He shifted in turn, dropping his hand to his side and letting his knuckles brush against her in what anyone else would have assumed was an unintentional moment of contact. Definitely metal. He caught the faint smile that acknowledged that she'd recognized his touch and confirmed his guess that her own moment of contact had been intentional. So she knew, then, what he'd been trying to say when he slipped the knives into her bag, what he'd been trying to acknowledge that he understood.
He studied her again with new focus, eyes running over her silhouette, knowing that she'd know he was doing it, and why. No bulges, no lines, not a single disruption to her shape that would give away the fact that she was armed. He was practically staring down her shirt when she looked up at him with a grin. "Yes?"
The smell of whatever she used in her hair, usually just one note among many in her scent, was far more intense when it was fresh. Casey backed off, settling against the sink again. He shook his head. "I don't know how you do it," he conceded.
"Well, a girl has to have some secrets," she teased. "Even from her partner."
He grunted. "No shortage of those."
Sarah stared into her cup for a long enough interval that Casey assumed she didn't intend to respond. Nothing unusual there; she was good at ignoring his sarcasm and he'd grown accustomed enough that he didn't mind not being able to get a rise out of her. Her soft sigh and muttered "I know" took him by surprise. "I'm not the most open person in the world." She wasn't looking at him, her expression distant. "You know enough about me to know that I wasn't exactly raised to trust people."
"Even the one person you're supposed to trust above all others." He'd meant it to be his usual dry tone. It came out with a wounded edge.
"I do trust you," Sarah insisted, so quickly that it felt like an automatic response. Maybe it was; maybe she'd been bracing for him to say that. "With my life, every day. All the faith I have, I put it in the guy who has my back out in the field. I know that you're always going to be there if someone goes after Chuck or takes a shot at me." Another sip of coffee. "Maybe it took me too long to accept it, but I do know that you're the one person I can always count on to back me up on the mission without my having to ask. It's the thought of trusting you after hours that I still have trouble with."
"That didn't seem to be a problem with your last partner." A low blow, certainly, but one for which Casey felt no shame.
"Do we really have to go there?" Her warning tone was one he would have been proud of. He gave her a pointed look. "That was different," she finally said, stating the obvious." Different circumstances, different mission, different relationship. Bryce was...a leap of faith."
"Spare me the details." Casey was starting to regret having brought it up. He wasn't interested in any aspect of Sarah's personal life, of course, but he was even less interested in Bryce Larkin than the rest of it.
She rolled her eyes. "You get my point," she said. "My previous partnership wasn't totally about the job. We didn't have any off hours."
"Neither do we," Casey growled. Sarah tensed slightly beside him, enough to make him scoff. "You know I don't mean it like that. You thought the working part of your day ended and suddenly there was some switch that flipped, and you stopped being Larkin's partner and started being his girl? It doesn't work like that." A grunt. "Not with me, anyway."
Sarah reached for the coffee pot and refilled her cup, and then topped his off without his asking. "You and I only have the one relationship," she said. "No switch."
"No off position," he corrected. "I'm not your girlfriend, I'm not your confidant, and I'm sure as hell not your lover, but I'm your partner twenty-four/seven, from the second you earn it to the second you give me a reason to walk away. You need advice and a shoulder to cry on, you go to Bartowski or his sister. You need sex, I don't know or care who you go to as long as you don't do anything stupid. But you need backup, or protection, or a safe space, you come to me no matter where you are or what time it is. That chair isn't going anywhere and neither am I."
He knocked back about half the cup in one sharp motion, hoping it would cover the prickling feeling at the back of his neck. That was the most he'd ever said to her at once on a subject that wasn't immediately related to the mission at hand. He wasn't accustomed to being that open, didn't think he'd ever gotten quite so personal with a partner. But like he'd said to Chuck, it was clear by now that Operation Bartowski was unlike any other mission he'd been on, and Sarah Walker was unlike any other partner he'd had. Nobody else had ever needed to have Casey's partnership policy spelled out so explicitly.
And nobody else had ever earned its benefits quite so thoroughly.
When he finally risked a look down at her, she was looking right back up at him, her expression unreadable. Eventually she grunted softly, a short, eloquent sound that said, 'I'm still processing that, but I think I like it.' Casey wasn't sure whether to be impressed that she'd managed it or worried about what it said about their level of familiarity. "That's a lot to hear."
His answering grunt was nowhere near as eloquent as hers had been, just a simple acknowledgment. 'Hear' nothing; it had been a lot to say. Probably too much. "It's not something I should have had to explain," he said gruffly.
A nod. "Still. Probably good that you did. Make sure that we understand each other." She leaned in until her shoulder was pressing gently against his. "And for the record, I care about you, too."
Casey jerked away from her, taken completely by surprise. "I didn't say anything about caring about you."
Her smile was both smug and sweet. "Yes you did."
He glared at her for a long moment, which didn't faze her in the least. She continued to smile back at him, unconcerned as a cat, until he let out his breath in a sound somewhere between a growl and a sigh and relaxed against the sink again. It wasn't a concession, not exactly, but he knew she'd take it as a victory anyway. The tiny, satisfied sound she made as he looked away from her told him he'd been right.
Casey modified his position to compensate for the way she had moved to lean on him, although not so much that his shoulder wasn't still touching hers just a little. It occurred to him, in that quiet space in his head that he would never allow anyone else access to, that Sarah might have gotten it right. Or close to it, anyway. He wouldn't have put it in those words, saying that he cared about her – it left far too little distance between the two of them – but he had a hard time denying it when she said it. "It's not like I like you," he insisted.
"I would never suggest that you did," she agreed, all innocence.
He ignored her. "But I guess it's not totally off base to say I might care about you. In a professional capacity."
"That's all I'm saying. And I'm telling you that I feel the same way."
"Then I guess I can't really object to that."
"Good," Sarah said with an air of finality. Casey tried not to look at her in the cautious silence that descended, but out of the corner of his eye he could see that she was still wearing that contented, amused smile that told him she'd taken more from the conversation than he'd intended to give. "I think this is the part where normal people would hug."
The worrying part was that he couldn't tell if she was joking. "Don't even think about it."
The silence that followed her soft answering laugh was comfortable, the kind that descended when there was nothing that needed to be said and no reason to say the unnecessary. Such moments of companionable quiet had been all too rare since Casey's arrival in Burbank, and it struck him now that all the ones he could remember in that time had involved Sarah. Sure, sometimes they'd fallen into the cold-burning kind of silence that came from hating each others' presence – almost always because of something she'd done – and on rare occasions when she was stressed she picked up Chuck's habit of filling every empty space with sound, but for the most part she knew almost as well as Casey did how to coexist comfortably with someone without ever having to exchange a word.
As he was thinking this, Sarah set her cup down in the sink and stood up. "I should probably go," she said.
Casey responded with the most neutral sound he knew how to make as he rose to follow her. Yes, she probably should. No good could come of her getting too comfortable in his apartment, and he didn't want to encourage her to think that she was welcome to stay when she wanted to, as opposed to just when she needed to. But at the same time, he found that he was in no hurry to kick her out.
She found her phone where he'd left it on the desk, switching it on and examining the screen with the soft look that she only got when Chuck was involved. Casey wondered if she even realized she was doing it. Probably not; she was even more oblivious to the obviousness of her feelings than Chuck was. Chuck at least recognized his own. "How many times did he call?"
Sarah shot him her usual 'be nice' look. "Don't start."
"Not my fault the kid's hopeless."
The same look, sharper this time. "He just worries about me, that's all. Nothing inherently wrong with that." The glare turned into a smirk. "And you'd be the last one to talk if there was."
"I don't worry about you," he returned. "I just keep an eye on you."
"Uh-huh." There was amusement in Sarah's face, and maybe something approaching affection as well. "Listen," she added abruptly, her tone still soft. "Let me buy you lunch. Call out for Chinese or something. It's the least I can do, and it seems like kind of a waste to leave now if I'm just going to have to come back here in an hour or so and drive you to Castle."
Casey tried to ignore the way his stomach growled when she'd mentioned food, his first realization that he hadn't actually eaten anything since the bagel a couple hours ago. "Stop acting like you owe me something," he said. "I keep telling you I didn't do anything more than my job."
"Doesn't mean I can't do something to say thank you. You know, aside from not telling anyone that you're not completely unfeeling. And I won't be offended if you tell me you're sick of my company," she added. "Not that I think that would stop you."
Casey snorted. "You got that part right, at least." He fell silent for a moment. He wasn't sick of her company, to his own surprise. Even if this was just an extension of their usual relationship, it was something different than their everyday interactions. And provided she didn't try to turn it into a regular thing, he found that he didn't mind the change. He relented. "You want to call Bamboo Dragon, or should I?"
He'd expected another of her smug 'told you so' looks, but her expression was one of genuine, pleased surprise. It hadn't occurred to him that she might be asking for his company for her own benefit as well as his. How lonely did she have to be that he was her best option? "You place the order," she said. She gestured towards her phone. "I should probably call Chuck."
Casey rolled his eyes without real irritation. The asset was hopeless, and his partner was hopeless over the asset. When it wasn't directly interfering with the job, it was one more irritation that he'd gotten used to. "Right, because that's what he needs. Encouragement."
She gave him the look that said she was going to ignore that. "Get me a –"
"Number twenty-eight, extra spicy, no peanuts?" He shook his head at her look of surprise. "I don't ignore every word you say."
A little smile. "Yeah, the usual. Thanks."
He took to his phone, and Sarah did the same. And while Casey didn't eavesdrop as a rule – outside of what was necessary for surveillance purposes, of course – it was impossible not to hear the change in Sarah's voice when she said Chuck's name. "Hey, Chuck." A pause as he spoke and her face lit up even more. "Yes, of course I'm fine." She tilted her head up, catching Casey's eye, and he realized with a shock that for once this bright, warm look was at least partially for him. "I had someone taking good care of me."