A/N: Thanks as always to my beta reader daywalkr82, for always being on the ball for grammar, and commas, my kryptonite.
Sarah growled in frustration; she could hear the struggle and Chuck's labored breathing and grunts of exertion as he struggled with the assassin through her tactical radio set, but the blinds were still up, obscuring her sight-picture and making it impossible to identify her target properly. A crash came through her earphones and then the blinds came down in a rush. Sarah felt her breath hitch in her throat and her finger tighten on the trigger, a hairsbreadth from firing, but no, it was Chuck who was the last man standing, and her lip curled just a little in pride before Chuck dove out of her sights. She froze momentarily and only resumed breathing when Chuck popped back up holding a pistol aimed downward.
The whiplash of emotion continued, when the door behind him burst open to admit the pair of Secret Service agents Carina had mentioned earlier. She bit off a curse; how many times could her emotional state turn on a dime in the course of a minute? Two men had guns drawn at Chuck's back, but she couldn't fire on Secret Service agents, and unless Chuck thought of something fast... she ground her teeth. She hated this: watching him through a sniper-scope, unable to take the necessary action to protect him. Perhaps this was how he had felt, at least in part, on all those missions, trapped in the surveillance van as she and Casey risked life and limb. Sarah had only been half-listening to the unfolding drama, but then one Secret Service agent spun and a gunshot broke the brief stillness, taking down his partner, and shattering the action-plan Sarah had been in the middle of formulating. She was in pure reaction mode now.
Chuck shouted a curse and dived out of the line of fire, thankfully. Sarah clutched her hunting rifle to her shoulder tightly; it was basically a civilian version of the M32 bolt-action sniper rifle, probably a near twin to the one Berentz himself had been using until seconds before. Berentz took cover and exchanged fire with the remaining Secret Service agent.
"Sarah?" Chuck's voice asked. "How far down is that gondola?"
Her heart skipped a beat. "Chuck, don't you dare jump out a window in the middle of a firefight!" she spat, but it was already too late. She tensed as Berentz shifted fire, turning his gun to follow Chuck's flight. The would-be assassin didn't break cover, so his fire at Chuck was mostly un-aimed, shattering the window-glass instead of her husband. Still, there was always a price to be paid for pointing a gun at her man.
She shifted her point of aim, laying the crosshairs over Berentz left eyebrow and timing her breathing so that the movement wouldn't spoil her aim, before squeezing the trigger. The muzzle-flare briefly obscured her sights, and then the glass was too filmed with cracks to know if her bullet had flown true. She kept her eye riveted to the target until Chuck came blasting through the weakened glass and tumbled over the railing. Her attention was divided. The vast majority of her was concerned with Chuck's tumble, but a tiny fragment of her still noted that Berentz was wounded, not dead. The thick glass must have deformed the hollowpoint bullet slightly, causing it to tumble and deflect to one side erratically. It was a largely extraneous thought, flicking by faster than its formation, as Sarah's heart leapt into her throat. Chuck's arms and legs windmilled through the air as he fell into the window-washing cart with a crash she heard through her earphones.
She just had time to come to grips with that development, that the insane risk he'd taken somehow hadn't killed him. Chuck was safely in the cart, and he could use it to get to the ground, hopefully before the police showed up.
But then, she saw the first cable snap, saw the gondola begin to tilt, and time seemed to slow to a crawl, everything moving as if trapped in thick syrup. Chuck spilled out into the abyss, and a great fist seized her heart, crushing it mercilessly as he fell free. Sarah snapped her eyes closed as tears welled. She couldn't watch him die; it wasn't in her. Her left hand dropped to her belly from holding her rifle steady. God, no...
She had no idea how much time passed before Chuck's voice came through her earphones again, somehow not drawn out in a scream as he plummeted to his death. "Uh... truce?" he said, and Sarah's eyes flicked open, kicking her brain into a gear she didn't know she had. Her hands worked mechanically, snapping the bolt up and back to eject the spent round, and hen forward and down to chamber the second round in her rifle's four round internal magazine.
The tableau jumped into focus as she jammed the scope back into her eye. Chuck dangled by one hand tangled in one of the cables from the window-washing cart. How the hell had it just been sitting there, unoccupied? Another extraneous thought; right now, the love of her life hung precariously over a two-hundred-foot fall, with a cold-hearted assassin looming over him, pistol in hand and arm extending downward as he took aim.
For the tiniest fraction of a second, her crosshairs hung over Berentz forehead once more, and she considered taking the shot. If she placed the bullet just right, Berentz would turn off as if she had flicked a switch; there would be no time for his finger to spasm closed on the trigger of the sidearm aimed at Chuck's head., but it was aimed at her Chuck's head, and with her heart hammering in her chest, her breathing barely under control anymore, she couldn't be sure the bullet would strike the one tiny spot in Berentz' head that would instantaneously end the man's life and the threat to Chuck's. She shifted aim for an easier target.
"I usually try to know the names of the men I kill," Gus Berentz shouted down to Chuck, "but in your case, mystery man, I could give a crap. Make your peace with God." He pointed the weapon at Chuck, and then his hand exploded. Chuck flinched, thinking at first that Berentz had fired. The bullet impacted the assassin's fist between the knuckles and mushroomed against the frame of his sidearm, ejecting the pistol from his ruined hand and showering his torso with fragments, both from the bullet and the gun itself. The impact force spun Berentz in place, and he fell against the railing, tipping out into the abyss with a shout of pain. The pistol tumbled first, and Chuck batted it away from his face, a momentary distraction. Berentz fell past the dangling spy, scrabbling desperately for a grip, his uninjured right hand finding purchase on Chuck's ankle.
Chuck cursed as the tug on his leg made the cable bite deeper into his hand, and despite his best effort, his hand flinched steel cable slipping through his grasp. Berentz swung in an arc from his tenuous grip on Chuck's leg and collided with the wall below him before losing his grip and falling just a few feet to the next balcony below.
Chuck grimaced and reached up with his free hand to try to secure his grip but his right hand was afire with pain, and he fell, only a moment after Berentz dropped. The would-be assassin was still catching his breath when Chuck landed on his back, overbalancing him toward the railing.
"Get off!" Berentz screamed, shrugging awkwardly and spinning Chuck loose.
Chuck lashed out and caught the wrought iron railing left-handed, just managing to wedge the toes of his sneakers through the uprights of the railing. Berentz clutched his ruined hand to his chest and reached behind him, brandishing a combat knife.
Chuck shook his head and dropped back and down, anchored with his grip on the railing and both feet wedged into the uprights, falling into a half-crouch. "Bad move, buddy." He screwed his eyes shut and turned his head away
Berentz had time to frown in confusion through the numbness of the beginning of shock. He spotted the muzzle-flare from Sarah's next shot, but her perch was only two-hundred yards away, and her .308 caliber bullet flew at nearly three times the speed of sound. He had time to realize he was dead, but that was all. The hollowpoint bullet deformed on impact, as it was designed to, but still had enough residual energy to pass fully through the assassin's skull and shatter the sliding glass door behind him before burying itself somewhere in the—hopefully—unoccupied hotel room. The corpse that had mere instants before been Gus Berentz collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.
Chuck waited for the last thump to open his eyes. He tried not to look at the dead man as he hoisted himself up over the railing. "Chuck?" Sarah's voice asked tersely over the radio.
"Yeah?" he managed to get out through a suddenly parched throat.
"Never do that again!"
He turned to the building he guessed she was perched atop and nodded. "Yeah..." he said again.
Chuck could almost hear the scowl. "Say the words, Chuck."
"Never again," he agreed, reaching gingerly through the hole in the sliding door to trip the latch and let himself in off the balcony. "Hey, Sarah... any idea what floor I'm on... and... I'm losing a lot of blood here."
"Are you hit?" she demanded.
Chuck shook his head as he padded into the room. "No... just cut myself on the cable..." he swallowed against a sudden bout of nausea. "Lot of blood..."
Carina's voice suddenly intruded. "Cops incoming," she said, and Chuck heard the sirens for the first time. He blinked and staggered into the wall next to the bathroom door.
Chuck shook his head. "Okay, Carina, get out of there... you remember how to set off the Worm, right?"
"Carina can take care of herself, Chuck. How bad is your arm?" she said, voice under tight control. "Is it oozing or pumping out?"
He shuddered... "Just oozing, I think."
"Get in the bathroom and put it under the water," Sarah gave him instructions even as she safed her rifle and stowed it back into the case. Her own position was none too secure, and people would be calling in both locations. She shoved the stairwell door open with her shoulder and barreled down the stairs three at a time.
"Ow," Chuck said sharply.
"That's good," Sarah said. "If your arm still hurts it means you didn't cut any nerves. Take one of the towels and wrap it as tight as you can."
He grumbled something that sounded like compliance, and Sarah took another flight of stairs full speed, beginning to breathe hard.
"Carina, can you talk him to an exit?"
"Wait, what floor am I on?" Chuck said. Sarah paused, nearly stumbling, and thought back, trying to count floors in her minds eye. "Sixteen," she said, and heard Chuck retch. "Don't puke; it'll only slow you down."
Chuck laughed shakily. "Yes ma'am..." he said.
"Okay Chuck," Carina said. "Turn right and head to the end of the hall. There should be a window, and I'm seeing construction on that end of the building on these monitors."
Sarah fumed. "What are you still doing in security? Move your bony ass, Carina!"
"Relax, Walker," Carina shot back, "I've got a plan."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "Oh, that's reassuring. Your plans usually end with me holding the bag."
"Not this time, Blondie; I've got your back," Carina said reassuringly.
"I'm at the window," Chuck said. "Now what?"
"You see the construction?" Carina said. "There should be some scaffolding leading down to the parking structure."
Chuck's eyes widened. "It's two stories straight down!" he protested.
"You just dropped four stories a minute ago," Carina said. Chuck shook his head and cast his eyes around for some other way down. Also, he needed some way to break the window.
"Where are we on the police situation?" he said instead.
"Three cars out front, they're still setting up a perimeter. Okay, dammit, two uniforms heading in. I've got to move now. Chuck, get down to that construction site, and keep moving down. I'll meet you on top of the parking structure."
Chuck shook his head and clutched his towel-wrapped arm to his chest. "Yeah. You do that..." He grabbed one end of the wooden bench the hotel had in the window and swung it awkwardly at the window. It rebounded with a dull thud that sent a shock of pain through his wounded arm. "Ow," he said and dropped the bench.
"You okay, baby?" Sarah said over the radio.
Chuck growled something incoherent and stooped to grab the bench again.
"Hotel security! Freeze!"
Chuck rolled his eyes. "You've got to be kidding me!"
"I said, freeze! Turn around!"
Chuck glanced over his shoulder. "Well which is it? Freeze, or turn around?" He squinted, recognition flickering. "Stan, wasn't it?" Chuck turned fully.
"Agent Carmichael? What's going on?" He lowered his pistol and came closer, almost close enough that Chuck could... Stan seemed to recognize the sudden tension in Chuck's lanky frame, but it was too late. Chuck swung the bench, knocking the pistol out of Stan's grasp.
"Sorry about this," Chuck said, and kicked him in the pills. The security guard's breath rushed out of him in a harsh wheeze and he collapsed to the floor in a heap. Chuck darted over the downed hotel guard and scooped up his weapon. Stan's pistol was an older model, and Chuck had a moment's difficulty working the safety left-handed, but then the gun barked in his hand as he shot out the window. The rush of wind nearly unbalanced him as he leaned out, but there was a bit of scaffolding that protruded up above the main mass of construction, only a single story below.
He shook his head, and made sure his microphone was switched off. "So much for never again," he grumbled, and leaped. "Geronimo!" He hit and rolled to absorb the impact, then rolled again when he lost his balance and pitched off the short length of scaffolding onto the next level, a full ten feet lower. Chuck hit with crunch of wood and a cloud of sawdust, before hauling himself to his feet in a coughing fit.
A pair of construction workers with a handheld radio set stared at him in shock. One had just taken a bite of his sandwich, and his open mouth dripped what looked like half-chewed ham and cheese. Chuck grimaced and staggered off. The construction workers stood. "Hey!" one of them shouted, and Chuck growled a curse. He had to admit, if a man had jumped out of a hotel window into his construction site, Chuck would have taken exception to it as well.
He tucked Stan's stolen handgun into his armpit and fished his phony Secret Service ID out of his pants pocket. "Carmichael, Secret Service," he said, and proceeded to bluff his ass clean off. "My suspect wounded me, and I think he's in here somewhere." He brandished his towel-wrapped arm, and glanced at it for the first time. Blood was beginning to visibly soak through the white terrycloth. Chuck somehow stifled a shiver. "Keep your heads down until my backup gets here!" He stopped in his tracks and spun. "Which way is the elevator?"
One of the construction workers pointed, and Chuck breathed a sigh of relief, making his way hastily to the elevator. It was an open air contraption, with just a thin plywood and particle board railing between him and the drop. He jabbed the down button and shoved the door closed. The breeze was refreshing, he though, and shook his head. He was going a little funny.
Chuck blinked down at his right arm. It still hurt, so that was good, if Sarah was to be believed. If?That didn't make any sense, of course Sarah was to be believed. Chuck shook his head again. His thoughts were going in odd directions, and blood was dripping off the end of the towel he'd wrapped around his arm. That probably wasn't good.
The elevator stopped and Chuck threw himself into motion. He nearly stumbled and fell, but turned it into a staggering run. "Carina?" he said into his radio headset. "Where are you?"
Tires squealed and a blue sedan came out of nowhere, spinning a full 180 to present the rear of the car to him. The trunk popped open. "Get in, Chuckles!"
It didn't sound like the worst idea ever, so Chuck collapsed into the car-trunk and tugged the latch closed with his good left arm.
Carina crammed her foot onto the clutch and jammed the gearshift straight into second gear, pounding the gas pedal hard. She'd barely made it out of the security booth ahead of the police, and while the puzzled expressions she imagined on their faces when they found the booth empty and all the monitors filled with static warmed her heart, Chuckles had been slurring pretty bad before he got in the trunk. She swung the wheel, and her tires squealed as she took the spiraling ramp at about double the suggested speed.
When Chuck didn't have something snarky to say over the radio about her rough treatment, she risked taking one hand off the wheel to key her throat mic. "You okay back there Chuckles?"
There was no answer. "Sarah, talk to him," Carina said.
"Chuck?" Sarah's voice said in Carina's ear. "Chuck Bartowski, you answer me!" Nothing. "Dammit! Carina, I'm at... Gray and 24th, and I need a pickup."
"Fast as I can, Blondie," Carina said, and yanked her radio headset off her head, snatched open the glove box and stuffed it inside. She spun the wheel again as they came out of the ramp to find a police cruiser half-blocking the street exit. Carina bit her lip and flicked her hair out of her face, slamming on the brakes. She poked her head out the window. "I saw somebody run this way!" she shouted, pointing. "Come on, get out of the way!"
One of the police officers stood half in-half-out of the open cruiser's door. "Who the hell are you?"
She waved her credentials. "DEA! Come on, they're getting away!"
The cop visibly wavered, and then came to a decision, sat back down and slammed his car into reverse to clear the way for Carina's stolen car. She rocketed out of the parking garage and turned away from where the police were finishing their perimeter. After a moment, the police cruiser's lights and sirens filled her rear-view mirror. "Shit..." Carina growled and swerved around a slow-moving vehicle, scanning left and right. What street had Walker said? The redhead piled on the brakes and winced. She was probably really doing a number on Chuck in the trunk, but she didn't have much choice if she was going to sell this.
The police cruiser pulled up alongside. "What's up?" the patrolman shouted.
Carina pointed. "I think they split up!" she said. "Two white males, blond I think. One of them had a blue hoodie. I'll circle the block and— hey, you got a spare radio?"
The police officer nodded and tossed a handheld through the window to Carina. She handled the equipment like the professional she was, selling the idea that she wasn't involved in anything but a coincidental manner. "Thanks. I'll be on channel seven!" Carina said, and yanked her stolen sedan into a savage turn down Gray Street.
Carina kept checking her rear-view mirror; if that patrol car turned after her, she'd have to do some more fast thinking, but no, it looked like they'd taken the bait. Carina spotted Walker jogging toward her after a couple of blocks and grumbled a curse under her breath as she pulled to a halt. Sarah leaned in the open passenger window. "He's still not answering on the radio," Walker said, and glanced in the back seat. "Where is he?" she said, sudden fear getting the better of her.
"Trunk," Carina explained, checking her mirrors for what seemed like the millionth time. Sarah nodded at that logic.
"You used your DEA ID to get through the perimeter?" She surmised. Carina nodded, and Sarah shed her brunette wig. "Here, then, time to switch it up," Sarah said. "Redheads are noteworthy."
Carina managed something approaching her usual grin. "Don't I know it. Now get in, make sure your boy's alright." The trunk popped open and Sarah's face turned grim.
Sarah shoved the gun case into the trunk behind Chuck and slid in next to him before hauling the lid closed. She grabbed his face in both hands in the dark and felt her way around to his throat. His pulse was steady, and Sarah breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed almost as if it was the first breath she'd taken in hours, though her training had seen to it that she kept steady as she ran to meet up with Carina and her stolen car. The rest was up to her friend, really, to get them out of this mess.
Sarah put that thought out of her mind. Right now, she needed to work. She fumbled in her pockets for her pocket Maglite flashlight, played it around the interior of the trunk, and reached around Chuck to retrieve the small first aid kit from its pocket in the outside flap of her gun case. It was awkward to get at, and Sarah growled in frustration. She wasn't going to waste time scrabbling in the dark. Instead she plunged her hand into her back pocket and came out with her folding knife, sliced the beginning of a rift in the hem of her blouse and tore a long strip from the thin linen to use as a tourniquet. She had to stop that bleeding; all else was secondary.
Chuck drifted back to consciousness slowly, felt soft sheets under him and blinked his eyes open. There was a weight across his chest and a familiar mop of luscious blond hair nestled just under his chin. He felt a grin spreading across his face, until he glanced up and found Carina leaning against the door-frame. He blinked and tried to fit her into the tableau, but memory was slow coming back completely.
He frowned and waited while the pieces shuffled into place in his head. "We got away, then?"
Carina arched an eyebrow. "Yeah... you're welcome. Glad you're not dead," Carina said. "Seriously, do you have any idea the magnitude of what I would have had to deal with if you'd bought it, Bartowski?"
He nodded earnestly. "Yeah, I think I've got an inkling. How long was I out?"
Carina shrugged. "A few hours, I had the news coverage on this clusterfuck on in the other room. Just made me depressed, so I turned it off."
"That bad?" Chuck asked, and Carina nodded, still leaning against the doorframe with her arms crossed. She'd barely moved the whole time they spoke. "Right, standard waking up from a blackout question I neglected before: where are we?"
Carina snorted and flipped her hair out of her face. "DEA safe house out in the suburbs. We ditched the car and put you in the back of my Hummer. By the way, you owe me six hundred bucks to get the blood out of the upholstery."
Chuck snorted a laugh. "I think I've got that in my wallet, let me just," he instinctively moved to reach for it with his right hand, and groaned.
"Yeah, you probably don't wanna do that, Chuckles," Carina said. "We got some Tylenol-3 down you, but that was a couple hours ago."
"Tylenol what?" Chuck said.
"The kind with codeine, which, strictly speaking is evidence in an ongoing investigation, but nobody's going to miss a couple tablespoons out of a whole damn pallet of the stuff."
Chuck winced, but this time not from the pain. "You shouldn't have done that," he said. "You already stuck your neck out for us more than I'm really happy with."
Carina rolled her eyes. "Walker said the same thing, like twenty times." Then she shrugged. "This was, of course, before she collapsed on top of you."
"Speaking of," Chuck said, "think we should wake her?"
Carina frowned in thought. "Maybe. Then again, when she sees you're awake, she'll probably hug you so hard you bust your stitches, but it's up to you..."
"Stitches? Was my hand really that bad?" Chuck asked in confusion.
Carina shook her head and rolled her eyes. "No. You took one in the love handle," she said, demonstrating the placement of the wound with a finger to the outside of her own hip.
Chuck's jaw dropped. "I... what? I got shot? When did I get shot? I think I'd remember getting shot!"
The DEA agent shrugged eloquently. "It's a flesh wound, little more than a graze really, but you were probably in shock a little bit, that and all the adrenaline pumping through your veins, it's not a surprise you weren't aware of it, as bad as your hand got torn up."
"Still!" Chuck said, "that's... you're not just messing with me? I really got shot?" Sarah stirred a little at his raised voice and Chuck grimaced. He'd meant to let her sleep a little more, but he recognized this level of stirring. Sarah was well on her way back to consciousness, and though he did have methods of coaxing her back to sleep, he didn't particularly want to whisper sweet nothings into her ear with Carina standing watch.
"Nice job, Chuckles, you woke the sleeping dragon," she said.
Sarah thrust herself up suddenly to stare down at him, eyes bright. She grinned toothily when she saw him conscious. "Hey..." he said.
She plunged back down and kissed him soundly enough that Carina cleared her throat. "You two want me to leave?"
Sarah pulled away and tugged her hair forward over her burning ears. Then, her embarrassment faded and she peered down at him consideringly, arching an eyebrow. "You feeling up to it?" she whispered.
Chuck blushed and fought back a fit of nervous coughing. "Well..." he said. "I have been shot." It was the wrong thing for him to have said, Chuck realized, as soon as the words were out of his mouth.
Her eyebrows lowered and her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Yes. Yes, you have," Sarah growled and jabbed a finger into his sternum. "Never. Again."
"Yeah, but..." Chuck started. Sarah arched an eyebrow incredulously. "I mean..." he tried to backpedal furiously. "Yes, never again getting shot. Absolutely, not a fan. Carina, help!"
The redhead laughed from the doorway. "Oh, no, I'm not getting involved in married people issues. You're on your own, Charlie."
Chuck swallowed and searched for some topic of conversation to defuse the situation. He failed to find one that wasn't fraught with danger, but plunged on anyway. "So, how bad is my hand? I didn't lose any fingers did I?"
Sarah's stern expression shifted, just a little bit. "No," she said. "Just a lot of cuts, a couple deep enough I'm a little worried about nerve damage. It'll probably be a few months before they heal all the way." It was odd just how quick she could turn from angry angel of scariness, to concerned angel of mercy and comfort.
Chuck shifted, trying to sit up, and groaned. His hip really hurt, and that was the first he'd really felt from that region as far as pain went. It was odd. Sarah peeled herself off him and helped him sit up without straining his stitches. "So, do we know what happened?"
Carina grunted. "You tell us," she said. "The way Blondie tells it, you had everything under control until the Secret Service busted in and started shooting each other."
Chuck nodded and Sarah shuffled around to hug him from the side and tuck herself back into him protectively. "Yeah, one of the Secret Service guys worked for the Ring, and turned on his partner; then, all hell broke loose."
Sarah pulled away long enough to fix him with a puzzled stare. "What! That's... that's crazy. Wasn't Berentz working for the Ring himself?"
"That's what I thought," Chuck said. "Maybe he was just the fall-guy?"
"Hang on, time out," Carina made a 'T' with her hands. "The Ring? I heard about them. Some CIA guy went all suicide bomber on them, wiped out the leadership. They're done; kaput; game, set, match: CIA."
Sarah shook her head. "Not exactly. The bomb only got three out of the five Elders. Before we ran, Beckman said some new Russian was trying to take them over. I heard a couple names bandied about, but none of them really made an impression. Vol-something."
Carina grinned skeptically. "Not Voldemort, is it?"
Sarah scowled. "I doubt it. I don't really remember. Volkam? Volkrum? No, that's not it."
Chuck blinked. "Volkoff," he said, "When I was in Chicago with those Russians who were trying to crash all those planes, I overheard them talking about the guy who hired them. Volkoff. That was it."
Sarah sighed. "That's it. Dear God, he was trying to take out the leftover Ring Elders."
"That's a bit of a leap, Walker," Carina said. Sarah glared at her. "What?"
Sarah arched an eyebrow. "Bartowski, not Walker."
Carina rolled her eyes. "Whatever, still a big reach."
"No, it fits," Sarah said. "This guy —Volkoff? — tries to kill the last Ring Elders in a huge and intimidating fashion, crashing airliners together, wasn't that what you said?" Chuck nodded along.
"Yeah," he said, "you may be right. I stopped their plans, and so he goes back to the drawing board, tries to co-opt their people, take control of whatever they called their little cabal through more subtle means. We've been out of the loop for a few months, though, but if we imagine Berentz worked for the Ring, I mean, the leftover Elders, then the Secret Service agent... Newton. Yeah, he must have been sent by Volkoff to stop the assassination."
Carina frowned and shook her head. "Another huge leap, Chuck," she said, "why would the Ring try to kill the president? How does that benefit them? And why does Volkoff want to stop it?"
Chuck shrugged. "I don't know, maybe they're getting desperate?"
Sarah's eyebrows shot up. "How do we know the president was really the target?"
Chuck stared at her for a moment. "What are you talking about?" he said, then glanced nervously at Carina before he remembered they'd spilled the Intersect beans to her. "I flashed on Berentz; the plot was to kill the president."
"Four months ago the plan was to kill the president. A lot can change in that amount of time," she said. "Carina, does this place have Tivo, or a DVR or something?"
Carina grinned. "You've just had a brainstorm, I know that look."
"Me too," Chuck said, "spill."
"Alright, you think you're okay to stand?"
Chuck grunted. "One way to find out."
With Sarah's help, he managed to lever himself to a standing position, though he tried not to lean too heavily on her. Still, she insisted on looping his arm around her shoulders and having Carina stand on his other side ready to grab him if he wavered. It took longer than he expected to make it down the hall to the living-room. They were in a modest house in the suburbs.
"DEA safehouse, you said?" Chuck asked.
Carina nodded. "Yeah, they bought it off the books with some seized funds. "Pretty good neighborhood, and except for me and the regional supervisor, I don't think anybody even remembers this place exists."
Sarah arched an eyebrow. "Regional supervisor?"
"His son's cute," Carina said and darted ahead to toss Sarah the remote.
Sarah caught it deftly in her free hand before helping Chuck sit down on the couch. She turned on the TV and found the news stations, flicking through them haphazardly. Most were showing the aftermath of their shootout at the hotel, with little sound-bites about the aborted presidential speech. Few channels bothered showing any footage from the plaza where the speech was to have been made.
"What are we looking for?" Carina said impatiently.
"Hang on," Sarah said, "I think, yeah... listen up."
—The newscaster was flipping through a sheaf of papers under the desk. This was obviously a new bit of information. "Apparently," the woman said. "One aspect of the speech was to announce a staffing change, with a new Presidential National Security Advisor being named, an Air Force Brigadier General Diane Beckman."
The other newscaster cut in with the tagline for the evening. "Well, Monica, I guess she's got her work cut out for her."—
Sarah employed what Chuck had come to recognize as the 'I told you so,' grin.
Chuck let out a sigh. "Yeah, that does explain a few things. If Beckman's doing a good enough job without us that she's getting promoted and somebody's trying to knock her off, whether it's the Ring remnants or this Volkoff guy... do we know for sure if it's a guy?"
Sarah shrugged. "Assume away, the Russian underworld is still pretty sexist. I doubt many women over there would have the network needed to put the kind of pressure on the Ring that would make them desperate enough to go after Beckman herself."
"Okay," Chuck said. "where was I?"
"Hell if I know," Carina said.
Chuck rolled his eyes. "Right, no matter who it was that Beckman was putting the pressure on that got her far enough to have a hit put out on her, if there's some kind of power play going on behind the scenes in the Ring, the other side probably likes Beckman right where she is, messing things up for the other guys, whoever they might be."
Carina crossed her arms and chewed her lip. "I hate to admit it, Sarah, but your boytoy's got a point."
Sarah grinned. "Well, I didn't just marry him for his looks."
Carina arched an eyebrow dubiously. "Anyway... if we're right, what do we do? Call Beckman? Warn her? I know that probably messes things up for you two... so if you just want to let it lie...?"
Sarah shook her head. "Granted, I'm not going to join the woman's fan club any time soon, but I don't want to see her dead... most of the time..." she glanced at Chuck.
He shrugged. "Carina's probably right. We should call in, but we can be smart about it. Didn't the deputy CIA ops guy want to put us to work at Langley together? Maybe we call him instead of Beckman."
Carina nodded. "Well, as long as you've got a plan, leave me out of it. One day of aiding and abetting is my limit."
Sarah glanced at her watch. "Do you mind dropping us at a rental car place? We left our wheels in Cincinnati."
"One condition," Carina said after a moment's thought, "I want a Christmas card. And baby pictures once the little hellion busts out of there," she pointed at Sarah's belly, "for my scrapbook."
Sarah shook her head. "That's impossible. There's no secure way to get them to you without giving away our... wait, scrapbooking? Really?"
"Come on Walker," Carina protested, "you just foiled a major assassination plot while fugitives from... okay not 'Justice'... but I've seen Chuckles work. I'm sure you can figure out a way to email me anonymously, can't you? I promise I won't squeal."
Chuck considered it for a moment. "Yeah, probably," he said, "the encryption key will be... walkertowski."
Carina rolled her eyes. "Ugh, I want you out of my safehouse as soon as possible."
Sarah flew a circuitous route back to Arizona, stopping in several cities, mostly just to refuel. Really she was thinking through the best way to go about reestablishing contact with the CIA, explaining the fact that she was off the grid with... well, really she didn't know what the CIA thought Chuck was—rogue, AWOL, something else entirely she hadn't thought of— and there was the whole pregnancy issue. Unbelievable as it was, she was starting to show already, and her first trimester wasn't even over.
Chuck sneaked off to a department store the second night after they left Cincinnati to find her a pregnancy book and confirm that her early baby-bump wasn't outside the realm of possibility, considering her slender frame. They ended up driving to Yellowstone to make the call, and Sarah did all of the talking, officially lying to the CIA and claiming she'd just received an email from Chuck. Sarah didn't think that would really hold up, but DDO Myers would probably be in the mood to forgive a lot of things when she offered to bring back the Intersect. He even agreed right away to her and Chuck staying off the grid for the duration of her pregnancy—and Chuck's own recovery from the deep cuts into the muscle of his hand he'd suffered during his brief time hanging onto a steel cable for dear life, but she hoped to keep that a secret if she could— and put her in touch with some tech guy from S&T to set up a new secure protocol.
It took a few weeks to get everything set up at the house in Clarkdale; Chuck had to raid the local Radio Shack stores for parts to build his own STE from scratch after he flashed on the plans. Once they got the secure, anonymized voice linkup, she suffered a new surprise.
Chuck's head perked up when the S&T guy's voice came through. "Thanks Agent Jones," Sarah said into the speakerphone.
"No problem, Agent Walker. It's a pleasure to be working with you, even if it's a little bit out of the ordinary. Your reputation precedes you."
"Jones..." Chuck mused. "That wouldn't be Ron 'Jesus' Jones, would it?" he said. "Stanford, class of 2003?"
"What? Wait a second," Jones said. "I recognize that— Chuck Bartowski? You're agent Carmichael! No eff-ing way! Who recruited you?"
Chuck shrugged, even though they didn't have the video feed working yet. "Probably the same as you," he said, "Bryce."
Jones' voice was more subdued after that. "Yeah, me too. I heard about him dying."
Chuck managed a grin. "Which time?"
Sarah smiled sadly and put an arm around Chuck's waist in a one-armed hug.
Jones laughed, and they reminisced briefly about their fallen friend. Finally Jones couldn't contain himself. "So, uh... no offense Agent Walker... but Chuck, you really knocked up the famous Agent Walker?"
Sarah grinned. "Not knocked up. We're married."
Jones laughed harder. "That just makes it more impressive. Nice pull, Bartowski."
Chuck grinned in Sarah's direction. "He ain't wrong."
When they got the video up and Chuck was satisfied with their security protocols, Chuck and Sarah's first Christmas as husband and wife had come and gone, and Valentine's Day was looming only a few days down the road. Chuck had started putting it off, but finally relented, out of a desire not to spoil their plans for the 14th. When the familiar triple beep came out of the speakers, Chuck shivered.
Beckman scowled at them as stern as ever. The screen was split by a thin black line down the center, and Casey filled the right side of the screen.
"Agent Walker," Beckman started without bothering with any kind of greeting. " Abducting an asset like Chuck—"
Well, if she wasn't going to bother with manners, why should he. "Actually general," Chuck cut in over the general, "I left on my own, and made contact with Sarah after—"
Casey leaned forward in his chair. "Quiet, Bartowski!" he barked. It was difficult to read his mood, having been away from the gruffest member of the team for several months.
"At any rate, Agent Walker," Beckman went on, ignoring the byplay, "your behavior here is not far short of treason, and..."
Chuck cleared his throat, nudged Sarah surreptitiously, and she nodded raising a hand to forestall the general. "Um, actually General Beckman, it's Agent Bartowski... now." Chuck and Sarah both raised their left hands and flashed their wedding rings and best smiles. The CIA should send over the paperwork on my change in marital status today or tomorrow. Admittedly, it's a little overdue. If you're curious, General, you should be able to find our marriage certificate on file at the Office of the San Diego Justice of the Peace, under Bartowski. It would have been filed..." Sarah paused long enough to read from their copy of the document. "Monday, the 23rd of July at 4 pm."
Beckman and Casey's jaws dropped open in unison, almost mirror images of astonishment.
"You got married? How, we've been monitoring for any new paperwork with any of your known aliases..."
"We filed it under our real names," Chuck put in, "long before we ran off."
"Ugh," Casey said. And then his eyes widened as he did the math. "The twenty-third of July? At Comic-con?" The Colonel wrinkled his nose. "'Midnight snack,' my foot! Ugh! I really didn't need to know that."
"Casey, we didn't—" Chuck started.
"No, shut up Bartowski," Casey growled. I'm going to have to live with the mental image after the tapes I saw anyway, I don't want you filling in any blanks."
Sarah gave an exasperated sigh and stood up, her swollen belly filling the screen. Beckman and Casey both pulled away from their monitors in shock. She pointed to her obvious pregnancy. "This is from the first time we had sex, Casey, the day before I left LA, in my apartment which shouldn't have been under surveillance anyway, so shut up about the damn surveillance tapes!" And so, they had lied on the official record again, but what was one more time?
There was brief, insistent whispering on the Bartowski end of the conversation. Eventually Sarah sat down, still disgruntled. She folded her arms across her chest.
Beckman was still struck speechless, but started gathering herself. Sarah beat her to the punch. "My vacation runs out in a few weeks, and I've already sent in the request for maternity leave to the DDO."
"Does the DDO know that your vacation is being spent with a rogue operative?"
"Rogue? How am I a rogue operative? I went off the grid due to a panic signal from my NSA handler, and I'm calling in now that it's safe to do so, which Sarah cleared with the CIA."
"Bartowski..." Casey growled.
"Yeah? What is it Casey?" Sarah said, eyebrows raised in innocent astonishment, grinning brightly. She'd been waiting for the opening for months.
Casey's face on the screen vibrated for a moment, his expression one of mingled disbelief and rage. Now, there were two of them, and they— and then he cut his feed, leaving them with Beckman.
"If you two are quite finished taunting Colonel Casey with your relationship?"
Sarah and Chuck glanced at each other briefly, and then back to the general.
"Okay, we've got one more if you could get him back online?" Chuck said, "and then we're through, I promise."
Beckman let her head drop into her hands in abject misery. Her usual bluster was obviously not working on either of them. Walker seemed completely immune to anything she might have to say, and Bartowski was obviously enjoying it.
"Why did you call, Agent Bartowski? You're only leading us right to you."
"Actually, General. I think you'll find that... you know what, sure, why don't you send a strike team to wherever your tech guys tell you my IP is coming from. I think the President will be really interested in your reasoning."
"What are you on about, Bartowski?"
The phone on Beckman's desk started ringing.
"You'd better get that," Chuck smirked.
Beckman scooped the phone from its cradle, and listened for a moment before sighing heavily, and glaring at Chuck. She slammed the receiver down.
"You routed the call through a White House computer. How the hell did you... The Intersect."
"Sorry, General." Sarah interjected, "but that was all my Chuck." With maybe a little help from Jones in S/T at Langley, but she didn't need to know that.
"Your Chuck," Beckman repeated, eyes darting from one to the other, still awkward in her disbelief. "So, just for curiosity's sake, when we do eventually get authorization to trace the IP through the White House network, where will you be leading my techies next on their merry way?"
"Oh, I've no idea. The worm mutates as it spreads, so it could be anywhere, really. About half the government's internet connected computers are infected as of now, what with all the DOD computers and databases I've had access to. I guess I shouldn't have told you that, but it'll still be a bitch to find on every system you have. Look, General, I don't have anything against being a field agent, really, and I know Sarah loves her job, but we both felt that having the Intelligence community trying to break up our marriage was an untenable situation. And besides—"
"Chuck, let me take it for a minute. With the baby on the way though, we figured that wouldn't be as big of an issue because we're both basically going to be sidelined anyway... so, here's the sales pitch, and by the way, we already ran this by Myers, and he's on board, so this is really just a courtesy call. You're back on, Chuck."
Beckman's mouth had fallen open slightly, but she couldn't seem to muster her usual stern countenance. "Our conferences like this are already some of the most securely encrypted communications in the world, and I figured, it'd be pretty simple on your end to multiplex the signal. You can dump a whole mess of data down the line to me: intelligence briefings, Intersect updates, that sort of thing, the stuff I used to do in Castle, when we weren't in the field. You'll still have access to the human Intersect and be able to send people out on all the missions like you like to do. I think despite the skill-set that the Intersect 2.0 gave me, I'd still prefer to be on the not-killing people end of things if at all possible. We'll give you some time to think it over."
"Don't call us, we'll call you," Sarah said, ending the call.
A/N: Of course, by 'the end' I don't mean, the end of this Season 3 AU, but merely the end of the (somewhat lengthier than originally envisioned) Chuck & Sarah vs Themselves. If you haven't done so already, now is the time to check out the story to which this story is the prequel, Chuck & Sarah vs the Bunker.
And, keep an eye out for the sequel to that, the tentatively titled Chuck & Sarah vs the Recruits, which will be the last full length story in this AU.
For readers of my other currently ongoing story, Chuck vs the Frontier, know that I'll probably try to finish Frontier before committing to the writing of Recruits.
I'd like to take this moment to thank my beta, daywalkr82, once again for the amount of work he's put in. Copy-editing is a huge endeavor especially on a story this size (over 200k words), and as I have no money with which to pay him for his pro-bono work on my behalf, he's making do with kudos. So, thanks, one more time.