by Moonlight Pilot
"No, Jeff, for the last time, I don't care how great they sound together, putting Yanni next to Bruce Springsteen is not something we do." Sarah honestly didn't know why nerd herders were required to stock shelves with the rest of the green shirts, as they were technically a different division within the Buy More corporation, but Big Mike had given his orders, and it was her job to follow them. She adjusted her vest now and gave Jeff a deadpan look. "Bruce starts with a 'B,' and Yanni goes in the 'Y' section. You know this. I know you know this. You did pass kindergarten, after all."
At least, she hoped he had. There were some days she couldn't be sure.
"The system is lame," Jeff said.
"Having to work when you're rich is also lame," Jeff felt the need to point out.
"I'm sure Bronwyn appreciates the fact that you can afford to feed her. Now, go fix all of the CDs you misfiled."
"Who even listens to CDs anymore anyway? Laaaame," Jeff said as Sarah walked off to face off the next Buy More crisis. There was one thing to be said for her new job: it was unpredictable. The day before, she'd literally put out two fires in the break room. The day before that had been Mystery Crisper. She'd demurred on her neophyte initiation for that one, but it had been amusing to see Morgan's face turn gray after he'd attempted to tackle the Dreaded Bottom Drawer. Even she could tell that this challenge wasn't for the faint of heart. Today's discovery was that Jeff Barnes didn't believe in the alphabet, not that she was surprised.
She headed for the Nerd Herd desk, a regular hangout. Evidently Buy More rules didn't prohibit the supervisor of the Nerd Herd from dating the assistant manager, not that anybody really cared for corporate policy. Along the way, she passed Skip Johnson, who was texting on his gold-plated cell phone, his head bobbing to only a beat he could hear. Her cell phone beeped. New text from Skip Johnson: :) watup boss?
"Not much," she called over her shoulder. And because she was in a particularly good mood, she added, "Like what you've done with the 'fro. Lookin' stylish."
Skip beamed and ran a hand over the fro, the plastic money signs he'd threaded in clacking against each other.
As far as the newly rich, she supposed her crew could be less subtle, but she wasn't sure how. And to prove it, the greatest argument against subtlety ever came strolling up to her by the waffle-iron end-cap. "Hey, Ass Man?"
Sarah turned and pinned Lester with the same look she'd given Jeff not two minutes before. "Lester, what have we talked about?"
Such was the power of her stare that he shifted his feet and began to fidget with the gold-framed aviators he'd taken to wearing. His collar was unbuttoned, his tie flung behind him over one shoulder, and there was a salmon-colored sweater tied over his shoulders, but it beat the argyle socks and loafers he'd worn to work the last few days. This outfit technically didn't violate the dress code or the rules of style. And thankfully, he'd stopped adding "Hizzle" to everybody's names.
"Lester?" Sarah prompted when the shorter man didn't speak for a minute.
He heaved a gusty, theatrical sigh. "Not to call you Ass Man."
"Very good. And what were you doing just now?"
"Calling you Ass Man."
"And what are you never going to do again?"
"Call you Ass Man."
"Good boy. Now what was it that you wanted?"
"Monsieur Bartowski, our fearless leader, asked me to give you this." Lester held out a folded square of paper.
Sarah took it with a raised eyebrow. Chuck had been using the Buy More minions to send her notes over the past few days, and each note usually contained some sort of code or cipher that she had to crack. In retrospect, she almost regretted telling him that she had nearly been headhunted by the CIA, as he took this spy thing to a whole new level.
Today there was no code in the letter. Sarah just raised the other eyebrow to join the first. "'Lester, quit reading my letters to Sarah, you dirty perv?'" she read aloud.
"Oh, whoops, wrong letter," Lester said, and nipped the paper from her fingers as he dug hurriedly in his pocket. "I think Chuck actually wanted me to give you this one." He handed her another square and fled, muttering under his breath about how long it took to launder money and why the hell wasn't he on his yacht right now with a buxom Hin-Jew and a desperate reality star.
Sarah decided she'd rather not know what a Hin-Jew was and opened Chuck's second letter. There was only a drawing on the page of a stick figure—her boyfriend's talents did not run to the artistic—rattling the bars of a cage with a speech bubble that read, "LET ME OUT!"
Sarah tucked the paper into the pocket of her skirt, smiled, and headed back to the warehouse.
Indeed, she found Chuck in the cage, hunched over the shell of a computer tower, a studious frown on his face as he tried to fix whatever problem the computer was having. Since he didn't notice the sound of her heels approaching, Sarah took the opportunity to lean against the open cage door and watch him for a moment, studying his long-fingered hands and the way they seemed completely competent. Ellie had bullied him into a haircut for the party, so his hair was shorter than usual, but it was still curling at the ends. It made her smile.
"You know," Chuck said without looking up, "it's a little creepy when you watch me like that."
Sarah smirked as she crossed the cage and hoisted herself onto the desk, idly kicking the leg of Chuck's chair with one of her pumps. "Got your note."
"Excellent." Chuck checked his watch. "It only took Lester an hour and forty-five minutes this time."
"A new record. And it had the best spy code yet."
"I really like how the little guy is wearing prison stripes and everything." Sarah wrinkled her nose at the state of the computer interior beside her. "Wow, dusty."
"Yeah, Mr.," and Chuck checked the inventory sheet next to him, "Alder doesn't believe in a well-kept computer environment. Thankfully, I've almost got this fixed. I have to say, this is not cool. It's my birthday, and I'm stuck in the cage."
"You were the one that volunteered to work this shift," Sarah said, smiling. "And let's face it, at least back here you don't have to deal with Jeff's filing system."
"Who's he trying to pair the Boss up with today?"
"Yanni should be so lucky." Chuck folded his arms over his chest and looked up at Sarah. "Hey, listen, about tonight..."
"Oh, no, not again. You already promised Ellie we're going to the party."
"Are you sure we have to? Because I was thinking about sharing a bottle of cheap wine with a blonde and hoping to get lucky, and that sounds way better than a party full of my sister's friends. Don't you agree?"
"I don't know," Sarah said. "I'm not really into blondes."
Chuck made a choking noise and she felt the same surge of pride she always felt whenever she coerced a laugh out of him. She smiled and stroked his hair. "We don't have to stay the whole time," she pointed out. "If it's boring, we'll cut out and do whatever you want. But I really do want to meet some of Ellie's friends, if only to say that I know somebody outside our, uh, crew." She looked around at the Buy More walls all around them. The green polo shirts were still over the cameras in the warehouse, a fact Chuck and Sarah had taken advantage of a couple of times after hours and most of the green shirts in the area weren't even attempting to look busy. It had become normal to her startlingly fast.
"How come," Chuck said, "it's my birthday, and yet I'm the one bending to the whims of others, my sister included?"
"Because you're a nice guy." Sarah scooted forward to kiss him.
Chuck waggled his eyebrows at her. "A nice guy who may get to see the inside of the supply closet?"
"Play your cards right, and you may get to see a whole lot more than that. The supply closet, though? Not today. I'm off-shift. I promised I'd help Ellie decorate for the party."
"It was worth a shot," Chuck said, snapping his fingers. "Don't let Ellie run you too ragged."
"Don't worry, I'll save plenty of energy...for later." Sarah dropped her voice to a husky tone, and nearly grinned when Chuck's face went briefly glassy. Even after weeks together, it was still amazingly easy to get a reaction out of him. She bounced forward and gave him a peck before she hopped off of the desk. "Walk me to my car? You look like you could get some air."
"Uh, yeah, definitely." The light in Chuck's eyes told her that she wasn't getting away without a very thorough good-bye, not that she minded. Chuck grabbed her hand to walk her out, threading their fingers together, which earned them a few catcalls as they left, but they were both quite used to that from their coworkers. "Did you give any more thought to that idea I had last night?" Chuck asked as they walked.
Sarah was silent for a second. "You mean, about me going back to school, too?"
"It could be fun. I mean, we wouldn't in the same classes or anything, but we could meet up for lunch on campus, and UCLA blue would really bring out your eyes."
"I'm still thinking about it. I'd, um, I'd have to get my GED first."
Chuck actually stopped walking. "Really?"
"Yeah, I went on the run from the CIA a couple of weeks before graduation. I don't actually have a high school diploma."
"Oh. But you took your SAT and everything? What'd you get?"
Sarah told him, and Chuck immediately burst out laughing. "You're kidding!"
Alarm raced through her. "What? Why would I be kidding?"
"Oh man," Chuck went on, as if she hadn't spoken. "It's fate. It has to be. We got the same score on our SATs."
"That's not possible," Sarah said.
"Why not? It's a standardized test."
Sarah gave him a look. "That's not possible because you're smart," she said, stressing the word as though it should be obvious. She left the "And I'm not" unspoken. Sure, she was clever, and fast on her feet, but she didn't have anywhere the near the same amount of raw intelligence Chuck did. His mind never stopped working, and he seemed to be interested in everything.
"Hate to break it to you, Sarah, but if you got a 1540 on your SAT, you're smart, too." They started walking toward the front door again, and Chuck seemed genuinely excited now. "Which is even more reason to go back to school. I mean, you don't want to work at the Buy More forever."
"It's a temporary thing, trust me."
"A couple of brains like ours, and we could seriously consider world domination. Just imagine it. Chuck and Sarah, God and Goddess Emperors of the Universe."
"How come your name is listed first?"
"Because 'C' comes before 'S,' duh. Apparently Jeff's not the only one having problems with the alphabet today."
"Oh, shut up," Sarah said, laughing.
"At least keep thinking about it," Chuck said. "I hear a college education makes it easier to rule the universe."
"I'll keep thinking about it," Sarah said, though she had no idea what she would possibly go back to school for. And it wasn't like she couldn't afford it.
The team had decided that Chuck and Sarah would split the bounty from Boston Techtronics evenly between themselves, leaving the other nine to share out the money they had stolen from Scopes and the Diablo brothers. They were laundering their money through the Buy More, which was taking a lot of time, and Chuck's coworkers were not exactly the most patient lot in the world. While her half of the three hundred fifty thousand, settled in an off-shore account, made her sleep easier at night, Chuck seemed to have barely noticed his—except that he seemed to like surprising her with lavish gifts. The day she'd moved in, he had bought her a huge flat-screen TV for her new apartment. She suspected that may have been a slightly selfish move on his part, since he had made the claim that he planned to spend a lot of time there. The stacks of chick flick DVDs were purely for her, though, she knew.
He finished walking her to her car. "You're absolutely sure we can't just go to an anonymous restaurant, get way too tipsy, and spend the rest of the evening inside?" he asked, looking pitiful.
"It's hardly a birthday party without the birthday boy there," Sarah said. "It'll be fun, I promise."
"Fine, if you insist. Have fun with my sister." Though he said good-bye, it was several minutes before Sarah was able to escape, laughing, into her car and drive away, and she had to stop before she reached the Bartowski apartment to fix her makeup, and her blouse.
OK, maybe Chuck had had a point, but Sarah wasn't ever going to admit that. First off, Chuck would get no small amount of pleasure out of telling her, "I told you so," and secondly, she didn't want to insult Ellie's friends. She was sure they were very interesting people when she wasn't distracted, but the problem was that she was distracted. It wasn't the usual sexual haze distraction that only seemed to apply to Chuck and his proximity, but an actual case of nerves that couldn't seem to be quelled, no matter how hard she tried.
She told herself it was ridiculous. That did absolutely nothing. She told herself there was no reason to be nervous, she trusted both parties implicitly. The anxiety still arose. She did her level best to keep up with the conversation Ellie was having with two of her old friends from undergrad, both of whom had been excited to meet the younger Bartowski's new match. And Sarah was sure they were both really nice, but she had spent most of the conversation trying to unobtrusively keep Chuck, standing across the courtyard with a beer, in sight. He was talking to a short brunette woman, and with very minute that passed, Sarah grew more nervous.
This could end very, very badly.
"Sarah?" Ellie's voice cut into her concentration and Sarah nearly jolted.
"Sorry," she said, covering by giving all three of the others a polite smile. "My brain was wandering—it was a long day at work, I'm sorry. Go on, I'm listening."
"Uh-huh. You'll have to forgive Sarah," Ellie told her friends. "She and my brother are still in that disgustingly happy new couple phase."
"I miss those days," the redheaded anesthesiologist on the left sighed. "Now I can barely get my boyfriend to look away from ESPN when he's not on-call."
This, of course, devolved into a conversation about dating doctors, and it was awhile before Sarah could politely slip away. She realized that with Chuck going back to school, she would probably be in the same position soon, as all of the women were complaining about having busy significant others, but she was too concerned with spying on Chuck and his conversant. Finally, she broke free and made her way across the courtyard under the pretense of getting another beer.
"Oh, hey, here she is," Chuck's voice said as Sarah bent to fish a beer out of the cooler. He appeared at her side. "Here, let me do that. It's subarctic in there."
"My hero," Sarah said, and turned to face Carly. "You haven't been telling him all of my secrets, have you?"
She almost managed to keep the very real worry out of her voice.
Carly, however, just tossed her head back and chuckled, her brunette ponytail swinging. "Don't worry, Walker, I left all of the Vancouver stories for you to tell."
Sarah relaxed. She and Carly had never pulled any jobs in Vancouver, but the way Chuck was looking over at them, wide-eyed, he would never believe that. "Right," she said, most of her fears turning to smoke and drifting away. "I'm really glad you came."
"Hey, I'm really glad your boy here invited me."
Chuck finally retrieved the beer for Sarah and shook his hand out, no doubt to get feeling back into it. Chuck had insisted on inviting Carly to the party, overruling Sarah's protests with a pitiful look and a pointed, "It's my birthday, isn't it? Don't I get a say in the guests?" And Sarah had left Carly a message on their service, never expecting that her friend would be in town or would actually show. Much to her surprise, both had come true.
"Why don't I let you two catch up?" Chuck said, looking quickly from one to the other. "I think I heard Morgan calling my name, and last time I ignored him, there was this horrible fiasco with the bean dip that I think Ellie would prefer never happen again." He squeezed Sarah's wrist before he left.
There was a second of silence as both ladies watched him go. "Wow," Carly said.
"Yeah, Morgan and bean dip sounds like it could be bad," Sarah said without thinking.
Carly nearly snorted beer up her nose from the sudden bout of guffawing, it looked like. But the shorter woman just coughed and said, "That's not what I meant. I never thought I would see the day."
"See what day?"
"Sarah Walker got religion. Amazing."
"Happens to all of us at some point or other." If we're smart, it happens before we get caught. I got lucky.
"Yeah, I suppose it does." Carly looked around the courtyard, with its pretty mission-tiled fountain and all of the average people around. Both women knew either of them could have conned the collective group of thousands. But instead, Carly just shrugged. "Religion over a guy. Didn't see that one coming."
"I was already on my way out of the game. The guy thing...it just happened."
"Well, it looks good on you." Carly eyed her for a long time; Sarah didn't say anything about the scrutiny. Her friend would arrive at whatever conclusions she wanted, and nothing Sarah could do or say would change that. She almost expected a derisive look, but Carly merely nodded, thoughtfully. "And you're not going to run into any trouble with..."
"The Diablos have bigger problems to worry about," Sarah said, reading her friend's unspoken question. "Scopes and the others, for example. They all took plea bargains to turn on the Diablos."
"I can't believe it was Scopes, all this time. I always thought he was nothing but a dirty nerd."
"Nerds can surprise you," Sarah said, and took a sip of beer. "Ben Arnold sent flowers to apologize that he hadn't warned me clearly enough about the whole mess, and the others have no reason to believe I would stay in L.A., so this is the last place they would look. So...I'm good."
"I can see that. You going to forgive Ben?"
Silence fell for a long stretch. Around them, twilight had begun to set in over the party, but things were going full swing still. A stereo in the corner pumped music, and people were still gathered in groups, talking. Carly and Sarah continued to watch the crowd. "Is it okay if I drop in on you and your boy when I swing through town?" Carly asked.
Sarah turned to look at her friend. "I'd love that," she said, meaning it.
"Don't think I'm going to get religion or anything," Carly warned, pointing a finger at her. "It's not contagious, you hear me?"
"I won't try to convert you. I'll just be happy to see you."
"Good. Tell your boy happy birthday for me, will you? I have a plane to catch."
"Oh, where to?"
Carly smiled. "Better for you not to know. See you when I see you."
"See you when I see you," Sarah repeated, and hugged her friend good-bye. Carly strode off, vanishing into the crowd, and Sarah wondered if the other woman truly would drop by, as promised. She hoped so. She liked Chuck's friends and her new life, but it was nice to have a friend of her own.
"I have no idea why you were so against me meeting her," said a voice behind her, and Sarah turned to see that Chuck had sneaked up. "She's delightful."
"She's one of a kind," Sarah agreed. "What were you two talking about?"
"Our little smash and grab in Vegas. Don't worry, I didn't use specifics. It was kind of neat to get to talk shop with a real live con-woman—you know, you aside."
"She says to tell you happy birthday and that she'll be dropping in on us periodically."
"Awesome." Chuck looked around, but none of the other partygoers were really paying attention to the two of them. "Hey, what do you say we sneak out, go to your place, and let you have some one-on-one time with the birthday guy?" He waggled his eyebrows.
She laughed and nearly said yes on that principle alone, but Devon came rushing up to both of them. "Oh, good, you're still here," he said, a little out of breath. "I tried to keep him away, dude, but Morgan somehow got into the grape Jell-O, and Jeff, Lester, and Skip just arrived and they refuse to leave."
Chuck and Sarah exchanged a glance. "Something tells me the party just got interesting," Chuck observed, and they split up to take care of the different problems.
The addition of the Buy More nerds in full force had both thinned out the party considerably while ensuring that the party would go well into the night. And it definitely kept things interesting. At some point, the nerds tried to light the fountain on fire, and Chuck hastily removed all of the tikki torches from the courtyard. At another point, there was a conga line that even Sarah, Ellie, and Devon had been dragged into. By the time they managed to shovel the last of the nerds into Jeff's Creepy Stalker Van, with a thankfully sober Fernando driving, it wasn't even Chuck's birthday any longer. Sarah figured he probably wouldn't mind getting his present late, since they both got roped into cleaning up the courtyard with the others.
"Are you staying over tonight?" Chuck asked as they collected the ubiquitous red party cups littering the ground.
Sarah faked nonchalant. "I had a couple of beers, I probably should."
"Excellent, that saves me from coming up with an excuse to drop by your apartment later."
"Ha," Sarah said, pointing at him. "As if you need an excuse."
"It's good to have pretences. It keeps us healthy. And thanks for the coat, by the way." Chuck ran a hand over it now; he'd been wearing the jacket she bought all night, ever since he'd opened it before the party. It had taken some creative thinking, and a little help from Morgan, to find a jacket that exactly resembled the famous Mal Reynolds brown coat from Firefly, and she couldn't help but feel a stab of pride that she'd come up with the idea herself. "Even though you wouldn't let me sneak away from my own birthday party for cheap sex, you're pretty much the most amazing girlfriend on the planet."
"Excuse me, cheap sex?"
"Sorry, sex brought on by cheap wine." Chuck's grin was incorrigible now. "Slip of the tongue, I swear."
"Uh-huh. I don't drink cheap wine, so you'd have had to find some other girlfr—" Sarah broke off when Chuck kissed her. Dimly, she heard the others cleaning up the courtyard clap and cheer, as they'd taken to doing lately. "Or not. You should probably stick with the girlfriend you have."
"I like this plan. Sheer elegance in its simplicity."
They finished most of the cleaning and then Ellie and Devon headed for bed, exhausted. They all had to work the next morning, Sarah knew, so they probably should have ended the party hours earlier, but all of them knew firsthand just how hard it was to move a posse of nerds that wouldn't be budged.
She parted from Chuck at the bathroom. "I'll be there in just a minute. Just want to, you know, wash up a bit."
"Sure, take your time. I'll put in a movie or something."
"Sounds great," Sarah said, though with what she planned, she doubted they would pay any attention. She slipped into the bathroom, glad she'd planned ahead and had stashed the bag she'd bought the day before under the sink. Buying both this part of the present and Chuck's new coat had made her credit card give out one short scream when swiped, a new feeling for her, but she told herself it was worth it.
Nearly half an hour of primping and prepping, and she decided she hadn't been lying. It really was worth every penny spent and Chuck, assuming he hadn't fallen asleep, was going to love it. She was practically grinning as she donned the short trench coat. Time to give Chuck a hell of a birthday present.
She opened the bathroom door—and of course ran straight into Ellie, who had her hand poised to knock. The brunette's eyes widened, her mouth forming an "oh" in surprise, as she took in Sarah's garb.
"Uh." Sarah couldn't think of a single good thing to say, damn all of her con artist years. "Right. So this happened. G'night, Ellie." She took off down the hallway, hoping she wasn't flushing.
She heard Ellie's cracking laughter and a "Good night, Sarah!" The plan was to enter Chuck's room slowly and start teasing him, but the unexpected hiccup meant Sarah practically dived through the door to escape. Not that, she realized with dismay, it mattered. Chuck didn't even look away from the computer when she came in.
"Hiya," she said.
He barely glanced her way. "Hey! Sorry, I forgot to put the movie in, but if you give me two seconds, I'll be happy to start one up. Just a minute."
"No problem." Sarah stayed leaning against the door, not sexily, just because she was about to shake with laughter over her encounter with Ellie. "What're you up to, Chuck?"
"Just trying to remember what my hero kept in his satchel."
"Um, was that a euphemism?"
Chuck laughed. "No, back at Stanford, a friend and I coded this old text-based video game—and we're nerds, I know, which is the point of the story. But if I can just remember..."
If he'd been catching up with email or something important like that, like sorting out his college admissions problems, Sarah might have let it go. But she didn't want to be ignored for some old video game. Not when she had spent the past half hour getting ready and building herself up so that she was practically already shaking with need. So she fixed a look on Chuck and reached for the tie to her trench coat.
"Hey, Chuck," she said, pulling the coat open and deliberately letting it fall to the ground. The noise made him look over; he froze, his eyes wide. "Are you going to play some video game all night..." She ran a hand down her side, and nearly snickered at the way his eyes tracked the movement. The La Perla she'd picked up special for him revealed just as much as it concealed. "Or are you going to unwrap...your gift?"
Chuck's fingers spasmed on the keyboard. "That," he said in a strangled voice, "is an excellent question." He banged his elbow against the keyboard as he rose, and cursed, but evidently seemed to forget the pain quickly, as he all but tackled her. "This is like the best birthday present ever."
"I'm glad you approve," Sarah said, chuckling as his hands began to roam and they did their customary stumble toward the bed. Neither of them paid a lick of attention to the computer monitor, which temporarily showed the string of characters Chuck had accidentally entered with his elbow. The screen flickered twice and then red text appeared: "INCORRECT. DELETING IN 3...2...1..."
By the time the screen cut to black, neither Chuck nor Sarah noticed or gave a damn, too wrapped up in each other to care.
MP's Note: Sorry about the confusion with the last chapter. I always thought you posted "THE END" before the epilogue, which is technically after the end, and then I forgot to say that whoops, there's another chapter, which is why I worked like crazy to get this one out. But thank you for all of the lovely reviews, everybody, and I really enjoyed my foray into this story and into your lives. Thanks for letting me share it with you. I don't know if I'll be writing another story in this fandom again, but you all have been incredibly lovely.
Disclaimer: One final time—please don't sue me.