A/N the First: Thanks to my awesome beta reader, who caught my three attempts to turn verbs into gerunds and laughed all the way through the chapter about Sarah's rather specific brand of cruelty. mxpw, you're swell. quistie64, you're a doll (yes, I watched Guys and Dolls this weekend, why do you ask?). crystalelements, I miss your face. Wepdiggy, you're a peach *wink*. lucky47, your personality is even sunnier than your hair, and I love that. Karen, where are those chapters I demanded (also, you're pretty great, too)? Chris, congrats on the soon-to-be-born baby (I hope she has your ears) and I am looking forward to pictures! Crumby, bonjour and [French for AWESOME]! Joel, have fun in Denmark and I'm still jealous. Ayefah, I don't even think you read this, but I still think you're nifty. (Insert your name here), how you doing? You look good! Are you doing something new with your hair? I like it.
With that out of the way, thanks to my pre-readers, everybody that's reviewed, left me tweets, reblogs, notes, PMs, emails, smoke signals, and telepathic thoughts that I will be sure to receive in forty years when we invent the technology. This is, by the way, the final chapter of the original That Which is Greater story. There are others in the series, though, so while this is an ending, it is also a beginning...
Howler monkeys are the loudest monkeys—their deep, howling calls can be heard almost 2 miles (3 kilometers) through the forest and more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) over open areas like lakes. The males call to announce their territory to other troops. – San Diego Zoo Blog
It wasn't even spy reflexes that saved Sarah. Instead, long-forgotten skills from a brief stint playing intramural softball at the Farm kicked in. Sarah snatched the girl from the air, set her down, and only then did the spy instincts show up. In an instant, Sarah had Violet behind her, putting herself between the child and any perceived danger before she realized fully what was going on.
She froze. Chuck did, too, with one hand still scratching at his armpit and the other rubbing his head, so he looked more ridiculous. It didn't help.
Violet, on the other hand, giggled and slithered right back around so that she was in front of Sarah. "That was awesome. You caught me just like that, and I went flying like 'whoooosh.'" She wrapped herself around Sarah's forearm all the way to the elbow. "We're playing monkeys. Did you come to play monkeys with us?"
Chuck turned an interesting shade of mauve and abruptly lowered his hands. "Violet…"
"I don't know how to play, uh, monkeys," Sarah said, though the rules looked pretty simple.
"It's super easy. Look, see, Daddy—show her how we play monkeys!"
She jumped about with renewed vigor, the hooting turning to shrieking that Sarah had to admit was rather monkey-like. One of Chuck's hands twitched upward toward his ribcage, as though he wasn't sure he should join in or not. He sent Sarah a sheepish look.
The mortification should have stirred some sympathy, but instead Sarah inexplicably found herself grinning, her own humiliation forgotten. "Well, c'mon, show me how you play monkeys, Chuck."
Chuck narrowed his eyes at her. "Sorry, no can do."
"Aw, why not?" Violet frowned.
"Because it's not monkey time anymore." Chuck turned on his heel to face his daughter. "It's…" He paused dramatically, puffing up his chest. "Teeth time!"
Somehow, this was a cue for Violet to repeat after him and dart around her room, giggling as she dodged away from him. "But teeth time comes after bath time," she said. Sarah lifted her arms so that she wouldn't accidentally elbow Violet in the chin when the girl hid behind her. "Wait. Does that mean there's no bath time?"
Chuck sent Sarah an apologetic look as he brushed past her to scoop up Violet. "You get a one-day furlough, kid," he said in a fairly decent imitation of a 1930s gangster. "Use it wisely. After that? It's back to the big house for you. All bunks will be tossed, all cigs and other contraband thrown out. And don't even think about putting it behind that Rita Hayworth poster you think you're hiding from me."
"And you're trouble. C'mon, let's go get those pearly whites shiny so you can tell Sarah good-night." Chuck toted his daughter from the room. Sarah wasn't sure if she should follow, so she stayed put, looking around. There were dolls—or were those action figures? She could never be sure—crowded onto the shelves next to giant picture books and stuffed animals. A white chest with violets painted on the front nudged up against the dresser. On the bed, she recognized the ill-named Bun-Bun keeping company with a much more ancient, bedraggled stuffed bear.
It made her think of an equally ancient giraffe she'd once had. Whatever had happened to that?
When Chuck and Violet emerged from the bathroom, Violet had changed into a pink nightgown with a cartoon character splashed across the front. She surprised Sarah by standing up on the bed and hugging her. "Good night, Miss Sarah," she said, unfailingly polite. "I'm glad you came over for dinner."
The words sounded rehearsed, which had to be why Sarah caught Chuck giving his daughter a thumbs up. She patted Violet on the back, only a little awkward. "I'm glad I came over for dinner, too. It was fun. We should do it again sometime."
"Really?" Violet immediately backed up to look at Sarah with wide eyes. "Really, truly?"
"Really, truly," Sarah said.
Violet cheered and flung herself down on the mattress, wriggling like a fish. "Yes," she said, holding her hands over her head like a runner doing a victory lap. Then she turned to Chuck, grinning. "Okay, I'm ready for my story now."
"That's my cue. I'll be out in a sec," Chuck said, obviously giving Sarah an escape route—one that she had absolutely no qualms about taking, and quickly. She wished Violet a good night and fled to the sitting room.
When Chuck joined her in the sitting room, he immediately moved over to a little fridge that had been stuck in the corner. "Sorry," he said as he pulled two bottles of water free. "Nighttime rituals tend to run long. Though I will have you know, even though I do monkey impressions with my kid, I have been informed by three people that I am actually quite cool."
"Granted, I think two of them were lying and the third wanted to borrow money from me. How are you feeling?"
Sarah gave him a baffled look as he handed her the bottle of water.
"You were tranqued? Shoved into a car trunk? That tends to stick with most people."
"Oh, right. No, I feel fine. Thanks for asking." It was the perfect opening to bring up Graham's phone call, but Sarah found her voice sticking. She cleared her throat and looked in the direction of Violet's room. "Did you get her all tucked in for the night?"
"It'll last twenty minutes before she gets up to get a drink of water, but for the most part, yes. No-bath nights are her favorite, and she knows how to compromise, so she tends to go down pretty easily." Chuck shrugged.
Having a set schedule like that—hell, knowing the habits, schedule, and care of another, smaller human being—was a completely foreign concept to Sarah. "Oh," she said. "She's very affectionate." Was that normal with four-year-olds?
"Yes, my shrinking Violet of a daughter, shyest in the land. Does that bother you? I can get her to tone it down."
"No, it's okay. I don't want to, ah, upset her." At least she'd caught Violet on the jump. Thank god for reflexes.
Chuck, on the other hand, frowned and twisted the cap of his water bottle in his hand, never fully removing it. He set the bottle on the coffee table. "Is something up? I kind of feel like you're stalling."
"It might need to wait until after Violet's really asleep."
"No, it's okay. We'll hear her if she tries to eavesdrop. She might be agile as a monkey—" Abruptly, Chuck grimaced and turned a dull red, which was far more endearing than Sarah wanted to admit. "—but she's actually the worst at sneaking up on people. This is also a skill, for the record, that I do not intend to foster. For my own sanity."
"If you say so." Still, the words wouldn't come. What she was about to say was going to irrevocably change everything about Chuck's life, and not necessarily for the better. Normally, she didn't mind delivering bad news to people: she'd grown good at it over various missions, as it was just one more thing required of being a spy. But right then, sitting on Chuck's couch, she absolutely did not want to say a word.
"What's wrong?" Chuck asked, a little line appearing between his eyebrows.
Sarah took a deep breath, and then another. "I got a call from my boss at dinner, an update on the Zarnow situation."
"He didn't get loose, did he?"
"No, they still have him in custody. As far as we can tell, he didn't get a look at you." Chuck really should have stayed in the car, though. Sarah didn't bother with a deep breath this time. She barreled onward. "They're not sending anybody else."
"It's too dangerous, after what happened with Zarnow. Your identity is too valuable to them. So they're not going to risk sending another scientist to try and remove the Intersect."
"So…" Chuck put the water bottle down. "What, one guy's a traitor selling my secrets to North Korea and now they're going to give up?" His face traveled through a litany of emotions: disbelief, outrage, confusion, and finally the one that made Sarah ache a little—despair. "What are they going to do, just sit back and hope it fixes itself?"
"I don't think they expect it to fix itself."
Chuck opened his mouth and stopped. He swayed a little. "Are they—are we talking bunker, Sarah?"
"No," Sarah said, grabbing his wrist because she wasn't entirely sure he wasn't going to fall off of the couch. "No bunker. The bosses have to decided to station Casey and me here permanently. We'll keep protecting you and you'll occasionally be called to use the Intersect to help out with something. It's going to be okay."
Something she said must have struck home because Chuck's face closed off of all expression. He leaned forward and picked up one of the game controllers, making Sarah release his wrist. She said nothing as he turned the game controller over and over in his hands. "They do understand that I'm a person, right? That it's my life they're destroying?"
"They know you're a person, Chuck," Sarah said, though she wasn't sure she believed what she was saying.
Chuck finally looked at her. "They just don't care."
"Look, I'll keep you safe—"
"For how long? Forever? Because right now, that's how long it feels like this thing is going to be in my head, Sarah."
"The bosses could change their minds."
"I don't know. This is new territory for me."
"They put a computer in my head," Chuck said. "I didn't do anything but answer a stupid email and they put a computer in my head and now I'm supposed to keep their secrets and risk my life because they can apparently do everything but take it out."
"For the record, I am sorry about all of this."
"Yeah," Chuck said, his voice empty. "So am I, actually. So, what, what do we do now? You keep pretending to be my girlfriend and I continue lying to everybody I love?"
"We'll figure something out. I need to talk to Casey about it, for one thing. But it's going to be okay. We'll figure it out." Since there wasn't anything more she could say or questions that she could answer, Sarah pushed to her feet. "I should go and talk to Casey now, actually."
"Yeah," was all Chuck said, though his tone was flat, empty of all emotion. When he climbed to his feet, it was slowly and reluctantly. He followed her down the hall and toward the stairs.
"You know what sucks?" he said as they walked through the now-dark first floor.
Sarah could name a lot of things.
"I'm a computer programmer who's been turned into a live-action computer program. And it should seem so cool, but it just…" Chuck raised his hands in a helpless gesture.
She stopped at the porch. "Look. Take the night, get some sleep. If you have questions, I'll probably have more answers in the morning. But I mean it when I say we're going to keep you safe, okay? You have nothing to worry about there. I mean, look at tonight. Everything worked out for the best. Nobody got hurt, and we got to eat linguine."
"And the next time?" Chuck asked, looking distinctly and wholly unhappy.
"We worry about it next time."
"Yeah," Chuck said. "Well, today has been…a thing. I guess, good night."
"It's going to get better," Sarah told him, and headed outside. She felt him watching her like a weight behind her sternum, but she didn't look back. Her insides felt twisted and oily, infected by the utter despair she'd seen in Chuck's eyes. She might have been a spy, she might have had to break people before, but this was the worst part of the job for her.
She absolutely did not let herself wonder why it affected her at all. Part of her pointed out that Bryce was dead, that this could be clinical shock at his death. Per Graham's orders, she wasn't even allowed to attend the fake funeral the CIA had set up for him. So maybe her feelings about her partner's death were bleeding over and even transferring onto Chuck.
Maybe, but she doubted it.
The rest of her stayed quiet.
She let herself into the new, permanent base of Operation Intersect through the front door. The Cat Squad had never had a base. Her handlers had always met her in public, at cafés and places they wouldn't be overheard. But now she was on an operation where the base was in the suburbs and the main subject was trapped.
Though she stiffened when she saw Casey at the kitchen table, he only nodded in greeting. "You tell him?" he said.
"How'd he take it?"
Sarah nearly asked why he cared because she was pretty sure he didn't. But Casey was now her partner. Dreams of being away from the caustic NSA agent and his catty remarks about her female habits vanished in a puff of acidic smoke.
"About as well as can be expected," she said. She crossed to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of wine. When Casey sneered, she rolled her eyes. "Don't start with me. It's been a long day."
"Well, don't be selfish, then."
Sarah got down a second glass. "Zarnow?"
"Handed him over. If he sees daylight again in the next twenty years, it's not my fault."
"How did he find the house?"
For a second, Casey's lips pulled to the left. He let out a long sigh. "Tracker," he said. "On the Crown Vic. I found it in the wheel well, so it looks like we both screwed up."
That explained why there hadn't been a jeering remark about her getting surprised by Zarnow. Sarah would have felt relieved, except they'd both missed something as elementary as a tracker. It wasn't a positive sign. She set down the glasses of wine on the table. "You deal with the bosses?"
"They chewed us both out, so you owe me one for taking that. We need to set up a briefing tomorrow with the asset and the bosses. I was thinking about setting it for eight."
Sarah mulled over it for a moment. "No, set it for ten thirty. Violet has her pre-K tomorrow, so Chuck will be free then."
"We can't schedule our lives around a small child."
"Our asset is the sole parent of a small child. If we want this to work peacefully, we're going to have to learn."
"I told you already, Walker, the job comes first."
"And how long is that going to last when Chuck is fighting us on every count? He's a good guy, but even you can tell he's not going to be a pushover where that little girl is concerned. And if they want us to make this more than a temporary thing, we need to get along."
"Are you asking me to hold hands and weave flower chains with a civilian, Walker?"
Sarah sipped her wine. "It's amazing that that's the first place your mind goes. Set the briefing for ten thirty. I'll send Chuck a text."
"I go from being in charge of security for the largest joint-op facility in the Agency to rescheduling my time around preschool," Casey said, scowling. "This op sucks."
"There's a lot of that going around."
"Tell me, do I have something to be worried about?"
She damned well wasn't going to let something like Zarnow surprising her happen again, Sarah thought, for the sake of her dignity alone. "What would you have to be worried about, Casey?"
"I heard the rumors about you and Larkin. You always get involved with your partners, Walker?"
Sarah finished her wine. "Don't flatter yourself," she said, deliberately keeping her movements casual as she placed the wineglass in the top rack of the dishwasher. "Bryce and I were just partners, anyway. You have nothing to worry about." You disgusting pig, she added in her head.
Casey's snort contained entire volumes of disbelief. "Good," he said. "Because try finding this sweet spot and you're going to need a dentist, sister."
Sarah gave in to the need to be immature and mimed retching into the sink. "While you get over yourself, I'm going to go to bed. You can do the perimeter sweep."
She waited until she was out of sight and in her bedroom to punch the wall. With that single release of tension out of the way, she showered, changed into pajamas, and laid down on top of her comforter. She didn't bother to run through the tricks she usually used to calm herself to sleep. Nor did she reach for her phone and scroll to the pictures of Bryce. She didn't want to think about him, not after his actions had stranded her in southern California.
She hadn't missed him—they'd gone months without contact before as part of the hazards of the job—until she'd realized he wasn't coming back and now everything was a mess. It felt tangled up inside of her in a way that she would never be able to sort out, which was not a feeling she relished. She'd become a spy to cut these things from her life. She had no desire to deal with sorting out her emotions over him and his betrayal on top of everything else: Chuck's misery, Casey's disgust, her own feelings of suddenly feeling horrible, inexplicably trapped in Los Angeles.
When she slept, she dreamed of being back at the dinner table, surrounded by Chuck and his family, only this time the dinner table was in a cage and Casey stood outside the bars, smugly tossing a key from one hand to the other. Behind him, Bryce looked at her with something akin to apology in his eyes, though he only turned and walked away when she called out to him.
Sarah woke with the feeling of sweat cold on her skin.
"Why are you dressing up?"
Getting ready in the morning usually meant pulling on a T-shirt (usually with a nerdy logo on the front) and jeans and focusing more on getting Violet's hair up in some kind of style, but this morning, Chuck stood in front of the floor-length mirror in Violet's room to adjust his tie. "I have a client meeting," he said.
"But what if it goes bad and your client wants to strangle you?" Violet looked genuinely concerned.
"Where did you—oh, right." Apparently she had taken his joke about Morgan and not wearing ties on first dates to heart. Chuck gave her a smile in the mirror that he didn't feel. He didn't think he would feel like smiling for a long time. "Don't worry. I'll run and get away if they try to strangle me with my tie."
"Good. Because you're really fast."
"Oh yeah?" The knot was still crooked. Chuck adjusted it in frustration. "How fast?"
"Almost as fast as Uncle Awesome, duh." Violet kicked her legs up, watching her tiny Crocs swing back and forth over the rug. "I never win at races."
"Someday, you will. We will all bow before the mighty Queen Megabyte as she runs circles around us."
"Queen Megabyte. I like the sound of that."
His tie was as good as it was going to get. "Oh, is that so?" He turned and grabbed the briefcase he used when he wanted to impress clients, a gift that Ellie and Awesome had given him the day he had started freelancing. "Well, right now you're still a peasant like the rest of us, so no getting too big for your britches."
"When I grow up, I'm going to be really tall, even taller than you and Uncle Awesome because I drink all of my milk."
"Twelve feet tall!" Violet scampered ahead of him on the stairs, her little Dora the Explorer backpack bumping up and down as she ran. "No, twenty! No, wait—fifty! I'll be fifty feet tall because I'll drink gallons and gallons of milk. That's, like, the tallest human, ever, right?"
"Fifty feet? Your head will be in space!"
"Won't that be neat? I'll wave at all of the rocket ships." She spread her arms out like an airplane and made zooming noises, running around the kitchen while he fetched a can of Coke for himself and her snack-box for pre-K. When he waved her over, she obediently stood still long enough for him to put the box and permission slip for a trip to the fire station the next week in the backpack. "What did Aunt Ellie make for me?"
"Guess you'll have to find out at snack time. C'mon, Space-a-Byte, let's march."
Nerves flooded him after he'd dropped off Vi at pre-K. He'd lied to his daughter about meeting a client. Or maybe he hadn't. He couldn't be sure. After Sarah had left the night before, he'd given in to a good—well, there wasn't any point about calling it anything other than a sulk. He'd played Zero Wing until his vision had blurred, and then he'd lain awake, staring at his ceiling for hours, replaying his conversation with Sarah over and over in his head. They weren't going to send any more scientists. He was the Intersect permanently.
At four a.m., the epiphany had struck: he had a computer in his head. A computer somebody had designed to be processed by a human brain. And that meant that somebody had programmed it specifically for that purpose.
And if there was one person that understood programming, it was Charles I. Bartowski.
So he strode up to Sarah and Casey's house in his Impressing New Clients suit, carrying his briefcase and wishing his hair was just a little less stupid. It was hot, but he'd already sweated through the shirt anyway, so that hardly seemed to matter.
Casey answered the door and looked down at Chuck's shoes and then back to Chuck's face, eyebrows going high. "You get lost and wander into an insurance salesman convention, Bartowski?"
"I'm meeting the bosses. I'd like to make a good impression."
He expected a wisecrack, but Casey just stepped aside to let him in. "Might have a brain in your head after all."
"As ever, I cherish your high opinion of me." Chuck knew he was coming off a lot testier than he should, but he hadn't slept and the nerves felt like snakes snapping about in his stomach. "Where are they?"
"D.C.," Casey said. "Teleconference in a couple of minutes. We've set up the den for it."
The place looked a lot different now that it had been unpacked and wasn't full of boxes, Chuck thought as he followed Casey into the den. The decorations were utterly generic and uninteresting, save for the framed picture of Ronald Reagan on the mantle.
"That's, uh, nice," Chuck said.
"You got something to say against the Gipper?"
"No, nothing at all. Great president. Great…guy." Chuck turned as Sarah came in. "Uh, hi."
"Hi. Nice suit." Before he really knew what was happening, she'd stepped into his personal space to fix the tie. He would have backed away in fear except that Casey's snort made both of them look over. "Yes, Major Casey, what is it now?"
"Headquarters is calling," Casey said, pointing at the TV.
"Here we go." They turned to face the TV screen, and the snakes in Chuck's stomach squirmed harder. The pair on the screen surprised him, but then he didn't know what he had been expecting. The woman wore stars on her shoulders—oh, god, he was really in over his head—and the man had on a suit as sharp as the look on his face.
"General, Director," Casey said. "Your asset, as ordered. Chuck Bartowski, civilian. Chuck, that's General Beckman and Director Graham." And you will be respectful, his tone finished for him.
Chuck swallowed hard. "Hi," he said. "It's nice to meet you." It wasn't, really, but what was he supposed to say? Thanks for not guarding your property enough to keep it out of my head and therefore ruin my life?
"Mr. Bartowski." The woman's voice dripped disapproval in every note. "We have some things to discuss about your future."
The tone had probably sent subordinates and underlings scampering for years, but Chuck instead felt his hackles rise. "I want to say one thing first—anything that goes on with me or with the thing you irresponsibly left in my head, my daughter stays out of it."
"You're not in the position to be giving orders, Mr. Bartowski." Graham crossed his arms over his chest. He seemed to be looming over General Beckman, who was sitting down, like they were talking through a webcam.
"Even so. My daughter stays out of it."
"Or what?" Graham seemed amused now.
Sparks of fury began to cluster at the edges of Chuck's vision. "Or—"
Something stepped on his foot. When he looked at Sarah, though, she was calmly facing the screen. "Director, if I may? Chuck is concerned about his daughter's safety. Does he have any reason to be?"
"None whatsoever. We're only interested in the Intersect, Mr. Bartowski," Graham said.
"Actually." Beckman frowned. "I'm a little interested why you felt you had to dress up and bring a briefcase to a classified briefing, Mr. Bartowski. I hope we're not keeping you from a business meeting."
"Oh, uh." Every other person in the briefing turned to look at him. Chuck suddenly had a flash that he was standing there in his underwear, being judged. He juggled the briefcase so that he could dig into it. "No meeting, General. At least, not one somewhere else. I brought this because I have a proposal for you. I, uh, it's what I bring to show to prospective clients."
"You have a proposal." Beckman sat back. "And you thought to open with an ultimatum?"
Okay, Chuck thought, that might have been a bad move. He met the General's eyes. "My daughter is the most important thing in my life," he said. "Do you have children? Because if you do, you'll understand. I just want her safe. But here, I have stuff. Stuff I brought to show you."
"What are you doing?" Casey asked under his breath as Chuck pulled his presentation folder out of the briefcase.
"Sarah—Agent Walker told me last night that you weren't planning to send another scientist out to try and take the Intersect out of my brain. And I get your reasoning, I do—don't get me wrong. I don't want my identity getting out either, and given my druthers, I'd rather not be sold to North Korea. But I don't think you want this thing in my head any more than I do and short of it breaking down completely—which I really don't want to happen—it's not going anywhere."
"Bartowski, get to the point," Casey said.
"The point is," Chuck said. "This thing in my head, it's nothing but a computer. My brain is the hardware and somewhere, somebody coded data into a machine that could be translated by my neurons or synapses or whatever. It's, in short, a computer program. And I am really good at writing computer programs. I think, if I had a piece of the code used to create the Intersect, I could deconstruct it."
"And do what with it?" Graham asked.
"And take it out," Chuck said. "That's all I want to do. I want it gone, and I'll do anything I can to have it out of my head."
"Do you really think we're going to trust a civilian with that kind of secret, Mr. Bartowski?" General Beckman asked.
"Uh," Chuck said.
Sarah, beside him, cleared her throat. "Chuck kind of has a point, General. Not to take sides, but he's already got most of the secrets in his head."
The sour moue on Beckman's face painted a picture of how exactly unhappy she was about that fact.
"The Intersect facility was blown up, Mr. Bartowski," Graham said. "I'm afraid all of it was lost."
"All of it? Nobody had a back-up of a single file anywhere? I don't need much. Just a couple of files. It'll take time, but I can deconstruct code from that." Chuck belatedly remembered he was holding his presentation packet. "Look, this is what I give to my clients. It's details of programs I've put together before, how I approach a project, what's involved. It's got a little bit of my history, what languages I know, though I have to figure by now you know everything there is to know about my life anyway. Ironically, the only secrets I have are in the Intersect."
Nobody denied it, Chuck noticed.
"I don't know if I'm actually capable of deconstructing the Intersect. I imagine you had a think-tank of geniuses working on it and writing the code, but I'd like a chance. I don't have much of a choice about anything right now, so I'd really, really like a chance."
The bosses looked at each other, but Chuck couldn't determine enough to know anything about what that meant. "We'll discuss the matter," Graham said for the both of them. "Since you've brought up your daughter and secrets, however, we do have one question."
Chuck went still. "Yes?"
"Is there any reason why we can't find a single record of her birth?"
"Uh, no." Panic rose. "We filed her birth certificate when she was born and everything. I've got copies of all of the paperwork and her medical records, and I assure you, she's very real." Violet wasn't in the system anywhere? That was downright strange. Sure, Sophie had managed to keep the fact that she had a daughter hidden from the paparazzi, but Chuck didn't think that went as far as deleting Violet's birth certificate from the records. Was that going to cause trouble further down the road? He hadn't had any trouble enrolling her in Pre-K or on his health insurance, though. What was going on?
"It might just be a computer glitch," Beckman said. "You didn't delete the records yourself? I'm told you have some skills in computer hacking."
"No, ma'am. Why would I? I mean, I don't put pictures of her on Facebook or anything, but that's just because I don't trust Zuckerberg."
"We will look into it. Very well, let's move on to the point of today's briefing, which is to discuss the future of this operation, and the goals we have for it." From the way Casey and Sarah both shifted to get more comfortable, Chuck noticed, it was going to be a long meeting. Feeling exhausted and now completely confused, he settled in to do the same. He'd been hoping that his proposal would go a lot better than that.
After Beckman and Graham signed off, Chuck seemed to deflate in on himself. The suit was a little rumpled and his tie was still askew. It made him look, in that moment, like a defeated man, and Sarah's heart hurt.
Casey, on the other hand, clapped him on the shoulder before walking away. He was whistling. The Casey who'd lamented being put on this operation was long gone, mostly because Beckman had promised them a larger budget for firepower. Casey was a man of simple wants.
As for her, she felt a little better than she had the night before, but everything was still a little too raw for her liking. And she hated seeing Chuck this way. "Want some coffee?" she asked.
"It's that obvious that I need it, huh?" He gave her a feeble sort of half-smile.
"It was a good pitch," she said. And it had been, except for the babbling. "And you took initiative. They appreciate that sort of thing more than you know." Actually, she'd had most of her initiative drilled out of her in training. Spies obeyed orders. They were only allowed to get creative in the field, so going off book against a superior officer was one of the greatest offenses. But Chuck was a civilian, so surely they had to take that into account.
"I guess. They didn't look impressed." He immediately peeled off the suit jacket and loosened his tie. "I hate client meetings. I always feel twelve. Like I put on my big boy suit and now it's time to pretend to be a grown-up."
"That was a client meeting?"
"Same tone, it fits." When she gestured, he took a seat at the table and laid his forehead on it. "They're not going to go for it. I saw their faces."
"You never know, Chuck. It was a good proposal. It was clear you knew what you were talking about."
"Yeah, well, computers I understand. It's the humans where I trip up." He lifted his head when she placed a mug of coffee by it. "Thanks. I didn't get much sleep."
"Me either," Sarah surprised herself by confessing. "It's a weird situation, all around. And it'll take some time to get used to."
Chuck grimaced. "Unfortunately. I just want to kick Zarnow a few times, though."
"Get in line."
"I mean, did he have to screw it up so bad for us? Couldn't he have just kicked a puppy to get his evil in for the day?"
Sarah laughed. "Kicked a puppy, really?"
"Why don't you go home and relax some? Take a nap or something if you're so tired."
Chuck grimaced. "Can't. Gotta finish the database I was working on yesterday. If I hurry, I can get in an hour of work before I have to go pick up Vi at pre-K. Once she's home, it's harder to work and it's so hot today that I'll have to keep her inside. Thanks for the coffee, though. And the support."
"Anytime," Sarah said. She walked him to the door before an idea occurred to her. "Hey, I don't remember if you said, but can Violet swim?"
"Of course. I know it's bragging, but she was the queen of her tadpole class. And she didn't even try to drown one of the other students, unlike some of her classmates." Chuck grinned at her. "Psychopaths start early, apparently."
"Don't worry. It all worked out in the end. Why do you ask?"
"Well, we got the pool filled. If you need a break, you're welcome to use it."
"Seriously?" Chuck asked.
"It's there, and we're all in this together. So why not? Just send me a text if you're coming over. I could use some sun."
"You could use some—" Chuck looked like he was briefly in danger of swallowing his tongue. She raised her eyebrows, but he shook his head like a dog emerging from a pond. "Okay, yeah. Yeah, actually that sounds like a great idea. I could use a break, and Vi loves to swim. You realize this is only going to make you more of a hero in her eyes? You may earn goddess-like status."
"It shows that she's got good taste."
"You're so modest, Sarah Walker. I like that about you. But, yeah, the world of coding calls. I'll text if we come over." Chuck wiggled his fingers at her in farewell and walked off, briefcase tucked under one arm and jacket slung across the opposite shoulder. Sarah waited a second before she closed the door—and was absolutely not surprised to see Casey behind her when she turned.
"Inviting the asset and his kid for a swimming date, huh?" he asked, eyebrows up.
"It's not a date, it's swimming."
"In very little clothing."
"You seem awfully worried about my sex life, Casey. Doth the gentleman protest too much?" Sarah rolled her eyes at him and moved around him to go back to grab her coffee. Chuck wasn't the only one with work to do. Casey followed her. "Did you need something?"
"What do you think about the asset working on the Intersect?"
"I think it's great," Sarah said. "It's obvious that the bosses aren't going to send anybody else, and who knows if they're doing anything to actually remove it, so if Chuck wants to take a crack it, why not? It'll keep him from feeling helpless, which I'm pretty sure is how he's feeling right now."
"You seem to care about his feelings quite a bit, Walker."
Sarah sighed. "Did you need something? Because I have a report about last night to write up if you don't."
"Just wanted your take for when Beckman calls." Casey paused, his hands stuck in his pockets. "Never had an asset volunteer to do something like this before."
"Nothing. Just noticing. Maybe he'll get us out of here faster."
"Maybe he will," Sarah said.
"Better hope he doesn't. I'm not the one who'll end up married to him if we're here for that long."
The room's temperature dropped to subarctic. "You're such an ass," Sarah said.
"Looking forward to our long-term partnership, too, Walker." And Casey strode out, whistling some tune Sarah didn't recognize. She stared after him in fury, keeping a clamp on the same messy emotions that had threatened to overwhelm her the night before. This was absolutely not going to last as long as Casey predicted. She was going to be out of Chuck's life, and by extension Violet's, long before the time came where she would have to hurt both of them.
Chuck hadn't meant to take Sarah up on her offer of using the pool. For one thing, it was a little weird. They'd just started "dating" not that long ago and repeatedly spending time together was going to send his family the message that they were already becoming codependent. But Violet woke up from her afternoon nap bubbling with energy, and day's temperature was amazingly hot for September. Keeping her inside seemed far too cruel.
And frankly, if Sarah was going to be at the pool, maybe she'd have a bikini. She might have been—well, Graham had called her his handler—his handler and not his girlfriend, but frankly, he wasn't dead. He was simply imprisoned by the thing in his head, and that did not affect his eyesight at all.
So, loaded up with Violet's pool toys (the large diving coins they'd been collecting for a couple of years), a foam noodle, several inflatable hippos Ellie had bought her, and their towels, he followed his daughter across the lawns between the houses. "Come around back," Sarah had texted to him, so he went straight to the gate. "Remember the rules?" he asked Violet.
"Yes, of course, can we swim now?"
"Patience, Padawan. I want to hear it from your lips first." Violet mumbled something. Chuck cupped a hand around his ear. "Sorry, must be getting old. I didn't quite catch that."
"No running by the pool and when Miss Sarah says we're done, we're done."
"And you and Miss Sarah are the ultimate bosses and I have to listen to you both or you'll feed me to a witch like Hansel and Gretel."
God, his kid was smart. That was almost verbatim. "Very good," Chuck said, and swung the gate open. "Let's go make sure you're not witch-treats."
Violet stepped into the yard and made it two steps before she let out a gasp of heavenly delight. "Major Casey Sir!" she said, and streaked across the grass.
"Violet Eleanor!" Two steps. She'd made it two steps before the rules had vanished. Guiltily, she stopped and whirled ten feet short of Casey, who was lounging on one of the pool chairs with a magazine. "What did we just talk about? You're not supposed to be running."
"But it's grass."
"Do we need to go home? Because we will, right now."
"No!" Panic rose clearly on her face. "No, we don't have to go home. I'll be good. No more running, I promise. Can I say hi to Major Casey Sir?"
Chuck held her gaze for a few seconds, just to be sure. "Okay," he said. "Go say hi to Casey. But if he says you're bothering him, you have to leave him alone."
"Megabyte, you're pushing my buttons."
"Sorry," Violet said, her voice a whisper. Ever the manipulator, she bounced up to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. The pout she gave him was impressive. "I won't do it again, I swear."
"Good. Go on with you."
Violet very carefully did not run as she made a beeline for Casey.
"Wow, that was a dad voice if I ever heard one," said a voice behind him.
"Occupational hazard," Chuck said, keeping an eye on Violet as she chattered at Casey, who did not look at all like he was interested. That would only make Violet try harder. But it didn't look like anything that might blow up soon, so he turned.
His tongue just about fell out of his head.
Sarah had indeed, thank the heavens, worn a bikini for the occasion. It was purple and while it was more modest than some of the ones he'd seen on his infrequent beach days with Violet, it definitely showed a lot of skin. A lot of elegantly smooth skin, and legs that went on for ages. For a second, he forgot that there was an English language, let alone how to use it.
"Chuck?" Sarah asked.
Through herculean effort, he managed to stop staring. "Uh," he said. "Hi."
She laughed. "Hi. Glad you could come over."
"Well, if this Intersect project comes with pool privileges and bikinis, I can't say it's all bad," Chuck said before he could stop himself. "I mean—"
"I don't think you'd look that great in a bikini, no offense." Sarah's eyes seemed amused.
Chuck let out a breath of relief at the olive branch she'd just offered. "I could look awesome in a bikini," he said. They walked toward the pool together, Sarah holding her tray of lemonade and him carrying Violet's assorted pool toys. "You never know."
"Hm. Maybe you should just leave that part to me."
"Gladly," Chuck said, and nearly facepalmed as he jumped right back into the hole he'd dug himself out of. He bought himself time by unloading the pool toys beside one of the chairs. On the other side of the pool, Violet was still chattering away.
"Hey, uh, I just got off the phone with Graham," Sarah said.
Chuck's stomach twisted into three very tight, very precise knots. "And?"
"And he's agreed to send over some files they found. Intersect files."
"Just like that?" Chuck said.
"I told you it was a good proposal."
A weight he hadn't realized he'd been carrying lifted from his shoulders. Suddenly, it wasn't that awful. Hell, it was kind of great, almost. He did have the Intersect in his head, but it was a little hard to be down about that when the sky was that unreal shade of blue, Sarah Walker was wearing a bikini, and Chuck had an opportunity to fix the mess that Bryce Larkin had dragged him into.
For the first time in over a week, he breathed easier.
"Wow," he said, meaning it. "That's great."
"It's not all that bad, right?" Sarah asked. He didn't expect to see the uncertainty lurking in her expression now. It was gone in a blink, but he hadn't imagined it. Sarah was looking for some assurance, just like he was, he realized.
It wasn't hard to smile. "No, it's not all bad."
"Good," she said. "We just need to remember there are positives, too. For all of us. Well, maybe not Casey."
"And we don't care what Casey thinks."
"Except that he's about to get his ear talked off by your daughter. You should probably rescue him."
She had a point, Chuck thought. So he shrugged and peeled off his shirt, so that he was only wearing his swim trunks. "Guess I should," he said. "Might want to back up unless you want to get wet, though."
"I think I can handle it."
"Your funeral. Hey, Megabyte." The last, he called across the pool. Violet whipped about guiltily as he walked over. "You're in so much trouble, young lady."
"Finally," Casey said under his breath. "Took you long enough, Bartowski."
"What'd I do?"
"You're still dry," Chuck said. "Don't you know the rules?"
Violet squinted. "What rules? That's not any rule!"
"It is now." And Chuck scooped up Violet, leaving her towel on the ground.
"Might want to hold your nose."
Chuck took a running leap as Violet shrieked, half out of happiness and half out of fear. They hit the water with a giant splash that drenched Casey and most of the concrete apron around the pool. When they surfaced, Chuck heard laughter from Violet and Sarah. He slicked his hair back and, warm from the California sunshine, thought, no, it wasn't all that bad.
A/N the Last: Have you checked my profile for stories that might not be posted on ff-net? See you in Carina's story, folks. Stay sexy!