A/N the First: This story came about as a bet. I bet that Chuck would not return for a fifth season, and within a day, I was proven wrong, much to my relief. And until Blogger had its spaz fit earlier this week, people could go on my blog and vote how they wanted me to pay up, things like "write a whole chapter of Romeo and Juliet But Without Teenagers or Death...Well, Okay, Some Death" or "post Fates 49 by Friday." The winner by a landslide until the time the poll crashed and burned was that I revisit a scene in Fates—my pick—in Sarah's POV, a la Scream, W&T, and Fortune. So here it is, the latest in Sarah's crazy, girly, badass-spy-with-a-gooey-center world, my gift to you. Happy Tuesday!
Special thanks to my pre-readers for pointing out things as I went along, and of course, to the most wonderfullest beta reader in the world, the great Maximus. Hey, you know what you should do to thank him? Go vote for him in the Awesome Awards!
Disclaimer: Sadly, Fedak still owns it. I think. I'm definitely not making any money here. Please don't sue me.
It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves. — William Shakespeare
Not in the Stars
16 OCTOBER 2007
ON THE PACIFIC
Sarah Walker hit the water with a splash; only years of training kept her from swearing and ending up with a lungful of seawater. Still, ire made her claw her way to the surface a tad faster than she would have otherwise. "Dammit, Carina!"
A breeze carried her friend's cackle back to her over the roar of the jet ski's motor. Carina Miller wasted no time chopping the watercraft around, banking the jet ski and sending a perfect flume of water kicking through the air. She balanced out with natural, feline grace, and stopped the jet ski right next to Sarah, who was now treading water and glaring. "I told you to hold on," she said, still laughing as she reached a hand down to help haul Sarah up.
Sarah ignored the offer and scrambled onto the jet ski by herself. "Should've gotten the one with seat belts," she muttered. Her limbs were beginning to shake, but not from her sudden dunk into the Pacific Ocean. Sprinting full force through a Malibu estate in nothing but a bikini and a sarong while clutching a diamond worth more than the state of Kentucky would give anybody a rush. Adding Uzis and a daring, narrow sea-bound escape to that just meant that she would probably stop shaking by tomorrow. Possibly.
Her hands were still trembling a bit as Carina gunned the engine, laughed again, and took off so fast that the jet-ski's nose tilted upwards and threatened to dump both women into the ocean this time, no matter how tightly Sarah held onto Carina's waist.
When they reached the beach, Carina drove up right onto the sand. "Must be getting old," she said as Sarah clambered off and immediately began squeezing clumps of her hair out, wind-tangled and all. Carina, on the other hand, sauntered across the sand to where their getaway car waited. "The Sarah I knew at the Point would never have fallen off."
"The Carina I knew wouldn't have driven like a blind woman on meth," Sarah shot back, following her friend. "We didn't even need evasive maneuvers. They weren't following us."
"Who said anything about evasive maneuvers? I was just having fun." Carina threw her head back and laughed, a touch wickedly.
Because she more than understood the euphoria of having cheated death again, Sarah had to smile. "I thought Loki was Norse, not Swedish."
"Never mind." Both women paused as Ringtone #4 blared from Sarah's waistband. Mystified, she pulled her phone out.
"Two things," Carina said. "How the hell does that still work? And where—"
Sarah checked the call screen; a line appeared between her eyebrows. She hit the 'Talk' button.
"—were you keeping that?"
Sarah ignored her. "Yes, sir?" she asked Graham, keeping her voice neutral.
"Ah, good, Agent Walker. I wasn't certain I would catch you due to your mission."
"Already done," Sarah said. She thought of the pouch she'd stuck in the other side of her waistband, which thankfully hadn't fallen out during her spill off of the jet ski.
"Excellent. A courier will be in L.A. within forty-eight hours to collect it. Please keep the Nadan-I-Noor out of ex-Agent Miller's grasp."
Sarah didn't glance over her shoulder at Carina, though it was a near thing. "Will do," she said, her tone never changing.
"The reason I'm calling, however, is unrelated to the Alahi mission. There's been a change in the timeline for Prometheus."
Sarah's stomach fell. She'd worked for the government long enough to know that a "change in the timeline" meant that something in the gears had caught and another six months of waiting lay in store. She had so been looking forward to seeing Chuck in two days, to assure herself that he was okay, that Major Casey wasn't abusing him.
She didn't think she could wait another six months, not without screaming.
"It's been moved up," Graham said.
Sarah's head snapped up. "What?"
"Major Casey and Agent Bartowski are already in Burbank."
"They are?" She sounded way too eager, Sarah thought. She needed to dial it down a notch. "How long have they been here?"
"I just received the call from Major Casey to let me know they've landed in Burbank. As soon as you're free of Miller, your duties in regard to Agent Bartowski have commenced."
Sarah's stomach didn't precisely fall, though it did lower considerably this time. Her duties. "Thank you, sir. Do you have an agenda for me?"
"The Major and Agent Bartowski are only visiting the base and are remaining at their apartment this evening. Stay nearby and keep Miller away from the both of them, whatever you do."
As if she were going to let Carina anywhere near Chuck in this century, Sarah thought, but she just said, "Got it."
"Team briefing tomorrow at 1000."
"Try not to run away with the Intersect before then. My reputation is already shot to hell as it is."
Sarah forced herself to smile so that the emotion would be reflected in her voice. "No promises, but I'll do my best." She hung up and, even though Carina was there and had had far too much time to study her body language and reactions, stayed still for a moment to process.
Chuck was in L.A.
They were in the same city again—legally.
Excitement—fluttery, intense, almost dark—filtered through her like a live thing deep in her belly. And on her cell phone, still in her hand, she saw a very clear reflection of Carina holding the redhead's favored Smith & Wesson Ladysmith, pointed right at her. The image was distorted by the saltwater and the smudge left from Sarah's cheek on the iPhone, but it was unmistakable.
She should have felt betrayed that Carina was double-crossing her. But the only thing that came to mind was, Dammit, Carina, you couldn't even give me one minute to process the elation before we began our two-step, could you?
She cleared her throat without turning. "Should've known."
"Aw, c'mon, Blondie, don't be that way. You know it's not personal."
The pouch strapped to Sarah's waistband suddenly felt much, much heavier. "Your job means that much to you?" she asked, keeping her voice neutral. They were near a fairly crowded beach, by Carina's convertible Mustang, and the fact that they were model-pretty, in their sexual prime, and wearing bikinis meant they would likely draw stares, but Carina had probably picked the best time anyway. Indeed, when Sarah turned, she saw the area was strangely deserted.
Carina was looking at her with the same expression she imagined was mirrored on her own face. "Yeah, well, when you sucker punch the assistant director, you need a really big present to buy your way back into their good graces. A really shiny one."
"You know I'm not giving you the diamond."
"It'll end up in the same hands either way."
"I've got to follow my orders," Sarah said.
"Goody two-shoes." Carina put a mocking sneer into her words.
Sarah had to smile. "You once told me that means I'm a bitch."
"It's funny how some things never change. Hand it over." Carina held out her free hand for the diamond.
Sarah stared at the gun for a moment before sighing. There really did appear to be no way out. Carina knew just as well as she did that their time was limited; somebody would likely round that corner, spot the gun, and both of their covers would be blown, and neither wanted that. She could fight Carina—she technically had the edge in hand-to-hand combat—but that would just put off seeing Chuck longer. The sooner she got this over with, the sooner she could think of some random excuse to drop by the apartment she'd picked out for her teammates.
Still, she waited a full thirty seconds before sighing. It simply wasn't professional to give into Carina too easily. "You bitch," she said without heat. "Why is it every time we work together, you cause problems?"
"It's for your own good. Seriously, Blondie, I worry about you getting complacent."
Sarah pulled the pouch out of her waistband, sighed, and tossed it over. Carina caught it one-handed, peeked inside the pouch. "Thanks, babe."
"Don't mention it. At least you're stranding me somewhere public this time," Sarah said, managing a wry smile despite herself. Carina's tricks had ended up with her being stuck in far worse places than a beach outside of Malibu.
"Shouldn't be too hard to get a ride out of here. Just hit on some guy. Ciao, Sarah. Nice working with the CIA again."
"Bye, Carina. Wish I could say the same about the DEA."
She waited until Carina had taken the pouch and driven off, kicking up a nice cloud of sand and grit. Just for kicks and giggles, she called in the theft with the home office and put a tracker on Carina's car, but the ex-DEA agent would just ditch it at first opportunity anyway. Still, it would give some of the rookies some nice practice in futility and frustration. Sarah grinned at the thought as she strode a few hundred yards down the beach to where the jet ski she'd rented earlier that day was locked up and parked, waiting for her to go. This time, when she hit the waves, she was the one driving, and going much faster.
Boy, she thought as she pushed the jet ski as fast as it would go, following the signal to the beacon and the floater she'd dropped during her little "slip" off of Carina's jet ski earlier, Carina was sure going to be pissed when she found out Sarah had given her a fake diamond.
16 OCTOBER 2007
ON THE PACIFIC
Thanks to a glitch in the transponder, it took her nearly half an hour to find the beacon and the floater attached to the Nadan-I-Noor. She knew that realistically, this wasn't all that long. Technical issues, after all, had been factored into her original timeline, and likely Carina hadn't even put it together that Sarah had handed over the billion dollar rock just a little too easily, giving Sarah plenty of time to get off the grid.
Even so, every single minute dragged.
Chuck was in L.A.
And she was out on the water, searching for her freaking dye patch and the bright orange tag from a floater she'd had to toss because there wasn't any way Carina wasn't going to double-cross her on this one. Sarah knew exactly how much Carina's job meant to her.
Was it sad, she wondered, that you could reach a point in your life when people pointed guns at you and you weren't anything but offended? Was she jaded?
Chuck was in L.A., and she couldn't find the damned beacon. For a few terrifying minutes she was worried that she'd somehow let a priceless diamond the size of her fist sink into the Pacific. But the relief came two-fold when she finally crossed the dye-patch and saw the telltale orange in the chop. She hadn't screwed up the mission, and her night was now free. She had to work out a way to avoid Casey, true, but she'd figure that out later. He didn't know she was the third member of Prometheus. Given Sarah's takedown of Casey's entire team in Italy, it was mutually agreed that they would tell Casey at the last possible moment, giving him less of an opportunity to back out of Prometheus.
She snatched up the floater, cut toward the shore, and flooded it. She needed to get home and wash off the stickiness of the saltwater clinging to her skin, maybe put on a cute top and some jeans, and...go pick up a pizza. Yeah, that was what she would do: she would pick up a pizza, charm her way into Chuck and Casey's apartment, and see for herself how Chuck was doing. That was the friendly thing, right? The new teammate dropping by with pizza?
As she hit the beach where she'd stashed her own getaway car, her cell phone rang. It really was a miracle that the thing worked so well when it had gone into the ocean with her. She picked it up, hardly daring to hope, but it was Ellie's number on the view screen, not Chuck's. Of course. Chuck didn't even know she was in California.
"Hey, Ellie," she said as she strolled to the showers at the edge of the sand so that she could rinse her feet off. "What's up?"
"Are you at the beach?" Her roommate sounded puzzled.
Sarah stilled for a moment before she realized that Ellie could just likely hear the sounds of the volleyball game nearby, the wind, and possibly the waves. Having lived in L.A. all her life, the other woman no doubt recognized beach noises. "Yeah," she said, not seeing the point in lying. "I finished up early with my applications today, so I decided to knock off for a bit, get my feet in the sand. Something up?"
"Oh, not too much." Ellie was a chatterer by nature, somebody who talked and adopted others into the conversation, and generally steered the topic. As a more introverted and almost antisocial person, Sarah found this aspect fascinating. She also appreciated it, though she wondered what Ellie thought of her reticence at times. "Just got off a long shift. Are you going to be at home tonight?"
"Maybe. I'm not sure. Why? Did you want the apartment to yourself or something?"
"No, nothing like that. It's just, if you were going to be home, I was going to wait to tell you, but if you're not sure, I should probably tell you now. So, I talked to my, hmm, my acquaintance, Morgan."
Sarah paused with one foot under the shower spray. She recognized Ellie's tone as something to do with Chuck. And she remembered Chuck mentioning a Morgan, when they had talked on the beach outside of Athens. Ellie had gone to Chuck's best friend.
"And after asking me on a date three times, he finally answered my question, so I have an answer for you."
"Oh?" She could barely recall what question Ellie might be talking about, curse her damn near photographic memory. But then, rational thought had become ten times harder since Graham's phone call. Chuck was in L.A.
She wondered what Ellie would do if she just blurted that out. Would that sadness inherent in her voice fade to surprise? To distrust?
It was better to wait, to let Ellie see Chuck for herself.
"And it turns out," Ellie said, and Sarah realized that the other woman had been talking for a minute and she hadn't heard a word, "that a 'Bacta' tank, and that's spelled B-A-C-T-A not B-A-C-K-T-A like we thought, is a healing tank they put Luke Skywalker in when he apparently tried to freeze to death in this place called Hoth. That's H-O-T-H. Morgan was very clear on that."
"Oh," Sarah said. Nothing a short spin in a Bacta tank can't handle, Chuck had said. Now it made sense. "Well, thank you for finding that out for me. You have no idea how much I appreciate it."
"Why did you need to know anyway?" Ellie asked as Sarah finished washing off her feet and headed to the parking lot.
"Heard it somewhere," Sarah said. "I was curious and I just couldn't let it go."
"Oh, I know how that goes. Well, anyway, I'd better get off the phone and escape the hospital before they still realize I'm here. See you at home, maybe?"
"Maybe," Sarah said, and bid her roommate good-bye. Despite herself, she was smiling a little as she hung up. It was truly strange what twists and turns life took. Would she have ever met Ellie if Bryce hadn't taken her to see Chuck in Siberia two years before? She doubted it. Only a complete idiot would have believed, on first contact, Chuck's story about not being involved in Bryce's plans to destroy the Intersect. She never would have if she didn't know Chuck, hadn't spent two years thinking about him. In fact, she likely would have grilled him until he told the truth, and they would have missed that first train to Moscow completely.
And she knew for a fact, thanks to her connections, that the government had come close to tracking the both of them several times on their trek through Russia and Eastern Europe. If they had been any later...
There had been so many close calls she hadn't known about until later.
And now, she was striding across a Los Angeles beach in the autumnal sunlight, carrying her shoes in one hand and a priceless diamond in another, about to go see Chuck. For a second, she felt a spurt of guilt about concealing the fact that Chuck was in L.A., within miles of his sister. But that wasn't the sort of thing one just announced over the phone. Ellie had been through so much; she would have to see Chuck to truly believe he had come back.
She thought back to the beach in Athens, to when she'd pried just that little bit about Ellie and Morgan out of Chuck while they'd walked along, pretending to be a couple and holding hands.
I don't know what the government told her when they stashed me away. I haven't talked to her in five years. I…occasionally used satellites to, you know, check up on her, make sure she's okay.
What was it like to have that kind of connection to somebody? She loved her father, bless his jail-bound hide, but she doubted she'd ever use satellites to assure herself Jack Burton was okay, even if she did have the technical know-how. She'd burned through the stores of cash she kept for her father's bail in order to ensure that there was an escape route for her team, so she wondered if she even had a connection to her father anymore at all.
No, he was her father. She loved him and that was a ridiculous thing to ponder. Sure, she wouldn't hack a satellite for him, but she would get around to making sure he was okay if she was worried about him.
Just like Chuck would, actually, for anybody he loved. Only, Sarah realized, Chuck wouldn't wait.
Casey would probably try to make Chuck stay in the apartment, like Graham had said, but if Sarah knew Chuck at all, he wouldn't let a thing like that stop him. And Chuck had no idea that the woman who had removed him from the bunker was now his sister's roommate. Sarah was under no illusions there: she was distinctive, and Ellie was smart.
As fate would have it, Sarah picked up her phone to make the call, to warn Chuck not to mention her and to hear his voice for the first time in two weeks...and her phone succumbed to the saltwater and died.
16 OCTOBER 2007
MADISON MERCY HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM
She could have broken land speed records and it wouldn't have mattered, not when there had been an accident in the opposite lane of Highway 1 and the drivers showed that damned distressing Californian tendency to slow down and gawk as they passed. Sarah cut in and out of traffic lanes, trying to wave her phone innards dry with one hand, but it didn't matter: it still took her over a damned hour to get out of Malibu and into Burbank. At least she didn't have to drive around and look for Chuck. The tracker in her car placed his Subaru firmly in the hospital parking garage.
Now she would have to sneak into the hospital, and avoid running into Devon while she looked around for Chuck and Ellie. She'd have to be careful to see and not be seen; she had no doubt Chuck wouldn't be able to mask his initial reaction to her. She should have anticipated this. She should have seen that Ellie would be Chuck's very first priority.
A good agent learns to anticipate, even the unexpected.
She hadn't been able to anticipate a freaking thing since Chuck had walked into her life. Talk about unexpected.
Careful now, she used the side entrance, one she was fairly certain Devon and Ellie never took, and began scoping out the area. Chuck's car had been in the parking lot for a while, and she'd seen Ellie's SUV, too, which meant her roommate hadn't actually escaped the hospital like she had told Sarah she was doing. Chuck had gone to Ellie straightaway, which meant that he had likely found her.
Were they in her office? A waiting room? She wished her phone hadn't died, so that she could just track Chuck's watch. Technology may have muddied up the gears earlier when she was trying to find her floater, but she couldn't help but wish for it now. It would have simplified things a great deal.
She needn't have worried. She rounded a corner, and there he was.
Her first instinct was purely Agency-trained, and it was to kick herself for not checking around the corner like some eager first-year trainee. She knew better than that.
Her second instinct was to grab the wall, though she didn't do that either. The last time she had seen Chuck, it had been while Casey and Agent Davenport were pulling him away. He'd looked exhausted, confused, bruised from his encounter with Smith, and scared. She knew, thanks to reports from Graham, that in the meantime, Chuck had been getting the very best medical attention and care, so she had been expecting to see him in better health.
He looked worse.
Some things were still the same—there was that droop to his shoulders, he hadn't noticeably lost or gained any weight. His skin had a faint gray pallor, and he looked as though he had been punched in the face, thanks to the bags beneath his eyes. She could see that he had been sweating recently, as the front of his shirt was damp, though his forehead and face were dry. But looking at him in that brief second of time she had to truly study him before he looked up, she couldn't help but think that he seemed completely drained, weary from life.
But she was still so, so glad to see him. No matter how he looked, it was like somebody turned up the power on the fluorescent lights above their heads. The intensity of that, of the gush of joy, put a hitch in her stride.
Chuck looked up from whatever in his hand that was so fascinating. She wondered if he had to have some sort of radar where she was concerned because his eyes cut right to hers. For a split-second, there was nothing there but relief, and the intense feeling of At last!
Then, before she could even decipher the fact that she more than understood that feeling, too, all of that cleared away. Chuck's face shifted abruptly into confusion, his brows drawing together, that tic starting in his left cheek like it always did when he wasn't sure what was going on. She saw the doubt rise and fall, confusion taking its place again.
And down the hallway behind him, she saw Devon and Ellie emerge from one of the examination rooms, and swore. Ellie was still in her scrubs, but Devon wore his post-gym outfit of breakaway training pants and a T-shirt, which told her they'd both seen Chuck already. She thought she'd have a little more time than this.
Chuck seemed to have found his voice. "Sarah?" he asked as she continued to hurry toward him. "What—what are you—what are you doing here?"
"I'm the third agent," Sarah said, pulling them both out of the direct line of sight down the hallway. She wanted so badly to hug him, to touch him more, make sure he was truly okay, but they were on a deadline. She had maybe thirty seconds before Ellie and Devon reached the semi-crowded waiting room and the charade began. "Ellie and I are roommates, and she doesn't know we know each other, okay?"
"What?" Chuck looked down at her feet, still in their flip-flops and a bit sandy from the beach. She'd thrown a T-shirt over her bikini top, but she hadn't had time to change out of the sarong. "What are you wearing?"
At least she'd painted her toenails the day before so they looked cute. "Focus," Sarah said, and she wasn't sure whom she was talking to. "Ellie and Devon are coming, and they don't know we know each other, we're going to have to fake a meet cute, okay? I repeat: we don't know each other. Blow my cover and I'll kick your ass."
The harsh language did the trick. Chuck's face abruptly went from completely lost to completely closed. Sarah kicked herself internally, but there was little she could do about that. She grabbed Chuck's elbow again, turned him halfway away from her, and hurried the last few steps to the reception desk, intent on asking after Ellie and keeping up the tap-dance.
She got about three or four steps. "Sarah?" Ellie asked, sounding just as mystified as Chuck had.
Sarah made a big show of swiveling in place, her eyes widening. "Oh, thank God," she said, putting a hand to her chest in an exaggerated show of relief. "You're all right!"
Ellie wasn't, though. Though she had a steady hand with the make-up, Sarah could still see the remnants of some kind of crying jag, and Devon was hovering by his girlfriend's elbow, looking completely perplexed and out of his league. Ellie blinked a few times. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"You said you were going to be home over an hour ago," Sarah said. "I would have just called to check, but I accidentally forgot my phone was on me when I went to the beach, and it got soaked and has officially died." She made a sour face. "Which means I'll have to replace it tomorrow, but whatever. Are you—are you okay?"
"I don't know," Ellie said, surprising Sarah. Usually Bartowskis could qualify how they felt down to the smallest detail. But the brunette sucked in a deep breath. "Sarah, you haven't met my brother."
It was Sarah's turn to look perplexed, though she was faking. "I thought you said—"
"I know. But..." Ellie turned, putting a hesitant hand on Chuck's arm, drawing him into the conversation. Sarah nearly held her breath, knowing this was the moment of reckoning. Would Chuck be able to act like they'd never met before? She had hoped for time to explain to him what she was doing as Ellie's roommate, to tell him about the operation she'd been helping set up in California. This was the last way she wanted him to find out.
But it couldn't be helped.
"Sarah," Ellie said, her voice breaking slightly, "this is my brother Chuck. He's come back from...he's come back. And Chuck, meet my roommate, Sarah. She's an actress."
"And I normally don't look like I've just come in from the beach, I promise. It's nice to meet you, Chuck."
Chuck's face was nearly expressionless as he shook her hand. "It's nice to meet you, Sarah."
"Is it cool if Chuck stays at the apartment tonight?" Ellie asked Sarah. "It's just, we have a lot to catch up on and—"
"No, no, it's fine. I understand," Sarah said. "Do you want me to clear out?"
"No, you're fine."
"Cool. Then I guess I'll see you back at home?" She knew it was almost cowardly to abandon the field, but the longer she was near Chuck, the worse it would grow for him to keep the façade up. She saw him sneak a puzzled look at her when neither Ellie nor Devon was paying attention to him, but other than that, he kept up the weary and confused look. She bid everybody a quick good-bye and hurried off, apologizing once again for "worrying" over Ellie like she had.
All things considered, that could have gone better.
17 OCTOBER 2007
She'd made it home quickly, as she wanted to be out of the way and safely tucked back in her room—Chuck's old room—before the other three made it there. And she desperately, desperately needed a shower, as her skin felt sticky from the remnants of the Pacific Ocean. Before she did anything else, however, she tucked the Nadan-I-Noor in the safe she'd installed beside the TRON poster, which looked flawlessly like any another patch of wall. She'd had an actual wall safe put in behind the TRON poster; in that, she left a note for Carina.
Damn, the redhead was going to be hopping mad by the end of this. Sarah almost cared.
She heard the front door open and hurried into the bathroom to shower and change before any of them caught her. She took longer than usual in the shower, resting her forehead against the shower tile as she had in Greece, when she had been sleep-deprived within an inch of her life and going crazy with lust. Those days almost seemed simpler. Exhaustion brought everything to the surface, including things she really had no business feeling when they'd been on the run from everything and everybody, and somehow made things both fuzzy and clearer-cut at the same time.
And now they were back to the old games. Or at least she was. Pretending not to know Chuck, pretending to feel nothing whenever he was nearby. And Chuck was in on this round of lies, too, for they would both need to keep lying to Ellie for Ellie's safety. Sarah should have anticipated this. She hadn't.
In her room again, she dressed for the night, an old T-shirt and sleep shorts. Not sexy at all, she couldn't help but think, looking down the length of her legs. Not the fancy lingerie she often donned, nothing silky or lacy about it. But she'd picked up some sun at Peyman Alahi's apartment and her jet skiing trips afterward, just a very light tan. She wondered if Chuck would notice.
Probably not. He'd looked so lost, and downright miserable, though his face had healed completely, and he hadn't been favoring his side anymore. Physically, he seemed to be healthy, though he was the one that could really do with some time in the sun.
She'd see that he got it, and whatever else he wanted.
Outside the room, she couldn't precisely hear what Chuck and Ellie were saying, but she heard their voices, murmuring. It took awhile; the shower ran, the unmistakable noises of Ellie puttering around the kitchen drifted through, she heard Devon come out and comment that it was getting late. A few minutes after that, while Sarah sat and waited, never moving, she finally heard Ellie go down the hallway one final time.
She rose and wordlessly padded out to where Chuck was sitting on the couch, bowed forward with his head in his hands.
He didn't look up. "Explain," he said, his voice empty.
She still took a moment before she spoke, as she was too busy studying him. Thanks to the fact that he wasn't wearing a shirt, she could see that her analysis at the hospital was right: he hadn't gained or lost weight, and he had apparently kept up his workouts in their time apart. He had a pillow in his lap, held between his arms and his stomach, but there was no mistaking the fact that he wore only a pair of bright blue bike shorts. And even better than that: "Your face looks better."
"Thanks." Chuck still didn't look at her. "A week with the best doctors the government can get works wonders. I'm fine—better now that the panic attack's over."
That was what she had been worried about. Sarah closed her eyes for a second. "You getting those often?" she asked. His psych profile had shown a dependence on her that she found worrying at best and downright uncomfortable at worst. And it was apparently true: the fact that he didn't seem like a panic attack was anything out of the usual for him told her they were a common occurrence.
She wanted to find whoever had ordered Chuck to that godforsaken bunker and shoot him in the face.
"You told me in the hospital, 'We don't know each other. Blow my cover and I'll kick your ass.' I kept the deal, Sarah. Now tell me why you're suddenly in southern California and rooming with my sister instead of undercover in some place like Jakarta in a knife-fight with an evildoer."
Well, that was creative. "I requested Jakarta, actually," Sarah said, attempting to smile.
Chuck finally looked up, looking annoyed—which abruptly shifted to confusion as he took in her appearance. "Hey, is that mine?"
Confused, Sarah looked down. Her eyebrows shot up; she hadn't even realized she was wearing the Stanford shirt. She nearly smacked herself in the forehead for that slip. Obsessed much? "I guess. Ellie said she was going to throw a whole bunch of stuff out, but I took a few things. You know, just to sleep in. My cover's out of work and I can't really justify spending a lot on clothing."
"Oh." Chuck shook his head. "Why would you request Jakarta?"
"I didn't literally say, 'I want to go to Jakarta.'" She didn't even know where Jakarta was.
"But I did put in for field work again," Sarah lied, trying very, very hard not to think about the 34-J and her first meeting with General Beckman. She cleared her throat and decided to elaborate on the lie. "Actually, I put in a request to go after Bryce. The home office felt my unique abilities might be of more use here, protecting you and your sister."
Instead of looking hopeful for the first time, however, Chuck's face went flat. "So they listened to my demands."
Why wasn't he happier about this? "Chuck, you single-handedly out-bluffed the government of the United States. Of course they listened to your demands. That's why Casey and I are in Burbank."
"Why you two, though? It doesn't make any sense. You're a field agent, and he's…him." Chuck looked like he had tasted something particularly sour.
"Security detail for the Intersect compound was his job. And since you are the Intersect compound now, it makes sense. Plus, he and I are the only ones that know you're the Intersect. And since Bryce going rogue is fairly well known, putting his partner on a domestic field desk as punishment is a logical move. Assigning John Casey out here also makes sense because on paper, it looks like he screwed up, too. Casey and I took the black marks on our records to make it look real." Well, Casey had. The black mark on Sarah's own record was real, but at least it wasn't twenty-five years in Gitmo.
"You shouldn't have had to do that," Chuck said, scowling. "Is this even what you want to do, Sarah? I mean, you're the jet-setter. Secret missions, karate-chopping bad guys in the neck, hell, I bet you even have, like, a closet full of ninja outfits."
"Not a closet," Sarah said evasively. What the hell was he talking about? What she wanted to do? She was in Burbank, with Chuck. Legally. They could see each other every day and it wasn't an ordeal of crossing continents and jumping out of planes to do so. Again, why wasn't he happier about this?
"I'm sorry," Chuck said, and Sarah blinked.
"For the bluff. I know you're mad at me for going behind your back and getting Randy to deliver that phone, and then for not telling you the bit with the code and the media agencies was just a bluff. And you should be mad at me that my demands got you stuck in southern California instead of a bar fight with a bunch of corrupt oil sheiks, so I'm sorry about that, too."
How on earth could they be so close to each other and think so differently? She wasn't even remotely angry about Chuck's bluff. Hell, if anything, she was impressed. It had kept her out of prison, launched a multi-million dollar organization on U.S. soil, and had had multi-star generals jumping at Chuck's whim, all based on a low-res cell phone video. "Stop apologizing."
"Okay. Sorry if it's too much—"
She laughed. She just couldn't help it. It really was strange to be the optimist, but why couldn't he see that it was astonishingly impressive what he'd done? "Chuck, you of all people should know that we rarely get a choice in what we get asked to do. So what if I'm, as you say, stuck in southern California? You're not in a bunker, and I'll be able to get a tan without worrying about dehydration for once."
Chuck gave her a confused look.
What part of that had been unclear? She frowned. "You know, because most of the time I get tans is while I'm in the desert and never sure when water was going to—oh, never mind. Quit smiling."
Even though she felt a flush of embarrassment, the fact that Chuck was even smiling at all made her want to hug him. "It's a hard knock life, Sarah Walker," he said, a smile pulling at one side of his mouth.
Sarah shook her head and gave in to the need to touch, clapping him on the knee before she rose from the couch. When he didn't flinch at the contact, she smiled. "Get some sleep. Team Bartowski kicks off tomorrow."
"I like the name. Give you a dollar if you use it in front of Casey."
"Deal," Sarah said, and left before she could do something to embarrass herself further. She waited until she was in her room before she closed the door and leaned back against it, letting out a long breath.
Chuck was in L.A., and so was she. She might have been double-crossed by the closest thing she had to a friend (again), and tomorrow she would officially be partners with her least favorite person on the planet, but right now, Chuck was in L.A., less than thirty feet away, and safe, and she was happy.
Team Bartowski indeed.