A/N the First: This chapter concludes my week-long experiment to see if I could top myself every single day in some way or other. I don't know if I did with this chapter, but that's okay, Sarah Walker has survived the happiest place on earth and so have we! Yay! Balloons! Confetti! Sleep!
In other news, thank you very, very, very much for all of the lovely reviews. I reveal a couple of things in this chapter for the eagle-eyed (and able to do math) readers, so good luck with that!
That Which is Greater:
The Happiest Place on Earth
"As promised, your adult beverage." Chuck nudged her hand with what she had to assume was a wineglass, though she didn't open her eyes, even when she'd wrapped her fingers around it and taken the wine. "And, as a bonus, this is yours, too, I think."
Sarah didn't open her eyes this time either, though Chuck deposited a giggling five-year-old on top of her. Since she was stretched out over the Bartowski couch, shoes kicked off, she merely turned over a bit and wrapped her free arm around Vi's middle, pulling the child against her. "How does she still have energy?" she asked, as Vi was wriggling. She opened one eye to stare at the girl, who peered back. "How do you still have so much energy?"
"Daddy says it's cos I got the Force."
"Indeed. Scoot over a bit, let me sit with you."
Sarah shifted her feet an inch. Chuck laughed, picked up her legs, and sat under her calves. "I think Sarah's tired, Megabyte."
"She's speaking strange languages, too."
"Like the 'Woks!"
"Ewoks," Chuck said. "Think midget teddy bear people."
Sarah opened the one eye again and gave him a baleful stare. "Ngh," she said a second time, and Vi leaned back against her. She was an operative of the CIA, used to going on missions where you were never sure where the next food, water, shelter, or sleep was going to come from, and a day at Disneyland had exhausted her to the point where all of her limbs felt like they would literally melt against the couch cushions. If she'd had more energy, she might have been embarrassed about that.
"We wore Sarah out, Megabyte," Chuck said. "I didn't think it was possible, but we did it."
"D'you think it was the princesses? We walked forever and ever to go see Belle and Jasmine, and I thought I was going to die, but we saw them, and Belle gave me a hug and told me that she would tell the Beast hello for me, even though he wasn't there. But I'm very sad Sarah never got to meet Tink."
"Me too," Chuck said solemnly, and Sarah didn't kick him only because she felt too tired, and she tried not to be too violent in front of Violet. Though she thought about it. And the twinkle in Chuck's eye told her he knew exactly what she was thinking. He leaned over her legs to set the wineglass on the coffee table next to Violet's glass of milk, and picked up the camera.
"But it was really funny when we saw Mickey and we all shouted for Sarah to take her picture with him and then she kissed his cheek."
She'd also popped her leg up like an old fifties starlet, Sarah thought, all because a bunch of kids were chanting at her, led by her asset. Hopefully Casey never saw that picture.
"And Mickey was all embarrassed and stuff, but Minnie didn't come over and try to take her man back, which I thought was lame."
Sarah's eyes shot open in surprise, as Chuck was now gallantly hiding his laughter as he played with the camera. "Where on earth did you hear that phrase?"
"That's how Moniqua's Aunt Ray talks." Violet looked puzzled. "Is it bad?"
"No, no, just...surprising."
Chuck put his free arm across the back of the couch. "Do you think Sarah could take Minnie Mouse in a fight?" he asked Vi.
Violet scrutinized Sarah for such a long time that Chuck began to shake with laughter again. "Uh-huh," Violet said. "I think so. But I don't know..."
"Oh, so you think I could my as—butt kicked by a mouse, do you?" Sarah finally sat up and set her wine to the wide, which allowed her to pounce in for a tickle fight.
It was past bath time (a hated ordeal at the Bartowski household) and past bedtime, but the five-year-old was practically vibrating with energy, her hair curly and damp and her beloved Dora the Explorer pajamas on. She'd grown a little so that her ankles and wrists stuck out of them. Now, her giggles turned to shrieks as she squirmed away, trying to seek refuge between her father and the arm of the couch. "Help me, Daddy!"
"And fight Sarah off? Minnie Mouse can definitely take me in a fight, so I know Sarah can. You're on your own, Megabyte."
"Eek!" Violet scrambled over the back of the couch, hopped down, and did a couple of laps around the kitchen island. The adults watched her go, their eyebrows raised.
"She's going to crash any minute now," Chuck said, turning slightly so that he was facing forward.
Sarah realized that her tickle fight with Violet had basically landed her on Chuck's lap, one leg across the both of his, her elbow leveraging her up against the back of the couch so that she was slightly over him. He looked up from the camera to give her an absent sort of smile, and froze as he realized exactly how they were positioned, too.
And of course, Violet scrambled over the back of the couch again and did a belly flop into Sarah's lap, making Chuck groan. Sarah snatched the squirming kid up and fell backwards, taking Vi with her. "Monkey!" Violet shrieked, throwing both hands up in the air like a victor taking his glory lap. "I'm a monkey!"
"You're something," Sarah said, shifting and putting her feet on the floor. "Here, let's make sure your Aunt Ellie gets some sleep tonight and have a look at some of the pictures your dad took."
"Okay." Violet scrambled from Sarah's lap to Chuck's. "Ooh. That's a really nice one, Daddy."
"What is it?"
"The inside of my pocket," Chuck said, giving his daughter a sour look and booting her gently atop the head with the side of his hand. "Uncle Morgan should never have taught you sarcasm."
"We'll put off that lesson until you're much older. After your teens, if we're lucky."
"Good luck with that one," Sarah said.
Chuck gave her a pained look and scooted closer so that Sarah could look at the pictures with them. "Here's the group at the front gates. Lily's blinking in this one, Landon's making a face here, blink from Mo, both Landon and Vi are blinking in this one and I don't know what Lily's looking at..."
"And here we are, about to ride Dumbo. Another charming face from Landon."
"He thought Dumbo was stupid."
"The joke's on him, though," Sarah said. "Dumbo looked like a lot of fun."
"It was so much fun," Violet said, drawing the word "so" out over several syllables. The first yawn broke through, and Chuck and Sarah exchanged a glance over her head. By the time Chuck had thumbed through to pictures of the parade, she was soundly asleep, draped across Chuck's arm with her hair flowing down toward the floor like a sandy brown waterfall.
"And she's out," Chuck said. "I should probably get her up to bed."
"And I should probably get home," Sarah said, glancing at the surveillance camera they'd hidden in a picture frame on the mantle. "It's getting late."
"You should at least finish your wine. I mean, you did survive Disneyland, a glass of wine is the least I could do to repay you."
"Survive is a good way to put it," Sarah said, and Chuck laughed as he shifted Violet until she was sacked out of his shoulder like a bag of potatoes. They were almost out of the room when Sarah spotted a forlorn platypus claw sticking out from the under the coffee table. "Chuck."
"Yeah?" He turned.
"Catch." Sarah tossed Bun-Bun, and Chuck fielded the stuffed animal one-handed, nodding his thanks. The minute they were gone, Sarah sank back into the couch cushions. She hadn't lied—she needed to go home and confer with Casey to make sure the bosses hadn't checked in with any orders—but she didn't feel quite up to moving yet.
After Violet's encounter with Vader, the kids had talked Chuck into just one more ride, just one more, please, Mr. Chuck. So they'd made Landon's day by riding Astro Blasters. Sarah had discovered that the Buzz that Landon had mentioned was actually Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger. And more importantly, she'd impressed every single kid by beating even Chuck's score with the laser guns. Even though Chuck had demanded a rematch, the kids were too tired; they'd picked up some souvenirs for Lily and Landon's sick younger brother, and Vi's uncles and aunts, and they had left. Sarah had sprung for fast food on the way home.
So now, she'd eaten far too much junk food, her face felt a little sunburned even for January, her feet were practically sobbing, she felt sticky and frazzled, and a little like she might simply sink into the earth in this very spot and never get up again.
By the time Chuck came back, she had moved an inch. It took more effort than storming the Kurdish stronghold of one sheikh whose name was still redacted in most CIA reports, he was so paranoid and politically connected.
"You look exhausted," Chuck said as he sat down on the couch next to her and reached for his wine.
"Not really words a girl ever wants to hear, for the record."
"Well, you look beautiful, but I get the feeling that goes without saying."
Sarah had to smile at the compliment. She found the energy to stretch, and yawn. "Still better than exhausted," she said once she'd finished.
Chuck laughed and conceded the point with a tilt of his head. Silence fell for a minute while Sarah rested her head against the back of the couch and stared mindlessly at the ceiling. "Thank you for going today," Chuck said at length.
Sarah lifted her head, which took almost too much effort. "No sweat."
"I know it's...not really in the CIA training manual or whatever to chaperone trips to Disneyland, so I'm grateful that you were willing to tag along and put up with a lot. Thanks for playing along, too."
"You know, getting into it, doing things with the group. One five-year-old is a handful. Four of them is the Hindenburg in the making."
"I'm just glad that we got through it without something like the Hindenburg happening," Sarah said.
Chuck grinned and swirled the wine in his glass, something that seemed more like habit than anything conscious. "This morning when I came out to meet you at the van, you looked like it already had."
"Cautious," Sarah corrected for the second time that day. "I lack the skill set for chaperoning a trip to Disneyland."
"Oh?" Real interest colored Chuck's voice as he turned toward her. "And what is that, pray tell?"
"Being good with kids. I am not good with kids."
"You're great with Vi."
"That doesn't count."
"It's Violet. She's does all the work for you." Sarah scrunched her nose up as she thought about it. "Kind of like a cat. You stand still and she'll just rub against your leg or hold your hand. She's a great kid."
"And what do you call your interactions with Landon?"
"Mostly awkward," Sarah said, completely honest now.
Chuck laughed. "Are you kidding? He adored you."
"What? I knew you said he was flirting—"
"Landon acts out a lot," Chuck said, "because he wants attention, and that's the only way he can get it. But you took the time to listen to him and even joke around with him. That was the best behaved I have ever seen him. Trust me, the trip could have been much, much worse."
Sarah frowned. "Oh."
"And Moniqua thinks you're pretty great, too. I heard her telling Violet so when you were in the bathroom."
There was something he wasn't telling her about that, Sarah decided, as Chuck wouldn't quite meet her eyes then. She tilted her head and gave him a "no nonsense now" stare. "How exactly did she put it?"
"Ah...that's not the point. The point is, you're better with kids than you think."
"I don't know," Sarah said. She still couldn't believe she had made it through an entire day at Disneyland with four kids. It felt surreal, like it had been somebody else with them, not her. "They still make me nervous."
Chuck laughed. "Why? It's not like you're going to break them if you look at them wrong."
"It feels like it."
"Well, you won't, I promise. You're a pretty great person. Just be yourself, and kids'll pick up on that."
But I'm not, Sarah wanted to say even as she felt Chuck's compliment, offhand or not, course through her, warm and fluttering. I'm not a good person. I'm a spy.
Her brain finally put it together, what Moniqua might have said that made Chuck glance away now. "Moniqua called me Vi's new mom, didn't she?"
Chuck stared at his wine as he nodded his head, just once.
And just like that, the elephant was back in the room with them. Chuck was once again the asset, Sarah the agent, and their cover had become too real. Everything felt thick and awkward and oppressing once more.
"It's not a big deal," Chuck said. "I mean, they're five. For all they know, we've been dating for months, and you know how kids are, prone to flights of fancy. I mean, last week Vi asked me if we ever have to move, if we could move to the Enterprise."
"Morgan's been showing her old Star Trek episodes. It's not important. And remember back when you first got out to Burbank, Vi basically outright asked you to start giving her brothers and sisters. You know how they are. Kids get ideas."
"Yeah," Sarah said, but she wasn't thinking about the first time Violet had come over to the Spy Casa. Instead, she was remembering something much more recent. "And the first thing she said to me was 'Mommy,' so I guess it's to be expected."
Chuck said something under his breath, and she didn't quite make anything out but "Gonna kill Morgan." She smiled, though it quickly faded.
"I want to see the picture," she said.
Chuck raised his eyebrows. To his credit, he didn't have to ask which picture she meant, though they must have taken hundreds throughout the day. He thumbed right to it and angled the camera so that Sarah could see.
Objectively, the picture wasn't anything special. A woman and a child grinning at each other, looking silly in their commercialized hats, just another piece of everyday life. The girl had milk stains on her shirt, the woman's sunglasses were crooked.
But subjectively, the picture still hit like a fist to the solar plexus. She didn't smile like that very often. That sort of smile, that happiness and the shared fun of the moment, that wasn't part of any cover.
"You look like her mom," Chuck finally said, his voice quiet.
Sarah swallowed hard, to buy herself a second. "I don't think Sophie and I really look that much alike," she said, deliberately misunderstanding him.
He looked at her, and she knew that he knew she'd done that on purpose, but Chuck eventually just moved a shoulder a fraction and put the camera away. "Yeah," was all he said.
The spy holiday, Sarah thought, was officially over. No more carelessly holding hands, even though it had felt like the most natural thing in the world, no more double entendre flirting. They were back to being a cover in some company, a spy and an asset for others.
Neither of them looked at the camera embedded in the picture frame.
"Don't let Casey see that picture," Sarah said, too quietly for the mics to pick up. "Please."
Chuck nodded again. "I wasn't going to."
She could read the expression on Chuck's face easily, the we will talk about this someday and you won't be able to evade, but he let it drop for now, and she couldn't help but be grateful. A day at Disneyland with four kids was scary, the sort of implications, that she could be any type of mother to anybody, let alone Violet...that went beyond scary. That went into realms so terrifying her mind automatically slammed a steel door shut over them.
"Hey," Chuck said, and his smile was back, the easy, relaxed one that said the heavy moment was now over. "Do you want to see the best picture we took today?"
Nothing would top the mouse ears photograph, but Sarah said, "Sure."
"Look at this." Chuck thumbed over a few times and then handed her the camera. Sarah burst out laughing. "Fantastic, right?"
"I'm so glad she made me watch Star Wars or I wouldn't have the first clue what's going on," Sarah said, giggling now. Violet's little show with Darth Vader had apparently impressed the Dark Lord so much that he'd allowed them to goof off with their pictures. Therefore, Sarah had obligingly snapped one shot after the next of Chuck (standing out of the frame) dangling Violet by the seat of her pants while Vader held up a hand. It looked like Vader was lifting the five-year-old by the sheer power of the Force alone, Chuck's hand aside. Even better was the awestruck look on Violet's face.
"That's remarkable," Sarah went on.
"Proudest moment of my life." Chuck mimed wiping away a tear. "And yes, it will be brought up at every big occasion. Birthdays, graduations...Tuesdays..."
"I'm sure she won't get tired of hearing about it at all. As if there were any question whose daughter she was."
"I know," Chuck said, still beaming. "I don't think anything can ever top that, but then, Violet surprises me with something new every day, so who knows?"
"Who knows," Sarah echoed, handing the camera back to him. She should go, she thought. Even though it had just been a day at Disneyland, there was still a little paperwork to fill out, expenses to cover, so on and so forth. And she'd been here far too long already, far longer than an agent should be when it was just an asset.
But she made no move to leave, and Chuck didn't bring it up. They just sipped their wine in silence for a few minutes, Sarah trying not to think about a picture and Chuck smiling at Violet's visit with Vader.
Finally, he cleared his throat. "So," he said. "You've officially survived Disneyland."
"I have," Sarah said cautiously, recognizing that look in Chuck's eye.
"You could even say that, having been tossed in the deep end as you were, you're now a theme park expert."
"I wouldn't go that far."
"I would. I think we need to test your skills."
"Chuck," Sarah said, a warning note in her voice.
"And we couldn't live in a more perfect spot for it. I mean, you've cut your teeth on the Disneyland Park, but now there's Disneyland, California Adventure. And Knott's Berry Farm."
Sarah stared. "You're kidding, right?"
"And of course we can't miss out on Universal Studios—you'll like that one, lots more Star Wars for Vi to love—and there's Six Flags Magic Mountain, and we would be really remiss if we skipped out on visiting Legoland in San Diego and deprived Vi of the chance of seeing Darth Vader made entirely out of Legos."
"You're totally not kidding," Sarah said.
"If we're desperate, we could even consider going upstate and visiting Marine World."
"I'm going home," Sarah said, climbing to her feet. Chuck did the same and followed her to the door.
"And who's to say we should stop at Disneyland? Disneyworld's where it's at, I hear. So much bigger, and more rides, too."
"Good night, Chuck." Sarah opened the door.
"We'll have to take Moniqua, at least, so that Vi won't be stuck with a bunch of lame adults for her only companions. And Lily and Landon will feel left out if we don't include them. Maybe by then Moniqua's baby brother will be old enough to—mmph."
Since they were safely out of range of the camera, Sarah cut off Chuck's gleeful little spiel by grabbing the front of his T-shirt, yanking him close, and kissing him quickly. It ended far, far too soon, just like always. Time was just one thing they didn't have: Casey would probably be watching the feeds, and any anomalies could get them into trouble.
But this time, she just couldn't help herself. The spy holiday wasn't over yet. She broke off the kiss. While Chuck blinked at her in shock, she slipped out the front door and into the night.
She'd made it all the way up to her bedroom, shoving Sir aside, before she realized that she'd left her shoes in the Bartowski living room. Just like, her brain whispered, Cinderella had left her glass slipper on the steps of the palace.
The comparison made her laugh. Maybe she had more in common with the princesses than she thought.
A/N the Second: Thanks for reading. You all are wonderful.