I've had various Chuck and Sarah alternate reality/alternate meeting stories running through my head for the longest time. Several months ago, I started writing out the first of those stories. I now have written out vague outlines for eight more story ideas after this one. Interestingly enough, my ideas have stopped at nine, and I haven't really had any more that have me itching to try out. Doesn't mean that it won't eventually happen, which is why I leave the option open for more.
The best thing about writing a series of one-shots is that I don't have to worry that my inability to write and complete multi-chapter stories – caused by a deficit of patience and a really really short attention span – will cause anyone to be left hanging because I've lost interest after the first chapter. Also, I won't feel like I'm letting anyone down if I end up not writing all nine stories.
Enjoy, and let me know what you think. And if you can think of a good title for this one, I'm all ears.
The CIA training facility, located in a once thriving and now largely abandoned blue collar worker community, had been a combined roller skating and ice rink at one time. On the outside, the large building appeared a dilapidated version of what it had been in its glory days, untouched by any kind of efforts to maintain its facade, and weathered by at least twenty years of Mother Nature's wind, rain, and storms. There was a distinctly pungent smell in the air, which seemed like a mixture of rotten eggs, spoiled milk, and a variety of other unpleasant things she did not care to imagine, let alone name.
She had entered in through a back door, which had probably once been a popular smoking area for the rink's numerous staff. The old Grecian style urn planter situated next to the door would have been an perfect place for careless teenage employees to put out their cigarette butts and leave them. There were no signs of an overabundance of human presence, aside from some graffiti that had likely been painted recently just in case someone managed to get past the fences that surrounded the building. She had to give the CIA points for not giving away that something special was still going on there.
Once she had identified herself and been allowed inside, at first she hadn't see much of an improvement over the outside. The once brightly – and ghastly – mural covered walls were muted by a covering of dirt and dust and the sound of the her shoes crunching on the floor indicated that it had not been swept in years. And was that old gum she had felt sticking to the bottom of her expensive, not-so-sensible shoes? The farther she'd been led through the halls of the building, the worse it had seemed to get. She had been about to resign herself to the indignity of it all when her 'tour guide' inputted a code into a hidden security panel, pressed his hand to a scanner, then opened a large, thick metal door and ushered her inside.
Only her deeply ingrained professionalism had kept her mouth from falling open in shock and awe. It was almost as magnificent as the training facilities at Camp Peary, almost. Not quite as, but by no means unimpressive.
There were at least two spacious sections she could see, the larger one right in front of her eyes, and the other further back, separated only by a large wall of glass. At one end of the larger room, which was considerable in both width and height – she never would have been able to judge from the outside of the building that such a space was possible – was a set of bleachers, where one could sit to observe the entire space. Wrestling mats were placed all over, a challenging obstacle course took over a large portion of the floor, and a steep climbing wall resided in one corner. When she had looked high up at one wall, she could see a long line of tinted windows, which she had immediately ascertained to be an observation area.
Before she could take a more detailed note about the finer points of the training space, she had been greeted by an Agent Cliffords, whom she knew from her briefing was the agent in charge of the facility. The older man, who appeared to be nearing retirement age, had greeted her more pleasantly and openly than many of the agents with whom she was used to dealing. According to his file, he was well liked, but respected, tough, but fair, impressive in skill, but humble of his ability, so she probably shouldn't have been surprised that she took an immediate liking to him.
Instead of giving her a tour of the facility, which he had promised would happen later, they had made their way upstairs to a room that had once been a party and conference room. It was the observation area that she had recognized while downstairs. After he had escorted her into the room, Cliffords had got a message through an ear piece, and excused himself to take care of an important matter, urging her to sit and make herself at home.
And so, here she was, alone for now, in an empty room in a CIA training facility, wondering once again what this super secret meeting of hers was supposed to be about. Her briefing yesterday with Director Graham himself had given her absolutely no real instruction on what she was actually supposed to be doing here. It wasn't odd for an agent to be sent out on a mission without being given all of the details, but she was so used to having a high enough clearance for that kind of information blackout to be rare and annoying when it did happen.
She saw a file sitting on a conference table – strange, leaving it out in the open like that – but had no orders to look it over, so instead, she ignored it to take a peek out the observation window, which wasn't situated above the larger training room, but rather the smaller one. While standing there, she watched as Cliffords entered the room with two men she did not recognize.
Leaning closer to the widow, she noticed that both men were of similar height, but entirely different builds, and wearing the same standard, ugly government issued sweat suits. Neither of them looked too bad in said sweats that normally would be unflattering on most of the general population. One of the men, the taller and younger of the two, was of a lanky build, probably about half a foot taller than she, and had the most interesting curly hair that automatically gave his face character. Any lady would be lucky to have full rights to run her hands through his hair as often as she liked, which she wasn't ashamed to admit. To herself, at least.
She frowned when Cliffords spoke a few words to the men and left the room, the two remaining men beginning to spar in the most rudimentary matches of hand to hand combat she had seen in a long time She could immediately tell that the lanky man was the inexperienced of the two, likely a new recruit.
A new new recruit, she realized when his back hit the ground hard, less than half a minute into the impromptu match. She winced in sympathy. New, as in having only a few weeks of combat training, at most. He needed a lot of work, that was for certain.
Cliffords finally returned to the observation room and she turned to greet him, fully expecting him to ask her to sit down at the conference table, but he motioned for her to keep watching, which she did without speaking. He settled by her side to watch along with her.
In the next several minutes, the recruit seemed to gain some ground and catch on a little more. He took far more hits and falls than his instructor, but every once in a while, he would gain an advantage and the match would be his. For a few, tiny, brief moments, of course, but she found it impressive enough for someone obviously so new to fighting like that.
Several minutes later, she felt Cliffords lean a little closer to her and heard him ask in a low, confidential voice, "So, what do you think?"
"He's very green," she said without looking away, knowing immediately what kind of assessment Cliffords expected to hear. "But he seems to have potential. How long has he been in training?"
"Four months," he responded mildly. "And you are right; we immediately recognized his potential the day he arrived here. He'll never be the same caliber as the the best of the best, but he will definitely be able to hold his own in a fight when we're done with him. Or, rather... when you're done with him, Agent Walker."
Sarah Walker could never have missed the subtle emphasis Agent Clifford's placed on the you're, even if she had been a bubble headed bimbo.
"So, this is why I'm here?" she asked, stating the obvious with a frown. "To train him in hand to hand? But... why me? I'm not an instructor, I'm a field agent. Couldn't..."
"Mr. Carmichael isn't to be trained like other agents, Agent Walker," Cliffords interrupted gently, again looking out the window. Her gaze immediately followed his and she saw that instructor and trainee had finally stopped fighting and were now sipping from water bottles. "And when he's done with his training, he's going to be partnered with you... and an NSA agent, on an important project."
"Wait," she said, shaking her head at that last unexpected bit of news, which he had slipped out oh so casually, as if it were something that happened all the time. She abruptly turned to face him. "Go back a minute. What do you mean, partnered with an NSA agent? Do you know who?"
"I don't believe that decision has been made yet," Cliffords said, looking amused that working with an NSA agent seemed to be more bothersome to her than with a raw, new recruit. "And if it has, then I haven't yet been informed."
"Okaaay," Sarah drawled, more to herself, trying to take it all in and approach the situation with an experienced agent's sensibilities. She looked out the window again and crossed her arms as she thought of the implications. "He must be a special case to pull me out of the field for this. Not to mention to have me... us... working with the NSA"
"Yes, he is," Cliffords responded simply, but said no more than that, seemingly content with letting her come up with her own conclusions. She noticed only from the corner of her mind.
She turned and her gaze narrowed in on the file that she had earlier disregarded and she pushed away from the wall to stride purposefully to the conference table. She picked it up and took note of the confidential stamp on the front of the brown folder, then looked to Cliffords for silent permission.
He nodded his head and sat down at the table, though Sarah did not follow suit. She opened the file, the first thing catching her eye being the recruit's picture. Most official files had agents and trainees staring stoically and expressionlessly out from their photos, but this man seemed to hold a faint, amused smile. Not a full out one, but one that was obvious enough to even the untrained eye. She was surprised that the photographer hadn't made him take another, more officially appropriate one. Sarah suspected that the person to take the picture must have been either new to the process... or smitten.
He wasn't classically handsome. Some might even classify him as nerdy – his hair and his lanky limbs certainly would not have helped his case if he wanted to argue otherwise – but she could see an appeal for some women. Sarah thought she might find it interesting to see how a female mark might react to him when he became an agent.
Agent Cliffords had called the trainee Carmichael, but she immediately saw that this was not his real name. His actual name was redacted and she realized that she might never know his birth name. She automatically shrugged it off. It would be hypocritical for her to mind, because she personally was never going to be revealing her own birth name to anyone any time soon.
She skimmed through the file quickly, but thoroughly, and saw that most information about his past had been redacted: his hometown, his schooling, and his previous employment, et cetera. She was surprised to see that he was only a year younger than herself. He looked a lot younger in his picture and downstairs in the training room.
"He's older than most recruits," she observed absently while flipping to the next page. After doing so, she then looked at Cliffords more solidly. "Usually, the CIA prefers to recruit straight out of high school or during the college years."
"All true," Cliffords said, nodding. "But like I said, he's a special case. Read on."
The only thing that was really revealed was that he had been recruited after having participated in one of those paid human guinea pig research studies that was actually a front for an Agency recruitment program. The testing he had undergone had focused on subliminal image retention in human beings. Apparently, Chuck scored a whopping 98 percent, the first person they found who could retain more than 75 percent of these images in their brain.
Sarah finally sat down in one of the chairs around the conference table and flipped to the next page. It detailed a lot of the training that he had already received after being recruited. Her brows shot up at his marksmanship scores. She was a pretty damn good shot, herself, but it hadn't been until the halfway point of her own training that she'd managed to come even close to his scores. Charles Carmichael would eventually surpass her in skill in that area, she had no doubt.
She wasn't surprised to see that his weakest area was in armed and unarmed combat. The development of this skill set was noted as the top priority for the moment, which was, of course, one of the main reasons she was here in the first place. Already, her mind was filling with ideas of how she could approach his training, based on what she had seen of his basic capabilities. Cliffords was correct that Carmichael would never be as skilled as the best of the best, but he was going to be good. She was going to make certain of it. Her professional pride demanded no less.
As she read on, she discovered that he had potential in such a broad spectrum of skills that he seemed almost an ideal candidate for Agency officer training. Which immediately made her wonder what his Achilles's Heel was eventually going to reveal itself to be. Everyone had at least one flaw that could potentially cause their downfall in either training or in the field, though nobody, including herself, really liked to admit it.
She was about to start reading Carmichael's psych profile when Cliffords suddenly lifted his hand to his ear piece, catching her attention. After listening carefully to the person speaking to him, he looked at Sarah with a warm smile.
"How would you like to meet Mr. Carmichael in person right now?" he asked as he stood up.
Sarah rose immediately to her feet.
"I'd love to, of course," she responded just before there was a knock on the door.
She watched as Cliffords opened the door and greeted the person standing on the other side. He moved back to let Carmichael in. The two men briefly shook hands and shared affable smiles with each other before they focused on her.
"Mr. Carmichael," Cliffords said. "Allow me to introduce you to the agent I was telling you about earlier, Valkyrie."
Sarah was taken aback by Clifford's use of a code name that was obviously hers, though this was the first she'd ever heard it. That surprise only lasted a mere moment as Carmichael's eye lids started to flutter strangely and she had to take an unconscious step forward because it looked like he was about to fall to the floor into a seizure. She stopped in her tracks when he seemed to shake himself out of it and his expression turned a little sheepish.
"Sorry about that," he apologized with a small wince, his shoulders hunching slightly as he brushed a shaky hand through his unruly, and shower dampened hair. "I'm not sure I'll ever get used to that."
Carmichael's posture then straightened and his whole demeanor quickly brightened before he stepped forward with a grin, extending his hand out to her. She took his sudden recovery in stride, accepting his handshake, though she had to admit she was a little shaken by the oddness of what had just happened.
"Are you okay?" she asked, her eyes searching his face, thinking that he certainly couldn't be an epileptic. He never would have made it into training if he'd had such a medical condition, special case or not.
"Oh, I'm fine. It's all part of the experience, I suppose." Sarah frowned at this very mysterious pronouncement, feeling as if she was missing a very big piece of the puzzle here. Plus, there was the fact that he was speaking to her as if she was supposed to know what he meant. What was going on? "It's very nice to meet you, Agent Walker. I've been looking forward to meeting you."
The genuineness that was his pleasure to meet her could not be batted away without having some kind of effect on her. She found herself, not for the first time today, taking an almost instant liking to another human being. First, Agent Cliffords, and now this mysterious trainee, Charles Carmichael. She had no idea what the world was coming to or if maybe this was just a sign of what was to come.
"Likewise, Mr. Carmichael," she responded, fully meeting his gaze, and there was something about looking into his kind eyes that made her almost forget where she was.
"Please, call me Chuck," she heard him say.
"Sarah," she responded back, then after some time of feeling as if she was floating somewhere above herself, she suddenly came back to earth and looked down at their still connected hands.
Carmichael, or rather, Chuck, followed her gaze downward. Without even looking back at each other, they seemed to mutually come to the same decision at the same time and simultaneously released their grips and took a small step back.
From the side, Sarah heard someone clear their throat and she turned to see Agent Cliffords looking at the both of them with an air of amusement. Feeling her face grow warm, she mentally chastised herself for losing her focus and forgetting herself.
"Now that we've been introduced," Agent Cliffords said, unashamedly amused by what he had just witnessed. "I do believe it's time to discuss our next step here. Please sit down, the both of you."
The amusement was still in Cliffords' voice, but it was tempered now by a more professional tone that brooked no argument from either one of them. Sarah moved toward the long table and was startled – she really needed to start acting like a spy again – when Chuck reached the table first and pulled out her chair for her. Ignoring the warm feeling the simple, chivalric action caused, she glanced up at him as she sat and nodded in thanks.
Chuck sat on the opposite side of her while Cliffords sat at the head of the table.
"Okay, as you both have been informed, Agent Walker has been brought here to help with Mr. Carmichael's training with the intention that you will later be partnered together once the training is over." Cliffords turned his attention to Sarah and she immediately straightened in her seat. "Agent Walker, are you in any way familiar with a Project Omaha?"
"I've heard of it, sir, but I've never been informed of its true purpose." Project Omaha was really only familiar to her in that it had a lot of wild rumors attached to it, none of which had sounded as if they hadn't come directly from the summary of a science fiction novel. In response, she had dismissed them all as flights of fantasy. "What exactly is Project Omaha?"
"Basically, at the moment, and in many ways, Mr. Carmichael is Project Omaha." At this, Sarah frowned. That made absolutely no sense to her. Project Omaha was started long before Chuck was recruited. Before even she was recruited. Cliffords turned to Chuck and addressed him for the first time. "Chuck, you are more familiar with Omaha than I am, so why don't you take this one."
"Sure thing, sir," Chuck responded and adjusted his position so he was facing Sarah instead of the head of the table where Cliffords stood. He nodded at the folder that was on the table. "I take it you read my file, but didn't quite get to the good parts yet?"
"I only got as far as your training."
"Okay, so you know that my recruitment came about because of a research study I did several months ago...?"
"Yes." Sarah nodded slowly. "It was a study on the retention of subliminal images."
"Absolutely. That is the basis of Project Omaha. Encrypting intel into image and video files, then storing them in a person's brain, to be recalled when that person is exposed to certain external stimuli, such as a photograph, an object, or the sound of a voice." The enthusiasm with which he spoke was catching and she found herself leaning forward in her seat, tensing in anticipation of his next words. "I mean, my nerd brain just marvels at all of the possibilities for this thing! Not just in espionage, but in computer science... and medicine. What if one day, the things we discover about this... technology helps us find the cure for Alzheimer's or heal traumatic brain injuries?"
"That would be pretty amazing," she agreed, but unfortunately, knowing who she worked for, she knew that the higher ups most likely placed healing brain injuries and other neurological impairments at the very bottom of the list of things they intended to do with it. It probably didn't even make the list.
Chuck's tone soon turned wry, and maybe even a little cynical, almost as if he had picked up on that thought and was echoing it. "Or at least that's how they pitched it to me when they gave me their little 'your-country-is-calling-you' recruitment speech. They certainly know how to bait the hook, don't they?"
"They definitely have it down to a science," she agreed.
"So, anyway, that is the basic gist of it. A few months ago, it came to the Agency's attention that a rogue group operating on the fringes of the CIA was going to make an attempt to steal the project's research and database of intel. I guess it was a lucky coincidence they'd found me when they did because they were forced to use their last resort protocol, which was to destroy the database and facility it was contained within."
She wasn't sure if lucky was the correct word. Telling him about this research, this rogue group, and actually downloading the intel into his head meant that they didn't mean to ever let him go. She wondered if he sensed that he was, in essence, trapped
Remembering what had happened when Chuck had first entered the room and Cliffords had called her Valkyrie...
"Wait a minute!" she quietly exclaimed, stiffening in her seat. "So, that's what that was. You... you have my information in your head! He gave you a code name and that triggered my file... and you..." An uncomfortable thought began in her mind and quickly sank into the pit of her stomach. Her eyes narrowed at him and she, with ill-concealed suspicion, asked, "What exactly did you see in my file?"
Obviously, he understood what she was really asking and why, as he immediately rushed to reassure her, "Oh, no, don't worry, Sarah; it's nothing like what you're thinking. The information it gave me was only limited to the basics: name, age, clearance level... physical description. Basically, anything anyone can get from the non-redacted parts of your files."
The honesty and earnestness of his reassurance calmed her somewhat, though she remained disconcerted by the idea that a human being could have potentially invasive information – her information – about another person in their brains, stuff that nobody had a right to know without the other person's knowledge or permission. Sure, she had files in the system that any hacker worth their salt could access if they were so determined, but Chuck had called up that information based on one word. One. Word. He didn't even have to work to access it; he just did.
The potential implications boggled – and troubled – the mind. Chuck's lips were still moving, so Sarah focused again on him. "One of the things I'm working on is control and I promise I'll never purposefully flash on your file. Not without your specific permission. Are you okay with that?"
"Uh, yeah," Sarah responded vaguely, then gave herself a mental shake. She gave him her own reassuring smile, inelegant though it was, making sure that her voice matched the lightness that was hopefully in her expression. "That's fine. It doesn't really bother me all that much..." Liar, her inner voice taunted, but she felt that the little white lie was worth it, if only because it caused Chuck's anxious face to relax significantly. "It's just a bit... weird."
"Don't I know it," he emphatically agreed with a firm nod. "Imagine being the one to have this information inside your head."
Okay, so he totally trumped her there. Chuck looked like he was about to say more, but off to the side, they heard the sound of a polite clearing of the throat. The second one they'd received during their entire meeting.
Cliffords... damn. Again, she'd forgotten that he was in the room with them. She really needed to get a grip and return to the professional behavior she'd been trained for, before her unusual inattentiveness got her reassigned away from this assignment. This one meeting had her wanting to be on this assignment so badly, more than any other since her very first official one as a newly minted agent.
Sarah couldn't say for certain if it was for the challenge... or because of Chuck.
Both Chuck and she slowly turned to face Cliffords, each with their own sheepish expression.
"Well, it looks like the two of you will be getting along just fine," he said, again looking more amused than upset that she forgot her professionalism with Chuck. Cliffords then stood up, with Chuck and Sarah automatically rising to their feet in response. His smile was warm as he directed it toward Sarah. "Now that you've been introduced, I'll now leave Mr. Carmichael in your capable hands, Agent Walker."
Sarah was confused; that was it? Introduce her to Carmichael, drop the Omaha bombshell, then walk away without giving her her mission parameters? She stared at Clifford's offered hand for a moment before shaking it belatedly. "What are my orders, sir?"
"Your orders are to come up with a training schedule for Mr. Carmichael, then begin within the next two days. I will be here if you need anything, but other than that, any new orders will come directly to you through the Director. Good evening, Agent Walker." Cliffords extended his hand to Chuck this time, who in return, shook it with the genuineness she was coming to expect from him. "And you, too, Chuck."
"Good evening, sir," Chuck responded, and soon Cliffords had collected Chuck's file from her and was out of the room, leaving her and Chuck alone together. They stared at each other awkwardly for a few moments, and Sarah was at a loss for what to say. Chuck seemed to sense this because he suddenly stood up straighter and gave Sarah the grin she suspected she might have trouble resisting one day. "So, Sarah Walker, CIA. Have you had anything for dinner, yet? There's this nice little restaurant not too far from here that I hear has superior lasagna. Maybe we can talk, get to know each other... discuss what happens next?"
"Uh, sure, sure. That sounds like an excellent idea." Surprisingly enough, she was hungry, and the prospect of superior lasagna was very tempting, though lasagna was generally not her preferred Italian food of choice. She smiled. "I could eat."
"Awesome," was his only response... or at least his only verbal response. Chuck's grin also seemed to widen and brighten even further than she would have thought possible, and it very nearly blinded her.
After Chuck had guided her through the protocols for entering and leaving the facility on her own, Sarah followed his car to the restaurant he was talking about. While she instinctively kept her eyes out for any tails as she followed him, her mind was a mess of thoughts and feelings the entire drive. And they weren't solely centered on Chuck and the effect he seemed to have on her, but also on what dangers existed with a project like Omaha.
There was so much that was not said. However, now that she knew what the project was about, she was easily able to connect it to the Intersect computer, which was likely the source of the Intel Chuck had alluded to, but didn't name. She'd heard that it had been destroyed by what many had assumed was a rogue operative whose name was being kept buried, but she'd had no idea that the information contained within it had been transferred to somebody's brain. Or that it even could. The danger that Chuck – and by extension herself and the NSA operative assigned to their team – would be in, was both thrilling and troubling. She didn't know how many people knew about this human Intersect, but if word got out, every bad guy in the world would be either gunning for him, or salivating to capture him.
It was fortunate that so far Chuck seemed to be up to the task of becoming a capable spy, but until he was field ready, which she knew would have to be sooner than later, he would need to be protected. And while she really disliked the idea of having to also be partnered with an NSA operative, if she needed to swallow her pride and cooperate peaceably with the agent, then she'd do it.
It was with that thought that they reached the restaurant. And somehow, Chuck, being a lot quicker than she had expected, had already exited his car and had approached hers by the time she stepped out onto the parking lot pavement.
"Well, Agent Walker, are you prepared to have your taste buds singing with joy," he lightly asked, offering her one of his arms.
Sarah cocked her head to look up at him with a bemused smile, then amiably hooked her hand through the offered arm and placed a gentle pressure on it, prompting him to walk along casually with her as she countered, "How do you know the food isn't so terrible it'll make my taste buds cringe in disgust? Have you ever eaten here before?"
"Nope," he said, smacking the 'p' with his lips, and he somehow managed to pull her even closer to him, so she could feel the heat seeping from his side into hers. She ignored the slight, pleasant thrill that his warmth caused in her gut. "But I do have it on very good authority from a trusted source that the food here can be likened to a rapturous experience. When it comes to food, I trust his word implicitly."
Sarah had a reply on the tip of her tongue about trust being something that got you killed, but he was talking about civilian matters, not espionage, so she bit her tongue, and just went along with it.
"Well, then, as you seem to be a very astute person, I suppose I'll have to trust he hasn't led you astray," she responded teasingly. "But I reserve the right to smack your source upside the head should his recommendation be lacking."
Chuck got a brief expression on his face at her words, as if he had something mischievous to say about that, but was debating whether it was appropriate or not.
They approached the restaurant's entrance and Chuck held off his next comment in order to open the door for her. He gently ushered her inside with a gentlemanly pressure on her lower back, with the kind of confidence that one would expect a boyfriend taking his long time girlfriend on a date would have under normal circumstances. He entered after her and was immediately at her side again, linking their arms again.
"Perhaps I should text him right now and give him fair warning that a lethal and very sexy spy may very well soon be coming after him to avenge her offended taste buds," Chuck replied lightly, while managing to still survey the space around them with a sharp, practiced eye.
To her satisfaction, Sarah had noticed that during their entire interaction as they walked across the parking lot, Chuck had been actively aware of their surroundings and subtly evaluating the area for the usual. Once inside the restaurant, that vigilance did not sway or end. She had to say she was a little impressed. He'd been in training for just a few months, but he was already acting on instinct, rather than making a concerted effort, a goal that most spies spent years cultivating, some never quite getting it right, which almost always got them killed.
She'd never really had that problem, herself, because before she was a spy, she was a con artist's daughter, and that level of attention to detail of one's environment had been drilled into her from an early age, and was merely refined through her CIA training.
Graham had definitely known what he was doing when he'd recruited her.
As she was finishing her own initial visual sweep of the restaurant, Sarah let that last, halfway bitter thought go. A lot had been asked of her over the years, things that might have broken a less resilient person, but she had a feeling that all of the pains she'd experienced in her journey were leading her to where she was now. Only time would tell if it would all turn out worthwhile.
Neither Chuck nor Sarah spoke a single word as the hostess led them to a table that Chuck had politely indicated was their preference. Sarah was pleased to note that it was, indeed, the perfect place for two spies to sit as comfortably as they were capable. It had a panoramic view of the entire restaurant and was near to almost all possible egress points. In addition, neither of their seats had them facing away from any of the exits or windows as they ate, so if any danger presented itself, their backs were not left vulnerable.
They both sat in companionable silence at the small table, practically sitting side by side, as they read their menus, for a while only commenting when one or the other found something that looked particularly good.
"This all looks really great, but what say we test out my friend's opinion on the superiority of the lasagna? We can each order a different kind. I can get the traditional and you can get the vegetable or seafood..." He paused a moment, looking awkward, as if he'd committed a major date night faux pas and needed to figure out a way to backtrack fast. "... Unless you'd rather order something else, because that's okay, too... Not that you need my permission or approval or anything, I'm just saying..." Chuck trailed off, an abashed expression on his face, then took a deep breath. Sarah bit the inside of her cheek, fighting back laughter, waiting patiently for him to continue. A moment later, Chuck collected himself and tried again. "Soooo, Sarah... anything in particular you'd like to order?"
"Chuck," she began, not even trying anymore to hide the laughter in her voice, but hoping that he was not going to think that she was mocking him in any way, "I do believe your idea's got merit and I was definitely thinking along those lines, too. We should do it. I'll get the vegetable lasagna and you get the traditional, and we can share. How's that sound?"
From the periphery of her vision, Sarah became aware that the waitress was approaching, and sobered a little, though not completely ridding herself of her air of pleasantness. The waitress set a small basket of different types of bread on the table and set down their complimentary first glass of wine before pulling out a notebook and asking for their order,.
When they no longer had the menus to hide behind, as the waitress had taken them to the kitchens with her, Chuck and Sarah focused on eating some of the bread and sipping at their glasses. While she delicately and deliberately spread some butter on a chunk of bread, careful not to look directly at him, Sarah could sense Chuck's eyes on her, though he was trying not to be obvious about it. Despite herself, Sarah felt her face grow warm at his appraisal. After a few moments, her face finally cooled enough that she ventured to look back up at him. When their eyes met, to his credit, he didn't look away or appear in any way embarrassed by his study of her. She smiled at him with unfeigned shyness.
"What?" she softly asked, combing through her hair with her fingers, deliberately misinterpreting his attentions. "Do I have breadcrumbs in my hair?" She then touched a fingertip to her chin, lifting a single eyebrow. "Butter on my chin?"
Chuck broke out of whatever spell he'd been under, shaking his head as if to clear the cobwebs from his head.
"No, no, nothing like that," he quickly assured and glanced down, concentrating on his fingers as they fiddled with his wine glass for a few awkward seconds before lifting his head again – not quite looking her in the eye, but more in the vicinity of the space just to the right of her head. "I'm just trying to figure you out is all."
"Really?" Sarah responded, her voice still a little shy and a little flirty, but with an underlying serious edge that couldn't be ignored. "Because I was just trying to figure you out, as well."
At that, his vision sharpened and his eyes finally met hers, his expression a cross between dread and genuine curiosity.
"And have you come to any interesting conclusions?" he asked, obviously trying his best to sound casual and return her flirtatious tone.
"Not really," she said after a long, considering pause. Inexplicably – and maybe not so surprisingly – she found herself wanting to give Chuck a response that was as observant and honest as possible, instead of telling him what he needed to hear. The latter being a technique one typically used to reign in reluctant marks and that Sarah rather suspected Graham expected her to utilize in order to keep this man as compliant as possible. "Not yet, anyway. You're a nice guy, Chuck, and this is a messy business we're in. It's obvious you've got a lot of potential, but I have to wonder if you have any real idea what you're getting yourself into... what exactly you're setting yourself up for."
"In all honesty, Sarah, I'm still trying to figure things out." For the first time since she'd met him, Chuck's eyes looks tired, weary, and maybe a little bit afraid. The usual underlying energy he seemed to have all afternoon and evening drained from him, causing him to slump slightly in his seat. And though it felt like it should be a contradiction to take comfort in someone's uncertainty, she was glad to see it. It made his personality seem less larger than life and more human. "Everything's happened so fast and I often find myself struggling to find my equilibrium. But... I chose my path and made my commitment, and I truly believe thisis exactly what I'm meant to be doing. No matter the personal cost."
A heavy silence settled over them at his pronouncement and it was saved from becoming entirely too uncomfortable by the arrival of their food. Sarah's appetite had diminished a bit under the weight of their discussion, but had returned once her nose caught the enticing aroma of freshly made lasagna.
"Oh, God, Chuck" she groaned before she could stop herself, taking advantage of the distraction. She leaned over slightly and breathed in the scent once again before picking up her fork and digging in. Before taking a bite, she looked back up at him. "If this lasagna tastes as amazing as it smells, I'll never doubt your source's taste in food again." She took a bite and closed her eyes briefly as she allowed the taste to settle. "Mmm. Mmph. This is really really good. Here, give it a try."
Sarah gathered another bite and extended the fork in Chuck's direction, taking in his now mildly amused mixed with mildly baffled expression. He stared into her eyes with an intensity that had her stomach flopping and sent her heart beating like a drum inside of her chest. After a brief hesitation, Chuck leaned in, maintaining eye contact, and took the bite, the sound of his teeth sliding against the metal of the fork more pronounced than it might have under less intense circumstances. It sent chills through her.
"Well?" she asked, her breaths shallow and hopefully not noticeably so.
"It's very good. Mor... my source was absolutely on the mark. It is far superior to any lasagna I've ever tasted." They just stared at each other for what could have been hours, before Sarah was forced to break eye contact first in order to be capable of breathing easily once again. She heard, as if from a distance, Chuck softly said, "I'll have to thank him for opening my eyes to the wonder that is Giordano's lasagna when I see him next.
The quip seemed to just ease the obvious tension between them to the point where they could begin to eat in earnest without either of them needing to fill the silence with words. Which did not mean that they did not speak to each other, only that they kept the conversation to inconsequential topics, such as the weather. Never once did they touch on the subject of the Omaha Project, or the Intersect, or how they were going to go forth with his training sessions, though Chuck did make a joke about her being 99 to his 86, whatever that meant. She sensed that it was a pop culture joke, but it totally went over her head. Fortunately, she stopped herself before she completely embarrassed herself by admitting to not understanding the reference, and merely laughed at the joke... though she did think that he suspected her ineptitude, as he had just looked at her with wicked humor in his eyes.
As they waited for their waitress to process their payment, Sarah felt so much at ease with Chuck that she ventured back to the beginning of their conversation, because she really was curious about what he thought about her. "So, Chuck, you said earlier that you were trying to figure me out. Have you come to any interesting conclusions?"
"Well," he drawled, his eyes drifting to the side as his face took on a contemplative expression, for all intents appearing to take her question quite seriously. Which is why his response – spoken in a reflective tone – took her by surprise and it was all she could do to not stare at him gap mouthed in shock. "At first, I was thinking you could be a cannibal, but getting to know you better, you just don't seem to fit the profile. Which is too bad, 'cause I've always wanted to meet a cannibal."
She was at a loss for words for a beat or two before she realized that he was messing with her, though luckily for him it was in a good natured rather than mean spirited way. Feeling like she was getting better at keeping up with the tangents his mind went and the humor that seemed to underline most of them, she quickly recovered, and responded using her own weapons of choice to keep a man off balance.
It took her only a moment to take in the way that Chuck had casually positioned himself – with his body leaning back in his chair and his right hand resting relaxed on the table between them – and instinctively situate her own body in such a way that would hopefully maximize the impact of her response. She leaned her weight lightly against her left forearm as it rested on the table parallel to her body, and moved her right hand so that it, too, was relaxed on the table, and their fingertips were sooo close to actually touching.
"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint," she sweetly said with a mock disappointment that to the untrained ear might actually sound quite sincere, her lips almost pouting as she slowly shook her head. "But the closest I seem to come to cannibal is carnivore."
Instead of drooling, as most men would, especially when faced with the look of her face, the sound of her voice... or the way that the press of her upper body against her arm revealed just a little more of her cleavage, Chuck never broke eye contact and his face, though slightly flushed, never once relaxed from an amused half-smile, and his body never moved from that casual position against his chair the entire time she put on her little show.
"I may have to ask for another partner, then. One who has a real taste for human flesh. Unless..." he teased back, his half smile forming into a lazy smirk, as he, too, finally adjusted his position, and slowly leaned against the table, "you can figure out a way to make it up to me, somehow."
Sarah leaned even further into the ever closing gap between their faces, the sexual and emotional tension that had kept ebbing and back and forth between them the entire evening they'd spent each others' company ratcheting up another notch or two. This was really quite fun and nothing like she'd ever experienced with... 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.' "And how would you propose I do that?"
"Oh, I don't know," he responded, his voice low, and flirty, and, quite frankly, rather sexy, and waggled his eyebrows at her... dear heavens, that was going to be the move that had marks salivating to do exactly what he wanted them to. "I'm sure, between the two of us, we can come up with something... suitable."
Their fingertips were still so close to each other, Sarah noticed, almost, but not quite touching, and she seriously contemplated inching her hand forward just a little bit to see what would happen when their flesh connected, even just a whisper. She looked down at her fingers and just as she could feel her hand prepare to move practically of its own accord, she suddenly reared back – deliberately, in order to keep teasing him, and not because she was suddenly spooked, she tried telling herself... right – and sat back in her chair, then drank a slow, deliberate sip of her wine. She could see his smirk over the rim of the glass.
Oh, he was definitely feeling it, too.
She tried her best not break eye contact with him, though she very much wanted to at that moment, and it was with some relief that the waitress chose that moment to approach and return with their change. Chuck was the one to glance away, but only because he was polite enough to want to look at the waitress as he thanked her.
Soon, they had collected their things and were back out in the parking lot, the tension between them the elephant in the room the entire way, though this time they did not touch, let alone hook arms and walk out like they'd walked in.
When Chuck contentedly breathed the outside air in through his noise, Sarah glanced up at him and saw that he was relaxed and looking up at the stars in the clear sky. As if sensing her eyes on him, he looked down at her and smiled.
"So, I guess this is where we part ways for now, huh?" he gently said in a quiet voice, sounding disappointed, and she had to admit, the thought of ending the night right there and then wasn't a pleasant one. But she'd had a long journey across multiple time zones, and a long two days since her arrival in LA, and it would probably be in both their best interests to get some sleep.
"The night's still young," she heard herself saying without knowing ahead of time that she was going to speak or what she was going to say. "And it's too gorgeous an evening to let waste. Perhaps we can walk a little... you could show me the area? "
Chuck appeared mildly incredulous that she would suggest more time in his company, but the look quickly disappeared. "Sure," he agreed. "That sounds nice." He looked at her speculatively as if weighing her potential reaction. "There's this band playing at a local club I really enjoy listening to. Maybe we can expand your, uh... well, rather limited appreciation of music while we're there. Who knows, maybe under my influence you'll end up becoming a music connoisseur."
Sarah chuckled slightly. "Well, when you put it that way, it sounds like we have a plan. How far away is this club?"
"A few blocks down. We could leave our cars here and come back to pick them up later."
They began walking down the street, still not walking arm in arm as they'd had earlier, but not exactly leaving a wide open space between them, either. Every once in a while, one or both of them would sway to the side and bump against the other as they talked and joked around.
"Wait a minute," Sarah laughed, just as they were nearing an almost deserted intersection ahead. He was telling a story about his hopefully-soon-to-be-brother-in-law and she was feeling honored that he was revealing that part of his life to her. "You really call him Captain Awesome?"
Chuck laughed with her, giving her a combination of his grin and eyebrow wiggle. "Yep, his real name's Devon, and both he and my sister really hate when we call him that, but everything about him is awesome: rock climbing, hang-gliding, jumping out of airplanes..." Chuck voice drifted off when they both heard the sound of sirens approaching... As police cars came into view, he vaguely finished his sentence with what she interpreted as 'flossing' She could sense Chuck stiffening as a motorcade practically flew past them, the lights flashing and sirens blaring importantly from the cars that made up the police escort.
When the motorcade had finally passed, Chuck's posture relaxed and she reached out a hand to him, concerned. When her hand wrapped gently around his bicep, she could feel him jump as though startled. "Chuck, are you okay..." She paused, realizing just what must have happened. "Did you just... um, see something?"
"Uh, yeah," he responded, obviously still dazed, not even looking at her. He visibly shook himself out of it and finally looked at her with a frown, then rubbed at his forehead. She wondered if his... intel recalls... tended to give him headaches, and if they did, if that was a bad sign for his mental health... But, that wasn't important right now. What was important was what he saw. "That motorcade... It was escorting a General Stanfield to his big speech tonight..." He shook his head again, his face taking on a worried look. "It's funny. I've been flashing on the guy all day."
Flashing? she asked herself, is that what they're calling it?
"And these 'flashes,'" she cautiously began, Agent Walker automatically taking over with ease. "Have they indicated any threats to the General?"
Chuck sighed. "No," he reluctantly answered, drawing out the vowel longer than was necessary. "Not exactly."
"Not exactly?" she asked with suppressed exasperation, holding back the larger frustration from her tone. These 'flashes' seemed to be somewhat disorientating and he was probably simply trying to make sense out of what he just saw. It didn't sound to her like he was purposefully holding anything back, in any case. "What do you mean, not exactly?"
"He's had many threats over the years, but lately they've been increasing in both frequency and intensity. However, for this trip in particular, the FBI and Secret Service have rated the chances of something happening during his visit as 'extremely low.'" Of course they would, Sarah very nearly muttered under breath. "What kind of rating system is that, anyway," Chuck continued, not seeming to sense her disdain. "Doesn't seem very profe..." He coughed. "Well, anyway, there hasn't been any evidence that something might be going down tonight."
"I can sense a 'but' there, somewhere," Sarah interjected, then brought to his attention what he did not mention seeing. "What does the CIA or NSA have to say about it?"
"None of the intel I flashed on contained anything from either of those agencies," Chuck explained with some frustration that was focused more inwardly than on her. "I could try to deliberately flash to see if there is any intel from them, but I'm still learning about this thing. Right now, the only things that consistently and reliably trigger a flash are external stimuli."
Sarah could see that Chuck sensed that something might not quite be right in regards to the General's visit She was a little skeptical, mostly because he didn't flash on anything that concretely said, or even, remotely suggested that tonight's event would be interrupted by an attempt on the General's life, or a terrorist strike, but she couldn't completely disregard his instinct. She trusted her own instinct, which had saved her life on more than one occasion, and it was telling her to seriously listen to Chuck whenever he spoke about things that came from the intel inside his head.
Her decision made, she grabbed Chuck's arm again and turned them both around so they were heading back in the direction from which they came. "C'mon, let's go check it out. Maybe something there will trigger another flash."
"Are you sure?" Chuck asked uncertainly, but not protesting as she practically dragged him back to the restaurant where they'd left their cars. "Because I wouldn't want you to get in trouble if I'm wrong about this."
Sarah smiled up at him encouragingly. "Of course, I'm sure. It may be something, it may be nothing, but one of the first rules of espionage is to trust that gut instinct you get when things just don't seem to add up."
"And how do you know my gut instinct actually can be trusted?" he asked, still sounding uncertain, though his steps did not slow or hesitate.
"Because I trust my own," she said simply without feeling a need to elaborate. She could feel the adrenaline that came with a dangerous mission slowly begin to build inside of her. And from the way Chuck kept pace with her, she could tell his own adrenaline was rising inside of him, too. Good. "Now, let's go save an important General's life."
She thought she heard Chuck mutter, "Maybe," but she simply smiled, paying it no heed as they rushed back to the restaurant, and she demanded Chuck tell her everything about the flashes he'd had the entire day about Stanfield's trip to LA. Her no-nonsense tone had the desired effect and he spilled everything he knew so far. Which included a Serbian terrorist that he'd seen in the Large Mart a day ago – whom Chuck had reported to the proper channels – who probably was in LA for unrelated business.
The ride to the hotel where the General was giving his speech was spent in her own car with herself as the driver, because even though he was doing well enough with his defensive driving training, her speed and efficiency behind the wheel would always far transcend his, which she could say with only a bare hint of arrogance.
"So," she said, as she shifted gears with admirable ease that she thought Chuck might appreciate more if he wasn't clutching at his seat with a white knuckled grip. At least, he wasn't wildly clawing at anything and everything for purchase every time she made a sharp turn or accelerated abruptly... or yelling at her to slow the hell down, which had happened more than once with a number of her former assets over the years. She wouldn't admit it out loud to anyone, aside from herself, or maybe even Chuck, but she'd often done it more for her own amusement than actual need for it. She was glad Chuck was made out of sterner stuff. "When we get to the hotel, what's the plan?"
Chuck looked over at her incredulously. "Plan? It was your idea to do this in the first place, never mind his security detail is likely doing a rather sufficient job in keeping him safe, anyway."
"Chuck, somehow, I seriously doubt that, " she interrupted shortly, glancing at him for a moment before returning her focus back on the road. "With the threat rating the Secret Service and FBI gave his trip, General Stanfield is most likely going with hired private security, or maybe even just hotel security. I might feel better about his chances if the Bureau or Service were spearheading the security detail. But they're not. And not only that, even if they were involved, I'm pretty certain none of them would have access to the same intel that you do or the skill to put it all together the way you obviously can."
"Okay, point," Chuck conceded with a stiff smile as she made yet another sharp turn. "But still, you're expecting me to come up with a plan, when I have the bare minimum of... well, all kinds of training... And you've been at this for far longer."
Sarah briefly wondered if the length of her entire CIA service was part of what he'd seen in her file, but let it go as unimportant for the moment. "Chuck, according to your file, one of your biggest strengths is tactical planning and execution. I wouldn't be surprised if you end up being groomed for a high level leadership position within the Agency one of these days. Until then, I'm in charge of your training and that will include field training, so consider this to be a... preliminary exercise."
"All I can really think of right now is for us to call in back up and..." Chuck abruptly stopped speaking and shot forward in his seat – only to be hindered from going too far by his seat belt – to look out the front windshield. She followed his gaze and saw a large building just a few blocks ahead of them.
"Did you just flash?" she asked a few moments later, and held her breath while she waited for his response, gripping the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles turned almost as white as his had been earlier.
"Yes," he affirmed as he fell back in his seat. "Seeing that building brought everything together. Even the Serbian terrorist. There's a bomb in that hotel and I'm not sure how much time we have before it goes off."
That was all the confirmation she needed. Sarah accelerated the car and her driving simultaneously became both more urgent and more controlled. Fortunately, Chuck seemed to hold no hint of anxiety, only steely determination. Just by a mere glance in his direction, she could see his mind already begin to work and calculate their options, and she felt a thrill at his obvious transition into spy mode.
"Plan is, once we get into the hotel, we run like hell to the ballroom and defuse the bomb," Chuck responded, his voice flat and his face set to grim determination. A second later, his expression relaxed and that lightness of spirit she so admired during their time at the Italian restaurant returned, just like that. He then grinned ridiculously at her. "How's that for a plan?"
Sarah screeched to a halt in front of the front hotel doors.
"Works for me," she said, sending him a ridiculous grin of her own. "Now let's go diffuse a bomb."
This story was meant to stop at their general meeting at the training facility, but somehow the characters ended up in an Italian restaurant, then on a walk, followed by a flash on General Stanford's motorcade, then the drive to the hotel where his speech was being held.
In other words, the plot bunnies took over.
Hopefully, the plot bunnies have not produced a boring story with sucky dialogue, plot holes you can stick the entire solar system in, and wildly overdone sexual tension between two people who have just met.
Also (and I hope I'm not being not too presumptuous in assuming that you'd even care), I thought I might give you a small excerpt from each of the remaining stories inside my head and ask which one you'd like me to write next, because I'm seriously having a hard time deciding.
And here they are.
1) She wasn't Agency trained, Carmichael could tell, but she sure did know how to fight; she very nearly had him pinned and immobile more than once. But he was better, as she was very quickly going to learn.
2) The house hadn't been lived in for years and there weren't any pictures left behind that might give her any idea of what her mark even looked like. There was nothing to be found in the house, in any files on any government database, or in any surveillance feeds around the world that gave her the slightest clue of how to find him. She had no idea how he'd managed it and the computer geeks at Langley were no closer to figuring it out. But she'd get her man; she always did.
3) She and her parents were the best in the business, but that didn't stop those... amateurs... from scamming them. The ease with which they'd done it greatly impressed her not-easily-impressed father just as much as it bothered the hell out of her. Still, she wasn't sure if she wanted to exact revenge on them, or ask them to join her family in their next venture.
4) She had lasted longer than the others, most of whom were considerably older, wiser, and more experienced than she. However, she held no illusions that she'd survived this long through any kind of special skill set or ingenious maneuvering on her part. Certainly, she was a very skilled agent who had finessed and fought her way out of dozens of dangerous situations during her decade long career as a spy, but she had never faced a foe quite like this one before.
5) The held each other for several long moments and Chuck thought about how ridiculously easy it was to just bask in her presence, despite any anxieties in his life. He got a thrill in knowing that his companion felt the same about him, though she never would admit to it out loud. But he could tell in the way that she allowed her usual vigilant, hyper-aware self to unbend, just a tiny little bit when they were in public and so completely, she was nearly melded to him, when they were alone.
6) "No offense, Director, but I find that extremely difficult to believe... impossible even."
"I assure you, Agent Walker, we've done our research, have tested him repeatedly, and found his ability to be quite possible," Graham countered as she stared at him in disbelief.
She'd seen this scam done a million times before and had been a party to it more than once during her childhood, so she was incredulous that an intelligent man such as the DCS would actually believe that psychic ability really existed. Let alone bring a psychic in as an asset.
7) "Please," the female voice gasped out as the woman who owned it reached out to grasp his shaking hand. The wet stickiness of her blood seeped through his fingers as he vainly put pressure on her wound. He longed for the life to be flowing out of him, instead of her. "I won't survive this. I can't. Promise me, promise me you won't let this destroy you."
"I can't," he rasped through his tears. "Please, you have to live. I can't survive without you."
He heard a distant sound that reminded him of the beeping of an alarm clock before he was pulled abruptly from her side. He struggled against the invisible hands that held him, fighting them to return back to her side... and awoke, gasping as he sat up in bed.
Damn, it was that accursed dream again.
8) Jenny suspected that Mary was going to be the mother figure she'd never had, because she could sense that this was a woman who protected her own, blood relation or friend, with a ferocity that rivaled a lioness. She saw it in the way Mary acted around her family and in the way her children, especially that cutie, Chuck, all seemed to adore her.