A/N the First: To those of you that have never seen this story before, the great mxpw and I have been writing on it for awhile over at our blog. But much to our distress, not everybody reads on our blog, so we thought we'd share this story with the world, just for the fun of it. We'll be posting a chapter a week. A lot of thanks involved in this chapter: thanks to our readers for choosing this story, thanks to our friends for putting up with our random musings about this story, and thanks to the hours of TVs and movies that have made this story possible!
Disclaimer: Neither mxpw nor I own anything past this line, and we're definitely not using any of it for monetary gain.
The cell looked dank, and cool and Agent Martina Royce shivered as though the cool air were actually biting into her skin. She still wore the fancy dress she had been captured in, a dress that didn't exactly leave much to the imagination. For one thing, it showed far too much leg. Well, really, it showed far too much of everything, but she was more bothered about the leg. Wearing revealing outfits had always been one aspect of the job that she had never been thrilled about, but she knew it was a necessary evil.
A man paced in front of her. She'd memorized his details a long time before: good looking, with short dark hair, a firm chin, and pale blue eyes, average height. He wore a well-fitted tuxedo, and had been Royce's target at the party she had attempted to infiltrate.
Royce had screwed up, she knew that. She'd been captured, drugged, and woke up to find herself sitting on a chair, her hands cuffed behind her back.
Her target had been interrogating her for what felt like hours. "I won't ask you again, Agent Royce. Where's the flash drive?"
Royce gave her interrogator a steely-eyed glare and spat at the man's feet. "Go to hell."
The interrogator walked up to Royce and struck her across the face. She remembered what she'd been told and timed her flinch just right. Even so, the interrogator clucked his tongue. "I am very disappointed to hear you say that, Agent Royce. I had such plans for you."
Royce worked her jaw. It took her a few seconds to compose herself. When she did, she said, "You might as well kill me. I'll never tell you what you want to know."
The interrogator walked slowly toward her. He leaned in close and his breath ghosted across her cheek. It smelled like onions and chili. It almost made her want to gag. Damn it, not again, she thought. Every single time. How was she so consistently unlucky? Did people not realize what they ate for lunch affected other people as well?
She tried not to let her distaste show, but it was hard to maintain her facade. She was not very happy and she planned to express that unhappiness at the first chance she got.
"You will tell me everything you know, Royce." The interrogator then smirked. Royce hated smirkers. "Everybody talks eventually."
That was her cue. It was time. "Okay, okay," Royce gasped out, "I'll tell you what you want to know."
The interrogator nodded his head, as if he expected as much. She wanted to shake her own head at the predictability, but just did her best to look vulnerable and like she had given up.
"Tell me everything, Agent Royce. Where the flash drive is, who the double agent is, and everything you know about Project Genesis."
Royce swallowed and acted like she was trying to speak, but nothing came out.
The interrogator leaned closer. "What was that?"
Royce waited until the interrogator was again in breath-smelling distance and then head-butted him. The man flopped backwards, his head moving just in time, and landed on the ground, clearly dazed.
"I said, 'You should have killed me when you had the chance.'"
Then Royce made her move, pulling her hands free from the handcuffs that she had—
Her hands didn't break free from the cuffs like they were supposed to. All she did was jerk a little and then wobble to one side, almost pathetically. She tried again: nothing. So she bit her bottom lip and looked to the side. "I'm stuck. Uh, help?"
Immediately, the tension from the "cell" drained as though somebody had cut a line. Though she knew it was hopeless, Sarah tried to pull her hands free again. She then laughed. She couldn't help it. It was the third time the prop cuffs had failed to work. She saw her day—already long and exhausting without all of the setbacks—stretching out for hours longer.
David Reynolds stalked onto the set, a severe scowl on his face. "I'm sorry, Sarah. I talked to the prop guys and they assured me they had the problem fixed." He turned around and she didn't have to see his face to know he was glaring at the crew, who had, once "Cut!" had been called, immediately sprung into action to reset back to the first mark. The props guy, standing to one side, sheepishly pulled his baseball cap off and scratched his forehead.
Somebody appeared behind her and freed her from the prop cuffs, never saying a word. After nodding her thanks, she massaged her wrists and adjusted her dress so that she didn't inadvertently flash the crew.
"I don't get it," David said. She couldn't tell if he was talking to anybody in particular, but she doubted he was. David had a tendency to direct his wrath at as many targets as possible. He was generous like that. "They're prop cuffs, people. How hard could it possibly be to get them right? I can get a working pair from the Halloween store down the street! Why do I even pay you people?"
"Sorry about that, Dave, it's the mechanism, we may have a new pair in the trailer..."
Sarah carefully stood up and let the crew's noise and chatter wash over her, ignoring comments about barn doors and kickers. She needed, she decided, to have a serious talk with the costume department about her dress. They needed to at least give her tape or something. She was supposed to fight in this thing? She'd have to ask Angelica how she did it.
David just shook his head as the props guy scurried away, muttered under his breath, and turned back to her. "We're going to have to take it from your headbutt of Bruce again. I liked the energy and the disdain in that last scene, see if you can work up a little more of a sweat before the next time, or if we can get make-up to add more...more schvitz." He gestured at his forehead, which was sweaty like hers, though she doubted it was anything to do with the sticky, smelly spray the make-up department used for synthesize sweat. "While we're working on this, take and go over things with Stefan and Angelica for scene eighty-five. Hopefully the cuffs will work, and when they do, we're going to go right into Royce's escape, got it?"
"Let's move it, people. We needed this shot finished yesterday! Clock's ticking!"
Essentially dismissed, Sarah gathered her loose hair and pulled it into a messy ponytail. One of the PA's brought a jacket over to her and she quickly snuggled inside of it. That was much better.
She turned on her heel to start walking off set, when she stopped and nodded her head. She had promised herself that she would say something and she would. She refused to let this go like she had all the other times in the past. Oh, and she was definitely leaving a note in Craft Services' suggestion box.
She marched over to her scene partner and smiled at him. "Great work, Bruce."
Bruce grinned at her and spoke quickly to the girl retouching his makeup. He focused back on her, still grinning. "Thanks."
"One thing though. If you're going to have a chili dog for lunch, please, please, please eat a mint afterwards."
Bruce's grin faded, the skin around his eyes tightening. "I'll try to remember that."
Sarah smiled gratefully at him and said thanks. Then she went off in search of her stunt team. She figured it couldn't hurt to go over her fight scenes one more time.
She didn't notice the new PA, a hire-on from the day before, slip out and follow her, keeping pace the whole time.
When his cell phone rang, Chuck dug it out of his pocket and pressed "Talk" without looking at the viewscreen. "Yeah, Ellie, I'm on my way back, I promise, just running a bit late because I couldn't remember if you said mixed greens or—"
At the sound of his boss's voice, Chuck nearly dropped his phone. Should've checked the viewscreen, should've checked the—
"I don't give a damn about your salad. Are you in L.A.?" Bullworth always tended to remind Chuck of a less-charismatic J. Jonah Jamison, but never as much as when he was barking orders into his phone. Give him a cheap mustache and a cigar, and he might as well step into a comic book, though Chuck had never, ever dared to say that to his face. Frankly, he didn't say much to his boss. He liked having a job, after all.
He juggled the salad and the tomatoes now, trying to get a better grip on his phone. "Uh, yes. Yes, sir, I am. On vaca—"
"Good. It's about damn time something went right. I'm having the computer nerd replacing you for the week send you an address. Go there. Handle it."
"Sir, I'm technically on leave and there are several more qualified..."
The dial-tone cut him off. Chuck slowly lowered the phone, a scowl setting in. He'd put in for this much-needed vacation, a chance to rest and recoup and spend time with his friends and sister, over six months before. But Bullworth evidently didn't believe that the Agency really granted time off, something that didn't surprise Chuck in the slightest. Bullworth lived and breathed only when the Agency told him to, and he fully expected that his staff would do the same.
Technically, Chuck had grounds to ignore Bullworth. He was, after all, on approved leave.
He knew better than that.
So, scowling, he tossed the salad into the front seat of the rental car, climbed into the driver's seat, and rested his forehead against the steering wheel. Thankfully, it wasn't as blisteringly hot as it had been earlier that day; Los Angeles had cooled down some. After a moment and a deep breath, he raised the phone and hit Ellie's speed-dial number. She was laughing at something her boyfriend must have said as she picked up. "Don't tell me you got lost already, Chuck!"
"No, not lost. Just a mixup with the salad." Chuck's fingers flexed against the steering wheel.
Ellie must have heard something in his voice. "What is it? Is there trouble?"
"No, no trouble. Ah, my boss called."
"Oh." Ellie's tone went flat; Chuck agreed with her opinion of Bullworth, though he didn't say so. "What is it now? Do you have to be at the office?"
"He doesn't want me to fly back to D.C., but there's an issue out here. I just have to take care of it really quick."
"Chuck, you're on vacation."
It was a bit ironic to hear that from a doctor, and Chuck waited until Ellie realized it herself.
"Oh, all right," she said with a sigh. "Will it take long?"
"I hope not. You know what? No. No, it won't take long. I'll handle it quickly." One of Bullworth's friends was probably just having a computer error and instead of calling the Buy More, they'd gone to the "Bullpen" of nerds. Bullworth had the most computer nerds on his staff out of every department of the Agency, after all. Granted, he had a full coterie of field agents, too, but he wasn't as well-known for them. "But yeah, don't hold dinner on my account."
"All right." Ellie still gave a disappointed sigh. "You need a new job, Chuck."
"I'll leave a plate in the fridge for you if the issue takes too long."
"You're the best, Ellie. Thanks."
Yeah, Chuck thought, after he'd bid her good-bye and hung up. I'll need it, probably. He checked his messages and saw that Scott, one of his fellow nerds, had left a text for him: Sorry, C! Bull's in mood today, here's address, ask for Neil.
There was an address listed. Chuck transferred it over to his GPS app, figured he was only about twenty minutes away if traffic wasn't too brutal, and felt considerably better. Maybe he could get home early enough to hang out with Ellie and her boyfriend, after all. Put in some quality time with Morgan and Halo or something.
It apparently wasn't his lucky day. An accident on the freeway made the whole drive drag out to nearly an hour, so that by the time he reached the address, his fingers tapped against the steering wheel impatiently, and he was all but jiggling in his seat. He pulled up to a gate and rolled the window down. "Uh, I'm not sure, am I in the right place?" He listed off the address.
"Yeah, that's right, but it's only authorized personnel in the studio lot."
"Stu-studio lot?" Chuck blinked and glanced at the gate. There were several warehouse buildings on the other side. The nearest seemed to loom up for miles. What on earth sort of issue had Bullworth sent him to fix? And how the hell had he not noticed what it was before now? He'd grown up in L.A., after all. "Oh. My boss sent me here. I'm supposed to ask for Neil?"
Whoever this Neil was, his name was powerful enough to get Chuck a security pass and through the gate with directions to head to Studio 18, about a mile back on the lot. Bewildered now, Chuck clipped the badge to his T-shirt and climbed out of the rental car. He should have gone home to change, he realized. He was wearing Chucks, for crying out loud, jeans, and a T-shirt with a fake Bass Pro Shops logo that said, "All Your Ducks Are Belong to Us." It was probably the least professional he could have looked.
"Bullworth is going to kill me," he muttered under his breath. "I am so officially a dead nerd."
He headed for the studio entrance, asked the guard once more for Neil, and received directions to go inside, but to be quiet, there was a shoot in progress.
What the hell?
Inside, a blast of air conditioning slammed into him so hard that he nearly shivered. He stepped from concrete to concrete and closed the door behind him, looking around. As far as he could tell, there wasn't any sort of organization, though the warehouse—studio—was one huge room. What he assumed had to be scenery pieces were stacked haphazardly against the wall nearest the door, and most of the activity was concentrated on the opposite side of the studio, where a set looked like some sort of prison cell. Huge lights flooded the set and people milled about, but even among the buzz of activity, Chuck sensed a feeling of waiting, like they weren't sure what to do next.
A young woman with a harried expression and a clipboard rushed up to him. "Can I help you?"
"Uh, yeah. I'm Chuck Bartowski, and I'm supposed to ask for Neil?"
"Neil's talking to the cops right now."
"Oh, I can wait." Just his luck, Chuck figured. He really wasn't going to be home until very late, and at this rate, he could see the rest of his vacation slipping through his fingers.
"You're not the guy from ILM, are you?"
"I wish, but no."
"Jaime!" Another woman, also carrying a clipboard, sauntered over. Well, Chuck thought, she sauntered, but she still seemed to move quickly without seeming to move at all. He would have to learn that trick. "Who's this?"
"He says he's here for Neil, but he's not the guy from ILM."
"Oh, you're with Bullworth?"
Chuck nodded. "Chuck Bartowski," he said, sticking out his hand.
"Vanessa Perone," the woman replied. "I'm one of the producers on this project, and I'm supposed to keep an eye for you for Neil. Since he's in a meeting right now, though, I can take you straight to her."
"I'm sorry, her?"
"Did Bullworth not fill you in?"
"Uh, I got some details, but..."
"Well, they haven't found the guy that did it, but the cops have kept the crime scene pretty well preserved. Thank God she wasn't hurt, we're behind enough on production as it is and David's close to pitching a fit." Vanessa Perone rolled her eyes and started doing that speed-saunter away. After a second, Chuck realized he was supposed to go along, and hurried to catch up. "This is just a nightmare. We've got security, and like I said, thank God she's been paying attention to the fight coordinators, but if word gets out about this event...well, it'll be good for publicity, but I don't want to see the royal bitch-fit David will throw."
"Uh-huh," Chuck said, hoping he sounded like he knew what was going on. What has Bullworth gotten him into?
"If you ever go into the business, be careful about the artsy directors. David's damn good at his job, but if the smallest thing is wrong..."
They headed out of the studio through another set of doors, winding their way around various people in ballcaps and cargo shorts carrying cable, lights, colored sheets of some sort of gel, and more cables.
"And thank God Neil had some connections, so that this can be handled quietly. Such a frickin' mess. Well, here's her trailer."
They had indeed come to some sort of mobile park trailer, set in among a small village of them. Security milled around, sweating a bit in the heat. They gave Chuck a few curious glances, but nodded at Vanessa, evidently used to seeing her around.
Chuck wondered if anything would ever make sense again.
Meanwhile, Vanessa was talking too fast for him to insert a word in edgewise. Right now, though, she stopped and gave him an appraising look. "Good job with the blending in, throw a pair of gloves in your back pocket and you could be one of the grips."
"Um, thank you?"
"She's not too temperamental, so you shouldn't have any problems. Just don't get in the way of shooting, listen to the PAs, and it should be okay. Thank you for coming so quickly."
Vanessa turned and knocked twice on the trailer door. Chuck heard a muffled "Come in!" before Vanessa pushed open the door and went in first. Feeling even more at sea, Chuck followed her up to the tiny steps, taking care not to trip.
Inside, it was considerably darker, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust to the light. He was standing in some sort of miniature living room, with a couch and a coffee table and everything; there was a door to what he had to assume was another bedroom just beyond them. "Sarah?" Vanessa called. "Come on out and meet your new bodyguard."
"Wait, what?" Chuck said, just as the door to the bedroom opened. Then he completely forgot everything he had ever known, up to and including his own name.
Sarah Walker was standing in the doorway.
Sarah Walker, movie star. Sarah Walker, actress. Sarah Walker, goddess.
Sarah Walker, whom Chuck had fallen in love with during a matinee showing of It Came from the Swamp when he was just seventeen. Her IMDB page had said she was eighteen at the time, and that they had filmed the scene where her character had been dragged into the swamp thirty-seven times, but had used the first take.
And here he was, nearly ten years later, standing in her trailer. And oh, God, she was even prettier in real life and how the hell was that possible? "Don't," Chuck heard himself whisper, "freak out."