It's a Wonderful Cover Life
A/N: Oh look, it's Christmas. Again. It's like we have one of these every month now. But on a serious note, you're still here and I'm still here, so Cover Life is still here. It would, however, not be possible without the following people:
Nervert, though you couldn't officially beta this chapter, you've been on this journey with me from day 1, and day 1 was over 2 years ago. Your support and advice mean a lot to me and my self-esteem, and I can't thank you enough.
Lucky47, who stepped in on very short notice to beta this chapter. She stayed up until nearly 3 a.m. reading this, and if you think that's nice of her, it gets better – she did it on her birthday. Happy birthday, Lucky47! May your year ahead be as awesome as you are.
Luisa from Fiji, who celebrated her birthday on the 20th. She's one of the biggest fans of this story and she keeps me on my toes by actually counting the days since the last update. I need the whip cracking sometimes. Unfortunately my plans for giving her a birthday chapter fell through, but she assured me that a shootout would suffice. She blamed autocorrect, but I have my suspicions ;) Happy belated birthday, girl!
And let's not forget my coach in everything 4-year-old - our very own Nutella loving and Double Double fanatic ninja librarian quistie64.
I say this every time, and I'll keep saying it because it's true – Chuck has the best fans in the world. Thank you for every review, PM, tweet and blog mention. It's awesome to be a part of this family. Have a merry Christmas Eve everyone!
Disclaimer: If you recognize it, and its name is not Maggie, then it's not mine.
86. Tutus and Pirates
Holding onto Sarah's shoulders for balance, Maggie slipped her foot into the tights Sarah had stretched between her thumbs.
"The Beast Master is our best mover," Sarah said, crouched down on her side of the conference table. She pulled up the tights around Maggie's waist, then gently removed the little girl's hands and rose to her feet.
"With the weather in L.A. always being sunny, sales are high year round." She spared the nodding Beckman a glance as she dug through Maggie's backpack for her tutu. "And the markup is sufficient to subsidize the losses we suffer in other departments." Once she'd found the pink frilly garment, she disappeared behind the conference table again, helping Maggie into the one-piece.
"I see DVD sales have fallen consistently every quarter," Beckman remarked.
"Pirates," Carina replied. "The entire supply chain is suffering."
Maggie's eyes grew wide. "You have pirates?" she asked Sarah in an awestruck whisper.
"We do," she replied in the same tone. She didn't elaborate, deciding to leave it up to Chuck to explain the difference between the ones who wore eye patches and knew their way around cannonballs, and those who wore sweatpants and could get around a firewall. She had a feeling both would fall right into his area of expertise. She lifted the little girl under her arms and settled her down on the table, then reached for the ballet slippers lying next to her copy of the draft sales agreement.
"I wanna meet one," Maggie said, sticking out one foot and then the other so Sarah could put on her shoes.
"We'd have to catch one first, and they are very sneaky." Sarah winked at her before turning her attention back to the duo on the other side of the conference table. "We looked into phasing that stock line out." She finished tying the first set of ribbons as she spoke. "There is the odd customer though who still believes that paying for entertainment is the honorable thing to do. We didn't want to discourage that."
"It makes up a small portion of the annual sales anyway, so you'll barely feel the loss," Carina added.
"Electronics is where it gets tricky," Sarah said. She tied the second knot and then nudged Maggie to turn around, moving an empty water glass out of the way with her free hand. "Stock turnover is generally good, but if you're suddenly hit with upgrades and you're sitting on a bunch of old stuff, the whole quarter's profit can go down the drain."
Sticking her hand into a side pocket of Maggie's bag, Sarah found the brush and hair accessories. Carina took it as her cue when Sarah undid the little girl's ponytails and started running the brush through her hair.
"Lucky for us the current Nerd Herd supervisor is doing a fantastic job with keeping his ear on the ground."
Sarah nearly swallowed the bobby pins pinched between her lips. "Tw bd," she said in attempt to cut Carina off, but the redhead steamrolled on.
"He's always the first to know when we should hold on ordering new stock or cut the prices to get rid of what we have on hand before it becomes obsolete."
"He sounds like a real asset," Beckman said. "We should schedule another store visit so you can introduce me to some of the staff. I find that they are often the glue that keeps the ship together. What's this guy's name?"
With the pins now in one hand and Maggie's hair gathered in the other, Sarah beat Carina to the punch.
"Charles. His name is Charles – " She was still floundering for a surname when Maggie chirped in.
"My daddy is – "
"Charles," Sarah said again, before Maggie could finish whatever she was going to say. It was bad enough that Carina had slipped up.
"Charles Charles?" Beckman frowned. "What an unusual name. At least I won't have trouble remembering it."
"Too bad he resigned last week," Sarah replied, avoiding Beckman's gaze by focusing on finishing Maggie's bun. How on earth someone could believe a name like Charles Charles was beyond her.
"That won't do," Beckman said. She turned to Carina. "Get me his contact information. I'm sure I can make him an offer he can't refuse."
"Well," Sarah cut in, "he actually started his own software company and it's doing very well. I don't see him giving that up."
Beckman, however, was relentless on the issue. "Maybe he'll be willing to consult. Any businessman worth his salt won't say no to easy money. Perhaps you could help me to convince him, as you seem to know him well."
Sarah slipped the last two bobby pins into Maggie's hair, buying herself a few seconds. Not that it helped any, as she couldn't come up with a believable excuse.
"Why don't we discuss it tonight after dinner?" she asked. They'd already agreed to put in an hour or two to make up for the fact that Sarah won't be available on the day of The Nutcracker. Beckman had needed some convincing, but at least Carina had seemed pleased at the idea. And seeing as Carina got them into this particular sticky spot, Sarah decided to throw the ball into her court. "Will you get in touch with Charles in the meantime and see what you can do?"
The redhead nodded, seemingly understanding the 'to get us out of this' which was implied.
87. Serving Papers
Chuck wiped a sweaty palm against his thigh, switched the envelope he was holding, and dried his other hand. Then he rolled his shoulders and huffed out a nervous breath. He'd always dreamed of the day he'd get to resign from the Buy More, but now that it had finally arrived, he felt like he was about to base jump off a cliff, not sure if his parachute would deploy or not.
"Here goes nothing," he whispered to himself. Though he was alone in the corridor, he couldn't see if someone might be approaching from around the corner. Harry Tang had a habit of doing just that, appearing when least expected, or welcome. That guy should really have the stick up his butt checked out, or taken out. Immediately Chuck felt bad for thinking it. Unpleasant as Harry was, that short, bald guy sure had his share of troubles. Not that Chuck was planning on getting involved. As much as he'd like to fix the world's problems, he was but one man. The least he could do was help out the people in his life he cared most about, which was a good start as far as he was concerned.
With long strides Chuck closed the distance to Big Mike's door. The sooner he got this over with, the better. He paused in the doorway, his fist poised to knock.
And then he hesitated.
Big Mike sat behind his desk, head down, as his fingers flew over the calculator keys. He scribbled on a sales order slip, slammed it onto the growing pile next to him, and then reached for another, repeating the process. Seeing Big Mike actually working, and at a productive rate, was enough to make Chuck uneasy, but when he spotted the pink box of baked goods on the shelf behind his boss, completely untouched, Chuck knew something was very wrong. Against his better judgment he rapped his knuckles on the wood paneling.
Without looking up Big Mike waved him inside. Chuck made the two step journey, stopping beside the visitor's chair. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, contemplating whether or not to take a seat when Big Mike suddenly stopped writing and leaned back in his chair, his hands now motionless on the desk in front of him.
"Let me ask you a question, Bartowski. What kind of woman delivers divorce papers four days before Christmas?"
Chuck wasn't sure if that was a rhetorical question or not, but the envelope he was holding suddenly burned his fingers and he crumpled it before sticking the paper ball in his pocket. Big Mike, eyeing Chuck expectantly, hadn't noticed.
"The lady Big Mike is no more," he replied, letting out a long, sad sigh.
Chuck figured he probably had it coming, but ending a relationship sucked, no matter the reasons. "I'm so sorry to hear that, sir."
"Damn straight. I had the catch of a lifetime and I let her get away."
"Do you wanna talk about it?" The question came automatically, despite Chuck's resolve to not get involved, but to be fair, just last week he'd sought out advice from Big Mike himself, albeit unintentionally.
"I'll be fine," Big Mike said. "As long as I keep working I won't have the time to realize I'm gonna spend the rest of my life alone and unloved. For as long as I have a job anyway." He stared past Chuck to the storefront visible through the office window. "Who knows what's gonna happen once this sale goes through."
"I don't think things will change that much," Chuck replied. "Diane is a nice lady and it doesn't seem like she has plans to close down the store." Big Mike's eyes traveled back to Chuck's, in what felt like slow motion, as he realized what he'd said. Thinking on the foot that wasn't in his mouth, he rounded the desk and lifted the Large Mart box lid. "These donuts look yummy. Mind if I have one?"
Chuck knew from experience that a scolding would be sure to follow – no one messed with Big Mike's baked goods – but the attempt as misdirection failed miserably when his boss swung around in his office chair.
"You're on a first name basis with this Mrs. Beckman?"
"I…uh…that's how she introduced herself when…when she visited the store the other day with Sar…Miss Walker," Chuck stammered.
Big Mike's eyes narrowed. "You had the day off, Bartowski," he pointed out.
"You remembered that?" Chuck asked.
"Someone messed with the Employee of the Month wall that day. It wouldn't have happened on your watch. Jeff and Lester tried to sell me some cockamamie story about Miss Walker taking down your picture, but I'm not buying it. Those two are as guilty as smug cats sitting next to a dead canary."
Chuck snuck a glimpse out the window, confirming that the wall was indeed empty. It made sense, and he believed that it was probably Sarah's doing. He tried to come up with an explanation to help his fellow Buymorians out of their fix, but Big Mike had him pinned down with a suspicious glare.
"You didn't answer my question, Bartowski. How do you know Mrs. Beckman?"
Chuck stalled, his fingers ghosting over his pocket, but then he decided against giving Big Mike his resignation letter to create a diversion. The man had already received enough bad news for one day, which left him, Chuck, in a bit of a bind. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
"Well, sir, you see…the thing is…explaining how…it's rather – "
"Spit it out, Bartowski!"
The outburst caught Chuck off guard. "I met her through my girlfriend. I'm dating the boss. Not you, obviously. The big boss. Your boss. Sarah. I'm dating Sarah Walker. The main… Sarah Walker is my girlfriend. She introduced me to Diane."
Chuck grabbed a donut from the box and stuffed it in his mouth to prevent any further truths from spilling out, but the deed was done. Before long everyone at the Buy More would know that he was dating Sarah, Jeff and Lester would brand him a home wrecker as they were under the impression that she was married, and given that it would probably the biggest scandal to hit the store since Jeff had managed to get seven sexual harassment complaints filed against him in a single day, it would headline the grapevine for months to come and inevitably reach Beckman who would have no trouble figuring out that she'd been lied to. Carina, and maybe Sarah, was going to kill him.
He swallowed the last bit of chewed pastry, and he could almost feel it settle heavily in his gut when Big Mike narrowed one eye, not looking impressed at all.
"The Buy More has strict rules against intercompany dating."
He did not know that, but he jumped at the opening. "Which is why we've been keeping it quiet, and I'd appreciate it if you could do the same."
"I ought to report you, Bartowski." Big Mike held up a palm to stop Chuck from even thinking to defend himself. "Though seeing as I have to report you to your girlfriend that would be pointless, so I'll just have to deal with you myself."
Chuck swallowed hard, shifting again.
"Don't look so worried, Bartowski," Big Mike said. "I'm not going to fire you."
"You're not?" Chuck asked. He couldn't deny that he was somewhat disappointed.
"No, because you are my man on the inside." Big Mike pointed an index finger at him, just in case there was confusion as to whom he was referring. "You are my spy. The store's spy. If you can keep me in the loop on what's happening with the sale so I can be prepared for what's to come, I will forget that we ever had this conversation."
"But I don't know what's being discussed," Chuck replied.
"Then find out. Seduce it out of your girlfriend if that's what it takes. All our futures are at stake here, not just mine."
Chuck thought it over for a moment, then shook his head. He sympathized with Big Mike, but he wasn't going to betray Sarah.
"I'm sorry, sir, but the answer is no." Reaching into his pocket he extracted the crumpled envelope. "Like I said before, I doubt the store will close because Sarah has gone to a lot of trouble for this deal instead of just closing it herself." He straightened the envelope as best he could and handed it over to Big Mike. "Which means," he continued, "that you would have to interview for a new Nerd Herd supervisor. I'm handing in my two weeks' notice."
88. Sarah vs. the Ballet Moms
Sarah hustled Maggie through the community center's entrance – they've made it with literally two minutes to spare – and she was about to open the door marked "Ballet rehearsal" when the little girl turned, stopping her with both palms raised.
"You can't come in," she said in a loud whisper. "It's a surprise."
"Okay," Sarah replied. She hunched down to straighten the lapels on the little girl's jacket. "Shouldn't I come in, just real quick, and make sure we're at the right place?" She knew she was being overprotective, reluctant to send the little girl into the room hidden behind closed doors.
"We're at the right place," Maggie insisted. She pointed down a short hallway. "You can wait with the other moms. I'll come find you when we're done."
The word choice threw Sarah for a moment. A flash of realization crossed Maggie's face and Sarah held her breath when the little girl tilted her head, fixing her with a questioning look.
"Are you gonna come to my recital, Kitty?"
Sarah, who prided herself on her ability to read people and anticipate their reactions, wondered if she'd ever get used to the Bartowskis' ability to keep her on her toes, especially the smallest one.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," she said. She was rewarded with a broad grin.
The door behind Maggie opened and a woman's head popped around it. Her hair was dyed a shocking array of silver and black, streaked with purple, but the deep seated wrinkles around her mouth and eyes revealed the woman had long since passed the age of pulling off the look. Like a couple of decades passed.
"Maggie," she said with Southern drawl, "we're waiting for you."
Remembering Chuck's warning Sarah rose to her feet. "We were on time," she said.
"Barely." Slipping Maggie's jacket off her shoulders, Miss Easton shoved it at Sarah, and with a dismissive wave she directed Maggie into the room, closing the door behind them.
Sarah stared at the door for a moment. What an odd woman, she thought. Then she turned and made her way down the corridor. Reaching what must have been the waiting area, given that there were folding chairs lined up against two of the walls, she noticed a group of ballet moms huddled together in the corner, their chairs arranged in a closed circle – a clear message that outsiders, like the lone woman sitting a few feet away, weren't welcome. Sarah figured that the polite thing to do would be to join the loner, but the scowl on redhead's face gave her pause and she sank down on the closest chair, placing Maggie's gear on the seat next to hers. She didn't mind really, as she preferred her own company to those of strangers. Ignoring the heads that had turned her way she pulled her phone from her purse and started to scroll through her emails, glancing up occasionally when someone walked by the glass double doors opposite her.
The curiosity of the herd to her left had waned and they went back to whatever they were discussing before she'd arrived. It wasn't until she could make out a familiar name amidst the murmuring that her ears perked up.
"One of these days Chuck is going to realize that his daughter needs a mother and I'm going to be right there, waiting in the wings," a petite brunette said.
"You and Sasha Banicheck both," a bottle blonde in her mid-forties added. Her short bob bounced as she jerked her head in the direction of the grumpy outcast's now empty seat.
"Please," the first woman replied, "little miss KGB with the fake Russian accent? She's got a snowball's hope in hell. I have it on good authority that he prefers brunettes."
"I may just cure him of that," the blonde said.
"You're married," a third woman pointed out, "and your husband is built like a lumberjack. There's no way Chuck would take that chance."
Seemingly unfazed the blonde took a sip from the straw sticking out of her takeout coffee cup. "The ball-and-chain is hardly ever home," she said once she'd swallowed, "and I'm yet to meet the man who turns down no-strings-attached sex. With handcuffs."
Sarah, who'd been gritting her teeth to avoid interrupting the group with a few choice words, watched them from the corner of her eye.
The brunette lifted her chin in a silent challenge. "Then you're about to. Chuck is a decent guy."
The other women in the group snickered. "He's a geek," one of them said.
"Nothing a haircut, a decent outfit and some proper shoes can't fix," the brunette said. "Once I get my hands on him – "
"Not if I get my hands on him first," the blonde cut in, sipping on the straw again. "I don't care what he wears, as long as he's not wearing it."
That clearly got the brunette's back up, and for a second Sarah thought she was going to lean forward and grab the blonde around her throat.
"Unclench Hannah," the blonde said. "You can have him once I'm done, but I can't guarantee what shape he'll be in. On the upside, he might learn something."
Now Sarah felt like throttling the blonde cougar, and Hannah, while she was at it, but instead of getting violent she decided on another course of action to put the women in their place. Chuck was not some toy for them to quibble over, and he was definitely not available for whatever either of them had in mind. Not paying attention to the rest of the terse conversation taking place in the corner, Sarah thumbed through the menus on her phone, pulled up the contacts list and hit the dial button.
89. Staking Claim
Chuck stood on the sidewalk, his messenger bag slung over one shoulder, as he watched the Nerd Herder disappear from sight. He loved his buddy, but if Morgan didn't give him another lift in at least the next twelve months, that would be too soon. His thoughts were interrupted when the phone in his hand started to ring and he glanced down at it, smiling when he saw the picture of Sarah he'd taken on the beach. He swiped his thumb across the screen and pressed the phone to his ear while making a slow trek across the grass to the grey building hidden behind a row of palm trees.
"Hi Sarah," he said.
Chuck lowered the phone and studied the screen, completely perplexed. Then realized he was still on the call and fumbled the phone before managing to press it back to his ear.
"Uh, hi," he said again, his voice a pitch higher than what was considered manly. "Whazzup?" The heel of his palm connected with his forehead.
"I just wanted to let you know that rehearsals are going to be longer than usual."
He momentarily forgot about his failed attempt at being smooth and frowned. "I know," he said, "I sent you the schedule, remember?"
"How do you feel about Chinese for dinner? Maggie and I can stop at the Bamboo Dragon on the way home."
"Isn't Lou cooking tonight?"
He pulled up short of the double glass doors. His eyes found her immediately – poised on a chair, one leg elegantly crossed over a bent knee. Her foot bobbed up and down. What kept his attention though was the lock of hair she was twisting around her finger as she spoke.
"Of course we'll pick up extra sizzling shrimp, Chuck. It's my favorite too."
This was getting weird, he thought.
"Okay," he said, drawing out the syllables, "either you are super stoned, or you've been kidnapped and you're trying to get a message to me, but as I can see you, I'm gonna guess it's not the second one."
"You can?" Sarah asked, sounding surprised. Her head spun in his direction and he gave her small wave from his side of the glass. With a smile that could easily light up the whole of downtown L.A. she got to her feet and crossed the room. Chuck swung the door open and only when she met him in the doorway did they both lower their phones.
Sarah sent a quick glance to her left before meeting his gaze dead on. She closed the gap between them, laying her free hand on his waist. Her heels made up for their height difference and they were almost nose to nose.
"Kiss me," she whispered under her breath.
Chuck would be lying if he said he wasn't thinking along the same lines, but being aware of where they were he settled for giving Sarah a quick peck on the cheek before taking half a step back.
She arched an eyebrow at him. "That's it?"
"You know I'm not comfortable with PDA."
Sarah closed the distance between them again, pressing her cheek against his, and Chuck could feel her breath on his ear when she whispered, "I also know a bartender who would call you a liar."
Lucky for Chuck he was saved from responding when he found himself being led by the hand to where Sarah had been waiting for Maggie's rehearsal to finish. Noticing for the first time the regular crowd in the corner he smiled at them.
"Ladies," he said with a polite nod.
They merely stared back, jaws slack, and he turned his head to see if something behind him was the reason for their shocked expressions, but the hallway was empty. Confused he sat down next to Sarah who had turned sideways in her chair to block his view from the group, or him from them, he wasn't quite sure.
"Stop encouraging them," she said, her voice low.
"I…what?" He craned his neck to look past her and quickly duck back when he saw Hannah, Sylvia and Lizzie staring daggers at him. "What is happening?"
"You mean your little fan club back there? They're all crushing on you."
Chuck's eyes went wide. "They are?" He tried to sneak another peek over Sarah's shoulder, only to be rewarded with a pinch on his forearm. "Ow." He rubbed the spot to ease the burn. "I doubt it."
"You wouldn't if you heard the things they have planned for you."
"What things?" He knew immediately that it was the wrong question to ask. And then everything clicked. "Sarah, are you jealous?" It was flattering, and life threatening, if her facial expression was anything to go by. He couldn't believe that she of all people would feel insecure.
Chuck had never been in this situation before and he wasn't sure how to handle it, but Sarah's request of a minute ago gave him an idea. He swallowed down his nerves as he scooted forward in his seat. Keeping his focus on her he raised his hand and brushed her hair back behind her ear. Her features softened. Then his gaze dropped to her lips as he leaned in slowly. Her eyes fell close and she released a small sigh right before their mouths met.
His intention was to keep it chaste – it would've sufficed to reassure her that she had nothing to worry about, and send the message to the other women in the room that he was taken, should what Sarah had said be true, but then her fingers tugged on his curls, and he really liked that, enough to forget that they had an audience as he inched closer to deepen the kiss, despite the armrest digging into his ribs.
Sarah pulled away abruptly and for a second Chuck thought he had done something wrong, until he became aware of the woman towering over them.
"This is a family place," she said with a heavy Russian accent. "If you want to make mad, passionate sex to each other, there's a supply closet down the hall."
Chuck felt his ears go red at her blunt suggestion. "I…we don't...we weren't – "
Sarah cut off his stammering, smiling sweetly at Sasha. "Thanks for the tip."
A/N: Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light, do some stuff in between and sing tra la la la la, then hang a shining star upon the highest bough, and have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
On a technical note: In chapter 15 I mentioned The Walking Dead. Then for some reason I looked it up the other day – The Walking Dead premiered at the end of October 2010, while this story takes place in December 2009 (you can check the calendar, the days of the week and dates match up). This bugged me, so I've changed it to Zombieland. If it bugged you too (I can't be the only crazy person around) you can now heave a sigh of relief.