A/N the First: So I've been posting a series of vignettes up on my tumblr (which you can find through my link to my blog on my profile), just happy little Christmas tales from the That Which is Greater universe that are loosely connected. I compiled them all together for the ebook I created of various heartwarming holiday Chuck stories (which you can also get on the blog) and thought I should share them here with all of you wonderful readers. If this is your first experience with a Greater story, I recommend stopping here and going back and reading That Which is Greater, and That Which is Greater: A Thanksgiving to Remember as you'll likely be a lot less confused.
To everybody, I just want to say thank you. I've been a part of the ff-net fandom for nearly two years now, and those two years have completely enriched my life. The friendships I've made have been wonderful, and the stories I've read have been beautiful. So thank you for the stories, and thank you for reading. Now: onto Christmas with Violet Bartowski, the real reason you're here!
That Which is Greater: The Christmas Story
Vi Goes to the Mattresses
Chuck debated his options and the time of night. Since bedtime was soon anyway, he chose the milk and pulled it out of the refrigerator. "I really don't think that's a good idea," he said as he closed the fridge.
"Because I've only been dating the woman for like two months and change? Asking her to mattress shop with me sends messages of domesticity that I really don't want to broadcast right now." Chuck opened the dishwasher and grabbed the Diego cup from the top shelf. He had to move around Ellie—working at the stove on dinner for the four of them and for Sarah, who would be over shortly—to get back to where he'd left the milk.
"Mattresses are a long-term commitment," Ellie said. "I think it's a nice consideration, given that with any luck, she'll also be using that mattress."
"Why would Sarah be using Daddy's mattress?" Vi asked, looking up from her coloring book.
Chuck gave his sister a pained look. Do not make me explain the birds and the bees to her now.
Ellie didn't miss a beat. "For the same reason Uncle Awesome uses my mattress, Vi-Baby."
"So Daddy and Sarah are like you and Uncle Awesome?"
"With any hope," Ellie said under her breath so that only Chuck could hear her. He bared his teeth at her in frustration. To Violet, Ellie smiled and said, "Yes. Exactly. You'd like having Sarah around more, right, Vi-Baby?"
"Uh-huh." With that ringing endorsement, Violet went back to her coloring book.
Chuck's glare at Ellie only deepened. She shrugged, completely unrepentant.
"What time does the bed frame get here tomorrow?" Ellie asked.
They were doing what Chuck liked to call their kitchen routine. He was a mediocre chef—he could feed his kid, but she wouldn't necessarily like it—and Ellie liked to cook, so whenever she wasn't too tired, she cooked dinner and the men and Violet handled the rest of the chores. They all tended to gather around in the expansive kitchen while Ellie cooked, Chuck with his laptop, Violet with her coloring books and other projects, and Awesome with his free-weights. Awesome was taking a nap after a long surgery, which meant they were short a person. Even so, it was still time to catch up on family events and synchronize schedules.
"I think one thirty or two. They're going to call ahead," Chuck said now, putting the milk glass in front of Violet. "I'll rearrange the room tonight to make room, but I thought I'd go find the mattress really quick while Byte-size is at pre-K."
"Hey," Vi said, looking up from the purple horse in front of her. She looked affronted. "It's Megabyte now, Daddy, cos I'm bigger."
"Oh. My bad." Chuck ruffled her hair, and had to hide his grin when she gave him a second dirty look and meticulously fixed the damage.
"So how come you're getting a new bed?" Vi asked once her hair was straight. "Is it so Sarah can be over here more?"
"I…" Chuck really didn't know what to say that. Ostensibly, it was; if they were going to sell their cover, Sarah had mentioned that they'd need to pretend they were sleeping together soon. And having a girlfriend, even a fake one, had really highlighted to Chuck that he was sleeping on a daybed in what was essentially his living room. Even if nothing would ever come of that relationship—such was his life that he'd found somebody as completely amazing as Sarah and they couldn't even really be friends, let alone more—well, it was best to be prepared.
In case hell really did freeze over.
"No, Vi. It's just time for me to have…" What? An adult bed? Something behind a closed and lock-able door? "My own room. That's all."
"You're going to be farther away from me," Violet said.
"I know. Does that bother you?"
Violet tilted her head, her small face scrunching into her "thinking look." Across the kitchen island from them, Ellie had to bite her lip to hide a smile.
"No," Violet said slowly. "But why is Sarah coming here? Why aren't you going to stay with her? She has a bed, too."
"But then where would you sleep? I can't leave my wingman behind."
Violet shrugged and went back to coloring. "It's okay, I'll just sleep with you guys."
The doorbell rang. Violet hopped off of the stool and took off running with a shout of, "I've got it!"
"Make sure you look before you open the door," Chuck called after her.
"'Kay!" There was a pause before they heard, "It's Sarah! Can I let her in?"
They heard Violet's chirped greeting, which made Ellie smile and roll her eyes as she transferred the chicken from one pot to the next. Sarah must have said something in reply, for Chuck heard a muffled voice. Violet's reply, on the other hand, was perfectly clear: "I'm glad you're here! Daddy and Aunt Ellie are talking about Daddy's new bed and Aunt Ellie says you should help him pick a mattress cos you're gonna share it with him."
Chuck put his forehead on the counter top and moaned.
- O -
"I'm heading out," Sarah said. She didn't technically need to keep tabs with Casey, but it felt more polite. After all, they'd gotten better at sharing the house and things had calmed down so much recently. She didn't want to upset whatever delicate balance they'd found.
As usual, the reply was a grunt from the recliner, where Casey had been watching the History Channel—World War II in color marathon all week, every week, it felt like to Sarah—for ages.
"Want me to bring you back a doggy bag? Ellie's cooking."
This time the grunt was a little more positive.
"Good talk," Sarah said, and headed out the door, grabbing her purse from where she'd tossed it earlier, and the salad she'd prepared that afternoon, too.
Dinner at Casa Bartowski was becoming a startlingly regular occurrence. It was probably the easiest way to sell the cover—the Bartowskis liked to adopt others into the fold, and apparently the fold was well-fed—but she always felt a little like a mooch. Which was why the Bartowski clan was coming over the next night. Casey had promised to throw steaks on the grill. There'd probably be some sort of sports match for the men.
Normal stuff. Not like the spy stuff at all.
Since the Robertsons weren't home, she cut across their yard. She'd grown…adept at normal. It was partially that Chuck and the others made normal seem almost appealing—though the fact that she lived in suburbia would never fail to give her the heebie-jeebies—and partially survival instinct. Years of spy training simply wouldn't allow her to do anything but blend in.
And she was finding her place. Maybe not her permanent place, as that had terrifying implications, but she'd found some place.
She was even learning to relax around the five-year-old.
Which was why when Violet opened the door, all eagerness and wearing her snowflake socks, she smiled. "Hi, Sarah!"
"Hi, Miss Violet."
"I'm glad you're here! Daddy and Aunt Ellie are talking about Daddy's new bed and Aunt Ellie says you should help him pick a mattress cos you're gonna share it with him."
On second thought, maybe relaxing around the five-year-old was a bad idea.
For a second, she could do nothing but stare. Part of her was prescient to the fact that time was passing—spy training again—but the rest of her simply couldn't do anything but stare at the cherubically bright face grinning up at her. Had she…what the…
"That's," she heard herself say, and the dazed part of her mind refused to come up with an appropriate word, so the rest of her finished "nice. Is your, um, is your father here?"
"Sure, he's in the kitchen. I'll go get him. Daddy!" Violet took off running.
It took about half a minute for Chuck to appear. When he did, he had a strange look on his face. He wouldn't look straight at her, and his posture was oddly erect, like a stiff 80s dancer. He wasn't wearing his iconic shoes, and he had a rumpled overshirt on over his nerdy T-shirt pick of the day.
He wouldn't look right at her.
And looking at him, Sarah finally reacted: she burst out laughing.
Chuck gave her a sour look. "I want you to know that all of that was Ellie's fault, not mine and—"
Sarah could literally not hold the giggles in. They escaped from her, flowing over one another and the hand she'd put over her mouth in a futile attempt to stop laughing. She stumbled sideways a little and would have probably crashed off the porch if Chuck hadn't grabbed her elbow and steered her clear of the edge. The spy part of her recognized hysteria. The other part was too busy laughing.
"You—you," she said, and broke off into another fit of giggling. "You—when I said we needed to start sleeping together for the cover—I didn't mean that your five-year-old was the one that was going to break it to the world—"
"Again," and Chuck still looked pained, though she could see the corner of his mouth lifting in a smile as the mirth obviously wormed through to him, "that was all Ellie's doing here. I was just an innocent bystander."
A hiccup escaped.
"And I'm glad you find it so funny."
"Oh, c'mon, it's a little funny. Does she even know what she was talking about?"
"No, she doesn't know what she's talking about. Thank God. Is that the salad? Why don't I take that off your hands, give it to Ellie, and then crawl into some deep, dark hole? I was cool before I had a kid, you know."
"The coolest," Sarah said, mopping at a tear that had escaped. "And you're still cool. I just…was not expecting that."
"Yeah, well, people didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition either, and look where that got them." Chuck did take the salad from her now. "Though I probably shouldn't be comparing my angelic progeny to the Spanish Inquisition."
"Probably not. Complete shock aside, though, it's cute." Sarah followed him inside, finally, and back to the kitchen. The tension in his shoulders had drained away, which meant he was getting over the embarrassment. By the end of the hour, he'd probably be cracking up over the whole experience. Ellie was at the stove, her face bright red. Sarah wondered for a second if it was embarrassment, but a closer look told her the other woman was trying, valiantly, to hold in her laughter. Sarah had to figure it was because of the child seated at the island, tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth as she turned a horse green.
"Hey, Ellie," Sarah said as Chuck took the salad to the table. "Thank you for the greeting."
"Anytime," Ellie said. "Anytime at all."
"That's what I'm worried about," Chuck muttered.
Casey Goes to the Christmas Tree Lot
"Remind me again how we got roped into this," Sarah said as she pulled on her winter coat, thankfully not the thick parka she sometimes had to wear on missions. Living in Southern California had its perks.
"Because you told the midget that you'd never shopped for Christmas trees before." Casey scowled as he pulled on his boots. "And the twerp figured out that that must mean I'd never shopped for Christmas trees before."
"Hey," Sarah said, mostly at the nickname.
Casey rolled his eyes at her.
"And if I say no, the kid gets that look on her face, and then the asset gets that look on his face, and it's just so much easier to sacrifice a perfectly good afternoon where I could be shooting something to go pick up a damned tree that's going to die soon anyway."
Even Sarah, who'd never celebrated a holiday properly in her life, stared at that one. "Wow, you really are a fount of holiday spirit."
"Probably burn the house down, too."
"They stopped using real candles on trees years ago," Sarah said as they headed out the front door and locked up.
"And how do you know that?"
Sarah nearly flushed. Conversation at the dinner table—once she'd gotten over the shock of Violet's rather unexpected question—had turned to Christmas traditions, and Awesome had delighted in telling Violet all about the German traditions of the Tennenbaum. The topic had also turned to the many variations of Santa Claus and the ways the rest of the world celebrated the big guy's visit, but Sarah wasn't about to admit any of that to Casey.
"Everybody knows that," she said, deliberately putting a "duh" in her voice. "And Christmas lights these days are made extremely safe."
"Uh-huh," Casey said.
Chuck and Violet were already waiting on their front porch. When the sprite saw them, especially Casey, she began to bounce in place and wave until Chuck grabbed her hand for the walk over. Violet only had eyes for Casey when they arrived. "You're coming, too, Major Casey Sir?"
Casey gave Violet the same brusque, you-might-possibly-be-an-extra-terrestrial look he always saved for her. "We're taking my car."
"We get to ride in Victor?" Violet's eyes widened with glee.
"The car's name is not—"
Sarah cleared her throat and gave Casey a very pointed look.
She could practically hear the inaudible growl. "I'm driving," was all the NSA agent said, and climbed into the driver's seat.
"Hi," Sarah said to both Chuck and Violet, since they'd skipped greetings. Chuck was holding Violet's booster seat in his free hand. "Need a hand with that?"
"I've got it. You can take shotgun, if you want."
Since the Crown Vic had enough legroom for Chuck from any of the seats, Sarah accepted and climbed into the front seat. It only took Chuck a minute to install the booster seat and then to install Violet into said seat. They were pulling out of the driveway shortly after that.
"So we're gonna get a big tree," Violet said, conversationally. "The biggest!"
Sarah twisted in the seat to smile at her. "Just how big?"
"Thirty-nine and a half feet tall! That's taller than Uncle Awesome, but only a little."
"Thirty-nine and…a half?" Sarah asked, since that number seemed oddly specific.
Chuck caught the puzzled look easily, it appeared. He hooked an arm around Violet's shoulders. "Someone here watched 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' after you left last night," he said. "Isn't that right, Megabyte?"
Violet gave an eager nod. The ridiculous hat she wore today—it had a huge face on it, like a grinning Cheshire cat, and ears, too—flopped a little as she did so. "Nobody wants to touch the Grinch with a thirty-nine and a half foot pole," she said, almost solemnly. "So we're going to get a thirty-nine and a half foot tree!"
"Maybe not quite that big," Chuck said hastily.
"Then how big, Daddy?"
"We'll have to see when we get there."
"Will we get the biggest tree?"
"I don't know," Chuck said. "But we'll get the most perfect one, for sure."
"Shoot me now," Casey said under his breath.
Sarah just had to laugh. Christmas tree shopping. With the NSA. Somewhere, the universe was laughing at her.
- O -
They went, of all places, to the Buy More parking lot.
"I know," Chuck said as he unloaded Violet from the booster seat and let her scurry off after Casey, whose shoulders were so tensed that he might as well be heading into a battle zone—though Sarah knew he'd prefer actual Panzers to pine trees. "It's probably the most illogical place in the world to have a Christmas tree lot, and yet, here we are. Right by the Buy More." He waved at the store front.
A second later, Sarah saw Morgan Grimes emerge, wearing his assistant manager's suit. "Ah, it's all explained," she said.
Chuck smiled. "He spends every Christmas with us. He likes helping pick out the tree."
"Something tells me this is going to be more than pointing at the first one without a dead branch on it and saying, 'that's our tree,'" Sarah said, frowning at the lot. It wasn't too crowded, since they weren't shopping on the weekend, but there were a few people wandering around in search of the perfect tree.
"Nope," Chuck said. "Full-on holiday spirit time. Hot cocoa and ice cream and Christmas trees abound."
Sarah spotted Casey and Violet talking to one of the lot workers. "And candy canes," she said.
"What?" Chuck turned. He laughed. "Oh, that's awesome. She'll be completely wound up by the time we leave."
"Says the man who was just talking about hot cocoa and ice cream." Sarah headed over to Violet to help her unwrap the candy cane she'd just been handed, as Casey likely wouldn't. She knelt to help the girl out. "See any you like?"
Violet's eyes were wide as she took in all of the evergreens out of them. "There's so-oooo many," she breathed. "Can we get them all?"
Sarah had to laugh.
Casey surveyed the tree lot with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes narrowed. "Picking a tree isn't as easy as you think, cadet," he said.
Violet's eyes widened at the nickname. "Really?"
"You want a good tree, a nice healthy one. Acceptable scent, not overpowering but present nonetheless. Proper height, good ratio of needles to branch."
Sarah opened her mouth to tell Casey that it was nice that he was finally getting into the spirit of things—and realized that he wasn't kidding. He believed every word he said. She closed her mouth and handed Violet the unwrapped candy cane.
"And when I say sturdy branches, they do need to be solid. I have an AK-47 ornament that's heavy, so we'll need to take that into consideration."
"What's an AK-47?" Violet asked just as Chuck and Morgan walked up.
Chuck's eyes bulged. Sarah gave him a helpless shrug, but Morgan, ever the gamer, was willing to help his niece out. "They use one in Bunker Hell, Megabyte, it's one of the best gu—"
"Ahem," Chuck said. Loudly.
"It's a reindeer," Morgan finished. "Named…Avada Kedavra 47."
Violet and Sarah stared at him as though he had completely stopped speaking English. As far as Sarah knew, he had.
"He's good friends with Rudolph, I promise."
"If you say so, Uncle Morgan."
"What? You doubt me?" When Vi motioned, Morgan obligingly crouched for the piggy back ride.
She giggled around the candy cane. "You're silly."
"We'll start at the back," Casey said, having evidently finished his visual sweep of the lot's logistics. "Do some recon, work our way from there. Keep your eyes open for a good tree on the way back, but expect this to take some time. All right, move out, troop."
Morgan (and Violet) galloped after his long-striding walk, leaving Chuck and Sarah to bring up the rear. Sarah had her hand over her mouth by now to hide the smile that wouldn't allow itself to be kept inside. Chuck just seemed dazed.
"Did our Christmas tree outing," he wondered aloud, "just turn into a mission?"
"Operation Find a Christmas Tree," Chuck said, as though he were sounding the words out. "Has a ring to it. Though I do have to say, I have my doubts about what Casey considers an acceptable tree."
"Really? Because I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that Casey has an AK-47 ornament." Sarah thought about this for a second. "Actually, I take that back."
"Trying to wrap your head around Casey owning an ornament at all, are you?"
"The real question is," and Chuck waggled both eyebrows at her, "it's not a real AK-47, is it?"
"You know," Sarah said, "it probably is. Good luck explaining that one to Ellie."
They burst out laughing.
- O -
They wandered through the lot. Sarah had expected to be consulted about every tree, given how excited Violet had been to have her come along on this expedition the night before, but Morgan, Casey, and Violet did most of the deliberating. Chuck got into it with them occasionally, but he seemed mostly content to hang back with his hands in his pockets.
"Somebody has to be the straight man," he told Sarah when she raised her eyebrows at this, surprised that he wasn't arguing with Casey and Morgan.
"I…" Sarah looked at Morgan and Casey and then at Chuck, almost helplessly.
He laughed. "It's a comedy term. Ellen Ripley has pretty much assured that Morgan will always be straight from the age of eight, and Casey…well, it would be a real loss for the women of humanity to lose the opportunity of such a syrupy stack of man-cakes."
"Oh, ew." Sarah gave him a sour look. "What's that phrase you use, when you want to forget something?"
"Brain bleach. Still not invented yet, sorry."
Morgan finished arguing his point that the current tree up for inspection looked a little too much like Edith Head on steroids. They moved on.
"So what's on your mind?" Sarah asked.
"Oh, nothing much, really. Just trying to think of a gift for Vi."
Chuck shrugged. "I kind of want this year's gift to mean something. Christmas is two weeks away, and I'm still coming up empty. Got any ideas?"
Sarah gave him another helpless look.
"Right. Small children, not your wheelhouse. Got it." The current tree was rejected as "too piney" by Violet, who always had the last say. They trailed after the group, out of Violet's earshot. "It's silly, I know. Gifts can't replace anything, but you can tell she's figured out something is going on."
Alarm put a hitch in Sarah's stride.
"No, she hasn't figured out you're a spy or anything," Chuck said, easily interpreting the misstep. "But children are more observant than most people give them credit for. She knows something's up. So I wanted to make Christmas extra special."
"By taking her Christmas tree shopping with two spies and Morgan," Sarah said, slowly.
Chuck raised his eyebrows at her. "Yeah," he said, mimicking her droll tone perfectly, "clearly she's having an awful time."
As one, they looked over and had to fight grins. Violet had finished off the mini-candy cane and was now bouncing around Casey, dangling off of his arms and dancing about in her pink boots. Casey paid her absolutely no mind. That didn't dissuade Violet at all; she merely bounced harder.
"You'll figure something out," Sarah said.
"Yeah. Just wish I'd figure something out faster."
"So what are you getting me?"
Chuck groaned. "Oh, come on, that's telling. Wait, what are you getting me?"
"Telling," Sarah said.
Violet raced up, nearly plowing into Sarah. She changed what was probably a genuine crash into a hug, attaching herself around Sarah's waist as she usually did on their walks to the park. "Have you found a tree you liked yet, Daddy? Sarah? Huh? Casey says the trees are pathetic, but he's wrong because they're great and I want them all."
"Of course you do. But if we bought all of these trees, we'd fill the whole house."
"That," Violet said very seriously, "would be awesome."
"But where would you sleep?"
"I can stay with Sarah and Major Casey Sir."
"But where would I sleep?"
"With—" Violet stopped mid-sentence, her eyes widening as one of the lot workers came around the corner. "Puppy!"
The dog wasn't terribly large—it only came up to the worker's knee, and it was probably a wire-haired terrier or something—but all Sarah could see was snarling fangs and claws as Violet, starry-eyed, dove for the dog. She moved without being aware of it, snatching Violet clear of the dog.
"Whoa!" Clearly, they'd startled the worker, a teenager that wore a sweatshirt with the lot's logo on it.
Sarah's heart was pounding too hard for her to answer. Carefully, she set Violet on the ground, keeping a grip on the girl's shoulder. Embarrassment hit in the next heartbeat: the dog had a little doggy grin on his face and his whip of a tail was going back and forth. He was obviously not the killer she'd imagined.
But Chuck was stepping between Violet and the dog. "Sorry about that," he said to the lot worker, and turned to Violet. "What have we talked about?"
She deflated. "I have to ask permission."
"And did you?"
"No. But look, Daddy, he's friendly—"
Chuck lifted an eyebrow. Violet sighed. "I'm sorry," she said to the lot worker.
"Not all dogs are friendly, Violet. That's why you ask before you can pet them. You scared Sarah."
"Oh." Violet looked up at Sarah, eyes full of contrition. "I'm sorry I scared you, Sarah. I didn't mean to."
"It's okay," Sarah said. Or it would be, when her heart started beating normally again.
"May I pet your dog? Please?" Violet asked the lot worker, all politeness now. Sarah had probably startled her, Sarah realized, by grabbing her so quickly. Add Chuck's mild scolding, and most of the happy spirit from earlier had evaporated. But when the worker laughingly told her that sure, Benji was a friendly hound and he loved kids, Violet made a new best friend in an instant.
"You mind watching him for me?" the worker, whose nametag read Trent Sarah could now see, asked Violet. "I need to go take care of something, and Benji likes walking around and helping pick out trees."
Looking at the doggy grin on Benji's face as Violet scratched under his collar, Sarah couldn't help but wonder exactly how the dog picked out trees. She had a feeling she didn't want to know, and they might need to wash the trunk of whatever tree they picked. But Chuck smiled and told Trent they'd let Benji tag along.
Once Trent had headed off to help another customer, Morgan bounded back into sight. "We found i—hey, what are you guys doing back here? Oh, who's this?"
He sent Benji into paroxysms of bliss by scratching the dog's ears.
"Violet's new best friend," Sarah said dryly.
"You found a tree, Uncle Morgan? I wanna see!" Violet took off running; with a bark of sheer happiness, Benji raced after her. It was up to the adults to keep up.
They found Casey quickly. Violet's eyes went wide, Morgan beamed proudly, Sarah stared. Chuck found his voice first. "No," he said. "No way. No, no, no, there is no way that—"
Twenty minutes later, Sarah watched, barely containing her laughter as Casey supervised Trent and another lot worker loading the tree atop the Crown Vic. He had his arms crossed over his chest, his feet planted shoulder-width apart, and his eyes narrowed for any sign that the teenagers might be about to scratch up his precious car. At his feet, Benji ran in a circle, chasing his tail. That wasn't the reason Sarah was laughing, however.
No, she was muffling her giggles because standing next to Casey was Violet Bartowski. She was mimicking his stance perfectly, save for the fact that she had her head tilted all the way back on her neck, the better to watch her mentor.
"Well, that's it," Chuck said, returning from the cashier's table with his wallet still in hand. "I've paid for the tree."
Sarah jerked her head at Casey and Violet.
A smile quirked Chuck's lips just for a second before he looked downtrodden once more. "Ellie is going to kill me," he said.
"Look at the bright side," Sarah said.
"They probably won't even be able to fit it in the house?"
"How is that a bright side?"
"Because we'll get to see Casey wrestle with a Christmas tree."
"Oh. You're right." Chuck perked up. "That is a bright side."
He took a picture of Violet and Casey with his phone. "What?" he asked when Sarah gave him an amused look. "It's for posterity."
Chuck Goes to the Shelter
"I'm coming, I'm coming." Even as she hurried down the stairs, Sarah squeezed a handful of hair dry. She'd been interrupted by the sound of knocking at the door, which meant she'd grabbed the gun, not the hair dryer. When she peeked through the window by the door and saw her asset, sans child, her eyebrows went up. Chuck was supposed to be at work for personal clients today according to the calendar they shared on their phones. Why he was on her doorstep, she didn't have the first clue.
Warily, she pulled the door open. "What's up?"
He was brimming with energy, the trademark Bartowski grin blooming. "Hey, got a minute?"
"Sure. Is this about anything in particular or…"
"Oh," Chuck said, apparently taking in the fact that she was wearing nothing but a towel. His eyes widened, and he took a half-step back. "Wow, okay, bad timing. Well, good timing, really, but I'm—I'm sorry, it's no rush, I should let you change."
"So it's not an emergency, then?"
"Not at all."
"Baking cookies with Ellie. They may be a bribe to keep her attention for the afternoon." Chuck squeezed past her to get inside the house, though he glanced at his car—strangely, sitting in Sarah's driveway, not his own. "Nothing that won't keep. Go change. But maybe hurry."
"Well, that's cryptic," Sarah said, but she hurried upstairs, careful to keep her free hand out of Chuck's sight. He was still kind of touchy about the subject of firearms, even if Violet wasn't around. By the time she'd thrown on some jeans and a shirt, the gun was safely in its regular holster. She toweled her hair, quickly, and vanity made her throw on a quick layer of makeup, but no more than five minutes had passed before she joined Chuck in the front hall again.
He was shifting in place, his hands in his back pockets, his feet moving slightly against the black and white tiles of the foyer. Anticipation, Sarah gauged. Violet might not be letting any of the adults in her life forget the holiday was only days away, but Chuck looked like the kid fidgeting with excitement over Christmas morning. She let out a little laugh. "Okay, Chuck, what is it?"
"What's what?" He attempted to look innocent.
"Spy, remember? I can read body language, and you're excited about something."
"Aw," Chuck said, but he was smiling. "I found it."
"The perfect present for Vi!"
After seeing Violet's insane amount of excitement over every gift she'd opened at her birthday party not two months before, Sarah was pretty sure you could just close your eyes and point to any random item on the shelf and Vi would be happy to have it. But Chuck had debated, long and hard, over the perfect gift for his five-year-old daughter. And judging by the way he was all but squirming now, it must be a doozy.
"But I need your help."
Sarah's eyebrows shot up. "With what? Chuck, my expertise on five-year-olds is incredibly limited to—"
"Megabyte and Megabyte alone, I know. But even so, not like that. I just need a place to keep the present until Christmas, since I don't want my darling angel of a daughter sneaking around and trying to find it." Chuck paused. "And it's a little unorthodox to hide."
Sarah's danger sense started tingling. "Chuck, what did you get her?"
"It's not that classic Pac-Man arcade game we were looking at last week, I promise. Besides, I think Morgan may have already bought that for himself. You have to see it."
"But what is it?"
"You just have to see it. C'mon, it's out in my car. She's gonna love it!" Chuck hauled her outside, barefoot and all. He'd pulled the car all the way up to the front of the driveway, where a hedge blocked it from view of his house. Now, he laughed as he tugged her along. "She is going to go nuts over this."
"Chuck, what on earth did you—"
Barking cut Sarah off mid-sentence. She dropped Chuck's hand, her eyes going wide. "Chuck, was that…"
"Sarah, I'd like you to meet…" Chuck stopped right by the rear passenger door of his car. The window was cracked open a couple of inches, and through it, she could clearly see…well, she wasn't sure what it was. It was brown, and vaguely dog shaped in an almost generic way, with a brownish-black muzzle and large ears that flopped against its head as it barked at the window. "Well, actually, he doesn't have a name yet. I want to let Vi name him."
"You got Violet a puppy," Sarah said, not moving.
"I did! She loves dogs, and we've talked about getting one before, and I think now's the perfect time. I spent all morning at the shelter."
"You got Violet a puppy," Sarah repeated.
Chuck grinned and opened the door. It took him a moment of wrangling before he was able to get a good grip on the leash or the dog and pull either free. The dog, who was a rusty shade of brown all over and short-furred, ambled out of the car on gangly puppy legs. Sarah's eyes immediately cut down to the black-tipped paws.
"I take that back," she said.
But Chuck didn't hear her, as he was too busy glancing over his shoulder at his house. "C'mon, quick, let's get him in the backyard before Vi sees us!"
She had to bite her tongue over immediate protests that no way in hell was a puppy staying with them, as she was too busy scrambling after Chuck and opening the back fence so that dog and man could get through. The instant she'd closed the gate, Chuck let go of the leash, and the puppy approached her, warily. Sarah stood absolutely still and let the puppy investigate. He crept toward her, cautiously, until he abruptly decided she was a friend, and plopped on his back to have his belly rubbed.
It was her turn to be wary as she crouched by the dog and sent him into raptures by scrubbing his belly with both hands. "Are you sure about this?" she asked.
"What? The shelter said he'd be a good dog, a good companion for a girl Violet's age. I don't know all that much about dog breeds, but German Shepherds are friendly, right? Intelligent dogs?"
"This isn't a German Shepherd," Sarah said.
"Half of one, then."
"And what's the other half? Elephant?"
"Chuck," Sarah said, as the dog rolled over and nudged at the knee of her jeans with his nose. Confident now, she picked up one of the huge, platter-like paws and waved it at her asset. The puppy gummed at her hand, thinking this was a new game. "Did you not see this?"
"All puppies have big feet, it's not that big a deal. He'll be a nice mid-size, right? Like a German Shepherd."
"This dog is going to grow up to be a horse." A ropy little tail whipped back and forth as Sarah crouched, rubbing behind the dog's ears. "He's going to eat you out of house and home, and if he sits on Violet, she's gonna be squashed like a pancake."
Doubt crept into Chuck's expression now. "The shelter said he's great with kids, and very loyal."
Something in Sarah softened, though she kept that far from the surface. Soft spot, she heard Casey's disgusted snort, for assets, mutts, and kids. She really would be handing in her badge any day now. But the doubt in Chuck's voice made her smile up at him. "Finally got Vi that guard dog, huh?"
"And then some," Chuck said, tension finally easing out of his shoulders. "I picked up some of the basics for him, but I didn't want to leave him in the car too long. Is it okay if he stays with you and Casey? Just until Christmas?"
"He eats any of my shoes, I'm kicking him to the curb."
"Him? Eat your shoes? This is the face of an angel, right here. He'd hardly dare nibble on a single sandal. C'mere you," Chuck told the dog.
The puppy gave a single glance, dismissed him, and rolled over to have his belly rubbed by Sarah again. She couldn't stop the giggle, and obliged him.
"Great," Chuck said, heaving a sigh. "And he's a ladies' man, too. Just what I need. Even more competition."
Sarah smacked his shoulder.
Chuck and Sarah Go to Christmas
"Santa with an Uzi," Chuck said as he climbed out of the passenger side of the Porsche. "Never thought I'd see that outside of Futurama."
"Outside of what?" Sarah asked.
"Uh…we'll have a video night sometime, I can introduce you to the wonders of 'Santa Claus is Gunning You Down' when it's…"
"Not such a fresh possibility?" After a quick glance over at his house—probably to make sure no young faces were peering out the windows, watching for them—Sarah stretched out her back and closed the car door. Chuck bit his lip at the motion: Sarah had taken a couple of nasty hits during her fight with the head elf. But she'd said afterwards that she was fine, and he had to believe that.
She'd also tried to make a joke about going shopping on the day before Christmas Eve being killer, so she really must be feeling all right.
"Yeah," Chuck said. He attempted a smile. "There's one positive side to this whole ordeal, though."
"At no point did you or Casey tell me to stay in the sled."
"Probably because it was laced with four pounds of C-4."
Sarah tilted her head, and Chuck had to wince when he heard her neck pop. "What time do the, ah, festivities tomorrow start?"
"Mid-to-late afternoon, I think. Ellie's making some kind of Christmas Eve-appropriate dinner and there's the movie marathon. Mo and Shae will be by around six to start the caroling, so…"
"Got it. Dress warm."
"You don't have to say." Chuck drummed his fingers against the top of the Porsche. It was a nervous tell, he knew, but the need to fidget had to go somewhere. "Not if you don't want to, I can make up an excuse for Ellie, and she won't push—too hard—about you staying over, honestly."
He could actually see Sarah swallow, as if she were nervous, too. Which was ridiculous because she was Sarah Walker. "No, it's good—"
"For the cover," Chuck finished for her. "Right."
"And maybe Ellie's right. You haven't really experienced all of Christmas until you've got a five-year-old on a sugar high running around."
"Very true. Well, good night, then. Glad we took down Evil Santa and all. Christmas really is saved."
"Good night, Chuck."
He made it about five steps before he remembered something Ellie had told him to mention to Sarah. He turned on his heel. "Oh, right, I'm supposed to tell you there's no need to pack pajamas."
Sarah's eyes widened. "What? Chuck, what kind of sleepover do you think this is?"
"No!" Horror—and the inevitable mental pictures—flooded through him as he realized what she was saying. The mental pictures would have to wait, for his sanity alone. "I'm not saying you should sleep naked or anything, but—oh, God, please stop me before I start to babble—but it's just this thing, Ellie buys everybody cute pajamas so we'll all look good in the Christmas pictures, and she got you and Casey a set this year, too."
"Oh." Sarah swallowed again. "That's…nice."
He made it across his front yard without glancing back and safely inside before he leaned back against the door and cursed himself for turning into a teenager around her. Every. Stinking. Time. He hit the door with the back of his head a couple of times for good measure.
As his luck would have it, Violet walked by the foyer just then with a glass of milk in both hands. "What're you doing that for?" she asked, giving him an odd look.
"No reason," he said. "I've just got to accept the fact that I'll never be smooth in front of women, Megabyte."
Violet put the milk down on the front table and bounded up to wrap herself around his leg. "Smooth like a baby's bottom and Riker's face?" she asked, craning her head to look up at him.
As always, the reference made him laugh, which meant Violet beamed, pleased with herself. "Uncle Morgan's been letting you watch Star Trek movies again, huh?"
She nodded. "He says that if he ever shaves his beard, he'll be smoother than Riker. But you don't have a beard, so you're even smoother than that."
"Not quite the smooth I was talking about, but I'll take it."
"How come you don't have a beard?"
Chuck hoisted Violet up. "Because my beard would be very jealous of Uncle Morgan's beard," he said, and picked up her milk glass on the way to the kitchen.
"How do you know? I think you could grow an even better beard."
"Oh, you think so, do you?"
"I know so."
Chuck laughed as he set her on her normal perch on the kitchen island. He handed over the glass to her and went to fetch his own. "Where's your aunt?" he asked, looking around for signs that Ellie might be about to walk in at any second.
"She's in her room watchin' the Christmas movie that always makes her cry."
"Ah. Well, then I guess it's…" Chuck pulled the Tupperware box off the top of the refrigerator and set it down on the table. "Cookie time!"
Violet squealed and clapped.
"Shh, you don't want to tip off Aunt Ellie and get the sugar police coming in to arrest us, do you?"
"No, sir," Violet said. "Can I have five?"
"May I have five? Please?"
"Nope, sorry, no can do."
Violet pouted. "But I said please!"
"You may have one. It's near your bedtime."
"Two," Chuck said, which was what he'd planned all along. Ellie had made smaller cookies than usual this year. "Final offer."
"Sold," Violet said, holding her hand out for a handshake. She squirmed away when he tickled her instead. "And then can we watch Shrek?"
"You can watch Shrek, I still have some work to do."
"Can I watch in your office?"
"Sure," Chuck said. He'd seen Shrek so many times that he could tune most of it out by now. "But you have to promise you'll go to bed right afterwards."
"Why? Tomorrow's a holiday."
"Tomorrow's Holiday Eve," Chuck corrected. "And if you don't get enough sleep, Megabyte, Shrek won't be the only ogre in the house."
"Are you calling me an ogre?" Violet asked.
"And what if I am?"
"Then I get to make ogre faces." Violet bared her teeth and scrunched her nose and forehead up, letting out an impressive growl. She raised her crumb-covered fingers into claws and growled louder.
Chuck made the same face back at her; their ogre war ended with a tickle match that was called in a truce when they heard Aunt Ellie approaching. They fled the scene and had to leave behind evidence of Cookie Time on the counter, but they agreed much later on, after Princess Fiona had become a full-time ogre, that it just couldn't be helped.
- O -
Sarah came downstairs on the morning of Christmas Eve—or December 24th, depending on how you looked at these things, since she'd never really celebrated Christmas—to find her partner in a staring contest.
She paused on the bottom step. "Uh, making new friends, Casey?"
He didn't look up at her. "No."
"It wants my bacon. It isn't getting my bacon."
"'It' is a he, Casey," Sarah said, giving Violet's Christmas present—currently sitting in the middle of the walkway with his whippy tale arcing back and forth like a metronome while he stared at Casey's breakfast—a wide berth. She didn't find any bacon left in the pan, but hadn't really expected to. She and Casey just weren't the type to cook for each other.
She pulled out the ingredients for her typical egg white omelet. With all of the food Ellie would be forcing on them in the next two days, she'd already decided to add a couple miles to her run. She'd need the fuel. The minute she began removing things from the fridge, the dog's ears perked up. A split-second later, he was across the room, trying to nose his way past her. "Whoa!"
Chuck had picked a dog for sheer brute strength, it appeared. The dog attempted to get around her the other way; it took all of Sarah's upper body strength to hold the puppy back from going straight for the meat drawer. "Whoa! Back! Back, um, dog. Sit!"
The dog looked up at her and just grinned, his tongue wagging.
"Don't think he understands anything but 'food,' Walker."
"Yes, I can see that." When the dog made a third lunge, Sarah grabbed his collar and began pulling him toward the back door. "C'mon, dog. Work with me here."
She heard Casey's smug laugh, and gritted her teeth. The dog's nails were practically scrabbling against the tiles as he resisted being pulled into the backyard. "Good luck with that one," Casey said, and picked up his last piece of bacon.
The dog broke free of Sarah's grip and dove for it, snatching the bacon almost gently from Casey's fingers. He then took off running—right out the open back door.
Casey was on his feet in less than a second, gun out. "I'm going to kill it—"
"Yeah, shoot Violet's Christmas present. That'll go over well."
Casey scowled, but holstered the gun. "It ate my bacon."
"I'll make you an omelet, if you want."
"Pass." Casey dumped his plate in the sink and stomped off, muttering under his breath.
"Merry Christmas Eve to you, too," Sarah said to his retreating back. She turned back to her omelet and reached for the carton of eggs, wincing a little when the move hurt. The damned head elf she'd Muay Thai'd into submission the day before had been a sneaky little bugger. She'd be feeling that bruise for days. And she'd be rough-housing with Violet at some point in the next forty-eight hours, she knew, which would only mean that Violet, with her uncanny sense of aim, would undoubtedly elbow the bruise or kick it or something.
Wow, Sarah observed, Casey had really put her in a bad mood. She nearly snarled when Violet's dog toed up to the still-open back door and gave her a mournful look.
Chill, Walker, her brain told her. She sighed and listened, then turned to the dog. "Want a treat?"
The dog apparently did speak food, as his eyes lit up and he gamboled forward, tripping over his huge feet. He nosed her knee in anticipation.
"Hmm, what can we feed you?" Sarah asked, and began to rummage through the cupboards. She'd done a little research on what dogs could and couldn't eat. She knew, for instance, that grapes were bad, that eggs had to do with coat shininess or something, and vegetables were good. Maybe. She'd have to do more research.
Beef jerky, she figured, was probably okay. Especially since it was from Casey's prized stash. He believed in good beef jerky. He had the palate of a drunk college sophomore otherwise, but the man prized his beef jerky.
She fed Violet's dog at least three pieces, and took one for herself while she finished cooking her breakfast. It helped the nerves she'd tried not to acknowledge. Somewhat. In less than twenty-four hours, she'd be celebrating her first family Christmas.
It wasn't her family, but still.
The morning passed quickly, as it always did on the days where she had to do something she dreaded. The first time she'd babysat for Violet, that day had gone by in a blink until suddenly there was a child sitting on her couch, chirping about Star Wars and can we stay up super late, Miss Sarah and my friend Joey hates Dora the Explorer, can you believe that? A couple of errands to run in the early afternoon, but those passed just as rapidly and soon she was gathering all of the gifts she'd bought for various Bartowskis—and Morgan—into the shopping bag she'd set aside for just this purpose, and grabbing her overnight bag.
Perhaps it was sentimentality that had her crouching next to the dog and giving him a belly rub that made his leg kick against the tile. "Casey will be here all night to let you out," she told him. "You be good and don't eat my shoes."
The dog gave her that typical angelic look. Sarah had yet to forgive him for the loss of her second-favorite pair of Manolos.
When she knocked on the door at the Bartowski house, she heard the excited squeal and the patter of feet that could only be Violet. Indeed the girl launched herself at Sarah in that running hug. "You're here! You're finally here!"
Sarah had to laugh. "You just saw me yesterday!"
"That was so long ago." From an adult, it would have been sarcastic. Violet meant every blessed word. She wormed down Sarah's side until she was on her feet again, and spotted the bag. "Are all of those for me?"
"I don't know, are you the only one in the house?"
"No," Violet said, giggling. "There's lots of people. C'mon, we're making popcorn strings!"
"What?" Sarah asked, but Violet had already grabbed her hand and was towing her out of the foyer, past the kitchen, and into the living room. It always took a moment of mental adjustment to get past the tree Violet and Casey and Morgan had picked…as it took up a good two fifths of the room. It had taken all three men to get the tree past the doorway, and some judicious trimming with one of Casey's special chainsaws in order to get the tree to fit inside at all. Even cut down to size, the thing was monstrous. The house would smell like blue spruce for weeks. How on earth they'd managed to get a single gift under its humongous branches, Sarah had no idea.
"Sarah's here!" Violet announced to the room—Ellie and Chuck, sitting on the floor with needles in their hands—at large.
"You don't say," Chuck said, smiling up at Sarah.
"And she brought me all these presents." Violet gestured proudly at the bag.
"Nice try," Sarah said, "but these are for everybody."
"One or two of them might be for you, though."
"Awesome! Can I put them under the tree?"
"Be careful with them," Ellie said when Sarah handed over the bag. "Oh, that's a lovely wrapping job, Sarah."
"Er, thanks. What, ah, are you doing?"
"Popcorn strings. Ellie's convinced the tree looks a little bare." Chuck glanced at the tree, which Sarah had been roped into helping decorate. Their entire collection of ornaments, including the slew of new ones Violet had made in pre-K, had barely covered half of it. "And everything has to look perfect for the family picture tonight or the world will end."
"Hush, you," Ellie told him. "Vi-Baby, be careful not to drop that, okay?"
"I don't think anything's breakable," Sarah said. She peeled out of her jacket, pretty at home at the Bartowski house, and since the others were shoeless, kicked out of her shoes for good measure. "What can I do to help?"
"Violet's my wing-lady on this project. You could help Chuck."
"Uh, help Chuck do what?"
"You hand me the popcorn and I string it." Chuck wiggled his thumb—and the thimble on it—at her, drawing a smile. "We're having a contest to see who can make the longest string and the ladies were beating me, but now that I have a wing-lady of my own—"
"It's totally on," Ellie said.
"Also, Ellie knows how to sew and I'm mostly just stabbing things with the needle," Chuck said.
"Here, you load and I'll sew."
"You can sew?" Chuck asked, looking surprised. When Sarah lifted her eyebrow at him, he swallowed hard and likely realized why she had learned to sew—the field medicine course at the Farm had not been a picnic. He didn't say anything, though, but merely handed over the needle. Before long, they had a rhythm down. "So, hey, Shae called a little while ago. Apparently DeAndre's got a headcold."
"That's Moniqua's little brother," Violet told Sarah. "He's real little. He's just a baby."
And that was likely the friend with the baby brother that had inspired Violet to ask Sarah for a younger sibling, Sarah realized.
"Ah," she said.
"So caroling's kind of…off. Unless you still want to?"
She'd rather not sing in public. Ever. "Ah, no, I'm fine, actually. Unless you two really…"
"We're going to have hot cocoa and watch movies and if we're really lucky, we'll get Daddy to sing for us anyway."
Sarah raised an eyebrow when Chuck flushed. "You can sing?"
"I was Perchik in my school's Fiddler on the Roof play in the tenth grade."
That must have been adorable, Sarah thought, but she didn't say that out loud. Instead, she listened to Ellie and Violet tease Chuck about his singing, and continued to string more pieces of popcorn on her strand, always making sure to keep the strand slightly shorter than Ellie and Violet's. She saw Chuck give her a suspicious look a time or two that she might be throwing the competition. She simply fell back on an innocent look each time, and giggled when Violet did her victory lap around the living room, barely missing the Christmas tree.
"Just talked to Ca—John," Sarah said much later, coming back into the living room where various Bartowskis and Morgan were sprawled out on soft surfaces. They had indeed watched movies, though it wasn't hot cocoa as Violet had promised, but eggnog. Eggnog that packed quite the punch, the way Morgan made it. Save for Violet's, of course. Sarah made a note to only drink one, two at most, otherwise impairment might be a serious problem. "He's heading over now."
"Is he bringing me presents?"
"Maybe. You'll have to ask him when gets here, Violet."
"C'mere, Greedy Gus," Chuck said, leaning over to haul Violet off of the floor and onto his lap. Sarah took up the spot next to Chuck on the couch that she'd vacated to call Casey. "What's the fascination with getting all these presents all of a sudden, huh? Worried you're not going to get any at all?"
"Nuh-uh," Violet said. "I just want lots this year!"
"Lots of presents or one really big one?"
Really big was an understatement, Sarah felt, as far as the dog was concerned.
The adults all laughed at Violet's statement, as well as the fact that she threw both hands up in the air as she spoke. She gave them a puzzled look.
"Well, Santa will be here soon, Megabyte," Morgan said, sounding drowsy. He'd worked a full shift on Christmas Eve at the Buy More, which couldn't have been fun. "Have you got your cookies and milk all ready to go? And your letter to Santa?"
Violet gave him a panicked look. "Oh no!"
"It's okay," Devon said, reaching over from Chuck's other side and stroking her head. "I'll help you write an awesome letter after we open our Christmas Eve presents. Then we can pick the best cookies."
"The awesome cookies!"
"That's right. Can't let the big man's energy drop. Though we really should leave him soy mi—"
"No, no, that's okay," Chuck said, pulling a face. "I think Santa likes the regular milk just fine, thanks."
Sarah just laughed silently and shook her head.
They heard the front door open. "Bartowskis!"
Instantly, Violet's eyes went as wide as saucers. "Major Casey Sir!" she all but breathed the word, and launched herself out of Chuck's lap to go greet the Major. Sarah leaned back, a little sleepy and relaxed from the eggnog and the company, and found Chuck's arm already back there. He jumped a little when she rested her head against his arm, shifting a little to be closer to him.
She told herself it was for the cover, and definitely not the eggnog affecting her.
"You're just in time," Violet was telling Casey as she hauled the man into the room by his hand. "We're about to open presents!"
Casey didn't reply. "Hello," he said, greeting them and nodding at them in turn. He frowned a little at the way Sarah and Chuck were sitting; she raised a What of it? eyebrow in reply. "Thanks for having me."
"We're glad you could make it. Sarah said you had to work and might not be able to come, so we're grateful you're here," Ellie said.
"Violet doubly so," Chuck said dryly, as the child, likely realizing that now that Casey was here, it was presents time, was all but vibrating with anticipation. "Guess we should stop torturing the Megabyte, El."
"Guess so. Violet, do you want to play Santa tonight?"
Playing Santa apparently meant dispersing the gifts, all the same flat boxes wrapped in different shades of metallic wrapping paper. Sarah's was an electric blue, Chuck's Christmas red, Violet's a shade of purple that was—well, violet.
Casey's was black. Why that made Sarah laugh, she didn't know, but she muffled her giggles into her hand.
"Okay, act surprised when it's pajamas," Chuck said in an undertone. Sarah stuck her tongue out at him. She did have reason to be surprised, it turned out, as she had expected Ellie to buy pajamas that matched either Chuck's or Violet's in some way. Her pajama pants and sleep tank didn't match Chuck's bright red Hugh Hefner set or Violet's Dora nightgown at all.
Morgan and Casey, however, did match. They'd both received camouflage sleep pants—Morgan's were blue, Casey's black and green—and black T-shirts. It was all Sarah could do to keep the mirth inside when she saw Casey eyeing the pajamas at Morgan's feet distastefully.
There were going to be so many 'family' pictures of Casey scowling, she could already tell.
And if a few of those made it onto some NSA websites...well, she'd have an alibi. Maybe.
- O -
Chuck was used to having company while he was getting ready for bed, but not like this. For instance, his usual company normally left her toys in the hallway and screamed about bath-time—and he was more than a little depressed that the Santa is Watching You excuse was about to be moot for the next fifty weeks or so—and sang while she danced around, waiting for Chuck to brush his teeth.
Sarah did none of these things. She merely leaned a hip against the sink and raised her eyebrows at him when she caught him watching her brush her teeth.
Embarrassment immediately made him look down. "Right, sorry," he said. "I knocked for a reason. I can't seem to remember what that reason is."
Since Sarah's mouth was full of toothpaste, she didn't reply. She did tilt her head at him slightly, though.
The pajamas matched her eyes. Chuck was struck by that thought—and pure gratitude to Ellie for not humiliating them with matching embroidered footie pajamas like she'd threatened the other night. And then he remembered why he'd knocked on the bathroom door. "Oh, right! What side of the bed do you sleep on?"
Sarah held up a finger to tell him to wait a minute while she spit and rinsed. "It doesn't matter," she said after she'd wiped her mouth with a towel.
"Uh, are you sure? Because bedside preferences, I'm told, are kind of important in a relationship."
"Chuck, this is a cover relationship, I'm comfortable with whatever you choose."
"But wasn't it you who said that the best lies have an element of truth?"
Sarah gave him a deadpan look. "Maybe I'll just sleep on the couch."
"Nope, Morgan already took that. And Ellie has a rule that nobody's allowed to sleep in the room with the gifts, sorry."
Chuck squinted at her. "Are you just saying a random side to end this conversation?"
"It didn't work." He grinned.
"I can see that. Fine." Sarah's eyes narrowed as she obviously gave the matter some thought. He was about to ask which side she'd always taken with ex-boyfriends, but then he remembered that equation involved Bryce, and quickly steered himself away from that topic. Christmas Eve was not a time to visit the darkness he still felt inside whenever Bryce's name was mentioned. "The right side."
He looked up too quickly. "What?"
"I sleep on the right—what were you thinking about just now?" Suspicion edged through her voice.
"Nothing," Chuck lied. "Christmas sweaters. How it really sucks that all of the other reindeer were mean to Rudolph. Pick one. That's what I was thinking about."
He was expecting an "Um, okay" and a blank look like Sarah normally gave him whenever he said something overly nerdy in front of her, but instead she smiled and patted his cheek. "You're cute. Yes, Morgan?"
Chuck turned slightly; he hadn't even heard Morgan come up behind him in the hallway, where Chuck was blocking the door to the bathroom. But the other man was shifting from foot to foot. "Sorry," Morgan said, "but I had a supergulp on the way over and the eggnog…"
"Say no more," Chuck said, holding his hands up.
Sarah slipped out of the bathroom. "All yours."
They headed toward his office—bedroom, it was his bedroom now—together. Thankfully, Chuck didn't hear any giggling from behind Violet's door, which meant that she had finally conked out. "I thought she'd never go down," he said, jerking his head at the door as they passed.
"Wonder why. It's not like anybody kept feeding her sugar or anything."
"Christmas Eve is a magical night. Sugar doesn't count."
"So I'm cute, huh?" The question slipped out before he could stop to think it. He blamed his nerves; not only was it Christmas Eve, but it was the Christmas Eve before he was going to introduce Violet to her new dog, and it was the Christmas Eve that he would be sleeping beside Sarah Walker.
Sleeping beside. Not allowed to touch. Even Christmas Eve couldn't work that much magic.
"Mm," was all Sarah said to that, and he wasn't sure if it was a denial or acknowledgment. They crossed to their respective sides of the bed.
"On a scale of let's say, Gizmo to Robert Redford, just how cute are we talking?" Chuck asked as he climbed underneath the covers.
Sarah just smiled. "Good night, Chuck," she said, and turned off the lamp.
Darkness made the room seem different—more interesting, somehow, with more potential. Chuck stayed on his side of the bed, well away from the middle, though he wanted to inch over, to see if Sarah would say anything about it. He'd laid in this bed and in the daybed out where he used to sleep for so many hours, playing encounters with Sarah over and over again, wondering if there was subtext below the text or not. Some days, he was absolutely sure they were nothing but handler and asset, but other days…
Sarah Walker being the most mysterious creature on the planet really did not help anything.
She went awful far for somebody who claimed only to be a handler. Chuck had the feeling that Casey was more the baseline for disaffected spies. Casey was caustic, yes, but he'd begrudgingly admitted that Chuck was at least smart, and he slipped Violet butterscotch candies whenever he thought Chuck didn't know about it. That was something Chuck would expect from a spy—a reluctant heart.
Sarah, on the other hand, had spent all of Thanksgiving with him because she'd sensed he was lonely. She'd come over for movie nights that seemed to have nothing to do with preserving the cover, she'd agreed to keep Violet's present at her house. She still seemed vaguely terrified of Violet, but she never stopped him from talking about Vi—which he knew he did, a lot—nor did she ever seem bored when he did.
He wished he understood her better.
And he wished he'd gotten a smaller bed so that there wasn't so much damned space between them.
- O -
Honestly, Sarah had never had a preference for which side of the bed she took. Spy training had taught her how to sleep anywhere, so she did just that: whenever she had to share a bed, she simply fell asleep wherever she'd ended up, depending on what was happening in the bed. And she didn't share a bed often, so it was more of a nonissue than anything.
So she'd picked the right solely because it was closer to the door. If people tried to come and take Chuck in the middle of the night, they'd have to get through her first. And she was perfectly fine with Chuck thinking that she genuinely preferred that side of the bed.
She was less fine with the fact that she felt naked.
She was fully clothed, of course. The pajamas Elie had gifted her covered up more than her usual pajamas, even. Maybe she'd have preferred to sleep in one of her usual nighties, just to see the way Chuck's eyes would pop out of his skull, but modest pajamas were better when there was a small child running around. The small child that was the current cause of why she felt naked, as her gun and her knives were secured far away from her. She always kept a knife nearby whenever she slept, old agency habits, but she knew better now. Violet was too canny and too curious for Sarah to hide everything. She'd locked everything into the safe in Chuck's closet.
And now she felt completely bare.
Behind her, she heard Chuck shift on the mattress and let out a sigh. He wasn't asleep yet, either.
"Not liking the new mattress?" she asked, still facing away from him.
"No, it's comfortable. I've just never been able to sleep well on Christmas Eve. Residual excitement from childhood, I guess."
"I think Christmas is probably cooler when you're a kid. You get neat things like the Lego Batmobile."
Sarah turned over to face him now, smiling. "You'll probably still get the Lego Batmobile."
"Very true." Chuck laughed. "I'm a really big nerd."
"But man, I just remember the excitement. Racing downstairs to see our new toys, playing with Morgan and Ellie…"
"Sounds like fun."
"What was the best present you ever got?"
The year Jack Burton had been too tired to pull the Salvation Army scam, Sarah thought. "Um, I got a Barbie when I was five or six, I think. It was a big hit."
"You know Barbie. She's got every job under the planet. Trust me, I am the father of a five-year-old, I am well-versed in Barbie."
"Uh…" She had to think. "I think the ballerina one."
"Oh, a classic. My favorite gift would be the scale model of the Millennium Falcon I got when I was eight. That thing was so cool. It even had removable plates for the smuggling bay and—you don't even know what the Millennium Falcon is, right. Forgot."
Sarah stuck her tongue out at him. "For that, I'm stealing all of the covers," she said, and rolled over, taking the covers with her.
"Hey!" Chuck tugged on the blankets. "No fair! I get half of those, by right."
"Well, come over and get them, then." Wait a second—what was she doing? She'd told herself there were rules: Chuck stayed on his side and she stayed on hers. Professional cover-story maintenance. It was a bad idea to let him get close, as rationality always seemed a lot farther away whenever he was too close. But Chuck huffed and said, "Fine," and slid over to claim the covers—and wrap an arm around her—and she didn't push him away. He settled in behind her, his breath on her shoulder, and she finally relaxed.
It was a bad idea, but it was also Christmas Eve. And overly warm because she still had the lion's share of the covers, and Chuck's body-heat against her, she fell asleep.
- O -
The sound of the bell he'd hung on Violet's doorknob a couple months before as a cautionary measure pulled Chuck out of a deep sleep and into what he liked to call twilight sleep. He was partially aware, but most of him was warm and drifting, lulled by an overwhelming sense of comfort. He breathed deep, smelled grapefruit, and smiled drowsily in his sleep.
Life was extremely good right in this very moment.
Then the door burst open.
"Daddy! It's Christmas, Da—"
Chuck jerked in surprise, his eyes snapping open. Sarah did a lot more than that. Spy training apparently took over; she sat up straight in bed, arms already up to attack the intruder. Even as Chuck's mouth dropped in horror, Sarah froze mid-lunge.
It wasn't soon enough. Violet backpedaled, fell flat on her butt—and let out a piercing scream.
She then burst into tears.
For a second, neither adult moved. Sarah's face had drained of all color, her pupils pinpricks of shock in her eyes, and Chuck was just waiting for reality to assert itself. When it didn't, and Violet was still on the floor crying, he shook off the split-second daze, climbed out of bed, and crossed the room, scooping Violet up. "Shh," he said. "It's okay. It's okay. Shh."
Violet clung to him and wailed.
"Oh, God," Sarah said, her shoulders heaving just like Violet's. But she wasn't crying. She was hyperventilating. "Oh, God, I am so, so, so sorry, I don't know what—"
"It's okay," Chuck started to say, but at that moment, Morgan burst through the door in his boxers and Christmas shirt, looking wild-eyed and panicked.
"What's going on? Violet? Vi-Baby, are you okay?"
"She's fine," Chuck said, bouncing Violet a little. "Just a little startled, isn't that right, Megabyte? We're all okay here, right? Nobody's hurt. We're okay."
"Oh." Morgan stood in the doorway and looked uncertain. "Um, okay."
"We'll be out in—" Chuck spotted the bedside clock and winced. 4:30 in the morning. No wonder Sarah had been so startled. "A couple of hours."
"Oh. Right. Ten-four." Morgan nodded at Sarah before he left. She swallowed hard and nodded back, still looking like she might actually vomit on something, she looked so mortified.
Violet's sobs were down to tears now, but she still maintained her death-grip on Chuck. "She's okay," Chuck told Sarah over his daughter's head. "Just a little startled. No harm done."
"Should I—" Sarah cast a desperate glance at the door.
Amusement, traitorous amusement, began to bubble up through Chuck's chest. He knew better than to let it out; Violet was still crying, after all, and Sarah was a trained assassin. So he kept the reassuring look on his face. "No, no, stay, it's fine. Just one of those things that happens."
Sarah gave him a sour look.
"Does anything hurt?" Chuck asked Violet.
She shook her head and swiped at her face with the back of her hand, still crying too hard to talk. She wouldn't look right at Sarah and instead cowered against Chuck, visibly pulling away from the spy.
Sarah's sour look turned back to one of sheer and intense mortification.
"See?" Chuck said. "Nobody's hurt. Everything's fine. Just a bit startled. It's okay." Testing the waters, he sat back on the bed. Violet strained away, trying to put as much distance between herself and Sarah as she could. Chuck just shifted his grip so that she couldn't do that. "It's okay, we're okay. See? Nothing here's going to hurt you. You're okay."
Violet gave first him and then Sarah a mistrustful look. Chuck practically felt Sarah deflate.
He bit back another urge to laugh. "Sarah didn't mean to scare you, baby," he told Violet. "That was an accident."
"I'm so sorry," Sarah said, looking like she wanted very much to flee. "Violet, I am so, so sorry."
"There, see, she apologized. What do you say?" Chuck jiggled Violet.
Violet sighed and let out the first hiccup. The major tears were gone now. "It's okay," she said, but she didn't make any move to crawl toward Sarah. At least she wasn't actively pulling away.
"Now, you need to apologize to Sarah," Chuck said.
"What?" Violet asked.
"What?" Sarah asked.
"You know you're supposed to knock."
"But it's Christmas," Violet said, hiccupping.
"And you scared Sarah. So what do you say?"
It took about ten humming seconds of mutiny before Violet, like Sarah, deflated. "I'm sorry," she said in a small voice. "I didn't mean to scare you, honest."
"It's okay." Sarah bit her bottom lip, looking like she had no idea what to do or where to put her hands. She had them clasped together so tightly that her fingers were striped with red and white. Violet likewise didn't move. "I…"
"Here." Chuck solved the problem was dumping Violet in her lap. "Hold onto that."
Sarah looked panicked as he climbed back under the covers. Violet immediately latched onto Sarah the way she'd been gripping Chuck, in a strangle-hold. The spy seemed frozen with terror. "What—what are you doing?"
"It's four thirty in the morning. I'm going back to sleep. Santa just sent out a memo that Christmas starts at six thirty at the earliest, but preferably seven or later."
"But…" Violet said, and then let out a violent yawn. "But it's…Christmas…"
"Uh-huh." Chuck watched her eyelids droop until she was sleeping slackly against Sarah. "And she's out."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that. On-off switch. If we'd gone downstairs to open presents, she would be facedown in a pile of them, I promise."
"If you say so."
"It really is okay, you know."
Sarah looked like she was too frightened to move, as that would awaken the sleeping beast holding her captive. "What is?"
"Stuff like that happens. Kids get scared sometimes, and other times they scrape their knees or something hurts, and they cry. You're guaranteed waterworks pretty regularly, especially when kids are around Violet's age. By lunchtime, she'll have completely forgotten this has happened."
"If you say so," Sarah said again, sounding dubious.
"And you can move her, you know. She sleeps like a rock. You don't have to sit there like that just to keep her comfortable."
"I'm okay," Sarah said.
"Suit yourself." Chuck said, and rolled over, falling back asleep. His final thought before sleep took him again was that Sarah was going to be completely mortified when Violet filled in the rest of the house on their nighttime adventure.
- O -
Several hours later, Sarah had managed to calm down. Barely. She was still jumpy, a feeling that she hated, but she just couldn't seem to shake it. In addition, her eyes were gritty with sleep and she was a little hungover from the ill-advised two glasses of eggnog.
She was not having all that merry of a Christmas, honestly.
She came downstairs ahead of Chuck and Violet and found Ellie and Awesome already waiting in the kitchen. "Wow," Ellie said after taking one look at her. "Need some B-twelve?"
"I'll be okay with some orange juice," Sarah said, honestly.
"Something the matter?"
"No, no, nothing." Sarah winced. "Ah, Violet burst into the room this morning. Unannounced."
"Oh-ho," Devon said as Ellie's eyebrows shot into her hairline. "Christmas in flagrante. I like it. High-five."
"What? No, nothing like that. She startled me, I startled her, there were tears…"
"Ah," Ellie said. "Well, no big deal, then." She handed Sarah a tall glass of orange juice. "When she was first learning to walk, she got away from me and nearly ran into traffic. I was so scared I screamed at her. She started crying and let me tell you, I felt like the most awful person on the planet right then. You'll get used to it."
"Right," Sarah said, and took a long gulp of orange juice, hoping it would help the burning in her face. "Thanks."
"Besides, it's Christmas. All will be forgotten in the face of our awesome new dog. When's he getting here, by the way?"
"Should be any second. I just called, and Chuck is stalling Violet until we give the all-clear."
"Awesome, let's do this."
Casey came in, hauling Violet's new puppy behind him. He was wearing the pajamas Ellie had given him the night before, but he did not look happy about it. "Major Casey reporting for duty," he said in a resigned tone.
"John! Hey. Merry Christmas! Help yourself to some breakfast." Ellie took the dog's leash and immediately knelt to give him a thorough petting. The dog really would be surrounded by soft touches, Sarah thought when she saw Devon sneak the dog a bit of sausage. "I'll get him in there by the tree, you go fetch the others, Sarah?"
"Got it." Sarah polished off the orange juice and headed upstairs.
She found Chuck and Morgan staring at the screen with controllers in their hands while Violet alternated between calling out helpful things about the game and shaking with anticipation to get downstairs and see what Santa had brought her. When the girl spotted Sarah, she immediately launched herself off of the couch and into Sarah's arms. "Sarah! It's Christmas!"
It was like their nighttime encounter had never happened. Relief almost made her dizzy; Ellie and Chuck hadn't been lying. "It is. I hear Santa's been here."
Violet's eyes widened. "Really? Did you see what he got me? Is it big?"
"I don't remember."
"What? But you were just down there!"
"Was I? Hmm. Well, we can go down there now if the boys put down the video game…"
Chuck laughed and hit the pause button. "I hear that tone," he said, rising and stretching. "All right, all right, no more video games until after we open presents. C'mon, Morgan. Let's go get these ladies their gifts."
When he would have reached for Violet, though, she leaned closer to Sarah. Chuck shrugged and smiled, gesturing for them to lead the way.
"So what do you think Santa brought you, Miss Violet?" Sarah asked as they made their way downstairs.
Chuck and Sarah exchanged a glance. It was all Sarah could do not to laugh.
"Really, Megabyte?" Morgan asked. "A whole elephant?"
"Well, he's not going to bring me half an elephant, is he?"
"I don't know, Santa works in mysterious—"
Just as they reached the kitchen, barking cut Morgan off mid-sentence. Violet's eyes grew round and she craned her neck to look around. "Was that…"
The dog, with Ellie and Devon and Casey in the living room, barked again. Violet needed no further prompting: she slithered down Sarah's side and took off like a shot. The adults left in the kitchen then heard a happy squeal and, "Puppy!"
"Well, I'd say that one's a hit," Chuck observed, and they followed Violet in.
It took Violet a few minutes to stop jumping around and screaming in excitement, which only set the dog off barking. By the time she finally calmed down, Casey was holding the dog back and Chuck had his hands around Violet's waist to keep her in place. "So," he asked, "what are you going to name him?"
"He's really mine?"
"All yours. Which means you're going to have to take care of him, too. You have to make sure he has fresh water and that he gets lots of playtime."
Violet nodded, seriously, and saluted him. "Yes, sir."
"So what's his name?"
"Sir!" Violet said.
Every adult in the room froze. "What was that?" Sarah asked, not sure she'd heard right.
"His name is Sir because he's big and he's kind of barky like Major Casey Sir and that's what you're supposed to call people like that. Sir." Violet practically strangled the dog out of love.
Casey had an odd look, somewhere between horror and revulsion on his face.
Sarah, meanwhile, was calling up every emotional control trick she'd learned at the Farm to keep her laughter in—and she wasn't the only one. Even Ellie looked a bit red-faced. Chuck was staring at the ceiling, which made Sarah grateful. If he met her eyes, she would laugh. And this Christmas would take a very, very dark turn.
Violet didn't notice a thing going on around her. She was too busy staring happily at her new dog. "That's your name," she told him. "Sir Chewbacca Bartowski the Fourth."
Sir Chewbacca Bartowski the Fourth celebrated his new name by licking her face…and Chuck broke. He fell to the ground, cracking up. Sir Chewbacca thought this was a marvelous game and crashed through an entire pile of presents to get to his new friend and wash his face. In the melee that ensued, not a single present was left un-touched, a forgotten glass of milk was knocked over, and Sir Chewbacca had made a group of new friends for life, even if the brown-haired lady scolded him and the blonde-haired lady giggled until she cried.
Sarah knew it wasn't saying much, given her past experiences, but as she wiped away the tears of laughter, she had to figure that this was probably the best Christmas ever. Aside from making her asset's child cry, that was.
A/N the Second: Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, or May Your Festivus Be Merry, depending on what you celebrate. Or if you don't celebrate at all, do me a favor and have a wonderful day. I'll owe you one. - Frea