The first person to enter your home after the stroke of midnight will influence the year you're about to have. Ideally, he should be dark-haired, tall, and good-looking, and it would be even better if he came bearing certain small gifts such as a lump of coal, a silver coin, a bit of bread, a sprig of evergreen, and some salt. Blonde and redhead first footers bring bad luck, and female first footers should be shooed away before they bring disaster down on the household. Aim a gun at them if you have to, but don't let them near your door before a man crosses the threshold. — Snopes(dot)com Superstitions Article about New Year's Day
Chapter 08: New Year's Eve
If she burrowed under the covers and just hid there, the way she'd always done as a child when she didn't want to face life, would anybody notice? Well, no, they'd notice. But would they blame her?
Sarah gave the heavy bag another kick.
"It's over, isn't it," Bryce had said, his voice very quiet. They'd been standing on the back porch, even though it was foolish for Bryce to be outside when he was under wraps. But Sarah hadn't spotted any surveillance on her morning run—or her morning drag, as Sir had a mind of his own about the concept of pace—so it was safe. Probably.
Breathe in, short staccato breaths. The worst thing a fighter can do is forget to breathe. When you breathe, you think. Your brain is the best thing to bring to the fight if you don't have a tank. Her instructor's words echoed through her head now. She landed a combo of jabs, weaved right, followed it all with a knee to the bag.
"Doesn't take a genius to see you've moved on," Bryce had said.
"You were dead." Her voice had been wooden. All she could think about was her lapse in judgment and the look on Chuck's face as he'd left her alone in the basement. "Was I supposed to stay in mourning for years, Bryce?"
Sarah dodged an imaginary uppercut, replied with a left hook.
"A guy can hope." Bryce's smile had been self-deprecating. "It definitely wouldn't hurt the ego."
She'd given him an incredulous look.
"I'm joking. I never expected you to wear black for a year or go into seclusion or whatever."
Sarah's patience had dried up then. Maybe it was guilt: all told, Bryce hadn't been dead that long and maybe she was a bad girlfriend…and so what? They were spies. It was part of life.
She snarled now and jabbed the bag, left and right, until her breath caught.
She hadn't slept, and she'd kissed Chuck, and she'd been angry and hurt. She'd been so angry—was still so angry—at Bryce, when she knew she didn't have a right to be. And even then, the idea of crawling beneath the covers and hiding for a week, possibly a year, had appealed to her. So she'd turned to him, annoyed. "Bryce, whatever it is, spit it out and quit stalling."
She took a step back, sucking in gulps of oxygen, dancing from foot to foot. What had come over her?
Why had she done that? Why lose control, and why then?
She knew why. He'd gotten under her skin somehow, damn him and—somehow? Why couldn't she be honest with herself, even now? There was nobody in the gym but her. Chuck was spending the afternoon with his daughter, Casey had taken off with Bryce, and she was absolutely alone. Just her and the punching bag. And even now, she couldn't be honest. Chuck was more than under her skin, had probably been for awhile. He was like a cancer. He'd been persistently worming his way into every crack of her life, slipping right past her defenses. Her father had warned her early on about the evil kept inside everybody, hidden behind the mask they showed the world. Chuck had never had that. He was exactly what he was: conscientious, responsible to the point of boring at times, self-effacing, charming when he put his mind to it, and even worse than all of that, he was genuinely kind. No wonder he drew people around him without knowing it. The fact that the idiot never realized it just made it all the more potent
She hit the bag harder.
Bryce had shifted a little.
Sarah had no defense against Chuck.
"I owe you an apology," Bryce had said.
"Whatever for?" Her voice had been subarctic.
"For being unfair. I was...startled last night, and I didn't react well. And I'm afraid I took it out on you." Bryce had looked troubled. "I made some statements last night that I regret."
Sarah hit the bag again. It sang up her arm, reverberating into her shoulder.
"I'm not sorry I went about Sand Wall alone. This stuff is radioactive. Nobody leaves that kind of mission alive, and you have a better future than I do."
"You left it alive."
"Did I?" Bryce had looked at her, seriously. It was likely supposed to be something significant or heartfelt, but Sarah's brain had been locked into a spiraling memory of how amazing kissing Chuck had been—and how completely devastating it had been. "Doesn't feel like it sometimes."
Sarah had had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from making the very real point that if he had come to her for help, they might have both come through unscathed. What had Chuck said about her the night before? Please. You're Sarah Walker. You're mightier than that.
It was, Sarah thought now as she followed a gut-shot with an uppercut, remarkably how different Chuck and Bryce really were, except that they both knew how to get to her.
She hated that. She didn't know how to stop it.
She had a feeling with at least one of them, it would never stop.
"I guess all I can say is I'm sorry," Bryce had said, his hands in his pockets, always a sign that he was uncomfortable. It was a holdover from his fraternity days, Sarah figured. "I think I made the right call, but I'm sorry it hurt you."
Sarah ducked, weaved, smacked the bag upside the "head" with an open palm to daze her imaginary opponent, and elbowed "him" under the chin.
"But you've got to be careful, Sarah. I was watching last night, and you're compromised. I just don't want you getting hurt over it."
She had her opponent on the ropes. Sarah danced back only to drop kick him in the chest. One down. She took a gulp from her water bottle, shook her head to loosen the muscles in her neck again. She dropped the image of the first attacker's face, imagined a second, more brutal visage—which she then punched in the face.
She'd held her body rigid, standing outside with Bryce. It was the only way to contain the anger and annoyance and keep it inside. She'd kissed Chuck.
She knew she was compromised, damn it.
She didn't need him to point it out like some superior, smug bastard.
"Bryce, I'm going to put this the nicest way I possibly can," she'd said, her voice still frosty.
Bryce's face had tightened at that. "That's exactly what I mean."
"What right do you think you have? You've been here less than twenty-four hours, and you think you know everything about me and about my life here? I know you're trying to look out for me, but all I can say to that is: don't."
"I'm confused. Didn't I go through exactly the same training you did?"
"You did, but—"
"Didn't I go on exactly the same missions? Didn't I survive everything? Didn't I make shot after shot to save your life?"
"I like to think that I—"
"So where the hell do you get off, telling me how to do my job? I can do my job. I've been doing my job for longer than you have."
"See, you're getting defensive," Bryce had said.
Sarah slammed the punching bag with a roundhouse kick that would have knocked the second opponent unconscious. She ignored that and kept pounding on him. He wasn't real. He could take the heat.
"You know what that means? It means that deep down, you know I'm right, and you're trying to deny it. Face it, Sarah, I know you. Feelings might not be your strong suit, but I know when you're trying to hide them."
"So what business is it of yours?"
"I'm your partner—"
Sarah let out a scream of rage and frustration and hit the bag harder, faster.
"We were partners once. It's my job to look out for you. I won't ever give that up."
"And yet," Sarah had said. "I'll accept your apology if that's what you really mean, but you know what? You look out for yourself. I can handle myself. I always could."
"There's something wrong in Burbank," Bryce had said when she'd turned to go. "Everybody has this weird concept of forgiveness today. You and Chuck both."
"Bryce, I didn't sleep last night. I'm tired. I'm tired from this entire week of having to think my ex-part—my ex-boyfriend—was a traitor out to hurt my asset. It's been a really, really crappy week. Forgive me for being blunt, but get over yourself." Sarah had stepped into the kitchen, making sure to slam the door behind her. She'd been angry enough that red had tinged the edges of her vision, making the kitchen seem off-color and almost shaky.
That same red edged her vision now. It made her hit the punching bag even harder than before. She was amazed her hands hadn't shattered.
Compromised. Right. He'd been talking about Violet—as if it were completely impossible that she might have feelings for Chuck at all—but the word alone was enough to make her imagine a third opponent even bigger than the first two, and systematically take him down. It was an old training exercise her instructors had always taught during lessons with the heavy bag. A bag might not hit back, but an imaginary enemy in your mind might. It had nothing on sparring with an actual opponent, but Sarah felt a vicious sort of thrill at dismantling somebody twice her size anyway.
She wasn't compromised.
She was completely compromised.
I figure if you work as hard as you do for something you don't care about, how far are you going to go for something you do?
Too far. The bosses knew that. They knew a compromised agent wasn't an agent that followed orders. And the first thing you did with compromised agents was remove them from the thing compromising them.
No agent could serve two masters.
And she had kissed Chuck Bartowski anyway.
Sarah sighed and rested her head against the heavy bag. Why had she done that? Why then? What had it been about that moment, or even that morning or any of it? Nobody had been holding a gun to their heads, there wasn't some nuclear bomb in the area, about to go off and end life as they knew it. She'd just been so frustrated and upset, and he'd been there, and he'd been nice to her last night and this morning and—
She hit the bag again, just a short jab since she was leaning against it.
She was compromised. The responsible thing was to excuse herself from this assignment, like Bryce had been subtly hinting at. Hell, she could even tag along with him, if she weren't so furious. He'd probably been working toward that on the back porch anyway. Bryce could use somebody watching his back, and he didn't like to give things up.
But if she left, there would be nobody to stand up to the bosses for Chuck and his life—and everything that included.
It would be so much easier if she could pretend things were fine. But no, she'd kissed Chuck, and now the jerk knew everything.
Maybe if she avoided him for a week and burrowed under the covers, he'd magically forget it. She didn't believe in miracles, but now seemed like a good time to start. Things had been good between them—sometimes tense, sure, and she'd caught him looking at her with that strange expression on his face at times, the one that made it feel like something cold had blown over her spine, invigorating her, but they'd been good. They were on good standing where Violet was concerned. They'd even been on good standing where Bryce was concerned, though that had taken some growing pains.
And now she'd royally screwed everything up.
"Whatever," she said aloud, and nearly jumped at hearing her own voice. The only sounds had been her brutal beating of Casey's beloved punching bag, the voices in her head, and her breath, of course. She ran her hand over her forehead and the top of her head, and winced when it came back dripping. A glance at the floor and punching bag told her she'd need to hydrate plenty that evening. She drank her first cup of water during her cool-down. She'd need to stay away from alcohol.
Well, she didn't really feel like drinking anyway. With a sigh, she headed to the shower.
Chuck had probably given Ellie some excuse for her absence—hopefully it wasn't a spastic colon again—so she didn't have to worry about that. She'd drink a couple of gallons water, crawl into her most comfortable PJs, and hide for a week or so. With Christmas stressing her out and Bryce's visit making trouble for everyone, wasn't she entitled to at least that much?
Oh, god, she was an idiot. She'd kissed Chuck.
She showered off the sweat, which took forever since her limbs felt like lead, donned a short robe, and headed downstairs, chugging liquid. Just a little fuel to keep her going, and then she could go to sleep. But first, she'd sit on the couch for a bit, get her energy back a little.
She closed her eyes for a second, and opened them to find that the sun had disappeared, and that Chuck and Violet were standing in her living room. She quickly narrowed her eyes to slits before either of them saw that she was awake.
"What do you think, Megabyte?" Chuck asked his daughter. They both crouched down in front of the couch, studying her like a lab experiment of some type. "Sleeping beauty or sleeping dragon?"
Violet gave her father a "what, good sir, have you been smoking?" look. "Sleeping beauty, duh. She's pretty."
"Which means you have to kiss her."
Not again, Sarah thought, wanting to groan. She wondered if father and daughter would leave her alone if she just kept playing opossum.
"I do? Why is that?"
"Cos that's how you wake sleeping beauty up, duh!"
"It is? Well, I think I might just be safer doing this." Chuck reached for Sarah's shoulder, but before she could grab his wrist, as she planned to do, something very large surged from beneath the couch. Sarah didn't have time to throw her arms up to protect herself before Sir's tongue left a very wet streak of dog slobber across her face.
All three of them yelped. Sarah immediately lunged up, making a disgusted noise and gagging.
"Oh, god! Sir! Down! Down, Sir—you evil—" Chuck grabbed the puppy and wrestled him away before he could repeat his ministrations on Sarah or worse, Violet. "Oh, god, Sarah, I am so, so sorry."
Sarah rubbed at the trail of dog drool, trying not to throw up. "It's fine."
"Are you sure? Because I'm pretty certain my dog just got way past second base or third base—"
"Sir doesn't play baseball," Violet said, sounding confused.
Sarah blinked at both father and daughter as it belatedly occurred to her that Casey was in San Diego and both of them—and their silly dog, too—should have been at home, at Ellie's party. "What are you doing in here?" she asked, her voice rusty from sleep.
Violet gave her a hurt look. "You don't want us here, Sarah?"
"No, no." Left with no choice, Sarah hugged the girl and pulled her onto her lap. Violet would just end up there anyway. "I'm just wondering how you got inside." This last one was directed, with a cool look, at Chuck.
There went her plans for avoiding him for a week, maybe more.
He held up a six-pack. "The Megabyte and I thought you might need some company on New Year's Eve. Plus, with her over here, Ellie's friends can be loud after nine o'clock, so it all works out."
"I'm going to stay up way later than nine o'clock, Daddy," Violet said, giving him a look. She turned to Sarah. "Just you see. I'm going to stay up really, really, really, really late."
"I can't wait," Sarah told the girl. She looked at Chuck. "Why didn't you knock?"
"We did," Violet said. "Four times."
"I used my key," Chuck said. "We actually just wanted to make sure you were okay."
"I thought you were Sleeping Beauty, but Daddy called you a sleeping dragon," Violet said in a stage whisper. She burst into giggles at the thought. "It's really okay if we stay over here, isn't it, Sarah?"
She gave Sarah what had to be the most destructive look to willpower in the history of humankind. Chuck made things worse by giving her the adult-version of the look. He looked good, too, Sarah thought, and wanted to scowl. Why had he come over? Why hadn't he read her mind and given her that week of hiding to get over how awkward things were going to be from now on?
And holy hell, she really could not resist the pout Violet was giving her.
"Sure," she said, giving the girl a small squeeze. "But you'd better call out for dinner. I'm—"
And of course her stomach growled. She flushed to the roots of her hair, she was sure.
Chuck laughed, and tension visibly drained out of his shoulders. He was just as nervous as she was, Sarah realized. "I'll call out for pizza," he said. "No olives?"
"Please and thank you." Belatedly, Sarah realized why Chuck had a funny look on his face—her robe was barely decent, and it showed a great deal more leg than he was used to, even from the missions that required bikinis. Even now, she saw him sneak a couple of looks at her legs.
It should have been same-old, same-old. Instead, she wanted to blush again. "You know what? I think I'll go put on some clothes."
Upstairs, she pulled on a tank top and yoga pants. What was his game? Why didn't Chuck look angry? The last time she'd seen him, he'd seemed absolutely furious with her, and maybe he was right to be. She should never have kissed him. She should have kept those feelings to herself.
"Sarah?" Violet's voice sounded outside her door. Sarah cast her eyes to the ceilings and a prayer of gratitude to the heavens that they made it a habit of locking the armory now, in case Violet wandered into the house. "Where are you?"
"In here, sweetie," Sarah called, digging through her drawer for a pair of fuzzy socks. The house was cooler than she remembered. "The door's unlocked."
Violet pushed the door open slightly and poked her head through. Chuck had apparently done her hair that day, as the barettes were coming loose. The skirt over her jeans, though, was all her. "Um, Sarah?"
"Daddy wants to know if I can have a shirt because he forgot to pack pajamas for me."
Sarah looked over at the girl, still peering almost fearfully in the doorway. Oh, right, she remembered. Violet had never seen inside her room before. "You can come in," she said, smiling over at Violet.
"Really?" Violet's eyes went comically wide.
Violet pondered this for a moment. The girl was such an interesting picture of brashness and shyness. She never knew what Violet was going to do next. Indeed, the girl looked pensive—before the grin split across her face and she threw herself in a running leap for Sarah's bed. Of course she landed as agilely as a monkey and stood on the bed, looking around the room. "Wow," she breathed. "It's so neat."
It was? Sarah looked around the room, which was the blandest one the Agency had ever picked out for her. "Yeah, I guess it is," she said, thinking. She didn't really keep any oversized T-shirts around. For that, they'd have to raid Casey's room, she suspected.
Violet scrambled off of the bed and over to Sarah's vanity table. "Is this your perfume?" she asked, reaching for one of the crystal bottles.
"Careful," Sarah said, thinking of the headache a bottle of spilled perfume on the carpet would lead to.
Violet gently picked up the bottle and sniffed it. She sneezed. Sarah couldn't help it; she laughed. "You're not quite ready for perfume yet," she said, taking the bottle from Violet and setting it back.
"Can I have lotion instead?"
"Sure." Sarah winced when Violet squirted a huge glob onto her hand. "Okay, that's a bit much. Here, I'll take some of that, too. That way we don't waste any."
"'Kay." Violet sniffed her hands and smiled. "Now I smell pretty."
"I think you smelled pretty before." Sarah set the lotion back in its place.
Violet smiled at herself in the mirror and swayed from side to side, checking out her reflection. "Daddy says I don't have to take a bath tonight. He says it's an ex-ex-ex-imp—"
"Yes, that." Violet adjusted the barette in her hair just as Sarah found one of Chuck's old T-shirts stashed in her closet. "Does that mean it's only one time?"
"Usually," Sarah said, and had to bite her lip to hide the grin when Violet looked put-out by the idea that bath time would return the next evening. She held up the shirt. "Do you want to change now, or later?"
"Now, please." Without any sense of modesty whatsoever, Violet stripped.
She was wearing Chuck's shirt when Sarah carried her downstairs. Chuck raised his eyebrows at the both of them. "What's this?"
"Sarah says it's a fireman's carry." Violet let out another peal of giggles as Sarah crouched and easily maneuvered the girl so that she was held in front of Sarah. "She says it's what Major Casey Sir does to people in the 'Rines."
"When he's not shooting them," Chuck said under his breath. "Pizza should be here in about twenty minutes. Think you can wait that long, Hunger McStomachpangs?"
Sarah wrinkled her nose at the nickname and opened the fridge, Violet still on her hip. She grabbed the carrot sticks. "Can I have some juice?" Violet asked.
Sarah glanced at Chuck, got a nod in reply. "Sure." Since she couldn't juggle the bag of carrot sticks and the bottle of juice, she tossed the former to Chuck and grabbed the latter off of the shelf. She finally set Violet on the floor to play with Sir and attacked the carrot sticks, letting Chuck pour the juice. He nudged a beer at her; even though she knew she shouldn't drink it, she took a swallow. "Want some, Vi?"
She offered the carrot sticks, but Violet took the beer. And both adults stared at her as she took a drink—and gagged.
Chuck burst out laughing. "Liked that, huh?" he asked.
"That's so gross!" Violet's face turned to one of utter disgust.
"And it's a grown-up drink. So no more of that until you're twenty-one."
"That's okay." Violet handed back the beer and took the juice. "You can have that."
"Er, thank you," Sarah said, and put the beer somewhere high. First she'd made Chuck's daughter cry on Christmas morning and then she'd turned her into an alcoholic on New Year's Eve. It was a holidays to be remembered, that was for sure. Chuck waggled his eyebrows as he took a drink of his own beer.
She crunched into a carrot stick. "So, uh, what are the plans tonight?"
"New movie! New movie! We're gonna watch the 'Credibles."
"Vi, remember what we agreed."
Vi instantly looked chastised. "That's if you wanna watch the 'Credibles, Sarah."
"I don't even know what the 'Cr—what this movie is."
"Superheroes!" Violet set the juice down—slopping it all over the counter in a way that made Chuck wince—and hurried for the Dad Bag. She pulled out a yellow and red DVD case. "See? They're superheroes."
Chuck put his hands over his daughter's ears. "Don't worry, she'll be out by nine," he said, even as Violet beamed up at them. "And then we won't subject you to any more kids' movies."
"I can hear you. And I'm going to stay up for forever!"
"Here." Sarah handed the DVD case to her. "Why don't you go put that in the player for me? We can get started while we wait for the pizza." And I can talk to your father.
"Sure." Violet took the case and scampered off, Sir prancing behind her.
The minute she was out of earshot, Sarah turned and pinned Chuck with a look.
He raised his hands, as if in surrender. "What?"
"Why are you pretending everything is normal?"
Chuck took a carrot stick. "Why are you?"
"I thought I made it clear I wanted to be alone."
"If you really do, we can leave. Granted, you'll be breaking my daughter's heart—and my dog's, too, he's quite taken with you—but we can go back home."
"Oh, that is not fair," Sarah said, pointing at him. "That is fighting dirty."
Chuck shrugged. "Love is a battlefield."
Sarah's jaw dropped.
After a full ten seconds, his mouth twitched, but he didn't smile. "I had some time to think this afternoon, after Bryce left. And I came to the conclusion that you, and please don't kill me for this, but you must have wanted to kiss me. Like, a lot." Chuck looked uncomfortable for the first time since he'd come inside—save when his dog had assaulted her.
"Yes," Sarah said, pushing the word out between her teeth. "But I told you that was a—"
"Don't say mistake again," Chuck said, still uncomfortable. "Call it anything but that. Please."
"It wasn't smart."
"Right then? Probably not. Casey and Bryce could've walked in and seen us at any second."
"So you agree that—"
"But even if it wasn't smart, it wasn't wrong."
"I've been driving myself completely crazy. You know that? Just nuts. I thought, no way there's this connection with this incredibly gorgeous, smart, and funny woman in my life. No way, it's all in my head. It can't be possibly be real. And then you kissed me." Chuck took a long drink of beer, looking very much like he was in search of liquid courage. He didn't look away from her face, though, and Sarah had to wonder if his heart was pounding just like hers had begun to. "And I wasn't imagining it, was I?"
"Chuck..." What could she say? Not what she wanted to, certainly. She remembered her session with the heavy bag. Nothing had changed. It had been foolish to kiss him. And this was why.
But had it really meant that much to him? Had he really been driving himself that crazy?
She wanted to gulp her own drink down, but didn't let herself. Instead, she gripped the edge of the kitchen island tightly. "Chuck, the way I feel doesn't change anything. It can't."
"Because it doesn't change the fact that I'm your handler. I can't get involved like that."
"But aren't you already?"
"Chuck..." Her voice held a note of pleading that made her want to sink into the floor.
Violet, of all people came to her rescue. "The movie's starting," she said, appearing behind Sarah and grabbing her juice. "Aren't you going to come watch with me?"
"We'll be in there in just a minute, Megabyte."
"'Kay, but hurry up before you miss lots." Violet carried the juice into the living room with her.
"Even if I am—even if I do feel that way," Sarah said once she'd gone, "it can't matter, Chuck. I told you that this afternoon. Nothing's changed."
"I think it should matter."
"But it can't."
"Why not? Give me just one answer."
"Because I'm your—"
"Handler, yeah, I got that the first time. I don't think that's a strong enough reason."
Sarah felt the desperation begin to turn to anger, which came out of nowhere and almost made her stomach hurt with its intensity. "I think that's the only reason I need," she said, her voice once again as cold as it had been that afternoon. "I'm sorry I kissed you, and I'm sorry I put you through all of that, but if you can't respect that, then I think you need to leave. Violet can stay."
She stalked off into the living room. Violet had taken up Casey's recliner, so she sat on the couch, clutching the neck of her beer bottle so tightly that she was surprised it didn't splinter in her hand. On the TV, the cartoon had started. Grainy, retro footage of people in old-time superhero costumes were sitting down to be interviewed in some sort of news format. She didn't pay much attention, though Violet seemed completely fascinated by everything on the screen.
After a minute, Chuck came in. When he looked at the couch, she turned and gave him the coldest look in her repertoire. He sighed, walked over, picked up Violet, dumped her unceremoniously on the couch, and took the chair for himself.
"Hey!" Violet said, squirming and elbowing Sarah in the ribs. "What was that for, Daddy?"
"My legs're longer than yours," Chuck said, stretching out in the recliner. "Dibs."
"No fair, I was sitting there, that's like dibs but better. Sarah," Violet said in a high-pitched whine, appealing to her.
Sarah forced the annoyance she felt at Chuck down. "What?" she asked. "You don't want to sit next to me?"
"Well...okay." Violet settled in against her arm.
Sarah just continued to watch the movie, not looking at Chuck—as loudly as she could.
- O -
Later, pizza devoured, Violet lay, quite out of it, across Sarah's lap. She'd succumbed in the middle of The Incredibles, even though she'd spent most of the time gushing that she and Violet had the same name, just like Violet from the Boxcar Children and wasn't that neat? It was too bad that Mr. Incredible was blond and Flexigirl was brown-haired because then they could be like Chuck and Sarah and they could all be superheroes, only there was no Dash or Jack-Jack—yet; Sarah had lost her appetite at that word—and the Incredibles didn't have a dog as cool as Sir. But they had superpowers, almost made up for that lack. She'd like to fly just like the other Violet and turn invisible so she could get all the cookies and...
She'd conked out in the middle of a sentence. Without her chatter and reactions to watch, the movie wasn't as interesting for Sarah as Chuck seemed to find it. She leaned her head back against the back of the couch, so very tired…
And she woke up once again, but this time only because she felt movement. It took her foggy brain a few seconds to put it together: she'd fallen asleep, this time sitting up on the couch. Violet, shifting in her sleep, had woken her, unsurprising since the girl was curled half in Sarah's lap and half around the arm of the couch. It was also very, very warm.
Chuck looked up; he was still in the recliner, though the TV had been turned off. He had some kind of programming book in his lap. "Oh, you're awake," he said.
Sarah cast a surreptitious look at Violet, still asleep.
"She's fine. At this point, she'll sleep through the zombie apocalypse."
"Are you—" Sarah had to clear her throat. It was way too hot in her living room, but she didn't dare move. Chuck's joke about a sleeping dragon seemed all the more appropriate now. "Are you sure?"
"Positive. Watch." Chuck closed the book and climbed from the recliner. He reached for Violet.
"Wait, no, don't wake her."
"Trust me." Chuck flashed a grin and plucked Violet from her lap. Immediately, the temperature dropped to tolerable levels; Chuck deposited Violet on the other two couch cushions. The girl sighed, shifted, and stayed asleep. "See?"
Sarah glanced at her watch and finally stretched. It was a lot closer to midnight than she remembered. "She's not the only one that sleeps like the dead," she said, frowning.
"You could have told me you were that tired," Chuck said.
Sarah climbed to her feet and moved around him, heading for the kitchen. Her throat was dry and her head was pounding a little bit. Workout hangover, she realized. She hadn't had enough water. "Why?" she asked through a yawn.
"I don't know. Maybe I wouldn't have pushed so hard. I'm sorry."
Sarah, busy yawning, waved at him. She needed water. She didn't want to get into any more heart-wrenching discussions until she'd drank roughly the equivalent of the Mississippi. She downed a glass.
"Whoa," Chuck said as Sarah refilled the glass and proceeded to demolish that one, too. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." She refilled the glass a third time. Her head was already starting to feel better. "Just had a long session with the heavy bag today and didn't recuperate afterwards like I should have."
"The punching bag? Do you want to talk about it?"
"Ngh," Sarah said. She was starving. She spotted the remnants of the pizza Chuck had ordered and bit into a cold slice. She wasn't normally a fan of cold pizza, but it tasted like heaven. She chased it with water.
When she looked up, Chuck was staring at her, eyes wide. "What?" she asked, wiping at her mouth with a napkin in case she'd somehow gotten sauce all over her face.
He jumped. "I—nothing. I guess I didn't realize how, um, hungry you were."
Sarah looked down at the pizza. Thirty seconds before it had been a slice; now it was just a crust. "It was a really long session."
"I see. It wasn't my face you were imagining when you were punching things, was it?"
"No. I never imagine people I know." Though if she'd been punching anybody real, it would have been Bryce. She sighed and took a seat at the kitchen island. The water and food were already beginning to sustain her, but her body had that too-weak feeling that sometimes followed a workout where she'd overdone things.
"Why push yourself so hard?"
"I was annoyed."
"At Bryce," Sarah said, and inwardly winced. Every time that name was brought up, Chuck's face inevitably took on that closed look.
This time it didn't. He simply looked quizzical. "What'd he do now?"
"Oh, you know. The usual." Sarah sighed and helped herself to one of the carrot sticks they'd left on the counter. It had dried out, but she didn't care. "We got into an argument before he left. I was a little annoyed, like I said. Not a big deal."
"Oh. Busy day." Chuck stabbed absently at the top of the pizza box with the carrot stick, poking at a grease spot. "I forgave Bryce today."
"Yeah, I just thought...it doesn't cost me anything, you know? And he's gone out of our lives, so no use wasting more of my headspace on him. I've got bigger issues to deal with than some guy I used to know."
"Like how he might try to screw you over again?" Sarah asked, reaching for her water glass.
"I was kind of hoping he's learned his lesson."
Sarah wasn't sure Bryce ever would. Learning a lesson like that would take more humility than the spy had in him. Bryce had quite a few stellar qualities, but a combination of having things come easily to him and the way the Farm had trained him to be…those had probably ensured that Bryce would never fully understand the trouble he'd caused. And thinking that, she couldn't help but feel a little sorry for him, no matter her anger. Her father had always said something about the nature of the beast, or had it been about hating the game rather than the player? She was too tired to remember the proper aphorism.
"But if he hasn't, well, that's a problem for future Chuck and Sarah."
"I'll drink to that," Sarah said, clicking her water glass against his beer.
"I really am sorry I pushed you so hard, Sarah."
She wondered if she didn't answer, if he'd just let the subject drop. Yes, she was tired—bone-weary, as that week had been rough and the workout hadn't helped. But she'd kissed Chuck and then had tried to bury the problem. And if she wasn't going to be able to hide under the covers for a week, it was time to face things. "Chuck, it's—"
"But if you think about it, I'm not your asset," Chuck went on, and seemed to realize she'd been trying to say something. "Oh, I'm sorry. What were you saying?"
"It's not important." How the hell wasn't he her asset? He had the Intersect. It was her job to protect the Intersect.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Go on."
"I talked to Casey this afternoon about the original Intersect creators. If they were assets or scientists or whatever they were considered by the government."
"Analysts, probably," Sarah said, frowning as she puzzled over it.
"Right. Not assets. Assets don't get paid."
"So, I'm not an asset. I get paid. I'm using the research to create an Intersect. That makes me, at worst, an analyst and at best a scientist of some type. Not an asset."
Sarah frowned. That logic was…shaky. Incredibly shaky. But it also contained something she vaguely recognized and didn't want to acknowledge as hope. Her heart was beginning to pound a little too hard for her comfort, but she didn't fidget like she desperately wanted to. That would be a tell. "It doesn't change the gist of things," she said. "You're still the person I'm supposed to protect. That's frowned upon."
"But it's a loophole. I'm not an asset, so therefore it's not technically against the rules."
"We're a joint NSA/CIA project operating on US soil. I highly doubt they're really concerned with technicalities, Chuck."
He shrugged. "If you weren't assigned to protect me, and we were just a couple of neighbors who happened to fall in l—in like, would you go for it?"
Sarah didn't answer. Would she? There were two very different answers reverberating through her. One frightened her. The other frightened her even more. "What if I say yes? What if we change things and they find out and take you away from Violet, Chuck? What then?"
"They're going to use any excuse they can get," Chuck said, glancing out toward the living room. "Aren't they?"
"I don't know." That much was honest.
"So even if they do that, even if it's allegedly because we, um, got together or something, you wouldn't have to worry about feeling guilty, if you think about it. It was going to happen, either way."
"I don't want it to happen," Sarah said with a fervor that surprised her. She blinked; Chuck leaned back, regarding her. "Chuck, I don't want to be the one that gives them that excuse."
"Tomorrow they might decide I'm too much of a nerd or my hair's too curly or my shoes are weird, and they'll try something." Chuck shrugged, scowling now. "So it doesn't really make sense to live afraid of that restriction."
"If we get caught—"
"We're smart. I think we can outsmart a General and a Director."
"And Casey?" Sarah asked, glancing almost subconsciously at Casey's usual breakfast seat. It was empty because he was in San Diego, but the ghost of him was suddenly very real in that kitchen with them.
"I can be careful," Chuck said. "You, however..."
Sarah bristled. "What does that mean?"
"I don't know. I'm not the one who started trying to eat my face with Bryce and Casey in the same house. Hmm, maybe this is a bad idea after all."
Sarah set the water glass down on the counter with a snap. "For the last time—"
Chuck grinned and dodged out of range. "Sarah, relax. I'm kidding."
Even if he was kidding, she had to take a deep breath. Why didn't he understand? "Chuck, you've got a kid. I have nothing. My ex-partner just pointed out that I work best alone because that's the way I've always been. I'm a spy. It's okay for me to take risks like that. But you can't, okay?"
"Why not? I'm an adult, too."
"Did you not just hear me? You've got Violet to look out for."
Chuck fell quiet for a long moment, looking at the countertop and not at her. Finally, he licked his lips—he had to stop doing that, she knew firsthand just how dangerous those lips were—and said, "So do you."
Sarah actually felt the blood leave her face for the first time in her life. The kitchen swayed a little. "Wh-what?"
"I'm not talking stepmom," Chuck said, scowling. "That wasn't what I meant. Relax."
"What did you mean." She almost managed to make it a question. Almost. There was a weird buzzing in her ears.
Chuck shrugged. "You said it yourself the other night. What would you tell Violet if you suddenly had to leave? You may not be as deeply invested as Ellie and Awesome and I are, and that's fine, but face it, that shows you're invested, too."
"I am not," Sarah said, more reflexively than anything.
"You met her teachers. You know her favorite color."
"So? She's my—cover boyfriend's kid. And she talks a lot. About everything."
"You fell asleep sitting up so you wouldn't have to move her."
"I'm a spy. The first thing you learn in training is how to sleep anywhere."
"That wasn't my point. Last night, you were freaking out because you were worried about the amount of time I let you spend with her. And it wasn't anything to do with you—it was all about her. So you're invested. Which means that this whole thing with us right now, she's not part of equation. I'm invested in keeping her safe, you are, too. This thing," and Chuck gestured between them, "is just you and me. No government, no Violet, no Casey."
"Definitely no Casey. God. But you do realize you're arguing against either of us taking any risks like that?"
Chuck pushed his hands through his hair. "The risks are always there."
"And that's no reason to make them greater."
"It's also no reason to just put my feelings away. I have liked you since I met you, Sarah. And today I found out that I wasn't alone in that. What do you expect me to do?"
"Ignore it," Sarah said. She was definitely pleading now, but she was so tired and frustrated that she didn't give a damn. "Put it away."
"Yeah, that worked really well for you," Chuck said.
Sarah's fist clenched on its own.
Chuck sighed and tossed the same carrot stick he'd been toying with the for the whole conversation into the empty pizza box. He looked weary. "This isn't getting us anywhere, is it?" he asked.
"Not really." Sarah rolled her head around on her neck. It didn't really kill much of the tension, but it did relieve things, somewhat. There was no easy solution. She'd opened up Pandora's Box by kissing Chuck that afternoon, by losing the slippery grip on the control she held over herself. And even if it had felt wonderful at the time—and part of her wanted to shout with happiness that Chuck liked her enough to stand up for their relationship—she knew better. If they got caught, either Chuck or she would be gone from Burbank. If they were lucky, it would be her. If they weren't...
Chuck sat up so fast next to her that she automatically reached over, grabbing his arm to put him into an arm-lock. At the last second, she changed her grip so that it wouldn't break anything. "What? What is it?"
"Why don't we compromise?" Chuck asked, leaning toward her a little. The sparkle had returned to his eyes. "Neither one of us is wrong, and we've both got good reasons. Why not a compromise?"
Sarah squinted at him. "What are you proposing? You'd better not just say 'a quickie.'"
Once he'd flushed at least three different shades of maroon, he shook his head. "Not that. I mean, unless you really wanted to and, whoa, probably not the best way to start that. But what I was suggesting is we take things really, really slow."
Sarah gave it some thought and frowned. "I think a quickie would actually be a better compromise."
"If I say no to that one now, is it completely off the table?"
Sarah raised an eyebrow—and had the last laugh when Chuck choked yet again. He took a hurried sip of beer. "Okay, okay," he said, holding up a hand for peace. "Seriously. We take it slow. If we suspect they're onto us or it's not working, we call things off, no harm, no foul. That way we've got some time and some breathing room before there's trouble."
"That's your big solution? We move in slow motion?"
"Yeah, think of it like actual dating. Of course, we're already, you know, basically sharing a bed for the cover, so it's not exactly conventional dating but—"
"Not dating," Sarah said, panic making her hold up a hand.
"What? Why not?"
"We can't give it a name. If we give it a name, there's no plausible deniability."
Chuck stared at her for so long that she started to wonder what she'd said wrong. "You realize it's still dating even if you don't call it that?"
"You have your loopholes, I have mine. And there would have to be rules."
"Wait a second, wait a second." Chuck grabbed her wrist, his eyes wide. "Does this mean you're saying yes?"
Her heart had begun to pound, possibly in time with his. She ignored it, and the way his hand felt warm around her wrist, and the eagerness. "There would have to be rules."
"Anything you say. Anything at all. I will buy more breath mints. I will even get a haircut."
"Not rules like that. Just—we can't do anything at your place."
"Right, the cameras."
"Casey can't know."
"If we get more..." Sarah searched for a word. "If we get more affectionate, it'd have to be gradually introduced."
"I'm sorry, have you met your daughter? She hasn't met a 'why' question she doesn't like."
"Point. And she's really good at pointing out every single one of my flaws."
"I think it's cute."
"Just wait until she does it to you."
"Excuse me?" Sarah crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm sorry, did you miss Carina's visit entirely?"
"Point. But for the record, if I agree to these rules, you're saying yes, right? That's a definite yes?"
Sarah regarded him for a long moment. There were a thousand reasons to say yes. There were a million reasons to say no. Face it, Walker. You knew it was coming to this the moment you kissed him.
You want this.
And no amount of lying to herself would ever fully convince her otherwise.
"Yes," she said. "Yes, but we have to—"
She let out a squeak when he leapt to his feet and hugged her, lifting her right off the chair and swinging her around. "This is awesome!"
Sir wandered in, ears flopping, took one look at the tableau, and decided he felt left out. He barked once and barreled toward them. "Sir, no!" Sarah said, but it did absolutely nothing. The dog hit Chuck's legs with his paws like a linebacker.
They landed in a pile of limbs and grunts. Unfortunately, this provided Sir all the opportunity he needed to get to their faces, his gigantic elephant paws stepping all over Chuck's arm and Sarah's shoulder as he darted for his target. "Sir! No! Down!"
That was only encouragement for the puppy. Half desperate, Sarah tackled the dog and hauled him away from Chuck, who was, by now, laughing hard, one hand on his stomach. This of course meant that Sir wanted to get in on the fun once more, and he dragged Sarah across the kitchen in his attempt to clean Chuck's face once more. "C'mon, boy, a little decorum, please," Chuck managed to say, pushing the dog away from him.
Violet's small voice cut through the chaos and made both adults freeze. Disinterested in Chuck now that his favorite human was in the room, Sir meandered over to where Violet had wandered in, nosing her side. She stumbled a little, rubbing her eyes. Her hair was a messy tangle around her head.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Megabyte. Did we wake you up?" Chuck pushed himself to his feet and moved to the dog so that he could pick Violet up. "Let's get you into a proper bed, huh? Away from those noisy, annoying adults?"
But Violet shook her head. "'Sit Midnight yet?"
Sarah glanced at the kitchen clock as she climbed to her feet. She was still dazed, she realized. "It's close," she said. "Three minutes."
"Can I stay up until then, Daddy? Please?"
"Of course. Let's go turn on the TV so that we can see the ball drop." Chuck mouthed the word 'sorry' over Violet's head. Sarah waved to tell him that it was fine. When father and daughter disappeared into the living room, she took a minute to herself in the kitchen, mostly to catch her breath.
This was intensely, intensely stupid, what she and Chuck were going to do. So much hung in the balance, like she'd warned him. But then, so much was already in the balance, and their lives were decided by people who might change their minds at any minute. Why was it so wrong to make the best of it? And if they were going to get technical, she and Chuck weren't actually breaking any rules.
But it was so, so dangerous.
And was it worth it?
"Sarah? You coming?"
Sarah grabbed the bottle of fizzy apple juice she'd spotted in the fridge, something Chuck must have brought over, and poured three glasses. "Just a sec," she called. It was a little work to carry all three glasses and dodge the dog, who clearly felt he deserved a glass, but she made it to the living room in one piece. She arrived just as the countdown was just starting.
Violet stared in fascination at the screen, taking her drink without a word from Sarah. "Ten...nine..."
"Thanks," Chuck said, taking the glass.
"Out with the old?" Chuck asked.
"In with the new," Sarah agreed, tapping her glass to his.
"Three...two...one...Happy new year!" Violet threw her free arm over her head and let out one of her screeches.
"Happy New Year!" Chuck dropped a kiss on the top of Violet's head. "Also, you might want to look away for this, Megabyte."
Chuck solved that problem by putting his hand over Violet's eyes. "Cos I'm gonna kiss Sarah."
And he did. It was, Sarah thought, the best way to possibly start 2008. A happy new year, indeed.
A/N the second: It only took me 9,000 words, but I finished it with the 8th chapter like I promised on Twitter. Thanks to all of my wonderful pre-readers and everybody who's reviewed and left kudos on this work. If you head over to Archive of Our Own, you can see the Greater series in order, by the way, including some stuff I haven't posted on ff-net. Also, mxpw, you're awesome. I'm still laughing at your statement about not having to beta Greater, when you ended up having to listen to me whine about it anyway.
Also, Awesome Award nominations are open until Feburary 10th. You should probably head over and nominate some really cool cats like KateMcK and quistie64 and Nervert and Wepdiggy and mxpw and a thousand other great writers. The more people get involved, the more fun it is!