A/N 7/13/14 –Ugh. It's been since April. Three months to advance this story three weeks in its timeline. Guess I shouldn't feel that bad. The first week took almost two years. Yoiks. Kick me.

Aside from all those reviews of the last chapter, for which I am eternally grateful, my Chuck support group has dwindled. Things are still moving ahead on the Farm, because you, my readers have helped to sustain me with those reviews and your personal messages. One of an author's mantras is: 'write for yourself'. But much of the reason for this story is also you. Thank you. You are the currency driving this forward. So let's plow ahead.

Thanks to you again, too, dearest pre-readers. You're all grand. Lately, this has been tough for me, and you helped make it so much better.

Any mistakes left that sneak through are mine. They're all I own.

It's time to go flying.


Sarah Versus the Farm

Chapter 11 - It's Still Alive

They sat in silence in the Super Cub, Sarah's mind still sorting through the day's events: Chuck's apparent flash on her, her conversation with Beckman, finding the base under the house and barn, the kiss in the hay loft, watching Chuck trounce Casey with a rifle…that kiss. Damn were things ever getting complicated. There was so much they needed to talk about. Chuck had suggested they take the Mistress to work for that very reason…so they'd have a chance to talk without being overheard by all the extensive surveillance. It made sense. His truck was also already at the airport anyway, since Morgan had borrowed it to haul some chemicals. Sarah would use it to spot for him, and then they would drive the pickup home, leaving the Cub in one of the hangars.

But now here they sat, unable to pick a place to begin. Damn surveillance ruined everything, even when there wasn't any surveillance. The look Chuck had given her when she pulled out her bug detector to sweep the plane was the most intense and jumbled mix of emotions Sarah had seen so far. Even though the plane was clean, it was like the straw that broke the camel's back, and nary a word had been uttered since he'd climbed into the backseat and 'suggested' that she drive.

They'd underestimated him again. She'd underestimated him again, and if anyone should have known better by now, Sarah Walker should have. He'd told her he was raised this way, and yet Sarah had waved it off as the talk of someone who didn't know what real skill was when it came to marksmanship or handling firearms. She'd seen his skill at the cabin the night he'd shot Casey, and still she'd discounted it. Chuck had been and continued to be one surprise after another.

After a silent flight, when they were almost to the airport, Sarah finally broke the ice. "I know you said you'd been doing that a long time, but I had no idea you were that good."

"Like I told Casey, my grandpa started us off young. I've been shooting a high-power rifle since I was nine."

"Well, I hate to admit it, but I think you may be better than me."

"Maybe," Chuck quietly offered, "We can find out sometime if you want. However, I don't have any doubts you're better at it where it counts."

Ouch. After a long silence, she looked at the Wasco airport below them and started to circle. "So you flashed on me?"

"Yeah."

"How much did you see?"

"I'm not sure… a lot? There's a lot of black ink covering your files."

Files! Plural!...? "I see. Why now? Why not when we first met, like Casey?"

"I don't know. And I haven't been holding out on you. I'm not what you think I am. I don't have a hidden agenda. I never asked for any of this, and I really didn't know about the... batcave. Or all the rest of it...'til now."

"I know...I believe you." After another moment of silence, Sarah turned away from the airport and flew aimlessly. "I'm sorry for doubting you, Chuck. But being a skeptic is part of the job. Trust doesn't come easy in this business if it ever comes at all. Just how much of the Project Omaha file did you see?"

"Like I said, I think I saw all of it. There was so much, and large chunks of it are redacted. It's going to take some time to make sense of it all."

"So, you know about... your...?"

"Yes." The one word sounded like heartbreak condensed into a single syllable. "Please, believe me, I never knew what happened to her until today. When did you learn about what my mom became?"

"Today, Chuck. I just found out about her today."

"Okay." The drone of the engine filled the space of another long moment.

"Chuck-"

"No, Sarah," he interrupted, placing his hand on her shoulder. "Before you say anything more, let me. We haven't known each other that long. I know it feels like a lot longer; at least it does to me. But only a few days ago you asked an awful lot from me while we sat on a mountain peak watching the sunrise. You asked me to trust you, a person who is trained to lie. That was a lot to ask. Still, you have it, Sarah...you have it. So far in my life, damn near every single time I've given my trust to... anyone the way you asked me to do... I've been shot down in flames. Ellie and Morgan are the only ones who've ever had it completely unconditionally...until you. After all that's happened... I honestly can't explain it, but you have it... and a whole lot more. I feel like I hardly know you, and yet I know everything. Now I'm asking the same of you. Please, trust me, Sarah."

Sarah swallowed hard, continuing to stare ahead out the windscreen of the Super Cub. She knew what he'd meant when he said 'anyone': that Chuck's experience, with women in particular, hadn't been good. Yet, despite it all he still kept his heart open and vulnerable. He'd let her in so easily. Too easily. And by doing so, he'd captured her own heart before she'd even known it. Contemplating her sworn duty as a CIA officer, and an ability to lie that had been so highly developed by her father, Sarah wondered if Chuck really should trust her. And yet her biggest fear since that amazing night in the den was that he'd think the leap she'd taken with him was all a lie. She also wondered if Chuck had yet considered that even Ellie might have actually broken his trust because his sister had supposedly seen their father's body before it was cremated.

Reaching back, she placed her hand on her shoulder over his. "You have it, Chuck. I trust you. We'll figure this out. Together." Turning to him, their eyes met. She didn't care that her own were misty, or what they showed him. She could see the hope and the confusion and the heartbreak she heard in his voice reflected in his hazel eyes, and that was more than enough. "You have it. Now, tell me. Did you flash on me when we were in the hallway?"

"Yeah. I didn't want to, but I think I saw it all. The Intersect doesn't seem to give me a choice, and none of it changes anything, anyway, Sarah. I think something about that Harvey sized Easter egg my dad hid triggered it. I'm wondering if you might be connected with Omaha in some way."

"I can't see how. I only just learned of the project when I was handed this assignment..."

- II -

The road, if you could call it one, was very rough, hardly even a jeep trail. It was so rarely traveled that it was barely visible, but the fresh tracks of off-road tires showed intermittently in the equally intermittent gravel tracks. Fortunately, he'd prepared for it some when he'd looked up the coordinates. Having parked at a trailhead several miles back, he was now on foot, 15.7 miles down the trail to be exact, according to his GPS. His new pair of hiking boots and backpack - filled mostly with food - that had felt pretty good in the store didn't feel quite so good anymore. Thankfully, he'd also bought some moleskin. When he came across the jeep road, apparently private judging by its little use, he'd cursed; until it occurred to him there was no way he would have managed to get the clunker he was driving up a couple of the steep rocky grades. He really was in the middle of Nowheresville, surrounded by pine trees and tall mountain peaks. Totally off the grid.

Then he saw the little cabin... and the green Ford Bronco hidden in the trees behind it. It was pretty sweet. A real off-road machine. A 1970 or 71' model, by the looks of it, with a ragtop. The special order one with the 351 Windsor and four on the floor. The cabin was... different: very non-traditional, hexagonal in shape with an odd looking shed attached to it. He watched for at least ninety minutes for any sign of life. It was eerily quiet up here.

"How did Sarah know about this place?" Bryce whispered to himself, before finally getting up to see if anyone was home. Stealthily shuffling up to the door, he stood to the side of it for a minute and listened. Silence. Only the sound of a light breeze swishing through the pine needles and small birds.

As he was reaching for the rope that lifted the wood crossbolt on the inside of the door it jerked into the hole in the planks ahead of his grasp, and the door swung open. The next thing Bryce Larkin knew, he was flat on his back in the dirt holding his hand over the side of his face, the side opposite the one Sarah had hit with the door of Chuck Bartowski's pickup truck only a few nights before. "Son-of-a-bitch," he groaned, "Just what I needed, two black eyes."

"Be very happy it's not a lot worse, Bryce. You came to the wrong place at the wrong damn time."

"I've been hearing that a lot."

"For good reason. What have you done to my son?" growled Stephen Bartowski.

"That was a rhetorical question, right?" Bryce's eyes got big when he suddenly found himself staring down the maw of the barrel of a Kimber .45 auto. "Whoa! Easy there, Orion. We're on the same side."

"Not as I see it. I could disappear you better than those bastards could do to Charles in a place like this. We had a deal, Bryce. Why?"

"Because I didn't have a choice. I didn't want this, either. Any of it, Stephen. Our friend decided it was the only solution when Fulcrum got too close and I ran out of time."

"So this was the doing of our friend the cigar-man. That figures. Is that why they sent her?"

"I sent her. It may be what our Cohiba smoking friend wanted, but it also made the most sense. Sarah will keep Chuck safe. The two of them together will keep each other safe, and their cover is strong."

"It better stay that way, Bryce. You put a target on my son's back."

"I know."

"I have serious doubts about Sarah Walker. Charles is way too quick to give his trust." Stephen Bartowski's cold glare bored into Bryce like a bullet from the barrel. "And apparently, so am I."

Bryce looked down and pursed his lips in thought, unable to look into those piercing eyes, finding it easier to stare down the barrel of Stephen's 1911, instead. "I know how bad this looks, Orion; what I've done. I believe Chuck can more than trust Sarah. You see this shiner I'm sporting that, by the way, you just turned into a matching pair? She gave it to me... because I sent the program to Chuck."

Stephen allowed a reflective smirk to show. "Really."

"Yeah, really. I'm not going to use that tired old spy cliche' to describe it, Stephen, and I can't believe myself how fast it's happened, but she has feelings for him. Sound familiar?"

"Uh-huh. And from outward appearances I'd say you're right," the elder Barowski quietly said, furrowing his brows, "But like my dear Mary, she has a reputation, Bryce. She's a chameleon. A dangerous one. I asked her to trust him. But I don't know if she will, or if I can really trust her."

"I think you can, and should. I did. I still do. It was a calculated risk I had to take. The situation left me little in the way of viable alternatives."

"Well the situation is worse than you probably realized." Stephen holstered the weapon and extended his hand. "Get up. I'm going to need your help. They've been to my lab, and there's a copy of the I-Dbase down there, genius. When you sent it to Chuck, you also sent it to me. It's not gone, and Walker knows it's there. And, now Chuck knows she's in the Omaha file."

"Shit."

"That's putting it mildly. Her contingency orders were never fully rescinded either. We need to move that database, ASAP."

- III -

Three weeks later Sarah Walker was sitting in her Air Tractor 402 getting ready to start her afternoon at her cover job. A cover job that seemed to be more real than any she'd had before.

"Here're your loadsheets, Ms. Walker," Abby shouted over the din of the whining engine, handing Sarah a clipboard. "Morgan marked the wires in red on the map but said you should still watch out on the north edge of the orchard. He says there's a feeder line to the farmhouse there hiding in the trees. Shouldn't be a problem, though, since you'll be at treetop height."

"Thank you, Abby, I'll keep an eye out."

"Have fun, Sarah! See you on the loading pad!"

Sarah returned Abby's thumbs up, and the young woman jumped off the wing, her strawberry blonde hair flying in the light breeze from the feathered propeller. Seeing Kyle taxiing off the loading pad, she returned his wave and took a moment to study the map, her second real job flying a crop duster. She'd aced the test and had a brand new aerial applicators card in her pocket, rammed through the system in record time. The Company could grease the skids practically anywhere a bureaucracy existed.

Her first aerial application job, earlier in the week, had been overseeding a pasture with ryegrass seed; dry work, and a job conducted a little higher than telephone pole height, requiring a lot of loads to finish. Now her first job spraying a liquid product amounted to spraying paint. She was going to be applying a product called Sombrero to almond trees; sunscreen for trees. Little more than a calcium carbonate mixture resembling white tempera paint with a UV inhibitor, it protected the trees from the hot sun at a critical time when they were producing their fruit.

Thinking back to their first encounter at the airport that day, she shook her head with nettled amusement. She was spraying Jeff Barnes' nuts. The look on Chuck's face when he gave her the job was priceless. She'd wanted to smack him upside the head, but at least it was comedic relief.

The last three weeks had been an emotional roller coaster. She was still trying to process it all. It seemed like every free moment availed, found her mind reviewing the complex web of events. Other unforeseen events, their crowded schedule, and the constant surveillance, had also kept preventing her from paying another clandestine visit to the 'batcave' to seek some more answers. So instead, she kept playing the same information over and over in her head.

Here, waiting in her crop duster for Chuck to finish loading in front of her and clear the loading pad, she found herself doing it again. Thinking back to what she told Chuck in the Super Cub while they flew to work after his impromptu shooting match with Casey, she realized that she couldn't have been more wrong about Project Omaha. She'd been involved in Omaha from the very beginning of her career and didn't even know it.

The memory of that discovery still stunned her. Only a few days after their conversation, she and Chuck had gone to the Westside Hospital outpatient surgery and radiology center to meet the Project Omaha neurologist who was going to do Chuck's testing. Upon entering the lobby of the quarantined wing they'd be using for the tests, Chuck recognized Adrianna Zarnow immediately...which was more than a little annoying, because the doctor's photo had been redacted from their briefing file, and she'd been told to rely on Chuck to point the doctor out. Sarah Walker hated being kept in the dark. Annoyance was replaced with confusion, however, when Chuck muttered, "Holy Harleen Quinzel, Batman, it's her." Her subsequent web search revealed, much to her amusement, that sure enough, Adrianna Zarnow did bare a striking resemblance to the comic and cartoon character.

Confusion then turned to surprise when Sarah then turned her attention to the person Dr. Zarnow was casually talking with, a man she recognized from an older briefing photo: Devon Woodcomb. While Chuck and Devon exchanged startled greetings, the doctor's eyes locked with hers, and her surprise turned to shock. As it turned out, she didn't need the doctor's photo or Chuck, because she recognized Adrianna, as well. And the doctor obviously recognized her.

Even though it'd been almost ten years since Sarah had seen her, it was hard not to forget her. Beautiful, blonde, bespectacled, and very shapely Adrianna Zarnow - now wearing an open red blouse under a white lab coat, and her hair in a tailed bun - had been the one after which Sarah had patterned her own makeover, when she'd met the doctor her freshman year at Harvard. Adrianna looked more conservative back then, aside from a ponytail that went halfway down her back, and she went by a different name. Sylvia. She'd been part of a team of 'aptitude testers' that were conducting a long, arduous string of tests on her 'class' - all potential operatives in training - ostensibly to find what specialty area was best for each candidate. As the neurologist – a.k.a. Sylvia – and Devon approached, Adrianna cast Sarah a wry, knowing smile that left her trying to keep her jaw from scraping on the floor.

Sarah was so stunned at recognizing the doctor and their reintroduction, she could hardly remember meeting Devon, much less recall any details about the man. It was more than a little embarrassing, especially for a spy. All she could remember was that he was dashingly good-looking - much more so than his file photo did justice - and very physically fit, with a confident and boisterous personality; about what you would expect from a brain surgeon. Adrianna Zarnow greeted them as though she, Sarah, were the patient instead of Chuck. At first she figured it was to throw Devon off track, once Dr. Zarnow realized that Chuck and Devon knew one another. The woman was certainly no dummy. But after she and Chuck were led back for his examination, she began to suspect there was more to the doctor's visit than she was told.

Every one of her immediate suspicions were quickly confirmed as she watched Adrianna perform tests on Chuck... tests that were very familiar to her. Some were almost identical to the tests she'd undergone at Harvard, with the addition of an extensive battery of medical tests, including a functional MRI. The last thing she expected, though, was having the gorgeous blonde doctor order blood tests and an MRI for her, as well.

Before Adrianna had dropped that bomb on her, John Casey had shown up, so the doctor had left Chuck with him, asking for some time with her to 'brief her on information she'd need to be an effective handler of the Intersect.' A veiled look of warning from Adrianna told the Major that what she had to say shouldn't be heard by their asset, and Sarah soon found out why. True to her word, the doctor did give her a long briefing about utilizing Chuck's 'gift', as she called it. But she also told her what to look for in the way of warning signs if the programming in Chuck's head began to go haywire; the sorts of things that would no doubt consume Chuck with paranoia and worry. Another perplexing thing happened, too. Throughout the entire briefing, the doctor was examining her - without any explanation as to why.

It was a mystery to solve another day, however, because almost the instant the doctor led her out into the waiting room where Chuck and Casey were waiting, Chuck flashed on a news report showing on the wall mounted television set.

A retired NATO general, Harvey Stanfield, was speaking on the local state university campus, at the local business conference, an annual affair that had grown quite large over the years, attracting thousands of people. Chuck looked like he was on the verge of hysterics when he ran out of the waiting room, and the last thing Sarah saw before she and Casey ran out after him was the smug look of satisfaction on Dr. Zarnow's face.

Chuck connected his flash on the Stanfield event to a flash he'd had a few days before, during his daily intelligence review, and instantly realized that there was a bomb in the large tent where the general was speaking. When they got to the event, under Chuck's surprisingly calm direction, both she and Casey had shouted, "STAY IN THE CAR, CHUCK," in perfect duet harmony.

She chuckled at the memory – bonding with Casey – who'd a thunk.

But what did Chuck do? He sure as hell didn't do as he was told. Chuck jumped out of Casey's Crown Victoria and ran headlong into the tent, as fast as his long, lanky legs would take him, just about leaving her and Casey in the dust. Wow, could Chuck ever run. When she and Casey finally caught up to him, he was staring at more C4 than any of them had ever seen in one place - well, maybe Casey had seen more. But there was enough C4 - wrapped in what appeared to be a blanket of large nails - to take out the entire tent and everything else in a hundred-yard radius. It completely filled all the space in the bottom of an AV cart in the center of the big tent.

She and Casey were stumped by what they saw, but apparently, Chuck figured it out immediately. The device was booby-trapped and controlled by a small notebook computer, the same notebook computer that was running the general's PowerPoint presentation as he spoke. The explosives were timed to the presentation. When they tried to get Chuck to leave - and she was about to physically drag him from the tent and leave Casey to attempt to disarm the bomb - Chuck jerked his arm out of her grip and opened up the command prompt.

He said five simple words that blew her away: "Guys, I can do this." And he did. Very little time remained in the presentation. With scant seconds on the clock, they watched Chuck hack into the operating system and crash the OS at the kernel level so abruptly and acutely that the program running the detonator misinterpreted the crash as a disarming signal.

Chuck Bartowski, her asset, her...Sarah swallowed heavily from the intense memory...her Chuck had saved the day. Eventually, the stunned elation and pride had worn off, though, and boy was she ever pissed at him when that happened. Her anger only intensified after she asked him how he knew what to do. She thought he'd flashed on a solution, but, no. Instead, he candidly admitted it was, "Swag."

"What?"

"A scientific wild-ass guess."

She could still feel the anger.

John Casey sat behind the wheel with a smirk, while she excoriated Chuck the whole way back to the hospital to get her car. Casey even drove slowly, so he could enjoy every extra minute of it. Sarah wondered if the NSA major noticed that during her whole tirade, she only once mentioned endangering the Intersect.

Then, just as swiftly as those memories flew past, she found herself transported back into the cockpit of the Super Cub again, back to that afternoon three weeks ago, yanked into it by Chuck's next words, words she knew she would never forget.

"It doesn't change anything, Sarah," he'd presciently repeated, sensing the carefully masked stress in her voice from one of the ever present and specific reasons she'd been given the assignment. "If anything, knowing what I know now, it makes me happier you're the one here. I know there is a 'kill-switch' on this operation, that there always was. The Omaha file even talks about an explosive implant they were considering for full-blown Intersect operatives... to keep the data safe."

He smiled ruefully when she whirled around in her seat to stare at him. "Like I said after we came back from the cabin," he continued, the sadness dark and heavy in his brown eyes, "I have no illusions about what you do; I never did. I already knew that as a CIA officer you'd probably made some big, personal sacrifices. Knowing you actually have doesn't change any of that. It goes with the job, and I've seen it firsthand. And if anyone ultimately has to punch my ticket...well, I'd want it to be you. I know you'd do it right; and if you're faced with having to make that decision, I want you to know that I'll accept that you're doing what is right. But...if it comes to that...if you can, please, let Casey do it...for your own sake."

As Sarah thought back on his words, she remembered the lump that formed in her throat. She could still feel it, even now. It had been a lot for him to ask of her. A kill-switch? By then, she'd mostly set that possibility aside, figuring that since they knew Chuck possessed the Intersect, some form of secure protective custody would be the more likely solution if his cover was ever compromised. Even then, she didn't know if she could do what he was requesting, let alone allow Casey to do it. Killing an innocent American citizen, let alone a fellow operative, just felt... wrong... un-American at the most basic of levels, even for a field hardened NOC officer like her. Now, three weeks later, the whole notion of a kill-switch was almost impossible to even ponder. Not only was she trying come to terms with her own increasingly 'compromised' state of mind as it concerned Chuck, on a minute by minute basis, but the very word was beginning to feel like a sick, inadequate joke.

Because now, Chuck was a national hero, one that only a handful of people knew about. That day, on the university campus, in an incredibly overt act of heroism, Chuck Bartowski had saved thousands of people. But his heroism would remain a mystery because she'd quickly spirited him away from the scene in the ensuing chaos. The credit had gone to an anonymous FBI agent from the local field office.

Yet, even after all that, Chuck was still deemed to be a danger, and still in danger for more than that reason alone. She'd watched Dr. Zarnow very carefully after Chuck had told her about the possibility of an implant that could make an operative self-destruct. Sarah didn't want that kind of power over him, and she certainly didn't want anyone else to have that power, either.

For her, trust was no longer an issue. She didn't think anything could shake that now. What last vestiges of any distrust Sarah had for him evaporated that day. Now her desire to protect Chuck was completely unquantifiable. It was fanatical, and frightening to consider, given that her charge had displayed a tendency to run toward danger instead of away from it. The Navy had lost a good man.

But maybe the intelligence community had gained one - like it had apparently always been planned. She was very conflicted by that thought. Chuck didn't want to be a part of this business, this life, and Sarah was slowly coming to grips with the idea that maybe she didn't want him to be a part of it either. She was beginning to like 'normal' with Chuck, if you could call his regular life remotely normal. However, since the bombing attempt, during her and Casey's private briefings with the General, there had been more talk of putting Chuck into the field. The same idea kept coming up in her own briefings with her boss, DCS Graham. Chuck's daily intelligence assessments were yielding a gold mine of information, and the brass wanted to experimentally expand his role, in order to ascertain if what had happened at the bombing had been a fluke.

The problem with that scenario - other than Chuck's general reluctance to be a spy - was that by charter and law, unless they had direct authorization from the president, the CIA and NSA could only operate outside of the country - a scenario that didn't bode well for Chuck's busy business. Nevertheless, the powers that be wanted to find a way to make it happen.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Sarah decided to take matters into her own hands. She began training Chuck in some of the arts of espionage, using the excuse that she needed to keep her own skills sharp and that training only with Casey would make her complacent. She'd started by practicing hand to hand combat techniques with him on the backyard lawn, and they'd also been to Chuck's shooting range a couple of times. Chuck's skills with firearms were good, very good, but she already knew that. She mostly went there to further assess his skills and to practice her own.

The huge question was whether he'd actually be able to use those skills if it became a true life-or-death matter. So mostly she attempted to cultivate a mindset of quick decision making for both disciplines, especially when they practiced the martial arts, an area in which his skills were sorely lacking. The Navy had trained him some at the academy, but for her, a practitioner with multiple black belts and real life experience, he was easy pickings. Sarah had to admit, she also enjoyed the look of awe in his eyes every time she demonstrated her prowess.

Another thing they'd started to do together when the schedule allowed - and if she was honest with herself, an activity that had some roots in jealousy, born the day she saw Chuck and Nikki Lawson bantering about it - was play action and strategy video games. She was awestruck by Chuck's skills on the simulated field of battle. Sarah had 'played' similar games at the Farm at Camp Peary. Simulations were a part of the training, but something that was taken much more seriously than a game. Nonetheless, playing games with Chuck was an absolute blast - pun intended.

They made a formidable online gaming couple. Call of Duty Captain, Katie O'Connell, and her Halo freelancer agent, Annapolis, found themselves quickly accepted by the rest of the teams. And when Nikki and Auggie joined their Call of Duty team they were unbeatable. Her inner voice had told her there was something very different about those two 'analysts', even before the revelations she'd learned about them in her subsequent briefings. Online gaming with them had only made that point clearer. What Chuck had accomplished with Auggie over the course of barely a week of spare time computer programming had impressed her even more. Auggie Anderson had become a force to be reckoned with, his visual handicap seemingly gone when he was in the game.

All of these events and the amount of time they were spending together had brought them rapidly closer to each other, which in turn had precipitated another whole new internal battle as she tried to grapple with what it meant. It was way too early to say it, wasn't it? To admit it even to herself? She had a type, and Chuck exceeded it in so many ways. He'd even handed her the keys to his mortality with complete absolution. It was overwhelming. The more she got to know him the stronger it got. And nothing more than an embrace and a kiss had happened between them since that night in the den. She ached for him, for his touch... for more. Sarah hadn't known him even a month, and already that one word, the subject of the cardinal rule, was whispering softly in her head. Wow, were things ever moving fast.

A loud rap on the side window, pulled her from her reverie with a start, and Sarah turned her head to see Abby looking at her with a curious smile and a roll of her eyes toward the empty loading pad. Then she swiftly raised her hand to return Chuck's wave as he began his takeoff roll.

"Have fun spraying Jeff's...n-n-nu...almonds," he teased with a chuckle over the radio, thankfully not the company one.

Grrrrrr. "Wise choice of words, Chuck," she muttered back with questionably mock sullenness, "I know where you live."

- IV -

"And I'll have dinner waiting for you when you're done slathering sunscreen all over..." Chuck laughed, "those trees."

The silence was deafening. An image of Sarah Walker sitting aghast in her cockpit popped into his head. Chuck Bartowski knew his brazen teasing belied his true feelings about his circumstances. Little did Sarah know, but his thoughts were flying in close formation with hers, at very high speed, and he was feeling just as overwhelmed by them as she was. Then again, she had to know. It seemed so obvious to everyone else.

He was certainly never going to use the word 'swag' around Sarah Walker again. Ever. Wow, was that woman ever gifted at chewing someone out. It'd been almost two weeks now, and he was still reeling from her fusillade of words, although, ironically, he felt strangely good about it at the same time. She'd only mentioned his threatening the safety of the Intersect once during the entire half hour she'd verbally pummeled him on the drive home. Even when she was fuming and trying to do her duty to protect the Intersect, she still chose her words carefully, in a way that let him know that he was her priority. It made logical sense, because as long as he was safe, so was the Intersect, and he really did understand what was at stake.

Curiously, John Casey didn't have much of anything to say about the matter. The Major just sat in the driver's seat, casting smug glances at him in the mirror, while he melted into the back seat under Sarah's withering barrage. Maybe the big NSA officer had kept his mouth shut because he still hadn't honored their bet. The camera was still pointing at his bed, reminding him every night what a nightmare his life had become. Except for Sarah.

Sarah Walker was the one bright spot in all of this, his shining Polaris that gave him direction while keeping him grounded; an ironic thought for a pilot. She was the biggest reason he'd refused to leave that tent, and to a lesser degree so was the Major. And many more than just their three lives were at stake. He saw in an instant that they didn't have a clue how to disarm that bomb, but when he saw that the weapon's detonators were tied into the presentation program, he knew what to do. His esoteric knowledge of the NT kernel, on which Windows XP was based, allowed him to bypass any tampering protocols and booby-traps embedded in the application, by going straight for the throat of the hardware interface. It was a calculated risk, but it was a good one, and one he already knew how to accept. It worked. When it was over, the elation quickly passed, and he almost did barf all over the C4, after Casey teased him about it.

Things changed after that. Perceptions changed. Sarah, the woman he was beginning to realize was embroiled in the Omaha project as much as he was, became a real partner. The secret that they shared was rapidly blossoming, too, and after they'd discovered his dad's lab, Sarah had started coming into his room to sleep with him occasionally, more than occasionally. She told him she was doing it for him, explaining that Casey was shutting down the room's interior-facing cameras when she did it. It was excruciating. Even though he knew there was more to it, he couldn't, he wouldn't take advantage of the situation her explanation had created, this woman, this spy for whom he'd fallen so hard.

Because, unfortunately, much to his consternation, and even though it felt like a perfectly natural thing to do, the circumstances made it also feel wrong. He respected her. Yet he wanted her so much. But it was obvious that neither of them really trusted Casey to actually shut down the cameras, either, and most of those nights were ones of long, torturous denial and difficulty getting to sleep. The saving grace to it all was that he knew Sarah wanted to be there, and when sleep finally did come, it was deep and restful. Apparently it was for her, too. More than once he'd awoken to find them spooning, or with Sarah using his shoulder for a pillow, blissfully slumbering.

And the NSA major? Well, Casey had begun to show him more respect in his own gruff and demanding way. And while Casey still hadn't removed the camera, he hadn't gone out to fly the Extra 300 aerobatic airplane either. Chuck could only conclude that the major was biding his time, because he'd put Casey between a rock and a hard place with regard to his protection, by winning that bet. He had a feeling the camera would eventually disappear, but Casey needed to manufacture a good reason. One thing was for sure, if his new A&P mechanic took the Extra out before that happened the shit would hit the fan like he and Sarah had originally planned.

Now, here they were, the Friday before the big Bartowski Memorial Day barbecue. Things were busy: a steadily building workload (both real-world and clandestine), caterers, preparations for visitors and guests, and a security nightmare for Sarah and Casey. Devon and Ellie were already here, having arrived the day before for the long weekend. Currently, they were off on an afternoon horseback ride up the creek to, as Ellie put it, reconnoiter the trail for a ride on Sunday with him and his new girlfriend. To 'sell the cover' and show some progress in their relationship, Sarah had insisted on sleeping with him. Ellie was ecstatic, and Devon was backslappingly supportive. And himself? His heart and mind were overloaded by it all. Wow, were things ever moving fast.

At the moment, he was finishing up his next to last load of the day on the organic fungicide rotation of Jeff and Lester's bean crop. The oddball farmers had watched him for most of the job as he laid down the copper sulfate, their truck parked irritatingly close to the downwind corner of the field. But when he came back around for his next pass, the rusty old orange Dodge had disappeared. It only took a second to realize where they'd gone. He looked to the north as he was pulling up into the turn for his last pass, after a confirming glance through the hopper window.

There she was, getting ready to make her first pass down the western edge of the orchard, toward a set of power lines that bounded the southern edge of the roughly square 160 acre stand of trees. This was his CIA handler's first job where wires played a real factor, and the shoe seemed to now be on the other foot. He wondered if this was how she sometimes felt trying to protect him, because right now, Chuck felt the nerves creeping into his gut and twisting into a knot as he watched her start to pull up over the power lines at the end of the swath. Then his distress eased when he saw her shut the spray off accurately at the edge of the trees, and the Air Tractor 402 rose smoothly over the wires. He nodded to himself with approval, and a bit of awe. It seemed as if there wasn't anything Sarah Walker couldn't do well, after a very, very short learning curve.

When his hopper ran dry, almost at the end of his next pass, he pulled up to watch her a little more. Sarah flew Sierra Bravo with graceful ease, like an old hand. And, sure enough, there were Jeff and Lester watching her, their Dodge work truck parked on the bank of the irrigation pond in the corner of the orchard. He watched who he presumed was Jeff, wave exuberantly at her from the passenger window of the old pickup when she flew by on a pass down the center of the field. Chuck grinned when she 'waved back', with a puff of smoke from the smoker. Yup, just like an old hand. Sarah was picking this up so quickly. Still, not wanting to distract her from her job, he decided not to call her on the radio before turning back to the airport for another load.

"I saw you spying on me out there, Chuck," she said dryly on the company radio frequency. "

"Was not," he stammered indignantly, "I was spying on Jeff and Lester. I wanted to make sure they weren't being a pain in the butt like they were with me. They have a tendency to get in the way, and we don't need the distraction."

"Uh, huh. I see what you mean. I'm surprised you didn't want to come tease me some more."

"Oh, I think I'm beginning to learn when I'm pushing my luck with that sort of thing. When you get quiet my imagination has a way of filling the silence."

"Maybe we should compare notes?" Sarah innocently asked, in a way that made Chuck very unsure if he wanted to know what she had jotted down.

"Why do I get the feeling your 'notes' also involve some sort of martial arts demonstration on your's truly? And, besides, do I really need to tease you more when the source of all the fun happens to be right below you asking for it almost as much as me?"

"Ah, you are learning, and you do have a good point," Sarah laughed, "But I don't think they'll be a factor for me where they are. I could send them a message, though. You know, maybe paint that old rust-bucket for Lester," she said, with mischief in her voice.

"Um... NO. That stuff's totally benign, but a hearing with the ag commissioner is NOT a good way to start off your new career."

"Aw, shucks, Chuck. Don't be a party-pooper. You don't think I could make it look like an accident?"

"I have no doubt you could. I've got a feeling you're very good at it. We just don't need the government red tape that comes with it. Why add more than we currently have? Than you currently have?" he asked cryptically, "Accident, or not."

Sarah shook her head, thankful that he couldn't see the expression on her face. Oh, damn. That was the wrong thing to say. He probably thinks an 'accident' would be our exit strategy for him, our kill-switch. That would be the best way to do it in his case. In spite of everything that's happened between us, he's still dwelling on it in a dangerous way. "Okay, Chuck, no accidents," she replied brightly, "I'll behave myself." As long as Jeff and Lester do.

"Thank you. Now concentrate on the job. See you back at the loading pad. Stay safe."

"Will do. You, too."

He replied with a double-click on the mic switch, signaling that their banter was over. Sarah knew that Chuck Bartowski had the ability to compartmentalize things. He had to, to, as he said, "stay safe" in this job. Her biggest concern right now, though, was keeping his clandestine life from creeping into his 'normal' one far enough to undermine all of that and compromise his safety. The last thing she wanted was for Chuck to have a real accident because he was constantly worried and distracted about someone throwing the 'kill-switch' on him. He trusted her, and she trusted him, but the thing that she could clearly see worried him the most was something over which both of them had little control. Somehow, she had to find a way to lift that burden from his mind. That trusted inner voice of her's was seductively whispering to her that 'normal' was the key, but not in the way that he might be thinking.

It occurred to her that she'd already started to stealthily walk that path with him weeks ago, almost from the moment she found out what he was. She didn't like it, and she knew Chuck hated it, but Sarah knew Chuck's survival depended on it.

Little did she know that at that very instant, Chuck was thinking close to the very same thing, although, his thoughts were flying in the opposite direction. The one fortunate thing an outside observer who knew them both could have said was that they weren't on a head-on collision course.

Then it happened. Not what Sarah feared might happen to a distracted Chuck, but to her. As Sarah Walker, super spy, came around to line up on the almond orchard for her next pass, she grabbed the spray, or 'money' handle to the spray valve...or what she thought was the money handle. When she pushed it forward, as she came over the trees, it came forward with an abnormal thump for the spray handle and she looked down at her left hand in confusion. "What the hell...?"

Right about the time her plane came over the short stand of trees at the edge of the orchard and started to cross over the irrigation pond, she realized what she had done, and yanked the dump handle back. Too late. A good part of the thirty or forty gallons of what remained in her load of white 'paint' that had spilled out the dump gate landed right on Lester's truck, covering the old Dodge in a cloud of white mist - like sight a gag from a TV sitcom.

"Oops. Ooooh, shit..."

She instantly pulled up and looked down as she hauled the Air Tractor into a steep turn. Fortunately, the two eccentric farmers had had the foresight to roll the windows up as she got closer. It was easy to tell, because they were as solid white as the rest of the cab. Dammit! I am never going to hear the end of this! Not after that conversation!

- V -

When she landed the plane he was already waiting for her on the ramp, tapping the toe of his cowboy boot on the asphalt, and boy did Chuck Bartowski ever look pissed as he waved her toward the tiedowns. Sarah was so overtaken by the look on his face, she barely registered the other curious onlookers, least of all a humorously puzzled woman watching it all from the driver's window of a car, which was parked on the county road, near the airport entrance.

Finally, her attention was drawn to Major Casey, Morgan Grimes, and Mac McConnelly, all standing by the maintenance hangar. Morgan was alternating between holding his cell phone at arms length and speaking placatingly into it with an animated wave of his free hand. Mac looked sympathetic, and Casey was wearing a not so concealed evil smirk. She looked down to the loading pad. The crew looked like they were about to witness a hanging. Abby held her hand over her mouth, shaking her head sorrowfully. Wow, did word get around quick.

Sarah stared at the look on the red face of her new boyfriend and employer while she shut the engine down. "It was an accident, Chuck," she softly uttered when she contritely walked up to him after jumping down off the wing. "Honest to God, boss, I didn't do it on purpose. I let myself get distracted and pushed the dump handle instead of the money handle. I'm sorry."

"Well, for an 'accident'," Chuck muttered, with a surprisingly even tone as he made rabbit ear quotes, "Your timing couldn't have been more perfect." He took her new yellow flight helmet from her, and to her abject surprise took her hand in his other. "You are coming with me, Ms. Walker. Maybe...MAYBE with you explaining it, and apologizing to those two yahoos, we'll be able to avoid a phone call to the wrong people. We're very fortunate Lester called here first."

As they walked past the maintenance hangar on the way to Chuck's truck he threw Sarah's helmet to Casey. "Keep them on the phone, Morgan and let 'em know we're on the way."

"Shouldn't be hard, Chuck," Morgan said, wiggling the tip of his finger in his ear, "Lester's on a roll, and as per usual, Jeff is egging him on. Jeffrey says he likes the new color of Lester's truck, by the way."

"Hng. Nice way to start off, Walker," Casey teased, after deftly catching the flight helmet in one hand. "I've gotta say, if you didn't do that on purpose, it's nice to see you're not as perfect as I was led to believe."

Sarah's face started to harden into an icy glare at Casey's backhanded compliment, but it quickly morphed into a thin smile when Chuck quipped flatly, "You're one to talk, Deadshot." Casey's smirk disappeared instantly. "Any idea what that grunt meant?" he added, from the corner of his mouth to Sarah while he continued to tug her along beside him, "I'm still trying to decipher all of them."

"Nothing good, I'm sure," Sarah whispered with a stifled snicker.

Chuck opened the passenger door of the truck for her and locked his smoldering brown eyes on hers. "This isn't funny Ms. Walker...yet. Though I may find some humor in it at some point while you're trying to talk your way out of it. Prepare your speech, and it better be good. A nice start might be explaining you were doing dry work the job before this. If it was an accident that's a damn good explanation since we use the dump handle for dry work."

"It was an accident," she whispered, "I'm having a hard time believing it myself." Whoa. Sarah really couldn't believe it...and not just what she'd done, but...Chuck. There was no doubt in her mind that Chuck was angry, but the way he was keeping a lid on it was remarkable. It made her calculated anger after the bomb episode look out of control. She'd seen him excited before, almost spastically so on a couple of occasions during the last month she'd spent with him, but when the pressure was on, he was an amazing picture of self-containment. His demeanor had thrown her for a loop; so much so, in fact, that as they went out the airport gate, she still didn't notice the Cadillac sedan parked near it...or the woman who sat back up shaking her head with a smug smile, after they went by.

"You know, I once did the same thing you did. That is, if what you did was really an accident," Chuck eventually said, after they'd been driving along in silence for a while. "It happened right after I did a dry job, too."

Sarah looked back at him from the corn crop she'd been idly watching pass by her window. Now she was getting a little irritated. "Dammit. It WAS an accident, a mistake, Chuck. I've been known to make them. I still can't believe I did that right after we talked about it."

"It's my fault. I distracted you with my worries. I shouldn't have. I don't know why it even bothers me so much."

"What?" She looked at him with total incredulity. "Because it's your life, Chuck. And it means something...with, or without the Intersect in your head." To ME!

"The Intersect. Whoopie-doo. Let me tell you about my little experience with the dump handle, and maybe it will give you some perspective." He kept his eyes glued on the road ahead of them, but Sarah could swear he wasn't in the truck anymore. She'd already seen it more than once. He was in a cockpit somewhere. "I was working at night when it happened, after only a few... nights doing it. I was nervous as hell because I was working under a set of high tension power lines... and I pushed the dump handle instead of the spray handle when I entered the pass. I couldn't have been more unprepared for it. The hopper was almost full and when I opened the gate the plane pitched up hard."

"I found myself on the edge of a steeply banked stall with a windscreen full of fifty-thousand volt wires lit up like a neon sign right in front of me. It sounded like a gang of gremlins were beating on the top of the wing with sledgehammers. The only thing that saved me was the fact that I knew the plane and flew aerobatics. If I'd tried to roll out of it with the ailerons or shut the dump gate I would have surely spun in. But my training took over and I kept pushing while I stuffed the rudder instead. I swear, the top guy-wires went by about a foot from the wingtip. I can still see it like it happened just last night. The fact of the matter was, I didn't have the time to be scared, or to think a fraction of a second about my mortality... not until I landed and lost my dinner all over the tarmac."

He looked over at her and sighed. "Try to keep your mistakes as simple as what you did today. Don't come back and tell me a story like that one."

"Jesus, Chuck."

"Yeah. Something like that. Someone's watching out for my sorry ass. So I shouldn't be worrying about it, now should I?" He reached over and squeezed her hand, meeting her eyes. "And now you're on the team, too. I know you have similar stories." He lifted his other hand briefly from the wheel and tapped his fingertip on his head. "Please don't write another one doing this."

Sarah was speechless. She knew they'd already shared a couple of hair-raising experiences together, being chased by a helicopter in the Cub being one of the big ones in addition to disarming that bomb. But she hadn't really considered where his cool-headed, lightning-fast response to pressure had come from. Now what happened in the tent with that bomb made more sense. Tempted to tell him to not to do the same, she bit her tongue.

Their meeting with Jeff and Lester seemed anticlimactic after that. She would just have to ad lib an apology because she certainly couldn't concentrate on preparing a speech after hearing Chuck's story. She couldn't help but wonder if he had other stories to tell...and if his brushes with death might even rival her own...like the one he'd just told her.

When Chuck pulled the truck in front of the farmhouse that Jeff and Lester shared, the two iconoclastic farmers were already on the porch. Their home was a wood-sided house not unlike the one Morgan lived in, relatively old and painted white, and ironically, right in the middle of the orchard Sarah had been spraying. The house and the surrounding farmyard, equipment, and barn were surprisingly tidy and organized, the only exception being a haphazard collection of both old and outright antique farming equipment littering an area around the barn like it was on display. Sarah was also surprised to see some very new farm equipment and a newer looking pickup truck and Honda Civic parked by the barn.

Lester's old, freshly painted white pickup truck, however, was parked right in front of the house. Sarah bit back a grin when she noticed Chuck stifle a laugh when he saw it. With the exception of a few places the product had missed and a peep hole that one of the two farmers had wiped clear on the windshield, it was totally white, including much of the tires and wheels. It was quite a hilarious sight, and it would all wash off with a garden hose, which she quickly offered to do.

"So it was you," Lester accused after she contritely apologized and asked if they'd gotten any of the relatively benign calcium carbonate tree sunscreen on them, or if they'd inhaled the mist. "So, are you offering to wash this off because you feel bad about it? Or is this about eliminating the evidence?"

The latter? "I really am sorry, Lester. It was a rookie mistake, and one I won't be repeating," she said apologetically, glancing at Chuck with a reassuring look in her eyes. "Believe me, I couldn't have been more stunned that you happened to be right underneath me when I did it."

"Karma's is a funny thing, isn't it, Miss Sarah?" Jeff quipped flatly, with a dreamy smile, "I'm not gonna judge whether yours is good or bad since your mistake brought you out to our humble farm." Staring at her doll-eyed, he winked. "And, I'm not gonna torture you for your timely artistry like Lester is, either. We're just peachy. We rolled windows up so we could hotbox the cab."

"Argh! Jeffrey! Ex nay on the ot pay."

"It's a little hard to miss, Lester," Chuck deadpanned, with an exaggerated sniff and a shake of his head. "Remember the rules, Jeff. I better not smell any of that at the barbecue."

"Not even after what your rookie did?" Jeff asked, with an inquisitive lift of his brows over his glassy half-lidded eyes. His grin grew toothy and wide when Chuck slowly, and deliberately, shook his head again. "Yes, Obi-Wan," he acquiesced. "I'll try not to use the dark side of the force at the BBQ."

Sarah almost laughed. Jeff Barnes might be lecherous and a little unkempt, with an apparent weakness for marijuana, but he was actually pretty funny. At least he seemed to appreciate the humor of the situation, whereas Lester seemed to be milking her mistake for all that it was worth. Now, as long as she just could keep either of them from asking her out on a date...

"What are you doing next Friday, Miss Sarah? Wanna hang out on the avenue in Lester's new white truck?"

Oh, damn. How am I going to handle this without it spiraling out of control? She sidled up to Chuck and put her arm around him. "Sorry, Jeff, already spoken for," she said, looking up at her boss with a smile. She had to choke back another laugh. Chuck was round-eyed, his mouth hanging open, and Jeff looked like his world had come to an apocalyptic end.

Lester Patel's eyebrows shot up. "Holy crap, Chuck, you work fast... and an employee, to boot. Tsk, tsk, tsk," he admonished, wagging his finger. "That's a huge ethical dilemma, Obi-Wan. Maybe Darth Vader is more appropriate?"

- VI -

"I am an evil man who uses the dark side of the force to take romantic advantage of his employees," Chuck muttered ruefully, as he pulled the covers up after climbing into bed.

"It would appear so, numbnuts," a headphone wearing Casey agreed, munching on a bowl of popcorn in his Motorhome.

"I'm sorry, Chuck. How many times do I have to say it today? It seemed like the best way to handle that situation. Besides, by the time the barbecue is over everyone is going to know we're 'an item' anyway," Sarah offered, with a waggle of her fingers for the cameras. She stared down at her silent 'cover' boyfriend with knitted brows, contemplating whether it would be better after the day and evening they'd had if she spent the night in her own room. Not with Ellie and Devon here. No way. She climbed into bed and frowned when he rolled away a bit when she touched him under the covers. "Turn off the damned camera, Major," she icily whispered.

"Whatever." Shutting off the interior-facing cameras, Casey pulled the headphones from his head. "He's in your capable hands now, Walker," he laconically teased, to himself. "Good luck with the makeup sex, CIA."

The NSA officer knew there wasn't really anything going on in the flyboy's bedroom of any consequence anyway. It was fairly clear that all the surveillance and Bartowski's traditional sense of propriety was cowing both him and Walker into inaction. And even though he suspected the asset/handler relationship between Walker and Bartowski was much closer than protocol dictated, he wasn't going to accuse his CIA partner of letting it compromise their mission. The funny thing was, Sarah's apparent unwillingness to overtly control their asset that way told him more than anything else. So far, however, with the exception of that pesky bomb, their mission had been easy, and Walker's work had been exemplary. Other than her questionable actions going off-grid with the flyboy in the barn, her biggest slip-up had occurred today and it was completely unrelated to project Bartowski.

Casey wasn't kidding when he said this job felt like a vacation, and Bartowski and Walker were providing the live entertainment. Truth be told, their close teamwork and class around one another made him feel like a voyeur in this situation. So, when his CIA partner was in the asset's bedroom, he shut off not only the camera over the bed, but all of them, except the ones covering the windows and doors, knowing if the shit hit the fan Walker would be right there next to it. Besides, the one camera in question should have been gone, if he was going to honor his bet. He was still trying to figure out how to do that without throwing more brown goo into the rotary oscillator. He really was enjoying his vacation and didn't want to mess it up.

Sarah lay in the bed, staring at the ceiling. Family dinner with the Bartowskis had been subdued tonight. Word had gotten around fast about her little mishap. Ellie and Devon had shown the presence of mind to avoid the whole topic, talking instead about their horseback ride and picnic. Still, the tension lingered in the air like a white cloud of Sombrero. But how could she blame Chuck for being a little uptight after spending the better part of an hour with Lester needling him about his impropriety with his employee, while Jeff and Lester watched her wash Lester's truck. Especially with Jeff making indecorous comments most of the time while she hosed the truck down in her tank top and rolled up jeans. At least her little show of contriteness had avoided anything worse with the organic farmers. She did feel bad that Lester had forced Chuck into conceding the application fee on the job.

Her new mission was clear.

"Come on, Chuck," she said, jabbing him in the ribs with her fingertips. She smiled when he jerked. Oh, I think I found a sweet spot. "Don't be this way. It's a holiday weekend, and I don't particularly want to spend the entire time trying to drag you out of a silly funk." She jabbed him again. "But I will if I have to...by any means necessary." She jabbed him again.

This time, her probing fingers caused him to snort, and when he rolled over he had a grin on his face. "If you keep that up, I'm going to start searching for the laughter button on you, too."

"I don't have one," she challenged, with a smirk that was barely visible in the window light.

Chuck looked up at the ceiling, narrowing his eyes. "You heard her, Casey." And then he attacked her with his fingers.

In his Motorhome, John Casey jerked his eyes away from the documentary he was watching on TV when he heard the shriek, and looked suddenly down at the headset sitting on the couch next to him. He grabbed for the headphones, but when the sounds emanating from them changed to wild laughter, he tossed them aside like they'd grown fangs. His grunt sounded more like a deep mournful growl. "I did not sign up for this shit," he lamented, palming his face. "It's going to be another Blue Label night..."

"Whoa. I think the Chuckster has forgiven his girl," Devon whispered, with a snicker to Ellie. "Sounds like an awesome tickling duel. I wonder if pillows are involved?"

"Oh, is that what that is? It only sounds to me like he's just found a way to take it out on her more creatively."

"I'm not so sure about that. Those hysterics sound pretty evenly matched if you ask me."

Ellie grinned as she listened more carefully. "You're right. I've forgotten how much my brother laughs like a girl when he's being tickled. Go get him, Sarah," she giggled.

What a treat it was for her to hear that. Ellie hadn't heard laughter like that from her brother for quite a while. It was good to be home for the holidays.

They'd turned the bedclothes into a tangled, mangled mess before finally calling a truce to collect their wildly panting breath. "God, you have such an adorable laugh," Sarah breathed, "That's addicting... and tiring."

Chuck was trying to get his laughter under control while still guarding his ribs with his hands. "Yeah, almost as good as..." he hoarsely whispered, trailing off.

"Uh-huh..." Sarah rolled over and looked him in the eyes. "Not that I would know, mind you," she equivocated with a soft smile, biting her lip.

Chuck's smile turned sheepish, and he reached for her, causing Sarah to swiftly grab his hand. "Truce?" she asked a little breathlessly, raising a brow as her smile broadened.

He wove his fingers into hers and chuckled. "Yeah. I still think I'm going to sleep really well tonight after that. Sorry, I was such a dork today, but spraying someone is a very big deal no matter what's in the hopper."

"I know. It's okay. I've had bosses get a lot angrier at me than you did today. I had it coming. I'm sorry I screwed up."

"Enough. It was only paint. You've apologized plenty for it. Let me bank it for when I screw up again."

Sarah shook out the tangled quilt and, after dragging it up over their heads, found his cheek with her fingertips. "Okaaaay," she softly whispered into his ear, smiling when her breath made him shiver. "But I still feel like crap about it... so here's something better."

"Good night, Chuck Bartowski," Sarah eventually murmured into his puffy lips.

"G'night, Sarah."

- VII -

John Casey sat at his dinette table drinking one of his monster cups of coffee in the predawn hours. This was approximately the time he'd set aside to check the perimeter sensors and cameras after a short sweep of the grounds, and to review and prioritize the Intersect's daily file reviews. The exact time was always random. But in about an hour, normal work scheduling dictated that he check in with his partner before heading to the airport to play mechanic with Bartowski's planes.

His partner. His grunt sounded amused. It was one he reserved almost exclusively for himself. He had to hand it to her, Walker had a funny way of handling their asset. A review of the audio recordings from one of the cameras left on revealed that she had most likely instigated their rather epic tickling match. It was a creative way to smooth over the tension that needed to be minimized to effectively do their jobs. Now a soft snore signaled that at least one of them was still asleep. Probably the flyboy. Just as he raised his big mug for another sip of the hot French roast, an alert buzzed on one of the monitors in front of him. He leaned forward to see a Cadillac sedan pulling into the circle in front of the house with its lights off.

Picking up his SIG P229 from the table he started to rise, but froze when the car door quietly opened and he saw who it was. He'd been expecting her since the General briefed them of the possibility weeks ago, and even though he was always chomping at the bit for a meaty mission, Casey was really hoping it wouldn't come down to this. Their personal history wasn't the best. Walker seemed to be ambivalent as well. Watching her walk up the path, shaking her head wryly, he swore he could see the cynicism in her eyes, even through the camera. When she looked directly at the one concealed in the porch light, and winked, he rolled his eyes; picked up last night's bowl of popcorn he'd pushed away before pouring a drink, and sat back to watch.

She was very, very good; as silent as a ghost as she explored the house. Moving from room to room, she took it all in with a smirk on her face. The first bedroom was empty; such bucolic country charm. Gag me. The next had a man and a woman still sound asleep. Both brunettes, and not her targets. Still, she paused for a few seconds. The bare-chested man was surprisingly good looking, and the woman quite pretty. The media room (in this hick place?), was mostly dark, lit only by the Call of Duty screen saver moving across the monitors on the desk. Somehow she knew where all of the cameras were, and she glanced up to the one at the end of the hall as she passed under it, and blew Casey a kiss.

"Ugh." The popcorn was as stale as the memory was bitter, not severely so, but enough.

Casey reached to turn the cameras on again. She was staring at them with her arms crossed over her chest and a smug smile on her face, slowly shaking her head. The corner of the Major's mouth turned up while he watched her standing over them at the foot of the bed. "Way to go Walker. You let her get the drop on you. Maybe you're not as good as I thought."

The sound of a woman clearing her throat broke the silence, and Chuck Bartowski sat bolt upright in his bed, taking in a shrill breath. "Well, hello, handsome," the statuesque female silhouette drawled, dragging the word 'hello' out.

"Sarah?" Chuck gulped. "We've got company."

"I know." Sarah slowly sat up in her modest nightgown and mirrored the smile of the tall woman standing at the foot of the bed.

"My, my, Sarah, look at you; living the sleepy, bucolic existence of a country rube in flyover country."

"Hello, Carina." Sarah's reply was surprisingly warm considering the smug woman's barb. "Chuck; I'd like you to meet an old friend," she said, moving the covers aside to reveal her silenced Smith and Wesson in her lap, pointed directly at the redhead's chest. "This is Carina Miller."

"Sarah..." Chuck's eyes looked like they might pop out of his head as he stared at her gun. "Old friend?" he croaked.

Carina chuckled. How could a simple laugh sound so cynical? "Okay. Maybe not as sleepy and bucolic as I thought."


Thanks for reading and reviewing.

Mac