Building Rome 1/?
Summary: Nine months after making the decision that changed his life, Chuck is coping with an Intersect that is a work-in-progress. Sarah is learning how to balance her spy life and her personal life for the first time. But when the first rule of spying is never fall in love, how will their relationship stand the pressure? Sequel to Discovering Omaha.
Disclaimer: I don't own Chuck. No copyright infringement intended.
Author's Note: So here we go: the next chapter in my AU take on Chuck and Sarah. There's some familiar characters appearing in this story as well as some new plot twists. I'm so thankful for all the love for Discovering Omaha, and I hope Building Rome is another satisfying read!
By the way, you can check dettiot on Twitter or Tumblr to get updates on this story, as well as cutting-room floor excerpts and other ficcy thoughts.
The barely-noticeable crackle of static was the only warning Chuck had before a honey-soft voice whispered in his ear.
"Chuck, on your three o'clock. That's her."
He nodded, then glanced up at the nearest video camera and gave the camera-and by extension Sarah-a quick smile. Pausing only to pick up two flutes of wine from a passing waiter, Chuck made his way to his target: a curvy brunette in a form-fitting, cleavage-baring dress.
"Mi scusi, signorina." Chuck gave the woman his best charming smile. He held one of the glasses out to her. "Una bella donna con un bicchiere vuoto. . ." He stumbled a bit over the Italian words, wishing once again that he had Sarah's gift for languages.
The woman ran her eyes over him slowly, and Chuck tried to hold back on the shiver that went down his spine. Now he knew how a mouse felt when confronted by a cat.
"Thank you," the woman said, speaking perfect English in a throaty voice and an Italian accent. She took the glass of wine and sipped it. "Charming manners in an American . . . what an unexpected pleasure."
If a woman had said something like that to him, he'd shrug or blush or kick a foot against the ground. But tonight he wasn't Chuck Bartowski. He wasn't the nerd from California who knew more about video games than he'd ever know about women. Tonight, he was Charles Carmichael, and Charles Carmichael always knew what to say to women.
So he sipped his wine and smiled slowly at his target. "I suppose my mother was right about those etiquette classes when I was a boy, then."
The woman laughed silkily. "Poor little boy. I'm sure you gave your mother much heartache, Mr. . . . ?"
Chuck held his hand out to her. "Charles Carmichael, originally from Philadelphia."
She shook his hand, letting her fingers trail over his skin as she pulled her hand back. "And I am Sophia. You're a long way from Philadelphia, Mr. Carmichael." Her eyes were large and demure, even as she moved closer to him.
He swallowed and took a larger sip of wine. He was sure one member of the Intersect team was preparing the popcorn for another edition of Chuck Screws Up A Seduction. Whenever he had to do this, he always seemed to mess up. Break character, insult the mark, something. He just wasn't the playboy type. Tonight, though, he had to stay focused and get the job done, no matter how distasteful he found it.
Taking a moment, he collected himself and remembered he was acting. Just like when he was played Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof. Only this time, there was less facial hair.
"Philadelphia has no women as beautiful as you, Sophia, so how could I stay there?"
The line worked. Sophia laughed and lightly slapped his shoulder. "Oh, Mr. Carmichael!"
Chuck smiled. "Please, call me Charles."
She smiled and tossed her hair, revealing an ornate pin on the shoulder of her dress. The pin featured a large cluster of diamonds, with a long bar going through the fabric of her dress before ending in a screw-on fastener. Chuck's eyes were drawn to the piece of jewelry and he felt the now-familiar sensation of a flash. The noise of the party fell away, and his eyes fluttered as the Intersect fed him a series of images.
The Eiffel Tower-a colorful line graph-a photo of the pin-a schematic of diamond-shaped microdots-the word FULCRUM-the Eiffel Tower
After nine months with the Intersect, he'd learned how to hide most evidence of his flashes. Ignoring the pain pounding in his temples, he reached out and ran his hand over Sophia's shoulder, lingering on her bare skin. "And you are very beautiful." He looked at her and gave her what he hoped was an arrogant smile. "You've made the jet lag worth it."
On the inside, he couldn't help feeling slimy. But Sophia didn't seem to mind the arrogance; she let her eyes flick down to his lips before looking at him. "There's other activities that are worth a sleepless night, Charles."
He sighed heavily, injecting a note of regret in his voice. "If only I could." Chuck kept running his fingers over her shoulder, lingering on the strap of her dress.
"Why can't you?" Sophia asked flirtatiously. She slowly tip-toed her fingers along his shoulder, over his tuxedo jacket. Then she sank her hand into his hair, pulling his head down towards hers.
At the last moment, he turned his head and brushed his lips over her jaw, that slimy feeling increasing. But he pushed through his discomfort, sliding his fingers down the strap of her dress. "Oh, Sophia . . ."
This needed to be over, and soon. He'd been lucky so far, but he wasn't about to kiss a strange woman, even if she was wearing a pin that could contain valuable intel on Fulcrum.
He moved his lips to her ear, whispering softly about her beauty and her appeal, as he loosened the fastener on the pin. He finally got it off, kissing along her jaw lightly to distract her. With that done, he lifted his head and gazed at her, letting his hand rest over the pin.
"I wish this could be more than this, Sophia, but . . ."
"But what, Charles?" she said, oozing charm and sex appeal. "We could very easily make this more. Come back to my villa with me."
He ran his eyes over her, mimicking her earlier action. "I have a big day tomorrow."
"Bah, tomorrow," she said sultrily. "Live for tonight, Charles."
"You would be a very lovely way to spend my last night as a bachelor, Sophia . . . but I'm afraid that would just be unfair to you," he said, almost rolling his eyes at the line. How did some men say these kinds of things? Having so little respect for women was utterly foreign to him, and at this point all he wanted was to finish this job.
He quickly slipped the pin off her dress, letting his hand fall away as he took a step away from her. "I'm sure you understand how a man could be tempted just before his wedding . . ."
From the reddening of her face and the snapping of her eyes, he didn't think Sophia felt much sympathy for him at the moment. She hissed a few words in Italian, her voice full of barely-concealed rage, and slapped him hard across his cheek. Then she spit at his feet and stormed off.
"Nicely done, Chuck."
Sarah's voice through his earwig was amused. He took that as a good sign she wasn't upset about his CIA-demanded flirtation with Sophia. Since his cover wouldn't allow him to grin goofily and release the tension, he started moving through the crowd to the exit. Once he was outside, he relaxed a little and smiled to himself before speaking quietly into the bug concealed in his watch.
"What was your favorite part? When I tried to speak Italian? Or when she slapped me?"
"That last one was mine," a gruff voice cut in on the frequency. "Did you get it?"
"Yeah, I got it, Casey. She had a real arm on her. Next time, you can be the one who gets slapped by the scorned woman and I'll wait in the van," Chuck said, still grinning.
Casey just grunted, and he could hear a soft laugh from Sarah. "Meet us at the rendezvous point, Chuck."
"See you soon," he said, heading to the valet stand to get his car, eager to see Sarah and to find out what the pin's microdots would reveal.
The unmarked black van was parked a hundred yards from the gates of the villa where the party was held. After driving down the long driveway and out the gates, Chuck pulled the Lamborghini Gallardo behind the van and unfolded himself from behind the wheel. He opened the back door of the van and climbed in.
"'Bout time," Casey said grumpily. "You're driving a damn supercar like you're a grandmother."
"Do you know how much gas that car burns?" Chuck asked, dropping into a chair next to Sarah. He rubbed his temples, trying to soothe the headache that was forming from his flash. "And besides, if I drive slow, there's less chance of me wrecking the very expensive car that the U.S. Government bought as part of my cover."
"The car is probably seized property, Chuck," Sarah said. She smiled at him. "Most likely recovered during a drug raid or organized crime investigation."
"Still doesn't mean I shouldn't be careful with it," Chuck said firmly.
Casey shrugged his shoulders in agreement and Sarah shook her head. "Okay, Chuck. Let's see the pin."
"Yeah," he said, reaching into the pocket of his jacket and pulling out the pin. He set it in front of Sarah, on the counter that ran along the side of the van which supported all the surveillance monitors. He let his hand brush against hers, allowing himself the bit of contact even in the middle of a mission. He wished he could do more: kiss her cheek, tell her how he had felt nothing when Sophia had flirted with him. But now wasn't the time. "I'm pretty sure she didn't notice me taking it off."
Sarah looked at him, her eyebrow quirked in amusement. "I think she was too busy feeling insulted."
"I felt awful about doing it, but I couldn't think of any way to get out of there other than getting her mad," Chuck protested.
"It was a good move," Sarah said, smiling at him. She slid on a pair of magnifying glasses and leaned down to examine the pin.
"Still looked like a kid at his first dance," Casey said. "Thought you CIA types were lovers, not fighters."
Chuck did his best to hold back his sigh. John Casey was a true patriot: John Wayne with a submachine gun. He was the NSA member of their team, and he had plenty of experience in undercover operations, sharpshooting, and hand-to-hand combat. Yet while most agents would be pleased to be living the high life in Rome, enjoying a beautiful villa and eating amazing food, Casey wasn't happy. Apparently, he felt his time here in Italy was a punishment and kept talking about how he wanted to get back to Afghanistan, where he was really needed.
He knew that Casey was dedicated to his job and Chuck certainly couldn't complain about his performance. But the constant digs at Chuck were starting to take their toll. Casey seemed to think all CIA agents were soft, and Chuck in particular.
Suddenly, he felt a hand rest lightly on his knee. Chuck let out the breath he had been holding, feeling his body relax. Trust Sarah to know how to calm him down. She rubbed his knee, then pulled her hand away in order to steady the pin while she took a closer look.
She let out a soft sigh and dropped the pin on the counter. "It's fake," she said, pushing the glasses up to rest on top of her head.
"W-What?" Chuck sputtered. "It can't be! It's in the Intersect."
"What do you mean, it's fake?" Casey asked at the same time.
Sarah shrugged. "It's just a slightly gaudy pin. It doesn't have any microdots on it. Either Sophia," Sarah said, saying the woman's name with an Italian accent, "doesn't have any connection with Fulcrum and it's a coincidence that she has the same pin as the one we're looking for, or-"
"Fulcrum was tipped off that we were going to be here and used a fake pin," Chuck said, his mind racing.
"It's a possibility," Sarah said. "Either way, this mission is officially a bust." She took off the glasses and ran a hand over her hair. "We should get back, prepare for our briefing tomorrow."
Casey grunted. "Another ass-chewing. My favorite way to start the day."
"I'm sorry, guys-I really thought we were on the right track," Chuck said, looking back and forth between Casey and Sarah. "It's my fault, and I'll tell Director Graham and General Beckman that in the briefing."
"It's not your fault if the Intersect has bad intelligence, Chuck," Sarah said, putting her hand on his arm. "This kind of thing, it happens all the time."
He let his head drop, needing to hide from Sarah and Casey for a moment. He knew Sarah was right that sometimes a mission just didn't pan out, but he still felt guilty for not getting this right. And he didn't think this one could be blamed on the Intersect. He'd just had an update to the Intersect three months ago and he spent plenty of time evaluating reports and mission logs as part of his daily workload. It wasn't the intelligence that was faulty-it was his analysis.
"Casey, why don't you drive the Lamborghini back to the villa?" Sarah asked softly. Chuck lifted his head and saw the concerned expression on her face as she glanced at him, before she turned and smiled at Casey. "Take it for a spin and make sure it's running well at high speeds."
"Hell, yeah," Casey said with a smirk, holding his hand out for the keys. "Car might be made by Commies, but it's fun to drive."
Chuck handed them over and Casey maneuvered around them to the van's exit. "See you back at the villa. Hope you like your new piece of jewelry, Walker." Casey stepped out of the van, closing the door loudly. There was a roar of a car engine which quickly faded into silence.
Sarah faced Chuck, moving her chair closer to him. "Stop it."
"Stop what?" he asked, glancing at her before dropping his head back down. He fidgeted a bit with the electronics equipment on the counter in front of him.
"Stop beating yourself up," she said, her voice firm. "It's one mission."
"No, it's not," he said, shaking his head and leaning back in his chair. "Out of the last five missions, only one of them actually got us good intel. Sarah, I feel like I'm on thin ice here. Maybe I'm not the right guy for this."
She reached out and grabbed his hand. "We're in a rough patch. I'll admit that. But we're doing good work here and you're part of that good work."
Chuck looked at her, really taking her in. It was always a pleasure to look at Sarah, of course. Even wearing dark clothes, her hair back in a ponytail, she took his breath away. The nine months they had spent together in Rome had been some of the best months of his life, mostly because of her. Because not only was she an amazing spy, she was also an amazing woman.
"I'm wallowing again, aren't I?"
She smiled at him, her nose crinkling a little. "Yep."
He laughed and kissed her cheek, feeling his headache and his self-doubt receding. "And no wallowing allowed."
"Nope," she said, letting go of his hand and standing up. "Let's get back to the villa and get some sleep."
"Just sleep?" he asked with a grin, standing up as best he could in the cramped confines of the van and following her up to the front seat.
Sarah grinned at him from the driver's seat. "There might be more than sleep available. Why do you think I told Casey to take his time with the Gallardo?"
"Have I mentioned that smart, beautiful women are my Kryptonite?" Chuck said, grinning widely at her.
"Don't you mean 'woman'? As in just me?" Sarah asked, arching an eyebrow at him.
Chuck swallowed. "Yes, you're absolutely right. You are my Kryptonite, Sarah Walker. You and you alone."
"And don't you forget it," she said, giving him a toothy smile.
"I won't. I promise. Didn't you say something about us going?" Chuck gave her a smile, trying to recapture the mood.
"I did." She leaned across the seats and kissed him softly. He reached out and stroked her cheek, savoring the chance to touch her. When she pulled away and looked at him, he felt dazed.
"Well, then, let's go," Chuck said, fumbling with his seatbelt and managing to fasten it on his second try.
With a laugh, Sarah started the van and headed towards the villa.
Chuck woke up to the rustle of sheets. According to the clock, it was four-thirty in the morning. He rolled over and saw Sarah pulling on her t-shirt. He frowned and sighed, sitting up in bed.
When Sarah had told him that they'd have to keep their relationship quiet, he hadn't thought that meant they'd never get to spend the whole night together. Even on the few occasions that they were alone in the villa-when Casey was out for the night and there wasn't a NSA tech on site-she still insisted on going back to her own room before morning.
"It's too great a risk, Chuck," she had explained their third night in the villa. "Even if nobody's around when we go to bed, they could be there when we wake up. And given the regulations, it's better if we just lay low."
He'd tried to change her mind, to compromise by asking her to stay one night a week. But when it came to the rules, Sarah didn't believe in breaking them. He wasn't ready to give up, though.
"Sarah . . ." he said softly. "Don't go."
She gave him an apologetic smile as she stepped into her pants, pulling them up and fastening them. "I can't stay, Chuck. You know that."
"Can I just ask, are you going to leave when we're at my sister's next week? Because Ellie is gonna think it's pretty strange when my girlfriend sneaks out of my bed to sleep on the couch." He smiled at her a little, trying to make his words sound joking instead of accusatory.
Her cheeks turned pink, as they usually did when he referred to her as his girlfriend. She hesitated and sat on the edge of the bed, looking at him. Chuck reached out and tugged on her hand, pulling her into a kiss.
Sarah kissed him back slowly, her body warm and soft against his. He slid an arm around her, keeping her close to him. As the kiss ended, he gazed at her, taking in her face.
"It'll be different when we're on vacation," Sarah said softly. "I won't leave then."
"Yeah?" he asked, gazing at her.
She nodded. "I'm . . . I'm really looking forward to our vacation," she said, looking a bit shy. "But that doesn't change that I can't stay." She stroked his arms, then stood up. "You should get some more sleep. We both should."
Chuck sighed. "Okay. I'll see you in the morning."
"Good night, Chuck," she said, a note of regret in her voice, before she opened the door and slipped out of the room.
He flopped back on the bed, gazing up at the carved and gilded ceiling. It wasn't that he didn't understand Sarah's point of view. He did, and he knew how smart she was being about their relationship. Sometimes, though, he thought it'd be nice if Sarah just threw caution to the wind. Did what she wanted instead of what she should. If just once in a while she stopped denying herself because the rules said she should.
But that wasn't Sarah. She claimed she wasn't a thinker, that she relied on her instincts. But she thought more about things, and was more tentative about her feelings, than most people would suspect. The old phrase "still waters run deep" definitely applied to his girlfriend.
Chuck smiled a little. His girlfriend. It was still pretty amazing that he was dating Sarah Walker. And next week he'd be taking her home to meet his family.
It had taken a fair amount of persuading to convince Sarah to come on vacation with him. Once he found out that she'd never taken any personal time off since joining the CIA, and she was about to lose a large chunk of her accrued leave, he'd stressed how logical it was to take a vacation. Combined with his repeated reassurances that he really wanted her to meet his sister and best friend, and they were sure to welcome her, he'd somehow managed to get her to agree to a trip together.
He'd definitely felt some nerves about going on vacation with Sarah. It was a big step for a couple, he knew. Add in the fact that it wasn't a trip to some romantic getaway, but a visit to the prosaic world of Burbank, California, and Chuck had really wondered if she'd agree to come along on his trip home. But the bottom line was he couldn't imagine not having her there. Ever since they had left the Project Omaha location, they hadn't gone a day apart. He didn't want to go a week without her.
It was important to him that his family-Ellie and Morgan, even Devon-got to meet Sarah. She'd become a huge part of his life, and she was the only aspect of his world that his family could know about. All they knew was that he worked for the government; he'd signed reams of paperwork when he became a CIA agent about concealing his real job. At least he had a cover job he could talk about: software engineer for the Food and Drug Administration.
More than just being important for Sarah to meet his family, he really wanted this visit to go well. Ellie hadn't liked Jill at all, which had made visits during Stanford uncomfortable. Morgan had been somewhat cool towards Jill, too; a no-holds-barred argument about Everquest versus Legend of Zelda meant they'd never really connected. If Morgan and Ellie didn't like Sarah . . .
Chuck shook his head and rolled over, punching his pillow. Sarah was great, and everyone was going to like her. It'd be great to be on vacation with Sarah, spend time together while visiting with his family. Losing sleep over all this wasn't the smart thing to do.
Pulling the covers up around him, he closed his eyes, trying to calm his mind. Sarah had been right: more sleep would be a good thing, especially since it wasn't going to be a good briefing tomorrow.
Chuck stood at attention, flanked by Casey and Sarah, in front of the large video screen. He didn't know if it was required that he stand that way, but it seemed the smart thing to do. Although at this point, he was pretty sure that there wasn't much that could make this situation any better.
"Another mission where this team failed to complete its objective," General Diane Beckman said crisply. "I just needed to summarize what you've said, to make sure I fully grasped this."
On the inside, Chuck withered under the sarcasm. He swallowed and spoke. "That is correct, General."
"Thank you, Agent Bartowski." General Beckman closed a file folder and leaned closer to the camera. "Agents, I am becoming concerned about your recent failures."
"We understand, General, and we're also concerned. We can at least say that the Intersect itself is working correctly; Agent Bartowski's flashes have given him much-needed information, both in the field and out," Sarah said, her voice measured and professional. Chuck glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and noticed how tense she looked.
"But is the information correct? That seems to be the problem."
"I'd disagree, Diane," Director Langston Graham said. "The problem is the analysis of the intel, not the information contained within the Intersect. That's where the missions have been failing lately."
Chuck swallowed. "Yes, sir. I have to take complete responsibility for those errors." He straightened up, trying to project a confidence he didn't really feel. "I am reviewing more reports, reading everything we know about Fulcrum. These kinds of mistakes can't keep happening, I know."
"No, they can't," Beckman said. "Major Casey, what are your thoughts?"
Like Chuck, Casey straightened up slightly. Chuck looked at the older man, worried about what he might say. He hadn't hidden his disdain for Chuck's performance. Would he take advantage of their superiors' unhappiness to drive the nail in Chuck's coffin?
"Just a few bad missions, ma'am. Nothing more than that. We'll get back on track with the next one."
It was all Chuck could do to not gape at Casey. This kind of support from the NSA agent was totally unexpected. Very welcome, but still very surprising.
General Beckman sighed and Director Graham spoke. "I understand that Agents Bartowski and Walker will be on leave next week. I strongly encourage you both to be ready and focused when you return."
"Yes, Director, that is the plan. A lot of rest and relaxation is in the cards," Chuck said, his words tumbling out of his mouth.
The director blinked, looking a bit taken aback. General Beckman looked like she was barely resisting the urge to roll her eyes. "Major, we'll expect you to hold down the fort in the absence of Agents Bartowski and Walker. I'm sure you'll carry out your duties with all due diligence."
"Yes, ma'am," Casey said.
"Very good," Beckman said with a nod.
Director Graham folded his arms over his chest, his expression neutral but his voice commanding. "Agents Bartowski and Walker, until you leave on vacation, I expect you to be reviewing mission logs day and night."
"Yes, Director," Sarah said.
"And you'll stop in D.C. on your way back to Rome, for some further testing of the Intersect," the general said, her voice making it clear that no argument would be permitted. "Let's eliminate the Intersect as a possible weak point."
Director Graham looked annoyed by General Beckman's request, but he nodded. "I'm sure the scientists would like some additional data on your use of the Intersect, Agent Bartowski."
"I understand, sir, ma'am," Chuck said, holding back a grimace. He hated the Intersect testing he had to endure, since it involved hours of flashing. When one flash could give him a pounding headache, testing resulted in migraines so bad he nearly passed out. But he knew his superiors were right. They had to make sure the Intersect was working properly and providing good intelligence.
"Very good, then. See you in a week, agents. Major." Graham nodded and ended the video conference.
As soon as the screen went black, Chuck slumped down against the conference table. "That wasn't so bad."
"Still, let's stop having briefings like that?" Sarah said, giving Chuck a small smile as she rested against the table next to him.
"I agree," he said, taking a deep breath.
Casey grunted and Chuck turned to face him. "Thank you for not throwing me to the wolves, Casey."
"I'm waiting until you really screw up to do that," Casey said. "I'm gonna go clean my weapons." With that, he stalked out of the conference room, heading towards the armory.
Chuck turned back towards Sarah. "What do you think-Casey's starting to warm up to me, huh?" He gave Sarah a lopsided smile, trying to make her laugh. He needed to have something simple and easy and clear, instead of hidden support and snarky comments.
Sarah chuckled softly and took his hand. "I can see it, definitely."
He squeezed her hand. "I am sorry about this."
"Hey, what did I say last night?"
"I'm sorry, you'll need to narrow that down," Chuck said, moving closer to her and lowering his voice.
Sarah ducked her head and nudged him, but not before he saw her smile. "In the van. No wallowing."
"Yes, ma'am," Chuck said, giving her a quick salute.
That made Sarah actually laugh, then she turned to face him, their joined hands resting on her knee. "Stop distracting me. I'm being serious. We'll spend this week going over every scrap of intelligence about Fulcrum, and then we'll go on vacation and let that info sit in our subconscious. We're bound to come up with some new ideas if we're relaxed and not thinking about it."
Chuck considered this plan. Perhaps that was the issue: he had gotten so focused that he couldn't see the forest for the trees. Adding in his nerves and worry, maybe it wasn't so surprising that he hadn't been doing very well lately.
"That makes sense," Chuck said, looking at Sarah.
"Of course it does," Sarah said with a grin. She squeezed his hand, then let go and stood up. "Let's get to work."
With a smile, he lifted himself off the conference table. "Time to put the nose to the grindstone."
"And then we have vacation," Sarah reminded him.
Chuck nodded as he followed her, his mind juggling the Fulcrum problem, his thoughts about his relationship with Sarah, and his hopes for their vacation. It was a lot to think about, but it was time to focus on work. There would be plenty of time to deal with the rest later.
End, Chapter 1