A/N the First: BOOM. Seven chapters. We did it, gang! We made it to the end! Thanks to everybody who's reviewed, tweeted, tumblr'd, PM'd, emailed, sent up smoke signals, shouted out to me online and in the case of my sister, texted. You guys are amazing and I'm glad you're still along for the ride. Particular people to thank: Ayefah, for encouraging this madness to begin with. Joel, for being my London tour guide. quistie for really encouraging the use of lots of Speedos. Lindsay and Nervert, my diving and volleyball coaches (not couches) respectively. lucky47 and Crumby for laughing at the tidbits as I wrote them.
And finally, mxpw, for being the best beta on the planet. I did my best, guys. I tried to short circuit his system. I figured Chapter 5 was going to be the one to do him in. Sweaty, sandy Carina and Sarah frolicking on the beach? I thought we're about to hit critical mass for sure. But mxpw, he's made of stronger stuff than that, and he still managed to beta the rest of this beast. So once again, thank you, mxpw, and I'm dedicating this story to you, as you were the one that taught me to appreciate Carina Miller for the person she is and the bikini she inhabits. I mean...what?
PS - Check my blog for the deleted scene. Carina, Devon, headlock.
Chapter Seven: Carinus Interruptus
The atmosphere in the stadium had shifted during Chuck's quarantine from the world. That morning, it had been tense, but there'd almost been a sleepy atmosphere among the fans, as it had been way too early for a competition for most of them. In the intervening time, they'd woken up. The stands were nearly full, with more people filing in even as the divers lined up in order on the platform to start their practice dives. Chuck searched the stands, but he didn't see his group. He hadn't thought to ask Ellie where they would be sitting.
Anna talked to him during warm-up, but it wasn't the terse, fevered "you can do it" speech he'd been expecting. They'd already discussed how to improve on that morning's dives, so Anna kept it light, teasing him about things she'd seen online. People wanted him to get a Twitter account, she told him. They'd already set up some fake ones in his name, and fake ones in Sarah's name, and some of the stuff that went on between the accounts was pretty dirty—and in some cases, a ménage a trois with fake Carina accounts. Chuck boggled.
She left him with that and a simple reminder to keep his left foot pointed on entry.
Diving first was Lester Patel, the Canadian. He was a squirrelly dude in a red and white Speedo with a maple leaf on the butt, nothing intimidating, but Chuck had learned not to underestimate him. He was a solid diver.
Chuck was slated to go fourth-from-last, right ahead of Bryce. With adrenaline from his practice dives still coursing through his limbs and nerves pooled in his abdomen, he waited as long as he could under the shower with his head back against the wall. He couldn't get Ellie's words out of his head.
You used to love diving so much until you went to Stanford.
Was it really that uncomplicated? Was Stanford really the problem? It had been his dream school. His father had gone to Stanford. Even though Stephen Bartowski had vanished emotionally and then physically, Chuck had still felt a connection to the school. He'd worked hard to get a dive scholarship there—it had been his only goal, in fact, all through high school. He'd worked hard to be part of the team. And his coach had put him in synchros. He hadn't minded, but...
A noise to his right made him open his eyes to see Bryce. The other man leaned back against the wall under the shower, the water plastering his dark hair to his head. He wasn't looking at Chuck but straight forward, getting into the mindset.
For the first time during the games, Chuck spoke first. "How come you didn't stay with Graham after you graduated?" he asked. Bryce had been Graham's star diver.
"Took me a few months after you quit to realize that the man was poison. Shaw's a much better coach." Bryce shrugged.
Chuck didn't have much opinion about Bryce's new coach one way or another. He'd seen Shaw about, but the man's face lacked expression.
"I mean, he's kind of a despicable human being." Bryce slicked his hair back. "We don't hang out or anything, but then, we don't need to. Nobody really has a good relationship with his coach, not really. It's something you learn to live with."
Chuck frowned, thinking about Anna and the way she'd joked with him during warm-ups. "Yeah," he said, and silence fell.
"I'm sorry that I couldn't see Graham's agenda at work," Bryce said, out of the blue. "I should have realized—I mean, I shouldn't have said any of that stuff to you. That was wrong."
Chuck almost asked him why, but even before the word formed on his tongue, a volunteer with a clipboard hustled up to them and informed them that they needed to be on the platform for their dives. The eighth diver launched off even as Chuck began climbing. It had been at Graham's behest that Bryce had dumped him as a partner? He should have been thinking about his dive, but suddenly, he was remembering all of the injustices he'd suffered on the Stanford diving team. He'd gotten more coaching from Anna than he had from Graham even then. Bryce was the star diver. Chuck would clearly never go anywhere.
Except...he had. He'd placed fourth in the semifinals at the Olympics.
Why didn't matter, Chuck realized. Why Bryce had done it didn't mean a damned thing to him anymore. The only thing that mattered was that Bryce was wrong. Bryce had even said so.
When it was his turn to head up to the ten meter platform, he paused at the bottom of the stairs and turned to Bryce. "Whatever happened with us, the slate's clear. Good luck today," he said. "But you should probably know, I'm going to beat you."
"You can try," Bryce said, and for a moment, friendly competition flickered across his face.
"And I'll succeed," Chuck said, and headed up the stairs.
He raised himself into an armstand, sighted his focal point, and thought Kiss my ass, Langston Graham, and pushed himself off of the platform and into the air, his body perfectly ready to prove to the world that he wasn't going anywhere.
Even as he pulled himself out of the pool, he knew it his best dive yet.
Two dives later, the Chinese coaches were no longer just glaring. Chuck was pretty sure they were actively plotting his death. The crowd, on the other hand, had learned his name, and given the volume at which they shouted it when he surfaced, they weren't going to forget it anytime soon.
"What is it?" Lester Patel asked him after the fourth round. "Seriously, what's your secret?"
"Volleyball players," Lukas Eckert said in a thick German accent. When Lester's eyes widened—Carina's reputation had apparently spread to the Canadians—the German diver shook his head. "Don't even try. The blonde is taken and the redhead has already got her diver for this games."
Lester turned to look at Chuck expectantly, waiting for the story, but it was Dieter Rademacher, the other German diver, who shrugged. "She's good, but she scratches too much," he said, and left Chuck and Lester in shocked silence as he headed to the platform.
Chuck felt weariness like a tangible force as he climbed the stairs once more, preparing for his fifth dive. Though it wasn't a marathon, diving required a lot of concentration and control, and most of all, precision. After nearly twenty-four hours that were all about diving and little else—with a wonderful interlude on the pool table in between—Chuck could feel the control longing to give way to exhaustion. He bounced in place to keep himself warm and loose, flapping his arms about as he prepared for his next dive.
Two dives. Two dives left to go. Despite his boast to Bryce, he didn't know what place he held. His lowest dive for the day had been an 86.40, which was downright astounding, but he didn't think about it. He had to move forward, to keep thinking about the next dive. Like a shark, he thought, and nearly smiled at the thought. Chuck Bartowski was no shark.
When he reached the platform, he centered himself with a long breath in, and walked out to the edge of the platform. His shoulder hurt. It always started hurting toward the end of a meet. His left hip tingled. He could feel the tiredness trying to poke holes in his concentration so that the buzz from the crowd hit his ears like a crescendo from a bad radio, warbling in and out. Two dives left, he thought, pushing all of that away.
He raised his arms, gaining his balance and presenting for the judges. The words "Two dives left" echoed concurrently in his head with the theme song of his choice. When he hit the trigger cue, he sighted the ceiling, ignored the crowd, and went backwards.
He entered the water with one single thought on his mind: one dive left.
One dive, and it would be over. Chuck pulled himself from the pool, trying not to wince as his shoulder let him know it was not happy with him. He scanned the stands for his entourage as he walked back to the hot tub, but he couldn't see the "CHUCK" shirts anywhere in the crowd. That was okay, he decided as he climbed into the hot tub to give his stiff muscles a reprieve. They were out there somewhere, cheering him on, and that was all that mattered.
When other divers needed the hot tub, he climbed out and headed for the shower instead. One dive left. He had to figure he was in eighth or ninth place, though he hadn't been looking at the scoreboard monitors in the complex.
Eighth or ninth place in the Olympics was not bad, not bad at all.
He felt twin spirals of nerves and an odd sort of melancholy as he headed to the stairs for the final time. No matter that his journey had been strange, the Olympics had been one of the most interesting times of his life. He'd met Sarah and Carina, and in that moment, he'd fallen hard. He'd made a slew of new friends from all over the planet. He'd visited London, one of his dream destinations. Morgan had won a medal. Sarah had won a medal. He'd made it to the finals. It was a damned good games, no matter how he did tonight.
"One more to go," Chuck said to Bryce as they waited together. "Is it always like this?"
Bryce gave him a tired look. "You have no idea, do you?" he asked.
"What?" Chuck asked, but he was called up to the platform for his final dive. This is it, he thought as they called out the dive code. Back dive, two and a half somersault, two and a half twist. Code 5255B. The final dive he would give at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Might as well make it his best, Chuck thought. It took every bit of willpower he possessed, every skill he'd learned over years of diving and struggle. And there had been so much struggle. The last year in particular had been lean, so lean. Anna had basically worked for free, and he'd eaten Ramen more times than he wanted to count in order to spend his time training and not working. Every moment of that had been worth it, for here he was, about to dive his final dive. He willed exhaustion away, focusing not on the way his entire body felt stiff and sore and abused, but on the core within him, the one that kept reminding him where he was and what he was doing, and that he could do it. One final breath. One final walk to the edge. One final balancing act on his toes on the very edge of the platform with his heels hanging out. Spread his arms for balance.
Chuck tightened his abdomen, leaned forward the slightest bit, and shoved off the platform with as much power as he could muster, already arcing gracefully into his first somersault as he went backward. It took everything he had to keep his body on track, to sight the water, to twist and kick out on just the right beat. His face screwed up in concentration, every single muscle in his body taut.
Something in his head clicked. He kicked out right on time and hit the water almost perfectly vertical, with barely a splash.
That one's gonna get me at least one 10.0, he thought, and swam to the side of the pool. This time he waved with both hands, wanting to shout something silly like "Hello Wisconsin!" that nobody but a pop culture junkie would get. Instead, he bowed to the crowd—who went nuts—and jogged off, making the guy behind the camera curse as he tried to keep up.
Anna leaped on him the second he came around the corner. "What the hell!" she shouted at him, nearly strangling him with her hug and not seeming to give a damn that he was dripping wet. "What the hell—what the hell, Chuck! Where—what—where did that come from?"
"I don't know!" He laughed and hugged her closer. "I don't know. It was just...there. How am I doing? Seventh? Eighth?"
Anna took a step back, her jaw dropping.
"What? I'm not in twelfth, am I?" Concerned—that was not a good look on Anna's face—Chuck looked at the score board for the first time in the competition, as he'd only been listening to his own scores. When the truth on the board failed to register, he looked again.
"Um, Anna," he said.
"I'm in second place."
"What am I doing in second place?"
Anna stared at him as though he'd started imitating Michigan J. Frog, cane and boater and all. "You really didn't know?"
"I need to sit down," Chuck said, as it hit him all at once. The blood drained out of his face and he felt the room begin to shift and shake as a bout of light-headedness came on.
Anna grabbed his forearm. "Cameras," she said through her smile. "Cameras all around us, Chuck. Don't you dare pass out on me again."
"I'm in second place," Chuck said, shaking his head. It cleared some of the fog, but not all of it. "I'm in second place."
Anna kicked his ankle. The sudden stab of pain jerked him out of the shock, making him realize that there were only two divers left...and he was still in second place. He had a chance to actually win an Olympic medal. Something warm and unbelievable began to spread, starting in his chest, going all the way to the tips of his toes, running along his fingernails and the top of his skull and collecting at the backs of his eyelids. He watched in a strange, disconnected sort of disbelief as the first of the divers took his turn. Scores rolled in.
He was still in second place. Anna stopped breathing.
He'd won a medal. He didn't know what color it was, but he'd won a medal. Chuck Bartowski, world's least likely diver, had won a medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Abruptly, he turned and started scanning the crowd.
"What are you doing?" Anna asked, tugging on his arm as the final diver, Hu Chen, took his place on the platform to finish out the diving. "Chuck, he's about to go—pay attention—"
"I need to find Sarah," Chuck said. "And Ellie. I need to find Ellie and Sarah and Morgan—I want to see them. They all helped me get here, they should be here."
"We can find them after. For God's sake, Chuck, cameras!" Anna tugged him around. He turned in time to watch Chen present to the judges and make the leap off the platform, though his mind was too jumbled to really judge how well Chen had done. There wasn't much of a splash, after all, but maybe he'd flubbed the take-off a little bit? It was probably enough to keep his spot in first, but Chuck didn't give a damn. Chuck was fine winning a medal, any medal.
It seemed like the entire world held its breath as they waited for Chen's scores to be read. And when they were—
"Oh, my God!" Chuck said, picking Anna up and swinging her around. She was laughing and her nails were digging into his shoulder, which still hurt, but he didn't give a damn because: "Oh, my God!"
The entire stadium erupted in cheers, but Chuck couldn't hear them over the roaring in his own ears, roaring that had absolutely nothing to do with any crowd on the planet.
"You did it!" Anna said.
"We did it!" Chuck set Anna on the ground and shoved both hands through his still-wet hair, leaving them there as he processed it.
He'd won gold.
He'd beaten thirty-one of the world's best divers, men who devoted their entire lives and all of their money to excelling at this sport, who had entire staffs of experts behind them correcting their every move. And with his twenty-three-year-old coach and public pool training experience, he'd come from behind and beaten every single one of them.
He literally could not wrap his brain around that even though it was right there on the screen: BARTOWSKI, C next to a gigantic American flag. Right above China and Great Britain, for the gold medal spot.
To his left, the British swim team picked up their diver and jumped en masse into the pool. Chuck laughed, his hands still in his hair. He couldn't think. If he thought something, anything at all, he'd start hyperventilating because there was no way this moment was real.
He didn't see Bryce, chamois over his shoulder, until the man was almost right next to him. Bryce was smiling, but Chuck knew his ex-partner well enough to recognize the hidden disappointment. "Congrats, man," Bryce said, shaking his hand. "That was amazing."
"You, too," Chuck said, sneaking a glance at the score board. Bryce had placed fifth, which was almost kinder than fourth place. "You were a worthy opponent."
"Don't think I'm going to go easy on you at Worlds," Bryce said with a laugh that wasn't at all feigned. He clapped Chuck on the shoulder and headed off, shaking the hands of a couple of divers on his way back to the locker rooms.
People descended on Chuck, wanting to congratulate him and shake his hand. Anna kept close by his side, and only kicked him when she caught him scanning the audience instead of paying attention. He couldn't help it. He'd just had one of the biggest moments of his life and the people he wanted to see most were his sister, his best friend, and Sarah.
In the locker room, there was a crowd to prep the athletes for the medal ceremony. Chuck had shaken hands with Hu Chen, the silver medalist, and had gotten a stoic nod in return before the other man had been shuffled. Freddie Page, the bronze medalist from Great Britain, had been hopping around too much for Chuck to get close, so he didn't try. Instead, he donned the track pants and the gray United States team jacket, feeling numb. This was the outfit that the medal-winners wore, or at least the ones in indoor sports. Sarah and Carina had worn something else, something dark blue. Chuck laced the ridiculous shoes up in a daze, listening with one ear to the organizer that told him what he would be doing. Morgan, of course, loved these shoes. He already wore them everywhere. Chuck would rather have his Converse sneakers, though he knew the US sponsors would throw a fit.
Publicists talked over him. He nodded when expected. It still didn't feel real that he'd won a medal. He hadn't seen Ellie or Sarah or Morgan. He had no idea where they were.
When it was time to head to the ceremony and take a lap of the stadium, he stood behind Hu Chen. The applause was tumultuous, thundering over the building and shaking the floor when they emerged. Most of it wasn't even for him. Somebody had told him that Freddie Page had broken a record for Great Britain that had been in place since 1960, and the home country was going nuts. But there were plenty of Americans in the audience, judging by the sheer number of flags he saw being waved in his direction as they walked out.
Chuck waved as he searched the crowd. Men and women held out flags to him, trying to get him to take one and drape it over his shoulders, but he ignored them. He wanted to see the look on Ellie's face. He wanted to watch Morgan freak out. He wanted to see Sarah's smile.
Almost like magic, there they were, crowding the front row. He felt his smile grow to goofy proportions. Cole, his arm in a sling, stood beside them. Chuck made it up the steps between the walkway and the stands in two strides and was nearly buried under another group hug. Morgan hugged him for so long that Ellie had to pull Chuck away to get her own hug. Devon pounded him on the back hard enough to bruise this time. Carina punched him in the shoulder—another bruise—and gave him a peck on the cheek.
"Guess I didn't make a liar out of you after all," Chuck said when Sarah nudged her teammate aside and hugged him.
"Guess not." Sarah smiled and handed him a folded flag, with a look that told him Later before she kissed him.
Quite a few people giggled when Chuck stumbled backwards after that kiss. He held the flag up over his head in reply. The grin didn't leave his face throughout the ceremony, where they laid a medal that couldn't possibly be real around his neck and handed him a bouquet. In fact, it only grew broader as he took a step back so that Freddie and Hu could join him on the platform for the medalist pictures.
He was an Olympic medalist.
Just like his girlfriend and his best friend before him. It was, Chuck thought, the greatest thing ever.
It was nearly ten o'clock before they finally sent him back to the Village. Following the meet, there'd been a press conference with both him and Bryce. The interviewers really couldn't get over the fact that he hadn't known how he was doing until the end of the meet, so there were repeated questions, lots of teasing, general amusement from all of the media sources waiting to interview him at the press conference. After that, there were tests and contracts and tax documents to sign for his medal, followed by more interviews, this time one on ones with various news organizations. Somebody brought him dinner, which he ate without tasting. He drank enough water that somebody joked he would no longer be buoyant. A PA produced a lemon cough drop; Chuck declared her his new best friend. All the while, the cameras rolled, mostly catching him goofing off with the PAs and producers. NBC took him to talk to Bob Costas, which he did in somewhat of a fog. He'd seen so many interviews with Bob Costas over the years that, just like winning gold, it didn't feel real to sit opposite the man and answer his questions.
At some point, a woman with a clipboard informed him that they were putting him on a plane to New York as part of the official post-Olympics press tour on Monday, that the Olympics committee PR specialist would meet him there and manage his schedule. Chuck had nodded, as it was easier than trying to actually process anything happening to him.
He turned his phone on to find fifteen texts from Ellie, Morgan, Sarah, and even a couple from Carina. He sent a mass text to let everybody know he'd been sprung and was back at the Village. His escort arrived only five minutes later in the form of the last person he expected.
"What?" Carina asked. "I volunteered."
"Cool." Chuck gave her a hug. "Thanks for coming out today."
"Men. In tiny Speedos." Carina eyed the medal hanging around Chuck's neck. "Mine's shinier."
"Of course it is. Let me go in and get changed and we'll walk over—they're at your hotel?"
"Your sister's. We're all getting our drink on."
When Carina tried to follow him inside, Chuck simply grabbed her by the shoulders, maneuvered her so that she stood by the wall outside his door, and closed the door between them. He locked it. She smirked at him when he emerged in his least threadbare button-down and jeans, but she bumped him with her elbow, too. Chuck figured that motion alone meant he'd been accepted.
"So what have I missed?"
"Martin and one of the bikers had a beard-off. Martin won," Carina said.
"You realize his name's Morgan, right?"
Carina filled him in on the rest. Morgan had smuggled the group McDonald's from the free twenty-four hour store in the Village, so they'd eaten junk food and watched bad British sitcoms, punctuated by drinking, while they waited for him to be free—hours ago, Carina had pointed out with a long sigh. The German divers had dropped by. Anna had arrived. Some of the US track team had stopped in, followed by part of the Australian swim team. Ellie's door, apparently, had become an international revolving door of athletes, coaches, and random people from the hotel. Some had brought booze. Others just came by for the company.
"It's more fun not to warn you that Ellie and Sarah have really bonded and might be plotting evil things that have to do with you," Carina said as they headed in the front doors of the hotel. "In fact, the old Carina might not have even warned you at all. But I'm turning over a new leaf."
"Very impressive. You're a regular Mother Teresa," Chuck said, and Carina accepted the compliment with a tilt of the head. He wasn't sure exactly what sort of evil things Sarah and Ellie could be plotting with him in mind. If he was lucky, he'd never have to find out.
In Ellie's room, Chuck was hugged, kissed, pounded on the back, and congratulated by even people he'd never met. Somebody handed him a beer. There was a veritable league of nations on the floor in a circle, legs crossed as they played the circle of death drinking game in several languages. Chuck waved off a spot in the game, choosing instead to take the recently vacated desk chair. As he took a long sip, Sarah abandoned the edge of the bed and dropped into his lap. She hooked an arm around his shoulders.
"What?" she asked, arching an eyebrow at him. "There's limited seating. I'm doing my part."
"I don't mind," Chuck said. "Do you want to get out of—"
"So, Chuckster," Awesome said from across the room. For some reason, he was holding a card against his forehead. Chuck squinted; it looked like the Jack of Hearts. "How's it feel to gold-medal, dude? What'd they do, keep you in lock-up for hours?"
"Blood tests, probably," Sarah said. "That right?"
"Yeah, full range of tests, press conference, interviews, there were people talking about New York, and they fed me, and after that time, I stopped knowing what was going on." Chuck shook his head, hitting Sarah's ear as he did so. "Oh, sorry."
"Wait, you're going to New York?" Anna asked. "Nobody told me about this."
"You ate already?"
"Interviews? Who with?"
Questions tumbled over one another until Chuck let out a groan and rested his forehead against Sarah's shoulder. "Okay, okay," Ellie said. "We can take a hint. No more questions. Let the mighty Olympian relax."
"Thank you," Chuck told his sister.
"Besides." Awesome tossed his card on the top of the stack and brushed off his pants. "It's time we explore. Everybody up! Let the Official Olympic Pub Crawl of 2012 begin!"
There were protests, but Awesome would hear none of it. He cajoled until they trooped down to the hotel lobby en masse—a couple of the other athletes broke off to head back to their rooms—a ragtag group of Olympians, and Awesome and Ellie. In the lobby, they ran into a few friends that the others had obviously made in the hotel, so the group only grew until they spilled out onto the street, Camden-bound at Cole's recommendation.
"You sure you want to go?" Chuck asked Sarah as they headed for the bus stop.
She gave the group around them a measuring look and shrugged. "We can sneak away later," she said before she grabbed the front of his shirt and kissed him, her tongue teasing his mouth so that he grabbed her waist. They pulled back from each other, blinking at the sound of applause—which was coming from Morgan and Ellie.
"I'm not taking a bow," Chuck said, pointing at his sister and his best friend with his free hand. "You two are being weird. Cut it out."
"Aw! But, Chuck, you've got a girlfriend and—"
"Hey, babe, let's give them a moment alone, yeah?" Awesome winked at Chuck—which didn't help—as he dragged Ellie away with one hand and a sighing Morgan away with the other arm. Carina, who'd been hovering behind the group, made a dirty gesture at them before she bounded after Awesome.
"Still want to go?" Chuck asked, wincing.
"You're not getting out of this that easily," Sarah said. She stood up on her tip-toes to kiss him again, this time uninterrupted by applause or cheering, though they did have to hurry to catch up in time to board the bus.
It took fourteen minutes for Carina to get them kicked out of the first pub. Sarah opened up the festivities at the second by buying a round of shots, possibly as an apology for Carina. The group headed to play pool, but even the sight of a pool table right then would have made Chuck twitchy with lust, so he stayed at the bar and did Irish Car Bombs with Morgan and Awesome.
The latter, of course, had all of his frat days of drinking to prep him for occasions such as these, but both Chuck and Morgan had been broke for pretty much their entire lives. Drinking meant cheap beer, and that meant that Chuck was already out of his depth with everybody insisting on buying him drinks. By his second Car Bomb, there was quite a happy padding between Chuck and sobriety, and he didn't give a damn. He laughed as Sarah hustled some guy at darts and led the cheering when Morgan challenged a man twice his size to an arm-wrestling competition. After said opponent failed to lose graciously, it was decided that maybe they should move on to the next pub, and quickly. Chuck walked along, no longer feeling the bite to the chill air, one arm around Sarah, the other looped through Carina's, as he, Awesome, Cole, Morgan, and Anna belted out an old Toto song at the tops of their lungs.
At the next pub, there were more shots. The alcohol must have been working because he didn't protest when Anna and Sarah each grabbed an arm and hauled him out to the dance floor. He might have been ungainly on land, but he could goof off with the best of them, jumping around and tossing the dice, changing the light bulb, and any number of stupid dance moves. Sarah giggled and danced up against him, the crowded dance floor closing them into close proximity with each other. For once in his life, Chuck blessed overpopulation of a bunch of drunks.
That was, until the swimming and diving teams walked in. Bryce was with them.
Sarah spotted him at the same time as Chuck did. "We can go," she said, leaning in close to be heard over the music.
"Nah, it's cool." Chuck smiled and kept dancing.
Both of Sarah's eyebrows went sky-high. "You sure?"
Indeed, Bryce wandered over to the edge of the dance floor, where they'd been forced by the crowd. "Hey, Chuck. Sarah, can I buy you a drink?"
Because he smirked at Chuck when he said it, Chuck laughed. "No," he said. "But you can buy me one."
"Didn't know your name was Sarah."
"It is now. Make sure it's something purple and fruity. Really girly, with, like, an umbrella."
"Ignore him," Sarah said, smiling politely over at Bryce. She'd left a hand on Chuck's chest, Chuck noticed, and one on his shoulder, though she was turned toward Bryce. He wasn't going to protest. "He's a little drunk. We're fine. We don't need anything."
"If you're sure."
"I'm sure. Congratulations out there today, Bryce. You did a great job."
"Thanks. I'll let you get back to dancing." Bryce left to go to the bar.
Sarah turned back to Chuck and put her arms around his neck, even though it hadn't switched to a slow song. "The two of you made up?"
"He's not all bad," Chuck said. "Though you really should have let him buy me a drink. I'm thirsty for something purple."
"I can't help you with that, but..." Sarah kissed him, long and slow and perfect despite all of the bodies jostling around them. "There. Does that help?"
"I'm not sure." Chuck wrinkled his forehead. "Maybe do that again? Just to be sure?"
"Maybe," Sarah said, but the rest of the swimming and diving team descended on them to congratulate Chuck (and hit on Sarah). By the time, they managed to escape, one of the wait-staff had come up with two vividly purple shots, courtesy of the "Hot bloke at the bar." Bryce toasted them with his own shot from across the room. Laughing, Chuck raised his glass in reply and downed the shot.
It was kind of foul, but Chuck didn't plan on telling Bryce that. He grabbed Sarah by the hand and pulled her away from two of the men's relay swimming team, over to another part of the dance floor so that she could take her shot, too.
"You're not getting jealous, are you?" Sarah asked before she slammed back her shot. She pulled a face.
"Nope. I'm way more charming than those guys."
"And so modest, too." Sarah stood up on her tiptoes to give him a kiss.
"No time for that!" Somehow or another, Carina appeared at their side like the magician's interrupting assistant. She had shots in her hands, two of which she pushed onto Chuck and Sarah. "Drink up and then it's time for asteroids, bitches!"
"Asteroids?" Chuck looked around. "They've got that game here?"
Sarah clinked her glass against his, drawing his attention back to her. With a shrug, he tossed the shot back. He was too drunk to know if it wasn't all that strong or if he was just too inured to alcohol at the moment to tell. With Carina, he had to figure it was the latter.
The redhead gave him an odd look. "What game? I'm talking real asteroids. Outside!"
Morgan raced over, pulling on his jacket. "Chuck! It's the meteor shower tonight, we completely forgot, but Cole says there's a really great spot to watch not too far from here—we should get going, though. Think of all the meteors we're missing."
"Oh. Like actual meteors," Sarah said, blinking.
Chuck opened his mouth to correct Carina, thought about it, and closed his mouth. "So we're leaving?"
"Yeah—it's not far, but it's a really neat spot."
"Well, I think Sarah and I were thinking about—"
"No, dude, you can't leave us. This is a celebration!"
"With asteroids," Carina said.
Chuck figured he and Sarah could do plenty of celebrating that didn't involve asteroids, meteors, or a great deal of other people—especially not his sister—around, but before he knew it, they were being bundled out of yet another pub. Chuck had never heard of Hampstead Heath, but it seemed like a really nice park. Or maybe it would, when he was a little more sober and there was a little more daylight. As it was, he stumbled after the others, holding Sarah's hand as he recounted his breakfast with Anna and all of the great T-shirt ideas they'd had. Even though Sarah probably didn't understand a single one of them, she still smiled as she pulled him along. They crowded around a park bench to look into London town and watch the sky simultaneously for any of the shooting stars. Because the world was starting to spin a little bit, Chuck chose to lie down on the grass rather than find another bench. Sarah lay on the ground next to him, cuddled against him for warmth.
After a minute, though, she started to giggle.
"What?" Chuck asked. "What's funny?"
"This is," Sarah said, breaking off to laugh for a moment, "the strangest day I've ever had."
Chuck didn't know why that would be funny, but he grinned at her. It was an awkward angle, but he rolled over slightly to kiss her until—
"You'd better not be having sex back there!"
"Damn it, Carina," Sarah said, leaning her head back against the grass hard enough that Chuck heard a definite thump. "Ow!"
"I thought volleyball players were supposed to be graceful," Chuck said.
"Shut up, I'm drunk." Sarah shifted so that Chuck could free his arm and offer it up as a pillow, which she accepted, cuddling closer to him. "When are we going to see a shooting star?"
"I notice that wasn't a no on the sex," Carina said.
"Carina!" This time it came from both Sarah and Chuck.
"I was just curious." Carina sounded wounded. "I mean—"
"Ooh!" Ellie's cry made all of them look up. Chuck didn't see the shooting star, but he was grateful that silence fell. It was nice lying there next to Sarah, watching the sky and reveling in his day. Here, he was just a guy watching shooting stars. It didn't matter that Sarah had won a gold medal, or that he had done the same, or that they were sort of famous now because they'd decided to start locking lips and the world was way too creepily invested in their sudden love life. Right now, it was calm and peaceful, and he was surrounded by new friends and the people he loved most on the planet, watching the night sky with Sarah right there beside him.
It may not have been the perfect moment, but it came pretty damned close.
Sarah shifted to be closer to him, so that he could feel her breath on his ear. "Just so you know," she said, "for when we get back to L.A.: Carina and I are not roommates."
"I hope you're not offended, but thank God."
Beeping drove Chuck away from the lull of darkness and into reality. He started to roll over to reach for his phone on the nightstand, but something very soft and very warm blocked his way. Confused, Chuck opened his eyes, wondering what could be in his bed with him.
His first realization was that he wasn't in bed.
His second was that it wasn't a what next to him, but a who. Sarah grumbled and rolled away. Chuck blinked at her. He was on the floor. He'd gathered that much from the fact that his back was aching and he was using a balled up towel as a pillow, but what was he doing on the floor? And what floor was this? To his left, he could see Morgan sacked out, sitting up against the wall, mouth open in sleep. On Sarah's other side, Carina lay sprawled, wearing her clothes from the bar and one high heel. Ellie and Awesome's room, Chuck determined after glancing toward the bed. They must have come back to it at some point after the third or fourth pub following the meteor showers, but the entire night was a blur in Chuck's memory.
Sarah rolled over again, this time toward him. Without opening her eyes, she stuck her hand in his pocket. Chuck yelped, but Sarah only pulled out his cell phone, silenced it, and dropped it in Chuck's lap.
"'S'better," she said, her voice barely a whisper. "Why's it making that noise?"
"I have to—" He had to what? Why had he set an alarm on his phone anyway? That seemed like a silly thing to do when his head was nearly splitting. "I have to—oh, crap, sponsors. I have to go."
"So go." Sarah rolled over again. Chuck didn't blame her. His head felt like somebody had pried open the top with a crowbar and crammed the USC marching band drum line into his skull. The snare drummers were holding a rave. He stumbled to his feet, thought about giving Sarah a kiss on the cheek, but ultimately rejected the idea since his mouth tasted like a whiskey still. He stumbled to the bathroom, where he got his first look at the sheer amount of red gathered in his eyes and nearly gave up living. But the sponsors wanted him to do this interview and they held the checkbook, giving him no choice.
He had to step over four more people to get to the door, but nobody else awoke as he let himself out. Maybe the meeting would be quick, and he could go back to bed.
Three hours later, feeling like crap and knowing he looked worse, Chuck wanted only to sleep. He had hours until the closing ceremonies, which he'd hoped to spend with the others, but that would have to wait until his body recovered from the sheer amount of abuse he'd put it through. He whimpered as he dragged himself back to his room, and pulled up short.
He could see a lump in either of the beds, buried under the covers so that he couldn't make out features, but he recognized the four high heels piled by his door. Sarah and Carina had apparently traded up Ellie and Awesome's room for his. With a shrug, he kicked out of his shoes, ignored modesty to strip down to his boxers and his undershirt, and climbed into bed.
"Speedo?" Carina's voice made him freeze. "I don't think I'm your type."
Chuck scrambled out of his bed so fast that he hit the carpet, landing solidly on his butt. "Carina! What are you doing in my bed?"
"Chuck, over here." Sarah's tousled head appeared from beneath the covers of the other bed. "She took that one before I could stop her, and I'm too tired to fight."
"You had better not be getting sand all over my sheets again," Chuck told Carina, and crawled into the other bed. Sarah shifted over to let him have a meager slice of the mattress and the pillow, but it felt so nice to be lying horizontal that he didn't care. He let out a contented sigh. "How come you came back here instead of your own room?"
"Carina locked herself out and was too hungover to drag herself to the front desk."
"But not to pick the lock on my door?"
"That was me," Sarah said, yawning. Clearly still half asleep, she nuzzled into his shoulder. "Remind me to apologize at some point. How'd it go?"
The swimwear company was going to pay for his training, hotel, and ticket to Worlds, which was astounding on too many levels for Chuck to process. To him, it was almost more important than the gold medal tucked away in a nondescript box under his bed. He was legitimate now. He was getting paid to do what he loved.
"It went really well. They want me to come to New York for—"
"Do you two mind? I'm trying to sleep."
Sarah threw their pillow at Carina. Thanks to years of honing her deadly aim, she hit the target dead-on. Of course, said target then stole the pillow, leaving Chuck and Sarah without one. Sarah sighed. "I'm too tired to get up and get it back."
"Me too. Just use my shoulder."
"Okay. We'll talk later." With a final yawn, Sarah fell asleep again.
When he woke, he had the bed to himself and his pillow back, and Carina and Sarah were nowhere in sight. His bed was neatly made up, a square of paper left on the pillow. The writing, which informed him that they'd gone back to their hotel rooms and to call when he woke, had to be from Sarah. Carina's addition was the stick figures doing obscene things to each other.
He tossed the note to the side while he got dressed. Team USA athletes were supposed to report to the closing ceremonies in the late afternoon, but he had plenty of time. He called Ellie, who was exploring the British Library, but declined when she offered to come meet him. Her flight was leaving the next morning, but he would see her after the closing ceremonies.
He took a chance and headed for Sarah's hotel. He had no idea what her plans were, but if she was out, then at least the walk couldn't hurt. In fact, his head was mostly clear when he spotted the flower stand on the corner by the hotel. He debated with himself for a minute, figured it couldn't hurt, and bought a dozen white carnations wrapped in Union Jack tissue paper. As he turned, he heard the click of cameras behind him.
Some of the paparazzi that he had seen hanging around the games were on the opposite street corner. Chuck gave them a puzzled look as he accepted his change from the vendor. Weren't there any real celebrities for them to follow in London?
Apparently, there were. Right as he took the flowers, a guy bedecked in aviators and tattoos came strolling out of the front door of the hotel. He ignored the paparazzi as he moved to a waiting limo, though he did shout something about Cleveland as he left.
Chuck shook his head and headed upstairs.
When Sarah opened the door, wearing a robe, her hair wet, he jerked his thumb behind him. "Did you know you're staying in the same hotel as Tyler Martin?"
"Probably better that you don't know who he is. Your ears are safer. Hi." Chuck held out the flowers. "For you."
"Aw." She took the flowers and curled her fingers around the back of his neck, kissing him slowly. "That's sweet of you."
Chuck shrugged and shuffled his feet. "I apparently have good timing," he said, nodding at her robe. "Or really terrible timing. I don't know which."
"We'll go with good." Sarah grabbed his sleeve and pulled him inside. "Want anything to drink?"
"After last night, I'm never drinking again. Ever." Chuck flopped melodramatically onto Sarah's bed. After a minute, he propped himself up on his elbows. "I have vague memories of singing 'The World is Saved' with Morgan and possibly playing air guitar. For hours."
"It wasn't hours." Sarah crossed to a mini-fridge and pulled out two bottles of water. The first, she tossed to Chuck. The second, she downed in a few gulps. "Sorry. Just got back from running drills with Carina."
"You worked out today? I'm pretty sure that's a sin to work out on the day of the closing ceremonies. And with a hangover."
"I don't get hangovers."
"You're not human, and I kind of hate you."
"Aw," Sarah said again, setting the water bottle down. Chuck noticed belatedly that her free hand was playing idly with the belt of her robe, and the temperature in the room skyrocketed abruptly. Sarah met his eyes, her expression a little pouty. Just like that, the air went from comfortably intimate to sexually charged. He almost had to marvel, but he was too busy trying not to stare at her lips. "Hate is such a strong word, don't you think?"
"Ask me again when I'm hungover."
"So a clean bill of health, huh?" She kept toying with the belt, which was doing interesting things to his blood pressure. "Head's clear?"
"And no longer pounding." Chuck raised his eyebrows at her, questioning if they were really going to do this, if that moment had finally come.
"I'm glad to hear that." Her face showed her amusement as she tilted her head, the slightest invitation.
He needed no more than that. Chuck held out a hand toward her, not getting up. Sarah laced her fingers through his, letting him tug her over until she was next to him on the bed. He took his time kissing her, enjoying the way her hair tickled the back of his hand when he rubbed his thumb down the line of her jaw, to behind her ear. He could feel nerves beginning to take hold, but the last couple of days, the way Sarah had looked at him almost from the start, like he was somebody worthy of being right where he was, all of that helped. Still, he pushed himself up, breaking off the kiss before they could go any further.
Sarah gave him a baffled look. "Something wrong?"
"Yes, the door's locked, and no, she's busy."
"Oh, thank God," Chuck said, and returned to the kiss with a great deal more fervor even though he could feel Sarah laughing underneath him. "How long do we have?"
"Hours. You should take that shirt off. In fact, you really wear too many shirts, you know. You should do something about that nasty little habit."
"Yes, ma'am," Chuck said, though he didn't scramble like he normally would have. If they had hours, they had plenty of time, and he was going to spend every moment enjoying this.
"Dude, you're late! Why are you late?" Morgan, decked out in a white Ralph Lauren suit, stood up from where he'd been leaning against the wall, obviously waiting for Chuck to arrive. "You know the call-time said—oh."
"Hello to you, too, Morgan," Sarah, who'd followed Chuck in through the back entrance to the stadium, said. She gave Morgan a kiss on the cheek; he stammered a little, and Chuck wanted to laugh because he knew exactly how that felt. "Carina's here, right?"
"Yeah, she's arm-wrestling the soccer team or something." Morgan waved in a general direction. Team USA had been gathered in one of the back hallways of the stadium so that everywhere Chuck looked, there were volunteers in blue blazers, wearing bowlers with light bulbs attached to them. Mingling around them was Team USA in blinding white: white blazers, white shirts, white pants and skirts, white newsboy caps with one red and blue stripe up the side. The atmosphere was raucous and wild. Even while volunteers tried to get them to calm down, Team USA knew it had come out of the games on top. From the smell of alcohol on the air, Chuck figured the partying for the closing ceremonies had already started.
Sarah gave Chuck a quick kiss. "I'd better go avert disaster. I'll come find you."
"Good luck getting through that," Chuck said.
Sarah shot him a look that said, Please, as if this is difficult, as she left.
"No wonder you weren't answering your texts," Morgan said. "I thought you might just be busy. But nope, I was wrong. It wasn't being busy, it was getting busy, huh?"
"That was a terrible play on words and you should be ashamed," Chuck said.
Morgan raised his eyebrows. "Well?"
"You have fulfilled your destiny, my son, by going where no nerd has gone before." Morgan nodded sagely. "The bylaws of Nerddom state that there must be a post-mortem with specific detail within thirteen hours of the original act of coitus and—"
"I'm sticking to the bylaws, Chuck."
"I'm not describing it for you."
"Not even a little?"
Chuck gave his friend an unimpressed look.
"Give me something here. You're like a sphinx. I can't read you," Morgan said.
"Oh, fine, if you must know..." Chuck let his words trail off even as his smile, the one he'd been fighting back the entire trip through the labyrinth of the stadium to get to the rest of Team USA, grew.
Morgan's eyes widened. "You lucky, lucky dog," he said. "Every straight man in America hates you right now, just so you know."
"Let 'em." Chuck yawned and tried to pretend it wasn't because he was worn out from the past twenty-four hours. Not that he was complaining—he was definitely not complaining, not even a little—but diving, drinking, and Sarah had done a number on his system. On the other hand, he'd never felt this relaxed in his life. He wondered if the cameras would pick up the afterglow in HD. "You gotta admit, this is the life."
"Olympians," Morgan said, picking his medal up to play with it. Chuck had opted not to wear his own medal, as he'd never been a big fan of bling. "Chuck, we did it. We came, we saw, we kicked their asses."
"That we did." Chuck laughed and gave Morgan a fist-bump. In perfect solidarity, they continued to lean against the wall, watching the rest of Team USA move around them. Chuck was pretty sure there was a goofy smile on his face, but that was going to be there for ages, thanks to the medal, the girlfriend, and the sponsorships. If he weren't so pleasurably used up at the moment, he'd have been reenacting the song and dance from Singin' in the Rain, much to the amusement of any media personnel that might happen to be in the vicinity. "Clearly this just means we're awesome."
"Never doubted it for a second," Morgan said.
"Nope. Has Carina learned your name yet?"
"She's no longer my volleyball-playing Mona Lisa, Chuck. I have set my sights on a new target."
Which meant, Chuck thought, that Carina was indeed still calling him Martin. "Uh-huh," he said. "Who is it this time?"
"Think Anna would object if I asked her out?"
Chuck was grateful that he did not have a drink in his hand at that moment, as said drink would have ended up all over the other Olympians in their all-white clothing. He had a brief, errant thought wondering why Ralph Lauren seemed to want to turn the entire US Olympic team into participants in a wet T-shirt contest in the event of rain, but he pushed that aside to shake his head at Morgan. "Dude. No."
"Aw, why not? I honestly think there might be something there—I certainly felt something last night—"
"Nuh-uh, no way. I do not want to hear about anything you felt last night."
"Killjoy," Morgan said with a long sigh. "Just why exactly do you object to me trying to date your coach, Charles Irving?"
"Because I know how easy it is to drown people, and I don't want that fate for you."
Morgan gave him a stubborn look.
"Fine," Chuck said, relenting with a sigh. "But stay in the shallow end if she lures you into a pool, do you hear me? And if she tells you no—"
"Yes, yes, I'll listen. Geez."
"Good luck," Chuck told him as Sarah found them, dragging Carina by the elbow. "I can't help but think this is going to end up with you dangling from a platform, for the record. Just remember what I taught you."
"Clench before I hit the water, yeah, I know."
Carina and Sarah raised their eyebrows. "Going into synchronized diving there, Speedo?" Carina asked.
"Dating tips," Morgan said, and the eyebrows went up further. "You look lovely tonight, ladies. May I?" He offered an arm to Carina, as the athletes had begun to shuffle down the hallway, clearly a sign that they were about to head out into the stadium for the closing ceremonies.
"Why not?" Carina gave Sarah and Chuck an amused grimace before she took Morgan's arm, abandoning her partner without a qualm.
Chuck had a brief flash of memory of standing at LAX, watching Carina drag Morgan away in self-satisfied amusement, leaving him alone with Sarah for the first time. "God," he said without meaning to. "Has it only been two weeks?"
"A little more than that, but yes." Sarah, like she always did now, seemed to read him perfectly. She reached up to fix his collar, her eyes smiling at him. "Were the Olympics all you expected and more?"
She met his eye and even with everything they'd done to each other that afternoon—and the reason they'd been so very late arriving at the closing ceremonies—Chuck felt a blush rise. He figured it would probably always be that way, with Sarah able to turn him into a stammering idiot at the lift of an eyebrow. "Given that I was expecting to belly-flop in front of billions of people and instead I met the most amazing person on the planet, to say nothing of the gold medal that will ensure I never have to pay for a drink in my life? I'd say maybe it's a little better than I expected."
"Only a little?"
"Okay, a lot."
They inched forward, Chuck getting jostled by some of the track team. Sarah grabbed his hand, trying to keep him next to her. "So what happens to us now?" she asked, dropping her gaze from his. It was probably the biggest cue she could have given him that it was a serious question.
"I'm not sure. I heard there's a Spice Girls reunion. I think they're on cars."
"Oh, you mean after the Olympics?" He finally broke character to laugh when she gave him an aggrieved look. "I'll have to give you my actual cell phone number as opposed to this cheap phone I bought at the train station on the first day. But you know, I think it could work. You're in L.A., I'm in L.A."
"We'll both be traveling a lot."
"That's why God invented video chat, email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Digg, Reddit, MySpace, Friendster, smoke signals, the Plain Old Telephone System, and the United States Postal Service."
"Chuck, I am not having sex with you through the United States Postal Service," Sarah said, and had quite a few athletes nearby turning to give them both wide-eyed looks. Chuck clapped a hand over his mouth to keep the laughter in, but Sarah gave the onlookers the side-eye so hard that they immediately found the walls around them interesting.
"I'm kind of curious how the logistics of that would work," Chuck said after a minute.
Sarah laughed and rested her head on his shoulder for a minute. "Only you."
"Seriously, though. I'm willing to make it work, if you are. Postal Service optional."
"We could look at the bright side. The longer we stay together and keep winning medals, the more people will want to feature both of us, which means more working together." Just as Sarah spoke, they reached the entrance of the stadium and the sound of cheering and music poured over them like a wave. On cue, cameras descended on them. They walked out, waving and looking around. It was an even bigger crowd than the night before, with what felt like millions crowded into the stadium. He felt anxiety clutch at his belly for a split-second, decided what the hell and settled in to enjoy it. The stands all around the stadium floor were glowing. He squinted at them, trying to see what kind of lighting system that was, until Sarah grabbed his arm to get his attention and waved at a camera shoved almost directly in their faces. "See?"
He managed a wave before the swimming team spotted the cameras and crowded them to goof off at the lens. Sarah tugged Chuck away from the group to where Carina and Morgan walked, still arm in arm. Morgan was giving a royal wave When another camera started walking in front of them, Carina yanked off her newsboy cap and tossed it into the air like a graduate celebrating. It hit a cyclist in the face; from the way Carina glanced at his thighs, she'd been looking for such an opening. She wasted no time in heading over retrieve her cap.
"You know, you have to admire her methods," Chuck said. "Bow to the master, if you will."
"Yeah." Sarah shook her head and turned to give him a brilliant smile. "So we're going to make this work?"
"I'm game if you are."
"Definitely." She kissed him, and every camera in the vicinity swung toward them with an unflinching accuracy that made Chuck nervous. Sarah threw up her arms and let out a whoop, no trace of the Ice Queen present, and since Chuck was still holding her hand, he mimicked her. Morgan leaped up, an arm around Chuck's shoulders, at the same time as Carina came from behind and tackled Sarah, who was still laughing. A flashbulb exploded in their faces, capturing that perfect Olympic moment. It would headline all of the articles about the Closing Ceremonies the next day, and stay in Chuck's living room for years, dangling between twin displays of gold medals that had "London 2012" emblazoned on them.
But for now, Chuck just settled back to enjoy the closing ceremonies for two and a half of the most perfect weeks of his life—until Sarah gripped his sleeve, pulled him close for a kiss...and whispered, "What's Facebook?"