A/N: But what would the ConVerse be without a nice Christmas chapter that's super freaking long? This takes place right before the Con Game Double Agent arc.
Merry Christmas, y'all! This is my gift to you! To those of you who don't celebrate Christmas, whether you're celebrating other holidays or you just don't celebrate anything during this time of year, I wrote this for you, too! I wrote it for everyone, including myself! Hope you all have a good end of the year and here's hoping it gets here really fast and that 2018 doesn't suck absolute BUTT, am I right? Have a lovely New Year, folks.
Disclaimer: The things I'd do if I had the rights to "Chuck"...the things I'd do. I don't, though. So...keep that in mind and don't sue me, thanks.
CON GAME HOLIDAY DETOUR
The silence had permeated through the last hour and a half of the drive. Long periods of silence weren't exactly rare between them when they were on road trips. For how talkative Chuck Bartowski was in particular, he wasn't the type of person who couldn't handle silence. It hadn't taken long for them to settle into having comfortable silences during long car rides, even on their very first road trip.
But there was something else in this silence.
At least, there was for her.
She had the knowledge that all of this was her fault niggling at her, like someone was poking her brain with it over and over and over. Greed was merely one of her multiple vices. And this time it had come with consequences.
Granted, it could've been worse. They could've died back there in New Orleans. But they'd left too much behind when they fled the scene, even if they had gotten that formula for their trouble, on top of the extra satisfaction of the damage they'd done to Wilson & Poole's finances. With their formula being leaked, others would capitalize on it, denting W&P's profits massively. Good.
The biggest problem was that the getaway hadn't been clean, however. And while she and Chuck escape with their lives, with nothing but some bruises and a sprained ankle between them, they would have to go into hiding for a while.
It wasn't just that their faces were seen—the disguises they wore would make that less of a problem at the end of the day—but that they would have to retire their respective cover identities. They were two of their best, most profitable covers, too, damn it. Kelly and John Thompson were no more. The FBI would be looking for them.
The con artists had to drown the Thompsons in the Mississippi River, and burned the rest of their existence in a fire they built in the nearby forest. They'd stolen a car and crossed all the way into another state. Soon, they'd be at the safe house Sarah'd set up six years earlier. The woods were thickening around the road they drove on. That was how she knew they were close. She'd bought the place with cash from the owner, no strings attached, and it was deep, deep in the woods.
They'd stocked up with groceries in some town she'd never heard of before leaving civilization behind and disappearing into the woods. They were home free now, she knew. They were safe, far away from Wilson & Poole's vengeful hand, far away from the feds' watchful eye.
But that niggling feeling of her own greed being what forced them here in late-December refused to go away. This con hadn't been necessary. They weren't strapped for cash. And they'd made holiday plans, holiday plans she'd actually been excited for. Those plans were derailed now, and Chuck would eventually have to call his sister to tell her. That phone call would suck.
She shook herself a bit, slowing to guide their car around some fallen branches from the flurry of storms this area had gotten in the last week. "Hm? What do you mean, what?"
"Did I? I didn't mean to."
Sarah could feel the look Chuck was giving her and she twisted her mouth to the side and sighed again. "I just wish we didn't have to do this," she admitted. She kept her eyes on the road, still following the narrow path towards the house she'd hidden in twice before. Both of those times, she'd been alone. She wouldn't be this time.
She felt Chuck drape a hand on her shoulder, and then he slid it up to gently rub the back of her neck. His hand was cold and she shivered a bit, but she was comforted all the same. "Better this than chancing not hiding and ending up getting picked up by the FBI. Even worse, getting tracked all the way to LA, to Ellie and Devon." He huffed and shook his head. "I'm not taking that risk. I'll take the cabin in the woods over that any day."
Sarah nodded. "I know. We just didn't need this job. And now it's over, we're getting a couple million out of it, which is great, but I don't really think your missing out on Christmas with your family was worth it. Do you?"
"No. I guess not. But I don't want you putting it all on yourself. Yeah, the con was originally your idea. But we discussed it for, like, multiple days on end, and we both were in complete agreement to go forward with it. We both wanted it. It wasn't just you."
"I know." She paused, pulling the car off of the road and down an even narrower muddied path that led even deeper into the woods. She could see the outline of the one-story house through the trees, its dark roof and chimney, the brown garage door and the wooden porch. "I'm just upset. I feel like I ruined your Christmas."
"What?! Sarah. Baby. No."
The con woman just shrugged and slid the car to a stop in front of the house, the gravel crunching under the wheels. Weeds were growing up through it, leaves were everywhere, and cobwebs stretched across pretty much every right angle on the structure that she could see. But it was a well-built cabin, strong foundations, and a nice porch with sturdy steps leading up to it. At least she hoped they were sturdy. It had been a few years now.
As she pulled the car to a stop and turned it off, Chuck laid his hand over hers on the gearshift and frowned at her. "Hey. Seriously. I don't want you thinking you've ruined my holiday. The most important thing to me is that I get to be with you on Christmas."
"This is the first holiday you've been in touch with your sister again, Chuck. Your first Christmas you could've spent with Ellie since, shit, like…seven years ago? And this stupid con fucked it up." She unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car, popping the trunk and reaching in to start getting their bags.
Chuck followed, rounding the car and stopping next to her. "Hey."
She ignored him, grabbing the duffel bag first.
"Hey." He took her by the arms and turned her to face him, forcing her to meet his eyes. "It's okay, Sarah. Being here in this cabin is going to be really nice. It sucks that there's kind of a dark cloud over it in a way since, oh you know, we're hiding from the authorities and a big name pharmaceutical company run by basically criminals who could have us killed if they knew who we were. But this is still a really nice cabin. Not a bad safe house at all, considering I was freaking out a little once we drove into the woods, part of me wondering if I was gonna get kidnapped by Deliverance guys wearing overalls and playing banjos…I dunno, kept in a box under their bed or something."
She made a face at him. "That's incredibly specific and a little creepy."
He shrugged. "Hey, I have an idea. Instead of dwelling on the negative things, why don't we go inside and you give me a tour? Then we can grab our bags, shower, put on comfy things, start a fire in the fireplace, and cuddle in front of it. Huhhh? Ehhhhh?"
Chuck Bartowski's grin could melt the Antarctic, she thought to herself as she admired the way his nose wrinkled. He spread his arms out, palm up, and it was too inviting to pass up, so she just stepped up against him and rounded his torso with her arms, hugging him tight and pressing her face into the lapel of his jacket.
He squeezed her tightly, kissing the top of her head. "Good idea on the cuddling out here thing, Sarah, because it's freaking cold."
She giggled and pulled back, tapping him on the nose as she picked the duffel bag up off of the ground where she'd set it down. "You can take the boy out of LA, but you can't take the LA out of the boy."
"I know you're cold, too, so don't even try that."
Sarah laughed, grabbing her backpack with her electronics and laptop, slinging it over her shoulder, and stepping around him towards the cabin. "Of course I'm cold. It's like thirty degrees! The difference is that I'm not complaining about it."
She sent him a cheeky look over her shoulder, grinning at him as he laughed and shook his head, taking more of their luggage out of the trunk and slamming it shut so that he could follow her.
By the time he reached her side, she was pushing the front door open. It smelled a bit musty, which didn't surprise her, since the last time she'd lived in it was when she was twenty-five, a little over four years earlier.
"Hey, do me a favor…I have to turn on the house's power, gas, water—all that fun stuff we're gonna need. Can you take the rest of the bags in?"
"What about the tour?" he asked, starting to pile the bags in the entry way.
"Do you want a tour in the dark? Or when I can actually turn on the lights so that you can see what I'm showing you?"
She moved into the house and shoved a few of the curtains open to let the dwindling daylight into the family room. It was insanely dusty, but she wouldn't worry about that until tomorrow. For now, she just needed to make it so that Chuck could see passably enough to take their luggage inside, and then she'd get the lights on.
"I'll be right back."
Sarah felt Chuck's gaze on her as she brushed past him back onto the porch, trotting down the steps and rounding the house to the electrical box. This was the beginning of what she knew would be at least a few weeks unless a miracle happened.
They were stuck here past Christmas, at least, and maybe even the New Year, as well. And she was still frustrated with herself, in spite of knowing Chuck didn't blame her. She'd hidden most of her frustration from her boyfriend, for a number of reasons, so she let it out when she got outside, slamming a hand against the side of the cabin once she was out of his line of sight.
He glanced over at the cabin's back porch and narrowed his eyes. Then he looked down at the giant pile of wood at his feet. Finally, he switched his gaze to the ax leaning against the large tree stump. As he picked it up and readjusted it in his palm, he murmured a quiet, "Rad."
It was only their second full day at the safe house and they'd already run out of firewood. There was a fireplace in the living room and in the main bedroom, though. And it had been so cold here. Colder than the temperatures he'd grown up with, at least. And no matter where he traveled, he'd never be able to handle anything under forty degrees Fahrenheit. So the fact that a few nights had dropped into the twenties…God, he probably would've died without the heater on full blast and Sarah pressed against him.
Of course he'd volunteered to collect wood to add to the pile out back and chop it so that they could use it for the fireplaces. It was something he imagined every guy might want to try at least once in their lives. To feel extra manly or something. Just grab that ax and swing it down, cleave a chunk of wood in two. So damn manly. Right?
He tried to look in through the window to see if Sarah was in the kitchen, watching, but the sun was glinting off of it in just the right way that the glare made it difficult for him to see anything at all, so he just sighed and wrapped his other hand around the ax handle, gripping it tightly with two hands.
Swinging it a few times to test its weight, he shrugged and stooped down to grab one of the larger pieces of wood, setting it on the stump the way muscled rancher dudes did in the movies he'd watched as a kid. Then he set the ax down again and spat a little in his hands, making a face with an "ugh", and then rubbing his hands together. With another shrug, he picked up the ax and took a deep breath.
His epic swing arced over his head, the ax slicing the crisp air in two.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw that he'd stuck the blade of the ax in the stump and missed the piece of wood entirely. To add insult to injury, the piece of wood slowly tipped to the side and thumped to the ground at his feet, almost mockingly.
Clearing his throat, he knelt down to pick it up again, setting it back on the stump. This time he held the ax out in front of him, hovering right over his target, then he eased the ax back again, trying to make sure he stayed in light. And with another swing…CHHTT thunk!
The ax caught the corner, flaking off a two inch shard of wood, and the follow-through of his swing had him staggering forward.
He caught himself and stood up quickly as though it had never happened, clearing his throat again and looking towards he house. God, he hoped Sarah wasn't watching him right now. He could just imagine the giggle and the pitying look on her face.
Damn it! He was doing this!
If he had to look how-to videos up on YouTube, so be it! But he was doing this!
Sarah was in the living room on the couch with her feet up and reading a book, looking incredibly comfortable, when he finally came back inside almost an hour later. He was sweating, but also cold at the same time. It was a terrible feeling.
But he felt better as he looked down at the wood rack in his hands, filled with what he considered to be the day's winnings. "Your man went out and chopped a bunch of wood, Miss Walker," he chirped proudly. And as she lowered her book with an inquisitive look and a grin, he set the rack down next to the fireplace and thrusted his hands out with a "Ta daaa!"
Her grin died a little as she looked at the rack he'd just put down for her to inspect. She swung her feet around to set them on the floor and sat up, setting her book aside. "Um."
"Yeah, I know…kind of, um, chippy? A little? More like shards, really. But I chopped!"
Sarah twisted her mouth to the side and he could tell she was genuinely trying not to laugh or tease him. But then her efforts apparently failed her, because she stood up and looked at him with a wince. "It looks like you put it through a broken wood chipper."
His hopeful look fell and he made a face at her. "Oh, thanks."
She laughed and covered her mouth with both hands. "I'm sorry, Chuck. We can use this still! We totally can! Wood burns no matter what, right? What, um…What exactly did you—No, don't be sore with me!"
"I'm not sore," he threw over his shoulder testily.
He heard her following after him as he walked through the kitchen to the back door. "It just didn't need to be chopped that small, that's all!" she said, right on his heels. "Like, you could've just halved it and that would've been sufficient."
His flat look had her giggling, and then he felt her reach out and grab his arm in both hands, pulling him back to face her. "No, it's fine. I just spent all morning chopping that wood, that's all." He shrugged passive-aggressively.
She pouted a bit and slid her arms around his shoulders, moving onto her tip toes and kissing him.
Chuck made sure to kiss her back in a way that let her know he was teasing her. Because for as long as he spent out there trying to figure out how to split the wood down the middle, even trying to do a search on YouTube to help him, he knew how ridiculous the whole situation was, and it was legitimately funny. Embarrassing, but funny.
When they broke apart a few moments later, he chuckled. "It really does look like I put it through a wood chipper with a few blades missing, doesn't it?"
Sarah laughed and shrugged. "It really does, yeah. I take it you've never done it before."
"Woman, please," he scoffed. And then he gave her a serious look. "You know I haven't."
Laughing again, she held up a finger and stepped out of his embrace. "Hold that thought. Let me get my jacket and boots on. I'll show you."
She gave him cheeky look over her shoulder and scurried off. When she joined him at the back door less than a minute later, she took his hand and led him outside, their boots crunching leaves and twigs on the ground as they approached the scene of the crime, he thought to himself dryly.
"This isn't the first time I've had to hide here," she admitted.
"Wait, really?" He didn't know why that surprised him. Maybe the idea of Sarah flubbing a con bad enough that she had to go into hiding just didn't seem possible. Though it should, since it had happened to them a handful of times during their three and a half year partnership, so of course it would've happened to her before she'd met him. It happened to him enough times. No one was perfect.
"Yep. This is my third stay at Casa de…" She seemed to be racking her brain as she stopped at the stump and grabbed a piece of wood.
"Casa de Planet Hoth?"
She laughed. "You really have a hard time with cold weather, don't you, babe?"
"I can handle it," he shrugged. "But I'm gonna complain. Sorry. It's just me."
Sarah grabbed the ax and smiled at him, a genuine smile that reached her eyes. "You never have to apologize for who you are with me, Chuck. You know that."
He was so busy melting at what she said, and the sincerity with which she said it, that he wasn't expecting her to swing the ax down and sever the piece of wood right down the center, sending the two halves clattering to the ground at her feet. "Ta da!" she cried out, grinning proudly back at him, propping the ax on her shoulder like a straight-up cool lumberjack.
Chuck gaped. "What the hell? How'd you do that so easily?"
"I told you, I've done it before. When I had to hide here. I had to get the wood for the fire somehow, right? So I just kept at it until I could get it right. You know how I am with sharp objects, though," she added with a wink, grabbing another piece of wood and chopping it with one swing again.
"I just…No offense, this doesn't have anything to do with you, but I'm almost ashamed I'm not strong enough to do the chopping wood thing." He blushed. "Like, when I was a kid, I'd watch some, I dunno, TV show or something, and the guy walks out, rolls his flannel sleeves up, and just WHACK! And it just always seemed so…" He shrugged. "Whatever. Strong guy, I guess. Like Paul Bunyan."
She giggled. "Don't be like that, Chuck. It isn't really about strength as much as precision, you know?"
Narrowing his eyes, he crossed his arms and moved a bit closer. "That's not what the guy said in the YouTube video. Granted, it was a satire video and less of a how-to, but…still. That's not what he said."
Sarah opened her mouth to respond, then stopped, something seeming to occur to her. "Wait, did you look on YouTube to see how to chop wood?"
"Uh…" He winced. "Maybe. It wasn't helpful at all."
She gasped, then stared at him for a few seconds. "How did I resist you for three years?"
Chuck pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes, tilting his head. "Mmmmm I can't tell if that's sarcasm."
"Of course it's not sarcasm. You're the cutest fucking person I've ever met in my life and sometimes I seriously can't even handle it. Look. C'mere." She waved him closer and he obeyed, then she very carefully, incredibly precisely, explained her technique to him.
She shifted out of his way and put the ax in his hands, standing close to go through the motions with him.
Then she stepped all the way back and gestured at the wood she'd placed on the stump for him. "Try it."
"Uh, okay…" He cleared his throat, feeling a bit nervous with Sarah standing even within five feet of him. When he'd been chopping wood before, the stuff had shot off in all directions multiple times. It was a mess…a dangerous mess. He didn't much like the idea of her getting pegged in the face by one of his wood shards.
Licking his lips, he readjusted his hands, rolled his head back and forth, made his shoulders and arms a bit loose…and then he swung the ax hard. It sliced off the top corner again and he nearly fell forward, but caught himself.
Red in the face, he turned to face his girlfriend and partner with a sheepish shrug. "I'm not cut out for it."
"No, Chuck. Your eyes were closed. You can't see where you're swinging if you close your eyes. Try again. Remember how I taught you. Follow where your shoulders are pointing. C'mon. You can do it."
He sighed. "I've always had string bean arms, though."
"Chuck, the first thing I noticed when I saw you with your shirt off for the first time were your arms, and your shoulders. Both, together. I've seen string beans and they definitely don't look like what you've got, you sexy hunk of man meat."
"Did you just call me a sexy hunk of man meat?"
"Mhm I did. How's that make you feel?" she asked, arching one eyebrow and crossing her arms. She was flirting hard and he found himself beaming.
"Really good, actually. And I'm almost ashamed of myself."
"I said almost."
He knelt down and put another piece on the stump. With one hard swing of the ax, he caught the wood smack dab in its center and cracked it right in half. "OH YYYYEAHHH! WHAT'S UP, PAUL BUNYAN?!"
Sarah punched both fists above her head with a celebratory "WOOOOO!" and ran at him, jumping into his embrace. She surprised him then by grabbing him around the back of his neck with both hands and yanking him into a hard kiss. One of her hands pushed into his hair, her fingers tangling in his curls, and she pulled him in even more, opening her mouth.
As her tongue swept against his, he heard himself emit a quiet grumble and he rounded her torso with his free arm, his other hand still wrapped around the handle of the ax.
She pulled out of the kiss awhile later, still hovering a few inches above the ground as he held her up without much effort. Maybe there was something to the whole his-arms-weren't-string-beans thing she'd said to him. Then again, he loved to think that Sarah had checked him out all the way back when they were first starting out as partners. It was a damn good feeling, insanely great for his ego.
She eased herself back to the ground, dragging her body over his, and, he noticed, slowing significantly as their hips made contact. When she was on her feet again, she looked up at him through her eyelashes. "I said you could do it," she murmured, her voice deep and intoxicating. It sent a shiver through him.
"Don't ever question me again. Especially not where my nerd's concerned. Got it?"
Chuck bit his bottom lip and nodded slowly, not able to look away from those eyes of hers, so blue in the bright light reflected from the overcast Southern sky above them.
"Why don't I finish chopping this wood, and then we can make some hot cocoa and snuggle?" he said, giving 'snuggle' a goofy accent. He grinned with his tongue between his teeth. She grinned back with a one note giggle through her nose.
"How about later?" she asked, slowly, curling her fingers around his hand that still held onto the ax handle.
"Later? I mean, now that I know I can do it, why don't I just finish it up—Oh. Because you have other plans. I get it now. I can do this later."
Even as she grabbed his hand and started tugging him to the door, the ax falling through his fingers as he eagerly left it behind, she gave him a dangerously seductive look over her shoulder.
He'd finish this later.
Much, much later.
It was probably an invasion of his privacy, but Sarah couldn't help peeking through the back door window and watching Chuck's entire conversation with Ellie.
They'd purposefully waited a few days before Chuck called Ellie to tell her the bad news.
They were monitoring the FBI's behavior, seeing if there was still an effort to catch the Thompsons. At this point, Chuck's digging uncovered that the FBI was open to the fact that the Thompsons weren't real, that it was just a cover for the con artists. And that meant they'd broaden their search. She'd hoped the search might have lost traction by now and they could hightail it to Los Angeles to stay with the Woodcombs in time for Christmas, which was in three days.
But that wasn't going to happen.
It was still too dangerous. They'd be taking a big risk, and Ellie and Devon would be caught up in that risk. As much as she knew Chuck wanted to go, he was even more vehement than she was about the decision to stay here for Christmas, in their cabin in the woods.
She was so caught up in watching Chuck as he spoke to his sister that she didn't pick up on the fact that she'd just thought of her cabin as their cabin, even though she'd bought it, furnished it…if there'd been a lease or even an address connected to the house, it would belong to her, as well. Or at least, her cover identity. But it was both of theirs now. If she wasn't so focused on Chuck pacing in the backyard, she might ponder about whether or not all of her safe houses also belonged to her now-boyfriend.
Chuck hung his head as he lowered himself to sit on the tree stump, one hand in his hair, the other holding his burner phone to his ear as he talked to his sister. She could read his body language loud and clear. The conversation probably wasn't going well.
Though she'd spent enough time with Ellie by now to know that Chuck's distress was more about his own guilt than about anything his sister might be saying. Sarah could imagine the surgeon being disappointed but understanding. With Ellie, it was all in her tone, anyway.
He finally lowered the phone from his ear and held it in both of his hands, looking down at it for a while before he stood up and started towards the house again, a slump in his shoulders.
Sarah hurried away from the door and deposited herself in the kitchen, grabbing the whiskey and pouring a finger's worth in a glass. She was ready when he came in, holding the glass out towards him. He stopped halfway into the kitchen, seeing the whiskey in her hand, and then he chuckled and shook his head, closing the distance and tossing the phone on the counter behind her.
"Thank you, but it went all right. Better than I thought, actually!" he chirped, but his smile didn't reach his eyes and she knew him too well to fall for it. So she just stared at him as he drank down the entirety of the whiskey in the glass with one gulp. And she kept staring until he finally sighed and shrugged, handing the glass back to her. "It sucked a lot," he admitted. "But it really wasn't as bad as it could've been. She understood, but I could tell she was super disappointed."
"Yeah…" Sarah took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm pretty disappointed myself and I'm not even in the family."
He smiled, setting a hand on her hip and squeezing. "Ellie said to tell you hello. And that she has a new brunch place you two need to try out when we're back in LA. She said she wants to take you there, specifically."
Sarah raised her eyebrows. "Me, specifically?"
"Mhm. I think she wants some one on one time with you."
And that was an incredibly daunting thought, something Sarah decided not to voice to her boyfriend. "Just the girls, huh? Sounds nice." Sounded terrifying.
"I'm gonna take a real quick shower. How about getting a fire going in the living room and we can watch a Christmas movie and eat popcorn?" He gasped and started backing away, grinning with that nose wrinkle of his, but she held fast to his hand, not letting him escape so easy.
"Hey, wait a second. Are you okay?"
Chuck sighed again. "Yeah. Honestly, I am."
"Really?" She stepped in close, pressing her chest against his and resting her hands on his biceps. She rubbed up and down his arms comfortingly. "Because you don't get to spend Christmas with your family again this year, and for once you actually could've if we hadn't pulled this last con."
"But we did pull this last con. Both of us were all in on that decision. The getaway wasn't as smooth as we wanted it to be and things didn't work out like we wanted them to, but we're here now. We're safe. I'd personally like to stay that way, and keep Ellie safe, too. She agreed."
"Yeah, I know. But I'm still sorry, Chuck. I'm sorry this happened. I'm sorry we're stuck here for Christmas. Yet another year you're away from your family for the holidays."
"You're my family, too, Sarah." She froze, slowly lifting her gaze up to his. "You know that, right?" The con woman didn't know how to respond to that. "And you're here with me. Just like you've been for the past few years. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
"I'm right there with you, ya nerd," she breathed, moving up to her tiptoes to kiss him softly. "You could've had both, though. And I'm sorry.""Stop apologizing, Sarah. You have nothing to apologize for. We're in this beautiful cabin. Your man is officially the best wood chopper in the world—" She made a dubious sound. "Just give me that, will you?" She giggled. "And we have two fireplaces, which seems kind of unnecessary but we still have them. This is going to be the best Christmas to date," he emphasized, and she saw that the light had come back into his eyes. "I'm going to take a shower now though, because I'm cold."
"Okay," she chuckled, letting him step out of the hold she had on him.
But then he lunged in and slapped her on the backside. "Now get goin' on that fire, woman!"
As he lunged again, this time out of her reach, she gasped, mockingly affronted, and grabbed the glass he'd used, pretending to throw it at him. He laughed and spun to run away, but smacked his entire right side into the frame of the doorway. "OW!"
Sarah practically guffawed as he sent her a dirty look. "KARMA!"
"How you doin'?"
"Mmm. What about you?" he asked.
He chuckled, tightening his arms around her as they lay reclined on the couch. She was draped directly on top of him, her face pressed into his shoulder, her hands clutching his waist. In addition to the warmth of her body, she'd also pulled a blanket over them. Then there was also the fire she'd started while he was making hot toddies.
Chuck was pretty sure he'd never been this comfortable ever in his life. There was one thing, however…
"Though I just realized I have a bit of a crick in my neck."
She shifted a little, nuzzling his shoulder with her nose. "You lied to me. You said you're great. You have a crick in your neck and that's not great, Chuck."
"No, no…I mean, it's just my neck. The arm of this couch is a little uncomfortable now, but basically all of the parts of me from where you start to where you end are supremely comfortable." He flatted his hand on the top of her head. "Here down, I'm totally good."
Sarah snorted. "Why aren't you using a pillow?"
"It fell. Or something. I don't know. I don't want to move. This is too nice. I just want to stay here."
With a roll of her eyes, she pushed herself up, apparently ignoring his groans of reluctance. "I've found the pillow." She pulled it from off of the floor and held it up.
He received a flat look for that one. "Here. Teamwork. Lean up and I'll shove it in there."
"That's what she said."
Sarah laughed, always a sucker for his 'that's what she saids'. "You freaking horndog. Get up here."
He did, lunging up towards her. And he stole a warm kiss from her as he felt her push the pillow between him and the couch arm. She patted it a bit and he laid back down, sighing. "Well done, soldier."
She smirked and shook her head, draping herself back onto his chest and sneaking her arms around his torso. "Look at that. Now there's a little space for me to do this."
"Oh, what an unexpected perk this is." He hugged her tightly again and kissed the top of her head. "Although, now there's another problem that's just occurred to me."
"You keep babbling?"
He barked out a laugh as she lifted her head and scooted up his lithe form a bit so that she could look down into his face. God, he loved that toothy grin of hers, the one she flashed for him, and him alone. "Just kidding," she chirped in a sing-songy voice. "Tell me the problem and I'll fix it."
"See, I'm super comfortable…"
"Mm, yes I do see."
"But my hot toddy—my tod, if you will—is way over there." He gestured with a flick of his thumb over to the coffee table. His mug was just barely out of reach, even with his long arms.
"Hmmm. Well, Chuck…To reach that hot toddy, we'd have to move."
"So you have to choose, Chuck." She hugged him tightly again, burying her face under his chin. "Me? Or the alcohol?"
He chuckled. "Why not both? Por qué no los dos, Sarah?"
He sat up as she squealed, giggling as she had to move her legs to straddle him, sitting in his lap as he reached out to grab the mug and pull it back, holding it between them. "See?" He tightened his free arm around her, sending her one of his silly smolders over the rim of his drink as he sipped it.
"Mine is way over there. Can I have some of yours?" she asked, glancing over her shoulder.
When she turned back, he merely tilted the mug in the other direction, watching as she set her lips to it and drank.
"Mmm I get why people drink these," she hummed as he reached over to set the mug down again.
"Warms you from the inside out, doesn't it?"
He hugged her then and slumped to the side, leaning his right side against the back of the couch and resting his cheek on her shoulder. They stayed that way for a few minutes, just listening to the crackle of the fire, the drops of rain pelting the roof of the safe house. Until finally, Chuck felt Sarah move her arm against his upper back, her face turning a bit from where she had it pressed into his hair."It's midnight o'seven," she said softly, having apparently just glanced at her watch."Is it?"
"It is. Which means it's officially Christmas."
Chuck pulled back and looked into her face. There was a soft warmth there, her stunning features settling in quiet and intimate affection, with a side of comfortable sleepiness. "And how are you, Miss Walker?"
She gave him a meaningful look, one he recognized all too well. There was some flatness directed at him for asking the question, a bit of self-deprecation spurred by her awareness of her own demons, both big and small. But the most important thing he saw was that thread of hurt that he saw in her every Christmas since they met. He knew why it was there; she gave him a general idea that first Christmas, when he'd practically dragged it out of her. Since then, each year she became more and more used to the idea of actually recognizing the day, rather than treating it like any other day. They exchanged little gifts, tokens of gratitude for their partnership that grew stronger and stronger.
And now they were here. She had her arms around him, love in her eyes in spite of where she knew his questioning was about to take them. This was their first Christmas as a couple, not just partners. And for the first time since three years earlier, he could lean in and kiss her, hold her, without fearing the emotional repercussions it might have for the both of them.
"I could be worse," she teased, but the humor didn't altogether reach her blue eyes.
He merely smiled at her, keeping any verbal response he might have to himself. This was how she operated. She opened up when she wanted to, and nothing he could say would change it. He'd learned this early on in their partnership.
"I'm actually all right," she finally said, reaching up to fiddle with one of his curls between her fingers. It gave him a strange sensation, one he liked quite a lot, and he shivered in her arms. "This time it feels different."
He gasped dramatically. "Because of me?"
That made her giggle, her shoulders bouncing. She slid her arms around his neck. "Yes, frankly, but also a lot of other things. Maybe I've grown somewhat in the last five or so years."
"People do that sometimes."
That earned him a look, but then it melted into a smile. "Yeah." And then the smile was gone, and she stared off over his shoulder, her blue eyes a bit foggy. "But not everyone."
He knew immediately that she meant her father. And she was right, the man didn't seem capable of growth. He was one of those few who just stayed the way they were, not because they were lost causes, but because they were lazy, selfish, afraid of change…Any number of things.
"True." Chuck gave his girlfriend an extra squeeze. "Not everyone."
Neither of them had to mention who they were talking about. It was that silent mind meld that happened between them even before they knew they were in love, back when they were just partners, still figuring out what all of the extra stuff in their partnership was.
"It isn't worth thinking too hard on that, Sarah. Like you said, it feels different this time. Because it is different. No cons. No lies." He gestured to their surroundings. "This is your new Christmas. Christmas with this guyyyy." He pointed at himself with both thumbs.
Sarah smirked and shook her head at him. "You can't even begin to know just how grateful I am that this is my Christmas now. And if we hadn't pulled this last con and could safely be in Los Angeles with Ellie and Devon, that would be my Christmas, and it'd be great, too. But that doesn't make all of the bad Christmas memories go away. And I don't think they ever will go away. I'm sorry, Chuck." She stroked his jawline gently with the backs of her fingers.
He shook his head. "Don't apologize, baby. Not to me. I get it. You didn't grow up with the sort of Christmases that I did. Twilight Zone marathons and hot cocoa and the little tree in the corner next to the TV."
"Twilight Zone? Really? On Christmas?" She narrowed her eyes dubiously.
"Oh, yeah. Every year. Our dad actually started it with us when we were really little, before he disappeared on us."
"That's an odd choice for Christmas."
"Maybe," he chuckled. "But it's what we do. I'm sure Ellie and Devon have it all ready for later today. Apparently they've even been having Morgan show up the last few years—mostly for the food, I'm sure." And he ignored the spike of envy he felt as he imagined Morgan taking his place the past few years. He didn't begrudge his best friend, at all. But what he wouldn't have given to be there, too.
"Hey, wait a second…"
She squirmed in his lap, then, gracefully swinging her leg over so that she could push herself to her feet next to the couch. She tossed the blanket at him. "Hold on, I'll be right back."
Chuck just blinked at her as she walked around the couch and made for the hallway. She gave him a quick mischievous look over her shoulder right before she disappeared in the direction of their bedroom. He blinked again and turned back to look at the fire, still sitting on the couch with his legs splayed over the cushions haphazardly.
"What are you doing?" he called after her.
"Just wait a second!" he heard her shout from the bedroom. He thought he heard a short, "A ha!"
And then a few moments later, she re-emerged from the hallway and crossed the room to the coffee table. The moment she came back in, he saw what she was holding in her hands, and he felt the breath leave his body.
When she set it down right in the middle of the table and plopped onto the couch next to him, all he could do was stare at it, feeling a smile growing on his face. "I had no idea you kept it," he said, breathless.
"Of course I did, Chuck. It's the first tangible gift anyone's ever given me."
He finally had his bearings enough to turn away from the little ballerina figurine, meeting her gaze. He felt like such a sap, having to will himself not to get misty-eyed. But she had no idea how much it meant. He hadn't seen it since that Christmas Eve night when they were holed up in that hotel room, the snow piling up outside.
"I dunno, I figured it had just gotten left behind at some point. I mean, the amount of times we had to make a quick escape…there were a million and one opportunities for you to have forgotten it by accident or had to leave without it."
Sarah just shrugged, and he watched as shyness overcame her features, the way she pushed her hands down her plaid pajama pants and held onto her knees. "I made sure I didn't lose it. Like, I dunno, like a lucky charm or something." Then she took a long, slow breath. "But more. I mean, it wasn't luck, it was more that it made me feel like I was…a part of something. I didn't know it then—I do now—but it was probably that it made me feel like I belonged to somebody. With somebody. With you. And it made me feel safe, having this thing in my luggage."
Overwhelmed by everything she'd just said, and the implications of all of it, he breathed a soft, "I love you," and wrapped his arm around her, pulling her in and kissing her cheek. She turned her face and caught his lips in a much more passionate kiss. Leaning her weight into his body, she didn't stop until he was prone on the couch with her on top of him.
Chuck was beaming like an idiot as her lips began to wander, and it was a long time before he thought of anything else but her.
The blanket fell to her hips as she braced her hands on his chest and sat up. The cold air rushed over her skin and she ignored it, straining to go faster as his large hands closed over her hips. He didn't dictate or guide, letting her have full control. And as he moved his hands up the delicious curve of her back, she felt just how close she was.
Everything else went away. The cold air in the room, the warmth of the fire still going strong a few feet to the side of them, the ache in her thighs…it all went away, except for the feeling of him moving under her, inside of her. She felt the ten points of contact against her bare back separately, like his fingers were each emitting a different sort of fantastic, magical energy into her body. And with one last stroke of her powerful hips, she felt him spill over the edge.
She heard her name on his lips as he shivered beneath her, his grip tightening as he closed his eyes and threw his head back.
His chest collided with hers as she pulled him to sit up with her, his lips enveloping hers making it hard for her to breathe, but she didn't care until oxygen became crucial, and when she finally had to pull away, she hugged him close.
As she clung to him, panting his name over and over into his hair, she felt his arms slide around her torso, cradling her tightly, and she finally tipped to the side, bringing him with her as she oh-so-slowly regained a bit of her equilibrium.
She flopped onto her back as they separated a few moments later. She was so exhausted, her limbs so heavy. And she heard the half groan, half breathless chuckle from beside her, causing her to grin, feeling half mad with giddiness.
Chuck gently pulled his forearm out from under her neck and leaned down to grab the blanket that had fallen away, tugging it up over both of them and beckoning her back into his warmth with his free hand.
She went eagerly, realizing how cold it was in the room, in spite of the fire. The sweat on her skin was practically turning to icicles now that she wasn't otherwise occupied, and she dove into his chest, wrapping herself around him like her life depended on it, pressing her face into the crook of his neck.
The blanket under them had shifted, too, and she could feel the cold wooden floor under her feet, but she didn't care to move and fix it, instead settling for tucking her feet between his.
He welcomed her cold feet with the same kindness he always did, and in spite of just how long they'd spent getting lost in one another, there was so much intimacy in the way they seemed to be touching everywhere.
"Cold?" he asked, his voice deep and rumbly. A shiver went through her at the sound of it, the way she felt it in his chest under hers.
"Mm mm." She shook her head minutely, her eyes drifting shut. "This is really good. Why? Are you cold?"
"No." His lips brushed over her hair which she'd pulled into a messy braid. She was sure it was poking out everywhere; she just didn't care at the moment. "Although, my butt and most of my back is now directly up against the wood and that's a little cold."
She giggled. "Should we fix the blanket we're on?"
He made a sound that caused her to think it really wasn't that important to him. "Say, how did we even get here, by the way? Everything after you taking off your pants is kind of a fog."
"Everything?" she asked mischievously.
"It wouldn't be in correlation to my pants coming off, though, would it?"
"Oh, no. Purely coincidence. Those naked mile long legs of yours do not have the power to absolutely destroy my brain."
She laughed outright and braced a hand on his chest to prop herself up a bit and smile down at him. The satisfaction she saw on his face fed her ego like nothing else in the world could. "I dragged you and this second blanket down here by the fire because you're a klutz and kept seeming to forget we were on a couch and not a bed. Thought you were gonna roll us right off and I didn't want you to smack your head and get a concussion for Christmas."
Chuck gaped up at her for a few moments. "How?"
"Huh?" She furrowed her brow.
"How do you manage to keep your head so well when we're in the middle of…that?" She giggled. "I swear, you just touch me the right way and I can't tell you the answer to four plus two. Meanwhile, in the middle of actual sex, you're capable of thinking, 'Oh no. My klutzy boyfriend might roll off and get a concussion. We should move this to the floor.' And it's just so impressive." Then he paused, frowning teasingly. "Unless I'm not as good at this as you are, which, as mindblowingly fantastic as you are, would make complete sense."
Sarah gave him a flat look. "Right, and the string of curse words that came out of my mouth wasn't any indication of how good you are whatsoever."
A slow, dreamy smile stretched over his handsome face. "Heh. That happened a few times."
"Damn right." She nodded once with emphasis, looking down at him through her eyelashes. And then she glanced over at the fire and caught sight of the two presents sitting a few feet away, tucked under the plush chair in the corner, since they didn't have a Christmas tree in the house.
She looked down at Chuck, grinning with her bottom lip trapped between her teeth. "Hey, let's open presents."
Chuck let out a huff in amusement. "Right now? But that means we have to move."
She shook her head. "Not really. You can stay right here, I'll go get 'em and bring 'em over." He whined and tightened his arms around her, making her chuckle. "C'mon. It'll be fun."
"At…" He stopped and craned his neck to grab his burner from the floor where it'd been knocked off the couch at some point and ignored. He woke it up and glanced at the clock on his screen. "At 2:30 in the morning? Daaaaaaaaamn."
"Oh, wow. Definitely thought it was earlier."
"That would sound like a dig if I didn't know that it wasn't."
She laughed and shook her head, taking the phone from him and setting it aside to be forgotten again. "It doesn't matter what time it is. It's Christmas. Christmas is when you open presents."
"Fiiiiiiiiiiiiine," he groused, winking at her. The con woman pecked her partner on the lips and burst out of the warm cocoon they'd created, grabbing her underwear from the floor and pulling it on. "Wait, what? You're getting dressed?"
"It's fucking freezing, Chuck. I'm not opening gifts naked."
He sat up and pushed his hands through his hair, the blanket falling to his waist. And as she tugged her sweatshirt down over her breasts and picked up her PJ pants, she watched him convulse with a melodramatic shiver. "Oh God, it really is fucking freezing. Can you—?"
She cut him off by throwing his own pajamas at him so that they landed on his head, obscuring his face. She cackled at how perfectly she'd managed to throw them. And when he peeled the clothes off of his head with an unamused look on his face, she gave him an air kiss and pulled her pants up.
A few minutes later, they both sat clean, clothed, and cross-legged on their blanket, now nice and straightened over the floor, the two gifts exchanged and sitting unwrapped between them.
"Well, who goes first?" Chuck asked.
"You asked, so you go first."
He made a face and relented, side-eyeing her as he meticulously picked at the paper to unwrap it.
"You really are so slow at this."
"I'm ignoring you because it isn't like you've never seen me unwrap a gift before." She giggled and watched as he finally held up the unwrapped rectangular box. "What is this?"
"Open it!" she chirped.
He narrowed his eyes dubiously at her and cracked the seal on the box, opening it and digging inside. "Aw, cool! These are awesome!" He pulled out a pair of glasses and unfolded the arms, turning them in his hands and grinning. "This is so cool. With the thick part at the top of the rims and the little doodads in the corner…These are like rad nineteen-fifties spy glasses!" He slipped them on and made a face. "Oh cool, I can actually see through them."
"Well, they aren't real glasses because you have 20/20 vision, which is miraculous since you're such a nerd." He let out a sarcastic 'haaa' in response, taking them off again and turning them over some more to look at them. "But you can wear them for con jobs."
"Master of disguise," he hissed, slipping them back on again. "Sarah, I feel like Man from U.N.C.L.E. or something equally rad while wearing these. I need some high-waisted pants and a stupidly short tie."
She laughed. "Please no."
"Did you buy these for me because you have a kink for Cary Grant or something? You probably should've let me open this present before the last few hours happened, if you know what I mean," he joked, grinning cheekily under his new glasses.
Sarah kept a straight face, arching one eyebrow. "No, if we'd done that, I wouldn't have stopped 'til much later than this. Dawn, even."
She reveled in the way his jaw dropped, practically into his lap. "Damn, you're good. I can't even tease you," he mumbled, shaking his head at her, but she knew he enjoyed it. And her shit-eating grin let him know she knew.
But when he started to take them off again, she reached out and put a hand on his knee. "Wait, there's more." He frowned in question. "I wanted to get you Clubmaster glasses because I know how much you love Cold War spy movies, but I also gave you a little something extra that no one had in the nineteen-fifties." She paused for dramatic effect. "Feel along the arm on the right side, see if there's anything different there."
He did that, his brow furrowed. He must've found the button because he stopped and pressed. And then he immediately sprang backwards, spreading his arms out. "Oh my God! What's this?!"
"But they look like normal glasses! How?!"
"It's new technology." And she practically had to sell her soul to get it, but she did get it, thanks to some old connections. "Do you like them?"
He was looking right at her, his jaw slack. "I can now scientifically confirm that you are one hot mama," he growled.
Sarah smiled in spite of herself and shook her head slowly, rolling her eyes. "Chuck, anybody who's alive is hot if you're looking at them through those."
"Shhhh, you're ruining the effect," he whispered, reaching out a hand and looking at it. "This is false advertising. Infrared is telling me I'm warmer than my surroundings but I'm actually really cold."
"Okay, California boy. Off with the glasses now." She laughed as he pressed the button again and blinked a few times, grinning so that his nose wrinkled and taking them off. "So you like 'em?"
"This is easily the coolest friggin' thing anyone's ever gotten me, Sarah. Thank you." He moved onto his knees and leaned over. She met him halfway for a warm, long kiss, and when he sat back, he folded the glasses and slipped them in the case they came with. "Open yours. It's not nearly this cool. And I'm afraid it isn't going to have the emotional punch that was packed into the first gift I gave you." He gestured to the ballerina, still standing proudly in the center of the coffee table where she'd left her.
"Nothing ever will," she said, sending him a meaningful look. "And that's okay."
"It's definitely better than sexy lingerie, though."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "What? Were you…thinking of getting me sexy lingerie for Christmas?"
"Uh, no. That'd kind of be more of a gift for me than for you. Which is…cheating. No, I—"
"I dunno, the end result would be a gift for me, too." She purposefully ran her eyes down his lithe, long figure…even if it was a little less long with the way he was sitting cross-legged.
"Haa…" He cleared his throat, pulling at the collar of his shirt. "No, actually, when I talked to Devon on the phone about Christmas plans before they, uh, fell apart, he said he was getting Ellie—my sister—lingerie. 'Really sexy lingerie' were his exact words. It was something I very much did not want to be privy to. And I told him as much, so he went on to describe them to me. That was a great phone call." He wrinkled his face in disgust, unamused as she laughed at him.
"Please tell me that's not all he got her."
"I'm sure there's more, but I don't know anything else because I told him flat-out I just didn't want to know."
She unwrapped her gift with one quick movement and turned it over in her hands. It was a ring box, and in spite of how much she knew Chuck, inside and out, knew how he operated, knew where she stood with him, the dark purple box in her fingers filled her with a cold sort of fear. "Uh…"
"Please don't freak out, Sarah, and just open it."
Sarah was careful not to look at him as she popped it open. It was a ring, but there was no diamond on it, no gem or stone of any kind. She let out a long breath, the cold fear gone, a tentative smile growing on her face. It was a gold, warm color with vines crawling along it and tiny rose-shaped flowers. The pattern had a brass-like finish, almost burnished, that made it look antique and incredibly beautiful. "Chuck, oh my God, this is beautiful."
He gave her a look that very clearly said I'm not that intense and then said, "Put it on. See if it fits."
She gently pulled it out of the box and held it between her fingers. "Are these roses?"
"I was assured they're actually gardenias. The jeweler said the petals aren't as clumped together. Do they look like gardenias? They're supposed to be gardenias."
Sarah stared at him for a moment. "Gardenias?"
"Yeah. They're your favorite." She just shook her head slowly in response. "Are they not your favorite? Damn, I was sure you—"
"No, they are. They are my favorite. But I just…I don't—How did you know that? I don't think I ever told you that."
He sighed in relief, scooting closer to her and carefully taking the ring for her, very purposefully taking her right hand in his and slipping it onto her middle finger. "No, you didn't. But when we pulled that con in Melbourne and you had to pick out the flowers for the table, you made a point of picking gardenias. I was standing there while you talked to the florist and you specifically asked if she had gardenias. I figured they're your favorite because I couldn't think of any other reason why you'd want those in particular. A bit of an assumption, I know, especially for something this specific—having an artist put it on a ring for my girlfriend—but I just felt like I was right. I had that gut feeling, ya know?"
The only way she could describe how she was feeling was…God, she was overwhelmed. "I don't know how your mind works sometimes," she breathed, a lump in her throat as she turned over her hand and looked at the ring. "But I've never met anyone in my entire life who cares the way you do." She looked up into his eyes. "Not just about me, but just…in general. The fact that you notice things like that, things nobody else would ever notice, is why you're so easy to love. You know that?"
He opened his mouth, then seemed at a loss for words and instead he merely chuckled and shrugged in response.
"I love you. Thank you, Chuck." She leaned in to kiss him, tenderly stroking his jaw with her thumb.
"I'm glad you like it," he said quietly. "I love you, too. And also…" He paused dramatically. "Merry Christmas, for what it's worth."
She giggled, her chest filling with warmth. "It's worth quite a lot coming from you, actually." She slid across the small amount of space between them and crawled into his lap, looking at the ring again. Then she reached over and picked the case up off of the ground where he'd set it, dumping his new glasses out into her palm and opening them, carefully slipping them onto his face. "Merry Christmas, sexy Cary Grant nineteen-fifties spy."
"You do have a kink!" he chirped, and she laughed.
A/N: I mean, who isn't ridiculously attracted to Colin Firth in Kingsmen, though? If you aren't, you're lying (or not into men).
Sincerely grateful to everyone who read to the end of this. And to everyone who continues to read, review, and pass my stories along to other "Chuck" fans. It's so encouraging. Writers who say they don't like hearing from their readers are lying to you. It's very important.
Thanks all! Happy Holidays! (vroom vroom!)