"Morgan, what are you—"
"I've almost got it," came Morgan's muffled reply from deep within the depths of Chuck's closet.
Chuck backed up as piles of clothing and shoes flew through the air as the whirling dervish, also known as his best friend, continued to plow haphazardly through the already disorganized contents of the closet.
"Ow! Hey!" Chuck cried, rubbing his shin as he hopped on one foot, after being bashed by a vintage copy of Super Mario 2.
"Morgan, would you just stop? What are you looking for?"
"Found what?" Chuck asked, sitting on the edge of his bed, rubbing his still-sore shin.
A slow, goofy grin spread across Chuck's face as he watched Morgan unwind the sandworm costume, inching it out from the back of the closet.
"Halloween victory!" Morgan cried, his hair mussed and pointing in all directions as he emerged with the beast. Using both hands on the costume's slinky-like middle, he propped it up over his head, the mouth and tail ends flopping around his shoulders.
"I wish, buddy. Ellie's decided not to host her annual Halloween party this year."
"What? That's sacrilege!" Morgan yelped, taking a seat next to Chuck and letting the sandworm slither off of his shoulders dejectedly to the floor.
Chuck looked at the sad heap of brown and beige fabric pooled at his friend's feet and then back up at Morgan. "Yeah," he sighed, resting the right side of his face on his fist, elbow balanced on top of the headboard bookcase. "She's still having a hard time getting over Devon leaving."
Morgan got that determined look in his eye, the one that always made Chuck, and any sensible person over the age of ten, uneasy. It usually meant that things were going to go drastically, irrecoverably bad, like the time Morgan decided it would be a good idea to leave Jeff and Lester in charge of the store's Valentine's Day display while he and Chuck went on an install. Buy More, Inc. was still fighting sexual harassment suits from disgruntled and disgusted customers.
"Well, we're not going to let some overeducated, frat boy, jock, who doesn't know a gem of a woman when he sees one, ruin our Ellie's Halloween!" he declared, crossing his arms over his chest.
"What do you have in mind, Morgan?" Chuck asked slowly and cautiously, the worried look still in his eye.
"I've got it!" he announced, snapping his fingers and jumping to his feet. "We'll take her on the Haunted Hayride at the old Griffith Park Zoo."
"I don't know, Morgan—"
"No, no, it'll be perfect," Morgan reassured as he paced back and forth beside the bed, putting the plan together. "You know how Ellie likes a good scare, even though she pretends she doesn't. She'll love this. It's just what she needs to pull her out of the Devon doldrums. You can bring Sarah, and I'll bring—well, I'll bring me, and we'll have a great time. C'mon, let's go tell Ellie," he said, tugging on Chuck, coaxing him up from the bed and into the hallway.
"Ellllieeee," Morgan called.
"Oh boy," Chuck groaned, eyebrows raised, as he followed the bearded wonder into the hallway.
Meanwhile, in agent John Casey's apartment across the courtyard…
"Morons," he sighed, removing the headphones and setting them on the coffee table. He hated monitoring Bartowski's feed when the bearded idiot was visiting, which seemed like all the time. He couldn't get a break from the little weasel either at work or at home. I wish they'd go back to their girly bickering over what kind of sandwich would be best to take if stranded on a desert island, instead of plotting ways to drag the Intersect out in public with dozens of other miscreants. Well, at least Walker will be going, and I won't have to babysit for a change.
Next day, Castle
"I can't go, Casey. You know I have fly to The Farm for mandatory CIA training this weekend. I've already talked to Chuck, and he is going to invite you to come along," Sarah said, barely hiding a smile. "I really don't think he needs our protection on this one, but it might be fun for you to go. How long has it been since you've gone on a hayride?"
"Never," Casey growled, throwing his backpack over one shoulder and stomping up the stairs of Castle.
After her partner was gone, Sarah allowed the smile to peek through as she gathered the paperwork she needed to take with her to Virginia.
Saturday Night, Chuck and Ellie Bartowski's Apartment…
Chuck watched as the trademark Bartowski enthusiasm, recently missing from his sister's life, ramped back up as Ellie clasped her hands, bent her knees, and sprang back up, and squealed, all in one fluid motion.
"This is such a great idea. Thank you for thinking of it! You know that I've always wanted to go on a hayride, ever since we were little. Remember? Dad promised to take us…" she trailed off, sadness turning her smile wistful.
Morgan sheepishly lowered his hand, which he had raised, intending to set things straight by telling Ellie that he was the one who thought of the idea; but, seeing the moisture gathering at the corners of her eyes had him jamming his hand into his pocket and giving her his biggest, cheer-up grin.
"Hey, do you know the story behind the old Griffith Park Zoo? It's really cool and kinda creepy."
Morgan put his arm around Ellie and led her off to the couch, distracting her, while Chuck went to answer the curt knock on the door.
"Let's go and get this over with, Bartowski," Casey grouched when Chuck opened the door.
"Hey, hey," Chuck hissed under his breath, cutting his eyes over to his sister, making sure she hadn't overheard. Based on her unusually rapt attention to whatever type of wild story Morgan was spinning for her, she was oblivious to Casey's grousing.
"You're not going to spoil this for her. This is the first time she's allowed herself to do anything fun, since Devon left."
Casey shouldered his way past Chuck and into the apartment. He wouldn't ruin Ellie's evening. He actually liked her, finding her company far more tolerable to Mutt and Jeff's.
"Don't worry, Bartowski, I won't rain on your sister's parade."
"And that's the story of the haunted Griffith Park Zoo," Morgan finished his tale with a flourish, slapping his thighs enthusiastically.
"T-thank you, Morgan." Ellie's eyes were still as round as saucers when her gaze broke away from his. While she was looking around, trying to snap her mind back to reality, she spotted Casey talking to Chuck in the dining room.
"John," she said, standing up from the couch, smiling warmly. "I didn't know you were joining us."
Chuck threw his arm around Casey's shoulder, smiling widely, interceding before something sarcastic jumped out of the other man's mouth, despite his promise. "Casey's never been on a hayride either, El, can you believe it? So, I invited him to come along."
"John, it's my first time, too," Ellie said, beaming at Casey.
Casey kept a pleasant smile on his face, the one he used when selling Beast Masters to single white females. "Bartowski, if you don't unhand me right now, I'll show you just how easy it is to break all of the bones of the hand and arm, simultaneously."
Chuck complied immediately, disengaging from Casey, clapping his hands and rubbing his palms together. "So, who's ready to take a haunted hayride?"
Morgan's hand immediately shot up. "Me!"
Griffith Park Zoo, After Dark…
"This is going to be awesome!" Morgan declared emphatically as he rose up and down on his toes, swaying from side to side, trying to get a glimpse of the festivities around the tall man in line in front of them, who was dressed as the Grim Reaper.
Chuck caught Casey's annoyed grunt, but Ellie was too busy beaming as she happily absorbed everything, to take notice. The smells of fried dough and powdered sugar combined with buttered popcorn, spiced cider, and roasted nuts tinged the air. Adults and children, most dressed in costume, were everywhere. She wished she had thought to dress up. She hadn't worn a costume since her last Halloween party, since before Devon left. Just then, she felt something inside her release and drift away. She realized, as she looked at her friends and family standing in line with her, that she was finally ready to move on and really start living her life again. It was time to have some fun.
They had no sooner advanced to the front of the line and been waived through by the ticket taker, when Morgan instantly darted off to the midway, a gigantic cloud of cotton candy in his crosshairs.
"Hey, hold up, buddy," Chuck called, trotting after him. "You know what happened the last time you ate cotton candy!" Bits of the usually airy spun sugar balled up and embedded themselves in his beard, and Chuck had spent the rest of the night watching his friend pick them out, resulting in clumps of missing beard. It was a travesty, and Morgan had whined about having to shave his beard off, all the next day at work.
"We'll catch up with you at the entrance to the hayride," Chuck called over his shoulder to Ellie and Casey.
Ellie laughed, crinkling her nose at Casey's muttered "Idiots."
"C'mon, John, there's another hayride starting in fifteen minutes," she said, taking his hand and pointing at the hand-lettered "Haunted Hayride" sign, which included an arrow pointing visitors in the proper direction.
It surprised him when she took his hand, but he didn't let go. He liked the feel of her small hand wrapped around his as she led him toward the forested area where they would climb aboard the wooden, horse-drawn wagon.
During the short walk, they passed the rocky remnants of the polar bear enclosure and old iron cages, the bars speckled with bright flecks of orange rust. A chill wind blew through the tall thickets of evergreens growing on the edges of the property, creating a soft whistling noise, which mingled with the voices of the others headed toward the hayride area. Ellie looked up just in time to seen an owl take flight from atop one of the trees, its open wings silhouetted against the golden harvest moon.
The night air was unseasonably cool, and John noticed as Ellie tried unsuccessfully to suppress a chill. Her thin sweater obviously wasn't cutting it. He shrugged out of his jacket and placed it around her shoulders. She smiled up at him as she slid her arms into the sleeves and snuggled into his residual heat, not minding a bit that the coat hung to her knees.
"Thank you, John."
He tipped his head in acknowledgement, and she took his hand again, threading her fingers through his as they continued to walk.
Common sense dictated that Ellie should be off limits, especially since she was the Intersect's sister. Getting involved with her would just add complications to an already fucked-up assignment. But, despite his best efforts to remain coolly detached, he kept going back for more. More Sunday night dinners, more "chance" encounters in the courtyard, and more inappropriate thoughts of her filling his mind.
As they approached the small line of people gathered in the clearing waiting to board the wagon, Casey quickly checked over his shoulder; still no sign of Bartowski or the gnome. Extracting his cell phone from his jeans pocket, he dialed quickly and lifted the device to his ear.
"Chuck," he began in a friendly, conversational tone, "Ellie and I have saved you and Morgan a spot in line. The hayride loads and leaves in five." He listened for a few seconds, keeping the smile on his face and the passive tone in his voice when he replied "I see. We'll meet up with you after the ride is over."
Casey had assessed the safety of venue, using government resources, before they set foot into the supposedly haunted hallows and again while they were standing in line, and he deemed the place low to no risk. So, now, nerd one was busy with nerd two and he found himself holding hands with a beautiful woman.
Ellie turned to him, a questioning smile on her face.
"Chuck and Morgan got detained in a long cotton candy line and said to go on the ride without them."
She grimaced, causing Casey to raise an eyebrow.
Turning, she tipped her head back to look up at him as they came to a stop behind the last couple in line. "Let's just say that Morgan has a rather unfortunate history with cotton candy," she explained, giving him a smile that would light up the sun. Yeah, he was toast.
He smiled back, not at the idea of Morgan creating a travesty out of cotton candy, idiotic antics were the little troll's specialty, but purely at her. He was out-of-the-ballpark enchanted.
She was mesmerized, held captive by his intense, deep, blue eyes. Ellie liked the feeling of her hand clasped in his. He was warm, strong, and steady. She had always felt a sense of comfort and safety around him. She knew there was more to "big, quiet John" than the confident, polite persona he always projected in her presence. The mystery of what existed beneath the surface intrigued her.
There was also a distant and untouchable air about him, too. That was one of the reasons she risked taking his hand tonight, to see if she could breach the invisible barrier that always seemed to surround him, allowing for polite interactions, but not much more.
Using her free hand, Ellie tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. "My dad used to always threaten to bring Chuck and me here, every Halloween, but we never made it," she said quietly, lowering her eyes.
Casey silently squeezed her hand, waiting for her to continue.
She remained quiet for a few moments, grateful that she didn't see pity in his eyes when she looked back up. Instead, her gaze was returned with quiet understanding.
Giving herself a mental shake, Ellie turned on the trademark bubbly Bartowski grin. "Do you know the legend of this place?" she asked.
"No, I wasn't aware there was a legend," he responded, making air quotes with his voice. "I assumed this was just another tourist trap, like all of the other supposedly haunted attractions that sprout up around here every October.
"Well," she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially, swinging their joined hands as they walked forward in line, "I happen to have information about how this place became haunted." Her eyes twinkled mischievously.
Wearing a serious expression, he bent his ear closer. "Tell me more."
The deep, rich timbre of his voice wrapped around her deliciously, causing warmth to course through her, which had nothing to do with the jacket she was wearing.
As they edged closer to the front of the line, she wove a sinister tale that told of an orphaned boy named Aleister, found wandering alone in the woods. Although Aleister preached a dark, soulless religion to the people of the village, he amassed a cult following among them.
One cold winter night, when the townsfolk were gathered in the old wooden church, a crackling noise was heard, catching the attention of the elders sitting in the back pews, as long, orange tongues of flame licked ravenously at the underbelly of the small structure. The smell of smoke soon followed, fogging the inside air, greedily gobbling up the oxygen.
Screams and pounding could be heard in the otherwise still night, as the churchgoers fought, with their dying breaths, to escape. Outside the inferno, a small figure stood, his face reflected in the glimmer of the last remaining church window, flames dancing in eyes the color of tar. As a twisted smile pulled up the corners of his mouth, Aleister raised his hand to his mouth and blew out the match.
"Grimes been telling tales again?" Casey asked as they reached the front of the line.
"Yep," she laughed, enjoying the firm feel of his hands cupping her hips as he lifted her into the wagon.
He probably held on to her a little longer than was gentlemanly before climbing up behind her and following her to the side of the hay-filled wagon, where they settled in for the ride.
As other people piled into the wagon behind them, she told him "Morgan also said that there are 'creatures' strategically placed along the route that randomly jump out to scare you."
They sat almost touching, but he leaned in closer. "Don't worry; I'll shoot anyone that tries to scare you," he whispered the promise, his lips grazing the exposed outer shell of her ear.
Ellie shivered as her blood warmed, causing her cheeks to flame. He hadn't moved; she still felt the heat of him against her ear. If she turned her head, just a little bit, their mouths would meet.
Just as she began to turn her head, the crack of leather sliced through the air. "Giddy up! Y'all ready for a haunted adventure?" the overall-clad man at the front of the wagon yelled back over his shoulder. The wagon lurched forward as the horses responded to the command, and it rolled slowly toward the forest ahead. Casey's disappointed grunt was drowned out by the enthusiastic whoops and other sundry shouts of their fellow passengers.
Casey found the sheepish smile she offered him adorable and winked in response as he laced his fingers back through hers. He kept a watchful eye on the others in the wagon as he scanned the forest, which they were now entering. The trees were dimly lit by tall, flaming torches set into the ground every few feet, which caused their branches to cast gnarled, shadowy fingers against the side of the wagon and its inhabitants.
It was a perfect autumn night, with a full, golden harvest moon set against a midnight sky. A nip was in the air, but Ellie was warm, all snuggled up in John's jacket, and even cozier tucked against his side with his arm around her. He felt so good. She rested her head against his shoulder and enjoyed the ride.
Normally, the idea of riding in a rickety, hay-filled, horse-drawn wagon wedged between complete strangers, some of whom probably had criminal records by the look of them, would be his idea of a social nightmare. But, it felt perfect, being with her, holding her, as the wagon bumped along the forest floor. The last major jolt had literally tossed her into his arms. Chuck may accuse him of being cynical, grumpy, and downright mean, but even he didn't dare look a gift horse like this in the mouth. He liked the way she fit against him, and for the first time since Chuck invited him, he hoped the ride lasted a good, long time.
Ellie found herself looking up at the stars, which resembled sparkling gems sewn onto a dark velvet cloth, while nestling in his embrace. The "creatures" periodically lunging at the wagon from the edge of the forest, coupled with an assortment of howls, moans, and screams didn't faze her a bit. She was more than content to have this hayride go on forever.
Neither of them rushed to get out of the wagon when it came to a stop in a dark, open clearing where several fires burned within stone circles. After all of the people around them had disembarked, Casey rested his chin atop her head. "We can stay here, if you'd like."
"I'd like that very much," she said, smiling. "But," she slid her gaze over to the driver, who was pinning them with a stare, "I think we might have company."
"Do you want me to shoot him?" he whispered in her ear, causing her to laugh.
"Maybe later. For now, how about we go and make some S'mores?"
He helped her down from the wagon, shooting a warning glare in the direction of the driver as they walked toward an unoccupied fire ring. A thoughtful employee had laid a generous pile of twigs, graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate bars on a small table near the fire.
John picked up a twig with a slightly pointed end, rolling it between his fingers, inspecting it as he would any tool in his arsenal. "Now, this, I know how to do," he said, impaling a fluffy marshmallow on the tip.
Ellie quirked an eyebrow. "Toasted many marshmallows, have you?" she asked, smiling, the firelight accentuating the gleam in her eye.
He speared another marshmallow, handing her the stick. "As a matter of fact, I have. I was a Boy Scout once upon a time, but don't tell Chuck. He thinks I was hatched."
Again, that wink. It undid her, right there in the middle of the clearing, with the fire roaring and the stars blazing. She felt the knot that she had been carrying around loosen, freeing her. Her breath released in a long sigh, which was lost among the noise of the crackling flames.
She watched as he blew out the fire engulfing his marshmallow, leaving the outside black and crispy. Hers, which she held farther from the flame, was a nice, evenly- toasted brown.
Ellie and John built their S'mores in silence, layering their graham cracker squares with chocolate and the toasted marshmallows, placing another graham on top, pressing down until the gooey center of the marshmallow oozed out and onto their fingers.
John found himself smiling as Ellie laughingly licked bits of graham cracker crumbs, melted chocolate, and marshmallow off her fingers. "Seems like this entire affair is a messy business."
She looked up in surprise as he threaded his fingers through her hair, removing a piece of straw.
"Looks like I missed some," he said, weaving his fingers through her hair again as he encircled her waist with his other arm, easing her against him as he lowered his mouth to hers.
His lips felt warm and firm as they gently brushed against hers. As she pushed up on her toes and wound her arms around his neck, he parted her lips with his tongue, taking a long, slow taste.
Ellie loved the feeling of being surrounded by him, held against his big, firm body. He was doing crazy things to her with his mouth, and she tasted chocolate as his tongue stroked hers.
Devon had been safe, but she was quickly discovering that John wasn't. But, she didn't want safe; she wanted exactly this.
She thought she heard him growl when the driver's booming voice announced that it was time to board the wagon again for the trip back. She found the sound sexy, and she soothed him by drawing his head back down for another long kiss.
They rode all the way back with him wrapped around her, mouths barely breaking contact.
When they disembarked from the ride, they found Chuck and Morgan anxiously awaiting them, Morgan furiously picking sugary bits of multi-colored cotton candy from his beard while Chuck looked on uncomfortably.
"We're going to need to find the surgical-grade tweezers when we get home," Chuck stage whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
Ellie laughed, rolling her eyes in mock chagrin. "Don't worry, Morgan, we won't have to shave it off this time," she assured.
"Thanks, El. I tried to be more careful this time, I really did," Morgan offered apologetically.
"Just don't get any of those sugar nits in the car, Grimes," Casey ordered as they walked toward the lot where the Crown Vic was parked.
Back Home in Echo Park…
"There, that's the last one," Ellie breathed a sigh of relief as she disposed of the last little ball of cotton candy and lowered the tweezers to the table.
"Ellie, you're a goddess. C'mon, Chuck, let's go get the worm."
"Wait, Morgan, what are you—Chuck's voice trailed off as he followed his best friend, who was blazing down the hallway toward his bedroom.
"I forgot to tell you earlier, Jeff and Lester are hosting a costume party. Viva la worm!" Morgan shouted in triumph as he barreled through Chuck's bedroom door, making a beeline for the closet.
Casey and Ellie watched in silence from the couch, as a few minutes later, the sand worm inched its way across the living room and through the door, with Chuck leading the way and Morgan bringing up the rear.
"Viva la worm!" Casey agreed, drawing Ellie back into his arms.