Hello again everyone! I know it's been too long since I last posted a story, but I've been busy enough to not want to even look at a keyboard for non-job related stuff. Plus, I'd started writing another, completely unrelated fic, but wasn't completely satisfied with it, so it was put on ice to be reworked later.
Anyway, this is what you get from me listening to Helloween's eponymous song and remembering old TV shows... I only hope you'll enjoy it. I can promise to update at least once a week.
The magazine fell onto the plastic tabletop with a resounding slap. However, no one but the person who had just thrown it was in the Buy More employee break room to be annoyed by the sound. Chuck Bartowski, the lanky, curly-haired dean of the Burbank Branch's Nerd Herd, looked at it and then reached for his Chocolate Blast, draining the rest of it and chucking the empty box into the trashcan from ten feet away, without getting up. Accomplishing tasks ranging from something as simple as this to solving crossword puzzles to giving instructions on repairing a rare computer model to another Nerd Herder over the phone without the benefit of schematics or looking at an identical computer helped convince him that his brain had not been permanently impaired by his recent illness.
He stretched in his seat, crossing his legs at the ankles and clasping his hands behind his head before glancing at the wall-mounted clock. Seeing that he still had a few minutes before his break was over, he closed his eyes and tried to relax a bit more.
"Chuck, are you awake?" The voice belonged to his best friend Morgan Grimes, a short bearded young man with a heart of gold and a penchant for mischief.
"I'm awake," Chuck confirmed. "What's up?"
"Word came down from Big Mike about an important service call. He said you should take it, if you feel up to it."
"Let's go. I'm going stir-crazy here."
"Good. I'll drive you."
"Morgan, I can drive, you know."
"You can, but you are not allowed, not yet. Ellie would have my head if I let you. Yours too."
"Well, I don't understand what the fuss is all about."
"Don't give me that crap. You got out of the hospital barely three weeks ago after you almost worked yourself to death. I mean, you are still having blackouts. Chuck, you are a human being, not a computer. You can't just reboot and go on like nothing happened. You have to let your body get its natural rhythm back on its own time."
"Yeah, whatever. Just let me go grab my tools."
"OK. I'll let Big Mike know we're heading out and grab the keys to the Herder."
Chuck Bartowski had not always been working at the Burbank Buy More. It used to be his summer job during high school and college. After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in electrical engineering, he'd taken up a job first as an independent contractor specializing in software design and then had been offered a position with huge company. Unfortunately, three years after starting there, and advancing rapidly, Roark Instruments had started going downhill due to shoddy management coupled with federal scrutiny on some of their practices. This had increased pressure on the design departments to compensate by coming up with innovative and profitable concepts. Just before the company went belly up, Chuck collapsed due to overwork and exhaustion. The emotional roller coaster from the breakup with his girlfriend, even if it was mutual, didn't exactly help, either. He'd spent two weeks in the hospital and then he was told to go easy on himself until he was back up to 100 percent. This explained his return to the Buy More, which was considered a nice, cushy, undemanding job, i.e. something safe for him while on the road to full recovery.
The service job took a while to complete, but to someone with Chuck's intimate knowledge of computers it wasn't in the least challenging. Morgan was humming as he drove them back to the Buy More, while Chuck sat in the passenger seat, busying himself by sorting out the paperwork. And then his phone rang.
"Hi Ellie… No, I'm in the car, on the way back from a call… No, Morgan is driving. I don't know what you threatened him with… You didn't have to?" He threw an angry glance in Morgan's direction, who remained completely unperturbed. "As you know, I get off at five," he continued, answering another one of his sister's questions. He listened a little more and let out a frustrated groan. "Ellie, please, not another of Awesome's weird stuff. I can get by with a fruit salad in lieu of those so-called health shakes… Great, thanks, see you later, bye."
"Ellie going all big sister on your sorry ass again?" Morgan asked.
"Big sister slash attending neurologist," Chuck replied. "At least I avoided Devon's concoctions and got a nice cool fruit salad out of the deal."
"Just out of curiosity and because I'm taking cooking lessons, as you already know, what do you put in your fruit salad?"
"Cantaloupe, bananas, cherries, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries, depending on what we have at home, sometimes oranges…" Chuck began.
"If available," Chuck agreed. "And I never forget to add copious amounts of whipped cream. And now that I'm off the meds, I can add some brandy as well should I so wish."
"It is. I've been experimenting with various fruit combos lately, like using maraschino cherries instead of regular ones. I call it cocktail salad."
"You're being a little conservative. Me, I'd also add sprinkles, maybe jelly beans or gummy bears, pieces of cookies or chocolate…"
"OK, got it. I think you're spending a little too much time in the Double O."
"Come on, man, their toppings are heavenly. My dream meal for a working day is getting something from the Wienerlicious for the appetizer and the main course, followed by some nice yogurt from the Orange Orange."
"What about Subway?" Chuck asked.
"That's more of Big Mike's thing, although I'd never say no to a meatball sub."
Back at the Buy More, Chuck turned in the paperwork from the service call to the Nerd Herd desk and went to the Cage, where he worked for a couple of blissful hours on fixing computers brought in by customers for repair. Morgan made his rounds of the sales floor, helping shoppers whenever required. And then it was time to clock out and go home. Big Mike, the branch manager, had been very accommodating to them, allowing Morgan to have the same schedule as his friend, so that he could drive Chuck to work and home. That day, Chuck wasn't on call, so they just plopped down on the couch in his apartment and read comic books until Ellie and Devon returned from work.
They were in the middle of debating what game to play after dinner when Ellie and Devon walked in.
"Hey guys," Devon said. "How was your day?"
"Dull to completely uninteresting, Captain," Chuck replied. "I only had to go on one service call, as you probably know."
"Ellie said something about Morgan driving you someplace."
"Yep. By the way, when am I going to get the all-clear to drive again?"
"When I'm satisfied you're fine," Ellie said sternly, daring him to challenge her. "And not a second earlier."
"But I feel just fine!"
"You had a blackout a few days ago, and it's going to happen again if you overdo it. Trust me, little brother; it's for your own good."
"Whatever. So, dinner?"
"Let's order from the Bamboo Dragon tonight. I'm too tired to cook and, except for Morgan, I don't trust you guys in the kitchen."
"Babe, now you're just being mean," Devon pouted.
"No, I just have a very highly developed sense of self-preservation," she laughed. "Now go order us some food," she commanded and her boyfriend had no choice but to obey.
It was a very warm night in DC. The running young man was covered in sweat, his once white shirt soaked almost through and soiled with grime and a bit of blood from a cut just above his hairline. Realizing that he had no chance of making it to the primary extraction point, he focused on first getting the intel through before trying for an alternate. His fingers flew over the PDA he was carrying, even as he ran. He'd memorized the layout of the building, so he could run around inside blindfolded, if necessary. He paused for a second, tucked the electronic device into a pouch on his belt and jumped on the tarmac of the parking lot. The cars would provide some much needed cover while he completed the process. Taking the PDA back out, he entered the recipient's address and pressed send. Simultaneously, a shot rang out and he felt a searing pain in his chest. The impact sent him flying backwards and his ankle also protested his unintentional misstep.
"Fuck," he ground out from between clenched teeth.
"It's over, Larkin," a hulking man in a black suit said, still having a gun pointed at him.
"It is, but you're too late, Casey," the young man called Larkin replied.
"Are you OK?" Casey asked, holstering his weapon.
"I guess so. Damn, this hurts."
"You should have worn a vest," Casey remarked. "Even Simunition rounds can leave a nasty bruise," he said, pointing to the red paint stain on Larkin's chest.
"Naw, my ankle hurts worse. I think I twisted it."
"Then you better go have it checked out," Casey said, extending his hand to help the younger man up. As soon as he had him hobbling on one leg, he spoke into his radio and announced the end of the drill.
A huge black man in a tailored suit and a petite redhead in an Air Force Brigadier General's uniform approached them.
"General, Director," Larkin, who noticed them first, said respectfully.
"Hello Bryce. Major Casey," CIA Director Langston Graham nodded towards the two men. "Good job, both of you."
"I agree," General Diane Beckman said. "You've proven that the security here is good, but can be better."
"The formal debriefing is rather superfluous," Graham decreed. "We saw everything from the control room. Bryce, have the paramedics take a look at you. You'll need to go to the hospital for X-rays. I hope you haven't broken your ankle, because I'd hate to have to put you on extended sick leave."
"Yes sir," Bryce nodded and hobbled off towards the designated first aid station.
"We really have to talk about upgrading security here," Beckman was heard to say to Graham.
"I concur. If one man could break in, even with the tremendous amount of planning he did AND with the access to the building's plans we gave him…" He left the sentence hanging.
The following day, Langston Graham was in his office at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, working his way through the files that had accumulated during his brief absence.
"Agent Walker is here, sir," his secretary's voice said over the intercom.
"Send her in," he replied. "Sarah," he greeted the lithe young blue eyed blond woman who'd just entered his sanctum sanctorum. "Welcome back."
"Thank you sir," she replied wearily.
"Two bad ops in a row, well, not one of those failures was your fault, and in fact I've personally put a very special burn notice out on your former team leader."
She nodded, knowing what it meant. It was a 'shoot on sight' burn notice. The bastard deserved it anyway. "Is there a new mission in the works, sir?"
"Not for you, Sarah. I want you to take a few days off. Then we'll talk shop."
For once, she wasn't inclined to argue. "I guess I'll back to being partnered with Bryce, correct?"
"What? Did something happen to him?" She rose alarmed from her seat. Bryce Larkin was not only her partner, but a good friend as well.
"Not really, although he too earned himself some days off. He sprained his ankle yesterday, while participating in a security evaluation."
"That sucks," she commented, sitting back down and straightening her suit jacket. She then noticed something on her boss' desk. "I didn't know Charlie was one of us."
"Charlie, Bryce's college buddy," she explained. "I guess they were recruited together."
"You must be mistaken, Sarah. Bryce was recruited together with Jill Roberts."
"May I?" She reached for a file Graham had just closed.
Curious, he nodded.
She opened it and took out a picture of a man. "This is Charlie. I'm positive. Bryce has a picture of his frat buddies at his place and this is definitely one of them."
"I guess the saying is true then," Graham mused.
"We all have a doppelganger somewhere on this earth."
"So, I take it this is not Charlie."
"The resemblance is uncanny though."
"I'll take your word for it, Sarah," Graham said affably.
Sarah could practically hear the gears turning in Graham's head, but decided not to give it a second thought, until he spoke again.
"Don't go too far for your vacation. As it turns out I may just need you for a job."
"Right now, all I want is to sleep off all the traveling, sir," she assured him. And go on a retail therapy spree tomorrow, she mentally added. However, she couldn't help but wonder what spy thing her innocent observation had set in motion. She only hoped she wouldn't regret it.
"Chuck, wake up."
"Nuh-uh. Lemme sleep."
"Charles Irving Bartowski, get your ass out of bed this instant. You are going to be late for work," Ellie began lecturing, but irritation was immediately replaced by concern. "Hold on, how are you feeling?"
"Fine. Day off. Wanna sleep in," Chuck mumbled and turned on his side, pulling the covers up over his head. He was back to snoring away in less than a minute.
Ellie just shook her head and smiled before getting out of her brother's room and closing the door behind her. She had a phone call to make, to one Morgan Guillermo Grimes, in order to remind him that, when he came over, under no circumstances were he and Chuck to play video games. Even though her brother loved them, she knew they could potentially aggravate fatigue and nullify much of the progress he'd made in his recovery.
Sarah was happy. A very nice pair of boots in a little store she'd found by chance seemed to be calling her name. She threw the bag with the shoebox in the trunk of her car, before remembering that she should probably pay a visit to her partner. Her gaze traveled, following her nostrils, to a bakery next door to the shoe store. Without hesitation, she went in and emerged a few minutes later carrying a box full of delicious cupcakes. They would be her get well present to Bryce.
A short while later, she knocked on his apartment door and waited patiently for him to open.
"Sarah! Hi, come on in," Jill said cheerfully after opening the door.
"Hi Jill. I brought cupcakes." She held up the box.
"Oh, yummy. Much appreciated, thanks."
"I think the patient will appreciate them just as much. How is he, by the way? Graham told me something about him spraining an ankle."
"Humph. You know how guys are. He acts like a little kid sometimes."
"Boys will be boys," Sarah parroted one of Bryce's favorite catch phrases.
"Try having to stay cooped up in your place for days doing nothing," Bryce protested from the living room couch. "It gets old pretty fast."
"I hope the cupcakes I brought will cheer you up, then," Sarah smiled.
"Hand them over." Like a friend of his always said, everybody loves good cupcakes and he was no exception.
"How's your ankle?"
"The doctor said I was damn lucky not to break it."
"Double ouch," Jill laughed. "He got shot with a simulation round during the exercise, too, and without wearing a vest."
"That must have left a bruise."
"A big one," Jill agreed.
Bryce decided to change the subject. "I heard about the FUBAR in Hungary. Must have been tough."
Sarah's face fell. "Yeah," she mumbled. "Wait, you heard?"
"Hell, everyone's heard. Ryker has a shoot on sight order on his head. Graham must have been really pissed. I asked around. He's OK with agents making a little extra on the side, but murdering innocent civilians for their money, in an allied country no less… It doesn't sit well with the Bossman."
"About that… Guys, you are my friends. So, I want to tell you a couple of things, in case something happens to me."
Jill sat down next to Bryce. "We are all ears."
Sarah proceeded to tell them everything about Budapest and her recent detour to LA before showing up for the debriefing at Langley. Both Bryce and Jill promised to keep the secret and help every way they could.
"Thank you," Sarah said warmly. Having an extra security blanket to fall back on made her feel more comfortable. Then she noticed a framed photo on a shelf and remembered the previous day. "Bryce, there is another thing I need to tell you."
"Yesterday, I was in Graham's office for my debriefing. He was going through some files and one of them had a picture of a guy I thought I recognized. You know him pretty well, too."
"Really? Who is he?"
She got up, took the photo from the shelf and handed it over. "He looked just like Charlie," she replied. "But Graham assured me it wasn't him. But he did seem interested for some reason, which makes me think I may have somehow screwed up in there."
Bryce's eyes went wide. He jumped up from the couch and hobbled around on his good leg, since he couldn't pace.
"Dammit, Sarah! You damn right screwed up, although you couldn't have known, so I can't really hold it against you."
"Calm down," Jill tried to reason with him. "We don't know who the guy that looks like Chuck is, so there is no way of knowing if he is of any use to Graham."
"You're right, but we have to consider the worst case scenario here. Fuck, after all we did to keep him out of the Agency's clutches…"
Sarah looked at her friends. "What do you mean?"
He sighed and sat back down. "I'll tell you, but it mustn't leave this room."
She sat down across the coffee table from him. "I'm listening."
"Chuck, Charlie as I've told you, aced a test back in Stanford. He was a straight A student, but this test was different. His scores practically guaranteed him being approached for recruitment by the CIA, for a very specific purpose. Back then there was something called the Omaha Project… don't ask what it was about, it's been in the back burner for years, but still very highly classified."
"Bryce believed that Chuck wasn't cut out for being a spy," Jill picked up from where Bryce had left. "And I agree. He's the definition of Mr. Nice Guy. We couldn't let the CIA destroy him. So, we talked to the professor and convinced him to not report Chuck's score to the Agency. Of course, since he knew Chuck, he agreed with us that he was quite unsuitable for an agent, since he has too much heart for this kind of work. In our business such a character trait might end up getting one killed or worse."
"I see," Sarah nodded. "What do we do now?"
"We wait and see," Bryce replied. "It might be nothing, or it might end up blowing up in our faces, in which case you may want to cover your own behind, Sarah. If Graham finds out about everything we just told you, it won't be pretty."
Just then there was a knock on the door. "Are we expecting anyone?" Jill asked. When Bryce shook his head no, she got up to answer the door. One can imagine her surprise when the visitor turned out to be none other than Langston Graham. Still in shock, she moved aside to let him in.
"Ah, good, the gang is all here," he said, looking at the shocked faces of the three young people. "I need to talk to you about something very important and I believe one of your acquaintances may potentially be of great help to us, Bryce."
"Shit," Bryce muttered under his breath. Sarah was looking timidly at her partner and biting her lower lip in a classic 'oops' expression.