Sarah went for a long run on the day after Christmas. Part of it was some sort of normalization process, a returning to the way things were after the holidays had made even Casey crack a smile or two. The nog had been drunk, the turkey sorted into various Tupperware containers for sandwich fixings, and Violet’s varied toys had been unboxed and no doubt scattered about her bedroom. Sarah imagined the Bartowski neatness gene would kick in soon and the toys would find their eventual homes, but that wasn’t anything she had to worry about.
Christmas was over. Time for life to get back to normal.
She took the long way through the neighborhood, scanning for unfamiliar cars—of which there were quite a few, thanks to the holiday shifting everybody’s schedules around—and anything that seemed out of place. When she ran by Moniqua’s house, a fluttering at the window made her look over. She waved at Shae, probably still up with fussy baby DeAndre, and continued on her run.
By the time she made it home, the rest of the neighborhood had started to stir from their Christmas-food comas, it looked like. Casey was sitting at the table with a bowl of cereal. “Any trouble?”
“Nope.” She tossed her keys on the counter and chugged water. “All clear.”
“Good,” Casey said, and that was their morning conversation.
Sarah showered, did some maintenance work on her weaponry—her knives were getting a little too dull—and hit the range since Casey had morning watch duties for the operation. After that, she headed to one of the dojos she used infrequently and goaded a couple of guys twice her size into sparring matches. They got a couple lucky hits in just like the elf had a couple days before, but Sarah walked out of the dojo feeling almost jazzed.
“Any trouble?” she asked as she walked into what Chuck had begun to call the Spy Casa.
Casey chuckled. “Damn dog ate one of the nerd’s video game controllers.”
That had probably not gone over well, Sarah figured. She shook her head at Casey and went upstairs.
There was an instant message from Chuck on her computer waiting for her: “Should have got her the Pac-Man game.”
She sent a smiley emoticon back to him, received his “busy” message in reply, and focused on some of the busywork assignments Graham had sent down the wire. A few minutes later, Chuck came back online and sent her a picture of the carnage fom “Sir Evil.”
She sent back another smiley emoticon.
A few minutes later, another message popped up: “Coming over to help us demolish leftovers?”
She wanted to, but she’d already pushed their boundaries enough during the holidays, so she sent back a message that unfortunately she was busy following up on some leads for Graham. It was a lie, but it was better to take a step back now. Playing along for the holidays was one thing, but she couldn’t afford to get comfortable or complacent.
Casey knocked on the doorjamb. “Going for a run.”
Less than a minute later, she heard the excited barking of one Sir Chewbacca Bartowski the Fourth as the source of his name ran by. She snickered and continued working, monitoring the feeds from the CIA website to see if there was anything that Team Bartowski could handle.
She wasn’t looking very hard. Maybe she’d gotten into Chuck’s mindset that the holidays were a chance to relax, though she knew he was usually buried in Intersect coding at night, even now. But right now, she wasn’t really looking forward to any missions.
Casey returned, briefed her that the neighborhood seemed normal. She acknowledged it and kept working. For the rest of the day, they didn’t speak; she kept working reports and evaluating threats. He worked on the Crown Vic. They each made a lunch of sandwiches.
They lived the quiet life.
And since it was going to drive her insane, she ran to the grocery store. She told herself it was perfectly normal to run to the store whenever life was getting insane.
Who was she kidding? When life was getting insane, that usually meant it was time for a HALO jump and a thirty-two person assault.
When Sarah came home, she found Chuck, Violet, and Sir in the front yard, romping around. She waved—and laughed when Sir spotted her, meaning that both Chuck and Violet had to hold the dog back from galloping over to greet his old friend.
“He definitely plays favorites,” Chuck said, glaring at the dog when Sarah came over. “Look o—”
Sir broke free and bounded toward Sarah. She got the customary flash of snapping jaws and snarling fangs, but Sir just planted his paws on her chest and licked at her face.
“Whoa, whoa, down. Down,” Chuck said, and it took both of them to shove the puppy off of Sarah. Chuck glared at the dog. “You’re going into obedience school at the first of the year.”
Sir gave him a doggie grin and bounded off after the giggling Violet now that he had greeted his self-appointed best friend.
“I understand why Cruella Deville wanted the coat instead of the actual dog,” Chuck muttered.
“Nothing. Disney movie, which is my life. What’re you up to?” Sir reached the end of the retractable leash and jerked Chuck’s entire body a little to the left. He rolled his eyes in reply and tugged.
“Had to run to the store.” Sarah nodded at her Porsche, where the groceries—the completely unnecessary groceries—were still in the passenger seat. “Then I saw you out here. Why’re you out here and not in the backyard?”
“Theoretically, we were going to go for a walk. Sir Goofus decided he’d rather romp with my angelic progeny instead so here we are.” Sir let out a bark and leapt, giving Sarah one split-second of terror, but Violet dodged nimbly out of the way, giggling. Girl and dog seemed to have bonded for life already, though it had only been a day since they’d met. “Want to come with us?”
She shouldn’t, but: “Sure.”
“Megabyte! Beast! We’re walking. Move out, soldiers.”
“Yes, sir,” Violet said, giving him a semi-serious salute. The serious dropped away, immediately, when she turned to Sarah. “Can I have a piggy-back ride?”
“Don’t you know how to use your own two feet, Megs?” Chuck asked.
“No, it’s okay. I could use the workout.” Sarah knelt so that Violet could clamber on. The girl would find something shiny she needed to inspect before long, so she would beg to get down.
“Hear that? She’s calling you fat.”
“I was not!”
“Oink,” Violet said. She bounced once on Sarah’s back, the backs of her heels drumming against Sarah’s thighs, and they set off. “It’s okay. I know I’m super-skinny like Daddy.”
“Gee, thanks,” Chuck said, struggling with Sir’s leash as the dog towed him onwards.
“Uncle Awesome is always saying you could bulk up with some of his shakes, Daddy,” Violet said, and Sarah had to laugh at the pained look on Chuck’s face. He tried so often to look “cool” in front of her, she knew. He really didn’t need to try, but telling him that seemed rather pointless when it was only supposed to be a cover relationship anyway.
Chuck grimaced at his daughter. “Have you tried any of Uncle Awesome’s shakes?”
“Yes, and they’re delicious. They taste like strawberries.”
“I’m not talking about the Special Sunday Afternoon Shakes-A-Licious. Though they are delicious.” Chuck waggled his eyebrows at Sarah. “You should come over for those sometimes. They’re outstanding. His ‘bulk Chuck up’ shakes, however, are gross.”
“What do they taste like?”
“Socks,” Chuck said, and Violet giggled.
“Sounds like Casey’s shakes,” Sarah said.
“Maybe Uncle Awesome and Major Casey Sir should get together and drink shakes. They both like shakes and they’re both bigger than Daddy.”
Chuck looked pained again. “That sounds like a good idea,” Sarah said solemnly, though she knew Casey would probably kill her for saying so. They continued onward, with Sir still towing Chuck and Sarah trying to keep up with them. “You should suggest it to Major Casey Sir sometime.”
“Yeah, they can go white-water rafting together,” Chuck said under his breath, just loud enough for Sarah to hear.
As Sarah had predicted, before long Violet squirmed to get down so that she could run alongside Sir. This actually slowed the walk down quite a bit: every time Violet neared, Sir spotted his playmate and walking forward was no longer a priority, not when playtime could be found. In addition, every street lamp, mailbox, and hydrant required a thorough inspection—and doggie payment. How the dog’s bladder could hold so much, Sarah had no idea.
In the end, to save them time, Chuck scooped Violet up and carried her upside down, laughing, while Sarah held onto the leash with both hands and half-walked, half-dragged Sir the rest of the way home.
“Should’ve got a Pekingese,” Chuck said when Sir nearly loped into the street and almost took Sarah with him.
“At this moment,” Sarah said, wrestling the dog back onto the sidewalk, “I’m inclined to agree with you.” She grinned over at Violet, though.
“I hope you’re getting hazard pay for this,” Chuck said.
“Suburban warfare always qualifies me for hazard pay,” Sarah said, quite without meaning to joke. She’d never considered herself funny or even tried before coming to Burbank, but it happened more and more often around Chuck-and even sometimes around Casey. “But this beats what I was doing earlier.”
Violet’s eyes widened with excitement. “What was that? Something for your blog? Are you trying out a new restaurant? Can Daddy and I come?”
For a moment, Sarah froze. Her cover story, so that she could spend great gobs of time at home and be away in the evenings if a mission took her somewhere, was that she was a food critic. The CIA had even set up a blog and updated it regularly for her, which meant she had to read it to keep up with what she had done lately, in case any of the neighbors wanted to chat about it.
She hadn’t, however, been aware that Violet knew about it.
Chuck caught the look on her face, evidently, and interpreted correctly. “She asked what you do the other night,” he said, “so I read some of your blog to her, didn’t I, Violet?”
“It was funny.” The girl nodded in that sage way of hers. “Are you going to do a story about McDonald’s? They have the best fries, and if you do a story on them, I could come with you so you could get a kid’s meal and I could have the toy.”
“Oh, you could, could you?” Sarah laughed. “Well, I don’t know if I’ll be reviewing McDonald’s any time soon, sorry.”
“But if you do review McDonald’s, can I come with you?”
“Sure. If I review McDonald’s, I’ll bring you with me and you can have the toy from my kid’s meal.”
“Awesome!” Violet held her hand up for a high-five. By now, Sarah was well-experienced at this; she lightly slapped her palm against Violet’s—and was jerked forward two feet by Sir going after a mailbox.
Chuck was still silently shaking with laughter.
“Can Daddy come with us, too?”
“Maybe. If he wants to come.”
“He likes Burger King more. Maybe we should leave him home and we can have a girl’s night.”
“It’s up to him,” Sarah said. She’d had to watch Violet a couple of times while Casey and Chuck ran a mission, so she was marginally more comfortable around the girl than she had been before, but taking Violet out for a night on the town without Chuck wasn’t really something she wanted to do. At least Chuck had been right and their little incident the day before with the crying and the startling seemed like ancient history. “But don’t you think he would feel left out?”
“Oh. Hm, maybe. Daddy, would you feel left out?”
“I don’t know. Left behind by my two favorite women on the planet?” Chuck gave a long, melodramatic sigh. “All on my poor, pitiful lonesome?”
“But you have Sir now!”
As one, the three of them turned to look at the dog. He seemed to notice their attention, for he abruptly stopped walking and looked back at them, tongue lolling.
And then he took off running, dragging Sarah with him.
By the time she’d managed to slow the dog down, Chuck and Violet were outright laughing. Violet was even on the ground, peals of laughter shrieking out of her.
“Your turn,” Sarah told Chuck, handing over the leash. “I have to put my arm back in its socket.”
“Sorry,” he said, though he didn’t look very contrite.
Violet picked herself up and bounded up to walk beside Sarah, wrapping herself around Sarah’s forearm as she was wont to do. “Would you really be lonely, Daddy?”
“I would. And I like McDonald’s, too. I mean, Burger King is better…”
“Says everyone,” Violet said.
Chuck laughed. “Well, fine, convince me that McDonald’s is better.”
“How about right now?” They were approaching Chuck’s house; even Sir seemed to recognize that, as he began speeding up, pulling the nerd along with him. Sarah adjusted her pace to match. “You busy, Sarah?”
“I…” She really didn’t have anything to do, she knew. And she’d been so bored all day, just going over reports, stuck in suburbia without a way out. “No, actually, I’m free.”
“What do you say? You, me, the string-bean—” Violet giggled at the nickname. “And the best fries on the planet, courtesy of Ronald McDonald? You can even write about it on your blog later.”
When both father and daughter grinned at her, Sarah felt a spurt of nervousness; since Chuck had said that, she really would be expected to write at least a short little post on the blog, by Violet, at least. She wondered what the analyst in charge of making up the posts would think of having to include a short blurb about a fast food place on a serious food blog.
Plus, she’d have to run at least two extra miles and the grease was bound to make her queasy for hours.
But Violet and Chuck were both giving her those pleading grins. “Fine,” she said, pointing at each in turn. “You have to promise me that they are the absolute best fries on the planet, though.”
“They are! The absolute best.”
“Uh-oh,” Chuck said, and the seriousness in his voice made Sarah jolt and reach instinctively for one of her knives. She turned and immediately spotted what Chuck already had: Casey stood on the front porch of Casa Bartowski, his arms folded over his chest. His body language didn’t seem overly annoyed, but Sarah still felt the tingle of danger go up her spine. Something was up.
Violet lit up. “Major Casey Sir!” she shouted, and took off sprinting. This of course inspired Sir to chase after her—hauling Chuck with him. Sarah followed at a more sedate pace, wondering exactly what had brought Casey out of the house. Did they have some kind of mission? Had something happened?
By the time she’d reached the front porch, Violet had stopped hugging Casey’s leg and was already being ushered inside by Chuck, who sent a confused look over his shoulder at Sarah before he closed the door behind him.
“What’s up?” Sarah asked Casey.
He looked at her for a few seconds, his face expressionless. “Thought you were going to the store.”
“The groceries are in my car. I saw Chuck and Violet walking and thought I’d join them.”
“Protecting the cover?” Casey’s tone implied that he suspected she was doing anything but.
Sarah bristled. “It’s good to get as many sweeps of the neighborhood as we can in,” she said. “And it’s not a crime to spend time with my asset.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Walker.”
“What are you so cranky about? Did somebody cancel Mail Call?”
“No.” Casey surprised her by making a noise that almost seemed like an apology. “Got a call from HQ.”
“What is it, then?”
Casey’s scowl deepened, if it was possible. “Just got word that some local state troopers picked up a bogey hitchhiking up the coast this morning. They just took him to Vortex Two.”
Sarah gave him a puzzled look. Vortex Two was the secret CIA facility not too far from Burbank. “Why would they do that?”
“Because it’s Larkin.”
Sarah stared at him. “That’s impossible.”
“Bryce is dead.” He was dead. He had to be dead. He’d died stealing the Intersect and sending it to Chuck and not telling her about any of it and leaving her alone. He had to be dead because she’d accepted he was dead and there wouldn’t really be closure there. He was dead.
So what was he doing hitchhiking?
“He should be,” Casey said. “I put that bullet in myself. But no. The bastard’s still alive.”
There was a rushing sound in her ears, Sarah realized. The analytical agent side of her pointed out that this was just another classic symptom of shock, but-Bryce was alive?
“How?” she asked. “How is this possible?”
“Don’t ask me how you spooks work.”
Sarah shook her head as sanity began to reassert itself. If Bryce was alive, that meant trouble. That meant one more person knowing about Chuck. And if Bryce was alive, he might be coming for Chuck, and they would finally be able to understand why he’d done what he had.
And why he’d done it without giving her any clue. Why he’d turned traitor.
“Going to need your A-game on this one, Walker,” Casey said, watching her carefully. “Are your girl feelings going to be a problem?”
She forced herself to roll her eyes at him. “I don’t know, is the fact that you’re stuck in the 80s going to be a problem?”
“Touche. Speaking of girl feelings…”
The front door opened and Chuck appeared, sans over-large dog and progeny. “I recognized the look on your face,” he said to Casey without preamble. “We have a mission, don’t we?”
“Not exactly,” Sarah said after sharing a quick glance with Casey.
Chuck looked from one to the other and sighed. “I’m really not going to like what you’re about to say, am I?”