Chapter 1: Boxing Day
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?”
Chapter 2: Boxing on Boxing Day
On Old long syne my Jo,
in Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
on Old long syne.
- Old Long Syne, James Watson
Bryce Larkin wasn’t dead.
And wasn’t that a kick in the pants?
Chuck sat on his front porch. He told himself he wasn’t watching for Sarah or Casey to return, that he was just sitting on his front porch as was his right as an American citizen. Granted, since they’d never been the type of family to sit out on the porch, he’d had to go into the garage and drag out one of the camping chairs that Ellie and Awesome always took on their trips. He’d made sure to get a nice one, one with a little footrest attached. It helped complete the picture—as did the six-pack at his feet.
Both Casey and Sarah had told him that Bryce Larkin had been shot and killed sending the Intersect to Chuck. He’d had to make his peace with that, hadn’t he? He’d had to come to accept that he was always going to hate a dead man, no matter how well that didn’t sit with him. He tried to live by a certain moral code and hoped to raise his daughter to follow the same, if not a better one, and hating a dead man just felt wrong. For Bryce, though, Chuck’s fury had been willing to make an exception.
And now the bastard didn’t even have the decency to stay dead and let Chuck keep his closure.
He picked up the second beer out of the pack and opened it.
The front door crept open an inch. He only had to turn a little to see one blue eye peer though. He gestured; Violet needed no more invitation to slip through the front door and make a flying leap for his lap. She was wearing her nightgown already, her hair a wet tangle. Ellie had really done him a solid and handled bath time, it seemed.
“What’re you doin’ out here?” Violet asked.
“‘Bout the computer?”
It was simpler to lie, so Chuck said, “Yes.” He hugged her to him, rubbing her arms. “But it’s kind of cold for you out here, Megabyte. Let’s get you inside.”
“I’m not cold,” Violet said.
“You will be. Besides, it’s bedtime.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Violet said. “You could make bedtime later if you wanted to.”
“And yet…C’mon, let’s get you inside, I’ll tuck you in.”
“It’s okay, Uncle Awesome said he was going to tell me a story.” Violet gave him a peck on the cheek, hopped down, and raced back inside.
Chuck shook his head and had to smile. “Good night,” he called after her. It had probably been her whole intention for coming out on the porch anyway, simply to wish him a good-night. He shook his head again.
“What’s that for?” Sarah’s voice asked.
He turned and just like she was prone to do, she was standing there, just by the front steps. She’d sneaked up on him yet again, which wasn’t a surprise. The woman moved like a ghost. Unlike a ghost, though, she seemed nervous. She had her hands in front of her, the fingers in one hand clutched in the other.
“You’re lucky you didn’t let her see you,” he said. “She would have never gone to bed.”
“I know.” Sarah looked at him questioningly for a second and, seeming to have asked for some sort of permission, climbed onto the porch. She bent and took one of the beers from the six-pack.
He waited until she was settled on the top step. “So what’s the verdict?”
“It’s him.” Sarah twisted the cap off of the beer.
“You’ve seen him? What did he say? Did he say anything about…”
“Seen him, yes. I didn’t talk to him.” Sarah stared down the bottle. He had to figure she wasn’t actually paying all that much attention to the beer. “He’s not talking.”
“Oh. Seems rude.”
A half-smile overtook Sarah’s face. “Something like that.”
“Why is he alive, Sarah?”
“I don’t know. Casey told me the shot was clean.”
Chuck’s eyes widened. When Sarah had told him that Bryce had died, he’d never actually sat down and figured out how. “Casey shot him?”
“He was trying to steal state secrets. Casey was doing his job.” Though she sounded troubled, too. “It wasn’t personal.”
Chuck downed half of his beer. He hated Bryce. There wasn’t a day when there wasn’t some moment of impotent anger that hit him out of nowhere, that made him furious to the point where his vision tunneled and his pulse raced. But even so, hearing that Casey had been the one to pull the trigger made him feel…honestly, he didn’t know. He finished the beer.
“It’s not like you to drink like this,” Sarah said.
“It’s not serious. I keep whiskey around for that.” Chuck set the empty bottle down. Since she had a point, he didn’t reach for a third.
“And I don’t drink heavily with Violet around.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
“I just feel like I…should say that. For the record.”
“It’s okay, Chuck. I know it’s a rough situation, all around.” Sarah set her beer on the front step beside her and looked at him seriously for the first time since she’d appeared. “And there’s really no easy way to say what I’m about to say, so I should just stop stalling and get it out of the way.”
Chuck felt actual dread begin to gnaw along the interior of his stomach. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“It…Bryce isn’t talking. He says he’ll only speak to one person.”
Chuck just looked at her. “He’s asking for me, isn’t he.”
“He is,” Sarah replied, though they both knew Chuck’s statement hadn’t been a question. “The bosses want you to talk to him. They think you might be able to get something out of him.”
“I think I got everything I want out of him, thanks very much,” Chuck said, his voice flat.
Chuck looked down absently and nearly raised his eyebrows to see that his hands had clenched into fists. It felt almost like an out-of-body experience. He could feel his chest tighten and the tendons down his arms strain, but the anger seemed completely separate from him.
Bryce was supposed to be dead.
“I don’t want to talk to him,” he said, his voice oddly calm.
Sarah said nothing.
“I don’t want to deal with him at all, even. I want him to still be dead.”
“But he’s not dead and he can’t even do me courtesy of staying dead, can he?” Chuck wanted another beer, but he didn’t reach for it. He simply continued to stare at his fists.
“To be fair to Bryce,” Sarah said, her voice dry, “I don’t think he really had you in mind when he decided to live.”
Chuck snorted. “What do you think I should do?”
It took Sarah a full minute to answer. She wasn’t looking at him, but out across the lawn, one hand fiddling nervously with the corner of the label on her beer. “I think the more we know about Bryce’s actions, the more we can do to protect everything out here.”
“And it would be nice to have answers.” He was amazed that his voice was so even and tempered, as his fists were still shaking and he could feel his pulse speeding up. Bryce Larkin wasn’t dead. After everything, the government not only wanted to put Chuck’s life and daughter in danger, but not a single person could get anything out of the man who’d dealt the initial blow. Chuck felt the scowl beginning to overtake the weird calm keeping his face blank.
Why couldn’t Sarah and Casey just take care of this? He was the civilian here, albeit on the government’s payroll for his work with the Intersect files. A rogue agent coming back from the dead and refusing to talk about the major, traitorous move he’d made in blowing up government secrets—that was supposed to be something the real agents handled.
But no, it looked like it was going to be up to Chuck to deal with it.
He hated the government. He hated Bryce Larkin more, but that hardly mattered.
“What do you want out of me?” he asked.
Perhaps the anger had begun to leak into his voice, for Sarah gave him a surprised look. “We just want you to go in and see if you can get him to talk. You don’t have to befriend him or anything.”
“Good. Because I’m not that good of an actor.”
Sarah’s eyebrows drew low over her eyes. “You have your moments,” she said. “Are you okay?”
“But that’s not a big deal. What time are we going to talk to him?”
“Violet’s got Pre-K tomorrow. I thought during that? Casey and I will be with you the whole time.”
“I’ll go with you to drop her off, and then we’ll head over to the facility.”
There was another long pause from Sarah, but this time she was looking at him. The porch light didn’t provide too much illumination—it was almost time to change the bulb—but he could see the way her eyes probed, studying him.
“Chuck,” she said, “it’s going to be okay. We’re going to handle this.”
Chuck hoped so. But he didn’t really feel confident in nodding or disagreeing, so he just let it hang there until Sarah finished her beer, gave him one final, searching look, and bidding him a good night, left.
Casey came with them the next morning, which sent Violet into fits of delight from her booster seat since she had two more of her favorite people in the car with her. Though she normally picked up on moods—especially his, Chuck always noticed—she didn’t notice the tension running underneath everything the agents and Chuck said. Instead, she babbled happily at Sarah, who was doing the best at keeping everything normal for Violet. They played the stoplight game while Chuck kept his focus on the road.
“Do you want to meet Mr. Matt and Mrs. Kester?” Violet asked when Chuck pulled into the unloading zone. She looked hopefully from Sarah to Casey, bouncing a little in her seat.
Sarah glanced at Chuck, but he simply got out of the car so that he could walk around and let Violet out of the seat. By the time he’d rounded the other side of the car, Sarah had climbed out of the backseat.
“It can’t hurt,” she said under her breath.
It couldn’t. Sarah was already an established part of their lives as far as Ellie and Awesome were concerned anyway. Meeting Violet’s teachers was supposed to come at some point down the road for a serious, as the TV shows called them, love interest anyway.
Just following the script, Chuck thought. He set Violet on the ground, but she immediately latched onto Sarah’s hand. She was talking a mile a minute already about how cool Mr. Matt was—almost as cool as Daddy—and how Mrs. Kester sometimes called them kidlets, which was kind of like her name Violet since the two ended the same. She seemed more than happy to show Sarah off to every single one of her friends on the way in—and their mothers.
Chuck saw a few speculative looks and a few more raised eyebrows. Dropping Violet off was going to be fun from now on, he saw.
He’d care later.
By the time they returned to the car, Casey was glaring at the radio as he pushed station after station. “You two done playing house?” he asked when Chuck slid back into the driver’s seat.
Chuck leaned over and put the radio back to his indie rock station.
The facility wasn’t located too far from his house—only half an hour of traffic or so—and then they were going through the process of signing Chuck in as Charles Carmichael, getting scanned for security, receiving their temporary passes. The entire building seemed to love the color white: white walls, white furniture, white hallways, and glaringly white lights.
Normally, Chuck would have made some kind of comment on that, just to cut the tension. He didn’t feel like it today, so he just followed Casey and Sarah through various hallways, all white. The elevator had too many buttons; he wondered vaguely if it was anything like Willy Wonka’s elevator as they rode up to some kind of observatory.
And there he was.
Who was not dead. Who didn’t even look near death. In fact, he looked healthy, his hair wavy and coiffed, save that he was chained to some kind of table that looked like it was more meant for Hannibal Lecter.
Chuck stopped just inside the room and stared. His fists clenched.
“Hey, Casey, give us a minute?” Sarah asked.
Casey rolled his eyes at both of them and strode over to the window, ostensibly giving them space. Though Sarah glanced at him once, she seemed satisfied with that. She drew Chuck away from the door, toward the wall. “Are you okay?”
“Did you sleep at all last night?”
He had to figure the bags beneath his eyes were large enough to hold groceries, but Chuck lied and said that he had. He’d been lying awake all night in his too-large new bed, staring at the ceiling. Anger had fueled him through most of the night, but doubt had crept in sometime around 3 a.m.
Bryce was alive. And if he remembered Bryce at all, Bryce had had some sort of plan. He’d also had the best of everything when he’d been alive: the best grades, the best jokes. The best women.
Carina’s words about Bryce and Sarah had wormed under his skin and refused to leave.
Now that Bryce was back, would Sarah leave? Would Sarah go back to him? Sure, she didn’t seem at all happy about the idea, like him, but…Chuck remembered Bryce Larkin well. He remembered how charming and put together Bryce could be, and he didn’t have a messy life in the suburbs or a kid or any of that baggage. Sure, Bryce was a traitor, but he meant Sarah could go back to the spy life he knew she missed.
And what the hell was he thinking about this for? Bryce Larkin was a traitor. A traitor that refused to talk to anybody but him.
“All you have to do is talk to him. We haven’t told him anything about you, but don’t mention Violet or anything like that. Don’t give him any details about you.”
“I won’t,” Chuck said, swallowing hard.
“And if you feel like you’re in any danger, any at all, just say the word and Casey and I will be right there, okay?”
Chuck looked at the Hannibal Lecter table again. “Okay,” he said, though it was hard to picture his old college roommate as dangerous. No matter how many dart wars he had won in the library. “Just find out what he wants and get out of there?”
Chuck highly doubted that, but he nodded and moved to the door. It buzzed to let him in.
He stepped into the room. Bryce had had his eyes closed, lying on his back, but at the sound of the door clicking shut behind Chuck, his eyes opened. He looked over.
The anger Chuck had felt he was keeping a pretty good lid on suddenly swelled. This was the man who had put Violet in danger.
He said nothing. If Bryce wanted to talk, he would.
“Chuck?” Bryce asked.
“Yes.” His voice was oddly flat, almost wooden.
“Prove it. Prove to me you’re Chuck Bartowski.”
“I’m Chuck,” was all Chuck said. He heard a strange rushing sound in his ears, and it felt like he was going to punch a wall or pass out. Everything felt icily cold, as though he’d been plunged into the Arctic.
“Yeah?” Bryce’s eyes narrowed. “If you’re Chuck: tlhingan Hol dajatlh’a?”
Chuck didn’t move. He’d understood the Klingon perfectly, even if Bryce’s accent was strangely not as rusty as his own. But he wasn’t going to play Bryce Larkin’s games anymore. The last time he’d played a game given to him by Bryce, his little girl had ended up in constant danger of losing her father to a bunker in the middle of nowhere.
And he was officially done with all of it.
So he ignored Sarah’s caution that all he was to do was talk to Bryce and turned to the analyst in the room, standing off to the side. “Would you do me a favor?”
She looked at him warily.
“Let him loose?”
“What? I’m under orders to—”
“It’s okay,” Chuck said.
Bryce turned the full Larkin Swoon on toward the analyst. Chuck’s fist, out of Bryce’s line of sight, tightened. “I won’t do anything, I swear,” Bryce said.
“I’ll vouch for him,” Chuck said.
The analyst gave one worried glance at the observation window, but slowly moved to loose Bryce’s straps. True to his word, he didn’t attack her, though she backed up rather quickly once he was free.
Bryce climbed to his feet and looked at Chuck seriously. “Shouldn’t have done that, Chuck.”
Chuck’s reply was simply to plow his fist into Bryce’s face.
Chapter 3: Homicidal
My Heart is ravisht with delight,
when thee I think upon;
All Grief and Sorrow takes the flight,
and speedily is gone;
The bright resemblance of thy Face,
so fills this, Heart of mine;
That Force nor Fate can me displease,
for Old long syne.
- Old Long Syne, James Watson
“I’m going to kill him.”
“Get in line.”
“No, really,” Sarah said, and they burst through the elevator doors when they finally opened, “I’m going to kill him.”
“If Larkin hasn’t gotten there first,” Casey said.
“Then I’ll bring him back to life and I’ll kill him again.” They sprinted down the south hallway, Casey leading the way. It wasn’t surprising; he had a good six inches on her, even if she was the better distance runner. The facility workers, seeing two agents barreling toward them, guns out, wisely leapt to the side to let Sarah and Casey through. Sarah almost wondered if they dealt with hostages getting loose every day, as they barely flicked a glance at either of the agents.
Because unfortunately, that was exactly what had happened. Chuck had let Bryce loose. And Bryce was loose, with Chuck.
She was going to kill him.
And Bryce, too, now that she thought about it. Maybe she should kill Bryce first, actually. Really provide an example of why Chuck should be afraid of her.
Because he was a moron and she was going to kick his ass.
What the hell had he been thinking? She’d understood he was angry, but he’d seemed perfectly okay with going in to talk to Bryce. If she had had any idea that the idiot was going to punch the other idiot, she would have put the kibosh on the whole thing.
God spare me from idiots, she thought, and nearly stumbled to hear her thoughts in Casey’s voice.
Of course, the minute Chuck had thrown the first punch, all pandemonium had broken loose. Maybe Bryce had let him get a lucky hit—Sarah doubted it, she’d seen the shocked look on Bryce’s face—but Bryce had been with the Agency too long to not take advantage of a situation like that. By the time Casey and Sarah had broken into the interrogation chamber, Bryce had had Chuck by the neck with some kind of needle. What was in the syringe, Sarah didn’t know. But given the types of interrogations that went on in that room, it probably wouldn’t be very pleasant for Chuck.
Why the hell couldn’t he have just followed orders? Weren’t they past that already? Sure, he didn’t always wait in the car, but he knew she was in charge, and she would protect him.
She was going to murder him. Gleefully.
“This way,” Casey said, cutting a hard left. Chuck’s tracker had stopped moving on the sixteenth floor.
Sarah stayed right on her partner’s heels. If Bryce had done anything to Chuck…
Focus, Walker. She just had to find Chuck and then she could kill him herself.
They were nearing a corner; the tracker on their watches put Chuck just beyond it. What she was going to find around the corner, she didn’t know, but she really, really did not want to have to show up on Ellie’s doorstep with bad news.
Chuck is smart. He’ll get out of this.
And then I’ll kill him.
“I’ll take lead,” Casey said. “They’re still in the elevator.”
Unless they had dumped Chuck’s watch. Was Bryce smart enough to recognize it? What the hell did he want with Chuck, anyway? Why had he done any of this? Why was he back?
“Okay, go,” she said to Casey. “I’ve got your back.”
Casey made a “heh” noise, which she couldn’t decipher, and checked around the corner. He jerked his head at her to follow, which she did, keeping her footsteps quiet—
Until she saw Chuck lying on the floor of the elevator.
Spy training went out the window. She was down the hall without really know how she’d gotten there, shoving past the doors, dropping to her knees next to Chuck. Oh, god, don’t be dead, don’t be—
He was breathing. Lying on his back, jacket open over his Green Lantern T-shirt, no blood on his face, his breathing normal, as though he were sleeping. At that, Sarah felt herself breathe, and realized she hadn’t drawn breath at all since she’d seen him on the floor.
Casey approached from behind her, and she schooled her features. “It’s okay,” he said, only mildly sarcastic. “I cased the area. No Larkin waiting to get the drop on you.”
“How is the idiot?”
“Breathing.” She checked. “Pulse is steady.” Chuck didn’t respond when she turned his head; she frowned at the needle mark on his neck. “Looks like Bryce dosed him with something. Call up, see what they were using in that room, will you? And we’d better call an EMT, just in case.”
But when she reached for her phone to do just that, Chuck stirred, his eyes scrunching. “Or not. Guess he’s coming around,” Sarah said, and sat back on her haunches, frowning. No matter how many ways she’d imagined killing Chuck while they’d tracked Chuck and Bryce through the building—and there had been ample ways—she couldn’t deny that her heart was now pounding thanks to relief. Seeing Bryce again the night before had been one thing. Almost losing Chuck to him was another.
“Have them seal the building,” she heard Casey say as Chuck continued to stir, a frown on his face as though he were protesting waking up in general. “Get Larkin’s picture out to the local authorities, just in case.”
She wanted to tell Casey not to bother. Bryce was just as well-trained as she was. If he wanted to disappear, he would.
Why hadn’t he taken Chuck with him? Was this just a strategic retreat?
On the floor, Chuck’s eyes opened just a crack, and he moaned. The noise seemed a little slurred.
Great. Maybe they would need the EMT after all. Chuck, however, just woke up more fully, eyes opening all the way and tracking until they locked onto her face. The smile that followed seemed to be spontaneous. He waved a hand, drunkenly, at her.
Relief swelled, followed quickly by a sharp anger that made her roll her eyes. She really was going to kill him the minute he felt better, for scaring her so badly. Right now, she couldn’t even look at him. She rose to her feet. “He’s fine. You deal with him.”
“Yay, babysitting,” Casey said with no enthusiasm whatsoever, and leaned down to slap Chuck across the face and bring him to consciousness more quickly. “Get up, idiot. Quit napping on the clock.”
“Wh…Casey? But you’re not supposed to be…where’m I? Why does my head feel like a balloon?”
“Because it’s empty.” Casey hauled Chuck to his feet. “Clearly.”
Chuck winced. “Walked right into that one. Sarah, what’s going—where’s Bryce?” His eyes cleared of the last of the drug-induced sleep, back to the flat, emotionless look she’d seen on his face ever since they’d told him the day before that Bryce was still alive. It was a look she’d misjudged. She’d figured him to be angry—he had the right, after all—but she definitely hadn’t banked on how angry. “Where did he go?”
“First you tell us what happened.”
Sarah didn’t turn and look at Chuck. She was angry in a way she rarely allowed herself to be; whenever she felt this kind of wrath, inanimate objects tended to die. And she really did not want to throw one of her knives at Chuck, so it was better to focus on the wall.
“I—he dragged me into the elevator.” She heard Chuck lick his lips, a sign that he was processing something. “Bryce said somebody took him. Or at least I think he did. I was a little busy.”
“Doing what?” Sarah asked before she could stop herself. Her voice sounded icy even to her ears.
“What else?” Chuck asked. “Trying to hit him.”
“All right,” Chuck said once Casey had given them both suspicious looks and had stalked back to the Spy Casa in order to check in with the teams they had searching for Bryce all over Los Angeles and the agents posted at Violet’s pre-K school. Chuck and Sarah headed up the driveway to Chuck’s house. “What’s up with you? You haven’t looked at me since we left the facility.”
Sarah followed him inside. She needed to get somewhere with something she could beat on, but until Bryce was caught, neither of them could leave Chuck alone. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, I do.” Chuck tugged on her arm, pulling her toward the couch—where he’d once confessed that all of the big family decisions took place, as they all had their assigned seats in the living room and would decide together what they needed to do about problems or Violet.
She didn’t want to be part of that right now, so she savagely ripped her arm out of his grip. “That’s just too bad,” she said, biting off her words. God, didn’t he see that right now was not the time to talk to her? She wanted to hit something.
Chuck completely missed the signals. “Was it something I did? Because I’ll be the first to point out that Bryce—”
Sarah rounded on him. “Why the hell did you do that?”
“Put yourself in danger like that. God, Chuck, you could have been killed!”
“By Bryce?” Chuck looked puzzled.
“By a rogue spy! I swear—” Sarah turned and stalked into the kitchen, aiming for the fridge and a bottle of water. She didn’t think she’d ever been quite this angry before, where it made the world seem a little jittery at the edges like a caffeine addict. When she uncapped the water bottle, she almost wrenched water all over the kitchen. “I swear, when you told that analyst to let him loose, I nearly killed you myself.”
“Bryce wouldn’t kill me.”
“Bryce is a trained assassin. You should have never let him anywhere near you—”
“He got what he deserved.”
“What, a sock to the jaw? Was that really worth the risk, Chuck?”
“Yes.” Chuck folded his arms over his chest. “And I’d do it again.”
Sarah rubbed a hand down her face. She really was going to hit him, she realized. There had been times in the first couple of weeks of their working relationship that she’d considered dropping Chuck Bartowski off of the edge of a cliff, but the homicidal feelings had never been this strong. Why couldn’t he see how much of an idiot he was being?
“He hurt my daughter, Sarah. Because of him, I don’t have a single night where I don’t look at my little girl and wonder if the government is going to take her from me, or some terrorist is going to get lucky and figure out who I am and hurt her, or if she’s going to have to grow up like I did, without parents. And it’s his fault, and I have to live with that every day.” Chuck straightened, his head raised defiantly. “So yes, I would do it again.”
“What you did was idiotic.”
Chuck’s face hardened. “You’re not a parent, you don’t know what it’s like—”
“Don’t you dare play that card with me.” Sarah stabbed a finger at him. “Just stop right there.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“No, it’s complete bull. You think I’m not pissed at Bryce, too?”
“I don’t know why you would be. Carina said—”
“Screw what Carina said.” She’d have to have a talk with her old partner, Sarah thought, if things Carina had said during her brief stint in Burbank had really spread this much doubt. But that was for later. “Carina doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about.”
“Are you sure? He was your partner. You were together.”
“Over six months ago! And I don’t know why you think I’m so heartless that I wouldn’t care about what he did to you and Violet.”
“I don’t think—”
“I know you’re pissed at Bryce and you have the right to be, but what you did today was stupid.”
“Bryce Larkin is not the guy you knew in college. He’s not your frat buddy or your nerd buddy or whatever the hell he was to you, Chuck. He’s had training. He can kill you in over two hundred different ways, and I know that because I have had the exact same training. You’re lucky he didn’t snap your idiot neck.”
“I’m not sorry.” Chuck glared.
“Yeah, well, you got off easy with a mild poisoning, apparently. The syringe wasn’t anything more than a mild truth serum.”
“Lucky for me.”
“And now thanks to you, a rogue spy is now on the loose in Los Angeles where your daughter and sister and friends live. Ever think about that?”
Chuck blanched. “I should have hit him harder.”
“Or waited for Casey or me to hold him down!”
Surprise overtook Chuck’s face now. He stared at her, water bottle raised halfway to his lips before he lowered it to the counter. “You’d do that?”
“Why are you so surprised by that?”
“I just thought…” Chuck sighed. He looked away from her. “I thought you’d look at Bryce and think, he’s my ticket out of here.”
There were some days that Chuck Bartowski was an open book to her. This was not, Sarah figured early on, going to be one of those days. He might as well have started speaking Swahili for all that she understood him right now. “Why would I think that?” she asked, feeling a headache begin to swell.
“I don’t know. Maybe because I live in the suburbs?”
“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
Chuck scowled. “Don’t be dense.”
Sarah nearly threw a knife at him. Not close enough to hit him, of course, just enough to scare him. Only sanity and a repeated mantra about not accidentally puncturing the Intersect kept her knife holstered. “Don’t insult me. Explain.”
“Do I really have—okay.” Chuck apparently interpreted the look on her face correctly, as he shut up rather quickly. He sighed and rubbed a hand through his hair, sending some of it into his eyes, which he brushed back just as irritably. “You really don’t see it? You’re a kickass CIA agent and you’re living in a house in the suburbs and babysitting a stay-at-home dad and his daughter.”
“And you used to run around with Bryce Larkin.”
He was still speaking Swahili. “So?” Sarah asked.
“So he’s Bryce Larkin. I know what he’s like. Everybody loves him. He always has the best time, the best stories, the best girls—”
Enlightenment finally dawned. Sarah gaped at Chuck. How long had that particularly nasty nugget been lodged inside his skull? And was that…no. It couldn’t have been why Chuck had hit Bryce. Chuck wasn’t violent unless something was threatening his daughter. He couldn’t be—wasn’t jealous.
Even so, it made her head hurt. “Chuck,” she said, wanting very much to bang her head against the refrigerator, “did I or did I not promise you that I was going to do everything in my power to keep you and Violet safe?”
Chuck looked like this was the last thing he had expected her to say. “You did.”
“And have you ever known me to break my word?”
“No,” Chuck said, “but—”
“But nothing. Yes, I used to be with Bryce. And yes, I won’t deny it: I get bored sometimes. But I’m not going to abandon you just because my traitorous ex—” Partner? Boyfriend? “Coworker offers a little hypothetical excitement. I am not that shallow.”
“But if you get really bored—”
“Chuck, if I left—well, what on earth would I tell Violet?”
Chuck gave her a funny look, his face slightly pinched. “You’d stay just for Violet?”
She nearly told him: and for you. But he wasn’t ready to hear that—didn’t deserve to hear that after he’d put himself in so much foolish danger—and she sure as hell wasn’t ready to admit it. “Yes,” Sarah said instead. “Even if Bryce weren’t a scumbag traitor, I’d stay. I made a promise.”
“But what you did today was still stupid.”
“I’ll give you bull-headed or ill-advised. Not stupid.”
“Stupid,” Sarah repeated.
“I’m not sorry.” He looked defiant once more, chin up, eyes all but glittering. “I won’t apologize.”
“Next time, you let Casey or me handle it.”
Chuck slammed the water bottle onto the counter so hard that both of them jumped. It was a move completely at odds with everything she knew about Chuck. “What do you expect, Sarah? He threatened my daughter. Maybe not directly, but—”
“Maybe. But it’s my kid whose life he’s put in danger, and that makes him my responsibility. I’ll let you hold him down, but if I see a shot…”
“Great.” Sarah scowled. “And what am I going to tell Violet when Bryce kills you, huh?”
He wasn’t, she saw, going to budge. The same anger she’d seen swirling in his eyes the night before, when he’d seemed so alone and so pensive on his front porch, was back. She’d underestimated that anger, and Chuck’s pacific nature beside. But looking at him now, she could read the set of his shoulders and the way his mouth tightened that he wasn’t going to budge an inch.
She’d have more luck convincing a brick wall.
“If he kills you,” she said, pointing at him again, “it’s on you, got me?” She capped the water bottle and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Upstairs. I need a nap and frankly, I’m tired of fighting with you. Until Bryce Larkin is under lock and key again, I’m moving in.” She paused by the door. “Wake me up when it’s time to get Violet. I’ll go with you.”
Chapter 4: The Loveless Marriage of Chuck and Sarah
The song begins by posing a rhetorical question as to whether it is right that old times be forgotten, and is generally interpreted as a call to remember long-standing friendships. Thomson’s Select Songs of Scotland was published in 1799 in which the second verse about greeting and toasting was moved to its present position at the end. — Wikipedia
“No word on Bryce?” Chuck asked when his bedroom window slid open.
Sarah paused before she clambered from limb to sill, possibly because he’d skipped greetings entirely. “No,” she said, and landed silently on the carpet.
Chuck turned back to the computer in frustration. Before he’d heard the tapping at his window, he hadn’t been making any progress on the programming he’d set aside to tackle today, and it only made things worse. “I guess you were right,” he said as he saved his progress. “I shouldn’t have let him loose.”
“I thought you said you weren’t going to apologize.”
Chuck swiveled to face her. She was now sitting on the edge of his bed—well, their bed for the time being, though Sarah was technically sneaking in so that Ellie and Devon wouldn’t get too suspicious—facing him. Though she wore sweatpants to go with one of his old T-shirts, he knew that come bedtime, she’d peel out of the sweatpants and the torture would begin.
Not that she seemed to notice.
“I wasn’t,” Chuck said, wrenching his thoughts away from her legs. “But then Bryce had to go and be a pain in the ass about it and stay missing.”
“No kidding. You have much left to do? I’m a little tired.”
“No, I’m done for the day. Just need to check on Violet.”
Sarah fiddled with her thumb. “Can I do that?”
“Yeah—I want to check her room for bugs.”
The anger that hit him at even the thought of Bryce being anywhere near Violet’s room hit like a flash—hard and disorienting. Chuck kept his voice even only through sheer force of will. “You think her room is bugged?”
“Not likely. But I’d like to check. You know, just to make sure.”
“Okay.” Sarah slipped out in that silent, quick way she had of moving. Chuck rolled his head around on his neck to ease some of the tension, stamping firmly on the fury. After a few days of Bryce being loose, the self-righteous anger had become too tiring to maintain. It didn’t mean he wasn’t pissed—he was, plenty—but it just meant he couldn’t afford to Hulk Out at the slightest insult. Besides, he’d been making his family suspicious, and putting Casey and Sarah on edge. Even Awesome had said something in the form of offering Chuck different supplemental shakes that would “help with the serious neck vein problems, dude.”
He wasn’t very much fun, and there didn’t seem to be anything he could do with it. Not with Bryce still alive.
So he shut down his computer down, gave one last look at the bed, and had to squash the rather sardonic thought that he was apparently in the equivalent of a longtime-married relationship with a CIA agent. Tandem bedtimes, regular check-ins, none of the fun. Of course, all of that was alleviated by Sarah’s declaration that she wouldn’t be leaving him or Violet behind for Bryce—a declaration that still stunned him stupid whenever he thought about it too long—but the principle of this whole loveless marriage thing just made him shake his head.
He headed down the hallway. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Sarah not to check on Violet. He just liked that minute at the end of the day where he got to see Violet sleeping and reassure himself that she was fine. Plus, when she wasn’t sleeping, she was less likely to cause trouble. It was peaceful to witness that. Sarah had left Violet’s door open, probably hoping to make a quick escape. Chuck stepped into the doorway, automatically leaning against the doorframe. Halfway into the motion, he froze. Violet’s bed was empty.
Sarah, on the other side of the room, held up a hand before he could rush in. She raised a finger to her lips and pointed down.
He had to bite down on his hand. Apparently Violet had crawled out of bed to join the pretentiously-named Sir Chewbacca Bartowski the Fourth on the floor, possibly because there was no hope for the dog actually fitting in the bed itself. Girl and dog were now so tangled that it was hard to figure where one ended and the other started.
“Hush,” Sarah hissed at him when the laughter spilled out past his hand. She pocketed the bug detector. “She’ll hear you and then we’re all busted.”
“Should we move her? She looks so content.”
“I’m worried he might roll over.”
“Good point.” Chuck ventured inside and knelt. “Dog or girl?”
“You get the dog. He’s heavier.”
Sir woke when Chuck began to pry him away from Violet. For a brief second, Chuck paused, praying Sir wouldn’t view Chuck pulling at his paws as play-time. But the dog merely raised his head, sleepily. His tail began to thump against Chuck’s elbow. “Ow!”
“Shh,” Sarah said, giving him an annoyed look as she pulled Violet loose with all of the care of a brain surgeon performing life-saving surgery. And a great deal more fear, judging by how tensed she was. “If she wakes up, we are going to have to do some very awkward explaining to Ellie and Devon tomorrow over breakfast.”
“Really? You came over because you’re my girlfriend. It doesn’t seem that far-fetched.”
Sarah, about to lift Violet into the bed, stilled for a split-second. Chuck’s eyebrows shot up, but before he could ask what was wrong, Sarah had set her on the mattress and Violet began to shift in her sleep.
Sarah froze for real this time. Chuck wondered if she was breathing at all; he certainly wasn’t. Eventually, Violet sighed and settled against Sarah’s arm. It took the spy a few seconds longer than necessary to extract her arm from under Violet, but after a “Shh” and a belly rub for Sir, she was following Chuck out of the bedroom and down the hallway.
It was only once they were back in his room that she let out a long breath. “That was close,” she said, pointing at him.
“You’re the one that said we had to move the kid.” But Chuck could feel an actual grin, the first genuine one he’d had since Casey and Sarah had told him Bryce wasn’t dead, forming. “You should have seen the look on your face.”
Sarah gave him a prim look and moved to her designated side of the bed. “You coming?”
“Just need to brush my teeth.” He slipped out of the room and the grin immediately faded.
Every night since Christmas Eve, Sarah had either stayed over after dinner or had come in through the window. 2008 was two nights away, and somehow in 2007, he’d gone from a single dad sleeping on a day-bed so that he could have his own office to the Intersect sharing a bed with a trained assassin for his own protection. He could barely remember his 2007 resolutions, but he had a feeling he hadn’t kept any of them. One of them had probably been to get a girlfriend—a regular resolution since Jill had left him a second time, and one he’d never really tried to follow up on—and even that one didn’t count. He and Sarah weren’t dating. There was nothing underneath the covers of their cover relationship.
A fact that somehow seemed all the more stark whenever he had to climb into bed with Sarah, knowing it was only because her ex-partner and his ex-roommate was out there, making their lives difficult. If that wasn’t the definition of having to look a gift horse in the mouth, he didn’t know what was.
The others must have held a conference on how best to handle this mysterious bad mood of his, Chuck determined, for when he came downstairs for dinner, there wasn’t a healthy feast like usual. Instead, Sarah and Ellie were at the island, divvying McDonald’s cartons of fries and burgers onto plates. There were also stacks of board games on the table, where Violet and Awesome sat, waiting. The former was moving about in her seat, agitated to the point where she was fidgeting, her coloring books completely forgotten. The latter was drinking a protein shake.
She spotted Chuck. “Finally!”
He had to laugh at the indignation more than anything else. “I’d have been down sooner if somebody had let me know dinner was here.” He sniffed appreciatively. “And McDonald’s.”
“Best fries in the world, right?” Sarah asked as she handed him a plate.
“I thought it was Chicken Kiev night,” Chuck said.
“Sarah thought we could use some Golden Arches in our lives.” Ellie set more plates on the table before she went back to collect the drink trays. “It’s a nice surprise. Even if it’s thirty more minutes on the bike tomorrow.”
“No kidding,” Sarah said.
Chuck, about to point out that neither of them really needed to lose any weight, remembered at the last second to never mention weight and women in the same sentence. He covered his almost-gaffe by stealing one of Violet’s fries and grinning when she squealed in outraged protest.
“What brought on the sudden need for the Arches?” he asked as Sarah and Ellie finally took their seats at the table.
She shrugged. “Made a promise.”
Violet poked his side. “McDonald’s fries are the best,” she said in an exaggerated stage whisper. “Way better than Burger King.”
“Guess I never have to take you to Burger King again,” Chuck said, and took a huge bite of his burger to hide his grin at Violet’s shocked look.
She immediately cast about for an ally. “Sarah!”
“Oh, no, no.” The spy wiped her fingers on a napkin and raised her hands. “I’m staying out of this feud. I’ll let you Bartowskis battle that one without me.”
Violet pouted, but the minute Awesome tried to steal her toy—some promotion for a kids’ movie Chuck imagined he’d have to lose a couple of IQ points over later on that month—she forgot all about the war between Ronald McDonald and his burger nemesis in order to protect her territory. “So what’s this?” Chuck asked, nodding at the board games stacked on the table. “I thought game night was tomorrow.”
“We rearranged. Sarah has promised to kick all of our butts at Candyland.”
“I said nothing of the kind,” Sarah said, giving Ellie a scandalized look.
Chuck chewed his burger for a minute. “So you’re not going to kick all of our butts at Candyland?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that…”
“Oh-ho, she’s got a competitive streak.” Awesome held his hand up for a high-five, which Sarah obediently gave. “You’ll fit right in.”
“We can play in teams. Sarah can be on my team!”
“She’s quick to attach herself to winners,” Chuck said dryly. Violet had a smear of ketchup across one cheek, but he didn’t move to wipe her face as he would have done when she was younger. Instead, he tapped his own cheek and had to wince when Violet swiped an arm across her face.
“So you’re calling me a winner, huh?” Sarah asked.
Awesome sat up. “Hey, I could be the winner.”
“Then maybe I should be on your team,” Violet said.
Chuck laughed. “That’s loyalty right there. All right, Megabyte, eat at least half of your burger and then we can play games—no, no, not in one bite. Geez, you’re going to make yourself sick.” He snatched the burger away before Violet could set in on it like a Velociraptor. “C’mon, we’ve got company. Let’s convince her we’re not heathens.”
“That’s not company, that’s Sarah,” Violet said.
And that, Chuck supposed, said it all where Sarah was concerned with his family now.
Chuck cinched the trash bag closed and set it off to the side while he replaced the liner before he stuck it under the sink. He’d bowed out of the latest card game—which was just down to Sarah, Awesome, and Violet anyway, as Ellie had gone to bed thanks to an early appointment—because the trash pickup was supposed to come in the morning and he really didn’t want to get up early and set it out.
At the table, Sarah asked Violet if she had any threes. The girl studied her cards solemnly for a minute before the grin sneaked across her face. “Go trout!” she said.
“Okay. Darn, didn’t get my wish.”
Chuck shook his head at that as he headed outside, trash bag in tow. The minute he stepped out on the porch, he shivered. Winter had hit in full force. His California boy blood wasn’t strong to handle it for long, which was why he preferred waiting inside with coffee until it all blew over.
The minute he trundled the trash can to the curb, though, he froze for an entirely new reason.
Something twitched at the corner of his vision, just a small movement. If he hadn’t been constantly in the company of two trained spies, Chuck might have ignored it, but the past few months meant now he turned, automatically using the trash can lid as a kind of shield.
His eyes widened even as his fingers clenched tighter around the lid. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Bryce Larkin stepped out from behind the car. “Relax,” he said. “I’m not here to—”
Chuck flung the lid. Years of deadly accuracy at Ultimate Frisbee and perhaps sheer fury remained on his side; the lid bounced out off of Bryce’s chest, making the other man grunt and double over.
Bryce wheezed. “Hurt you. Frak, Chuck! What the hell is your problem?”
“Stay away from me.” It really was amazing to see how fast he could go from contentment to fury. And fear. He could taste it like a metallic coating all over his mouth, making his heart pound. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Bryce Larkin was not supposed to simply show up on his front lawn as though nothing had happened. He heard Sarah’s warnings about Bryce in his head on a loop, repeating that the spy was dangerous, that he couldn’t be trusted, that he wasn’t the friend Chuck remembered from Stanford. Following that was the fury that made him want to disregard all of that and just punch and kick at Bryce until the other man wasn’t there anymore. “You have no right to be here. Get the hell out of here.”
“I can’t. I need your help.”
“Like hell you need my help. You have two seconds before I call Sarah and Casey and have them come shoot you.” This wasn’t happening. Bryce Larkin wasn’t standing on his lawn, within yards of where his kid was playing card games. That thought was sobering at best and terrifying at worst. He had to get Bryce away, far away. “Actually, you have less than that. Go.”
“I don’t have anywhere else to go! God, Chuck.” Bryce shoved both hands through his hair, looking frustrated. “Look, I don’t want to be here either. But there’s a group of terrorists after the Intersect, so I don’t have a choice. Just tell me where it is if you don’t have it, and I’ll go away. I’m not threat to you or your niece or whatever it is you’re worried about.”
Niece? Chuck went cold. Bryce had been spying on the house after all. It didn’t matter that he’d incorrectly assumed Violet belonged to Ellie and Awesome; he had been watching the house. He knew that she existed.
Chuck’s fist tightened. Poker face, he told himself. Sarah had told him to let Bryce know nothing, that Bryce was dangerous. “Not a threat. Right. Ha.”
“Where is all of this coming from? I’m your friend, Chuck. I’m not a traitor. Stealing the Intersect was sanctioned.”
“Project Sand Wall,” Bryce said. “I was supposed to—”
Chuck couldn’t possibly hope to stop the flash; images flooded by in randomized order, collating the little bits of data they left behind until again, Chuck knew something he hadn’t split-seconds before. He jerked back a little in response. Sand Wall had been signed off by both agencies and of course it had to deal with stealing the Intersect. Not only could Bryce not do Chuck the favor of keeping his “Bryce is dead” closure, it looked like he’d had the government on his side when he had stolen the Intersect and wrecked Chuck’s life.
“—Not be like that, true, but it was sanctioned and—what’s that look on your face for?”
“I know all about Sand Wall.” Chuck rubbed tiredly at his forehead. Bryce wasn’t a traitor. Friggin’ perfect.
“How could you…you did download the Intersect!”
Chuck gave him a baleful look.
“Does it always work this fast?” Chuck was reminded, when Bryce abruptly sobered, of the few science classes they’d had together, where Bryce had always had to contain his excitement over new and fascinating things. “And you have the only copy?”
“Yeah. You destroyed a pretty damned good laptop with that, by the way. Didn’t catch your virus in time.” The loss of that laptop—which he’d purchased with the profits from his first year of business—had stung.
Bryce didn’t look all that affected. “Sacrifices have to be made.”
“Sacrifices—” Chuck suddenly couldn’t hear a thing. The rage was back, churning through his stomach, making his arms shake, blinding everything until there was only a tunnel and at the end of that tunnel, Bryce. He took a step forward—to do what? Punch Bryce? Kick him?—but just as he did, the front door opened. Violet stepped out on the porch.
Chuck’s stomach plummeted into the Arctic.
“Daddy!” Violet streaked across the yard; neither of the men moved, though Chuck had to side-step a little to keep his balance when Violet slammed into him as she was wont to do. “Sarah wants to know if is he should deal you in for one last game ‘cause she says it’s almost my bedtime and—who are you?” She blinked up at Bryce, suddenly shy.
“I…” Bryce didn’t seem to know what to say. “You…”
And this wasn’t happening. This really, really wasn’t happening. Bryce wasn’t a traitor, sure, but what if he had been and Violet had come out and—Chuck’s temperature plunged. In a careful voice, he said, “This is somebody I know. Why don’t you go inside?” Knowing Vi, he wouldn’t even need to give her a code phrase. She’d just blab all about what had happened to her outside the minute she went in, and Sarah would appear.
“Okay.” But for once, Vi decided not to forget her manners. She smiled at Bryce, who still seemed shell-shocked. “Are you a good friend of Daddy’s? I’m Violet, I’m his—”
“Violet.” He didn’t like using that tone, but the more Bryce knew, the more anybody knew…
Vi gave him a startled look and darted back inside. She glanced over her shoulder once, looking betrayed. Chuck swallowed hard.
The minute the door closed behind her, Bryce let out a long breath. “She called you daddy.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“She’s not your niece. Is she.”
“I’m not talking about this with you.” He wanted, more than ever, to drive his fist into Bryce’s face again, but that wouldn’t do anything, so instead Chuck picked up the trash can lid and slammed it down with far too much force on the trash can. It made Bryce jump. “Innocent, guilty, I honestly don’t give a crap what you are. But I am never discussing her with you. I also can’t help you. Furthermore, I don’t want to.”
“Chuck—I didn’t know—”
“You think that makes it better?” He’d never hated anything in his life; Ellie, his parents, all of them had taught him hatred was wrong, that it was below him. But right now, he hated Bryce Larkin. Even worse, he hated him for making him hate anything. “Deal with Casey and Sarah, Bryce. I want no part of it.”
And in perhaps the best timing they’d ever had, Sarah burst out of the front door just like Violet had a minute before. Her gun was already out; Chuck only needed a single look to tell that she was just as furious as he felt. “Get down on your knees!”
“Oh, hell,” Bryce said.
Chapter 5: After Effect, Part I
It is believed that the Babylonians were the first to make New Year’s resolutions, and people all over the world have been breaking them ever since. The early Christians believed the first day of the new year should be spent reflecting on past mistakes and resolving to improve oneself in the new year. — Infoplease article
“Casey!” Sarah shoved the door to her own house open with one shoulder and Bryce forward with the opposite hand. “We’ve got a problem.”
Bryce looked around the foyer in confusion. “What is this? You’re cover-married to Casey, Walker? Have I just entered some parallel universe?”
She ignored his attempt to be cute—he always tried to be cute whenever he was using her last name—and instead pushed him toward the dining room. They got only a couple of steps before Casey’s footsteps thundered on the stairs and the man himself appeared, scowling, a towel across his shoulders. “What the hell is it, Wal—you!”
“Don’t shoot him!” Sarah held a hand out to stop Casey from putting a bullet between Bryce’s eyes. Waiting for a clean-up team would only make her day worse. “Casey, don’t.”
“Give me one reason not to,” Casey said, his gun out and trained on Bryce.
“Because I’m innocent.”
Casey looked at Sarah and she nodded. “Chuck flashed.”
“That I did.” Chuck, bringing up the rear of their odd little trio, shut the front door behind all of them. The noise Casey made now was of sheer disappointment. He took his time tucking the gun away into the waistband of his exercise pants. “Hey, Casey. Good workout?”
“Bartowski.” Casey nodded in Chuck’s direction before he abruptly turned and gave Bryce the stink-eye. “Innocent, my ass.”
Sarah had to roll her eyes. Her men, as Ellie had called them—now with Bryce included—were being a collective pain in the ass this week. “Yeah, yeah. Everybody in the kitchen,” she said, and shoved Bryce onward. “Let’s get this mess figured out.”
It hadn’t taken long for their little scene on the lawn to break down. Bryce had obeyed, lying face-down on the grass while Chuck dispassionately listed off the details of an operation named Sand Wall, an operation that somewhat acquitted Bryce of the many sins they’d piled against him. In the narration of that, the word Fulcrum had slipped out, and so had another flash.
So now Sarah had her ex-boyfriend in custody, her asset in a snit, and there was a group of conspirators infiltrating the ranks at high enough levels that they could sign off on operations like Sand Wall and make it seem legitimate.
“Don’t worry, Casey,” Bryce said now as Sarah steered him to the dining room table. “I’m sure you’ll get your chance to shoot me again and make it stick this time.”
From the sound of Casey’s growl, the NSA agent likely felt that day couldn’t come soon enough. “So what is he doing here?”
“He needs our help,” Sarah said, ignoring the glum look on Chuck’s face.
“Trust me, I don’t want to be here either.” Bryce sat down at the kitchen table—and couldn’t quite hide the flinch. Sarah’s eyes narrowed. “But I don’t have a choice. I had to steal the Intersect.”
“Why? Who recruited you?”
“There’s a group called Fulcrum. They approached me about six months ago. At first, I was told it was just a security measure. They wanted to test how secure the Intersect was, so they brought me in to steal it and assess any flaws in the infrastructure surrounding the project. It didn’t take me long to realize that Fulcrum was bad news and only wanted the Intersect for itself.”
Casey leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms over his chest—keeping his hand close to his gun, Sarah noticed. “And how do I know you’re just making this up, Larkin?”
“It’s in the Intersect,” Chuck said, his voice dull.
Casey looked from him to Bryce and finally to Sarah. “They know enough about Fulcrum that it’s in the Intersect, but neglect to mention it to us?”
“Wasn’t it you who said it’s not ours to question why?” Sarah asked.
“Nice little team chatter thing you’ve got going on,” Bryce said, looking around the kitchen. “Also, what’s up with the suburbs?”
“I’m running this interrogation, not you. Why’d you steal the Intersect if you knew Fulcrum was bad news?”
Bryce shrugged—and winced again. “Patriotism. They were going to steal it either way. I just beat them to the punch.”
“It didn’t occur to you to go to your superiors?”
“And take the risk that one of them is Fulcrum? The problem goes deeper than you think.”
Sarah felt, of all things, a stab of hurt. Her logical side pointed out that it made no sense to be hurt: Bryce had undergone the same training she had, which prized above all things the idea of autonomy and trusting no one else. The best asset a spy had in his or her arsenal was a sense of self-reliance. Their training stated specifically that Bryce should have never come to her anyway, so why did it hurt so bad that he hadn’t even considered it? She kept her face schooled; Bryce had always been able to read her like a book.
“Then why not do more research?” Casey asked, his scowl deepening.
“I didn’t have time.”
“Fine. Why send the Intersect to a civilian?”
“Chuck was the only person I knew I could trust.”
That hurt even worse, Sarah realized. But she looked over at Chuck, who was facing away from them, glaring out the little window over the sink into the backyard. He had his hands in his pockets.
“We’ll come back to that,” Casey said, rolling his eyes. “Right now, I’m more interested in how the hell you’re still alive. I know a killshot when I make one. So you are going to tell me, in as few words as possible, why you’re still breathing, Larkin.”
“Because I told Delgado I was the Intersect. They used some…rather unpleasant techniques to bring me back to life.”
“Tommy Delgado,” Bryce said. “He’s—”
“Fulcrum,” Chuck said, his voice mechanical in a way that indicated he’d just flashed. “He’s Fulcrum.”
“He was my point of contact,” Bryce said, looking over at Chuck, who had already returned to glaring at the tabletop. “He found me after you shot me, Casey. I told him I was the Intersect to get him off the trail. I didn’t figure he’d be able to bring me back.”
Sarah wanted to shudder.
“But he did. And they’ve kept me in a holding cell for a month. I broke out last week.”
“Do they know you’re in L.A.?” Casey asked.
“They’re the ones that brought me to L.A. But they know I’m around. Delgado came to the CIA base where you holding me right after I got away.”
Casey stared at him for a long moment. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Walker, Bartowski, a word? Larkin, stay.”
“Like a dog?” Bryce asked, but the NSA agent didn’t reply. Instead, Casey left, trusting that Sarah and Chuck would follow. Sarah shared a puzzled look with Chuck, but did so. She’d noticed the tension running through Casey’s torso and shoulders; something was up.
Indeed, when they followed him onto the patio, he immediately crossed his arms over his chest and scowled—at Sarah.
“What did I do?” she asked, giving him a defensive look.
“Nothing. But I’m blaming you anyway because your partner is a moron.”
“Ex-partner,” Sarah said, ice frosting her voice.
“He knows that this Fulcrum group is suspicious that he’s not the Intersect thanks to months of interrogation, and the first thing he does is go to the real Intersect?” Casey punched the post next to him, making Chuck jump. “Do they teach you spooks nothing?”
“Don’t group me with him,” Sarah said, feeling tired. Bryce’s story made far too much sense; it made no sense that she was hurt, and she knew it, but that didn’t seem to stop her from actually feeling betrayed. “And if he says he wasn’t followed, he wasn’t followed.”
“Well, great,” was Chuck’s only input into that. He leaned back against the opposite post and continued to glare forward, not at either of them, but at something Sarah couldn’t see. She wanted to tell him to cut it out. She ignored him instead.
“What are you thinking?” she asked Casey, since she’d recognized the look on his face.
“We need to keep this quiet. We keep Larkin inside, away from any windows, and communicate with the bosses, quietly.” Casey stressed the word by slashing his hand across his throat. “If this Fulcrum group’s as dangerous as he says it is, this is a real problem.”
“Shouldn’t we get Bryce out of here, then?” Chuck asked. “Somewhere far, far away, preferably?”
Casey’s grunt said clearly that he agreed with that preference. “They’ll probably want him to come in for a briefing,” he said, sounding unsure. “But what we need is to contact them without tipping anything off. Chuck, I’m going to need you to do some hacking, I think.”
“You got anything better to do?”
“Well, it’s Vi’s bedtime, and I think she’s a little upset with me. I’d really like—”
“Walker can handle that.”
“I can?” Sarah asked.
“Yes.” Casey glared at each of them in turn. “It’ll be good for the cover, and she’s good with the kid. Right now, this Larkin thing has to take priority. The sooner we move on this, the safer you—and that sprog of yours—will be, got it?”
Chuck didn’t look entirely happy about that, but he shrugged. “Fine. You mind, Sarah?”
She minded very much, but Casey had a point. And Violet had looked upset when she’d come in from asking Chuck about a new card game. They had essentially abandoned her to Devon’s care. He was more than qualified, but there would be trouble if somebody didn’t work to maintain the cover.
“I don’t mind,” she said. “I’ll go ahead and do that now.”
“Please. If she’s up too much longer, she won’t be able to focus tomorrow morning and—you don’t care,” Chuck said, looking over at Casey. “Got it. Thanks, Sarah.”
She let herself into Chuck’s house through the front door—which felt strange; she’d been coming in through the window all week. The lights had been turned off downstairs, though the games hadn’t been cleared from the table. The sound of running bathwater from upstairs cleared up any mystery of where Devon and Violet had gone. She winced. From Chuck’s horror stories alone, she’d been hoping to miss bath time completely. Still, she wasn’t a coward so, with only a pause to gather her composure, she headed upstairs.
Violet’s voice drifted down the hall as she reached the top of the stairs. “…Don’t understand why we gotta do this every night, Uncle Awesome.”
“Because otherwise we start to stink. Pew! You don’t want to smell like a skunk, do you?”
“I don’t know. Do they smell really that bad?”
“They smell really, really that bad.”
Even though she was alone, Sarah hid her smile behind her hand. She moved toward the bathroom, but slowly. “Wouldn’t every other night be okay?” Violet said, a whine in her voice.
“Your dad says every night, kiddo. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them. I’m a prisoner here, same as you.” The bathwater shut off.
“You are not.” Violet giggled. “Aunt Ellie loves you.”
“So that makes you not a prisoner!”
“Maybe it makes me a prisoner of love.”
“You’re silly. That’s silly.”
“Maybe, but that’s my lot in life. Okay, feet up, let’s get you in the tub.”
Violet’s hiss made Sarah finally peek around the corner, but the girl was just scowling at the bubble bath as she was lowered into it. Devon sat down on the toilet seat lid. Both of them looked over when she cleared her throat. “Sarah!” The water level rose dangerously as Violet bounced. “You’re here! You came back. Where’s Daddy?”
“He’ll be back soon, I promise.”
“Probably, ah, after you’ve gone to sleep. I’m sorry.”
Violet’s face fell for a split-second, easily debunking the idea behind Chuck’s usual half-hearted grumbles that his daughter preferred everybody else to him. In addition, Devon gave Sarah a confused look. She didn’t blame him. It really wasn’t in Chuck’s character to just take off like this, and it wasn’t like they could tell his family he was involved in Intersect matters.
So she made a point of smiling reassuringly at Violet. “But he’ll come in and give you a kiss goodnight when he gets back. He told me so.”
“Where’d he go?”
“He…had to take care of something. I thought I’d come read you a bedtime story, maybe? That is, if you don’t mind?” She turned to Devon.
“Mind? I think it’s great. What do you think, Vi? Think Sarah will do a good Skippy-Jon?”
Violet looked at her uncle as though he had started speaking Swahili. “We’re reading Boxcar Children now, Uncle Awesome.” The look turned toward Sarah. “There’s a Violet in it, like me, but Benny’s my favorite character. He’s five.”
“Like you, too,” Sarah said. “Can I steal your uncle for a minute, Violet?”
“Scrub all over,” Devon told Violet and gestured for Sarah to lead the way out of the bathroom. They didn’t go far: just outside the bathroom, still within sight but not earshot of Violet. “What’s up? Something the matter with Chuck?”
“He’s…” Sarah cast about for a convincing lie that would explain Chuck’s disappearance without upsetting his family. Since farm training always urged to use as much of the truth as possible, she said, “He’s dealing with an old classmate.”
“The classmate has been trying to steal clients from him. It’s been this whole ordeal.”
“Oh no.” Devon’s eyes widened. “Is that why he’s been Captain Un-fun this week? El and I have been wondering.”
Sarah nodded. “He didn’t want to worry you. Anyway, the guy showed up tonight outside.”
“Should we call the police?”
“I asked my brother to handle it.” It would never not be weird to call Casey that, but Sarah soldiered on, gamely. “John’s good with stuff like that.”
“Still, if this guy is a threat.” Devon’s eyes cut to Violet.
“It’s less messy without the police involved. If it escalates…” Sarah let her voice trail off. “Anyway, Chuck asked me to come check on Violet since he and John are going to be busy for a little while. That’s okay, right?”
“That’s awesome. I’ll just leave you ladies to it, then. Where’s my good-night high five?” Devon grinned at her and headed into the bathroom. Violet gave him the high-five and a smacking kiss before he left them.
Once he was gone, Sarah took up residence on the toilet seat, the nerves returning. She had never supervised a child’s bath before. Added to that, Violet’s hatred of the daily ritual was legendary. Sarah had no idea if she was up to facing this kind of challenge yet. She got a split-second impression of a matador and a bull facing off when Violet stared up at her, but it vanished rather quickly.
Only the edge of Violet’s hair was wet, where it was brushing against the layer of bubbles. Sarah cleared her throat. “Aren’t you going to wash your hair?”
“Do I have to?”
“I think so.” Sarah spotted an empty pitcher that was probably used for just this purpose off to the side of the tub. She rolled up her sleeves and grabbed it. She’d guessed right; Violet’s scowl deepened at the sight of the jug.
“Why?” Violet asked.
“I don’t know. Clean hair’s always shinier than dirty hair?”
Violet tilted her head, obviously giving this a lot of thought. “Daddy usually just says my hair will fall out if I don’t wash it, and then I’ll be bald.”
“Mm. Maybe. I’ve never tried that. Okay, close your eyes. I don’t want you to get water in them.”
Violet scrunched her eyes closed as Sarah filled the pitcher and poured water over her head. “I don’t see what’s so bad about being bald. Lieutenant Ilia’s bald and she’s really pretty. Not as pretty as you, though.”
“Oh, I’m pretty, am I? Thank you. Keep your eyes closed. One more pitcher.”
“Very pretty,” Violet said. “Both Daddy and Uncle Morgan agree.”
It was only sheer force of will that kept her from laughing at the look of mortification Chuck would have been sporting if he’d been present. “I’ll be sure to tell them thank-you, too.” Sarah handed Violet the pink bottle of shampoo—obviously not Chuck’s—and tried not to wince at the size of the glob Violet poured. Chuck must have to buy shampoo by the case.
“Uncle Morgan says you’re a Val—Valerie? No.” Violet frowned as she rubbed the shampoo into her hair. After a second, Sarah wet down her hands and helped out. Independence didn’t extend to evenly spread shampoo yet, apparently, not with Violet’s curls. “Valk—Valk-uh-ree. What’s a Valk-uh-ree?”
She didn’t have the first clue. “I’m not sure. Maybe you can ask your Uncle Morgan.”
“Okay. Are you going to do the ‘hawk?”
“Daddy always makes my hair stand up like this.” Violet reached up and slicked the hair into a floppy Mohawk.
This time, Sarah did laugh as she straightened the shampoo-Mohawk. “Very punk rock,” she said.
“Okay, let’s wash the soap out, okay. Close your eyes again, soap stings.”
It took several buckets to get the soap out of Violet’s hair, which unfortunately killed any good mood in the works. She then protested having to scrub all over, but especially behind her ears. “It’s not like anybody can see that part. I don’t wanna.”
Sarah raised an eyebrow. Instead of being intimidated like Chuck usually was, Violet looked surprised and then delighted. “Your eyebrows can move all by themselves?” She reached a wondering hand up—and inadvertently smeared bubbles all over Sarah’s face.
Surprise had Sarah sputtering. Violet’s eyes went wide as saucers before she burst out giggling. “Sorry!” It was more of a squeak than a word.
“Oh, that’s it.” Sarah pushed up her sleeves again, making the girl shriek. “Now it’s on, Miss Violet.”
Violet shrieked again and slithered to the other side of the tub. By the end of the match, they’d declared it a draw, but the real tie was in seeing who was more drenched.
Twenty minutes later, wearing a stolen pair of sweatpants that were several inches too long for her and one of Chuck’s old UCLA shirts, Sarah left Violet’s door open just a crack and activated the bug on the doorframe that would let her know about any intruders in the girl’s room. Violet had fallen asleep about five minutes into the chapter, which meant Sarah could head back over to the Spy Casa and finally get to the bottom of the Bryce mess.
The men were in the dining room when she came in. Three sets of eyebrows rose at her attire.
“Bath-time got out of hand,” was all she said. “Where are we on contacting the bosses?”
“I’ve got a secure line to Beckman, working on one to Graham.” Chuck’s eyes flicked over to her once, down to his shirt and back up to her face, but he didn’t ask about bath-time. He wouldn’t in front of Bryce. “Should be about two more minutes. You’ve got time to change if you want.”
“This is fine.” Sarah sat at the table and had to marvel at her life, that it would lead to bath-times and then to spy conversations around a kitchen table. The thought passed quickly, though; Bryce was making a good show of being relaxed, but he had maneuvered it so that the right side of his back wasn’t touching the chair. Her eyes narrowed fractionally. “Any other developments?”
“I’ve got the moron’s story here,” Casey said, thumping the notebook in front of him.
Chuck looked up. “Hey!”
“Other moron. Not you.”
This time, it was Bryce’s turn to say, “Hey!”
Casey ignored him. “And once we’re off with the bosses, I’ll start fact-checking what I can. Quietly. Larkin’s already agreed to stay here and out of sight until we get it figured out. Also, we’ve covered some rules.”
From the suddenly thunderous look on Chuck’s face, Sarah could guess how well that had gone. Bryce also seemed a little disgruntled by everything. She’d seen the look of shock on his face when she’d taken him down on the lawn earlier. It hadn’t had anything to do with her, she knew, but Violet. Bryce’s single attempt to ask Chuck about Violet in front of Sarah had been shut down—and viciously.
Now she wanted to sigh. This was just going to be awkward. And on the tail of that thought came a horrible idea that made her stomach actually plummet.
“Okay,” she said. “I hate to be the one to bring this up, but if this Fulcrum problem is as bad as Bryce says it is…”
“If Graham or Beckman is Fulcrum, we’ve got bigger problems to worry about,” Casey said, anticipating her next statement. Sarah could tell that they’d already discussed this possibility. She told herself it was impossible—Graham was her mentor, he couldn’t be Fulcrum, he wasn’t a traitor, there were a million reasons she could trust him—but it didn’t really soothe the onset of nerves that writhed through her midsection now.
She forced herself to take a deep breath. “Okay. Well, in the meantime, Bryce can stay in the guest bedroom and—”
“Got it,” Chuck said, interrupting her. He glanced at her and actually flushed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that, it’s just that we’re secure and…Hi, General, Director.” The last was directed at the laptop screen in front of him.
As one, the spies in the kitchen rose and gathered behind him, ready to face whatever this odd week had in store for them next.
Chapter 6: After Effect, Part II
It's not uncommon for gifts to be exchanged on New Year's Eve. In France, they mark the occasion, called “le Réveillon,” with a feast of luxurious foods like fois gras and champagne, and sometimes gifts. In Turkey, gifts are exchanged during a feast of traditional Turkish foods. — indyposted(dot)com New Year's Eve Traditions
The minute the briefing ended, Chuck bade them a good night and headed for the door with an expression like a thunderclap. Sarah debated following him, but ultimately decided against it. He needed space—not too much, or he’d start to mope—and she unfortunately had bigger problems at the moment.
So she was left with Casey and Bryce, neither of whom looked overly pleased with the prospect. “C’mon,” she told Bryce, trying to shake the feeling that she was dealing with two junk yard dogs that were about to start fighting over territory. “We’ll get you set up in the dungeon for now.”
“Bartowski’s name for the basement,” Casey said, and sauntered out.
Sarah gave Bryce an apologetic look. “We do have a guest bedroom, but there’s a lot of glass up there and…”
“Say no more.” Bryce followed her downstairs.
The original intention had been for the basement to become a base of operations, but the bosses had taken one look at Chuck’s computer wizardry and decided against it. The reasoning had been that a lot of computer gear and surveillance equipment to do exactly the same thing Chuck could do with a laptop and his iPhone were too conspicuous, especially in a place like the suburbs. If it had been in some place more public, they might have justified the cost, according to Graham. But they didn’t want people to look into the neighbors and find Chuck. So the basement was now just storage—though Casey had installed a nice bar for handcuffing prisoners—with a cot and an old sofa set up off to the side.
“Nice,” Bryce said.
“Not exactly five star, I know.”
“Beats that dunghole in Moldova.”
Sarah crossed to the shelves lining the back wall and pulled down a black duffel bag. She set this on the couch.
“You remember that joint? The smell alone still gives me nightmares sometimes.”
“It was unique.” Sarah unzipped the bag and then flicked a look at Bryce. He looked…the same. Sure, the stubble was gone, so he’d found time to shave between now and his time at the CIA holding facility. But there wasn’t a single thing about him otherwise that indicated anything different.
The changed one, she realized, was her. Of course, that had everything to do with the fact that she’d thought Bryce was dead for nearly four months. But it still seemed unfair that he looked exactly the same.
“All right,” she said. “Shirt off.”
“Wow, that’s forward,” Bryce said, raising one eyebrow. Sarah had a brief flash of Violet’s reaction to her own version of that expression, but she managed to smother the instinctive grin. Bryce apparently caught no hint, for he just smirked. “Missed me that much, huh?”
“I want to get a look at that wound on your back you’re trying not to favor.”
“Oh. And here I was hoping you were looking to start something again.”
“Your shirt,” Sarah said.
Bryce peeled out of the shirt, openly wincing now, no doubt because he’d been called on his injury. His torso looked fine, unmarred by bruising or healing cuts, but the minute he turned around, Sarah sucked in a breath. “God, Bryce, when did you get shot?”
“Ricochet more than a shot, I’d say. I was lucky.” Bryce set the shirt on the cot. “Didn’t do any major damage, but I couldn’t do any more than get the bullet out and throw some gauze on it. It’s fine.”
“It’s going to get infected.” Sarah crossed over to the sink in the corner and turned the hot water tap. “Better lie down. It’s at an awkward spot otherwise.”
“Sure.” Bryce laid on his stomach on the cot, still wincing. He seemed amused, though. “Five minutes together and you’ve already got me shirtless and in bed. Just like old times.”
“Yes. You got shot. Just like old times.” Sarah washed her hands and took her time bringing over the bucket of hot water. A second trip to fetch the bag and she had set up shop beside the cot. “Want some meds?”
“No. I need a clear head in case they find me.”
“Your choice. I’m going to give you something topical, though, at the very least. It needs stitches.”
“That bad, huh?”
Sarah dug through the kit until she found the right bottle. She prepped the syringe almost absently; it had been awhile, she thought, since she’d had to stitch anybody up. She had the proper medical training that every agent that went through the Farm received, but since her hands had always been steadiest, she’d been the one elected to medical duties among the Cats. At least Bryce complained less than Carina did.
“When did you get shot?” she asked as she readied the topical anesthetic.
“Last night. Tommy and his men caught up to me.”
“I got away, but it made me realize I need help.”
“I’m glad you got away.” Bryce’s skin didn’t feel feverish to the touch, which was a good thing. Less sign that an infection had had time to set in. It did feel familiar, Sarah thought, and it was probably a pathetic statement about her that simply brushing her fingers over his back reminded her of just how long it had been since she’d had sex. But it didn’t send quite the same electric impulses of lust she’d once experienced.
“Gotta admit,” Bryce said, “I was expecting to find a little bit more of a welcoming committee.”
Sarah swabbed the area next to the shot with one of the alcohol wipes. Before she could administer the shot, though, Bryce grabbed her hand. “Look at me,” he said.
Sarah debated the thousand yard stare for a minute and disregarded it. It was better to face these things head on. So she met Bryce’s gaze with an impassive one of her own. “Yes?”
“Chuck being pissed at me, I get,” Bryce said. “Well, no, actually, I don’t since it’s Chuck Bartowski and he’s just not the kind of guy that gets angry. But that’s something I’ll deal with. You, however…why are you mad at me, Sarah?”
“I’m not mad,” Sarah said, and freed her hand to give him the shot.
“Really? Because you haven’t said a single personal thing to me since I got here. And I know an angry Agent Walker when I see one.”
“I’m not mad,” was all Sarah said. She gave him the shot and dropped the syringe into the sharps box. The gash in Bryce’s back had started bleeding, so she put a piece of gauze over it to keep him from bleeding all over the cot.
“Why do I feel like you are, then?”
“Maybe you’re projecting.”
“I don’t think I am.” Bryce sighed and lay back down, resting his chin on his folded arms as though he were in a spa instead of the dungeon. “I was surprised to find you out here, you know. Thought you’d be in Istanbul or Budapest or something like that with your new partner.”
“I do have a new partner.” Sarah cleaned the wound meticulously. Her hands remained completely steady, even though she could feel something intangible building in her chest, some emotion she couldn’t and wouldn’t name.
“Casey?” Bryce asked. “Never thought I’d see you working with him.”
“Well, it’s not like you left me a choice.”
Bryce went silent. “So that’s it,” he finally said. Sarah didn’t look away from the gash on his lower back, though she was kicking herself. Why had she said that? “That’s what it is. You’re mad that I kept you out of the loop.”
“What?” Sarah forced herself to sound surprised, and defensive. “Bryce, that’s ridiculous.”
“I have to confess, I’m a little puzzled about why you’re angry. You’d have done exactly the same thing in my shoes.”
She highly doubted that. “Why not come to me, Bryce? I could have helped you.”
“I didn’t know who I could trust.”
“I was your—” She’d been about to say “girlfriend,” Sarah realized with a detached sense of horror. Thankfully, her mouth was smarter than the rest of her as it finished out the statement with: “Partner. I was your partner. You could have trusted me.”
“Even if,” Bryce said, twisting his head a little to look at her. “Even then, this stuff is radioactive, Sarah. I didn’t want you involved. I was fully prepared to go down with the ship, but you didn’t have to. So I kept you out of it. No need for both of us to lose our good names.”
Sarah kept her gaze on her hands. “And Chuck?” she asked, her voice flat.
“I did what I have to do.”
“You went down with the ship.”
“Yes,” Bryce said.
“But you took him down with you.”
“He was the only way to keep the Intersect safe. I made a choice.”
“To trust him,” Sarah said. If it had hurt listening to Bryce recount his tale at the dinner table earlier, that had nothing on what she felt like now. Bryce could have kicked her in the chest and caused less pain. “But not me.”
“It’s not like that.”
Sarah met his gaze now. Hurt was quickly turning to something to a fury that almost frightened her with its intensity. “Then what’s it like, Bryce?”
“Look, Chuck’s…you don’t know him like I do. He doesn’t have an evil or dishonest bone in his body. He’s better than all of us. That’s just all it is: he’s better. I knew I could trust him to keep the Intersect safe. Unlike any spies I know. It wasn’t personal.”
“Not personal?” Sarah asked. “Which is it, Bryce?”
“What do you mean?”
“You kept my name out of it because it’s radioactive or because you don’t trust me?”
“You went through the exact same training I did, Sarah. You know nobody can truly be trusted.”
“But you trusted Chuck.”
Bryce scowled, a sign that his temper had finally broken. It took a while to get him to that point, Sarah knew, but once it did, all bets were off the table. She felt her pulse spike. “Be honest, Sarah,” Bryce said. “Are you saying all of this because we were lovers or is it because I put Chuck in danger?”
“You put a civilian in danger, Bryce. It doesn’t matter who it was. There were better ways to go about it than you did, which you would have known if you’d asked me to help!”
Bryce stared at her for a long time and finally turned away. “I thought that’s what it was.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know, I hung around for a little while tonight. Before I approached Chuck. I saw your little case of puppy love.”
Sarah felt everything inside her grow cold. “I am not in love with Chuck,” she said.
“I wasn’t talking about Chuck.” Bryce turned back to look at her. She should have been threading the needle, Sarah knew, but she didn’t dare look away. Even if it wasn’t, Bryce would see that as a sign of admission. So instead, she glared. “I was talking about his daughter. That’s why you’re really pissed, isn’t it? Admit it. You’ve fallen hard for a little girl and not only is she your asset’s kid, but she’s in danger because of what I did.”
Sarah’s heart hammered against her ribcage. She heard something like the sound of ocean waves in her ears, but it seemed so far off. When she spoke, her voice made the temperature of the room drop, even for her. “You sent government secrets to a civilian, Bryce. You endangered millions of lives based on, what? The fact that this guy used to drink with you in college?”
“I said you don’t know Chuck like I do. He’d never betray anybody.”
“Yeah, well, now he has more than enough chance to prove you wrong.”
“And has he?”
Chuck had complained, sure, but a traitorous thought had never even occurred to him. Sometimes, Sarah wondered why it hadn’t, why he wouldn’t try to seek asylum in a country that would do more than send two agents out to protect him and his family. She said nothing now.
“See?” Bryce said when she didn’t reply. “I knew what I was doing.”
Disgust rose. She focused her attention on sewing up the gash, which wasn’t easy work, given that it was ragged and uneven. “Did it even matter to you?”
“That you were ruining his life with what you did. You say he was your friend. Yet you destroyed is life anyway.” Twice, Sarah realized. Chuck might have forgiven Bryce of his initial sin of getting him kicked out of Stanford, as it had led to Violet’s existence. But that didn’t change the fact that it had happened at all.
“You know just as well as I do that friendship is a commodity you can’t afford in the spy game, Sarah.”
Sarah closed up the wound and tied off the stitches without saying a word.
Bryce sighed. Because she was still working on his back, she felt the sigh rumble through his whole body. “I didn’t know he had a kid,” he said, sounding tired.
“You didn’t think to check?” Though Violet hadn’t shown up on her initial run-through on Chuck, Sarah remembered. That was odd.
“I couldn’t. Not without tipping my hand to Fulcrum. Chuck always wanted to be this super successful programmer. That’s what I thought he was. I had no idea his life had changed so much.”
“Would you have sent it, knowing?”
“That he had a kid?” Bryce went silent for a long time. Sarah taped off the wound. “The Intersect is huge. It’s bigger than all of us, and you of all people know we sometimes have to do bad things in the name of good. That’s what spies do.”
“Well, if you’d come to me, I would have helped. We wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“And you’d be dead like I’m supposed to be.”
Sarah stripped off the gloves. She could actually taste disappointment and disgust like real emotions in her mouth. “Do you really,” she asked, “think so little of me?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Even so, it hurt. And she was furious in a way she hadn’t felt in a long time, not since her first days in California, when she’d had to deal with a lousy situation and a grumpy asset. Sarah loaded all of the medical supplies back in the duffel bag.
“Sarah, that’s not what I meant. You know that. You know how it has to be—”
“Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” Sarah said, shoving the bag back on the shelf. “Keep away from the windows.” She headed for the stairs.
Bryce’s voice stopped her halfway up them. “You’re only setting yourself up for heartbreak, you know.”
Sarah’s hand tightened on the banister.
“What kind of game are you playing getting attached like you are, Sarah? You’re only setting yourself up for disappointment, and worse, you’re going to screw up because of it. They’re civilians, and you’re a spy, just like me. We’re always going to be alone and make the tough decisions and sacrifice so that others can have their dreams. It’s something you know, deep inside.”
“Yeah?” she asked in what was a surprisingly even voice. “Then how do you explain Chuck, then? He’s not a spy.”
“Sometimes you get called for something bigger than yourself. If you really knew how big this Intersect project truly is, you’d get that. You and Chuck both.”
Sarah opened her mouth, but the calm was gone. No sound emerged; she was, she realized, beyond furious now. Her pulse had sped up to unhealthy levels and if she actually looked at Bryce, she might shoot him. She certainly wanted to.
So she left. The pressure building in chest throughout the conversation with Bryce had built, so deep and so strong that she might physically shatter. Amazingly, she didn’t. Instead, she walked through the kitchen and upstairs to the gym, where she toed out of her shoes and pulled on boxing gloves. She eyed the heavy bag like the prey it was.
She’d only gotten in about thirty seconds of not-very-satisfying beatings, though, before Casey appeared in the doorway. “Why do I get the feeling that’s Larkin’s face on the bag?” he asked, his voice laconic.
“What do you want?” The words came out as a snarl.
Casey raised his hands. “I come in peace, I promise.”
“Sorry.” Sarah hit the bag with a three-punch combo.
“Want me to hold Larkin down? Let you hit the real thing?”
Sarah gave Casey a droll look before she landed a high-kick on the bag. “Why would you need to hold him down?”
“Point. Where’s your head at, Walker?”
She wanted to kill something. “Why do you care?”
“Can’t say I do, except that it takes forever to get a good heavy bag from stores. So you could say that I have an interest in preserving this one.”
Sarah felt another snarl rise. She used a combo to deal with most of the frustration, though it did little good. “I’m not going to destroy your precious punching bag, Casey.”
He pulled a cigar out of his pocket and considered it, though he didn’t light up, thankfully. They’d gone round and round about smoking in the house. “Going to guess you and Larkin didn’t have the happy lovers’ reunion he hoped for.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Sarah sighed, and abruptly remembered Casey’s outrage on Chuck’s behalf earlier that night. She might want to pummel Bryce’s handsome face into pieces, but for once, Casey didn’t deserve the same treatment. “And I’m being a bitch. Sorry, Casey.”
Casey studied her. “He get a stepmom dig in?”
Sarah squinted. “How did you…”
“Have to have a talk with him. Can’t have the damned CIA stealing my best material.”
“Thanks, Casey,” Sarah said, her voice bone-dry.
He shrugged, and somehow that felt like the biggest apology she could have gotten from him. Sarah actually felt some of her anger leak away, like a balloon deflating helium. “When you’re done,” Casey said, “head over to the asset’s. One of us needs to stay over there and you’ve got the better story in place.”
“Because I don’t fully trust Larkin when he says he wasn’t followed.” Casey chewed on the end of his cigar, looking vaguely amused. Sarah’s eyes narrowed and just as she suspected he might, he continued, “And besides, the asset’s in a snit, you’re in a snit. You can deal with it together—and out of my hair.”
“You’re a real humanitarian.”
Sarah grabbed her backup S&W and shoved that into the waistband of the sweatpants she’d stolen from Chuck. “I’ll check in at 0900.”
“Looking forward to it. Good night.”
The chill of late December helped cool off some of her temper, though she could still feel tinges of fury as she cut across the yards between her house and Chuck’s. How dare Bryce insinuate that she was compromised, that she was incompetent because of it? How dare he sacrifice his friend so callously and then accuse her of being in the wrong because she deigned to have a conscience?
Maybe he had a point, though. Sarah stood at the base of the tree for a minute, just watching the square of light from Chuck’s window above. They’d all been taught at the Farm that emotions got in the way, emotions led to irrational decisions that could get a spy killed in the field.
What if he really was right?
Chuck opened the window surprisingly quickly when she knocked and even held a hand out to help her in. He’d changed for bed already. “Is something the matter? Did Bryce—”
“Bryce is fine. Casey and I just felt that we should keep the vigilance up anyway. Just in case.”
“Oh.” Chuck closed the window as she crossed to the safe in the closet. She took her time locking the gun away, not looking directly at him. He still must have caught on, for he asked, “What’s wrong?”
She closed the safe. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Is it Bryce? I can go punch him again, if you like.”
Sarah gave him a perverse look and sat on the edge of the bed. His computer was off for the night, but Chuck still sat down in the desk chair, facing her. “Why do you and Casey think I can’t handle myself in a fight against Bryce?” she asked.
“Oh, I mostly just wanted an excuse to hit him again. I’m absolutely sure you can pound his ass into the concrete any day. With one hand held behind your back, even.”
Sarah actually felt like laughing for the first time since she’d gone downstairs with Bryce. Why did that casual confidence feel like more of a balm than anything else possibly could have? “Thanks.”
Chuck sobered. “He said something, something that upset you.”
“It’s nothing. Maybe it’s something I needed to hear anyway.”
“Figures, I guess.” Chuck sighed.
Sarah had to look down at her hands. Her first instinct was just to clam up, but Chuck had had just as bad of a week as she had. “He reminded me that I’m a spy.”
“Really? Doesn’t seem to be something you’ve forgotten.” Chuck’s glance flicked at the doorway for a split-second, and Sarah understood without really having to think about it: Violet’s bedroom lay beyond that doorway. And in the end, it always came down to that, didn’t it?
“Does it bother you?” she asked, once again before she’d really thought about it. “That she’s so comfortable with me? Since I’m a spy?”
“Are you kidding?” Chuck gave her a puzzled look. “I’m thrilled.”
“What?” That was honestly the last answer she had expected.
“The way I figure it, the closer she gets to you, the more you’re going to fall for her. I know all of my daughter’s faults first hand. I know she’s mercenary and she has this ritualistic hatred of all things bath-related, and yes, she’s a little spoiled, which is my fault, but she’s also a Bartowski and we have this really annoying habit of getting to people.”
Sarah stared at him. This was precisely what Bryce had been trying to warn her against. “And that’s a good thing?”
“Good thing? Hell, it’s great. I figure if you work as hard as you do for something you don’t care about, how far are you going to go for something you do?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Sarah said.
“What happens if my emotions get in the way?”
Chuck actually scoffed. “Please. You’re Sarah Walker. You’re mightier than that.”
“That’s what Bryce said to you, isn’t it? Something about you and Vi?”
He had. Directly and indirectly, Sarah thought. She scowled. “He probably had a point. You’re the Intersect, not Violet.”
“If Vi had an Intersect, she’d be completely unstoppable.” Chuck gave her the lopsided grin she hadn’t seen in nearly a week. “She’d flash on the coordinates of every candy store in Los Angeles.”
“And how to ransom them,” Sarah said, laughing even though the thought terrified her on some level she couldn’t describe. “And then we’d have a sugar-high five-year-old on our hands.”
“Wouldn’t that be fun?” Chuck laughed, but sobered quickly. He rested his elbows on his knees, leaning forward a little bit. It struck Sarah just how intimate this situation was, with them only a couple of feet away from each other, both dressed for bed and talking in low voices after the rest of the house had gone to sleep. They hadn’t crossed any boundaries…but it sure felt like they had, sometimes.
“I confess,” Chuck said, “it’s selfish to hope that you’re more attached to Vi than to me because if it ever comes down to a choice…if it ever comes down to a choice, I’d want you to pick her.”
“Which I figure was Bryce’s point, somewhere. To try and get into your head. So in another completely selfish move, I wish you’d ignore him.”
“I don’t know if I can.” Though she wanted to, Sarah thought. Desperately. She also wanted to hit him, still.
Chuck went silent, just like Bryce had. Unlike Bryce, she could see the expressions flit across his face as Chuck worked through his different feelings. “What did Casey say?”
“He was actually a bit miffed at Bryce taking his, as he called it, ‘stepmom material.’“ Even now, Sarah had to marvel. Casey had attempted a joke. Sure, it was a taboo topic, but it had been a joke.
“Really? Have we entered another universe?”
“I have no idea.”
Chuck rubbed the back of his neck. “I hate Bryce Larkin.”
“I know, I know. I’ve been the antithesis of fun this week. But I hate that he did this to all of us, and I hate that he’s back, and I hate that he’s making you doubt yourself.”
“He’s not,” Sarah started to say, and then stopped. She’d doubted herself since the beginning of the Burbank assignment in one form of another. She wasn’t used to civilians, nerds, suburbia, small children, or living and working with grouchy NSA agents. Every action had been second-guessed and weighed with a precision that was partially spy-training and mostly paranoia. It had become part of who she was, but she had remained vigilant through all of it, loyal to her asset and her assignment. And who the hell did Bryce think he was, coming in to make snap judgments and condemn her? A few minutes of looking in on a family game night didn’t make him an expert.
She blew out a breath. “You’re right,” she said.
“What?” Chuck asked. He cupped a hand behind his ear. “I didn’t quite catch that. What was that?”
“Oh, don’t gloat.” She shoved him, gently, and got a grin in return. “It’s not gentlemanly.”
“Fine. Feeling better?”
“Much.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek—and had to bite the inside of her own to cheek to keep from grinning when he froze like a deer in the headlights. “Thank you.”
“It’s what I’m here for. Though you’re sure I can’t go over and hit Bryce for you?”
“Don’t push your luck.”
“It was worth a shot.” Chuck rose to turn on the bedside lamp, leaving her to turn off the overhead light. “It did hurt my hand the first time, so I guess there’s that. Who knew punching somebody actually hurts you more?”
“It doesn’t if you do it right.”
Sarah stripped out of the sweatpants and had to look away to hide her smile when Chuck nearly walked into the dresser like he usually did. He recovered quickly, sending a sheepish look her way. “You’re a lot more cheerful than you were earlier,” she said as she climbed into bed. “Did you get over your snit?”
“Casey’s words, not mine. He also said I’m in one, too, if that makes you feel better.”
“Oh.” Chuck crawled onto his side of the bed and took his time getting under the covers, as he always did. “No, you’re right, I’m in a better mood, I think.”
“I’d rather not say. You’ll just hit me.”
“Fine. I’m happy because—did you see the looks you were giving Bryce? And Casey, too? Warmed the cockles of my heart, it did.”
Sarah hit him.
“Ow! You said you weren’t going to hit me.”
“Even so.” Chuck stuck his tongue out at her in the dark. He followed it with a sigh. “I just wish this whole thing were over already. Tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve.”
“It’s a time for new beginnings. I want Bryce to go find his somewhere else and quit wrecking our lives.”
Sarah didn’t reply to that, though she certainly didn’t blame him for the sentiment. She simply bade him good night and turned so that she wasn’t facing him any longer. Of course, this meant she was now facing the door—through which lay the hallway to Violet’s bedroom and probably the source of her problems. Casey was right, Chuck was right, even Bryce was right. That didn’t make the problems any easier to live with because if Chuck was right, she would lose her job. And if Bryce was right, she’d lose a lot more than that.
Sleep was a long time coming.
Chapter 7: The Three Blows
Since thoughts of thee doth banish grief,
when from thee I am gone;
will not thy presence yield relief,
to this sad Heart of mine:
Why doth thy presence me defeat,
with excellence divine?
Especially when I reflect
on Old long syne
—Old Long Syne, James Watson
“Look, that doesn’t change anything,” Bryce Larkin said, and Chuck wondered if he was going to have a headache for the rest of his life. “We can’t trust anybody. And there’s no way to check and see if Fulcrum has swapped out one of the agents coming to pick me up.”
“Well, we can’t leave the area and take you in ourselves, Larkin,” Casey said. “Our operation is here, and it works because we don’t move. You’ll just have to deal with it.”
Chuck wanted to look over at Sarah, but didn’t dare. Besides, all he would get was the same blank mask he’d received ever since that morning, when she’d woken him up to tell him she was going to take Sir for a run. Several hours later, she sat across her own kitchen table from him, looking tired and almost blank. They’d been arguing about the best way to fulfill the bosses’ orders and get Bryce Larkin to headquarters for a debriefing for nearly half an hour already.
That was half an hour longer than he wanted to spend with Bryce Larkin at all. But he was here, and sucking it up, because that was the adult and responsible thing to do.
Besides, he was going to be more cheerful. He was.
“I can’t do this on my own,” Bryce said. “We’re smart. Surely we can come up with some way to figure out if they’re sending any moles to come get me.”
“The safest way is to take you ourselves and I told you,” Casey said, glaring at the CIA agent, “that is off the table.”
“What do you think, Sarah?” Bryce asked, looking at his ex-partner.
Sarah took a sip of her tea. “Casey’s right,” she said. “We can’t leave, Bryce. Any travel right now might draw attention to Chuck.”
Chuck studied Bryce, waiting for the other man’s reactions to that one. He could sense frustration from Bryce, more out of their time at Stanford together than any signs the man might be giving off now. Perhaps Bryce was realizing exactly how dangerous he’d really made Chuck’s life.
Good. Let him.
“Fine, then we should come up with something.”
“Why not just go by yourself?” Chuck asked before his brain could stop him. He felt Sarah and Casey look at him, their expressions unreadable.
“What?” Bryce asked.
“Look, you managed to dodge Fulcrum for the better part of half of a week or so, and that was with no money and no resources. You escaped from that facility looking like a reject from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and look at you now, you’re…” Chuck gestured to encompass all of Bryce’s Bryce-ness. “It’s like a computer program. If the variables are screwing you up, change them or remove them altogether.”
“Wow,” Bryce said. “I know you’re angry at me, Chuck, but isn’t that a little cold?”
“Actually,” Casey said, frowning as he thought it over. “It’s not a bad idea.”
“What? You’re agreeing with him?”
“What’s the matter, Larkin? The CIA not train you to do things on your own?” Casey crossed his arms over his chest. “Bartowski’s got a point. We know where the facility is so you know how to get there. You survived on your own with no resources.”
“Like a cockroach.”
Chuck had to cough into the back of his hand.
“We’ve got resources for you. We’ll even give them to you if it means getting you out of our lives. I’m going to San Diego tonight. I can drop you off along the way, let you make a very obvious run for the border. You elude them, then get to the facility like planned, thereby erasing all connections that you were here at all.”
Bryce stared at him. “So you want me to almost get caught and then elude Fulcrum?”
“What’s the matter, CIA? Chicken?”
“Nobody calls me chicken,” Bryce and Chuck both said.
Bryce looked over at Chuck with a grin, but Chuck just coughed again. Sarah and Casey regarded the nerds as though they’d each grown an extra head.
“I’m leaving in four hours,” Casey said, giving his watch a look to break the awkward silence. “You think you can come up with a plan by then, Larkin?”
“I’m pretty sure—”
“Don’t care. Wasn’t actually a question. Walker?”
“I’ll get the supplies ready.”
“Fine. I’ll help Larkin with the maps. Bartowski?”
“I can stick around for a little while.” Violet was at Moniqua’s house anyway. Chuck had walked her over there so that the girls could play. Sir had gone with him, which was why the big dog was sunning himself in Casey and Sarah’s backyard. “But not too long.”
“Okay. Let’s get this over with. Nice to have a plan,” Casey said and rose, presumably to go fetch the maps.
Chuck did the best job ignoring Bryce’s “we need to talk” look he knew how and instead stepped outside to send Shae a text and play with Sir. For the first, he got a quick message in reply that the girls were up to the usual trouble. With the dog, he got a muddy paw-print on his jeans and an almost-ripped sleeve. The shelter had said Sir needed exercise, and it looked like Chuck was stuck with the same prescription. Breathing hard, he left Sir to the fascinating smell of what was probably a dead squirrel or something, and headed back inside.
Only Casey was left in the kitchen. “Where are Bryce and Sarah?”
“Larkin’s in the head. We’ll be going over exit strategies in a minute, so you get to go downstairs and see what’s wrong with Walker.”
“Gee, Casey, I didn’t think you cared.”
“And you were right. But do it anyway. The sooner we get Larkin out of here, the sooner I can get down to Pendleton.”
“Got it.” Chuck headed for the door to the dungeon. “Hello?” he called down the stairs.
“Down here.” Sarah’s voice drifted up. She sounded as absolutely emotionless as she had seemed all day, and Chuck had to remind himself a fifth time about the pledge he’d made to be more cheerful. After all, the anger wasn’t doing either of them any good. So much was going on inside Sarah’s head that he didn’t understand and probably never really would, and he’d started to make his peace with that. And it wouldn’t help to just add to that load, so cheerful he would remain.
She gave him a look he couldn’t decipher when he swung around the post at the bottom of the stairs and into the dungeon. She was standing by the shelves, loading supplies onto the room’s table. “What’s up?”
“Casey said to come give you a hand.”
“Oh.” Sarah set an empty duffel bag on the table. “Well, this will go faster, then. Casey’s anxious to get to San Diego?”
“Auld Lang Semper Fi,” Chuck said. The admittedly lame joke only earned a wan smile from Sarah, but at least it was a smile. It faded quickly back into the same stony expression she’d worn since they’d woken up. He took a deep breath. “What can I do?”
Sarah handed him a rag and a pair of gloves. “Wipe things down for prints and load them into the bag.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Since latex chafed his skin, he ignored the gloves and instead used the rag to both grab the items and wipe them down. Sarah seemed not to mind the silence, though she was tensed, the tendons in her neck standing out. He wondered if she noticed.
She noticed him watching her, at least. “Yes?” she asked, her voice a little off in a way that he couldn’t put his finger on.
“Something on your mind?” Chuck asked, taking a couple of packages of QuikClot from her and wiping her fingerprints from them. He loaded these into the duffel. “You’ve been quiet all day and you didn’t speak much during the meeting.”
“Mm,” was all Sarah seemed to have to say to that.
When the silence fell again, Chuck cleared his throat. Casey had said to find out what was wrong with Sarah, and it was obvious that something was. Maybe it was something he’d done. “I hope you don’t think I’m cold,” he said, putting the rag down and turning to face her.
She didn’t look at him. “Why would I think that?”
“The suggestion that Bryce is better off on his own like that. I know it’s not really like me, I’m usually all ‘Go team’ and everything.”
“I just don’t want you to think I was doing it out of spite or anything. I’m not that guy. I mean, sure, I still don’t know how I feel about Bryce, but I’m—”
Sarah, in a lightning fast move that he wouldn’t have seen coming even if he’d been a fully trained spy, twisted and grabbed the front of his shirt. Chuck had an instant, vivid mental image of getting attacked, getting thrown across the room by his favorite blonde ninja—and Sarah kissed him.
It wasn’t some chaste kiss, either. Chuck had one fleeting thought that she might actually be trying to devour him. Of course, that was followed by a very loud Oh, thank God, I wasn’t imagining things after all. And his brain decided to stop interrupting the rest of him.
Sarah kissed him, her lips insistent, demanding. By the time he could recover enough to kiss her back, she had yanked on his shirt again, hauling him even closer—which he definitely did not mind. One of his hands tangled in her hair, the other bunching in her shirt at her waist. It was almost like combat, the fervor with which she kissed him, like frustration and longing—definitely longing—all rolled together. He switched his grip on her waist to wrap his arm around her back, which made her step closer still and caused him to stumble back over the table chair. Even as he tried to regain his balance, bumping into the table, Sarah set in on him again, a bit like a vengeful fury.
It crashed to the floor. He didn’t give a damn. There were so many, many more important things happening to him right now.
If somebody put a gun to his head and asked how much time passed, he couldn’t have told them. The sound of the basement door opening, though, made them both freeze. Reality butted back in.
“What in the Sam Hell is going on down there?” Casey asked. For a heart-pounding second, Chuck thought they’d been caught. But no, Casey was standing at the top of the stairs, where he couldn’t see most of the basement.
“I—” Chuck tried to make a noise, but nothing came out. He was wrapped around Sarah Walker. Even better than that, she had kissed him. Sarah Walker had kissed him.
She stared at him, no longer emotionless and somehow much rawer than he’d ever seen her. Even then, he still didn’t have a clue what she was thinking.
“Chuck tripped,” she said, not moving away. “He’s fine.”
Chuck heard Casey’s grumbled epithets at that, but hardly cared. The basement door closed.
For a minute, neither of them moved. Sarah’s hair was a mess and like him, she was breathing hard, her shoulders heaving. She continued to stare at him as though he might be something from another planet, and for a moment, there was very real and vulnerable fear in her eyes.
She had kissed him.
Most days he couldn’t even tell if she genuinely liked him as anything but her asset and Violet’s dad, but she had kissed him.
He wished this wonderful, wonderful moment would last forever.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Sarah said, and stepped away from him. Air rushed into the space she’d vacated, like a vacuum filling. The basement instantly seemed much chillier. “I really shouldn’t have done that.”
Chuck half-raised a hand, as though he were in a classroom. “For the record, I am definitely not protesting.”
Sarah took another step away. Chuck might have still been in a bit a daze, but even the fog didn’t completely cover up the warning bells that were starting to ring through his head. Sarah stared hard at the wall. She was still breathing hard.
“This was a mistake,” she said, not looking at him.
Elation began to drain away slowly. He felt a bit like a kicked puppy—and he hated that feeling. He’d felt that a lot at Stanford, days that were long past him. Almost part of another life, if he really thought about that. “Didn’t feel like a mistake to me,” he said.
“It was. That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Chuck felt a scowl beginning to take hold. The voice in the back of his head reminded him that he’d made a pledge to be cheerful; he told it to go to hell. Sarah Walker had kissed him. “Why not?”
“Because you’re my asset, Chuck!” Sarah finally looked at him. “Because we can’t do this, and it’s against the rules, and I shouldn’t have done that. Nothing can happen. You’re my asset, and I’m your handler, and if we cross that line—”
Chuck cleared his throat as a rather vivid memory of that kiss flitted across his mind.
Sarah glared at him. “If we cross that line farther than we have already,” she said through her teeth, “then it will just mean bad things. Surely you get that.”
“Then why kiss me at all?”
“I…” Sarah looked away. “I don’t know, okay? But it’s a mistake.”
“I see.” Chuck felt the last bit of euphoria leak out of him like the final wisps of helium from a balloon. “I’m sorry it was so awful for you, Agent Walker. I’ll just stay out of your way, keep you from making any more of those mistakes.”
He headed for the stairs. “Chuck,” Sarah said, but he didn’t stop walking. “Chuck!”
When he ignored her this time, she crossed the room in two strides and grabbed his wrist. They were at a weird angle; Chuck partway up the stairs, Sarah looking up at him almost as though he were standing on a balcony. The bannister stood between them; Chuck had to lean down to see her without the ceiling blocking his view.
Sarah’s eyes were intense on his. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t have looked away. “It was not a mistake like that,” she said. “But I shouldn’t have done it. It breaks too many rules.”
Chuck just gave her a baffled look. “Then why did you?”
“Because I wanted to!” The words only hung in the air for a split-second before a look of sheer horror overtook Sarah’s face.
Chuck’s brain and heart stuttered to a stop. “You did?” he asked.
For a second, it looked like Sarah might lie—how he knew that, he couldn’t figure out. Maybe it was the way she hesitated, or the fact that she tilted her head slightly. Either way, she took a step back, dropping his wrist. “Yes,” she said, sounding defeated. “I did. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m your handler and you’re my asset and that was a mistake.”
“Can we pick a different word?”
“Ill-advised? Against the rules? Not going to happen again?”
No, Chuck decided, it hurt however she put it…but she’d wanted to kiss him. Sarah Walker had wanted to kiss him. It was like an emotional seesaw. “If,” he said, and licked his lips. Sarah’s eyes cut to them, making him marvel. She really was telling the truth. He had to take a deep breath to gather the resolve to ask the question he kind of wanted to shout right now. “If I weren’t your asset…”
“Then we wouldn’t know each other and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Chuck, this can’t happen.” Sarah looked desperate now. “It’s the number one asset-handler rule, and I shouldn’t have broken it, and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Would it be okay—” Chuck broke off for another deep breath. “It’s okay if I’m not sorry, right? Because I’m not sorry.”
“Just don’t tell Casey,” Sarah said, once again sounding defeated. “Please.”
“I wouldn’t do that. You can trust me. That hasn’t changed.” Chuck sighed. It really was possible to feel completely wretched and want to dance across the rooftops of Burbank at the same time. “I’m going to go home now. Are you coming to Ellie’s party tonight?”
“It’s better if I don’t,” Sarah said, twisting her hands together in front of her. “Give her my apologies?”
“Will do. Tell Bryce bye for me. Feel free to hit him when you do so.” Chuck headed upstairs, pausing before he opened the basement door so that he could put the chipper Chuck mask in place. It wasn’t as hard as he suspected it would be; all he had to do was think about that kiss and—now he was grinning like an idiot. There didn’t seem to be much middle ground. It took him a few seconds, but he finally managed to put his feelings behind some kind of wall.
Casey was in the kitchen, again alone. “You didn’t land on your ass, did you?” he asked without looking up from the map of California he was poring over.
“Walker said you tripped. Go figure.”
“Nope. Landed on something else. Do you need me for anything else? I need to go pick up Vi, get started on some of the work for the party tonight.”
“No, we’re good.”
“Okay, I’ll just go—”
Bryce appeared in the doorway from the rest of the house, moving as silently as Sarah always did. Chuck nearly jumped out of his skin. Bryce didn’t react; Casey snorted. “Chuck, you got a minute?”
“I really do need to go.”
“It’ll just take a minute.” Bryce jerked his head at the backyard, where Sir had given up on playtime and was now lying in the sun, belly up with his gangly limbs splayed about in every direction. “I promise.”
Chuck sighed and followed his ex-friend. He might as well get this over with. After the confrontation with Sarah in the basement, he figured he was probably set against any other attacks.
“What do you want, Bryce?” he asked, closing the sliding door behind him. “I think I’ve already made my feelings clear. What is there left to talk about?”
“I wanted to apologize,” Bryce said.
Chuck’s eyebrows went up.
“I didn’t know you had a daughter, when I sent you the Intersect. So I’m sorry.”
Chuck crossed his arms over his chest. “Why didn’t you think to check? A simple phone call doesn’t take that long.”
“That would have put you on the radar.” Bryce looked troubled as he stood on the back patio, staring out across the covered pool and the swing-set. He seemed completely out of place in such a suburban setting, but then, so did Casey and Sarah at times. “I couldn’t take that risk. So I’m sorry. I promise you, I had no idea.”
Chuck studied him for a long time. His friend looked less tired than he had the night before. The dark circles beneath his eyes were receding, and he wore clean clothing. He’d always looked up to Bryce at Stanford; Bryce the golden god, Bryce the gymnast, the one on the track team, the one who knew all of the best parties and always dated the best girls. Bryce had become a spy. Chuck had become a dad. Their lives had forked like opposite branches of a flux capacitor. Before that split at Stanford, Chuck would have done anything for Bryce.
Now he felt nothing. It was worse than hatred, in a way.
“I forgive you,” he said.
Bryce’s eyebrows shot into his hairline. “What?” he asked, clearly startled.
“That’s what you wanted, right? Absolution? Well, go forth, sin no more. Whatever. The fact of the matter is you did something completely awful to me: you put my daughter in harm’s way. But you know what? I’ll forgive you anyway.”
“Because I don’t want there to be anything left.” Chuck turned and called for Sir. For once, the puppy seemed to recognize his name, for he sat up with a jolt, those huge ears flopping. He gamboled over. “I don’t want you to owe me anything, and I definitely don’t owe you anything. I just want you gone. And if forgiving you is how I do that, then so be it.”
“That’s not forgiveness,” Bryce said.
“Well, it’s all you’re getting from me. Lose my email address. Lose my phone number. Forget my name, and just leave me alone.” Chuck clipped the leash to Sir’s collar and gave his friend one final look. “Good-bye, Bryce. Good luck.”
He left before Bryce could say anything.
Ellie, still dressed in her scrubs, flopped onto the edge of Chuck’s bed. “Okay,” she said, leaning forward until her elbows rested on her knees and she was regarding him seriously, “this has gone on long enough. Time for you to talk.”
Chuck blinked at the code on his screen and automatically threw the screen saver up. Even if Ellie wouldn’t understand the partially deconstructed Intersect code, Beckman and Graham were technically his clients and therefore they deserved the same respect as his private sector clientele. “What are you talking about?”
“Something’s up,” Ellie said. “And I’m tired of waiting for you to get around to talking about it. Consider this an intervention.”
“A one person intervention?” Chuck asked.
“Says the man whose best friend has put on several one-act plays about his facial hair.”
“Point,” Chuck said. He had to laugh a little at that, which surprised him. Today just didn’t feel all that humorous. “It’s really nothing, Ellie, I promise.”
Ellie looked at him with that line appearing between her eyebrows, something Violet had inherited from their side of the family. “I think you’re lying,” she said. “Are you and Sarah fighting?” Were they? Their conversation hadn’t ended on a pleasant note, that was for sure, and he had a feeling that all of the time Sarah had been spending at the house lately would vanish. Even though a lot of that had been protection detail, there had been times when he was sure she could have gotten out of it yet hadn’t bothered to try.
Well, it looked like that would be ending.
She had kissed him.
“No,” he said. “I don’t think we are.”
“That doesn’t sound all that confident to me, brother mine.”
Chuck shrugged. “Been dealing with that classmate thing. Devon told you about it, right?”
“Yeah, and I’m a little offended you didn’t tell me about it yourself. What happened?”
“It doesn’t really matter. It’s handled. He won’t bother me again.” Or so Chuck hoped. He still felt empty whenever it came to Bryce Larkin, but it was either emptiness or anger and right now, he’d take the emptiness. There had been so much anger lately.
“Why didn’t you tell any of us about it?”
“It’s the holidays,” Chuck said. It sickened him, how easily the lies came now. “He started out as a nuisance and then he got worse by that point, I didn’t want to trouble anybody else.”
Ellie sighed. “I wish you had told me about it.”
“Well, it’s done and over with. Casey dealt with him.”
“That was nice of him.”
“If you squint, maybe hold your hand over one eye and Venus is in retrograde, you can see that Casey’s a nice guy,” Chuck said. “A nice guy with very, very bad timing, but a nice guy nonetheless.”
“Oh-ho-ho,” Ellie said, pointing at him. “Get caught doing something naughty?”
Chuck felt an actual flush rise, and cursed. He was supposed to have been dating Sarah for four months already. Blushing because of one kiss was definitely breaking cover, no matter if it had changed his entire life and made colors seem just a touch brighter or not. “A gentleman never kisses and tells.”
“Fine, if that’s your excuse…” Ellie sobered again. “Chuck, really, is something wrong with you and Sarah?” “Why do you think something is?”
“I don’t know. Ever since she came into our lives, things have felt…different. And yes, I realize that you dating somebody was always going to mean change, hopefully in a good way, and I think Sarah’s great, but ever since she came, you’ve either been really happy or really upset. For a little while, I was worried I was going to have to drag you to see a psychiatrist in case of a chemical imbalance or something.”
“It was really that bad?”
“For a little while.” Ellie chewed on her lip. “Chuck, please don’t be offended, but just tell me, are you really happy with Sarah? Honestly? And this is you as a man. Not as a dad. Leaving Violet completely out of the equation.”
Chuck gave her a funny look. “Violet’s always part of the equation.”
“I know, and I’m worried that’s the problem.”
“I’m not sure I’m following you.”
“Look, we both know there’s no point in denying it. Violet loves Sarah. It’s not surprising—after all, Sarah’s spent more time with her in the past four months than Sophie has her entire life. You know Vi. She’s affectionate with everybody, but she latched onto Sarah right away. And Sarah’s good with Vi, too.”
“Better than she thinks she is,” Chuck said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“And I just want to be sure you’re not just staying with Sarah when she’s making you unhappy just because she’s so great with Violet.”
“I’m not,” Chuck said.
“Really?” Ellie gave him what was almost a pleading look. He felt anger begin to swirl in his midsection, but kept a firm lid on it. It wouldn’t help any of them to get angry. “Are you absolutely sure about that?”
“Ellie, where is this coming from?” Chuck pushed harder against the anger. Ellie was operating off of the information she had, and she was looking out for him. He had no right to be even annoyed. “I’m with Sarah because I want to be with Sarah.” And up until two hours before, he’d thought it was mostly one-sided. To find out that it wasn’t was still blowing his mind, even now.
“Okay.” Ellie looked down at her hands and her interlaced fingers. “I’m sorry to be a nag, but I feel like the past few months, there’s been this part of you that I can’t reach anymore, and I don’t understand it. You’ve always been so open and so giving.” The words were like an arrow to the calf. Chuck had to actually keep himself from physically wincing.
“I don’t know.” Ellie sighed. “Maybe it’s part of growing up, and it was supposed to happen. I’m worried because, hey, big sister. It’s my job to worry. I want you to be happy, Chuck. Violet, too, of course, but you’re the one I’m more worried about now.”
“Trust me,” Chuck said, “Sarah’s in this relationship for more than Violet, I promise. And I’ve already tried to date somebody just because it was better for Violet to have both of her parents together. It didn’t work out.”
“Well, that’s different.”
“Sophie’s a bitch and Sarah’s not.”
Chuck glanced instinctively at the bedroom door that Ellie had left open.
“Don’t worry, she’s downstairs, letting Devon talk her into peanut-butter sundaes. I figure it’s the last day of the year, she should get a little spoiled.”
Chuck shuddered. “He won’t put flax seeds on these ones, right?”
“You don’t have to eat his culinary experiments, you know.”
“Ice cream shouldn’t be crunchy.”
“You just fear texture,” Ellie said, smiling. “You’d tell me if something was really bothering you, wouldn’t you?”
Chuck sighed. “I would,” he lied. There was a brief image in his mind of his eventual room in hell sinking even closer to the ninth circle. “But I’m fine, Ellie. I promise. This thing with my classmate just got to me a little bit.”
“Okay. Well, the good news, it’s the end of the year. Tomorrow’s 2008. If that’s not a time for new beginnings, I don’t know what is.” Chuck forced a smile on his face. He’d said exactly the same thing to Sarah just the night before, which felt like a lifetime ago. It seemed as though every single piece of his life was coming out to have a serious discussion with him this afternoon alone. Soon, Devon would probably sit him down to talk about how he wasn’t working out enough—or at all, really—and then Casey’d talk to him about being a moron. It would of course be capped by Violet, who would hold a very serious and hard-hitting conversation about how her bed-time should be later and he was being a terrible father by making her sleep while it was still light outside in the summertime.
“You look like you could use a break from that,” Ellie went on, nodding at the screen. “Why don’t you get out of the house for awhile, clear your head? We’ll keep an eye on Vi for you.” “Thanks.” A walk actually sounded better. At least he’d be alone and nobody could try to drop any more emotional bombshells on him.
“And you can take that idiot dog of yours with you,” Ellie said. “He could use a walk.”
Chuck took Sir to a nearby dog park the women at the shelter had mentioned, driving since the walk was just a little too far for him. Sarah had taken Sir on her morning run this morning, so the dog had probably gone twice the distance that day, but Chuck blamed it on being lazy. So he loaded Sir into his car, trying not to wince when the dog’s wet nose left streaks across the back window, and headed to the dog park. Sir could use some socialization just as much Chuck could use some time to himself.
The dog park was completely empty, though. “Sorry, pal,” Chuck said as he closed the gate behind them and crouched to unclip the leash. “Looks like you’re on your own with this one.”
Sir gave him what was almost a pitying look before he took off, out to sniff the thousands of interesting and new smells. Chuck watched him for a minute. He then moved over to the park’s sole picnic table and sat down, watching his new puppy explore.
He’d come pretty far in 2007, he had to admit. His daughter had survived five years on the planet, which was still a miracle, given what the first month had been like. He’d started actually turning a profit with his business before the government had come along. He’d asked a woman out on a date—granted, she’d been angling for him the entire time and thought of him as an asset now, but the fact that he’d asked her out at all, especially given that they were rated very differently on the “dating scale” or whatever it was Morgan called it, that could be considered a success. And now, on top of everything, he had a dog.
There were other successes: he could hold a brain full of pre-formatted data and work it like an actual digital computer. He was a pretty fast runner. He could keep quiet and hide really well in a freezer of a Chinese food restaurant while Sarah and Casey took out a Triad gang. All strengths, he supposed.
Sarah had kissed him.
Because she had wanted to, and hadn’t been able to stop herself. Sure, she’d called it a mistake, but…
She’d kissed him. Talk about coming from left field. Two hours later, Ellie had voiced something that had sat at the back of his own mind a time or two, that Sarah, despite herself, really just spent time around them for Violet, and he was second-fiddle to his daughter. He’d considered it a crazy thought—Sarah being a spy with an independent life and all, why would she stick around for a small child?—but it had made sort of sense, too. When he’d challenged her about leaving with Bryce, her response had been to ask what she could possibly tell Violet, leaving him completely out of the equation. And even last night, Violet had been on her mind more than Chuck had been, Chuck thought.
And he’d done everything he could to make his peace with that. Violet was his number one priority.
But Ellie had been right, too. Chuck thought back to that first date with Sarah, how this…connection had been there, right from the start. Just a sort of click, a “there it is. Finally” feeling. He’d been so furious that it wasn’t real, that Sarah had just been playing him like a mark. At times it had even eclipsed the fear and anger over what Bryce had done to him and to Violet, that that connection had been a lie.
But it hadn’t been.
Sarah had kissed him.
So he hadn’t been imagining just how easy it was to be around her, how they sometimes started talking about one thing and ended up discussing something completely different as though it were the most natural thing in the world. That hadn’t been all in his mind, like he worried about constantly. He wasn’t alone.
Granted, he was completely alone. Sarah had made it more than clear: they couldn’t do anything. The government was getting in the way of this, just like they did with everything else.
He was an asset. She was his handler. End of story.
“That story sucks,” he told Sir when the dog wandered over with a tennis ball in his mouth.
Sir dropped the ball and looked at Chuck expectantly. Oh, Chuck realized. They must have taught him to play fetch at the shelter. He picked up the ball and made the dog’s day by winging it as far he could.
How much of that outburst, he had to wonder, in the basement had to do with him? Sure, the traitorous thought had crossed his mind a few times since he’d left the Spy Casa that it was to do with Bryce Larkin in some fashion or other. Sarah had been upset the night before, even if she wouldn’t tell him why. Even worse, she had been unhappy.
Sir brought the ball back. Chuck had to wrestle it away from him this time.
Had the kiss been to get back at Bryce somehow? No, Chuck didn’t believe that. Maybe it was in Sarah’s character to be that petty. He knew it was probably in his. But she’d been genuinely mortified, and honestly, he liked it more to think that the kiss had been about him and him alone. It was probably foolish optimism.
Chuck picked up the ball Sir dropped now, faked the dog out, and threw it in the opposite direction. Sir let out an annoyed bark that made Chuck grin—which faded. Optimism, he couldn’t help but think. He hadn’t had much lately, just like he hadn’t been that open and giving person Ellie had claimed he was. And maybe he wouldn’t ever be that way again. Part of him had had to harden himself to deal with everything the government and the Intersect had demanded of him. It was just part of life.
Was that an excuse? Was that reality?
He was Chuck Bartowski. He’d been expelled from Stanford, but he had come out on top with a degree from UCLA. What about all of those successes he had just been thinking about, his daughter, his business, even his dog? He hadn’t had to give up that openness to achieve those. Sure, he’d given up on a lot of other things. Sleep, mostly. But hadn’t he tried to be the best he could? He had a little girl that picked up on so much some days, it was scary. He tried to do his best to teach her the way Ellie had taught him. She deserved things like happiness, hope, and optimism.
She deserved to have a giving and open father, the man Ellie claimed he was.
And Chuck…wasn’t that person anymore. Not with the way he had treated Bryce that afternoon. Forget that the man deserved far worse, in Chuck’s opinion. If Chuck was really that person, he would have given Bryce the forgiveness the man asked for.
A whine at his feet made him look down. Sir stood over the ball, his eyes reproachful as he regarded Chuck.
“Great,” Chuck said, crouching to rub the dog’s ears and shaking his head when Sir danced out of the way. The dog followed it up by looking very insistently at the ball and then at Chuck. “Now I’m even disappointing my dog. Go figure.”
At least the dog was easily appeased. Chuck threw the ball; Sir let out a bark of pure joy and gave chase.
The rest of it wasn’t so easy. Chuck had every right to be angry, and he knew it. Justice was on his side of this argument. He was trapped in danger, all but impotent, and his family was in peril without any of them realizing it, thanks to Bryce’s actions. He had to lie to all of them, again thanks to Bryce. And Bryce had upset Sarah.
But those were Bryce’s sins, not his.
And that was…the whole point, Chuck realized. He only had control over his own life. The only one getting in the way of him being that person was him.
His cell phone rang. Chuck answered it while throwing the ball yet again for Sir, who hadn’t even started to pant. “Hey, Casey, what’s up?”
“Just thought you’d want to know I’m heading out for San Diego. Larkin’s officially on his way out.”
“Didn’t do it for you, Bartowski.”
Chuck nearly smiled. At least Casey was getting back to normal. “Right,” he said. “Either way. I guess the usual rules apply? Stay within range of Sarah?”
“Yes.” Casey paused for a long time. “Happy new year, Bartowski.”
“Thanks, Casey. Same to you. Uh, could you tell Bryce something for me?”
“You want me to pass on a message to Larkin?”
“Yeah. Just tell him…” Chuck took a deep breath. “I forgive him. For real. But the part about losing my email address, that was real, too.”
There was another long pause on the other end of the line. “If you’re sure,” Casey said, sounding doubtful.
“Okay. I’ll pass it on.”
“Thanks, Casey.” Chuck leaned down to pick up the ball yet again, and froze halfway down as something occurred to him. “Wait!”
“What is it now, Bartowski?”
“The creators of the original Intersect, what were they?”
“We’ve been over this. We don’t know anything about their identities since their records were lost.”
“That’s not what I meant. I was talking about, what were they? Scientists, right? That means they were assets?”
“Probably analysts, given the nature of the work. Why is this important, Bartowski? I need to get going.”
“It’s not. Sorry to bother you,” Chuck said, even as an idea began to take hold. “Bye, Casey.”
The NSA agent hung up without replying.
Sir whined. Chuck just grinned at him. “What do you say,” he asked the dog, who gave him a funny look, “we skip Ellie’s party tonight? I think there’s somewhere else we need to be.”
Chapter 8: New Year’s Eve
The first person to enter your home after the stroke of midnight will influence the year you‘re about to have. Ideally, he should be dark-haired, tall, and good-looking, and it would be even better if he came bearing certain small gifts such as a lump of coal, a silver coin, a bit of bread, a sprig of evergreen, and some salt. Blonde and redhead first footers bring bad luck, and female first footers should be shooed away before they bring disaster down on the household. Aim a gun at them if you have to, but don‘t let them near your door before a man crosses the threshold. — Snopes(dot)com Superstitions Article about New Year‘s Day
If she burrowed under the covers and just hid there, the way she’d always done as a child when she didn’t want to face life, would anybody notice? Well, no, they’d notice. But would they blame her?
Sarah gave the heavy bag another kick.
“It’s over, isn’t it,” Bryce had said, his voice very quiet. They’d been standing on the back porch, even though it was foolish for Bryce to be outside when he was under wraps. But Sarah hadn’t spotted any surveillance on her morning run—or her morning drag, as Sir had a mind of his own about the concept of pace—so it was safe. Probably.
Breathe in, short staccato breaths. The worst thing a fighter can do is forget to breathe. When you breathe, you think. Your brain is the best thing to bring to the fight if you don’t have a tank. Her instructor’s words echoed through her head now. She landed a combo of jabs, weaved right, followed it all with a knee to the bag.
“Doesn’t take a genius to see you’ve moved on,” Bryce had said.
“You were dead.” Her voice had been wooden. All she could think about was her lapse in judgment and the look on Chuck’s face as he’d left her alone in the basement. “Was I supposed to stay in mourning for years, Bryce?”
Sarah dodged an imaginary uppercut, replied with a left hook.
“A guy can hope.” Bryce’s smile had been self-deprecating. “It definitely wouldn’t hurt the ego.”
She’d given him an incredulous look.
“I’m joking. I never expected you to wear black for a year or go into seclusion or whatever.”
Sarah’s patience had dried up then. Maybe it was guilt: all told, Bryce hadn’t been dead that long and maybe she was a bad girlfriend…and so what? They were spies. It was part of life.
She snarled now and jabbed the bag, left and right, until her breath caught.
She hadn’t slept, and she’d kissed Chuck, and she’d been angry and hurt. She’d been so angry—was still so angry—at Bryce, when she knew she didn’t have a right to be. And even then, the idea of crawling beneath the covers and hiding for a week, possibly a year, had appealed to her. So she’d turned to him, annoyed. “Bryce, whatever it is, spit it out and quit stalling.”
She took a step back, sucking in gulps of oxygen, dancing from foot to foot. What had come over her?
Why had she done that? Why lose control, and why then?
She knew why. He’d gotten under her skin somehow, damn him and—somehow? Why couldn’t she be honest with herself, even now? There was nobody in the gym but her. Chuck was spending the afternoon with his daughter, Casey had taken off with Bryce, and she was absolutely alone. Just her and the punching bag. And even now, she couldn’t be honest. Chuck was more than under her skin, had probably been for awhile. He was like a cancer. He’d been persistently worming his way into every crack of her life, slipping right past her defenses. Her father had warned her early on about the evil kept inside everybody, hidden behind the mask they showed the world. Chuck had never had that. He was exactly what he was: conscientious, responsible to the point of boring at times, self-effacing, charming when he put his mind to it, and even worse than all of that, he was genuinely kind. No wonder he drew people around him without knowing it. The fact that the idiot never realized it just made it all the more potent
She hit the bag harder.
Bryce had shifted a little.
Sarah had no defense against Chuck.
“I owe you an apology,” Bryce had said.
“Whatever for?” Her voice had been subarctic.
“For being unfair. I was…startled last night, and I didn’t react well. And I’m afraid I took it out on you.” Bryce had looked troubled. “I made some statements last night that I regret.”
Sarah hit the bag again. It sang up her arm, reverberating into her shoulder.
“I’m not sorry I went about Sand Wall alone. This stuff is radioactive. Nobody leaves that kind of mission alive, and you have a better future than I do.”
“You left it alive.”
“Did I?” Bryce had looked at her, seriously. It was likely supposed to be something significant or heartfelt, but Sarah’s brain had been locked into a spiraling memory of how amazing kissing Chuck had been—and how completely devastating it had been. “Doesn’t feel like it sometimes.”
Sarah had had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from making the very real point that if he had come to her for help, they might have both come through unscathed. What had Chuck said about her the night before? Please. You’re Sarah Walker. You’re mightier than that.
It was, Sarah thought now as she followed a gut-shot with an uppercut, remarkably how different Chuck and Bryce really were, except that they both knew how to get to her.
She hated that. She didn’t know how to stop it.
She had a feeling with at least one of them, it would never stop.
“I guess all I can say is I’m sorry,” Bryce had said, his hands in his pockets, always a sign that he was uncomfortable. It was a holdover from his fraternity days, Sarah figured. “I think I made the right call, but I’m sorry it hurt you.”
Sarah ducked, weaved, smacked the bag upside the “head” with an open palm to daze her imaginary opponent, and elbowed “him” under the chin.
“But you’ve got to be careful, Sarah. I was watching last night, and you’re compromised. I just don’t want you getting hurt over it.”
She had her opponent on the ropes. Sarah danced back only to drop kick him in the chest. One down. She took a gulp from her water bottle, shook her head to loosen the muscles in her neck again. She dropped the image of the first attacker’s face, imagined a second, more brutal visage—which she then punched in the face.
She’d held her body rigid, standing outside with Bryce. It was the only way to contain the anger and annoyance and keep it inside. She’d kissed Chuck.
She knew she was compromised, damn it.
She didn’t need him to point it out like some superior, smug bastard.
“Bryce, I’m going to put this the nicest way I possibly can,” she’d said, her voice still frosty.
Bryce’s face had tightened at that. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
“What right do you think you have? You’ve been here less than twenty-four hours, and you think you know everything about me and about my life here? I know you’re trying to look out for me, but all I can say to that is: don’t.”
“I’m confused. Didn’t I go through exactly the same training you did?”
“You did, but—”
“Didn’t I go on exactly the same missions? Didn’t I survive everything? Didn’t I make shot after shot to save your life?”
“I like to think that I—”
“So where the hell do you get off, telling me how to do my job? I can do my job. I’ve been doing my job for longer than you have.”
“See, you’re getting defensive,” Bryce had said.
Sarah slammed the punching bag with a roundhouse kick that would have knocked the second opponent unconscious. She ignored that and kept pounding on him. He wasn’t real. He could take the heat.
“You know what that means? It means that deep down, you know I’m right, and you’re trying to deny it. Face it, Sarah, I know you. Feelings might not be your strong suit, but I know when you’re trying to hide them.”
“So what business is it of yours?”
“I’m your partner—”
Sarah let out a scream of rage and frustration and hit the bag harder, faster.
“We were partners once. It’s my job to look out for you. I won’t ever give that up.”
“And yet,” Sarah had said. “I’ll accept your apology if that’s what you really mean, but you know what? You look out for yourself. I can handle myself. I always could.”
“There’s something wrong in Burbank,” Bryce had said when she’d turned to go. “Everybody has this weird concept of forgiveness today. You and Chuck both.”
“Bryce, I didn’t sleep last night. I’m tired. I’m tired from this entire week of having to think my ex-part—my ex-boyfriend—was a traitor out to hurt my asset. It’s been a really, really crappy week. Forgive me for being blunt, but get over yourself.” Sarah had stepped into the kitchen, making sure to slam the door behind her. She’d been angry enough that red had tinged the edges of her vision, making the kitchen seem off-color and almost shaky.
That same red edged her vision now. It made her hit the punching bag even harder than before. She was amazed her hands hadn’t shattered.
Compromised. Right. He’d been talking about Violet—as if it were completely impossible that she might have feelings for Chuck at all—but the word alone was enough to make her imagine a third opponent even bigger than the first two, and systematically take him down. It was an old training exercise her instructors had always taught during lessons with the heavy bag. A bag might not hit back, but an imaginary enemy in your mind might. It had nothing on sparring with an actual opponent, but Sarah felt a vicious sort of thrill at dismantling somebody twice her size anyway.
She wasn’t compromised.
She was completely compromised.
I figure if you work as hard as you do for something you don’t care about, how far are you going to go for something you do?
Too far. The bosses knew that. They knew a compromised agent wasn’t an agent that followed orders. And the first thing you did with compromised agents was remove them from the thing compromising them.
No agent could serve two masters.
And she had kissed Chuck Bartowski anyway.
Sarah sighed and rested her head against the heavy bag. Why had she done that? Why then? What had it been about that moment, or even that morning or any of it? Nobody had been holding a gun to their heads, there wasn’t some nuclear bomb in the area, about to go off and end life as they knew it. She’d just been so frustrated and upset, and he’d been there, and he’d been nice to her last night and this morning and—
She hit the bag again, just a short jab since she was leaning against it.
She was compromised. The responsible thing was to excuse herself from this assignment, like Bryce had been subtly hinting at. Hell, she could even tag along with him, if she weren’t so furious. He’d probably been working toward that on the back porch anyway. Bryce could use somebody watching his back, and he didn’t like to give things up.
But if she left, there would be nobody to stand up to the bosses for Chuck and his life—and everything that included.
It would be so much easier if she could pretend things were fine. But no, she’d kissed Chuck, and now the jerk knew everything.
Maybe if she avoided him for a week and burrowed under the covers, he’d magically forget it. She didn’t believe in miracles, but now seemed like a good time to start. Things had been good between them—sometimes tense, sure, and she’d caught him looking at her with that strange expression on his face at times, the one that made it feel like something cold had blown over her spine, invigorating her, but they’d been good. They were on good standing where Violet was concerned. They’d even been on good standing where Bryce was concerned, though that had taken some growing pains.
And now she’d royally screwed everything up.
“Whatever,” she said aloud, and nearly jumped at hearing her own voice. The only sounds had been her brutal beating of Casey’s beloved punching bag, the voices in her head, and her breath, of course. She ran her hand over her forehead and the top of her head, and winced when it came back dripping. A glance at the floor and punching bag told her she’d need to hydrate plenty that evening. She drank her first cup of water during her cool-down. She’d need to stay away from alcohol.
Well, she didn’t really feel like drinking anyway. With a sigh, she headed to the shower.
Chuck had probably given Ellie some excuse for her absence—hopefully it wasn’t a spastic colon again—so she didn’t have to worry about that. She’d drink a couple of gallons water, crawl into her most comfortable PJs, and hide for a week or so. With Christmas stressing her out and Bryce’s visit making trouble for everyone, wasn’t she entitled to at least that much?
Oh, god, she was an idiot. She’d kissed Chuck.
She showered off the sweat, which took forever since her limbs felt like lead, donned a short robe, and headed downstairs, chugging liquid. Just a little fuel to keep her going, and then she could go to sleep. But first, she’d sit on the couch for a bit, get her energy back a little.
She closed her eyes for a second, and opened them to find that the sun had disappeared, and that Chuck and Violet were standing in her living room. She quickly narrowed her eyes to slits before either of them saw that she was awake.
“What do you think, Megabyte?” Chuck asked his daughter. They both crouched down in front of the couch, studying her like a lab experiment of some type. “Sleeping beauty or sleeping dragon?”
Violet gave her father a “what, good sir, have you been smoking?” look. “Sleeping beauty, duh. She’s pretty.”
“Which means you have to kiss her.”
Not again, Sarah thought, wanting to groan. She wondered if father and daughter would leave her alone if she just kept playing opossum.
“I do? Why is that?”
“Cos that’s how you wake sleeping beauty up, duh!”
“It is? Well, I think I might just be safer doing this.” Chuck reached for Sarah’s shoulder, but before she could grab his wrist, as she planned to do, something very large surged from beneath the couch. Sarah didn’t have time to throw her arms up to protect herself before Sir’s tongue left a very wet streak of dog slobber across her face.
All three of them yelped. Sarah immediately lunged up, making a disgusted noise and gagging.
“Oh, god! Sir! Down! Down, Sir—you evil—” Chuck grabbed the puppy and wrestled him away before he could repeat his ministrations on Sarah or worse, Violet. “Oh, god, Sarah, I am so, so sorry.”
Sarah rubbed at the trail of dog drool, trying not to throw up. “It’s fine.”
“Are you sure? Because I’m pretty certain my dog just got way past second base or third base—”
“Sir doesn’t play baseball,” Violet said, sounding confused.
Sarah blinked at both father and daughter as it belatedly occurred to her that Casey was in San Diego and both of them—and their silly dog, too—should have been at home, at Ellie’s party. “What are you doing in here?” she asked, her voice rusty from sleep.
Violet gave her a hurt look. “You don’t want us here, Sarah?”
“No, no.” Left with no choice, Sarah hugged the girl and pulled her onto her lap. Violet would just end up there anyway. “I’m just wondering how you got inside.” This last one was directed, with a cool look, at Chuck.
There went her plans for avoiding him for a week, maybe more.
He held up a six-pack. “The Megabyte and I thought you might need some company on New Year’s Eve. Plus, with her over here, Ellie’s friends can be loud after nine o’clock, so it all works out.”
“I’m going to stay up way later than nine o’clock, Daddy,” Violet said, giving him a look. She turned to Sarah. “Just you see. I’m going to stay up really, really, really, really late.”
“I can’t wait,” Sarah told the girl. She looked at Chuck. “Why didn’t you knock?”
“We did,” Violet said. “Four times.”
“I used my key,” Chuck said. “We actually just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“I thought you were Sleeping Beauty, but Daddy called you a sleeping dragon,” Violet said in a stage whisper. She burst into giggles at the thought. “It’s really okay if we stay over here, isn’t it, Sarah?”
She gave Sarah what had to be the most destructive look to willpower in the history of humankind. Chuck made things worse by giving her the adult-version of the look. He looked good, too, Sarah thought, and wanted to scowl. Why had he come over? Why hadn’t he read her mind and given her that week of hiding to get over how awkward things were going to be from now on?
And holy hell, she really could not resist the pout Violet was giving her.
“Sure,” she said, giving the girl a small squeeze. “But you’d better call out for dinner. I’m—”
And of course her stomach growled. She flushed to the roots of her hair, she was sure.
Chuck laughed, and tension visibly drained out of his shoulders. He was just as nervous as she was, Sarah realized. “I’ll call out for pizza,” he said. “No olives?”
“Please and thank you.” Belatedly, Sarah realized why Chuck had a funny look on his face—her robe was barely decent, and it showed a great deal more leg than he was used to, even from the missions that required bikinis. Even now, she saw him sneak a couple of looks at her legs.
It should have been same-old, same-old. Instead, she wanted to blush again. “You know what? I think I’ll go put on some clothes.”
Upstairs, she pulled on a tank top and yoga pants. What was his game? Why didn’t Chuck look angry? The last time she’d seen him, he’d seemed absolutely furious with her, and maybe he was right to be. She should never have kissed him. She should have kept those feelings to herself.
“Sarah?” Violet’s voice sounded outside her door. Sarah cast her eyes to the ceilings and a prayer of gratitude to the heavens that they made it a habit of locking the armory now, in case Violet wandered into the house. “Where are you?”
“In here, sweetie,” Sarah called, digging through her drawer for a pair of fuzzy socks. The house was cooler than she remembered. “The door’s unlocked.”
Violet pushed the door open slightly and poked her head through. Chuck had apparently done her hair that day, as the barettes were coming loose. The skirt over her jeans, though, was all her. “Um, Sarah?”
“Daddy wants to know if I can have a shirt because he forgot to pack pajamas for me.”
Sarah looked over at the girl, still peering almost fearfully in the doorway. Oh, right, she remembered. Violet had never seen inside her room before. “You can come in,” she said, smiling over at Violet.
“Really?” Violet’s eyes went comically wide.
Violet pondered this for a moment. The girl was such an interesting picture of brashness and shyness. She never knew what Violet was going to do next. Indeed, the girl looked pensive—before the grin split across her face and she threw herself in a running leap for Sarah’s bed. Of course she landed as agilely as a monkey and stood on the bed, looking around the room. “Wow,” she breathed. “It’s so neat.”
It was? Sarah looked around the room, which was the blandest one the Agency had ever picked out for her. “Yeah, I guess it is,” she said, thinking. She didn’t really keep any oversized T-shirts around. For that, they’d have to raid Casey’s room, she suspected.
Violet scrambled off of the bed and over to Sarah’s vanity table. “Is this your perfume?” she asked, reaching for one of the crystal bottles.
“Careful,” Sarah said, thinking of the headache a bottle of spilled perfume on the carpet would lead to.
Violet gently picked up the bottle and sniffed it. She sneezed. Sarah couldn’t help it; she laughed. “You’re not quite ready for perfume yet,” she said, taking the bottle from Violet and setting it back.
“Can I have lotion instead?”
“Sure.” Sarah winced when Violet squirted a huge glob onto her hand. “Okay, that’s a bit much. Here, I’ll take some of that, too. That way we don’t waste any.”
“’Kay.” Violet sniffed her hands and smiled. “Now I smell pretty.”
“I think you smelled pretty before.” Sarah set the lotion back in its place.
Violet smiled at herself in the mirror and swayed from side to side, checking out her reflection. “Daddy says I don’t have to take a bath tonight. He says it’s an ex-ex-ex-imp—”
“Yes, that.” Violet adjusted the barette in her hair just as Sarah found one of Chuck’s old T-shirts stashed in her closet. “Does that mean it’s only one time?”
“Usually,” Sarah said, and had to bite her lip to hide the grin when Violet looked put-out by the idea that bath time would return the next evening. She held up the shirt. “Do you want to change now, or later?”
“Now, please.” Without any sense of modesty whatsoever, Violet stripped.
She was wearing Chuck’s shirt when Sarah carried her downstairs. Chuck raised his eyebrows at the both of them. “What’s this?”
“Sarah says it’s a fireman’s carry.” Violet let out another peal of giggles as Sarah crouched and easily maneuvered the girl so that she was held in front of Sarah. “She says it’s what Major Casey Sir does to people in the ‘Rines.”
“When he’s not shooting them,” Chuck said under his breath. “Pizza should be here in about twenty minutes. Think you can wait that long, Hunger McStomachpangs?”
Sarah wrinkled her nose at the nickname and opened the fridge, Violet still on her hip. She grabbed the carrot sticks. “Can I have some juice?” Violet asked.
Sarah glanced at Chuck, got a nod in reply. “Sure.” Since she couldn’t juggle the bag of carrot sticks and the bottle of juice, she tossed the former to Chuck and grabbed the latter off of the shelf. She finally set Violet on the floor to play with Sir and attacked the carrot sticks, letting Chuck pour the juice. He nudged a beer at her; even though she knew she shouldn’t drink it, she took a swallow. “Want some, Vi?”
She offered the carrot sticks, but Violet took the beer. And both adults stared at her as she took a drink—and gagged.
Chuck burst out laughing. “Liked that, huh?” he asked.
“That’s so gross!” Violet’s face turned to one of utter disgust.
“And it’s a grown-up drink. So no more of that until you’re twenty-one.”
“That’s okay.” Violet handed back the beer and took the juice. “You can have that.”
“Er, thank you,” Sarah said, and put the beer somewhere high. First she’d made Chuck’s daughter cry on Christmas morning and then she’d turned her into an alcoholic on New Year’s Eve. It was a holidays to be remembered, that was for sure. Chuck waggled his eyebrows as he took a drink of his own beer.
She crunched into a carrot stick. “So, uh, what are the plans tonight?”
“New movie! New movie! We’re gonna watch the ‘Credibles.”
“Vi, remember what we agreed.”
Vi instantly looked chastised. “That’s if you wanna watch the ‘Credibles, Sarah.”
“I don’t even know what the ‘Cr—what this movie is.”
“Superheroes!” Violet set the juice down—slopping it all over the counter in a way that made Chuck wince—and hurried for the Dad Bag. She pulled out a yellow and red DVD case. “See? They’re superheroes.”
Chuck put his hands over his daughter’s ears. “Don’t worry, she’ll be out by nine,” he said, even as Violet beamed up at them. “And then we won’t subject you to any more kids’ movies.”
“I can hear you. And I’m going to stay up for forever!”
“Here.” Sarah handed the DVD case to her. “Why don’t you go put that in the player for me? We can get started while we wait for the pizza.” And I can talk to your father.
“Sure.” Violet took the case and scampered off, Sir prancing behind her.
The minute she was out of earshot, Sarah turned and pinned Chuck with a look.
He raised his hands, as if in surrender. “What?”
“Why are you pretending everything is normal?”
Chuck took a carrot stick. “Why are you?”
“I thought I made it clear I wanted to be alone.”
“If you really do, we can leave. Granted, you’ll be breaking my daughter’s heart—and my dog’s, too, he’s quite taken with you—but we can go back home.”
“Oh, that is not fair,” Sarah said, pointing at him. “That is fighting dirty.”
Chuck shrugged. “Love is a battlefield.”
Sarah’s jaw dropped.
After a full ten seconds, his mouth twitched, but he didn’t smile. “I had some time to think this afternoon, after Bryce left. And I came to the conclusion that you, and please don’t kill me for this, but you must have wanted to kiss me. Like, a lot.” Chuck looked uncomfortable for the first time since he’d come inside—save when his dog had assaulted her.
“Yes,” Sarah said, pushing the word out between her teeth. “But I told you that was a—”
“Don’t say mistake again,” Chuck said, still uncomfortable. “Call it anything but that. Please.”
“It wasn’t smart.”
“Right then? Probably not. Casey and Bryce could’ve walked in and seen us at any second.”
“So you agree that—”
“But even if it wasn’t smart, it wasn’t wrong.”
“I’ve been driving myself completely crazy. You know that? Just nuts. I thought, no way there’s this connection with this incredibly gorgeous, smart, and funny woman in my life. No way, it’s all in my head. It can’t be possibly be real. And then you kissed me.” Chuck took a long drink of beer, looking very much like he was in search of liquid courage. He didn’t look away from her face, though, and Sarah had to wonder if his heart was pounding just like hers had begun to. “And I wasn’t imagining it, was I?”
“Chuck…” What could she say? Not what she wanted to, certainly. She remembered her session with the heavy bag. Nothing had changed. It had been foolish to kiss him. And this was why.
But had it really meant that much to him? Had he really been driving himself that crazy?
She wanted to gulp her own drink down, but didn’t let herself. Instead, she gripped the edge of the kitchen island tightly. “Chuck, the way I feel doesn’t change anything. It can’t.”
“Because it doesn’t change the fact that I’m your handler. I can’t get involved like that.”
“But aren’t you already?”
“Chuck…” Her voice held a note of pleading that made her want to sink into the floor.
Violet, of all people came to her rescue. “The movie’s starting,” she said, appearing behind Sarah and grabbing her juice. “Aren’t you going to come watch with me?” “We’ll be in there in just a minute, Megabyte.”
“’Kay, but hurry up before you miss lots.” Violet carried the juice into the living room with her.
“Even if I am—even if I do feel that way,” Sarah said once she’d gone, “it can’t matter, Chuck. I told you that this afternoon. Nothing’s changed.”
“I think it should matter.”
“But it can’t.”
“Why not? Give me just one answer.”
“Because I’m your—”
“Handler, yeah, I got that the first time. I don’t think that’s a strong enough reason.”
Sarah felt the desperation begin to turn to anger, which came out of nowhere and almost made her stomach hurt with its intensity. “I think that’s the only reason I need,” she said, her voice once again as cold as it had been that afternoon. “I’m sorry I kissed you, and I’m sorry I put you through all of that, but if you can’t respect that, then I think you need to leave. Violet can stay.”
She stalked off into the living room. Violet had taken up Casey’s recliner, so she sat on the couch, clutching the neck of her beer bottle so tightly that she was surprised it didn’t splinter in her hand. On the TV, the cartoon had started. Grainy, retro footage of people in old-time superhero costumes were sitting down to be interviewed in some sort of news format. She didn’t pay much attention, though Violet seemed completely fascinated by everything on the screen.
After a minute, Chuck came in. When he looked at the couch, she turned and gave him the coldest look in her repertoire. He sighed, walked over, picked up Violet, dumped her unceremoniously on the couch, and took the chair for himself.
“Hey!” Violet said, squirming and elbowing Sarah in the ribs. “What was that for, Daddy?”
“My legs’re longer than yours,” Chuck said, stretching out in the recliner. “Dibs.”
“No fair, I was sitting there, that’s like dibs but better. Sarah,” Violet said in a high-pitched whine, appealing to her.
Sarah forced the annoyance she felt at Chuck down. “What?” she asked. “You don’t want to sit next to me?”
“Well…okay.” Violet settled in against her arm.
Sarah just continued to watch the movie, not looking at Chuck—as loudly as she could.
Later, pizza devoured, Violet lay, quite out of it, across Sarah’s lap. She’d succumbed in the middle of The Incredibles, even though she’d spent most of the time gushing that she and Violet had the same name, just like Violet from the Boxcar Children and wasn’t that neat? It was too bad that Mr. Incredible was blond and Flexigirl was brown-haired because then they could be like Chuck and Sarah and they could all be superheroes, only there was no Dash or Jack-Jack—yet; Sarah had lost her appetite at that word—and the Incredibles didn’t have a dog as cool as Sir. But they had superpowers, almost made up for that lack. She’d like to fly just like the other Violet and turn invisible so she could get all the cookies and…
She’d conked out in the middle of a sentence. Without her chatter and reactions to watch, the movie wasn’t as interesting for Sarah as Chuck seemed to find it. She leaned her head back against the back of the couch, so very tired…
And she woke up once again, but this time only because she felt movement. It took her foggy brain a few seconds to put it together: she’d fallen asleep, this time sitting up on the couch. Violet, shifting in her sleep, had woken her, unsurprising since the girl was curled half in Sarah’s lap and half around the arm of the couch. It was also very, very warm.
Chuck looked up; he was still in the recliner, though the TV had been turned off. He had some kind of programming book in his lap. “Oh, you’re awake,” he said.
Sarah cast a surreptitious look at Violet, still asleep.
“She’s fine. At this point, she’ll sleep through the zombie apocalypse.”
“Are you—” Sarah had to clear her throat. It was way too hot in her living room, but she didn’t dare move. Chuck’s joke about a sleeping dragon seemed all the more appropriate now. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. Watch.” Chuck closed the book and climbed from the recliner. He reached for Violet.
“Wait, no, don’t wake her.”
“Trust me.” Chuck flashed a grin and plucked Violet from her lap. Immediately, the temperature dropped to tolerable levels; Chuck deposited Violet on the other two couch cushions. The girl sighed, shifted, and stayed asleep. “See?”
Sarah glanced at her watch and finally stretched. It was a lot closer to midnight than she remembered. “She’s not the only one that sleeps like the dead,” she said, frowning.
“You could have told me you were that tired,” Chuck said.
Sarah climbed to her feet and moved around him, heading for the kitchen. Her throat was dry and her head was pounding a little bit. Workout hangover, she realized. She hadn’t had enough water. “Why?” she asked through a yawn.
“I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t have pushed so hard. I’m sorry.”
Sarah, busy yawning, waved at him. She needed water. She didn’t want to get into any more heart-wrenching discussions until she’d drank roughly the equivalent of the Mississippi. She downed a glass.
“Whoa,” Chuck said as Sarah refilled the glass and proceeded to demolish that one, too. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” She refilled the glass a third time. Her head was already starting to feel better. “Just had a long session with the heavy bag today and didn’t recuperate afterwards like I should have.”
“The punching bag? Do you want to talk about it?”
“Ngh,” Sarah said. She was starving. She spotted the remnants of the pizza Chuck had ordered and bit into a cold slice. She wasn’t normally a fan of cold pizza, but it tasted like heaven. She chased it with water.
When she looked up, Chuck was staring at her, eyes wide. “What?” she asked, wiping at her mouth with a napkin in case she’d somehow gotten sauce all over her face.
He jumped. “I—nothing. I guess I didn’t realize how, um, hungry you were.”
Sarah looked down at the pizza. Thirty seconds before it had been a slice; now it was just a crust. “It was a really long session.”
“I see. It wasn’t my face you were imagining when you were punching things, was it?”
“No. I never imagine people I know.” Though if she’d been punching anybody real, it would have been Bryce. She sighed and took a seat at the kitchen island. The water and food were already beginning to sustain her, but her body had that too-weak feeling that sometimes followed a workout where she’d overdone things.
“Why push yourself so hard?”
“I was annoyed.”
“At Bryce,” Sarah said, and inwardly winced. Every time that name was brought up, Chuck’s face inevitably took on that closed look.
This time it didn’t. He simply looked quizzical. “What’d he do now?”
“Oh, you know. The usual.” Sarah sighed and helped herself to one of the carrot sticks they’d left on the counter. It had dried out, but she didn’t care. “We got into an argument before he left. I was a little annoyed, like I said. Not a big deal.”
“Oh. Busy day.” Chuck stabbed absently at the top of the pizza box with the carrot stick, poking at a grease spot. “I forgave Bryce today.”
“Yeah, I just thought…it doesn’t cost me anything, you know? And he’s gone out of our lives, so no use wasting more of my headspace on him. I’ve got bigger issues to deal with than some guy I used to know.”
“Like how he might try to screw you over again?” Sarah asked, reaching for her water glass.
“I was kind of hoping he’s learned his lesson.”
Sarah wasn’t sure Bryce ever would. Learning a lesson like that would take more humility than the spy had in him. Bryce had quite a few stellar qualities, but a combination of having things come easily to him and the way the Farm had trained him to be…those had probably ensured that Bryce would never fully understand the trouble he’d caused. And thinking that, she couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him, no matter her anger. Her father had always said something about the nature of the beast, or had it been about hating the game rather than the player? She was too tired to remember the proper aphorism.
“But if he hasn’t, well, that’s a problem for future Chuck and Sarah.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Sarah said, clicking her water glass against his beer.
“I really am sorry I pushed you so hard, Sarah.”
She wondered if she didn’t answer, if he’d just let the subject drop. Yes, she was tired—bone-weary, as that week had been rough and the workout hadn’t helped. But she’d kissed Chuck and then had tried to bury the problem. And if she wasn’t going to be able to hide under the covers for a week, it was time to face things. “Chuck, it’s—”
“But if you think about it, I’m not your asset,” Chuck went on, and seemed to realize she’d been trying to say something. “Oh, I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
“It’s not important.” How the hell wasn’t he her asset? He had the Intersect. It was her job to protect the Intersect.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Go on.”
“I talked to Casey this afternoon about the original Intersect creators. If they were assets or scientists or whatever they were considered by the government.”
“Analysts, probably,” Sarah said, frowning as she puzzled over it.
“Right. Not assets. Assets don’t get paid.”
“So, I’m not an asset. I get paid. I’m using the research to create an Intersect. That makes me, at worst, an analyst and at best a scientist of some type. Not an asset.”
Sarah frowned. That logic was…shaky. Incredibly shaky. But it also contained something she vaguely recognized and didn’t want to acknowledge as hope. Her heart was beginning to pound a little too hard for her comfort, but she didn’t fidget like she desperately wanted to. That would be a tell. “It doesn’t change the gist of things,” she said. “You’re still the person I’m supposed to protect. That’s frowned upon.”
“But it’s a loophole. I’m not an asset, so therefore it’s not technically against the rules.”
“We’re a joint NSA/CIA project operating on US soil. I highly doubt they’re really concerned with technicalities, Chuck.”
He shrugged. “If you weren’t assigned to protect me, and we were just a couple of neighbors who happened to fall in l—in like, would you go for it?”
Sarah didn’t answer. Would she? There were two very different answers reverberating through her. One frightened her. The other frightened her even more. “What if I say yes? What if we change things and they find out and take you away from Violet, Chuck? What then?”
“They’re going to use any excuse they can get,” Chuck said, glancing out toward the living room. “Aren’t they?”
“I don’t know.” That much was honest.
“So even if they do that, even if it’s allegedly because we, um, got together or something, you wouldn’t have to worry about feeling guilty, if you think about it. It was going to happen, either way.”
“I don’t want it to happen,” Sarah said with a fervor that surprised her. She blinked; Chuck leaned back, regarding her. “Chuck, I don’t want to be the one that gives them that excuse.”
“Tomorrow they might decide I’m too much of a nerd or my hair’s too curly or my shoes are weird, and they’ll try something.” Chuck shrugged, scowling now. “So it doesn’t really make sense to live afraid of that restriction.”
“If we get caught—”
“We’re smart. I think we can outsmart a General and a Director.”
“And Casey?” Sarah asked, glancing almost subconsciously at Casey’s usual breakfast seat. It was empty because he was in San Diego, but the ghost of him was suddenly very real in that kitchen with them.
“I can be careful,” Chuck said. “You, however…”
Sarah bristled. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I’m not the one who started trying to eat my face with Bryce and Casey in the same house. Hmm, maybe this is a bad idea after all.”
Sarah set the water glass down on the counter with a snap. “For the last time—”
Chuck grinned and dodged out of range. “Sarah, relax. I’m kidding.”
Even if he was kidding, she had to take a deep breath. Why didn’t he understand? “Chuck, you’ve got a kid. I have nothing. My ex-partner just pointed out that I work best alone because that’s the way I’ve always been. I’m a spy. It’s okay for me to take risks like that. But you can’t, okay?”
“Why not? I’m an adult, too.”
“Did you not just hear me? You’ve got Violet to look out for.”
Chuck fell quiet for a long moment, looking at the countertop and not at her. Finally, he licked his lips—he had to stop doing that, she knew firsthand just how dangerous those lips were—and said, “So do you.”
Sarah actually felt the blood leave her face for the first time in her life. The kitchen swayed a little. “Wh-what?”
“I’m not talking stepmom,” Chuck said, scowling. “That wasn’t what I meant. Relax.”
“What did you mean.” She almost managed to make it a question. Almost. There was a weird buzzing in her ears.
Chuck shrugged. “You said it yourself the other night. What would you tell Violet if you suddenly had to leave? You may not be as deeply invested as Ellie and Awesome and I are, and that’s fine, but face it, that shows you’re invested, too.”
“I am not,” Sarah said, more reflexively than anything.
“You met her teachers. You know her favorite color.”
“So? She’s my—cover boyfriend’s kid. And she talks a lot. About everything.”
“You fell asleep sitting up so you wouldn’t have to move her.”
“I’m a spy. The first thing you learn in training is how to sleep anywhere.”
“That wasn’t my point. Last night, you were freaking out because you were worried about the amount of time I let you spend with her. And it wasn’t anything to do with you—it was all about her. So you’re invested. Which means that this whole thing with us right now, she’s not part of equation. I’m invested in keeping her safe, you are, too. This thing,” and Chuck gestured between them, “is just you and me. No government, no Violet, no Casey.”
“Definitely no Casey. God. But you do realize you’re arguing against either of us taking any risks like that?”
Chuck pushed his hands through his hair. “The risks are always there.”
“And that’s no reason to make them greater.”
“It’s also no reason to just put my feelings away. I have liked you since I met you, Sarah. And today I found out that I wasn’t alone in that. What do you expect me to do?”
“Ignore it,” Sarah said. She was definitely pleading now, but she was so tired and frustrated that she didn’t give a damn. “Put it away.”
“Yeah, that worked really well for you,” Chuck said.
Sarah’s fist clenched on its own.
Chuck sighed and tossed the same carrot stick he’d been toying with the for the whole conversation into the empty pizza box. He looked weary. “This isn’t getting us anywhere, is it?” he asked.
“Not really.” Sarah rolled her head around on her neck. It didn’t really kill much of the tension, but it did relieve things, somewhat. There was no easy solution. She’d opened up Pandora’s Box by kissing Chuck that afternoon, by losing the slippery grip on the control she held over herself. And even if it had felt wonderful at the time—and part of her wanted to shout with happiness that Chuck liked her enough to stand up for their relationship—she knew better. If they got caught, either Chuck or she would be gone from Burbank. If they were lucky, it would be her. If they weren’t…
Chuck sat up so fast next to her that she automatically reached over, grabbing his arm to put him into an arm-lock. At the last second, she changed her grip so that it wouldn’t break anything. “What? What is it?”
“Why don’t we compromise?” Chuck asked, leaning toward her a little. The sparkle had returned to his eyes. “Neither one of us is wrong, and we’ve both got good reasons. Why not a compromise?”
Sarah squinted at him. “What are you proposing? You’d better not just say ‘a quickie.’”
Once he’d flushed at least three different shades of maroon, he shook his head. “Not that. I mean, unless you really wanted to and, whoa, probably not the best way to start that. But what I was suggesting is we take things really, really slow.”
Sarah gave it some thought and frowned. “I think a quickie would actually be a better compromise.”
“If I say no to that one now, is it completely off the table?”
Sarah raised an eyebrow—and had the last laugh when Chuck choked yet again. He took a hurried sip of beer. “Okay, okay,” he said, holding up a hand for peace. “Seriously. We take it slow. If we suspect they’re onto us or it’s not working, we call things off, no harm, no foul. That way we’ve got some time and some breathing room before there’s trouble.”
“That’s your big solution? We move in slow motion?”
“Yeah, think of it like actual dating. Of course, we’re already, you know, basically sharing a bed for the cover, so it’s not exactly conventional dating but—”
“Not dating,” Sarah said, panic making her hold up a hand.
“What? Why not?”
“We can’t give it a name. If we give it a name, there’s no plausible deniability.”
Chuck stared at her for so long that she started to wonder what she’d said wrong. “You realize it’s still dating even if you don’t call it that?”
“You have your loopholes, I have mine. And there would have to be rules.”
“Wait a second, wait a second.” Chuck grabbed her wrist, his eyes wide. “Does this mean you’re saying yes?”
Her heart had begun to pound, possibly in time with his. She ignored it, and the way his hand felt warm around her wrist, and the eagerness. “There would have to be rules.”
“Anything you say. Anything at all. I will buy more breath mints. I will even get a haircut.”
“Not rules like that. Just—we can’t do anything at your place.”
“Right, the cameras.”
“Casey can’t know.”
“If we get more…” Sarah searched for a word. “If we get more affectionate, it’d have to be gradually introduced.”
“I’m sorry, have you met your daughter? She hasn’t met a ‘why’ question she doesn’t like.”
“Point. And she’s really good at pointing out every single one of my flaws.”
“I think it’s cute.”
“Just wait until she does it to you.”
“Excuse me?” Sarah crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m sorry, did you miss Carina’s visit entirely?”
“Point. But for the record, if I agree to these rules, you’re saying yes, right? That’s a definite yes?”
Sarah regarded him for a long moment. There were a thousand reasons to say yes. There were a million reasons to say no. Face it, Walker. You knew it was coming to this the moment you kissed him.
You want this.
And no amount of lying to herself would ever fully convince her otherwise.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, but we have to—”
She let out a squeak when he leapt to his feet and hugged her, lifting her right off the chair and swinging her around. “This is awesome!”
Sir wandered in, ears flopping, took one look at the tableau, and decided he felt left out. He barked once and barreled toward them. “Sir, no!” Sarah said, but it did absolutely nothing. The dog hit Chuck’s legs with his paws like a linebacker.
They landed in a pile of limbs and grunts. Unfortunately, this provided Sir all the opportunity he needed to get to their faces, his gigantic elephant paws stepping all over Chuck’s arm and Sarah’s shoulder as he darted for his target. “Sir! No! Down!”
That was only encouragement for the puppy. Half desperate, Sarah tackled the dog and hauled him away from Chuck, who was, by now, laughing hard, one hand on his stomach. This of course meant that Sir wanted to get in on the fun once more, and he dragged Sarah across the kitchen in his attempt to clean Chuck’s face once more. “C’mon, boy, a little decorum, please,” Chuck managed to say, pushing the dog away from him.
Violet’s small voice cut through the chaos and made both adults freeze. Disinterested in Chuck now that his favorite human was in the room, Sir meandered over to where Violet had wandered in, nosing her side. She stumbled a little, rubbing her eyes. Her hair was a messy tangle around her head.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Megabyte. Did we wake you up?” Chuck pushed himself to his feet and moved to the dog so that he could pick Violet up. “Let’s get you into a proper bed, huh? Away from those noisy, annoying adults?”
But Violet shook her head. “’Sit Midnight yet?”
OSarah glanced at the kitchen clock as she climbed to her feet. She was still dazed, she realized. “It’s close,” she said. “Three minutes.”
“Can I stay up until then, Daddy? Please?”
“Of course. Let’s go turn on the TV so that we can see the ball drop.” Chuck mouthed the word ‘sorry’ over Violet’s head. Sarah waved to tell him that it was fine. When father and daughter disappeared into the living room, she took a minute to herself in the kitchen, mostly to catch her breath.
This was intensely, intensely stupid, what she and Chuck were going to do. So much hung in the balance, like she’d warned him. But then, so much was already in the balance, and their lives were decided by people who might change their minds at any minute. Why was it so wrong to make the best of it? And if they were going to get technical, she and Chuck weren’t actually breaking any rules.
But it was so, so dangerous.
And was it worth it?
“Sarah? You coming?”
Sarah grabbed the bottle of fizzy apple juice she’d spotted in the fridge, something Chuck must have brought over, and poured three glasses. “Just a sec,” she called. It was a little work to carry all three glasses and dodge the dog, who clearly felt he deserved a glass, but she made it to the living room in one piece. She arrived just as the countdown was just starting.
Violet stared in fascination at the screen, taking her drink without a word from Sarah. “Ten…nine…”
“Thanks,” Chuck said, taking the glass.
“Out with the old?” Chuck asked.
“In with the new,” Sarah agreed, tapping her glass to his.
“Three…two…one…Happy new year!” Violet threw her free arm over her head and let out one of her screeches.
“Happy New Year!” Chuck dropped a kiss on the top of Violet’s head. “Also, you might want to look away for this, Megabyte.”
Chuck solved that problem by putting his hand over Violet’s eyes. “Cos I’m gonna kiss Sarah.”
And he did. It was, Sarah thought, the best way to possibly start 2008. A happy new year, indeed.