Chapter 1: Fugue for Intersects
The number of graham crackers left in the waxy brown paper continued to fall as the two little girls crunched on the flat, rectangular snacks, one after another. The adult sitting with them knew better than to give them anything to eat at this time of night where the first ingredient listed was sugar. He had judiciously studied the information on the side of the box and to his relief, found that sugar was the third. And if either Ellie or Chuck called him on it, he had the box to prove it.
“You don’t have to eat the whole package, you know,” he said. It had been awhile since he’d been left caring for small children, but he did remember they had a tendency to overdo things. “If either of you end up with tummy aches, your parents won’t let me babysit anymore.”
Two sets of blue eyes stared back at him, wide with dismay at the very idea.
The five-year-old with the curly sandy-brown hair slowly raised the snack in her hand and crunched a bite, spraying crumbs all over a Tinkerbell sleeping bag. She offered the rest to the pink and purple stuffed platypus snuggled next to her and pretended to feed it a bite. “Last cracker, I promise. Bun-Bun can eat the rest.”
The five-year-old with the blonde hair watched her cousin before looking down at the Barbie doll laying on top of her sleeping bag, emblazoned with Barbie’s giant smiling face. After a moment, she offered the rest of her cracker to her grandpa with an outstretched arm. “Barbie doesn’t eat snacks late at night. She says they go straight to her hips.”
It was all Stephen Bartowski could do not to let out a belly laugh. Instead, he took the cracker from Megan and placed it on the nightstand.
“Grandpa, will you read us a bedtime story, please?” Violet asked, attempting to use the manners her daddy had been working so hard to teach her.
Winking at her, he replied, “That’s why I’m here. What kind of story should I read?”
Both voices shouted out at the same time, naturally. At least that much hadn’t changed since Chuck and Ellie were little.
Stephen held up his hand and said, “Now, wait a minute. I didn’t understand either of you because you were both talking at the same time. Since Vi is a little older, we’ll let her answer first.”
Megan scowled and crossed her arms in front of her chest in angry protest.
Vi smiled victoriously. “I want a princess story, but not one of those lame princess stories. Like maybe the girl isn’t pretty, but then her prince comes along and he teaches her how to speak pretty and stuff. And she becomes a princess, even though she’s not pretty.”
“You always want princess stories.” Megan rolled her eyes.
Violet shot her a glare that would have incinerated anyone else. Megan simply returned her cousin’s glower with a laser-like stare of her own.
Stephen cleared his throat, bringing the two out of their stare-down and thus averting Armageddon. He knew from his own children’s frequent emails that the girls were best friends—most of the time. The rest of the time… “Megan, what kind of story would you like to hear?”
The little girl sat up straighter against her pillow and said, “I’d like to hear a spy story. I love spies.”
Vi snorted. “Everybody knows that. They even know that in outer space.”
Megan chose to ignore her cousin. “Maybe a story about some man who works at a yucky store and then all of the sudden, he has to become a spy.” Her blue eyes practically glowed at the idea.
“Well, as luck would have it, I have just the right story… for one of you.” Stephen leaned over and picked up a hardback book from under his chair.
The room grew silent. Neither girl dared to move, waiting to find out which one would get to hear their chosen story tonight.
He slowly turned it around so that both of his granddaughters could see the cover. One face lit up and the other fell when the front was revealed.
Both girls concentrated on the words on the cover. “I know the first two words,” Megan said proudly. “It says ‘Spies and’.”
Violet sounded the last word out slowly. “Neeerrrds.”
“Good reading, girls. Tonight, I’m going to read a story called Spies and Nerds.”
Megan clapped her hands and bounced excitedly. “A spy story! Thank you, Grandpa!”
He leaned forward, dropped his voice and looked directly at Violet. “But, here’s the deal.” He knew she would sulk and have a hard time enjoying the story, so he had a plan ready. A slight smile formed on his lips when he noticed Violet leaning toward him, despite her body language indicating her annoyance with him. “I’ll read Spies and Nerds tonight and the next time you two have a sleepover, I’ll read a story called My Fair Chuck.”
“Daddy!” Violet cried happily. But happiness quickly turned to suspicion. “Does it have princesses?”
Stephen shifted in his chair. “Kind of.”
“Promise you’ll read it?”
Stephen leaned back and made a show of making an ‘X’ over his chest with his fingers. “Cross my heart.”
He held his breath as she considered his words. A grin erupted and she replied, “Deal!”
Megan started bouncing again. “Read, Grandpa! Read!”
Stephen made a show of putting on his glasses and opening the book. He licked his finger and slowly turned the page. Clearing his throat, he said, “Once upon a time, in a magical land called Burbank—”
“Burbank!” the two girls shouted together. “That’s not a magical land!” Megan added.
“Yeah! My daddy says it smells like feet!” Violet’s nose scrunched.
With his finger holding his place, Stephen closed the book and gazed at his two beautiful and precocious granddaughters. “Are you going to let me read this or not?”
The little girls clamped their mouths shut and nodded.
Opening the book, he started again. “Once upon a time, in a magical land called Burbank, there lived a beautiful young woman named Ellie Bartowski—”
“That’s my mommy!” Megan said, bouncing once again.
“— and her nerdy brother, Chuck.”
“That’s my daddy!” Violet said happily, clearly pleased.
Stephen grinned at the reaction. They had no idea. “It was a bright, sunny day, when Ellie walked out of the boutique that surprisingly, only sold socks, slipped on her sunglasses and glanced around the square…”
It was a bright, sunny day, when Ellie walked out of the boutique that surprisingly, only sold socks, slipped on her sunglasses and glanced around the square, looking for her partners. They had to be around somewhere. Her eyes scanned the area, taking it in. She had been here many times before, so really there was nothing new to see. It was just one of many nondescript, ubiquitous outdoor malls that littered Southern California. Like every other mall, there was a row of small shops of dubious quality anchored by larger big box stores. This particular mall had a Large Mart, Underpants, Etc. and Buy More.
“Carina, Casey,” Ellie said in a low voice into her comm, “where are you?”
Through her earwig, she heard Carina answer, “We’re at the Starbucks outdoor seating area at to your two o’clock.”
Ellie’s eyes darted to where Carina and Casey seemed to be whiling away the afternoon. Carina sat with her face pointed toward the sun, soaking up its rays, her auburn hair ablaze in the light. A few tables over from her position, Casey scowled into a newspaper.
“Stupid liberal rag,” he said. “How can people read this crap? I swear, this one writer has a cranial rectal inversion going on so bad he—”
“Casey,” Carina said, interrupting him easily. “For the last time: we don’t care.”
“I hope nothing goes wrong with this op,” Ellie said with a hint of worry coloring her voice. “If Chuck hears that there’s a spy mission going on just outside the doors of the Buy More, he’ll flip.” Why had La Grenouille, gun runner and CIA snitch, picked this place for the drop? Sure, he couldn’t have known about the spies’ issue with the Buy More, but geez, it felt inconvenient on a completely new level.
“Don’t worry, El. I’ll take care of your nerd-a-licious brother if he gets upset.” Carina’s voice came out as a purr.
Casey made a gagging noise and snapped his newspaper.
Ellie snorted. “I don’t think so, Carina. You scare him more than the bad guys do.”
A throaty, satisfied chuckle erupted from the other woman. “I know. That’s what makes it so fun.”
“Why did we end up with this crappy assignment in the first place?” Casey groused. “It’s just a routine document exchange. They should be using some junior team for this.”
Ellie moved to the raised flowerbed in the middle of the courtyard and sat down a brick edge. A majestic topiary moose loomed over her from the middle of the bed. Why the landscapers had chosen a moose to display in a mall in Burbank, she had no idea. She sneaked a peek at her watch. It was nearly time.
“La Grenouille told the brass that these docs contain some serious intel.”
“So?” Casey asked Carina.
She rolled her eyes back at him so loudly, Ellie could hear it over the comm. “So we play nice until we don’t have to play at all. Duh.”
Casey began to growl a reply, but stopped mid-noise. Casually, he closed his newspaper and laid it on the table. “Look alive, people.”
A hipster wearing a stocking cap and messenger bag slung over his right shoulder, sauntered over to a trash can and lifted off the lid. He removed the envelope Casey had taped to the underside of it earlier and replaced the cover. He flipped through the inside of the envelope, quickly. Satisfied, he shoved it into his back pocket and shifted the messenger bag to his other shoulder.
“There’s the signal,” Casey said. “Carina, you’re up.”
Carina stood and approached Messenger Bag Guy.
Ellie scanned the area again, looking for new faces now that the op had begun. Directly opposite her, and on the other side of Carina and Messenger Bag Guy, was a man with a large, round head and a birthmark on his cheek that looked a little like a human kidney. The second her eyes fell on the birthmark, the flash hit.
Images, one after the other, exploded into her vision. When the flash ended, she shook her head a little to help regain her focus. “Guys, problem.”
“Bartowski, did you flash?” Casey asked.
“Mm-hmm. See the big guy with the birthmark over there?” She waited until she heard Casey’s grunt of acknowledgment. “His name is Gripau. He’s a minion for a guy by the name of Granota, the head of a rival syndicate of gun runners. My guess is the documents in that bag have something to do with him.”
“Gonna guess Gripau’s here to muck up the works,” Casey said.
“Yeah.” Ellie hesitated.
“Damn. And this was going so well.” Casey didn’t sound upset at the prospect of a possible firefight at all.
“Also, I feel like maybe it’s important to note that Gripau is Fulcrum.”
At that bit of news, Carina stumbled just a little. Casey swore under his breath, but Carina recovered quickly and bumped into La Grenouille’s contact, who smoothly transferred the bag to Carina’s shoulder from his own.
As soon as the swap was made, Gripau climbed to his feet, brushing off his sports coat. He took off after Carina at a languid stroll. Both Casey and Ellie rose and followed him.
“Ellie, you go left. Carina, head toward Ellie. Hand off the bag behind the moose.”
Ellie and Carina bumped shoulders, Carina sliding the bag smoothly on Ellie’s shoulders and taking Ellie’s purse in return. Ellie, bag now on her shoulder, strode quickly toward the Buy More. Gripau, not fooled, followed Ellie.
Out of the corner of her eye, Ellie saw what she could only assume was one of Gripau’s associates coming at her from the left. “Guys, we have incoming.”
“Ooh, let me,” Carina said, sauntering toward the new guy.
Ellie kept her pace up as Carina flashed a huge smile at the man heading toward her. The man stopped in his tracks, obviously stunned stupid that somebody as beautiful as Carina could be talking to him.
Ellie just kept walking. Carina’s beauty was her greatest weapon. Sure enough, she heard the thump of body hitting concrete not twenty seconds later.
She imagined he even had a smile on his face.
“It’s just too easy,” Carina said over the comm, a smirk in her voice.
Unfortunately, she hadn’t bothered being discreet. Gripau obviously saw what happened to his associate—it was broad daylight after all—and picked up his pace. Ellie began to run.
Through her comm, Ellie heard Casey grunt and let out a curse. She glanced over her shoulder as she dodged in and out of topiaries; Casey had been tackled to the ground by another man. She sped up. As much as she wanted to help her partner, her first responsibility was to secure the documents. The sooner she got out of the open, the better.
With Gripau closing the gap between them, Casey in combat, and Carina hurrying to help her, Ellie nearly crashed into the automatic doors leading into Buy More. Would she have time to hide the bag before her pursuer caught up with her? Her eyes swept the store. Then she saw him. She guessed he had just returned from an install, as he still had a messenger bag over his shoulder.
Heading right toward him, she smiled and cried, “Chuck! How great to see you!”
“Hey, El! I was just—”
She hugged him, and exchanged her bag with his. Still smiling, she looked him right in the eye and said like a ventriloquist, “Don’t ask.”
“Ellie, what is—”
Loudly, she said, “Great to see you. Gotta go!”
She took off toward the other set of doors just as Gripau entered from the parking lot. When she glanced over her shoulder, trying to get away, he spotted her and moved to take off—only to stumble and fall face first to the floor.
Ellie skidded to a stop.
“Got him,” Carina said, blowing on her tranq gun and holstering it like an old western star. “Take that, Grippy.” She looked up. “Oh, hey, Chuckie!”
Ellie sighed inwardly and walked back toward Chuck.
“A mission? You’re running a mission?” Chuck gave her a scandalized look as she approached. No, more than that, he looked pained, like the ulcer she was positive he’d started to develop lately had just begun to act up. “I thought you said you were going to give that up! At least in the Buy More. If Big Mike catches you—”
Carina put her arms around Chuck’s waist and rested her head on his shoulder before he could recoil—which he did, with very little grace. “Aw, don’t be such a wet blanket, Chuckles.”
“Wet blanket? Wet blank—do you realize how serious this is? If you scare more customers off—”
Casey chose that moment to show up, bleeding freely from a cut over his eye. The doctor in Ellie noticed he’d at least need to butterfly it closed later. He seemed completely unperturbed. “Bartowski,” he growled.
“Is he talking to you or me?” Ellie asked Chuck.
Chuck ignored her, his scowl deepening. “Can’t you three find someplace else to run your missions? This is not a mission—”
“Bartowski!’“ All four of them winced in unison as Big Mike Brannigan’s voice boomed out from the sales floor.
“— safe environment!”
“What the Sam Hill is going on here?” Big Mike boomed as he approached the group. His eyes bulged as they moved from Chuck, to Carina and then Ellie. He pursed his lips in disgust and his eyebrows shot up to his hairline when he saw the blood dripping down the side of Casey’s face.
“What’d you do to your head?” Big Mike asked without a hint of sympathy.
“I bumped it on a low shelf in the storage room.”
“Uh huh. And your clothes are filthy because—”
Casey shrugged. “I fell down.”
It was all Ellie could do to keep from rolling her eyes.
Big Mike turned away from the bleeding man and his eyes fell to the figure lying prone on the floor. “What the—” Crossing his arms in front of his chest, he looked at Chuck and asked in a scarily calm voice, “Why is there a man passed out on the floor?”
Ellie saw a look of panic cross Chuck’s face. He was always terrible at coming up with excuses. Stepping forward, she said in her most professional voice, “Narcolepsy. It’s the strangest thing.”
“He was standing there one minute—”
“—asking about 3-D TVs and the next thing you know, he’s on the floor, sound asleep.”
Stephen stopped reading. “What? What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
Megan frowned and shrugged at Violet, who looked confused. “We’re not sick. You’re not sick, are you Violet?”
“No, I’m not sick. Are you sick, Megan?”
Stephen sighed. “Okay, good. Neither of you are sick. I’m glad we’ve got that established. Now, what’s the problem?”
“What’s narcaplexy?” Megan asked.
“If you would only listen and not interrupt, the story will tell you.”
Puddles pooled in Megan’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Grandpa. I’ll be quiet.”
A dagger twisted in his heart. “It’s okay, Meg. You can stop me if you need to.”
She sniffed. “Really?”
“Okay. But I’ll try not to.”
“Keep reading, Grandpa!” Violet said.
Crisis averted, Stephen continued.
Big Mike stared at her, unconvinced, so she said, “It really was a narcoleptic fit.”
“Yeah, Big Mike,” Chuck said, coming to her defense though he didn’t look pleased about it. “Narcolepsy, it’s that thing—you know, some people think that it’s an autoimmune—”
“I don’t give a rat’s tiny behind about that!” Pointing at Gripau, he scowled and said, “Get that man off the floor! He’s scaring away customers!”
Casey grabbed Gripau’s ankles and dragged him toward the Home Theater room. “He can sleep in there until he wakes up.”
“And why are you here?” Big Mike asked Ellie.
“Ah, well, Chuck and I grabbed each other’s bags this morning and I came to swap them. Right, Chuck?” Ellie gave him a pointed look, hoping he’d get the hint. He sighed in defeat, took the bag off his shoulder and handed it to his sister. Relief flooded through her when she handed him his. Now she just needed to get out of there.
Big Mike scowled at Carina. “And why are you here, Stretch?”
She shrugged and replied, “I came here with Ellie.” Then she winked at Chuck and said, “And to say hi to her delicious brother.”
Ellie bit back a snicker when she saw Chuck visibly spasm.
“Just get out of my store,” Big Mike sighed.
Ellie and Carina both nodded. There were still the two unconscious bad guys to deal with and the documents to secure, so Carina headed back out to the courtyard and Ellie headed to Castle. With the bag slung over her shoulder, she high tailed it across the parking lot and headed for the Wienerlicious. Chuck hurried off to check on Casey and his “narcoleptic” friend.
Just as they were all leaving, Morgan, Chuck’s bearded best friend, sidled up next to Big Mike.
“Hey, Big Mike. What’s the ruckus?”
“They ain’t foolin’ nobody!” Big Mike said. “We all know they’re spies. Why can’t they just do their spy business somewhere else? This is a Buy More, not a Spy More. I’m telling you, someday somebody’s gonna plug them and they’ll be so full of holes they’ll look like Swiss cheese.”
“Uh, Big Mike?”
“Why are you talking like a fifties gangster?”
“Shut up and eat a donut.”
With Gripau and their friend cooling their heels in Castle’s detention area, the other spies gathered around the conference table. Ellie carefully applied a butterfly bandage to Casey’s cut. He winced, but otherwise stayed still.
“How’s that feel?”
He reached up and gingerly touched the dressing. “Nicely, nicely. Thanks.”
“Well, that could have gone better,” Carina said.
Ellie shrugged a shoulder as she snapped off her latex gloves. “Well, at least we secured the documents and no one got hurt.”
Casey turned and glared at her.
“Except for Casey’s head,” she amended quickly.
“Yeah, well, your brother’s quite the smooth one, isn’t he?” Casey said, sarcasm dripping from every word.
“Lay off, Casey,” Ellie said, closing the first aid kit. “He gets nervous, is all. And you have to admit we do keep causing problems for him at his job. If we keep messing things up over there, the lack of business might mean they’ll have to close the store.”
“Well, we don’t do it on purpose.” The big man stood and picked up a gun. “Stuff happens. We’re spies.” Holding it lovingly in his hands, he sang:
(to the tune, Fugue for Tinhorns)
I got the gun right here.
The Sig Sauer right here.
And here’s a guy who says that the range is clear.
Can shoot, can shoot, I know that this gun can shoot.
Now I say the Sig can shoot, can shoot, can shoot.
“Grandpa!” Violet cried, interrupting him.
He stopped the song and looked over his glasses at her. “What?”
“Why are you singing?”
“It’s a musical. There’s always singing in musicals.”
Megan’s frown intensified, thoughtfully. “You mean just all of the sudden like that?”
“Yes, they just start singing.”
“Where does the music come from?” Violet asked, her eyes narrowing.
Stephen took off his glasses and dragged a hand over his face. “It’s just there. The music is just there and they sing when they want.”
“But that doesn’t happen in real life,” Megan pointed out.
Slipping his glasses back on, Stephen replied, “Well, Burbank isn’t really a ‘magical land’ but that’s in this story, too, isn’t it?”
He watched as both girls considered this. After a moment, both nodded, settled deeper into their pillows and looked at him, wordlessly giving him permission to continue.
Can shoot - can shoot - I know that the gun can shoot.
Now I say the Sig can shoot, can shoot, can shoot.
For Sig Sauers I’ll fight.
I hear the clip’s all right.
Course it all depends if it got cleaned last night.
Likes oil, likes oil, this Sig really likes its oil.
I mean to say the gun likes oil, likes oil, likes oil.
I love my Sig Sauer.
It gives me real power.
This is from a guy who makes people cower.
Can shoot, can shoot, I know that this gun can shoot.
If I say the Sig can shoot, can shoot, can shoot.
Sig Sauer. Got the gun right here.
I’ve got the Intersect, a fact I must inject.
I know it is needed for our next project.
Can flash. Can flash.
The Intersect makes me flash.
Yes the Intersect can flash, can flash, can flash.
Now with the Intersect, just as you might suspect.
Can sometimes be a bit of a sore subject.
Needs case, needs case, the Intersect needs a case.
Intersect needs a case, needs case.
I’ve got the Intersect, a fact I must inject.
I know it is needed for this big project.
Can flash. Can flash.
The Intersect makes me flash.
Intersect. It’s in my brain right here.
Look at my Bowie knife. It cuts a man in half.
I count all my stabbings with a nice big graph.
Sharp knife, sharp knife.
Right here is a big sharp knife.
Yes, I have a big sharp knife,
Sharp knife, sharp knife.
And just a minute, spies.
I got the low down noise.
Says with my knife I’m nothing but stealth and poise
Can stab, can stab.
This big shiny knife can stab.
Yes, this shiny knife can stab,
Can stab, can stab.
So take my Bowie knife, and cut a guy half.
I’ll put another marker on my big graph.
Bowie knife. I’ve got the knife right here.
When the song ended, Violet turned to Megan and said, “I really don’t know how I feel about this whole musicals thing.”
Chapter 2: Debug the Code
Chapter by Quistie OScanlin (Frea_O)
After his sister and the other spies left the Buy More, Chuck headed for the Nerd Herd desk. He didn’t quite have a literal storm cloud hovering over his head, but it certainly felt that way. With a sigh, he tossed his bag on the desk, crossed round, and dropped into his regular seat.
The loud farting noise that immediately followed made three customers look over.
Chuck merely swiveled and looked at Jeff and Lester. “Whoopee cushions? Really?”
Lester fell to the ground, laughing. Next to him, Jeff gave a boozy little smile and a burp.
“I see your sense of humor is going backward,” Chuck said, and pulled the whoopee cushion free. He tossed it on the desk and turned to log into the computer. “Any calls while I was gone?”
“Not a one.”
“Who do you think we are? This is the Burbank Buy More, not the Beverly Hills Buy More.”
“I would have just thought…” Chuck sighed. “I thought we’d have some interest by now. I tweeted about the computer classes and everything.”
“I tweeted your mom,” Jeff slurred.
“Thank you, Jeff. Don’t you two have some repair calls to take?”
Chuck gave the clipboard full of service call requests—which was full to the point of bursting and had been since Jeff had started there in the 80s, no doubt—a deadpan look. Lester threw his hands up in the air. “Why’s it always gotta be work, work, work with you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because I’m your boss?”
“Not like it matters. These repairs won’t save us from going belly-up in a couple days anyway.”
Chuck logged into the Nerd Herd mainframe and checked his watch. The free demo-session was coming up, which meant he didn’t have much time. “Where’d you hear that?” he asked without looking at Lester.
“Where else? Twitter.” Lester hopped down off of the counter. “C’mon, Jeffrey. Let’s leave Mr. Bartowski to sink with the ship.”
“I’m trying to save your jobs!” Chuck called after them.
Lester turned and kept walking backwards, arms outspread and oblivious to the four or five customers that had to dodge out of the way to avoid being side-swiped. “Why?” he asked. “We don’t even do our jobs.”
“Point,” Chuck said, mostly to himself. He looked up at the rest of the Nerd Herders gathered behind the desk. “Skip, I’m going to need you to watch the desk. If anybody asks, we’re holding the demo class in conference room B, okay?”
He checked his phone for the new message from Skip: the one that smells like eggs Benedict?
“No, that’s C. B is the one with the stain on the floor that looks like Napoleon Dynamite. Thanks, Skip.”
The bro with the fro gave him a thumbs up and went back to listening to the Three Six Mafia on his headphones. Chuck sighed and, grabbing his computer bag and the stack of free Buy More mouse-pads that he planned to hand out to attendees, left the safety of the Nerd Herd desk with plenty of time to get to the conference room.
Of course, he forgot to factor in Buy More time and how it wasn’t like regular people time. Everybody knows, after all, that time only passes in retail in a way that’s entirely meant to screw over workers. Because Chuck had somewhere to be, customers swarmed him with questions about this or that product, if this camera was better or that one, why had the toaster stopped working after a bout with French toast? Chuck managed to pass most of them off onto unsuspecting Green Shirts, but by the time he got to the conference room, he was very, very late.
Agitated, he burst through the door. “I am so, so, so sorry, every…” He looked around. Most of the tables were empty, save for a large man with a beard and a crew-cut the color of a fire engine. “One.”
“It’s okay,” the man said. “I think I’m the only one. I don’t mind waiting.”
“Either way, I’m sorry. You’re really the only one?” Chuck looked around, mystified, at the empty tables. Had nobody read his tweet? Sure, he had fourteen followers, but surely somebody had to have noticed.
“I’m just here for the swag,” the dude said. “There’s swag, right?”
Chuck, despondent now, held out a mouse-pad. The dude wrinkled his nose and sighed, but took it with a begrudging, “Thanks.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Chuck set the computer bag on the podium at the front of the room and wanted to kick something. He eyed the guy with his mouse-pad. “If you just came for the swag, you don’t have to stay for the rest. I won’t be offended.”
“Might as well stay,” the dude said. “Beats tipping over hobos down by the river.”
“I…don’t even know what to say to that. But all right.” With a shrug to himself, Chuck crossed to the whiteboard and uncapped one of the electronic markers. When that one proved dead, he tested a second, and a third, until he finally found a blue marker with a weak signal. He wrote “PROGRAMMING 101: COMPUTERS ARE OUR FRIENDS” across the board. “So this is just a demo of some of the classes I hope to offer to the public.”
Mouse-pad dude nodded to show his interest.
“They’re very easy, very user-friendly courses that will help you build your very first program, that will teach you the basics of programming so that you can go on to learn other languages like C-sharp, Java, and even Python. And of course, if I get enough interest…” Chuck cast a despairing look around the empty room. “If I get enough interest, I’ll be happy to teach advanced classes in each of those languages.”
“Cool. I have a question.”
“What if I don’t have a computer?”
“We’ll have several units available for the classroom by then.” Even if he had to go into the cage and fix them himself, Chuck thought.
“That leads me to my next question. What if I don’t even know how to turn on a computer?”
Chuck squinted at the man. “Wait a second, if you don’t even have a computer, why do you want the mouse-pad?”
The man looked at him as though the answer should be obvious. “It’s free?”
“Plus, I know for a fact that if you get the angle right, you can do some serious damage when you throw these things.”
(“It’s true,” Megan whispered to Violet. “Fred threw one at Curtis once and he bled for, like, forever.”)
“Great,” Chuck sighed. “That’s just great. I’m handing out mouse-pads of mass destruction.”
“Yup.” The dude tossed the mouse-pad from hand to hand.
“Well, why don’t I show you some of the great things you could learn how to do, in case you do want to learn how to do more than turn on the computer?” Chuck pulled out his laptop and made short work of hooking it up to the Buy More’s AV system. That was the one area where Morgan was a technological wizard, which meant that the Burbank Buy More’s conference rooms were always top-notch, AV-wise. Sure enough, an enlarged image of Chuck’s computer screen soared over the projector screen.
At least he had an easily impressed audience, Chuck thought.
“Okay, so here are some really cool things you can do,” he said, and pressed the space bar. Immediately, the screen went dark. A website popped up. “This blog? I designed this blog completely in . Took me ten minutes. It can be fully integrated into any kind of database you choose, I made all of the graphics, you can comment, you can tweet about your experience on the blog, you can follow the RSS feed, all with relative ease.”
“What’s a blog?” the dude asked.
Chuck sighed and moved on. “Here,” he said, “we have a game. It’s like Pong, but not lame. Interactive 3-D Pong, responds to mouse, stylus, even keyboard controls. Here, watch.” He played a round of Pong against the computer, holding up fairly well, and hoping that his one-man-audience was at least impressed with the graphics and explosions he had worked into the game (at Morgan’s behest, of course, but the gentleman didn’t need to know about that).
The only reaction to that was, “What’s Pong?”
“Fine,” Chuck said. “My secret weapon.”
He hit a button. Immediately, the screen filled with an animated 3-D rendering of a beautiful woman in what looked like a white skin-suit at first glance. He was probably most proud of the suit, how the material looked a bit like the white version of Kate Beckinsale’s catsuit from the Underworld movies. The sleeves and shoulders of the suit on this model, though, were actually dark blue or black depending on the light. A thin black belt cut across her abdomen, bisecting itself to hold a holster at her right hip. Black boots rose all the way up her slim calves. Black hair waved around a strong and beautiful face, a face Chuck knew very, very well.
“Whoa,” the dude with the mouse-pad said, sitting up. “Who is that?”
Chuck looked at his rendering. “I haven’t really given her a name.”
“And I created her using only the computer.”
The dude’s eyes lit up. “Does she do anything?”
“Well…” Chuck tapped in a few commands. The woman on screen turned in place, took two steps, returned to her original spot, and pulled out a bright silver gun. “Yeah, I kind of control her. But this is the best part.”
“She sings.” Chuck hit the space bar.
(to the tune of Follow the Fold):
Brunette Sarah Video Game Clone:
Debug the code and crash no more,
Crash no more, crash no more.
Put in the indents and then save the source.
Debug, debug the code.
Before you write that “IF/THEN” statement!
Debug the code and crash no more,
Crash no more, crash no more.
Infinite loops are bad, so you say “oops”
Debug, debug the code.
Once the Sarah Walker clone in the white bodysuit’s slightly-rusty alto faded into silence, the dude in the audience stood up and pulled out his wallet. “How much for all of the classes?” he asked.
Stunned, Chuck named a price and was soon holding that amount in crisp twenties. His heart couldn’t help but soar as he went back to his laptop and began to enter the man’s information into the class database he had set up. “All right, good sir, what’s your name?”
“Dave,” the man said.
“Hello, Dave. Welcome to the Buy More Bits and Bytes Academy.”
“Thanks.” Dave stared admiringly at the screen for a long moment. “For future reference? You should have led with her.”
Chuck laughed. Wasn’t that the truth?
Even as the Uncanny Valley version of Sarah Walker was singing on the projector screen, three spies stared in dismay at a screen of their own. “This is really what Grenouille’s information returned?” Casey, evidently deciding that he should be the one to fall on his sword, asked. “We were expecting something a little less…”
“Twisty,” Carina finished for him.
Ellie wanted to sigh. They’d reported in to the bosses, who had turned over the stolen intel to the nerds at headquarters. What the nerds had found out in return was that Granota had been in negotiations to buy something from a man that none of them had suspected to be in bed with Fulcrum. Well, they hadn’t suspected it, but it certainly didn’t surprise any of them. Evil Ted Roark was a bad man who—
“Grandpa,” Violet said, interrupting the narrative yet again. She had a line furrowed between her eyebrows.
Stephen looked up from the book. “Yes, Vi? Do you need to go to the bathroom?”
“No. Actually, yes. Well, maybe only a little, but what’s that mean?”
“In bed with? Why is Evil Ted Roark in bed with Fulcrum?”
“Are they sleepy?” Megan wanted to know.
“Ah, no. It’s a metaphorical bed.”
“A med-a-fur-i-cal what?”
“It means…” Stephen frowned as he thought it over. It really wasn’t all that easy explaining metaphors to a couple of five-year-olds, he discovered. Finally, he closed the book over his finger so that he wouldn’t lose his place. “You know how your daddy always says he’s so hungry he could eat a horse?”
Megan nodded, eyes wide.
Violet, on the other hand, looked nervous. “Not a real horse, right?” she asked, looking down at the floor where Sir drowsed, probably dreaming of chasing rabbits.
“Right,” Orion said. “He’s not going to eat a real horse. He’s just going to eat a lot. But a horse is also a lot, so he says one thing and means another.”
“Why doesn’t he just say he’ll eat a lot, then?” Violet said, a challenging look on her face now.
Megan turned to her cousin. “It’s funnier if it’s a horse,” she said, her voice sage.
Stephen had to hide his smile as both girls considered this.
Violet finally picked up Bun-Bun and hugged him close to her chest, her tiny forehead lined with doubt as she turned back to her grandfather. “So Evil Ted Roark is a horse?”
“You know what? I think it’s time for a bathroom break.”
“No, I can hold it,” Violet said, her eyes wide now at the thought of losing out on more story-time.
“Are you sure? Because we’re coming up on another song, and I don’t want any…accidents—”
“I’m sure. Story, Grandpa, story!”
“Story, Grandpa, story!” Megan echoed, bouncing like her cousin now.
“All right, all right,” Stephen said, and opened the book again. “Evil Ted Roark was a bad man who…”
Evil Ted Roark was a bad man who had ties with every other evil company in the world, stealing good and honest inventors’ ideas, so why shouldn’t he be Fulcrum?
Now, Ellie thought, they had to steal something from him that he had stolen from somebody else. It was just another day as the Intersect.
They’d figured out that Roark was expecting to sell Granota a mysterious device only known in computer hacker circles as “The MacGuffin.” Granota was supposed to buy the MacGuffin that weekend with at least twenty of his closest business associates in attendance as a show of faith to Evil Ted Roark. The only saving grace was that Evil Ted Roark didn’t even know who Granota was, which meant Ellie and the others could pretend to be Elaine Granota and company.
The problem lay in the whole “strength in numbers” thing. Ellie was a brilliant Intersect, but there was no way that she could possibly clone herself, Casey, and Carina in order to make up the team of twenty-strong they would need. So they were calling in the backup: seduction master Roan Montgomery (who feared Carina for doing just a little too well in his class), dashing James-Bond-lite Cole Barker (who had spent twenty minutes hitting on Ellie before meeting Devon. Upon seeing the man’s nuclear biceps, Barker had immediately switched his attentions to Carina), Alex Forrest (much to Carina’s disgust at not being the only redhead, as they’d found out on Facebook that Forrest had cultivated a disturbing addiction to henna), French agent Ilsa Trinchina (who hated Carina), even Big Becks (whom Carina feared). The list of spies went on, but the gist was the same: it was going to be an interesting weekend with Carina.
Casey and Ellie turned to give the primary redhead in their lives a look. She blinked back at them. “What?”
Graham, on the screen, cleared his throat. “It’s twisty, yes,” he said, the word sounding weird coming from him. “But it can be done. You’ll be expected to keep the team in order, and to find a suitable location for the buy-out to go down. Have plenty of surveillance ready to go so that we can finally nail that Evil Ted Roark bas—ket case for at least some of the awful things he’s done. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Casey said for all of them, and the screen went dark.
Carina flopped into one of the chairs. “Well, that suc—stinks,” she said. “Usual place for the meet, do you think?”
“No, no, no,” Ellie said. “We can’t use the Buy More again.”
“Because I promised Chuck? Because he might lose his job? Because it’s ridiculous in the first place to hold this kind of meeting in a big electronics box store?”
“Well, we can’t hold it in the Wienerlicious. That’s even more ridiculous,” Carina said.
“We’ll worry about that later,” Casey said as Ellie picked up the pages coming off of the printer. “Where’s your head at, Bartowski?”
Ellie looked through the pages. The MacGuffin had been stolen, she saw, from a brilliant scientist named Orion, and it was rumored to be something pretty special. Special, she thought, was something she felt less and less with each passing day.
“I…” she said, and looked at the roster. “We’ve dealt with all of these people, but only one at a time. This mission is big. Can we handle it?”
Casey and Carina exchanged a look.
(to the tune of The Oldest Established)
Casey and Carina:
Ted Roark stole Orion’s machine
Something we could not have foreseen.
And now we are tasked to get it back
Because we’re the team that has the knack.
They don’t know we’ve got a secret weapon
Lodged in the noggin of one of our spies.
We’d better get a step on.
Evil Ted Roark is in for a surprise.
So the Intersect is what we need
To stop Ted Roark in his evil deed.
Why it’s good old reliable Ellie!
Ellie, Ellie, the Intersect!
If you’re looking for action
She just has to flash.
Count on her to do the job
The dirt bags she’ll smash.
“Grandpa, what’s a flash?” Violet asked, her face scrunched at the question.
“Well, you see—”
Megan sat forward eagerly, picking up the Barbie lying next to her on the bed. “Can I explain it to Violet, Grandpa?”
“You know what flashes are?” Stephen stopped himself from saying anything else since he wasn’t sure what Megan meant. Maybe she was thinking of something as innocuous as lightning. “Sure, Megan. Go ahead.”
Megan grinned and sat up on her knees, as if she was preparing to launch into the story both verbally and physically. “So I was playing Spy Barbie one day and GI Joe was captured and tied to a chair by some bad guys. Aunt Sarah asked me why he had been captured. I told her it was because Joe had a computer in his head.” She dropped her voice and Violet, wide-eyed, leaned forward to better hear her cousin. “But not like a robot. Joe has this computer in his brain that flashes pictures about bad people and he uses them to catch them.”
Violet narrowed her eyes at Megan and said, “But that’s silly.”
Stephen chuckled nervously. “Strangely, Violet, Megan’s right.” Trying to sound nonchalant, he asked, “Did someone tell you about it?”
Megan shook her head emphatically. “No, Grandpa. I thought of it all by myself. Why?”
“Oh, no reason.” Maybe she took after him more than he realized. She was his granddaughter after all.
The flash conversation concluded, he continued singing:
Yes it’s good old reliable Ellie!
And we have Bryce Larkin to thank
For the oldest established Intersect Project
Right here in Burbank.
Ellie looked up in surprise as the door leading from Castle into the Wienerlicious opened, and old friends and acquaintances began to pour through. Roan Montgomery came down the stairs like the cool cat he was, a martini glass in his hand (three olives, of course). He winked at Ellie before gesturing Agent Alex Forrest down the stairs. Carina and Forrest glared at each other for a minute before the brilliant inventor Manoosh, whom Ellie had convinced to work for the CIA, flipped down, his Intersect glasses in place. He was followed by General Stanfield, civilian Alex McHugh (“Aunt Alex!”), Agent Longshore, and DGSE Agent Ilsa Trinchina (Casey straightened up and then flinched when mercenary Gertrude Verbanski followed the French agent. He sidled off to the side, looking for an exit). The parade continued until the room was completely full. Without missing a beat, the group picked up the song.
There are evildoers everywhere, everywhere
There are evildoers everywhere.
And an awful lot of glory
For the agents who can catch them there.
When we have Intersect along with us
We do everything with flair.
That’s good old reliable Ellie!
Ellie, Ellie the Intersect.
Yes, for Ellie to help us she just needs to flash
Pretty quick the bad guys are in prison to crash
With detention provided by Ellie
To escape they’d need a large tank.
It’s the oldest established Intersect Project
Right here in Burbank.
Where’s the bad guy? Where’s Ted Roark?
Gotta quell Ted Roark.
Do you have a fork?
She’s the oldest established Intersect Project
Right here in Burbank!
In the silence following the song, a throat cleared. All of the spies looked over from the positions their dance had deposited them into, and stared at Sarah Walker, who stared back in utter bafflement from the base of the stairs. She had her cell phone in her hand. “Uh, hate to interrupt the, um, singing, but what’s going on here?”
Ten minutes earlier…
Sarah Walker rolled her shoulders as she stepped into the Burbank Buy More and cast a glance around, broken phone in one hand. She’d meant to go straight over to the Wienerlicious and see her old asset, but unfortunately, she’d dropped her phone on the asphalt at LAX. It was simpler to get it fixed before she dropped in on old friends.
Old friends, she had to think. Her only old friends were an ex-asset and the only part of the Cat Squad still talking to her. Was that considered pathetic? She had no idea.
She looked around the Buy More. Ellie’s brother had been pretty good with computers, if she remembered right. Sure, he’d always seemed kind of uptight, like he never relaxed, but he’d be able to fix her phone if he was still there. He probably wasn’t. If he was even half so brilliant as Ellie was always boasting, surely he’d moved on by now?
When she didn’t spot him, she guessed he had. A noise, however, made her look over at the vent by the front door. Was that…singing?
No, it couldn’t be. She was tired from the international flight from Salzburg and hearing things, that was it. With a shrug to herself, she headed for the Nerd Herd desk in the middle of the store. The be-froed man working the desk looked up like a startled rabbit when she rang the bell. He stared at her, his mouth bobbing wordlessly.
“Uh,” Sarah said. “Can you fix my phone?”
The nerd’s mouth continued to move without any sound coming out. To her right, Sarah heard a throat clear and looked over. A green shirt worker with flushed cheeks and a curly mop was standing there. “He says he’ll be happy to help,” he told Sarah.
“Thank you…” Sarah read the nerd’s nametag. “Fernando. I kind of dropped it on the concrete. Is it going to be impossible to fix?” She turned back to the Nerd Herd nerd—Skip Johnson, his nametag read.
He shook his head, the fro quivering.
“Should be an easy fix,” Fernando said. When Skip Johnson made a handle signal at him, he coughed into the back of his hand, gathering his nerves. “The Intellicell 6.0 has a really shaky processor, he says. Or something like that. Just a simple turn of the screw and…”
Skip handed Sarah the fixed phone. “All better,” Fernando said.
“Oh, great!” Sarah breathed a sigh of relief. “What do I owe you?”
Skip waved both hands. “He says it’s on the house,” Fernando translated needlessly. “We’re happy to help.”
“Well, thank you very much,” Sarah told them both, and extracted herself from that situation before they could work up the nerve to ask her to dinner or something like that. She’d had to put off several similar invitations in her stint as Ellie’s handler whenever she’d visited John Casey at the Buy More. But at least the squirelly little Canadian-Indian fellow didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight.
She headed toward the door, and barely missed out on being trapped under an avalanche of CD-R boxes. The entire display crumbled right in front of her; if it had been anybody but Sarah, they would have been crushed. She dodged out of the way, landing easily even despite the stilettos, wide-eyed at the carnage.
Big Mike Brannigan appeared in his manager’s vest. “Bunny! I told you to stack this properly! And now, look what you’ve gone and done. You tryin’ to kill whatever customers we have left?” He looked at Sarah and said, “I am so, so sorry, Miss—You.” He apparently remembered her face perfectly, for his own took on a look of displeasure. “Great. More spies in the Buy More.”
“I’m just here as a customer,” Sarah said, her eyebrows shooting up. What on earth had been going on here since she’d been gone? Why the heck did Big Mike know about spies? What had Carina done? “Honest. Just needed to get my phone fixed.”
Big Mike did not look impressed. “You pay for that?”
“I’ll get this out of the way, sir,” Fernando said, once again appearing at Sarah’s elbow to save the day. “Won’t take more than a minute, I promise.” He began to scramble around, picking up CD-R cases. At Sarah, he mouthed, “Run!”
She needed no further prompting. “I really should be going.”
“I already told your spy friends, but I’ll repeat it. This store don’t need your trouble, or your kind. It’s thanks to your lot we’re getting shut down. Unless Bartowski can pull off that miracle and get his ten students, we’re all going down, and it’ll be your fault.” With a final glower, Big Mike stormed off, muttering about Danishes and darn spies as he did so.
Sarah stared after him in surprise and then shook her head. Maybe it was time to figure out what the he-heck was going on in Burbank.
She headed for the Wienerlicious. It was time to get to the bottom of things.
Chapter 3: Captain Washboard
Chapter by Quistie OScanlin (Frea_O)
Former handler and asset sat across the table from each other inside the Wienerlicious. Sarah had once heard that smell was the strongest sense associated to memory. Walking into the Wienerlicious, when the reek of mystery meat wrapped in an enigma of corn batter deep fried in oil hit her, it proved true. It took her back to the year she worked there undercover as Ellie’s handler…and not necessarily in a good way.
Even so, she smiled at the memories as she twirled the stick of the uneaten corn dog between her fingers. Everyone had assumed she couldn’t cook a corn dog without blackening it worse than Cajun food. Nobody suspected she’d done it on purpose—and for everybody’s benefit. If people hated the corndogs, they’d find someplace new to eat. Maybe even someplace a little healthier.
Ellie chuckled and inclined her head toward the corndog. “Still can’t eat those, huh?”
“Look who’s talking.” Sarah eyed Ellie’s untouched basket of food. The only thing Ellie had touched was her soda. Sarah couldn’t really blame her. Neither could face the gastronomic horror.
“Guilty as charged,” Ellie said.
Sarah looked around the room. It hadn’t changed. “I’m surprised the agency hasn’t changed this place into a different kind of store, something a little trendier, like a frozen yogurt shop.” Looking at Ellie’s uniform, she added dryly, “If not for the food, at least for the outfits. Dirndln are so last season.”
“Don’t I wish,” Ellie replied as she fingered one of her pigtails and then pulled up at the low collar of her white blouse.
“I miss working with you, Ellie, but I’ll never miss that outfit. The Agency still won’t let you go back to being a doctor?”
Ellie shrugged. She shoved her lunch away. “They need the Intersect—‘good of the country’ and all. I understand that and I’m happy to do my part.”
“So, how are Carina and Casey working out as your handlers?” She and Casey had had a very professional-yet-somewhat-prickly relationship when they partnered as Ellie’s handlers. She could only imagine what Carina and Casey were like together.
“I think we’re a pretty good team. You know what we do: defuse bombs, capture bad guys, save the world.” She shrugged. “Carina is… unpredictable.”
“That’s a diplomatic way of putting it.”
“I worked with Carina a few years ago,” Sarah said. “I’m the one that recommended she replace me when they needed me to head to Europe.”
“You were? I have to say, I wondered.”
Sarah shrugged. It had been an unorthodox move at the time, but she’d been positive that with Casey around, Carina would probably actually flourish as Ellie’s handler. There needed to be something to counteract Casey’s professionalism and Ellie’s optimism, and Carina had actually seemed like a perfect fit for that. Still: “Unpredictable is an understatement.”
“Yes, it is. But seriously, you recommended her? Why?”
Sarah studied Ellie for a long moment. “She never brought up Cartagena, I take it.”
A small smirk curled on Sarah’s lips when she thought about that mission. Stupid goat.
“And you know Casey,” Ellie said, and snickered.
Sarah chuckled. “Oh, yes, I know Casey. Straight shooter, literally and figuratively. God, country, Reagan, whiskey. Pretty much in that order.”
“Yes! He also complains daily about the amount of estrogen he’s exposed to. Carina keeps teasing him, telling him one day he’s going to spontaneously grow a uterus.”
“I have to wonder how she’s survived that.”
“I know!” Laughing, Ellie said, “One of these days he’s going to shoot her. As it is, he usually just looks like he’s about to start spitting nails.”
“Homicidal urges make for what I’m sure is an interesting team dynamic.”
“Let’s just say it’s never dull around here.”
There was an easy silence between them for a moment and then Sarah asked, “What about Devon?” She hesitated and then asked, “What was his nickname? ‘Washboard?’”
“Grandpa! That’s not right! Uncle Awesome’s nickname is ‘Awesome’, not ‘Washboard.’”
Stephen removed his glasses and waited for Megan’s reply, knowing that she would. He was getting the hang of this story-time thing.
“Yeah, everyone knows my daddy’s nickname is ‘Captain Awesome’ cause he is.” She frowned. “‘Cept sometimes I hear Momma call Daddy ‘Six Pack’ and he calls her ‘Hot Mama.’ I don’t know what it means, but every time Lizzie and Fred hear it, they pretend like they’re gonna throw up.”
“Maybe I should just keep read—”
Violet cut him off. “I’m not sure if Daddy and Sarah have nicknames,” she said, brow furrowed as she gave the matter some thought. “Sometimes I hear things through the wall when they think I’m asleep. They both giggle when Sarah calls him a ‘stud muffin.’“
“Maybe she’s asking if he wants a stud muffin. Are they eating breakfast?”
“Dunno. I don’t know what stud muffins are. Do you?”
Megan shook her head. “Grandpa, what are studs? Are they like blueberries?”
Violet’s eyes brightened. “I love blueberries.”
“Mmmm! Me, too!”
They looked back at him expectantly. “Grandpa?”
He grinned and said, enthusiastically, “I like blueberries, too!” Ignoring the rest, Stephen slipped his glasses back on and continued.
“Are you two married yet?”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “Yeah, ‘Captain Washboard’ and no, not yet. Much to his dismay.”
Sarah couldn’t help but laugh. They were engaged when she was Ellie’s handler two years before. “Come on, Ellie. Marry the guy! Put him out of his misery already. I’ve forgotten. How long have you been engaged? Three year? Four?”
Sheepishly, Ellie answered, “Seven years.”
Sarah nearly did a spit take. “Seven!” She shook her head. “Ellie, really, just marry the guy.”
Ellie pushed her basket farther away from her. “Every time we try, something happens. Maybe it’ll never happen. What about you, Sarah? Anyone special? What are you up to these days?”
Sarah continued to twirl the corn dog and scrunched her nose. “No, no one special and I’m on vacation.” She said the final word with mock horror. “I just finished a long undercover assignment in Austria, so the agency made me take some time off. I thought it would be fun to come here and catch up with my former asset, so here I am.”
“Do you have any specific plans?”
“No, not really. Maybe go to the beach, work on my tan.”
Ellie squinted at her.
“How do you feel about Riverside?”
“Riverside? I don’t feel anything about it. Isn’t there mostly just smog?”
“Oh, there’s more to Riverside than that.”
“There’s a sci-fi convention there this weekend.”
“And I would go to this because…”
“Well…obviously, you remember my brother Chuck.”
“Yeah,” Sarah replied slowly. “Tall, skinny, nerdy. Worked at the Buy More.” She brightened. “He fixed my phone for me once.” What was it with her and broken cell phones?
“That’s him. So, I was thinking—”
“Please, Ellie. I don’t—”
Ellie held up her hand. “Now listen. He’s a nice guy and I’m not trying to set you up or anything. I promised I would go to this convention with him, but something’s come up and I can’t.”
Sarah felt herself perk up. It was probably a sad commentary that the thought of a mission made her more excited than the thought of a vacation had. “You mean like a mission? Tell me. Can I be in on it? Is that what I walked in on?”
“Down, girl. I can’t tell you anything, but it would be great if you could go with Chuck to this thing for me. Please,” Ellie said.
Sarah would have rather done the mission. After all, she’d seen quite a few colleagues—all top-notch—in Castle, so an op this big… But the Agency was forcing her to take this stupid vacation and they would frown upon her involvement. So she took a deep breath. She remembered Chuck, although she had never had much interaction with him. He always seemed a little jumpy, like maybe he needed to drink decaf. Truth be told, he was kind of cute, and she didn’t have anything planned, and it would help kill the weekend that much faster, so…
“Okay, I’ll do it,” Sarah replied. At Ellie’s grin, she continued, “But only if you can prove to me that you’re field ready enough for me not go on this super-secret big mission with you.”
“And how can I do that?”
Leaning back in her seat, Sarah crossed her arms. “I am currently armed with seven different weapons.”
Ellie snorted. “Only seven?”
“I’m on vacation. If you can tell me what the weapons are and where they’re located, I’ll go to Riverside and this convention with your nerd of a brother.”
Grinning, Ellie said, “Challenge accepted. You have a knife on your left ankle and a small pistol on your right.”
Sarah’s eyes danced with mirth. “That’s two.”
Ellie gazed at Sarah, obviously deep in thought. “You have your Smith & Wesson holstered at the small of your back.”
“Throwing knife at your hip, I remember it well.” She should, Sarah thought. It had saved her life a couple of times. “Probably, if you haven’t changed, you’ve got a switchblade in your bra.”
“Under-the-shoulder rig, but close enough. Go on.”
Ellie stared at her for a good three minutes. Finally, she said, “I give. You win.”
Sarah reached up and pulled the two large hairpins which had secured her up ‘do. Her blonde hair fell and she shook it out. She held the pins toward Ellie and said, “The tips are dipped in the same stuff they use in twilight darts. So that’s six and seven.”
Ellie’s mouth hung open for a moment before she started to laugh. “Fine. You win. You don’t have to go.”
“No, I’ll go. I don’t have anything else to do this weekend. It might be fun.”
“Really? You’ll do it?”
“Yeah, I’ll do it. You did get five out of seven. Good enough for government work, right?”
Ellie flashed a happy smile. “Right.”
“So how do we handle this?” Sarah asked. “And why would he go with me? Does he even remember me?”
“Sweetie, everyone remembers you.”
Sarah fidgeted in her chair.
Ellie sat up straighter and said, “Come to our place for dinner tonight. Chuck will be there. You’re a spy.” Her eyes danced with amusement, “Use your seduc—er, persuasion skills. Persuade him. Heaven knows he could use it,” she chuckled under her breath. “He’ll be begging for you to go with him.”
“Ellie! That’s your own brother you’re talking about!”
“Oh, come on, Sarah. Think of it as a mission. You’ll be doing me a favor, you and Chuck will have some fun at the convention—” Ellie stopped and laughed when Sarah gave her a look at the word fun. “And then you’ll be off on the next mission. No muss, no fuss. Everybody wins.”
Sarah shook her head. “I’m not sure I like the idea of your brother being a mark.”
Ellie waved dismissively. “He’s a big boy. He’ll be fine.”
Sarah turned it over in her mind. Ellie was right. One weekend at a nerd convention and then she’d be off to Paraguay or someplace like that. She smiled. “I’ll bring the wine.”
Devon “Captain Washboard” Woodcomb, M.D. had just finished repairing a mitral valve. Well, a mitral valve and some complications, but those were routine enough that even an intern could handle it. Well, if the intern had been him. And had the hands of a surgical god.
Sometimes it was a blessing and a curse. Mostly it was just a blessing.
Right now, though, he was tired. He didn’t really want to change out of his scrubs before heading home, but as he’d been walking by the ER, he’d had to do incredibly risky surgery on the spot on a man that would live to see another day and now his scrubs were covered in blood: the blood of the just and still living. He peeled out of the shirt just as the locker room door opened. Turning, he smiled when he saw his fiancé walk toward him.
“Ellie, hey! You didn’t say you were coming.” He gave her a quick kiss on the lips.
“Hey, yourself. I thought I’d drop by.” She couldn’t hide the wistful look from him.
Maybe it was time to press his luck. Every time she had visited the hospital lately, she’d been dropping more and more into a morose (“What’s that mean?” “It means sad.”) state of mind, it seemed. He grabbed both her hands. “Say the word, drop the spy stuff and you can be practicing again in no time. Right here with me. We’d get to see each other all the time again, babe. Just like the good old days.”
“I know.” She hesitated. “But being a spy is what I need to do right now.”
He got that. He really did. Well, some days. Others… “I get it. It’s just that all of the guns and knives and missions and danger and stuff, they take you away from me.” He made the best puppy dog face he could, which made Ellie smile. “And why are you so interested in spending time around those guns when you can have these guns all to yourself?”
He took a step back and did his best Arnold.
Ellie laughed. He couldn’t help but notice that she had a hard time looking away from his shirtless chest, but at least she was laughing again. And he didn’t blame her for the ogling. That hadn’t happened by accident, after all.
“Anyway,” Devon said, dropping out of the Arnold and moving toward his locker to grab two hand grip exercises. He started squeezing them rapidly, keeping to the tempo in his head. “I’m excited you dropped by, babe. Gotta say, looking forward to our anniversary dinner tonight. Seven years. I got you a present.”
Ellie shifted and suddenly seemed to have a hard time meeting his eyes. “Yeah, about that…”
Devon’s stomach dropped. “You got a mission.”
“What?” Ellie’s eyes widened. “No, not at all. I promised you no missions tonight and I meant that.”
Devon put the grip exercisers back on the shelf and retrieved the Shake Weight from the bottom of his locker. With both hands, he held the weight in front of him and started shaking it. He figured neither of them really needed him to point out how many times Ellie had made that promise—and how many times she’d had to break it, usually to get Carina out of trouble. “So what’s up, then?” he asked, hoping his voice didn’t sound as dejected as he felt.
Ellie bit her lip. “You remember my former handler, Sarah Walker?”
“Sarah, yeah, I remember her. Let me guess, she got kidnapped by bad dudes in the Congo—”
“No, no, not at all. It’s just, she’s in town, on vacation,” Ellie said, stressing the last word when Devon gave her a dubious look. “I invited her over for dinner tonight. Chuck will be there, too.”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with spying, does it?”
She gave him a puppy dog look, but didn’t answer.
“Wait a second,” Devon said as something occurred to him. “You’re playing matchmaker!”
“What?” Ellie pulled off looking surprised—for about half a second. Then the grin spread. “Of course I am. You saw the way he always looked at her. And she needs somebody like Chuck. Sure, it’s unconventional, but they’re kind of a perfect fit, if you think about it.”
“Babe, do you really think it’s a good idea to meddle with Chuck’s love life? Remember that time you tried to encourage him to date the sandwich girl?”
“She moved to Italy a month later. I had nothing to do with that!”
He could only sigh and continue to vibrate thanks to the Shake Weight. Ellie had many wonderful qualities, but they didn’t always agree about her meddling when it came to Chuck. But at least the person visiting was Sarah. Devon liked Ellie’s former handler, despite the fact that she was a spy. Well, he liked her more than Carina. “Okay, I guess we can have an intimate dinner another night.”
Ellie beamed. “Thank you!”
“I’m sure Chuck will be excited to see Sarah again. You’re right: he’s only completely in love with her.”
Ellie’s eyes danced. “I know.”
“And of course you know I’m completely in love with you.”
“I love you, too.”
“I want to get married.”
Her smile dimmed. “I know that, too. Someday soon. Okay?”
Stooping over, he put the Shake Weight back at the bottom of his locker. He opened his arms to invite a hug. “Okay.”
As they hugged, she whispered in his ear, “I promise I’ll make it up to you.”
He couldn’t stop the tingle that shot through him.
Pulling away, she said, “I’m going to head home and start dinner. See you soon?”
“Yeah, Ellie. Soon.”
“Great!” She turned and walked toward the door. Just before she slipped out of the lounge, she gave him a finger wave and then was gone.
Devon waited until he was sure she wasn’t coming back before he let out a huge sigh and walked over to the chin up bar. He hung from the bar and lifted his legs in front of him so they were parallel to the floor. Slowly, he lifted himself up, chinned the bar and then lowered himself down. As he did this repeatedly, he sang:
(To the tune Adelaide’s Lament)
The average unmarried fellow
Basically has a smile.
But, you see I’m not like those other guys
Because I want to get married
See her walk down the aisle.
So while I wait for her I exercise my thighs.
In other words, waiting around for my girl to finally commit
I work out and get physically fit.
I can bench press my barbells to define my massive rock hard pecs.
I can work with my weights, leave it up to the fates, but I still just flex.
And since it seems like Ellie really only wants me for sex
I work out and get physically fit.
The fellow remaining single
I wish I wasn’t one.
Anxious, I work out to strengthen my core
Doing upside down crunches.
Do you think those are fun?
It’s not easy looking like the Norse god Thor.
Don’t want to sit around and hope we wed because of an act of God
I work out and develop my bod.
You can feed me a healthy diet of vitamins and protein shakes.
But the tofu and supplements never help with the way my heart aches.
And I’ve told her I’d wait forever and do whatever it takes
I work out and develop my bod.
And furthermore, just from jogging, and jogging,
Waiting to do wedding stuff
I work out and get really buff.
When we get on that plane to Las Vegas
And I can hear chapel bells chime.
The officiant’s dressed like Elvis
And his suit is lime.
Instead she goes on a mission for the fourteenth time
I work out and get really buff.
I get off my duff.
And do crunches.
All in bunches.
And then leg lunges that are quite tough.
And so until we say our wedding vows
And she finally puts a ring on it
I’ll work out and get to be real, real fit.
After fifty chin-ups, he lowered his legs and dropped gently to the floor. He moseyed back to his locker, changed his clothes and headed home.
Chapter 4: Mint Me
Chapter by Quistie OScanlin (Frea_O)
Chuck stood in front of the mirror and buttoned his shirt. He frowned and ran his fingers through his hair, trying to tame the unruly curls. It did absolutely nothing. Frowning, he shoved his hands in his pockets then removed them, tried his back pockets, rejected that, too, and sighed. He turned around. “Whaddya think?”
Morgan, who’d been standing quietly in the background, scanned him from top to bottom, like Spock with a tricorder. “Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.” Stopping, he considered Chuck again and ordered, twirling a finger, “Spin. I need to see movement.”
Chuck rolled his eyes and did as he was told.
Morgan, finger on mouth, squinted at him. “Pits?”
Chuck lifted each arm and sniffed in turn. “Old Spice applied. Fresh and manly.”
“Very good. Breath?”
Chuck frowned. “I brushed my teeth like ten minutes ago. It’s fine.”
“Dude, remember the burrito you had for lunch? You just had to have extra onions. Seriously, burritos can be deadly for days, and then with the extra onions…Do you want her to take one giant step backward away from you every time you open your mouth?”
“No,” Chuck said, feeling a bit petulant.
“You do still remember that fateful day in seventh grade when Susie Derkins—”
Queasiness roiled in his middle. There hadn’t been a hole deep enough for Chuck to climb into that day. Holding one hand up to stop Morgan, he breathed into the other. Eau de onion nearly knocked him against the wall. Shaking his head he said, “Buddy, good call. I bow to your mad skills. You’re the Wikipedia of bad breath foods. Mint me.”
Morgan dug a roll of Mentos from his pockets and flipped one of the mints into Chuck’s awaiting palm. He popped it into his mouth and held out his hand again.
His bearded buddy gave him a funny look. “Chuck, I just gave you a mint.”
Chuck simply uttered the name, “Susie Derkins” again and Morgan, nodding, dropped the whole roll of Mentos in Chuck’s hand.
Ellie popped her head into the doorway, smile disappearing when she took in the scene. “You’re wearing that?”
“Wha—what?” He looked down at his jeans, t-shirt and button-down. “Ellie, I changed my shirt like three times! What’s wrong with this one?”
“I thought maybe you’d want to dress up a little.”
“I’m sorry, Ellie, but I’m afraid my ascot and smoking jacket are still at the cleaners.”
She gave him a dirty look. “I just thought that since you’ve been pining away, in love with Sarah for two years, you’d want to make a good impression tonight. Maybe wear some nice khakis and a polo shirt.”
Chuck’s frown deepened. “I’d hardly call it pining. I had an appreciation for your fellow spy, and then she left. This is no reason to look like a UCLA frat boy, no offense to Washboard. Let’s just say he fills out his polo shirts a little differently than I do.” He did his best Schwarzenegger and Morgan mimicked him.
She snickered, a devilish smile growing. “Very funny. And yes, Devon does fill out his shirt very differently from you.”
Even the mint still in Chuck’s mouth couldn’t stop the evil taste. “Ew, El!”
“Sarah will be here in a few minutes, so he,” she said, and pointed with her head at Morgan, “needs to go.”
Clutching his chest, Morgan groaned. “What? I’m not invited to this little soiree?”
“Soiree? Nice, buddy. Do you even know what that means?”
Morgan bobbed his head left and right. “I looked it up.”
“Morgan, go!” Ellie said and disappeared, her footsteps receding down the hall.
Slapping Morgan on the back, Chuck said, “Ellie’s right. You need to go. Thanks for the assist.”
Morgan pointed both index fingers at Chuck and said, “You da man! Just be cool, Chuck. She’ll be putty, dude. Putty!”
Chuck wasn’t so sure that would be the case, but he smiled at the encouragement, bumped fists with his friend and watched Morgan climb out the window. Now that he was alone, the nerves kicked in. A knot the size of a basketball lodged in his stomach when he heard a knock at the door. Sarah Freakin’ Walker. He really hoped his Old Spice didn’t fail him.
“Chuck!” Ellie called from the kitchen. “Could you answer the door?”
Chuck managed to call back that he would. At some point in the last two minutes, someone had filled his chucks with lead weights and he found it nearly impossible to lift his feet off the floor. With great effort, he made it down the hall and to the door. He rubbed his palms on his jeans a couple of times to wipe off the nervous perspiration. A clammy handshake would not make an awesome first impression.
Sarah Freakin’ Walker. He took a deep breath and told himself to be cool. A snort that thought elicited caused him to relax. In the split second of his terror abating, he grabbed the doorknob and yanked the door open.
A vision of blonde loveliness stood before him holding a bottle of wine. She tipped her head to the side and smiled. “Chuck! It’s nice to see you again.”
“Hi! Sarah! Hi!” He smiled nervously and his lead feet didn’t allow him to move.
From the kitchen, Ellie approached them, wiping her hands on a towel. “Sarah, come on in.” She shot Chuck a “what-is-wrong-with-you” look and hip-checked him out of the way.
Sarah stepped in, handed Ellie the wine and kissed her friend on the cheek. “Thank you for inviting me tonight.” She looked back at Chuck.
He froze. Was he supposed to kiss her on the cheek, too? Oh, no, he couldn’t do that. Maybe just a friendly wave? Sarah put him out of his misery when she offered him her hand. A genuine smile broke as he took it. “Hi, Sarah. It’s nice to see you again, too.”
The dazzling smile she flashed made him a little dizzy. Warmth traveled up his arm at her touch. Was he imagining things or was she holding his hand for longer than necessary? Not that he minded, of course. Even better, she didn’t wipe her hand when she finally let his hand go. That definitely went in the win column.
Ellie headed for the kitchen. “Chuck, Sarah, why don’t you hang out on the couch for a few before dinner’s ready. Devon’s changing. He should be out in a minute.”
Chuck led the way into the living room and sat on the far end of the sofa. Somehow he managed to squelch his yelp when she sat closer to him than he expected. Again, not that he minded, but it waskind of weird. Maybe she was trying to kill him by giving him a heart attack. And he was pretty sure the Old Spice had indeed already failed him.
“So, Chuck, you still work at the Buy More?” Sarah asked, her eyes staring into his.
God, he was such a loser. “Yeah,” he said, defeat obvious in his voice. “It’s not my first choice for a lifelong career, but it’s a job and in this economy…”
“You’re happy to have a job at all,” she finished for him.
Was that pity in her voice? He could take anything but pity. Sneaking a glance at her, he was relieved to see not pity but understanding. He nearly came out of his skin when she gently placed her hand on his arm.
“I’ve held a few jobs in the past that weren’t my first choice either, so I get it.”
He gave her a half smile. “I have a hard time imagining Sarah Walker flipping burgers at McDonalds.”
She removed her hand. “Burger King. And the always glamorous Wienerlicious.”
“Oh, right.” Chuck wanted to hit himself. Sarah had worked at the Wienelicious before it had become officially Spy Central with the underground base and everything. A CIA agent charring hot dogs. How the hell could he have forgotten that?
One of those horrible awkward silences followed. Now what? He was always terrible at small talk. Scanning his brain, he tried to figure out what to say next. In the dark recesses of his mind, he heard the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi tell him, “Ask her a question about herself.” He knew it was probably a bad thing if Obi-Wan was the one giving him advice on the fairer sex. He had bigger problems. And besides, he was so grateful for a way to combat the awkwardness of it all, he didn’t care that he might actually be a little crazy.
“What about you?” he asked. “I hear from Ellie you’ve been traveling the world, visiting exciting and exotic ports-of-call.” Hearing the idiotic words that had just tumbled from his mouth, he inwardly cringed. Ports-of-call? Oh, the verbal vomiting. “I’m sorry. I’m an idiot. I sound like an advertisement to join the merchant marines.”
Her laugh gave him chills. “Traveling the world is not as exciting as you might think.”
“Well…there’s something to be said for having a place to call home, I guess.” She looked around the living room, at the pictures on the mantel. It wasn’t quite wistfulness in her voice, but it was close.
Had he been in a cartoon, a light bulb would have been flashing over his head. He jumped up from the couch, went to the bowl by the door that held his keys and removed one of the fobs. Sitting again, he handed her a Wienerlicious hot dog key ring. “You lived here for a whole year. You can always call Burbank home.”
His chest tightened when he saw her eyes cloud as she took the key ring. “Was this mine?”
He realized that he had now moved from the column of nerdy, awkward guy to stalker. A wave of nausea washed over him. “Yeah, you left it here when you moved away. We always just left it in the bowl in case you came back for it. We were going to go out and buy a Lady Wienerlicious keychain fob, so this one wouldn’t get lonely and—” Oh, this was so much worse than Susie Derkins. This was an eleven. He wondered how easy it would be to throw himself into and sink to the bottom of the La Brea Tar Pits. “Yeah.”
The fates in charge of awkward moments came to his rescue in the form of his someday brother-in-law. “Sarah Walker!” Devon’s voice boomed as he bounded into the room and kissed Sarah on the cheek. “It’s awesome to see you!” He looked at Chuck. “Hey, Chuckster! How’s it hanging?” Devon faked like he was going to punch him in the gut, causing him to involuntarily go into the only self-defense move he knew: The Morgan.
“Nice move there, dude,” Devon said, laughing.
“I’ll have you know my reflexes were highly trained against frat boys before you even came into my life,” Chuck said in what he hoped was an upper-crust accent.
Ellie laughed at that she came back in. “Devon, leave Chuck alone.”
As he straightened up out of the Morgan, Sarah gave him a small smile and Chuck realized that the Tar Pits weren’t enough. What he really needed to find was an active volcano to throw himself into.
His plan to somehow get to Hawaii and swan dive into Kilauea would have to wait, though, as dinner was served.
As they sat down at the table, Chuck realized what a complete idiot he had been “pining” for Sarah Freakin’ Walker. She was Galadriel and he was Gollum, only taller and with better hair. They were in completely different leagues. The woman even seemed to have her own halo of light glowing around her, as she’d sat closest to the candelabra Ellie had picked up on a mission in Spain the year before.
So really, he had nothing to worry about, he thought. Sure, it was depressing, but maybe he should relax and have fun. She would be gone in a couple of days and then he could move on, perhaps find a woman more his own “speed” like Rose Cotton, the hobbit Samwise married: again, only taller.
Dinner grew a little more enjoyable now that he had no expectations or dignity left. He threw caution to the wind and cracked jokes, making the others laugh at his impersonation of Big Mike. He didn’t jolt around in his seat whenever Sarah smiled at him; in fact, he smiled back. He even argued with Ellie about Rod Serling and filled Sarah in on some of Morgan’s crazier antics since she’d left. She seemed genuinely sad about missing the Chubby Bunny Fiasco of ‘09.
Things took a dark turn, however, at the end of the meal. It started innocently:
“Chuck, I’m sorry to tell you this, but I can’t go with you to the convention. Something’s come up.”
“Ellie!” Devon and Chuck exclaimed at the same time.
Devon leaned close to Ellie and hissed, “Is this a mission? Because you said you were going to—”
“Not now, Devon,” Ellie said through a clenched smile.
“But what about the children?” Devon said sadly.
He might as well have started reciting Homer. All three of the others stared at him. “What children?” Ellie asked.
Devon sighed. “The children my mother thinks we have.”
Chuck recognized the look on Devon’s face far too well. Danger, Will Robinson, danger began to play on a loop through his head. He’d thought Ellie and Devon could keep their relationship arguments off the table tonight, but apparently…
“Sarah!” he said, jumping out of his chair and cutting Devon off before he could spew any further insanity across the table. Sure, Sarah was out of his league, but there had to be a rock-bottom somewhere. “I, um, hear the stars are pretty tonight.”
She gave him a puzzled look. “You can see stars in Burbank? Celestial ones?”
“You can if you imagine them. Would you like to finish your wine with me out by the fountain?” Away from this?
“Oh, right. I think…that would be preferable.” Sarah stood, grabbed her wine glass and headed for the door, Chuck following closely behind her.
“Just how many children does your mother think we have?” was the last thing he heard as he hurriedly shut the door behind them.
Ellie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Devon, I’m going to ask you again. How many children does your mother think we have?”
He stood tall and replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “Seven.”
(“Seven, Grandpa! We have seven kids in our family! He must be talking about us!”
“Yes, Megan, he probably is.”
Violet crossed her arms and scowled. “I don’t want seven sisters and brothers!”)
“Devon, why did you tell your mother we have seven children?” She wanted to bang her head on the table.
“Well, technically six kids with one on the way.”
Ellie glanced instinctively at her very flat abdomen. “Oh, God…”
“And she thinks we’ve been married since right after we got engaged.”
“Why did you do that?”
He got up and walked over to the rack of free weights standing in the corner of the room. He picked up a fifteen pound weight and started doing curls with his right arm. “Because she and my dad had just arrived in Africa for their ten year stint with Doctors Without Borders. She was a little homesick and she needed some good news. After the happiness from the engagement news wore off, I had to up the ante, so I told her we ran off to Vegas and got married. Then it was one kid and then the next.” He grew pensive as he thought about it. “You know? My mom’s kind of an addict. I have to keep giving her bigger and better news for it to have an effect on her anymore. Lizzie, the oldest? She’s already in high school at age six. She looks just like you.”
Ellie groaned. This was so much worse than she’d ever imagined. “You send them pictures?”
Devon shifted the weight to his other hand and continued his curls. “Oh, yeah. I’m pretty awesome at Photoshop.” He grunted as he finished the last couple of curls. Placing the weight back on the rack, he started with some deep knee bends. “And when the new baby comes in a couple of months, my mom will be totally excited! I think I’ll make this baby another girl. She gets more excited that way.”
Her mouth dropped. She was afraid that if she removed her hands from the sides of her head, it might actually explode. Her eyes followed him as he moved up and down. “Let me get this straight. Your mother thinks that we’ve been married for seven years.”
“And that we currently have six children.”
“With one on the way.”
He blew a breath out. “Yup.”
“What are you going to tell your mom and dad when they get back from Africa and they don’t have any grandchildren?”
He stopped and looked her square in the eye. “If we got married now, we could have three kids by the time they come back. Then, when they find out the truth, they won’t care.”
She walked right into that one. She sighed. “We’ll get married soon, Devon. I promise.”
“That’s what you always say, Ellie and it never happens.” He stalked past her, went into their room and slammed the door.
She softly banged her forehead against the table several times and then let it rest there. This evening hadn’t turned out the way she’d hoped. Not even a little.
They sat side by side on the edge of the fountain, Chuck’s long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Sarah stared into her nearly empty wine glass.
“I’d offer to go get you some more wine, but honestly, I don’t have the intestinal fortitude to go in there right now.”
“No kidding.” She set the glass down next to her. “I wouldn’t want you to. Not without a helmet, anyway.”
It was his turn to chuckle. Given the situation, she was glad she was able to make him laugh a little, especially since she didn’t consider herself a particularly funny person. Chuck, on the other hand, was intensely funny. How had she never known about that? She’d laughed more at his jokes at dinner than she had in the past year combined. Well, certainly she hadn’t spent much time around him the first time around—too many missions, too little time. She almost regretted that now.
She cleared her throat, pushing that rather disturbing thought to the back of her mind. “I’m sorry about the convention, Chuck, that Ellie can’t go with you.”
He glanced at her and then returned his stare to his feet. “It’s okay. It happens.”
“Maybe you could get someone else to go with you,” she said, hoping he would take the hint and ask her. And not, she realized, because Ellie had asked her to tag along. She’d genuinely enjoyed dinner. She wouldn’t mind spending more time with him.
“Morgan can’t go because he’s got to work this weekend.” He sighed. “I guess that’s really what I should do this weekend, too. Go to work, I mean. I’m teaching a class at the Buy More in beginning programming to help bring in more income for the store, but so far, I don’t have people breaking down the doors to take it.”
“How many students do you have?”
His face fell. “One.”
“Oh.” She had overheard Big Mike say the Burbank store might have to close unless it became more profitable. “I’m sorry.” She perked up and said, “All the more reason you should have some fun this weekend.” She bumped his shoulder with hers. “You should go to the convention.”
He wrinkled his nose. “I don’t want to go by myself. Even among a bunch of nerds at a nerd convention, that’s lame.”
She took a deep breath and caught his eyes. “You could ask me to go with you.”
He snorted. “Yeah, so I can be shot down by the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.”
“So I’m beautiful, huh?”
Chuck went the color of milk. “I—ah—”
She took pity on him, though her heart was fluttering in her chest at the compliment, one she’d heard hundreds of times. Why it would affect her differently now, she didn’t want to dissect. “How do you know I’d shoot you down?”
He squinted at her. “Okay, fine. For argument’s sake, say you agree to go with me. Have you ever been to a sci-fi convention?”
She shook her head. “No, I haven’t.”
“Uh-huh. People dress up in costumes. They go to panels and listen to nerds talk about nerdy things to other nerds.” He regarded her and shook his head. “Nope. I can’t subject to you that much full frontal nerdity.”
“I think I can take it,” she said dryly. “I’ve been in some pretty dangerous situations before and survived. I think I can handle a room full of geeks.”
“Nerds. We prefer the term nerds.”
She waited, hoping he would give in and ask her. But instead, he looked at her seriously and said, “Really? You think you can handle seeing a guy dressed up like a Gorn carrying around a Styrofoam rock like in ‘The Man Trap?’”
“I’m sorry, Chuck,” Sarah said, “but I think you’ll find that the Gorn was in episode ‘Arena’ and the salt vampire was in ‘The Man Trap.’”
She was grateful for the intel Ellie had given her about Chuck, advising her about which sci-fi references he might use. In the short amount of time she’d had, she had only been able to prepare for Star Trek and Star Wars. Thankfully, he had made a Star Trek reference. She was now eternally grateful for the IMDb app on her iPhone.
At her correction, he jerked his head up so fast she was afraid he was going to flip backward into the fountain. Her hand shot out to steady him.
“Oh, my God,” he said, his eyes as wide as platters. “Marry me.”
Chuck immediately flushed so bright red that she was surprised he didn’t start glowing. “Sorry, I mean—wait, what? You are correcting me on a Star Trek reference? No, the Gorn was clearly in—”
She smirked. “Look it up.”
He gave her the stink eye and retrieved his phone from his pocket. In only took a minute for him to find what he was looking for, and she knew the second he spotted it. His face took on a clearly baffled look. Very deliberately returning the phone to his pocket, he said, “You’re right. I was wrong. Thank you for the correction. But I’m still not going to the convention. I really should stay here and try to drum up more interest for the classes. I have my job to worry about.”
Inspiration hit. “When’s your class?”
He eyed her suspiciously. “Tuesday.”
“You let me go with you to the convention this weekend, and I promise to bring you ten new students for your computer class on Tuesday.”
He gave her what had to be the most heartbreakingly hopeful look she’d ever seen. “Do you really think you can do that?”
“Trust me,” she said, though she had no idea. Maybe she’d ask Ellie. “I am resourceful. And also, I beat you at Star Track.”
“Trek,” Chuck said, laughing. “It’s Trek, with an e.”
“Whatever, I was still right. Which means now you have to take me to the convention.”
Chuck stared at her for a long time, clearly mystified. “Wait, you want to go with me to the convention?”
“I’m on vacation. You need a break. We could both use a little fun,” Sarah said, feeling defensive. Sure, she’d made a promise to Ellie, and she wasn’t a nerd, but that didn’t mean she was boring.
They might force her to go on vacation these days, but she could still have fun, damn it.
“I…okay, but I feel like I need some kind of waiver that prevents you from running for the hills when you see just how nerdy it can get.”
“Give me a pen and I’ll sign. Pick me up at nine?”
“I… Sure. Yes.” He drew in a long breath, his shoulders straightening. “You have to wear a costume, though.”
What else was new? She wore costumes every day for work, it seemed like. “I’ll wear a costume only if you will.” She quickly amended her terms of agreement when she added, “And I get final say in which costume I wear. Deal?”
She offered her hand to shake.
He took her hand and shook it slowly. “Deal.”
Chapter 5: Spies and Nerds
Chapter by Quistie OScanlin (Frea_O)
Ellie barged through the freezer door of the Wienerlicious, and barreled down the stairs into Castle, steam practically whistling from her ears. She stormed over to the conference table, slammed her bag down and blew the bangs out of her eyes in frustration. Balled fists firmly planted on her hips, she glared at Casey.
The jelly donut in Casey’s hand stopped midway on its trip to his mouth. When Ellie’s angry gaze moved to Carina, he shrugged and allowed the donut to complete its journey. Red goo squirted out the backside of the donut. He glanced down at the glob on his crotch, shrugged again and took another bite.
Carina countered Ellie’s laser stare with an amused look. “Ooh, don’t tell me! I want to guess,” she said, pointing at Ellie. She made a big show of closing her eyes and pointing like an old TV psychic. “I’m sensing…it’s that time of the month? Captain Washboard pulled the trigger early last night?”
Ellie ignored her. “No more spying! No more Intersect! No more!” She stabbed her finger at each in turn.
This pronouncement was not met with shock or disbelief, but rather simple boredom. Carina picked up her coffee mug. “So, you mean it this time, huh?”
“Yes, I really mean it this time!” Why weren’t they getting it? Ellie held her hands out to her sides and looked down at her clothes in disgust. “Look at me.”
“You look the same way you do every day,” Casey said. The donut demolished, he lifted the red blob from his khakis with a napkin and wiped at his pants a couple of times, trying to remove the stain. He considered the red mark the jelly had left in a most unfortunate place. “Maybe I should wear my shirt untucked today.”
“Casey! Focus,” Ellie said. “That’s the problem. Look at me! I have a degree in medicine and I’m wearing a dirndl. I’m thirty years old and I look like frickin’ Heidi of the frickin’ Swiss Alps. All I need is a dam—darned goat-herd and I’m all set!”
Carina snorted. “Ellie, I have to wear the stupid outfit, too. There’s not anything we can —”
Ellie hooked her necklace with her thumb and held it out so that the pendant dangled, the chain straining so hard against her neck it nearly snapped. “It doesn’t bother you that every day you have to wear a plastic hot dog around your neck? Or that you have to wear your hair every day like a five-year-old?”
“No, it doesn’t bother me.” Carina swept a hand down her body like a model showing off a washing machine on a game show. “I make this look good.”
Ellie glared at her and began pacing. She didn’t miss the beleaguered look the spies shared, but she didn’t say anything. She was too angry and —
From the corner of his eye, Stephen saw Megan cringe. “Megan, sweetie. What’s the matter? Does your mom being mad in the story scare you?”
Her blue eyes were round with fear and she gave a hint of a nod. She pressed Spy Barbie close to her chest and whispered, “I’ve only seen my momma that mad once.”
Violet drew Bun-Bun closer to her and squeezed him tight as well. Aunt Ellie could be pretty scary. “What happened?”
“I don’t know everything, ‘cause Daddy came out and covered my ears with his hands. But Momma was really mad at Fred and Curtis.”
Violet’s eyes grew wider.
“All I know is that there were big planks of wood, Fred’s bike, a football helmet and a fire extinguisher.”
“Gosh,” Violet breathed.
Megan nodded her head gravely. “We still don’t know how Curtis got the bike up on the roof.”
Stephen snickered and shook his head. He could think of many instances Megan didn’t know about where Ellie had hit the ceiling when it came to her sons. “Remember, Megan. This is just a story. You’re mom’s not really this mad.”
She pulled the top of her Barbie sleeping bag up to her chin. “Okay, Grandpa. I’ll ‘member.”
He gave both girls a reassuring smile and returned to the story.
Casey evidently decided to be the one to fall on his sword. He sighed and got up to refresh his coffee. “What’s got your panties in a wad this morning?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Casey,” Ellie said, whirling on him. “Maybe it’s because I found out last night that I’m the mother of seven imaginary children! My fiancé works out all the time because it helps him deal with the fact that we’re not married yet and I had to sleep on the stinkin’ couch last night!”
Carina opened her mouth, no doubt to offer some sort of salacious comment, but Ellie just bulldozed over her. “And then this morning, after Devon went to work, I went in the closet to get ready to come here. Hanging in the closet next to my stupid Wienerlicious uniform was a set of scrubs. I should be wearing those scrubs — and not something that makes me look like a reject from The Sound of Music.”
“Hey!” Casey set his coffee mug down with a click. “I like that movie.”
The women stared at him.
“What?” Casey asked. “They outsmarted the Nazis.”
Carina rolled her eyes and turned back to Ellie, who was apparently trying to wear a hole in the floor. “Ellie, have a seat.”
“I didn’t ask for any of this, you know. This is all that damn Bryce Larkin’s fault.” Ellie kept pacing. “‘Ellie,’ Chuck yells from the shower, ‘I don’t have time to check my e-mail before my birthday party,’ he says. ‘Would you do it for me?’ he asks and like an, idiot I do it!”
“Oh, boy, this again,” Carina said.
“‘Chuck,’ I say, ‘There’s an e-mail from Bryce Larkin. Wasn’t he your old college roommate?’ I ask.”
Casey silently poured Carina a shot of tequila. She handed him a lime wedge.
“‘Yeah, open it,’ he says and like an idiot, I do it!” She put a hand to her forehead before continuing her monologue. “‘It looks like some stupid game thing you nerds used to play,’ I tell him. ‘Zord or Dork or something.’“
At the mispronounced video game, the spies took a shot.
“He tells me to type in some stupid thing about attacking a da—darn troll with a darn knife. Next thing I know, I’m flat on my back on the floor in his room and I’ve got the darn Intersect in my head!” She poked herself in the temple repeatedly, but it only seemed to give her a headache. With a growl that had Casey’s eyebrows shooting up in admiration, she flopped into the chair and glared at the tabletop. “And you know what? I do want to quit the spy life and get married.”
Carina and Casey glanced at each other, and with scowls, shrugs and head bobs, silently tried to decide who would be the one to respond. The throbbing vein in Casey’s neck won; it was Carina who spoke up. Casey put away the shotglasses.
Carina rolled her eyes at him. “We’re sorry. We know you didn’t ask for this and you’ve been a real trooper about becoming a spy. But we’ve been over this. You have an intelligence database critical to national security lodged in your head and I don’t think the Agency will allow you to just ride off into the sunset with it.”
Ellie sighed. “I know. But what if I can get it removed?”
“How? We’ve asked about that ever since it was downloaded into your brain and no one knows how to do that.”
“What about this Orion guy? If he’s smart enough to build a prototype for some kind of doohickey everyone wants, maybe he can figure out a way to remove the Intersect.”
Carina squinted at her. “You mean it this time, don’t you? You really do want to get married.”
“Yeah, I do. I’d like the retrieval of the MacGuffin to be my last mission.”
They heard footsteps on the stairs; Carina reached for her knife, Casey for his gun, and Ellie put her head in her hands. She recognized that gait. Sure enough, Sarah appeared, holding a bakery box. “Who’s going on their last mission?”
“Looks like we need to change the locks. They’ll let anyone in here.”
“I missed you, too, Carina. But don’t worry, I brought presents.” Sarah set the bakery box on the table.
The women all looked at Casey as he dived in. “What?” he asked, holding a glazed donut.
“You just ate two jelly-filleds,” Carina said.
“So? At some point today, Bartowski is going to get herself kidnapped because she just said last mission, and I, for one, would like to be fueled up.” Casey took a defiant bite.
Sarah cleared her throat breaking the awkward silence that followed when nobody argued Casey’s point. “Well, anyway, I just came by to get the name of the person who runs the Agency clothes warehouse downtown.”
“Edith Mode? Why do you need to see her?” Carina asked.
Sarah’s eyes flicked to Ellie and then back to Carina. “I’ve, ah, got something this weekend, that’s all.”
Carina sat up straight and glared at Sarah. “Are you going to that geek convention in Riverside with Ellie’s hot, nerdy brother?”
“Yes,” Sarah said. “I mean, yes, I’m going with Chuck. I’m not commenting on the hot or nerdy part.” The blush crawling up her face didn’t really help her cause. “I’m doing a favor for Ellie since she can’t go with him.”
“Yeah, you’re quite the giver,” Casey said.
“A regular Mother Teresa,” Carina said.
Sarah shrugged. “What can I say? I’m on vacation.”
“So he asked you to go with him?” Ellie asked, her mood lifting for the first time all day.
She hesitated for a moment and answered with an ambiguous, “Sure.”
Ellie wasn’t sure what the hesitation was about, but she was relieved to know Chuck would be out of the way during their upcoming mission. She stared hard at her former handler and noticed a kind of glimmer in her eyes. Sarah Walker was usually a very intense person. Her eyes didn’t glimmer. “Wait, are you actually excited about going to this convention?”
“Like I said, I’m on vacation.” The small smile that curled Sarah’s lips wasn’t lost on the other three spies.
Ellie, never one to miss out on any juicy details when it came to her brother’s love life, or lack thereof, grabbed Sarah’s wrist and hauled her toward the stairs. “Details, girl. What happened when you two went out to the courtyard?”
“Did you kiss him?”
“What? No!” Sarah said.
“Why not? Wasn’t it a seduction mission?” Ellie interrogated as she climbed the stairs.
“Well, yeah, originally. But he was so sweet and thoughtful, I couldn’t go through with it.”
They slipped through the freezer door and stopped behind the counter. “Sweet and thoughtful, huh? So what happens now?”
“We pick out costumes. We go to the convention. We come back to Burbank. I go on my next mission. End of story.”
“Uh-huh,” Ellie said skeptically. Sarah rarely blushed and her eyes didn’t glimmer. Ellie was pretty sure this was not the end of the story.
As Sarah and Ellie disappeared through the freezer door, Carina called out after them, “Don’t worry about us. We’ll just stay here. Casey will eat donuts!”
Casey flipped open the pink box. Carina slapped his hand as he reached for a maple bar. “That’s mine,” she warned.
Casey grunted and moved his hand to a cake donut with rainbow sprinkles. It was a good thing he was a big man. The amount of sugar coursing through his veins at that moment would make a wildebeest hyper.
“You know what’s happening, don’t you?” Carina asked, slightly disgusted as she watched him eat yet another donut.
“No, my ovaries are on the fritz. You’ll have to spell it out for me.”
“Walker’s falling for the nerd.”
He stopped mid-chew and narrowed his eyes. “Why would a spy like Walker even give a geek like the Bartowski kid the time of day?”
“He’s adorable, Casey. I’d put my phasers on stun for him,” she said, taking a rather suggestive bite from her maple bar.
Casey dropped his unfinished donut on the table. “And now I’ve lost my appetite.”
Carina chuckled. “We need to warn her. The nerdiness is strong in that one. His nerd powers could pull an unsuspecting spy like her right under.”
“You’re right. Next thing you know, Walker’ll be using fake sci-fi swear words like ‘frak’ and ‘frell’ and speaking in Klingon. I can just see now what she’ll be doing with that nerd some day.”
Carina waved a hand at the door of Castle. “And it’s not just Walker. Look at Ellie. Granted, Captain Washboard isn’t a nerd, but Ellie’s ready to leave the spy life and settle down. It’s happening all over Burbank.”
(Sung to the tune Guys and Dolls)
What’s going on in Burbank?
I’ll tell you what’s going on in Burbank.
A rumor about an undercover spy falling for a Star Trek loving nerd
That she might sacrifice everything, her career land in the septic tank.
That’s what’s going on in Burbank.
What’s going on ‘round here?
I’ll tell you what’s going on ‘round here.
Story about a spook who’ll buy her dweeb an Xbox
With what would have otherwise been some new spy gear.
That’s what’s happening around here.
What’s happening all over?
I’ll tell you what’s happening all over.
Spy sitting at home watching Tron on BluRay
When she used to travel the world over.
That’s what’s happening all over.
Love is the thing that has licked ‘em.
And it looks like Sarah’s just another victim.
When you see a spy sit and watch Firefly
You can bet that she’s doing it for some nerd.
“Hey, wait a minute!” Casey growled. “What’s wrong with Firefly? I thought it was a pretty good show.”
“Please, a space western?”
“What’s wrong with that? It was different.”
Carina rolled her eyes. “Just keep singing.”
When you spot a spook go and act like a mook
And go out and look all day in a store that sells just comic books.
There’s this one agent, I just have to lament
Who now plays World of WarCraft all of the time.
Call it sad, call it blechie
That she’d fall for some big old Trekkie.
All those bad sci-fi shows are really a crime.
A CIA skirt likes a man with a shirt
With a pocket protector and colored pens.
If she goes covert to sell frozen yogurt
You can bet that she’ll fall for the egghead guy at the big box store.
When you meet a spy with a pencil-necked guy
And she won’t listen, warnings go left unheard.
It’s some dork, that’s for sure
And I don’t think there is a cure.
Yes, the spy’s really falling hard for some nerd, some nerd, some nerd.
Yes, the spy’s really falling for some nerd.
“So you’ll talk to her?” Casey asked.
“I’ll try, but I’m not sure she’ll listen to me. Do you want to do it?”
Waving his hands in front of him, he stood and backed away. “No way. Not me.”
“Oh, that’s right,” she said, snapping her fingers. “Your uterus is on backorder.”
He pinned her with a glare, picked up the donut he had earlier dropped on the table and stalked up the stairs. “I gotta go to work. I suggest you do the same. I’m sure there are hot dogs up there just waiting to be petrified.”
“Not the only kind of hot dog I can petri—”
Stephen stopped reading. His eyes roamed over the rest of the page and then calmly turned it.
Violet leaned closer to Megan and whispered loudly, “Aunt Carina gets cut off a lot when she talks.”
Violet shrugged. “Daddy says she has spider-ettes.”
“What’s that? She doesn’t like spiders?”
“Dunno. But whenever she stops talking, everybody looks at me. And I’m not even a spider.”
Conversation concluded, they looked back to Stephen.
“Read, Grandpa,” Megan prompted.
“Are you through with the spiders?”
They both nodded.
“Okay.” He read, “Chuck was as nervous as a cat with a long tail in a room full of rocking chairs…”
Chapter 6: The Man (And Woman) in the Mirror
Chapter by Quistie OScanlin (Frea_O)
Chuck was as nervous as a cat with a long tail in a room full of rocking chairs as the elevator descended. Sarah Freakin’ Walker had talked him into going to the convention together. He was now in an elevator next to Sarah Freakin’ Walker. They were in an elevator and they were going to a convention together and he was nervous and the whole thing was a blur. Where the frak was the music? Didn’t the CIA believe in piping badly rendered instrumental versions of Celine Dion songs into their elevators?
“Those kinds of songs are reserved for interrogation purposes only,” Sarah said, and Chuck realized with growing horror that he’d actually voiced that last thought out loud. Oh, crap. Now she probably thought he was some kind of moron.
Instead, though, she smiled at him. Chuck actually felt his heart flop around like a fish in his chest. Before he could follow his dumb comment with something worse, the elevator saved his bacon by arriving on their floor. The doors opened to show some kind of huge warehouse, covered floor to ceiling in…clothing racks? Outfits were stacked three tiers deep, lit by fluorescent lights. Chuck marveled.
A tiny woman approached them with short, staccato steps. Her jet black hair was cut into a severe bob and her large round black eyeglasses would have made Harry Potter blush. She was only half Chuck’s size—literally—but he knew instinctively who would win in a fight. He took an instinctive step behind Sarah.
“How may I help you?” she asked in a voice more suitable for a very effeminate NFL linebacker.
“Are you Edith Mode?”
The magnified brown eyes considered Sarah for a moment. “Yes, I am.”
Sarah offered a handshake. “I’m Agent Sarah Walker. We spoke earlier?”
“Yes, of course! Agent Walker! Call me M. My, aren’t you gorgeous!” Edith “M” Mode said. She cast a critical eye over Sarah before she began murmuring, mostly to herself. “Kim Novak. No. Tippi Hedren. No, no, that’s not quite it, either.” M’s face cleared. “Grace Kelly. Of course! Why didn’t I see that right away? You, my dear, are the very embodiment of Grace herself.”
“Uh, thanks?” Sarah asked, giving Chuck an uncertain look.
The look changed to shock when M grabbed Sarah by the wrist and pulled her toward a rack of evening gowns. “I’m going to love dressing you for the Academy Awards. With your beautiful, cool blonde looks like Princess Grace, this will be a delight.”
“I’m sorry, I think—”
“I’m thinking a jewel color for you with your blonde coloring. Red is too…” She frantically searched the rack, tossing what had to be thousand-dollar dresses left and right without a care. Chuck took another furtive step back as M let out an actual crow. She pulled out a bejeweled sapphire evening gown, holding it up in front of Sarah before the woman could obviously think to dodge. Imperiously, she turned to Chuck. “Wouldn’t she look smashing in this on the red carpet? See how the dress matches her eyes?”
He did see that, thank you very much. But nothing but a stutter seemed to emerge from his lips.
Sarah tried again. “M, I think you’ve misu—”
“I take it you will be her escort for the evening?” M asked, not paying any attention to Sarah.
M squinted at his face. Chuck was reminded of being scrutinized by his gym coach in junior high school, a feeling he didn’t relish at all. He did everything he could not to squirm, but all M said was, “Handsome in an unconventional way. Kind of a young Scott Bakula.”
That was a new one for him. “Scott Bakula? He was amazing in Quantum Leap.”
“Of course he was. He’s wonderful in everything he does.” Turning back to Sarah, M winked and said in a low voice, “He’ll look fine. Stick a man in Armani and you can take him anywhere. Armani fixes everything.”
“Wait a second,” Chuck said. “Fixes?”
Sarah jumped into the gap and said, “I’m sorry, M, but Chuck and aren’t going to the Academy Awards. We just wanted to borrow a couple of costumes for a science fiction convention we’re attending this weekend.”
M gave the flashy blue dress in her hand a sorrowful look. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“I’m afraid so,” Sarah said, smiling over at Chuck. “Chuck’s been looking forward to this for awhile.”
“But the dress…I could call Martin, get you in on the list, no problem. Oh, well, if you are sure.” In another lightning quick mood-change, M tossed the dress to the side and took off, her clunky heels clip clopping, speeding off to another section of the warehouse.
It was a good thing both he and Sarah had long legs, Chuck realized. M might be short, but damn, she was fast. It was like trying to keep up with Gizmo on his little toy car. They zigzagged through a maze of racks and abruptly came to a stop. Chuck nearly slammed into Sarah’s back. Actually, he would have, had he not skidded and then tripped into a rack. Without even looking his way, Sarah reached over and yanked him free. He stepped out from behind her into an open area that held helmets, masks, accessories and costumes of every comic book hero and sci-fi character imaginable.
He stared and completely forgot he was standing next to Sarah Freakin’ Walker. “Is this…is this heaven?”
“Close,” M said, a secretive smile on her face as she looked from him to Sarah.
Chuck ignored her. “Is that a Stormtrooper uniform?” he breathed, afraid that if he spoke too loudly, he might break the spell and all of this would vanish just like Aladdin’s treasure trove in the desert.
“Oh, this old thing? George had a couple of extras lying around.” M turned to Sarah and explained, actually holding her hand up like an actress speaking to the audience, “He and I go way back.”
“George?” The name came out in a squeak.
“Um, Chuck?” Sarah tipped her head to the left.
His heart nearly leapt from his chest. “Darth Vader?” It was the Sith Lord’s costume: the black cape, the helmet, the panel on the front, the sheer size of it all. The gleaming helmet, Chuck thought, staring. The soulless eyes. He reached out a hand to touch it, and jerked back. What if he broke it? What if he woke up and all of this was gone? He knew he was geeking out way harder than he should in front of Sarah Freakin’ Walker, but he couldn’t help it. At this point, he was just happy he hadn’t wet himself. In the fog of the out-of-body experience he was having, he thought Sarah and M seemed to be conversing, but there was no comprehension. All he could hear was the “heeee-whoooo” of Vader’s respirator as those soulless, evil eyes stared into his.
Was this what staring into the abyss was like?
Sarah leaned down when M stood on her tiptoes and asked in a loud whisper that finally broke through Chuck’s fog, “Is he going to be okay?”
“I think so. We might be here awhile, though.”
M nodded. “I can see that. I’ll leave you two here to find what you need. I don’t think your boyfriend needs any help in identifying the different costumes.”
“Oh, no! He’s not my boyfr—”
“Just come see me on your way out with your choices. Have fun!” And with a wave, M was gone.
The haze lifted and was replaced by embarrassment when he realized he had suffered a complete nerd-out. He had heard others talk about it, but he’d never experienced one himself before. Nerdvana, they said, was a place very few had experienced.
And just his luck, Chuck realized with a sinking stomach, his own Nerdvana had been right in front of Sarah Freakin’ Walker.
She didn’t say anything about it. She just nodded at Vader. “So you’ve picked your costume, then?”
“Oh, no. No, no, no,” he babbled and backed away from it. “It’s too… I couldn’t…” He willed his mouth to stop. Trying to sound as calm as he could, he said, “No, let’s find something a little more understated.”
“Why?” Sarah sounded genuinely surprised. “I thought you liked Star Wars stuff?”
“I do! But I don’t want to subject you to it, with you being a scifi con virg— ” He made a gagging sound as his brain finally caught up with his mouth. The cover-up came out as a croak: “Newbie and all. If I wear that, we’ll never be left alone. You don’t want that.”
She arched an eyebrow in amusement.
He really needed to find that volcano and fling himself into its depths, Chuck decided. Quickly. He cleared his throat. “Also, you’re not exactly the type of girl that goes to these things. It can get overwhelming if you’re not the right type.”
“What type is that, Chuck?” Sarah asked as she began to search the racks for a suitable costume.
“The nerdy type.”
“Ah, yes, the nerdy girl.” Her face was unreadable. “The perfect woman for you, huh? I wonder what this safe, upright, comic book, science fiction loving girl is like?”
(Sung to the tune I’ll Know)
For I’ve imagined every bit of her
From her thick nerdy glasses to the science in her head
To the stringent aroma of her wipes.
She held up a blue Dr. Beverly Crusher tunic for him to see. Chuck scowled and shook his head: far too matronly Also, Gates McFadden reminded him a little of his mom. Shrugging, Sarah placed it back on the rack.
You have wished yourself a Stanford brainiac
The biology, calculus type.
Smiling, Chuck showed her a black leather duster, black leather pants and a slate blue long sleeved crew shirt, the clothes Will Smith’s Detective Spooner had worn in I, Robot. He was surprised at gleam of approval in her eyes. Inspecting the costume more closely, he found inside a plastic bag pinned to the shirt, a leather choker with five block letters strung on it and secured between two knots. He jerked involuntarily and quickly put the costume back on the rack when he remembered that the letters on the choker spelled out “SARAH.” Yeah, him wearing her name around his neck wouldn’t scare the living crap out of her or anything, he thought, kicking himself.
Yes, and I shall meet her when the time is right.
I’ll know when my love comes along
I won’t take a chance.
I’ll know she’ll be just what I need
Not some spy-by-night covert romance.
He wandered over to the women’s costume section and flipped through the costumes. Grinning, he held up a Wonder Woman costume, complete with Golden Lasso. His mind flitted to his happy place where he was tied up with the Lasso and she was… Snapping fingers brought him back to reality and Sarah rolled her eyes. With her finger, she indicated that the costume needed to be put back on the rack.
And you’ll know by her sensible underpants.
“Wait!” Violet interrupted. “Grandpa, what does ‘sensible underpants’ mean? Aren’t all underpants just underpants?”
“Um,” Stephen quickly searched his brain trying to think of a way to get himself out of this one. “Sensible just means that they aren’t fancy or, um,” he hesitated, weighing the next word carefully, “lacy.”
Megan snickered and bumped Violet with her shoulder. “I think he means Granny Panties!”
Violet scowled, completely confused. “But Sarah doesn’t like Granny Panties, then.”
Stephen began coughing. “Beg your pardon?” he asked when he could speak. “You haven’t seen your…mother in…?” What was Sarah’s title around the house now? Stephen hadn’t ever wanted to push. “You haven’t talked to her about this, have you?”
“No, of course not.” Violet gave him an odd look.
“Oh. That’s good.”
“But she left Victoria’s bag on the table and—”
“Who’s Victoria?” Megan asked.
“I don’t know. But she has a secret. And the underwear inside was really little, but it wasn’t for kids, and Lizzie says it’s called a thong and—”
Stephen choked on his own saliva. As he gasped for air, the thought of dying rather than listen to his two five-year-old granddaughters discuss thong underwear flitted across his mind. It didn’t seem that bad of an option.
“Grandpa! Are you okay?” Megan jumped off the bed and stood next to him, the concern clearly showing on her face. She picked up the water glass on the nightstand and held it out to him.
He took a sip, quelling the cough.
Wiping his eyes and taking in a deep draught of air, he heaved a sigh and said, “Thanks, Megan. I’m better now.”
Megan clambered back into her sleeping bag.
“Wait a second,” Vi said as something obviously occurred to her. “What are Granny Panties?”
“I dunno,” Megan said.
“Then why did you call them Granny Panties?”
“Dunno,” Megan said again. “I think Fred called them that once. Maybe they’re what Grandma Mary wears. Does Grandma Mary wear Granny Panties, Grandpa?”
Megan and Vi looked at Stephen, expectant looks on their faces. Stephen hadn’t felt quite this outmatched since he’d gone up against Professor Mobius in ‘81. He stared at the girls.
They stared back.
“Let’s just, ah, get back to the story, shall we?” With that, he ignored the thought that Mary was going to fall over laughing at all of this, and began singing again.
I’ll know by her studious voice
Those feet on the ground.
I’ll know as she runs to my arms
That at last we’ve come home safe and sound.
Until then, I shall wait.
Until then, I’ll be strong.
Oh, I’ll know when my love comes along.
At that very moment, Chuck decided that Sarah Freakin’ Walker was pure evil wrapped in a delicious blonde exterior when she held up leather and fur Conan the Barbarian (Stephen changed the word on the fly, deciding that the word “codpiece” was just trouble waiting to happen, and “loincloth” was also a bucket of trouble) “boxer shorts.” Chuck’s face turned beet red and he was pretty sure flames were licking up from his ears. With a smirk, she took pity on him and quickly returned the costume.
Mine will come as a surprise to me.
Mine I leave to chance and chemistry.
“Yeah, chemistry,” Sarah said. She held up a lab coat and goggles. He shook his head; he was way too tall for Dr. Horrible. His offered suggestion of Chiana’s bodysuit and dandelion-fluff wig was met with a raised eyebrow. Shrugging, he put those back; it would take too long to paint Sarah white and gray anyway.
Suddenly I’ll know when my love comes along
I’ll know then and there
I’ll know at the sight of his face
How I care, how I care, how I care
But I’ll stop. And I’ll stare.
She did stare at the next selection. Chuck put Starbuck’s jacket and combat boots back with a shrug and didn’t even bother to reach for Six’s bright red dress. After all, hadn’t M said something about—oh, God. The CIA had their very own M. Why hadn’t he geeked out about that before?
“Oh, my God,” he said.
Sarah, about to open her mouth to sing another verse, no doubt, stopped. “What is it?”
“Check this out.” He pushed open an old wardrobe door and stepped inside, sneezing at the smell of mothballs. “I’ve found Narnia!”
“What?” Sarah followed him into the wardrobe.
It didn’t open into a winter landscape, much to Chuck’s endless disappointment. It did, however, open up. Past the first rack of slightly-moldering fur coats was a large, mirror-lined room. Lights sprang to life, illuminating the white walls, white floor, white ceiling, and their reflections in the mirrors. “Changing rooms?” Sarah asked.
“Looks like,” Chuck said, but stopped when words began to scroll across the top of the mirror directly opposite him. HOLD STILL, they read in blocky font. “Huh, I think the mirrors are actually—”
Chuck’s image disappeared. He jumped. “Not mirrors,” he finished, somewhat lamely.
Chuck’s image reappeared, but it was no longer wearing the chucks, jeans, and geeky T-shirt Chuck himself bore. Instead, the image—the same size and height as Chuck—wore a red polo-shirt, gray cargo pants, and brown shoes. He had a (hopefully fake) rifle slung across his back, and his brown curls were gone in favor of a white crew cut. “Holy crap!” Chuck said, blinking at the image. “I’m Race Bannon!”
“Who is—oh, that’s just spooky,” Sarah said as her own image on her mirror disappeared. A second later, she reappeared, but she was no longer blonde. And she was holding a lightsaber and wearing a leather duster that just brushed the floor. “Who is that supposed to be?”
“Mara Jade,” Chuck said, and for a second, he was conflicted about which idea was more drool-worthy: the very real Sarah Freakin’ Walker next to him or the one on the mirror with the ripped shirt and lightsaber. The real one won only on merits of smelling like grapefruit.
“I don’t think I want to go redhead,” Sarah said, her voice doubtful as she studied the Mirror-Sarah.
“Yeah,” Chuck said, thinking of Carina. “Redheads are scary. I wonder what you would look like if you were, like, Trinity or something.”
Sarah’s image changed so that it was wearing the iconic skin-tight leather bodysuit. Chuck nearly fainted from happiness.
Sarah studied the mirror, looking unimpressed. “Oh, please, I wear things like that every week. That’s the best this thing can do?”
“Sarah, please don’t say things like that. My brain can literally not take that much awesome.”
Sarah gave him a surprisingly pleased grin that he returned without thought. “I wonder what I’d look like as James Bond,” he said.
“What? You want to be a spy?”
“C’mon, every guy wants to be Bond at least once in his life…” Chuck trailed off and gave his new image an assessing look. The hair had changed again, shorter so that what he considered his trademark curls (and his sister called the trademark animal shapes) were mostly gone. The tux, however…
“Oh, she’s right,” Sarah said, sounding appreciative in a way that made Chuck give her the side-eye. “You really can do wonders with Armani.”
“Teasing. Doesn’t look like a tux would be fun to wear all day.”
“Point.” An idea hit Chuck. “I wonder how progressive these mirrors are.”
“I’m not wearing body-paint,” Sarah said, pointing at him. “I refuse.”
“Oh, I was thinking steam-punk, actually.” Chuck turned the mirror in horror. Had it registered the body-paint comment? Would it show Chuck completely bare? Was this going to turn into a real life version of his very-frightening nightmares?
The image in front of him showed a nightmare, but not the one he dreaded. The James Bond tux faded away to…jodhpurs, knee-high calf-skin boots, loose suspenders dangling on either side of his legs, and a crisp dark-brown vest over a blood-red collared shirt. Over that was a knee-length fawn-colored duster, lined with a fleece hood. Over that was some sort of shoulder rig that looked like it might be made from copper piping. Goggles dangled around his neck, somehow not at odds with the brown top-hat on his curls. The left side of his face was shiny with silver markings of some type, painted in the shape of a clock’s inner workings. But it was his hand that drew his attention, for his right hand was covered in some sort of mesh-cog-contraption similar to the paintings on his face.
He turned to make a “Holy alternate universe, Batman!” comment to Sarah—and stared.
Where Chuck’s costume was only mildly steampunk, Sarah’s embraced the truest version of the form. The skirt, Chuck noticed immediately. He couldn’t help it. It was short and like a tutu, the color of a cloud on a mildly stormy day. Above this, Sarah wore a corset that really, ah, emphasized her assets, dark gray with silver stitching lining the stays. White sleeves plumed like something Errol Flynn might wear in one of his swashbuckler films. Her boots went all the way up past her knees, outlining her outstandingly long legs perfectly. Like him, Sarah had silver paint down one side of her face, but she was wearing an aviator’s cap with goggles, and her face was powdered, the only color apart from the silver being the heart shape painted in dark purple at the center of her lips. The silver patterns continued down her neck and disappeared into her bodice. A jeweler’s loupe on a rig over her left eye made the outfit truly steampunk.
Chuck’s jaw stayed up only because he had a hand clamped to it now.
Sarah stared at the image of Chuck first and then at the image of herself. “What on earth?” she wondered. “What’s wrong with my face?”
“It’s steampunk. It’s…a very well-established culture within the nerd world,” Chuck said, his voice squeaking only a little.
Sarah gave him a droll look. “I’m not wearing a corset.”
“Are you sure? Because you look—”
“You wear a corset and then finish that sentence.”
“Point.” Chuck winced. “Well, I guess steampunk’s not working. Let’s try on another seven hundred outfits, then.”
As he spoke, the steampunk version of Sarah disappeared. Chuck froze, wondering exactly he’d said to evoke a costume change, but it became clear very, very quickly.
Sarah took one look at the image in front of her and said, “No. No, no way, not in a million years.”
Twenty minutes later, Sarah zipped up the costume and gave him a sour look. “Happy now?”
He nodded eagerly as he pushed his arms into the sleeves of the jumpsuit M had picked out for him. “I know you probably think it’s lame to dress up in costumes like this,” he said, “and don’t tell Morgan or anything, but this may just be the best con ever. It’ll break his heart that I’m having fun without him.”
“Can do. Give me a minute? I’ve got to get this weird thing over my eyebrow, and you should tell M we’re ready to go.”
“Sure,” Chuck said and headed out of the changing room quickly. Outside the wardrobe, he paused and just caught his breath. This was happening, he couldn’t help but think. They’d picked out costumes that didn’t precisely match, but did fit in the same universe, and he was going to a convention with Sarah Freakin’ Walker. No, he thought. Sarah Walker. Just Sarah Walker.
Because he was still there, and the door was partially ajar, he perfectly heard what happened next, the notes drifting out into the warehouse to meet his ears.
And I’ll know long before we can speak
I’ll know in my heart.
I’ll know and I won’t ever ask
Am I right, am I wise, am I smart.
But I’ll stop. And I’ll stare.
At that face. In the throng.
Yes, I’ll know when my love comes along.
It sounded mournful, almost. Chuck knew exactly how she felt. He leaned back against the wardrobe, resting his head against the cool wood, and sang what he’d really meant to sing all along, what he could never sing in front of Sarah Walker.
When my love comes along.
I’ll know. I won’t take a chance.
I know she’ll be just what I need
Not some spy-by-night covert romance.
Until then, I shall wait.
And till then, I’ll be strong.
Oh, I’ll know when my love comes along.
Chapter 7: Ever Lovin’ Ellie
Chapter by Quistie OScanlin (Frea_O)
Chapter 07: Ever Lovin’ Ellie
The air was saturated with the smell of stale beer and even staler tortilla chips. A roaming mariachi band entertained dinner guests at the unimaginatively named El Mariachi Mexican Restaurant. It wasn’t exactly a dive, but it also wasn’t one of the finer eating establishments in Burbank. Of course, whether or not Burbank had a fine dining establishment at all was a matter of debate.
Ellie chewed on a fingernail as she stood waiting for Casey’s call. While she did so, she tried to gauge the mood of the crew of spies gathered at the bar. Roan Montgomery, disgusted that he couldn’t get a decent martini at this particular restaurant, grimaced as his taste buds were assaulted each time he took a sip of his beer. Manoosh was of course bent over a laptop. Civilian Alex McHugh was talking to a bunch of what looked like UCLA frat boys. They gathered around her; as Ellie watched, she laughed and shook her head, a bit ditzily. She was really good at that.
Carina slapped Ellie’s hand away from her mouth, making Ellie jump. “Knock it off! You don’t have any nails left to bite.”
“I’d rather have no nails than be blitzed on this mission.”
Carina smirked, tossed back a tequila shot, and slammed the empty glass on the bar with an enthusiastic bang. “Sweetie, that’s only my third. It’ll take way more than that to keep me from being able to do my job.”
Ellie wanted to argue, but she knew better. She’d seen Carina’s legendary ability to drink first-hand. Sure, it had been vodka at that little bar in Minsk, but that didn’t seem to matter. The burly Belarusian had had fifty pounds on Carina, but the redhead had not only outdrank him, she’d lifted the microchip right out of his pocket—before he’d even passed out. She’d then ordered a round for everybody in the bar.
That had been the last time Ellie had ever had vodka. Even though she’d learned that waking up in a grain bin wasn’t as scary as it sounded, she’d still sworn off the entire drink.
“I wonder what’s taking Casey so long.” Ellie checked her phone, again. “The Buy More should be closed by now.”
Carina raised a finger at the bartender, asking for another shot. “Relax, El. Eat some salsa or something. You’re making me nervous.”
“You’re right, but you’re doing your darndest to try and make it happen. We’ve got a great group of spies here,” Carina said, and downed the shot the bartender had just set in front of her. She blinked once and smiled.
Ellie rolled her eyes.
Roan took another tentative sip of his beer. He made a face and made a show of pushing the unfinished glass away from him. “Agent Bartowski,” he said, smoothly. Roan Montgomery never spoke unless it was smoothly. “When will this op begin? I’m very at home sitting on this barstool, but I’m afraid some of our colleagues are getting a bit antsy.” He jerked his head toward the tiny woman sitting next to him.
Big Becks swiveled around on her barstool and took a sip from her glass of her milk. She arched an eyebrow half way up her forehead and gave Ellie a prim look. “Don’t judge me. Osteoporosis is a bi—bear.”
Ellie pointed both index fingers at Big Becks and exclaimed with a very false grin, “Right you are. And if you’ll be patient for just a little longer, I’m sure we’ll get the mission underway very soon.”
Big Becks drained her glass of milk and handed the empty to Roan. “Be a dear and get me another,” she said, running a hand across the side of her head, ensuring each hair was in place. She wiped away the milk mustache with a red cocktail napkin.
“I liked you better when you were a dirty blonde,” Roan mumbled under his breath as he wiggled the empty in the air to get the bartender’s attention.
Ellie stomach was already in knots from being around a spy legend like Big Becks. She really didn’t need Casey mucking up the works. “We’re just waiting to hear from Casey when the Buy More is clear. So, until then, enjoy the ambiance!”
Defying physiology, somehow Big Beck’s eyebrow shot higher. “Yes,” she said drolly, “the eye is really drawn to the faded piñata.”
Ellie pressed a thumb into the middle of her stomach in a vain attempt to stop the burning sensation that had just erupted. The fire only spread when she heard a familiar voice call out imperiously, “Well, well, well. What have we here?”
All the spies turned around to see Big Mike Brannigan smirking at them. “Nothing good can happen when all you people are together in one place.”
“Oh, crap,” Carina said under her breath, and Ellie agreed.
Big Mike pointed his finger from one to the next. “All kinds of schemin’ and spyin’ and carryin’ on!” he said, using his best preacher voice.
The spies stared at him, vaguely amused.
“I come in here to get away from it all and have me a nice chimichanga, stuffed with succulent chicken and rice with guacamole, salsa and sour cream on the side,” Big Mike went on, his eyes staring unfocused at the ceiling, “and some refried beans—”
(Megan snickered and whispered to Violet, “You do not want to be near boys after they’ve had beans.” She scrunched her nose and waved her little hand in front of it.
Violet giggled. “Sarah makes Daddy take Sir for a walk.”
Stephen couldn’t stop the snort.)
“—and I have to deal with the likes of you,” Big Mike said. His nostrils flared when he asked, “Just what kind of tomfoolery are you all up to, anyway? If this has something to do with the Buy More, you—”
Carina pointed an accusing finger back at Big Mike. “Wait a minute! What makes you think this has anything to do with the Buy More? Can’t a group of friends just get together to—”
It was at that very moment that Devon and one of his doctor friends walked into El Mariachi. When he saw Ellie, he gave her a hurt look and stormed over to a table, sat down hard and snapped open a menu.
Ellie groaned. “Great. Just freaking great. Shoot me now.”
“I prefer knives, dear,” Carina said.
Big Mike crossed his arms over his chest and squinted at Carina. “What were you saying, Stretch?”
Carina sauntered toward the Buy More manager. “What I was saying, Big Mike,” she said slowly, taking his tie and giving it a flick, “is that a group of friends should be able to get together and have a party.”
“What kind of party?”
Carina turned and gave Ellie a long, assessing look. When her eyes flicked once to Awesome and his doctor friend, a sense of dread began to line Ellie’s stomach. What was the redhead up to? “A bachelorette dinner for Ellie Bartowski, of course,” Carina said, brightly. She hooked an arm around Ellie’s neck. “She’s getting married!”
The spies, all ready to play along, spun on their stools and applauded. Shouts of “Mazel Tov!” and “Best wishes!” filled the air.
Devon stood and turned. His mouth was opened wide, as if he were ready to catch any errant tortilla chips thrown his way. He stared at Ellie, dumbfounded, the menu dangling from his hand.
“Babe!” Devon said with a grin, rushing to her. “Really?” He picked her up and gave her a bone-crushing hug, snatching her away from Carina.
“Devon, honey,” she said, wheezing. “Don’t bruise the fruit.”
“Sorry,” he chuckled and set her on her feet. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
What the hell had Carina gotten her into? The redhead, chaos sufficiently caused, smirked and leaned back against the bar, watching Devon and Ellie like a cat perusing which mouse it might like to sample next. Ellie shot her a brief glare—to which the redhead replied with a smirk and a two-fingered salute.
“Oh,” Ellie said, and cast about for something, anything. “Well, it was going to be…a surprise wedding?”
Big Mike looked like he had a serious case of indigestion, even though he hadn’t eaten anything yet. “So,” he said, drawing out the word long enough to make it obvious that he doubted the veracity behind the impending nuptials, “when’s the happy occasion?”
Time stood still for a moment while Ellie tried to figure out exactly what was happening. She had just admitted to herself that she wanted to finally get married, but this was a little too quick. And they were all on a mission. She had to stall.
“Well, you know, in California we have to have blood tests, get a marriage license, that kind of thing, so it will be a little while.” She died a little on the inside when she saw the grin on Devon’s face falter as he sank into a chair.
“Aw, shoot, Bartowski!” Big Mike said, giving her shoulder a light, friendly push. She staggered into Devon. “You don’t have to wait for all that. Just head off to Vegas! You could go right now, even.”
“Come on, Ellie!” Devon said, grabbing her arms and turning her to face him. He really was quite handsome, Ellie thought, and dazedly pushed that thought away. Devon looked excited as he rose again to his feet. “Let’s do it! Let’s go to Vegas tomorrow night!”
How the hell could she say no to that face? “Okay, we’ll go to Vegas tomorrow night,” she heard her mouth say.
Another cheer rose. “Speech! Speech!” the spies shouted.
What on earth could she possibly say? She loved Devon. Even if there was a mission right now, and the spies were convinced this was all mission-related, she loved her fiancée. So she wanted this speech to actually mean something. Using the Intersect to help her keep her balance, she climbed onto a barstool and sang:
(to the tune, Adelaide, Adelaide)
Unaccustomed as I am to getting married,
I am taking this occasion here to say
That me and Devon, here are finally naming the day.
Though he knows deep in his heart
I’m a phony and I’m a fake,
He wants three children to start,
Three’s what we’ll have for his sake, so...
Devon, dear, Devon, dear, ever-loving Devon dear,
Is taking a chance on me.
Taking a chance I’ll quit the spy life and be nice.
Give up guns and knives, and go for kids and rice.
So agents here, I am out, I’m not gonna scream or pout.
No more spy missions for me (you may quote me)
Since Devon, dear, Devon, dear, ever loving Devon, dear
Is taking a chance (Carina: Can I still take pot shots?)
Taking a chance on me.
“Babe, I’m so stoked! I can’t believe we’re finally gonna get married! I feel like I could bench press five hundred pounds!”
“Oh, is that all?” Carina asked innocently. Ellie shot her a Shut up look.
Devon, on the other hand, gave her a joyful look full of love and trust and happiness. “Dudes!” he said, turning away to look at the other doctors that had trickled into the Mexican restaurant. “I’m getting married.”
Another round of cheering erupted. Devon, however, began to look panicked. “I have so much to do before tomorrow night. I need to reschedule that live saving heart surgery I’m supposed to perform.” He glanced off to the side and whispered, “I wonder if that patient can hang in there for a couple more days.” Thinking hard, his nostrils flared like he had just smelled something really bad. “Maybe I should do that surgery tonight.” Holding out his hands, he whispered, “These life giving hands are needed right now.” He kissed Ellie on the cheek and said, “Babe, I’ll be ready tomorrow night, but right now, I have to go be awesome.”
As the door closed behind him, she nearly fainted from relief that the mission hadn’t broken down after all the craziness. Holding their pre-meeting in a Mexican restaurant in walking distance of the hospital, where Devon and Big Mike could just walk in on their plans for the evening had been an utter mistake. They should’ve just held the meeting at Castle; they wouldn’t be waiting so long for Casey, then, to finish up his shift at the Buy More since he would be right there and—it hit her. “Holy cow,” she said, “I’m getting married.”
Casey walked in, looked around at the hugging spies and doctors. “Okay, what’d I miss now?”
Being a spy meant Sarah Walker had lived a life of extremes. She had skied the slopes of Gstaad, sunned on the beaches of Bora Bora, gambled at the craps tables in Monte Carlo and scuba dived on the Great Barrier Reef. She had also crawled through sewers, deep fried corn dogs and cleaned out dog kennels. Having been kidnapped, stabbed, shot and tortured at different times throughout her spy life, she figured she had seen everything and done everything.
She was wrong. She had never seen anything like Meta-Con in Riverside, California.
She reached up and pressed against the small, star-fish shaped thingy in front of her right ear. The other thing, what Chuck had patiently explained to her was the “remnants of her cybernetic implants,” whatever the heck those were, around her left eye was glued on pretty well, so she wasn’t as worried about it. The starfish-shaped thingy, however, had dropped off in the car, twice. In addition, the gray, metal looking “glove” attachment strapped to the back her left hand was a bit of an annoyance, but based on what she had seen some of the other women wearing, she wasn’t going to complain. At least the main part of her costume, the maroon-red stretchy body suit, was comfortable. She was used to wearing things that were skintight, although she didn’t have quite the… assets the actress who had worn the costume on the show did. She wasn’t wearing a leather bustier, so she put all of this down as a win.
“Grandpa, what are assets?” Megan interrupted once again.
Oh, boy, Stephen thought. Why did he keep getting into these messes? Ellie and Sarah were going to kill him. “Well, um, er, it’s one of the things that is different between men and women.”
Megan looked completely confused. “Her assets means she drives a minivan?”
Violet snorted. “Sarah doesn’t drive a minivan. Duh.”
“True.” Megan’s brows scrunched together. “And Daddy likes the minivan more than Momma. What is the difference between men and women, Grandpa?”
“So many philosophers have wondered, Megan. As have many men.”
Violet scratched her nose. “Do phi-loss-o-furs have assets?”
“I dunno,” Megan said. “I dunno what assets are.”
As one, they turned to look at Stephen. He began to sweat. “Well, um…in this case, it’s more about how men and women look different, especially in their, um, chestal, um, area.”
Two sets of blue eyes bored though him like lasers. Suddenly, Violet clamped a hand over her mouth and giggled. Turning to her co-conspirator, she put a cupped hand in front of Megan’s ear and whispered. Megan’s eyes grew wide and she clapped both hands over her mouth before she picked up Spy Barbie, held it between the two of them and pointed at Barbie’s disproportionately ample assets. The five-year-olds squealed with laughter.
The mirth awoke Sir, previously dozing on the floor. Both girls’ shrieks of laughter intensified as he hauled himself onto Violet’s bed between them. He stuck his nose right up to Violet’s mouth and sniffed. Before she could push him away, he snorted once, moved his huge head to Megan and snuffled her face.
“Sir! Stop it!” Violet said, pushing on his face before he could whuffle at her again. She pointed to the end of the bed. “Go lay down.”
Sir gave his master a doleful look. With a put-upon sigh, he lumbered to the other side of the bed, flopped down and rested his head on his massive paws.
Stephen saw the dog’s distraction as a golden opportunity to get off the current subject, so he jumped back into the story.
As they threaded their way through the crowded hall, Sarah tried to do three things: concentrate on staying with Chuck, smile at the people who waved and called her “Seven” and ignore the gaping stares from everyone else.
The latter two weren’t difficult to do, but with the crowds as thick as they were, she was finding it difficult to not lose sight of him. Of course, he was very handsome in his blue “Captain Jonathan Archer” jumpsuit with the wonderful yellow piping, but he didn’t really stand out. He would have been easier to spot had he worn the Vader costume.
Sarah started to lose her cool when a woman wearing a poorly rendered homemade Catwoman jumpsuit weaseled her way in between her and Chuck.
When Homemade Catwoman placed her hand on Chuck where it didn’t belong, he jumped and squeaked, “Hiyo!”
“Well, hello, Captain,” Homemade Catwoman purred. “Have you considered ditching the beagle and getting a cat instead?”
Chuck looked absolutely panicked.
“Ahem,” Sarah said, and Catwoman turned to look at her. Sarah merely gave her the same look that had once made an oil sheik wet himself.
Catwoman blanched. “My meow—mistake,” she said, and slunk away, nearly running into a very large man dressed as Xena: Warrior Princess with anything but catlike grace.
Chuck looked at Sarah. “Thank you,” he whispered. “She was scary.”
Sarah rolled a shoulder. “I’ve faced scarier,” she said, and smiled at him.
He gave her that huge smile that lit his whole face and offered her his elbow. “So we don’t get separated,” he said.
Sarah twined her arm through his. “Sounds smart to me. Where to next?”
“I don’t know. Want to go to another panel?”
“Sure. I really liked that panel about the TV show with that average guy who suddenly has all these spies in his life. I mean, it looks like a fun show, but…”
“Well, I just can’t see the female spy allowing herself to fall for her asset.”
He shrugged. “Maybe it came as a surprise to her. Maybe she just knows in her heart that he’s the right one to come along.”
“Feels contrived,” Sarah said, and blinked when a burly man in a steampunk outfit similar to the one Chuck’s image had sported in the warehouse approached them. “Um, do you know him?”
Chuck turned and immediately smiled. “Dave! My good man, how are you?”
“Surprised to see you here,” the man, Dave, said, shaking Chuck’s hand.
Chuck turned to include Sarah in the conversation. “Hey, Sarah, this is Dave. He’s signed up for my class.”
“Your one pupil?” Sarah asked, and blinked. Dave’s mouth had fallen open in shock; he stared at her, his eyes wide. “Uh...”
Chuck apparently didn’t notice. “Dave,” he said, “this is Sarah. She’s a friend of...oh, crap.”
“You’re her,” Dave whispered, reverently.
“Excuse me?” Sarah asked, looking from one man to the other. She wasn’t sure she’d heard right; the con was really crowded and a little noisy.
Instead of answering her, Dave turned to Chuck, almost accusingly. “She was real the whole time and you didn’t tell me?”
“Well, uh...” Chuck shuffled his feet. “I...”
“What’s going on?” Sarah asked.
“Er, it’s a little hard to explain,” Chuck said.
Meanwhile, Dave had returned his reverent gaze back to Sarah. “You’re too pretty to be real, you know. I think you worked better as a video game, almost.” He glanced up once, ponderingly, then shook his head. “No, I take that back. That’s wrong.”
Sarah stared at him and then at Chuck. Video game? What the hell were they talking about? Chuck had said something about a TV show, not a video game. Her character was a TV show character, right? Right?
“Chuck, what is he talking about?” she asked Chuck.
He had flushed all the way to the base of his neck, and even as she blinked at him, he looked absolutely miserable. “I’m really sorry,” he said.
“Well, see, I was a little bored last year and I wanted to try working on my 3-D rendering skills, and I needed a-oh, hell, I’m never going to get another chance to do this,” Chuck said.
Sarah opened her mouth to ask him what the he-heck was going on, but Chuck just let out some kind of oath in a foreign language she didn’t recognize, grabbed her, and kissed her.
Ellie nervously pulled at her jacket sleeves. “Are you sure I look believable?” she asked Carina.
Carina picked a piece of lint off Ellie’s shoulder. “You look great. Pinstripes are what all the heads of evil cabals are wearing this season.”
Ellie stuck her tongue out and Carina just laughed and said, “I’d hit that.”
”Grandpa, what’s that mean?”
”Er, what I meant to say is…”
Ellie stuck her tongue out and Carina just laughed and said, “Relax El. You’ll be great. Just remember, you’re Elaine Granota, sinister gunrunner looking to buy the MacGuffin from Evil Ted Roark. You are ruthless, heartless, cruel, unfeeling and yet still a snappy dresser.”
Blowing out a deep breath, Ellie bounced her shoulders a couple to times to get the kinks out. She wasn’t happy that yet another spy mission was taking place at the Buy More, but at least Chuck was safely out of the way in Riverside with Sarah at the sci-fi convention and Devon was in surgery. “Got it. Cameras online?”
“Manoosh is camped out in the van tapped into the Buy More’s security cams or whatever nerd-whiz-gizmo thing he does.”
“Good.” Ellie’s eyes swept across the sales floor of the closed Buy More where the spies, all dressed like a gunrunner’s gang would be, were killing time before the mission. Big Becks and Roan Montgomery sat side-by-side in matching black leather massage recliners. Big Becks was enjoying the shiatsu setting and Roan, the Swedish massage. Cole Barker and Agent Longshore were in the video game demo section engaged in a pitched Gears of War battle. Neither seemed to be particularly good since they cursed a blue streak every time they were killed. Which was often.
“He’s hiding.” Carina snickered. “He’ll tell you he’s in the break room checking the weapons, but he’s keeping a low profile since Ilsa Trinchina and Gertrude Verbanski went into the Home Theater room together to watch a movie.” Carina’s eyes flashed with glee. “We all know they’re going in there to ‘compare notes’,” she said making air quotes, “on John Casey’s—”
“Thank you, Carina,” Ellie said loudly, cutting her off.
(“See?” Violet whispered to Megan. “People always interrupt Aunt Carina when she talks.”
“It doesn’t seem to bother her, though. She always smiles when it happens,” Megan observed.)
(“See?” Megan said. Violet nodded.)
“I’m surprised Agent Forrest isn’t in there, too. Our Casey sure gets around,” Ellie said, with a sly grin.
Carina giggled happily and nodded her head in the direction of General Stanfield, who was chatting up Alex Forrest in the camera section. “She was on her way to join them, but got waylaid by General McPervoPants.” They fell silent and were just able to overhear the much older man ask in a rather suggestive tone about Agent Forrest’s “aperture.”
A wave of nausea clearly swept over Agent Forrest, who grimaced and turned a bit green. Ellie felt bad for the woman. Carina apparently did not. The redhead thought this was the funniest thing she had ever seen and let out a loud laugh. Every spy within earshot turned and stared at her. She shrugged and popped an eyebrow. “What can I say? I love my job.”
That elicited some curious looks from those who didn’t know Carina well and knowing eye-rolls from those who did. Ellie wanted to scold her partner for laughing, but it was hard to when they both had been on the receiving end of General Stanfield’s “colorful” comments. And she knew how much Carina disliked Alex in the first place. She couldn’t stop the laughter from bubbling up.
The break room doors flew open and Casey barreled out, the weaponry hanging off him made him look like a one man SWAT team. Stalking up to his partners, he snarled, “Will you two hens quit cackling? We’ve got a job to do. Evil Ted Roark and his posse will be here soon and we need to be ready.”
Ellie sobered immediately and replied, “You’re right, John.”
Carina’s look of contrition needed work.
A question that had been niggling at the back of Ellie’s brain finally pushed its way to her consciousness. “How do we know we’re even buying the right thing? Did the analysts back at Langley dig up any new intel about the MacGuffin?”
Carina and Casey stared at her, both faces slack. “Huh. I guess we should have checked on that sooner than thirty minutes before the mission’s supposed to start,” Casey mused. He spoke into his comm, “Manoosh, you know what the MacGuffin is?”
The scowl on Casey’s face indicated that the techie in the van told him that he did not know what the MacGuffin was and possibly that Casey should go do something with himself that was anatomically impossible. Manoosh wasn’t the easiest agent they’d worked with, Ellie couldn’t help but notice.
”What is the MacGuffin, Grandpa?”
Stephen looked up from the book to give Violet that quiet, unassuming stare he’d learned worked best on the five-year-olds.
It took Violet only a second. ”Oh,” she said, and deflated a little bit. ”I guess I can wait and find out in the story like you said. I hope it’s something really cool, though.”
”Like what?” Megan asked.
”But how would they get it in the Buy More?”
”Who cares? It’s a submarine! It’s cool.”
”I think helicopters are cooler than submarines,” Megan said, and both girls turned toward Stephen in evident agreement that the story should go on.
Carina put in her earwig. “Hi, Manoosh, sweetie. How’s it going out there?” she purred. “I know Casey can be such a poop sometimes,” Carina winked at Casey when his nostrils flared like an angry bull’s, “but it would be so helpful to me—” her voice dropped both suddenly and seductively, “and I would be eternally in your debt—if you could check on one of your little ol’ CIA laptops to see if the egghe—er—analysts at Langley have figured out what exactly what the MacGuffin is.”
Ellie heaved a sigh and chose not to put in her earwig. She really didn’t want to hear what Manoosh might be saying just then. It was apparently a good call since Carina stuck her finger in her mouth like she was gagging herself.
After another minute, Carina pointed to Ellie’s earwig and then her ear, so Ellie reluctantly complied. As soon as it was in, she picked up the last couple of words of Manoosh’s information dump.
“What! A dirty bomb?” Ellie said.
“Yes, Agent Bartowski. That’s what I just said,” Manoosh groused in an annoyed voice. He was never going to forgive her for the time he was the mark in that ersatz seduction mission. Apparently, it was something his ego had a hard time forgetting.
”So how is this different than any other dirty bomb we’ve dealt with?” Ellie asked, thinking of that almost-unfortunate incident in Marseilles.
”Well…” They heard Manoosh flipping papers and then his sharp intake of breath as he finally accessed his Intersect glasses. ”Oh, here’s the key difference.”
”It makes a mean caramel macchiato.”
“Yeah. It’s a combination dirty bomb/espresso machine.”
“Well, that’s…twisty,” Carina said, stating the obvious.
A dirty bomb/espresso machine? That was the big super secret weapon everyone was getting all excited about? This so called genius Orion developed an exploding coffee maker? Ellie’s knees buckled. She was never going to get the Intersect out of her head.
“Grandpa, why would this Orion guy make a ‘sploding coffee machine?” Megan asked.
Stephen lowered the open book to his lap. “What? You don’t think it’s a brilliant idea? I do.”
Violet giggled. “Grandpa, you got all excited about the new toilet paper yesterday.”
“Well, it is really soft,” he deadpanned.
Hands flew over their mouths, but that didn’t stop the giggles.
Martie, barefoot and wearing a pink nightgown, peeked around the doorframe. “Grandpa? The movie Bridget and I were watching is over. She went to her room to read.” She cast them a longing look.
“Thank you for letting me know, Martie.” Of his eight grandchildren, Martie, the seven-year-old, was by far the shyest. He smiled and held out an arm, inviting her in. “Would you like to join us in story time?”
Pleased, she grinned, scampered over to him and hugged him around the neck.
Megan shot her sister a look of supreme displeasure but remained silent. Stephen knew Megan was put out that her sister was “horning in,” but knew better than to say anything after the talking to Ellie had given her after yesterday’s “Chutes and Ladders Incident.”
“Martie, come sit with me and Sir over here,” Violet said, pulling up her legs to make room for her cousin.
Martie padded over to the bed and jumped up, pulling her nightgown over her bare legs. When she stuck her feet under Sir’s belly, he lifted his head, groaned in annoyance and laid it back down.
”One of you want to tell Martie what’s going on in the story?” Stephen asked, looking from one granddaughter to the next.
”Ooh, me! I want to!”
”Why don’t you—”
Violet barreled onward, right over what Stephen had been about to suggest. ”So it’s really cool, you see—Aunt Ellie’s a spy—”
”And Uncle Chuck’s a nerd—”
”And Aunt Ellie has magic.”
”The Intersect. It’s obviously? magic.”
Megan looked dubious, and Martie confused. ”Wait, Momma’s a spy?”
”Yes, and she’s really cool, there’s a bad guy named Granny and he—”
”La Gran-wee, Vi. Not Granny.”
”Either way, Gran-wee had some in-tell on a guy named Granola and Granola was going to buy this really cool Mack-cuffin from Evil Ted Roark, but you know what?” Violet threw her hands over her mouth as if she held the world’s greatest secret.
Martie’s eyes were as wide as saucers. ”What?” she asked, looking from her cousin to her sister, who had mimicked Violet’s position.
Both girls burst out into shrieks of laughter. ”It’s a coffeemaker bomb!”
“Gosh!” Martie breathed in awe.
The two five-year-olds bounced on their knees a couple of times and then scrambled back into their sleeping bags. Three faces waited for Stephen to continue.
“All caught up, Martie?” She couldn’t have understood anything from that summary, Stephen thought, but did it really matter?
“Good! Here we go. ‘I wonder what…’”
“I wonder what the coffee tastes like,” Casey said.
“I bet it would really light you up,” Carina replied, straight-faced.
“Ha!” Ellie snorted.
“You shouldn’t use puns around me when I’m heavily armed, Miller.” Scowling, he added, “Or ever, for that matter.”
She batted her eyelashes at him, the Carina-Casey equivalent of poking a grizzly bear with a stick.
At that moment, Ellie realized she shouldn’t worry about raising kids. She’d certainly had plenty of practice with those two around. She raised her voice and said, “Okay, spies. Time for a quick briefing before Evil Ted Roark gets here.”
Roan and Big Becks reluctantly climbed out of the massage recliners, Barker and Longshore paused their game and Alex Forrest fled from General McPervoPants. They wandered over and grouped in front of Team Bartowski.
Carina shot a mischievous smirk at Ellie. In a sweet voice, she said, “Casey, why don’t you go tell the ladies in the Home Theater room that we need them out here.”
“No way,” he said immediately, looking like he would rather kiss Lester Patel on the lips than go near that room.
“I’ll go,” Cole Barker volunteered. He returned a moment later with a spy on each arm and a grin on his face.
“We just received fresh intel that the MacGuffin is a combination dirty bomb—”
As one, the spies gasped and looked at each other with concern. They held their collective breaths, waiting to hear the rest of the information.
“—and espresso machine.”
As one, the spies expelled their breaths and said, “Huh?” They looked at each other in confusion.
“I know! Twisty, right?” Carina said.
Ellie ignored Carina and continued. “Regardless of how odd this weapon might seem, it is still very dangerous, especially to baristas and other purveyors of hot beverages.”
“It’s a Latte Machine with a lotta boom,” Roan whispered to Big Becks.
“Indeed,” she whispered back. “It’s an Espresso Train Straight to Hell.”
There was a wave of snickers.
Casey gave the group a hard look. “This is no laughing matter. It’s brilliant if you think about it. Granota, a weapons and gun runner, works with Fulcrum to install dirty bomb-espresso machines in Starbucks all over the country. What would happen if those bombs went off all at once? Half the country would be cratered, including us right here.” He hiked a thumb behind him, reminding everyone of the Starbucks in that very mall.
“We’d be a nation of irritable and short-tempered non-productive zombies with caffeine withdrawal headaches. Only children and the tragically unhip would be functional,” Ellie added.
“The bombs, of course, will be destructive, but the world will smell awesomely of Colombian roast afterward,” Roan said.
The other spies sobered, especially the three that tried to hide the paper venti cups behind them.
Casey began to pass out submachine guns and rifles to each spy. “We work for a weapons dealer. In addition to the pistol I know each of you have on you, make sure you have one of these as well.”
When he held out a Heckler & Koch submachine gun to Carina, she shook her head. From nowhere, a Bowie knife with a nine-inch blade appeared an inch from Casey’s nose.
“Fine,” he growled through a clenched jaw. “Get shot. See if I care.”
“And yet, Johnny Boy, we both know you do,” she purred.
When the gang was armed to the teeth, and the comm check was completed, Casey said, “Barker, Longshore and Forrest. I want you at the front door. That’s where Evil Ted Roark is supposed to enter. Trinchina and Verbanski, you take the back just in case they try something. Everyone else is with me.”
The spies moved into position and waited. Five minutes later, a black Suburban with tinted windows pulled up in front of the Buy More. A black van slid to a stop behind the SUV. Two more SUVs pulled in behind the van.
Nerves shot though Ellie and she took a deep breath. “Okay, spies. Here we go.”
When Chuck grabbed her, it was a slight understatement to say that Sarah was surprised. Shocked would come closer and would only truthfully brush the very tip of that particular iceberg. Startled, yes. She was lucky her spy senses never really kicked in. Had any of her enemies done what Chuck just had, she would have dropped them with a sharp karate chop to the neck and followed it with a knee to the face, most likely.
It was so far outside of her anticipated behavior for Chuck Bartowski, though, that she just stood there.
Well, no, that wasn’t entirely accurate, either. She kissed him back. It might have been reflex.
She heard snickering in the background, and voices tumbling over each other.
“Archer and Seven? Now there’s a pairing I never thought to ship!”
“Oooh, Chakotay’s gonna be so pissed!”
“Wow, tongue much? Get a room.”
At some point, Sarah’s senses returned to her and she realized that she was standing in the middle of some nerd haven in Riverside…kissing Chuck. She took a surprised step back; Chuck let her go. He opened his eyes, looking like a forest creature trapped in the headlights.
Sarah ignored his redheaded friend, who’d pulled his camera phone out. “What,” she started to ask Chuck, but a commotion to their left made all of them look over.
“Hey!” A man in a black jumpsuit with red across the shoulders and weird tattoo markings above his eyebrow stormed out of the crowd. He looked furiously at Chuck. “What do you think you’re doing, macking on my woman?”
Chuck waved both hands at him, his eyes widening. “Seriously, dude, not a good time for a con role—”
“Your woman?” Sarah asked, confusion over the kiss—and Chuck was quite the kisser—turning very quickly to anger.
The man in black and red blinked at her. “It’s a con, you’re supposed to play along—”
Sarah grabbed his shoulder and yanked, hauling his torso down. She met his stomach with her knee. He dropped to the floor curled up like a shrimp, groaning.
“Whoa,” Chuck’s friend Dave said. “Guess that ship sailed. Sorry, Chakotay.”
Sarah ignored him and whirled on Chuck. She grabbed his arm, wrenched it behind his back, and marched him away. He let out a whimper; she shoved him toward an alcove that was quite a bit more private than the spectacle they’d just created. Dave followed along, keeping pace rather easily.
“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” Sarah asked him, exasperated.
He rolled his eyes heavenward, obviously giving the matter some thought, then shrugged. “Not really.”
Sarah ignored him. He was the lesser of her problems. The greater of them, she released. Chuck shook his arm, no doubt, to get feeling back into it and faced her, looking a bit terrified. “What,” Sarah said, “the he—ckfire is going on with you? Why did you do that?”
Chuck looked absolutely wrecked. “I…”
“You should just show her Miranda,” Dave said.
“Miranda?” Chuck and Sarah both asked.
Dave looked straight at Chuck. “She needed a name, dude.”
“Who’s Miranda?” Sarah asked.
But Chuck was staring at Dave, confusion clearly written on his face. “Why Miranda?”
“Serenity,” Dave said, as if that should explain everything. “I figure if anybody could turn somebody into a Reaver, it would be her.”
Chuck rubbed his forehead. “Dave, I mean this in the best possible way, but please go away.”
“No thanks, here’s more interesting.” Dave planted his feet and leaned his shoulder against the wall.
“Who in the he—H E double hockey sticks is Miranda?” Sarah asked. “And before you two go into another tangent like that, remember, I am armed.”
“You are?” Dave asked. “That’s hot.”
“Shut up, Dave,” Chuck and Sarah said.
Sarah pinned Chuck with the same no-nonsense look she’d given Catwoman a few minutes earlier.
He sighed and, still looking completely miserable, pulled his phone out of his pocket. A few taps on the screen and he handed it over. “That’s Mir—the rendering I did. I used her to help advertise for my classes, which is how Dave knows about her. But her name’s not Miranda.”
No, Sarah discovered, her name should have been Sarah. Because on Chuck’s screen was a very realistic, very creepy 3-D model of her with black hair and some kind of white skinsuit. The model had her head tilted, looking not at the viewer but at some point in the distance. The realism, however, made spiders crawl along Sarah’s skin.
“Not real spiders, Megan. It’s a metaphor.”
“This story uses a lot of metaphors.”
“Thank you, Violet.”)
She looked at Chuck blankly and just said the first word that came to mind: “What?”
“I promise I haven’t done anything creepy with her,” Chuck said, and gently pried the phone out of her hand. “I just…it was a project and I honestly didn’t think you’d be back and I’m sorry.”
“That’s the video game character you were talking about,” Sarah said, realizing it. She looked from Dave to Chuck. “I’m in a video game?”
“No, mostly you just sing,” Dave said, smiling.
“You’re pretty good, too.”
Sarah realized very belatedly that her head was spinning. Maybe it was from the kiss—she would never have suspected Ellie’s nerdy brother of such a smooth move, or of being such a potent kisser—or maybe she’d finally had her fill of nerdiness or (and she figured it was probably this) she had a weird black-haired video game clone somewhere that sang, but her head began to spin. She ran a hand over her hair, trying to gather her wits. Chuck watched her fearfully, as though she were the judge and jury about to decide his fate.
Also, there were so many things about him that she needed to reevaluate, apparently.
Weirdest vacation ever.
“Okay, that’s it,” she said. “Is there someplace around here with alcohol? I can’t take any more of this.”
“The hotel bar,” Chuck said. “They nerd it up for the convention, but they serve alcohol, I promise.”
Sarah grabbed his arm above the elbow. “Lead the way. I really need a drink.”
Dave’s face brightened. “A wedding?” he asked, and Sarah stopped in her tracks. “Excellent! I love weddings! Drinks all around!”
“Who the He—athcliff said anything about a wedding?” Sarah asked.
Chuck sighed. “It’s a movie quote. C’mon, I’ll buy you the largest martini they serve. Least I could do.”
“Please,” Sarah said, and let him lead the way to the bar.
Chapter 9: The Restaurant at the End of the (Hotel) Universe
Chuck led the way into the hotel’s bar and restaurant, which Sarah imagined was probably a nice, white table-clothed dining establishment most of the time. For the convention, however, it had been transformed into some sort of extension of a nerd haven. The table cloths were now bright green plastic, Xeroxed menus rested in silver holders at every table, and the servers all wore nerdy T-shirts. It was also considerably less crowded than the con floor had been. A glance at one of the menus as they passed told her why: the prices were probably out of the wheelhouse of most of the con attendees.
Chuck, who was probably in the same demographic as most of them, however, headed for the bar. He had a crestfallen, defeated look about him. Dave ambled along behind them, ever amiable.
He was a pain in the as—butt, but Sarah had bigger problems.
They took their seats at the bar and the bartender, wearing a bright orange shirt, wandered over. He did the stop-and-stare thing that nerds had been doing to Sarah all day.
Chuck, apparently, was getting good at ignoring that. “I could really use a drink,” he told the bartender.
“Sure. Whaddya need?”
“What do you have?”
The bartender, never looking away from Sarah, placed a drink menu in front of him. Chuck took it, glanced at it, and passed it over to Sarah.
Before she could read it, however, the bartender gulped, audibly. “You are the best Seven of Nine I’ve seen since Jeri Ryan herself,” he whispered, reverently.
“Uh, thanks.” Sarah glanced at the menu and blinked. These were some of the strangest drink names she’d ever seen. “Uh, I’ll have the Goldeneye Martini.”
“Harvey Wallbanger,” Dave said without looking at the menu.
“Make mine a Sonic Screwdriver,” Chuck said.
The bartender began mixing up Sarah’s martini first. He kept sneaking furtive peeks at her, which nearly made her roll her eyes, until: “Your drinks are on the house,” the barkeep said.
Dave, Chuck, and Sarah blinked at him. “What?” Chuck asked.
“Seven of Nine should never have to pay for a drink in my establishment. You three drink free.” And he wandered off to finish mixing the drinks.
Dave’s face lit up. “Sweet! Free drinks! See? I told you here was the best place to be.” He settled in to study the menu with a renewed vigor.
Sarah ignored him. All this time, she thought, all this time she’d just suspected Ellie’s brother of being uptight and nervous. And yes, he’d been cute and funny at dinner the night before, but—really? He’d turned her into a video game character?
And then he’d kissed her?
She really didn’t understand Chuck Bartowski at all. Except for right now, she thought. Right now she probably knew him really well: he was staring morosely at his hands, though his eyes kept shifting toward her and very quickly away.
The worst part was that she felt bad. That was strange. She’d had to turn down a lot of dates with eager men who never bothered to look past the surface, and she’d learned to stop feeling bad about it—and how to get around it. Intimidating men was surprisingly easy, actually. But now, she felt bad.
This was a fine mess.
The bartender put her drink in front of her. She made it a point of smiling at him and waiting until he cleared off to go help some other convention-goers down at the other end of the bar. Then she turned to Chuck.
He froze, the Sonic Screwdriver—which looked like just a regular Screwdriver—halfway to his lips. “Ah, yes?”
“Ellie never told me you actually created video games,” Sarah said, surprising herself.
He looked flustered for a second, but took a long swallow of his drink. “Uh, it’s not video games, really. I just did the one rendering.”
“Yes.” Chuck flinched.
“Working off, what? That was…highly detailed.”
“Oh, it wasn’t from memory or anything. I’m not that creepy, I promise. Ellie had your picture set as the profile for you in her phone, so I went in and grabbed it when she left it on the counter one day and—wow, that’s just as creepy. I’m sorry.” Chuck knocked back the rest of his drink.
“Why’d you use my picture?”
Chuck mumbled something.
“What was that?” Sarah asked.
Dave flipped the menu over, eyes lighting up at the idea of even more free drink possibilities. “He says you’re pretty.”
Chuck glared at him. “I used the word attractive.”
“Besides, it was kind of Ellie’s idea,” Chuck said, giving his empty glass a forlorn look.
“I needed somebody kickass for the models I was rendering, and I wanted to skip the whole He-man superhero type. Ellie suggested Carina at first.”
Sarah actually felt a little offense rise at that—which was ridiculous. Carina was a great agent. They’d worked together for nearly a year. She’d make a good template for a kickass model rendering.
“But Carina’s scary,” Chuck said. “So Ellie suggested you. And…it fit.”
“Because you’re pretty,” Dave said.
“Shut up, Dave.”
“Fine by me,” Dave said. “Bartender, a Captain Jack Rose Tyler, if you please!”
Sarah and Chuck stared at the mostly full Harvey Wallbanger—with its very own rabbit ears—in front of Dave. He gave them a “So what?” look, slammed it back, and eagerly held out his hand for his new drink.
Her ability to be Seven of Nine, Sarah realized, was going to give him alcohol poisoning.
“Another Screwdriver?” the bartender asked Chuck, sighing at Sarah’s mostly full martini.
“No, I think I’ll have a Seven’s Seven and Seven,” Chuck said.
The bartender brightened considerably. “Excellent choice!”
“Wow,” Chuck said after the bartender wandered away again. “He really has a thing for Seven of Nine.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” Sarah shifted in her seat, uncomfortable at that. This was just awkward, she decided. “So you think I’m kickass, huh?”
“Of course I do.” Chuck didn’t slam back his drink but instead swirled it, still staring at it. “You’re a sp—seriously awesome woman. Ellie told me about some of the things you two faced when you were still living in Burbank. And I’m sorry I kissed you like that. That was wrong.”
“Why?” Sarah asked before she really thought about it. “I liked it.”
Chuck’s shock was interrupted by a high-pitched whine. Both Chuck and Sarah looked over at Dave, the source. Dave abruptly stopped laughing and straightened. “I know, I know. Shut up, Dave. But do you hear that, dude? She likes you!”
Sarah sighed. “Stay,” she told Dave.
“What? You’re leaving?”
“For a minute. You can still order more drinks.”
Dave perked up. “Sold. Barkeep, a Wallace and Gimlet, please!”
Sarah left him to his boozy heaven and grabbed Chuck’s elbow, hauling him away from his ersatz student. Chuck looked nervous—not surprising, given that she’d put him in an arm lock not twenty minutes before. But she only pulled him out of earshot of Dave.
“I figure this’ll go faster without him here,” she said.
Chuck glanced over his shoulder at Dave. “We could just ditch him.”
“No, I know his type. He’ll just find us.”
“Especially if it leads to more free booze,” Sarah said.
“True. Wait, you really don’t want to kick my as—butt? Seriously?”
“Why would I? You’re a good kisser, Chuck.”
“I…” Chuck’s mouth shut with a gentle snap. “I can think of absolutely nothing to say to that. Absolutely nothing.”
“Good.” Sarah threw caution to the wind—she was on vacation, and she’d genuinely had fun with Chuck all day and the night before, and why not?—and grabbed the front of Chuck’s jumpsuit. She pulled his head down to hers and—
“Ew!” Violet’s voice cut through the narrative, making her cousins and Stephen look over at her in confusion. Even Sir raised his head.
“Violet? What is it?”
Sir, seeing that no food had magically appeared during his rest, put his head back down.
Violet, on the other hand, scowled. “They’re kissing again, aren’t they? Aren’t they, Grandpa?”
Stephen adjusted his reading glasses. “Well, yes,” he said at length. “But that’s what people do in romances. They kiss.”
Martie sighed. “I like it.”
“Well, Major Casey Sir doesn’t,” Violet said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Uncle Casey’s not here,” Megan said, all rationality as she gave her cousin a strange look.
“So I don’t think he’d really mind if he’s not here, do you?”
“Well…” Violet puzzled over her cousin’s statement, a line appearing between her eyebrows as it always did whenever she was deep in thought. “That’s a very good point, Megan.”
“Thank you, Violet.”
Stephen looked from one grandchild to the next. “Well?”
“They can kiss. I’ll allow it, but only because Major Casey Sir isn’t here,” Violet said, the picture of magnanimity itself.
“Thank you, Violet,” Stephen said, conveniently hiding his grin behind the book, especially when Megan and Martie gave solemn nods to say that they agreed with their cousin. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes…”
Sarah pulled Chuck’s head down to hers and kissed him, a great deal less frantically than earlier, before the strange man with the face tattoos and the red and black uniform had tried to attack Chuck. He seemed surprised, but not displeased.
In fact, when he lifted his head, he was grinning. “Wow,” he said.
“Do you know how long I have been dreaming of this moment? Wait, no, that sounds creepy but—wow.” Chuck’s grin threatened to overwhelm his entire face. Sarah started to laugh at him, but he surprised her by kissing her again, quickly. “Wow.”
Her own head felt a little light, and she couldn’t be positive her smile was any less brilliant than Chuck’s own, but Sarah attempted to give him a droll look anyway. “You’re not going to start dancing on the table-tops, are you?” she asked, mock-seriously.
“No promises.” His eyes sparkled. “This is the greatest day ever. I feel…Actually, I don’t know how I feel, but I feel great. You’re so perfect, this is so perfect, this is so great.”
“Gee,” Sarah said, but she could actually feel an honest blush beginning to spread, “tell me how you really feel.”
“Okay,” Chuck said, and with no prompting, picked her up, twirling her around.
(To the tune of If I Were a Bell)
Ask me how do I feel
Ask me now that we’re nerdy and geeking
Sarah, all I can say is that if I were R2 I’d be beeping.
From the moment we kissed tonight
It was just like I left Yoda’s cave
Boy, I feel like a Jedi Knight
And it’s Leia that I have to save.
Ask me how do I feel, lanky me with my nerdy upbringing
Well, now all I can say is if I were Vader I’d be scheming
And if I were a droid I’d be popping my springs
Well if I were R2 I’d go beep boop beep boop beep.
Ask me how do I feel from this chemistry lesson I‘m learning.
“Uh,” Sarah said, holding up a hand to stop him—not in time, as he leaped onto a table. She blinked. “Chemistry?” was all she could ask.
Chuck grinned down at her before he yanked her up on the table with him. “Yes, chemistry,” he said, and dropped to one knee to serenade her. On a tabletop.
Sarah, if I were on Alderaan then I would be burning.
I knew like Luke’s dad I would crack
From the wonderful way that you looked
If I had the Force I’d talk smack
And if I were a Worrt I’d be cooked.
Tell me how do you feel about wearing a metal bikini?
Well now if you did that then my legs would turn into linguine.
Ask me how do I feel about this whole beautiful thing.
Well, if I were R2 I’d go beep boop beep boop beep.
He spun in a circle on his knees—and made Sarah laugh. That was, until a “Hey!” made both of them look over.
Their bartender stood at the mouth of the bar, giving them both incensed looks.
“Whoops,” Chuck said, and hopped off the table. He held a hand up to help Sarah down, but she ignored it and jumped easily to the ground. “Sorry about that, dude. Heat of the moment, you understand. Beep boop—”
The bartender’s scowl only intensified. “Who the he—ck do you think you are?” he asked. “Have a little respect!”
Chuck and Sarah exchanged a look. “Erm,” Chuck said. Sarah gave him an I don’t know what he’s talking about either look. “I really am sorry about the table thing. I can pay for any damages and…” Hurriedly, he bent and wiped at the tabletop with the elbow of his jumpsuit. “See? Good as new, sort of.”
“I don’t give a donkey’s—behind about the tabletop, jerk.”
“Whoa,” Sarah said. “Wait just a second—”
The bartender ignored her. “Have a little respect for the uniform,” he told Chuck.
“I’m…I’m sorry, what?”
“You’re Captain Jonathan Archer, and you’re singing about atrocities like R2-D2?” The bartender’s face was now taking on a mottled shade of red that didn’t look healthy. “You, sir, do not deserve to wear that uniform until you have a little more respect!”
“I…” Chuck seemed genuinely at a loss for words. “You do know that Star Wars and Star Trek, they’re not really…real, don’t you? That they’re just fiction, right?”
“Just—” The bartender’s eyes grew comically wide, and Sarah wondered for a moment if he was going to go into cardiac arrest. “Just fiction? How—how dare you!”
And he plowed his fist right into Chuck’s confused face.
Chuck discovered in that moment that being punched in the face was not fun. At all. In fact, it was so un-fun that the second the stars left his vision, he was going to swear off the habit altogether. Right now, however, he was too busy reeling from the sheer amount of pain that exploded across his jaw, all the way to his toes.
Every bit of his high—his wonderful, wonderful high as Sarah Freakin’ Walker had kissed him, and had smiled about it—immediately deflated. His eyes began to water. Ow. He took a surprised step back.
Sarah’s reflexes were much faster than his. He’d only had time to take that one step before she’d moved—just a blur, really—and the bartender was on the ground, wheezing for breath. Sarah herself firmly in front of Chuck and glaring at their bartender. “What,” she said in a voice colder than Siberia, “is your problem?”
It took the bartender a minute to climb to his feet, one hand on his chest. He curled forward a little, too, probably out of pain “Disrespectful fans,” he said, glaring at Sarah and then at Chuck. “That’s my problem! All day, these posers come in and out of my bar, and finally I meet the perfect Seven of Nine, and she allows some dork to defile his Star Trek uniform and sing her Star Wars love sonnets.”
Sarah’s glare deepened. “The term,” she said, “is nerd.”
Chuck Bartowski fell in love on the spot.
“Whatever. I’m not going to allow some Vader-loving loser to sully the good name of Seven of Nine! Even if you don’t have anything on Jeri Ryan—”
“Hey!” Chuck surged forward. “Nothing against Jeri Ryan, but watch your mouth!”
“Chuck,” Sarah said.
“Insult me all you like, but leave her out of this,” Chuck said.
“Really not helping,” Sarah said.
Their bartender’s scowl deepened. “I think the both of you need to leave.”
“Gladly,” Chuck said. “And don’t think I won’t get on Yelp and give this place one star later!”
The bartender rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah, like you could actually write a review that people would even listen to. You like Star Wars. Your lot couldn’t even punctuate ‘I suck’ properly.”
“I’ll have you know, my grammar is impeccable!”
“You know what? We’re leaving.” Sarah grabbed Chuck’s arm and started to pull him away. “And don’t think I won’t be talking to hotel management about this,” she called over her shoulder at the bartender. She hauled Chuck from the bar.
“Can you believe that guy?” he asked the minute they were outside. “What a tool. I can so punctuate a sentence properly.”
Sarah rolled her eyes, but she was smiling again. “How’s your face?”
“It hurts. Ow. They don’t tell you how much getting punched in the face really freaking hurts. Geez.” Chuck gingerly touched his jaw.
Sarah pulled his hand away. “Here, I’ll help you feel better,” she said, and kissed him.
None of his daydreams, real dreams, or even thoughts, Chuck discovered, could live up to the very real sensation of her lips on his. Warmth flooded his chest.
This wasn’t heaven. This was something better.
“Does that help?” Sarah asked, smiling at him.
He couldn’t remember what it was supposed to help. Not surprising: he couldn’t remember his own name. So he just nodded. “I don’t know,” he heard his voice say. “It might not have worked. Maybe you should try again?”
Sarah laughed. “Maybe in a little while. Right now, I’m hungry, and R2-D2, whoever he is, just got us kicked out of this place’s biggest restaurant. What are we going to do now?”
“Snack bar,” Chuck said. “Though I have to say, I’m a little disappointed the bartender was such a tool.”
They began walking, joining the crowd of nerds once more, their costumes allowing them to blend in. When Sarah reached for his hand, Chuck’s heart nearly stopped. He kept it together—good one, Bartowski—by taking a deep breath.
“Why’s that?” Sarah asked.
“I got a look at the menu before we were leaving. I was really excited to try the Steak Tar-TARDIS, you know?”
Chuck had to laugh at the confused look. “Yeah,” he said. “It sounded really good. Possibly even better than the Fillion Mignon.”
“I don’t know what that’s a pun of,” Sarah said, “but I do know it’s a pun, so…” She groaned.
Chuck laughed. This day, he decided, was perfect, even if his face hurt.
“Wait a second,” Sarah said, stopping in the middle of the aisle.
Chuck nearly groaned. Spoke too soon, his brain told him.
“Probably passed out thanks to all of that free alcohol you got him,” Chuck said. “Should we go back and get him? I can sing the Star Wars Gangsta Rap and annoy the bartender some more if you feel up to protecting my face.”
“Tempting,” Sarah said. “But let’s just let him sleep it off.”
Megan elbowed Violet and leaned over and whispered, “Poor Dave.”
Martie nodded. “He’s going to miss out on the snack bar. Poor Dave.”
“I’m hungry,” was all Violet said to that.
“Guess it’s time to take a break,” Stephen said. “What would you like to eat?”
“Hm, seems a little implausible. How about some Scooby Snacks instead?”
When that was met with cheers, Stephen set the book aside and ushered his charges off to the kitchen. It was a good a time as any to take a break. When they got back, the real trouble would begin.