25 JANUARY 2008
Sarah’s touch on his arm changed to a grip the instant they cleared the front doors into Kaninchen Enterprises, and Chuck figured that had more to do with the fact that they had just walked into a large crowd of partygoers rather than any fear of what the building might contain. Seeing the sheer number of people around did give him slight pause, but it put no more than a split-second hitch in his stride that he was able to pass off as fairly smooth. He had, he reflected, come quite a ways since that train station in Moscow.
He handed the invitation Morgan had given him to the man by the door and smiled absently at Sarah. She smiled back and tightened her grip on his arm yet again, and they descended into the main foyer.
Kaninchen Enterprises did well enough, apparently, to afford a high-class interior decorator. Their office building was done in the minimalist style, starkly black and white in a way that said a lot of money had been spent on very little. Chuck imagined the stage and catering tables set up around the spacious room weren’t normally present on a day-to-day basis, and that a few chairs or benches for waiting had been removed as well. Even though it was early by L.A. standards, the room was already beginning to fill: Andy Kohlmeier must be either very well-liked, or attendance was mandatory to Kaninchen employees.
“Quite the shindig,” he said, twisting his head around to get a better look at both the crowd and to scope for any security cameras.
Sarah made a play of coyly adjusting her earring. “Casey,” she said, “we’re in.”
“Roger that. Any trouble?”
“But the night’s still young,” Chuck said, and earned a small scolding look from Sarah. Spotting something on the other side of the room, he waved. “There’s Morgan. Let’s go say hi.”
“Why don’t you do that, and I’ll get us something to drink?”
Without Sarah’s hand on his arm, the room seemed just a bit more crowded, but Chuck weaved his way through the mass of people in suits and cocktail dresses, nodding occasionally as though he had seen an acquaintance. Morgan’s setup was a little different from what Chuck remembered of the Halloween party. There was no giant banner of Luke Skywalker wearing headphones on the table where Morgan had set up his deejay equipment, though the logo was present on the stack of the business cards in the corner.
“Hey! You made it!” Morgan dropped one earpiece of the earphones around his neck, still holding up the other side to make sure he could hear the music properly. “Swanky party, right?”
“It’s definitely fancy. Like the tie.”
“Thank you, thank you.” Morgan adjusted something on his soundboard. The bright red tie was the only splash of color on his person, as he had gone with a black shirt and trousers, and a black pin-striped vest to complete the ensemble. “Where’s your lovely date?”
“Free drinks are the best thing about events like this. Oh, and the hot women. And the appetizers, of course.” And because it was Morgan, he began to list every single appetizer currently being served on silver trays held aloft by wandering caterers. Chuck figured he had arrived early simply to chat up the caterers and get the scoop on what was being served. He was still waxing poetic about the crab-stuffed mushrooms when Sarah joined them, balancing not two but three glasses of wine.
“I didn’t know your wine preference. Red okay?” she asked Morgan.
“Red is delicious,” Morgan said, nodding his thanks as he took the third wineglass from Sarah. “Look at my boy Chuck here, taking you to all these fancy shindigs. Don’t tell anybody, but I think there are going to be some celebrities here tonight.”
“Oh yeah?” Sarah’s eyes sparkled with enough fun that Chuck knew she was just humoring Morgan. Despite his best efforts, Sarah hadn’t actually picked up on too much pop culture in the weeks they had been dating.
“Well, I heard rumors of the cast of C.H.i.P.S. swinging by.” Morgan looked sage for a split second before he was called back to his turntable to mix the next song.
Chuck raised his eyebrows at Sarah and clinked his wineglass against hers. “Here’s to Erik Estrada?” he asked, smiling despite the mild nausea. He’d spent the entire time talking to Morgan looking around for either Piers Faulkner or Andy Kohlmeier. He hadn’t seen either, but he knew in just a short time, he and Sarah would have to break free from the party and do a little corporate espionage.
“Whoever that is,” Sarah agreed, drawing his thoughts away from just how many things could go wrong—and how many things could go wrong with Morgan nearby.
When Morgan had successfully sent the next song spinning into its full volume, he dropped the earphones back around his neck and grinned at his friends. “Totally beats a Friday night at home on the couch, right?”
Chuck had to fight not to flush, remembering exactly what Sarah had done to him, or with her tongue, when they had last been on a couch together. He took a hurried sip of wine. “Definitely.”
When Morgan’s grin abruptly turned serious, Chuck almost swung around to look for danger. But Morgan only cleared his throat. “Sorry, the boss isn’t much for the staff mingling with the guests,” he said, quickly moving his own wineglass from view. “And drinking on the job.”
“Guess that’s our cue to go mingle with others, then?” Sarah asked, threading her arm through Chuck’s again. “Don’t want to get you in trouble, after all.”
“Thanks,” Morgan said, shooting a look over his shoulder. Chuck followed his gaze and spotted a man in a dark suit similar to Morgan’s own scowling at the deejay table. Chuck gave Morgan a wave as Sarah pulled him away.
“See?” Sarah said once they were out of hearing range. “He’s fine. Surrounded by people, even.”
“Which is not normally an area where you’d consider Morgan out of danger,” Chuck noted, but he did feel somewhat better. “Are we really going to mingle?”
“Of course we are.” Sarah twisted her earring again. “How are you doing, Casey?” The last was said into the mic on her watch.
“Fine and dandy,” was his the sarcastic reply. “Let me know when you get a tap into the security cameras, then I’ll finally have something to do.”
Sarah and Chuck exchanged a glance after the com went silent. “We should bring him a doggy bag of appetizers,” Chuck said. “Apparently the crab-stuffed mushrooms are to die for, and if there’s one thing that Morgan can be trusted to know well, it’s free food. He’s like a free food gourmand.”
“A glowing recommendation,” Sarah said. “Let’s walk around and mingle.”
Which was, Chuck thought, the spy version of “Let’s case the joint,” but he allowed Sarah to drag him around by the arm—though he tried not to make it look like that—and pull him into one random conversation after the next. Since they were here under their own names, Chuck was a software programmer, and Sarah managed his small firm. Small talk, especially small talk with strangers, would forever make Chuck feel awkward, but he did his best not to bring up anything from the Roddenberry oeuvre and embarrass Sarah.
They had just gracefully navigated their way out of chitchat about the Lakers with a couple of Kaninchen’s investors from Monterey when Chuck turned and nearly ran into a tall man in an expensive suit. Even though the description could fit for most of the men at the party, Chuck recognize Andy Kohlmeier from the surveillance pictures he had been looking at all week. It took everything he had not to jolt.
“Ooh, Chuck, be careful,” Sarah said, grabbing Chuck’s arm to pull him back from an imminent collision with Kohlmeier. She turned a company smile toward Kohlmeier. “Sorry about that, Mr…?”
“Yes, very sorry,” Chuck said quickly.
“Kohlmeier. Andy Kohlmeier. And it was my fault, so no worries. I have this terrible habit of not looking where I’m going. It drives my assistant crazy.”
Chuck shook Kohlmeier’s hand. “Chuck Bartowski,” he said by way of introduction. “Believe it or not, I have the same problem. Sarah here had to save me from walking into a wall just last week.” He didn’t mention the fact that it had been Sarah’s fault—or rather more particularly her smile—that had nearly been the cause of his almost-collision with said wall.
“Nasty enemies, those walls,” Kohlmeier said, once Sarah had introduced herself as Chuck’s business associate. Kohlmeier was health-club fit with boyish good looks and just a hint of a crooked eyetooth. His accent was faintly Germanic, which made sense given that he had been born in Mannheim. “I hope you haven’t had any troubles with the walls here?”
“Not at all.” Chuck laughed and abruptly remembered the non-spy purpose for their being at the party at all. “Oh, and happy birthday, Mr. Kohlmeier.”
“It’s amazing how many times a man can turn twenty-nine, isn’t it?” said a new voice, and Chuck nearly jolted anew when they were joined by the other object of their surveillance, none other than Piers Faulkner himself. He was a head shorter than Andy Kohlmeier and quite a few years older, but he had the same style of expensive suit and the same genial air.
Introductions were made again, and this time Sarah confessed that they were passing acquaintances with the deejay, and that they were there on behalf of Pacific Securities. “We’ve heard some wonderful things about Kaninchen,” she said, pronouncing it with the same proper German accent the men had used earlier.
Piers Faulkner seemed to be a bit of a womanizer, judging by the way he stepped a little closer to Sarah. “And tell me,” Faulkner said, as Chuck clenched his jaw, his smile turning into a grimace, “is Kaninchen living up to your expectations?”
Sarah laughed and tilted her head. Chuck reminded himself that it was for the mission. “Of course, Mr. Faulkner. We were just admiring the Kandinsky over there on the wall.” She indicated it with another tilt of her head. “An inspired choice. I’ve always loved his Blue Rider period.”
“The lady has good taste,” Piers Faulkner said, bowing low over Sarah’s hand.
For the mission, Chuck told himself when Sarah giggled. She’s acting.
Andy Kohlmeier turned, drawing Chuck’s attention away from the other two. “So, how’s the software game? I have to say, I miss it. I moved into consulting about ten years back, and every once in awhile, I still miss those all-night coding sessions.”
“Consider me jealous. I would like to miss more of those,” Chuck said. “I got less sleep during my senior C++ thesis than I ever have in my life. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw code.”
Kohlmeier laughed, and the sound was rich and inviting, almost infectious. “Everything’s built on frameworks now. Makes me nostalgic for the old-school days.”
“Old-school? I’ll give you old-school. My roommate at Stanford and I coded an entire Zork game from the bottom-up on an old TRS-Eighty.”
“What, there wasn’t a PDP-Ten available?”
“Well,” Chuck said, shuffling his feet in an “aw shucks” sort of way, “we didn’t want to seem pretentious.”
This time, Kohlmeier’s laugh made Faulkner look away from Sarah and over at them. “What?” the Swiss national asked, and Chuck learned something new about their target: he didn’t like to be left out of a joke.
“Geek shop-talk, boss,” Kohlmeier said, clapping Faulkner on the shoulder, and Chuck blinked at Sarah to see a brief look of annoyance flit over her face. What had he done now? He gave her a puzzled look, but she gave a minute shake of her head: not now. “Just reliving our glory days, which are farther behind for some of us than others here.”
“I thought you were only twenty-nine?” Chuck asked innocently.
When Andy Kohlmeier gave a genuine belly-laugh, Chuck grinned and sipped his wine. It was hard to imagine that this man would be involved in a secret government conspiracy, though he could suspect Piers Faulkner in a second. Something about the older man just struck him as off.
“I’m very sorry to do this, gentleman, but if you’ll excuse me, I need to steal Chuck away for a few minutes,” Sarah said, smiling apologetically for the benefit of the Kaninchen employees. They made their farewells and Sarah pulled Chuck toward the table of food alongside the edge of the room. He went willingly; he hadn’t eaten before the mission out of nerves, and he wanted to know if the crab-stuffed mushrooms were as good as Morgan had claimed. But Sarah changed course a few feet from the food and instead led him deeper into Kaninchen, into a hallway where only a few of the partygoers mingled. The bathrooms were apparently back this way.
“Good work, Bartowski,” Casey said.
Chuck fiddled with his lapel to bring the mic closer to his mouth. “Uh, thanks, Casey.” He paused. “For what?”
“Kohlmeier liked you for whatever reason. Now we’ve got an in to use if we need to.”
Chuck’s eyebrows went up. “Wait, what? I don’t know about this—”
“Relax, it’ll be fine,” Sarah said before he could get started. “I was trying to work on Faulkner, but apparently Kohlmeier is our in.”
A spike of aggravation, which Chuck thought he’d managed to hide rather well during the conversation with the possibly-Fulcrum-hosts-of-the-party, rose. “Oh, is that what they’re calling it these days?” Chuck asked with more bitterness than he had intended.
One of Sarah’s eyebrows rose. “Oh, so you did notice.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You didn’t even blink when I started flirting with Faulkner.”
Now Chuck did blink. “I figured it was for the mission.”
“It was.” Sarah let out a huff of breath.
“Then…okay? You didn’t mean it, did you?”
“Then why am I supposed to be upset over this?” Though he had been, a little. It didn’t seem worthy of mentioning when he was so puzzled.
“Never mind.” Sarah turned abruptly and started heading down the hall—an area Chuck was pretty sure was supposed to be off-limits to partygoers. At least, he corrected in his mind, it was off-limits beyond the bathrooms. Sarah proved this by sending a furtive glance around, searching for security cameras.
Wordless now, Chuck followed her. He wasn’t sure if he wasn’t supposed to talk because they were officially on the covert part of the operation, or if she was mad at him. If it was the latter, he had no idea why. He’d acted in a logical and thoughtful manner, hadn’t he?
They headed down the hallway, not at a brisk trot but definitely moving a little quicker than normal. Outside of its main showroom foyer, Kaninchen seemed to break down into a regular office building. No fancy Kandinsky paintings on these walls, Chuck noticed, since the artwork inside the building trended toward motivational posters and paintings of fields that were supposed to be soothing. He eyed a few as they passed.
“I’m not proud,” Sarah said suddenly.
Chuck blinked and swiveled his face toward her. “Uh, okay?”
“What? I’m not.”
“I feel like this is one of those conversations where I was supposed to have a script, and I never got one.” Chuck made the observation idly, and he didn’t miss the fact that Sarah rolled her eyes.
“I feel like this is one of those conversations,” Casey said from the van, “that made me want to shoot myself in the head ten minutes ago.”
“Poor Casey,” Chuck said, since the other man was at least half a mile away, and that was plenty of lead time to run if he needed it. Seeing a placard by a door up ahead, he put a hand on Sarah’s arm to stop her. “This what you were looking for?”
“Yep. Stay here.” Sarah opened her clutch and withdrew something. The clutch, she handed to Chuck. “Hold that.”
“I really am your boyfriend,” Chuck observed before it caught on exactly what Sarah had pulled out. “Whoa! Hey! I thought you said this was a no-killing mission!”
Sarah shook her head a little and checked the gun, which was tiny compared to the Silver Monster. “Relax, it’s a tranq gun. I’m using twilight darts.”
“You’re going to tranq the security guy? Won’t that give us away when somebody tries to get in touch with him?”
“He’ll only be out for a few minutes,” Sarah said, “while you loop the security footage.”
“Oh. Is that what I’m doing? Nice to have a plan.”
“Isn’t it, though? Stay put.” Sarah flashed him one quicksilver-stop-your-heart smile before she turned and strode easily into the security room, as though she were walking into a supermarket or a library. Before the door had even closed, though, Chuck heard a “What the—” and the thwpp of the tranq gun preceding an ominously loud thud.
He didn’t even have time to panic that Sarah might have been hit before she reappeared, poking her head through the door and smiling at him. “Time to work your magic. I’d hurry if I were you. He’s bigger than I expected, so the tranquilizer probably won’t work too long.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Chuck said, and slipped past her into the security office. It wasn’t overly large since only one guard was supposed to be on duty at a time, but all of the monitors—controlled by two keyboards on a desk—looked new and fancy. Chuck had to step around the portly security officer, who was slack-faced and slumped on the floor, to get to the desk chair.
“Well, there’s our confirmation that this company really is affiliated with Ezersky,” he said after a few strokes on one of the keyboard let him right into the system. “Same security protocols. Let’s see…oh, good, the time stamp isn’t embedded until the video’s exported, so I’ll just loop last night’s footage and leave the party footage live so that there’s no discrepancy there. I hope nobody was working late last night.” Chuck muttered to himself while he worked, doing his best to keep one part of his brain alert to Sarah in case she needed anything.
Still, the second thwpp of the tranq gun going off made him jump and nearly fall out of his seat. “Gah!”
“What?” Sarah looked puzzled, standing over the security guard. “He was starting to wake up.”
“And he’s not going to remember being shot by a statuesque blonde?”
It looked like Sarah might be preening, but that was possibly a trick of the light. “They’re twilight darts. He won’t remember anything. How’s the looping going?”
Chuck turned back to his task. “Almost done. Just need to…” He trailed off into a flurry of typed commands and finally hit Return. “Done! We should be fine to wander around without Gonzo here noticing us.”
“Excellent. Help me get him back in the chair, then.”
It took both of them, with Casey occasionally laughing in their ears (“What is going on in there, Walker? Is Bartowski passing a kidney stone?”), but they managed to work the security guard back into his chair. Chuck wiped at his forehead once Paul, for that was what the guard’s nametag said, slumped at the computer. “Okay, I knew I took a couple of days off the exercise regiment, but this guy makes me feel like I don’t lift weights at all. Guh. Maybe I need to start lifting more.”
Sarah grinned. “C’mon,” she said, leading the way out.
It took them a few minutes to find Andy Kohlmeier’s office, and for the first little while, Chuck jumped at every noise, terrified that he hadn’t looped the cameras properly, but nobody came around the corner, demanding to know what they were doing there. Sarah picked the lock to get into the office while Chuck kept watch, or, as she put it, played lookout.
Kohlmeier had obviously either been with the company a long time, or his job was massively important, for his office was huge. Even so, Chuck only got two steps in before he stumbled to a halt. His jaw dropped. A minute later, after he had regained the power of speech, he said, “Sarah?”
“Yes?” She’d gone straight to the desk.
“You’re really lucky you’re hot, and lethal, and I’m not gay because if any of those three weren’t true, I’d go find Andy Kohlmeier right now and offer to have his babies.”
Sarah looked up, startled, but after she’d followed Chuck’s gaze, she laughed. “Score one for being an attractive assassin. When you’re done ogling the TRON poster, maybe you could help out and copy that hard drive like you’re supposed to.”
“I hate you both so much right now,” Casey commented from the van.
“Sorry, Casey,” Chuck said automatically. “All set up and ready to receive?”
Chuck set up the same dish and cloner he had used in Sergei Ezersky’s estate, hooking both into Andy Kohlmeier’s computer. He’d made a few changes to the file system on the drive, freeing up a little more bandwidth, and the hard drive on the computer wasn’t as large, which meant the copying time went infinitely faster. While they waited for the transfer to finish, Chuck and Sarah went through the papers in the desk, using the CIA issued spy camera (“It’s so wee!”) to photograph anything they felt might be pertinent. Chuck went through the desk drawers; Sarah searched the shelves.
“Anything else?” she asked.
Chuck lifted the top from a decanter and sniffed. “He even has great taste in alcohol. Want some?”
Sarah gave him a pained look.
“Yeah, drinking and missions probably don’t mix well, you’re right. What are we at, Casey?”
“Ninety-six percent. What’s he drink?”
“Smells like scotch. Probably single-malt and older than you or me, Case.”
“Maybe you could slip out a flask?” Casey sounded almost wistful.
Chuck glanced at Sarah, who smiled even as she shook her head no. “Better not,” Chuck said regretfully. “But have another cigar when we get back. On me.”
“I feel like all of this conversation tonight has earned me more than one cigar, Bartowski.”
Chuck winced. He had a point.
In Piers Faulkner’s office, just down the hall from Kohlmeier’s, they found a very similar set-up. Faulkner, however, didn’t seem to have Kohlmeier’s neatness, or his taste in movies, both of which Chuck found very unfortunate. While Faulkner’s hard drive copied to Casey out in the van, Chuck tried to make heads or tails of the paperwork on the desk, though he had to be careful about not moving anything too much. For all he knew, Faulkner was one of those messy people who still knew exactly where everything was.
“Man, has this guy never heard of a dust-buster?” he asked, kneeling by the desk to look underneath.
“Probably not. But the cleaning staff should have. Be careful about moving anything too much.”
“I’m being careful, I promise.” Chuck edged the desk drawers open and peered inside. He photographed everything in the “Krolik” file as a precaution, though none of the other files seemed important enough. And nothing, oddly, caused a flash. It made him feel like he should maybe be the one in the van, instead of Casey, but he pushed that thought away. He had other things to offer than the Intersect, and he had more than proven that tonight alone.
“Transfer complete,” Casey announced. “Finalizing now.”
“Wow, already?” Chuck checked his watch and blinked to see that it had been a full five minutes since they had entered Faulkner’s office. “Heh, guess time flies when you’re breaking and entering. Disconnecting, Casey.”
Once he had all of his computer equipment stored in the special holster fitted underneath his suit jacket, he gave Sarah a nod. “Need to look anywhere else?”
“I’m clear. Casey, we’re heading back to the party. We’ll notify you when we’re down there.”
“Roger that. I’ll pack up here.”
And just like that, Chuck and Sarah headed down the hall, leaving Piers Faulkner’s office (hopefully) exactly how they had found it. When Casey and Sarah had talked about the mission against Kaninchen, Chuck had been expecting more Mission: Impossible style antics, dropping down from the ceiling with ropes and catching drops of sweat before they could set off the sensors. Tranquing one guard and simply walking into offices, cloning hard drives, and walking out again felt anticlimactic.
They left the executive offices, taking the stairs rather than the elevator since they weren’t sure if the elevators were hooked into the security office, again walking hurried but not in what Chuck felt was an overly incriminating fashion. As they approached the safe zone—where the other partygoers were allowed to wander—he asked, “Is it just me, or did that seem really easy?”
“I don’t know what you mean by—crap.” Sarah tensed, and a split-second after her, Chuck heard the sound of footsteps approaching at a fast clip. Immediately, Sarah grabbed for the nearest door handle, but the door was securely locked.
They were too far from the party to play it off that they had gotten lost. Chuck felt panic speed up and down his spine. Should he run? Should he tell Sarah to grab the twilight tranq gun? How on earth could they ever hope to explain being this far from the party?
He was still searching for an escape route when Sarah reached up, hooked one arm around the back of his neck, and dragged him to her. He made a noise in surprise and stumbled forward, accidentally slamming her into the wall behind her. She might have grunted, but he didn’t notice, for she set in on him more insistently than she ever had during any of their make-out sessions, yanking him so that his body was molded against hers, one hand sneaking under his jacket and the other moving up into his hair.
He had exactly less than two seconds to think, Oh, crap before he couldn’t think at all. Sarah left him no choice; she kissed him vigorously, using a great deal more tongue than she ever had before. Chuck gasped when she bit his bottom lip, and focused on keeping up. Somehow, he found his hand tangling in her hair, which had been swept into some fancy up-do for the party. It tumbled free now, silky against his fingers, and he deepened the kiss, wanting more, though how it was possible, he didn’t know. He heard Sarah make a noise somewhere between a moan and a gasp, and his heart sped up even faster. The hand she’d slid under his jacket bunched in his shirt, pulling his collar uncomfortably tight, but he ignored it. All that mattered was exactly the way Sarah was kissing him back and how good she felt under his hands and—
The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, but it startled him. Chuck tore his mouth away from Sarah’s and blinked sluggishly to see that they were definitely not alone in the hall.
The woman was tiny, maybe topping five feet in her heels, and Chuck figured she probably wasn’t usually that shade of pink. She also wouldn’t look straight at them. “I’m sorry, but this area is off-limits to…party guests. I’m going to have to ask that you return to the party.”
Sarah’s jolt felt real and she pushed Chuck away from her, the picture of embarrassment. “Oh, my god! I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize—we kinda got carried away.” And she gave an embarrassed giggle.
Chuck’s brain was still a bit foggy, but he thought she sounded different. Midwestern, he concluded after a few seconds of hard thought. Still, all he was able to add to the conversation was a lame, “Sorry.”
“It’s all right, just don’t let it happen again,” the woman said. She cleared her throat and continued to look anywhere but at them, which Chuck figured was fair. He and Sarah had just put on quite the show, judging by the fact that his suit was disheveled and Sarah’s hair was a mess. “Do you need me to, ah, escort you back?”
“We’ve got it,” Sarah said, looping her arm through the crook of Chuck’s arm. “We’ll go straight back. Scout’s honor.” She even held up three fingers to prove it.
The instant they had hurried away, Sarah hauling on Chuck more than anything, Casey demanded in their ears, “What the hell was that?”
“We’re clear,” Sarah said, cutting him off. “Go ahead and head out, Casey. Chuck and I are going to stay at the party with Morgan for a little while. We’ll rendezvous at the Bachelor Pad.”
“And you should probably take a couple more cigars,” Chuck said.
After a token grumble from Casey, the com went silent. Sarah took her earpiece out, gesturing that Chuck should do the same. When he’d handed it over, she set the earwigs in her clutch alongside the tiny little tranq gun. She put a hand on Chuck’s arm outside the bathroom to stop him before they reached the rest of the party. Though there had been people mingling there earlier, the area was now empty.
“I’m sorry,” Chuck said, blinking a few times. “Did randomly making out to avoid getting caught just work? Because I really thought that only worked in the movies and on TV.”
“Trust me, I’m just as surprised.” Sarah blew out a long breath and ran her fingers through her hair. Inexplicably, she covered her mouth with the back of her hand, but Chuck still heard it: a muffled giggle. It made him grin hesitantly back at her, which apparently only made it worse. Sarah started chuckling, then laughing outright until she had to lean against the wall to support herself. After a few seconds, Chuck began laughing as well, though he knew it was more relief than anything else.
“Did you see her face?” Sarah asked once she was able to talk again. She wiped tears of mirth away with the back of her hand. “She was bright red!”
“It was like a stop sign,” Chuck agreed, still laughing a little. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody turn that red in my life.”
“I have,” Sarah said.
“Yeah, you went the color of a siren when you walked in on me in the shower.”
Chuck felt a similar flush begin now. “Oh, God, I can’t think about that right now!” He was pretty positive he might actually explode. He groaned. “Cruel woman.”
“Sorry.” Sarah didn’t look very apologetic, though. She glanced around, evidently satisfied that their laughing fit hadn’t attracted anybody. “I’m going to go to the ladies’ room, tidy up and fix my hair. I’d recommend you fix your suit.”
When she reached over to help him out with that, though, Chuck took a hurried step back. He still felt on the verge of exploding. “I’m okay, I’ve got it.”
Though Sarah gave him a puzzled look, she let the matter drop with a shrug and disappeared into the restroom. In the men’s room, Chuck went straight to the sink and splashed cold water on his face until he regained some facsimile of equilibrium. He straightened his suit and tie, marveling at how much damage Sarah had done to his careful appearance in under two minutes. Of course, and the thought made him flush a little, he had more than returned the favor.
There was no trace of any discomposure when Sarah came out of the bathroom, however. Her hair was right back up in the same twist as before, and she didn’t even look remotely pink-cheeked.
“You have an army of elves or something,” Chuck said, peering at her suspiciously.
“What are you talking about?”
“They follow you around and make sure your hair is perfect all the time, don’t they? Don’t deny it.”
Sarah laughed. “You’re being absurd.”
“You’re not denying it.”
“Because you’re being absurd.”
“This isn’t the last you’ve heard from me about this,” Chuck warned, and Sarah laughed. They headed out into the party, once more the picture of respectability, as though they hadn’t been breaking and entering and then making out in the hallways of Kaninchen Enterprises. While they had been gone, dancing had started up. Morgan stood at the deejay table overlooking the dance floor, wearing his earphones and bopping his head along to the music. Chuck felt a stab of guilt; after spending a week fretting over running a mission near Morgan, he had actually forgotten completely that his friend was even at the party.
Morgan waved them over. “Boss stepped outside for a smoke,” he said, “so I’m free for a little while. Where the hell were you two? I’ve been looking all over forever.”
“Sorry, we, ah…” Chuck trailed off and blinked to see an actual flush overtake Sarah’s face. He almost asked how she could do that, but his brain warned him that she was acting for Morgan’s benefit, and it was probably better not to ruin it for her.
“Ah,” Morgan said, nodding his head sagely. He waggled his eyebrows at Chuck. “Say no more. I completely understand.”
Chuck had to fight down the desire to claim nothing of what Morgan was implying had happened, though it clearly had. “Yeah,” was all he said. “How’ve things been going out here?”
“Great. I’ve had a few people take cards!”
“Hey, you two should get out there and dance.” Morgan seemed inordinately excited about the idea. “I’ve got a song in mind just for you.”
“And no,” Morgan went on, correctly interpreting the look, “it’s not the ‘Hamster Dance,’ I swear.”
“Long story,” Morgan told Sarah. “Go on, go on, dance, have a good time. I’ll put on a classic for you—I’ve got just the thing.”
Sarah arched a brow at Chuck. “The man said dance.”
“That he did. We have our orders.” Chuck nodded his farewell to Morgan and made a show of offering his arm to Sarah, and she giggled coquettishly as she accepted. He picked a spot on the dance floor at random, as it wasn’t overcrowded but there were a few people around. Surely enough, the current song faded out very skillfully to a much slower number. Chuck was surprised to hear a trumpet playing an almost mournful melody, but after a few notes, he recognized La Vie En Rose. It was an…interesting song choice, he decided, but he didn’t mind, as Sarah all but had her head resting on his shoulder.
“I still can’t believe that the make-out trick worked,” he said after they’d revolved in place for a minute. “I thought for sure I’d jinxed us and we were busted.”
“You did jinx us.” Sarah lifted her head to smile at him. “But that’s okay, I’ll forgive you this time.” She leaned up on her tiptoes to kiss him, drawing this kiss out with just a touch of the same heat that had nearly made them tear at each other like animals in the hallway.
She made it look so easy, he thought. Even though she was reserved and some people might think her cold because of it—though he never would—Sarah had no problem showing affection, or being the first one to kiss him, while he had to think and doubt and second-guess before he could even do something like put a hand on her arm. Even though she had made it clear on more than one occasion that she never minded him touching her, he still had to fight his natural instincts every time.
Now, she must have caught something on his face that he was trying to hide. “What is it?” she asked, leaning back a little.
They continued to rotate in place in time to the music. “It’s nothing,” Chuck said.
“I don’t think it is. Half the time I kiss you, you get that look on your face. What’s wrong?” Sarah looked briefly worried. “Is it something I did? Do you not like the kissing?”
“No, no, that’s not it,” Chuck said quickly. He gave a nervous laugh. “God, no, that’s really not it, I promise. It’s stupid, and it’s nothing.”
“Then why don’t you want to tell me about it?”
Chuck wanted to shuffle his feet, but he figured that would only mean stepping on Sarah’s toes. So he cleared his throat and looked down—right into her cleavage. He looked up quickly again. “You’ll laugh at me,” he sighed.
“If I promise not to laugh at you, will you tell me what it is?”
Chuck hedged, and did shuffle his feet this time, though he didn’t step on Sarah, thankfully.
She raised an eyebrow and removed her hand from his shoulder, holding out one finger. “Pinky promise, I won’t laugh.”
Chuck wrinkled his nose at the extended finger. “I think it’s in the Guy Code that pinky promises are a girl thing.”
“Very well.” Sarah put her hand back on his shoulder. “C’mon, Chuck, just tell me what it is. I won’t laugh.”
“I doubt that.” Chuck took a deep breath. He knew that look on Sarah’s face. She could be tenacious when she wanted to be, and he had a feeling she wouldn’t drop this unless he asked her to, and then she would be hurt. So he sighed. “It doesn’t bother you that I’ve yet to kiss you?”
“Er, I’m sorry to state the obvious here, but we’ve kissed plenty of times.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean, I have yet to…start things. And doesn’t it bother you?”
He could see her consider the idea seriously, which made him want to both sink into the floor and simultaneously be grateful that she wasn’t laughing or ridiculing him. “I don’t see why it would,” she said at length, still looking thoughtful.
“Really. I mean, we said we were going to take things slow. I’m pretty sure the words ‘catching up’ and ‘not a race’ were used.” Sarah met his eyes, and now her gaze was perfectly frank. “I don’t want to push you to where you’re not comfortable, Chuck.”
“Oh.” Chuck wasn’t sure what to say to that. He frowned. “You really hadn’t noticed?”
Sarah shrugged. “No.”
“But you notice everything.”
He didn’t feel like a huge weight had been lifted from his chest, but the feeling came close. Chuck let out a deep breath in relief and felt a smile blossom. “Don’t tell anybody, but I think you may be the most perfect woman in the world, Sarah Walker.”
“Oh trust me, I’m not perfect.” Sarah’s voice was emphatic. Her brows drew low over her eyes and she tilted her head. “That’s really what was bothering you?”
Chuck hunched his shoulders. “Yes.”
When the smile bloomed, he had to blink at its brilliance. Sarah outright grinned at him. “That is just so adorable,” she said, and rested her head on his shoulder again, almost burrowing in like she did every time she used him for a makeshift pillow.
“I’m glad you think so,” Chuck grumbled.
Sarah lifted her head to smirk at him. “You know,” she said, and there was an undertone of fun to her voice that was both appealing and made him feel wary at the same time, “if you wanted to, say, break the ice or get it over with and solve that problem, I promise to stand very still. I’m pretty tall. It’s pretty much a sure shot that you wouldn’t miss.”
“Oh ha, ha,” Chuck said. He gave her a mock-scowl. “And that wouldn’t solve the problem.”
“No, it has to be spontaneous to work.”
“Aw,” Sarah said, her grin widening. “I can pretend to be surprised. I’m a great actress.”
“I’ve noticed,” Chuck said. “I’ve seen Valley Girl Sarah, an Oscar-worthy performance.”
“Does this mean I get to thank the Academy?” Sarah tilted her head again, looking thoughtful once more. “I suppose I could order you to kiss me, but who knows how well you would listen. Hm, this is most perplexing indeed.”
“I’m regretting bringing this up.”
“Why? I’m just grateful it’s not like I’ve secretly got halitosis or something. And I haven’t laughed.”
“You’re a real woman of your word.”
“Seriously, Chuck,” and Sarah sobered a little, though the corners of her lips still curved upward, “just kiss me.”
“If it’s an order, it doesn’t solve the problem.”
“Then don’t kiss me.”
“And be viewed as contrary?”
“Oh yeah, that would really be a stretch right now,” Sarah said, sarcasm dripping as the final notes of La Vie En Rose drifted across the dance floor.
Chuck finally let the grin he’d been holding back for the past minute emerge. “I suppose I could suffer through it,” he said, and leaned down just as Morgan sent a new song spinning through the turntable. The opening notes blared out, so upbeat and different from the mellow tones of the previous song that Chuck jumped and froze, a hairsbreadth away from Sarah.
“What?” Sarah opened her eyes and looked panicked. “What is it?”
“He didn’t,” Chuck breathed, not believing his ears.
The panic only increased. “Who?”
“Morgan. He wouldn’t…” But the minute the singing started, Chuck knew. He closed his eyes and groaned.
“What? Chuck, what’s wrong?”
Chuck opened his eyes to give Sarah a pained look. “We’ve been Rickroll’d!”