Sarah very gently slides her key into the lock and turns it, twisting the doorknob by slow degrees, but the television's still on and the blue glow reflects off the case of Chuck's laptop, and his gaze is locked on her when she glances at his face. Fuck, she thinks, closing the door behind her.
It's very hard to successfully sneak around Chuck. She woke one morning just in time to see him go from a dead sleep to sitting bolt upright in bed, holding her service weapon, the laser pointer right in the center of Casey's forehead, Casey's mouth slightly open in awed surprise. His eyes were even still bleary from sleep. The second Intersect isn't perfect, not by a long shot, but now a flea can't sneak up without Chuck hearing it.
She shoots him a tentative smile, one he doesn't return, and her heart sinks.
"How did it go?"
His thumb taps hard on the trackpad a few times, and he keeps his gaze on the screen as he shrugs. "Oh, you know. Ellie's worried about you. She says she never sees you anymore and, y'know, she's right." He snorts, shakes his head, and his jaw is set.
"I can help. For God's sake, it was the whole reason I did this," Chuck bursts out, snapping the laptop's lid shut, gesturing at his head.
"You can't. You know you can't. You're too important."
"How, exactly?" Chuck asks, crossing his arms. "They can't reverse-engineer one by taking my brain apart."
Sarah tosses her purse onto the dining room table and shrugs out of her leather jacket, clenching and unclenching her fists. She has too much adrenaline to burn off, to get through this without hitting a landmine. "That doesn't mean they won't try."
Chuck's lips tighten. "Leave my father out of this."
Ahh, there. There. She sees what she's been in denial about since this whole thing started. "That's not my choice, Chuck, and if he can help—"
"I don't care. He's my father."
There is no sympathy or compromise or pleading in his face, in his voice. This is final. And he's trying to use what he has, to somehow get the leverage, to find some control, but she knows where this road leads, where it's been leading since the first night she spent naked in his arms.
"And he's Orion." Sarah crosses her arms and tries to keep the lilting note out of her voice, but she can't.
And she's crossed the line, fully now.
Chuck stabs the power button on the remote and vanishes into their bedroom, closing the door behind him, but he doesn't slam it. She wouldn't have been able to take it, anyway. She sighs and goes to the kitchen, pouring herself a glass of water and downing the whole thing before she finds the will to stumble through their dark room, brush her teeth, and curl up on the other side of the bed, with him hugging his edge, every tense line of his body language telling her that she's far from forgiven.
Just before she drifts off to something that's not quite sleep, she hears him whisper something, so quietly that it's almost to himself.
"Alaina. They're going to name her Alaina."
Two weeks after Chuck had uploaded the second Intersect, or, as he called it, "The Intersect plus Matrix expansion pack," General Beckman had, in a briefing meant only for Sarah and Casey, explained that, due to past volatility in the Intersect project, the Agency had had the foresight to have a duplicate Intersect cube and setup produced, only to have major elements stolen soon after Chuck's entirely unsanctioned upload.
That was bad, in itself, and in the months since, while Chuck had been allowed to come along on some of the minor missions, General Beckman drew the line at letting Bartowski anywhere near the backup Intersect cube, the interface, any of it. Security protocols had dictated that, while Orion was the most familiar with the project, even he would not be able to recreate it, should he fall into enemy hands again. No scientist who worked on the project could. Of course, to Sarah and Casey's disappointment, most of the missions Beckman sent just the two of them on ended up being dead ends, false leads, or just too late to save their assets, and three of the Intersect scientists had already turned up dead or incapacitated.
Sarah knew the signs of a cleaning job when she saw them. Someone was trying to erase all links back to the project. And Chuck was the last.
Every now and then, though, things were going wrong, and not like they had with the first Intersect, when Chuck simply misinterpreted the facts or repeated bad intel that had been fed into the Intersect before he'd even seen it. His mood swings were worse. Migraines had put him out of the field for as many as three days at a time. And no one could tell her if it was because Chuck reuploaded an Intersect a little over 24 hours after the first one came out, or if it's a glitch in the programming, or what.
But his father, Orion, who vanished into a hole and pulled it in behind him just after Ellie's wedding, Orion is Chuck's best hope to figuring it out, and Orion is also probably at the top of the hit list. He shows his face and there will be fireworks, Casey promises.
Beckman had even brightly repeated Chuck's own suggestion, since it had worked so well with Jill: announce Chuck and Sarah's engagement, have a perfectly legitimate reason for his father to visit, and see if he could help shed light on any of it.
And Chuck is refusing, but Beckman is losing patience, and Sarah knows Chuck's trump card.
She also knows it won't be enough.
Sarah was supposed to be at Ellie's tonight because Ellie and Awesome had something important to ask Chuck, something about the baby. Ellie's glowing, freaking out, just as determined and scared about the baby as she was about their wedding, and when she sees Sarah and Chuck together, her eyes get this strange gleam in them and she starts talking about whether Sarah could possibly wear her mother's wedding dress, if Chuck has ever shown her the ring that was passed down from their grandmother.
It's one thing to nod and smile and pretend it's all right to General Beckman through the safety of a video link, but it's another to lie straight to Ellie's face. Sarah can't do it. She has no idea how she'll get through the next week if Beckman demands they put this plan in action. Beckman doesn't care that it'll break Ellie's heart if Chuck and Sarah announce their engagement just to call it off again just as quickly. Beckman wants Orion out of hiding and she'll do anything to get him.
When Sarah is sure Chuck's asleep, she rests her palm flat against the small of his back. Soon after this all began again, she and Chuck had practiced sparring, hand-to-hand, whatever martial art the Intersect could throw at him, but his heart had never been in it. He trusts her. And that's why he doesn't flip over, grabbing her wrist and pinning it over her head, his other hand at her throat, the way she's seen him with other people who threatened him.
She closes her eyes and wishes she had been able to leave it all behind, the night of Ellie's wedding. But she couldn't do it either.
Chuck is always the first to apologize, always, because he didn't spend training time having his instincts and impulses drilled out of him, they're all he knows. Sarah sometimes feels sorry for him, something approaching pity, but it's taken her this long to let him see even a glimpse of someone behind the cover. She hates that she managed to so thoroughly fuck things up by letting herself become infatuated with him. She hates that she has no intention of stopping any of this. It was a thousand times simpler with Bryce.
It was a thousand times less satisfying with Bryce because when Chuck puts his arms around her, he puts his arms around her. Everything that frustrated Chuck so much about her distance made a relationship with Bryce at once endlessly simple and incredibly shallow, but she'd still managed to fall in love anyway. Her love is destined to flourish in the worst conditions, the worst possible circumstances, she's found. She loves her father, a con man who's never made an honest dollar in his life, and she loves Chuck (damn it), Chuck who is sitting at their briefing table fumbling with a tranq gun, the reluctant spy, the most skilled spy they have, forced to watch as Beckman puts his father in danger again.
While Sarah is sure that if she had actually slept with Cole Barker here in the cells at Castle, the surveillance would have been conveniently lost, she has to be supremely careful to keep her distance from Chuck here, even though it's so damn easy to forget. Chuck's protest to Beckman that they work better together, that their emotional attachment is an asset, would meet only cold silence and marching orders if the true depths of their current relationship were revealed. What they do very quietly in their own bedroom, out of the range of visual surveillance, is up to them, apparently.
Sarah's been unable to shake the growing suspicion that Beckman hasn't separated them only because, sooner or later, she's going to order Sarah to betray Chuck again, knowing that he trusts her all the more because he shares a bed and a life with her. Even if it's a cover life for everyone else.
"I'm sorry." Sarah puts the table between them, although she's aching to touch him. "I know you're frustrated, and you want to help, but we can't risk you."
"But you can risk him," Chuck says, and Sarah glances at him sharply but resignation is beginning to creep into his voice. "Can't we find another way? This puts him out into the open."
Sarah wants to touch him, to put her hand over his, but she's far more sensitive to how Beckman will view the tapes, especially after the 49B. "Don't you think that if he knew about the... side effects you're going through, he would want to help?"
The expression on Chuck's face tells her he's thought about it, but then Casey walks in, takes in their positions and expressions at a glance, and lets out his usual derisive snort. "Briefing in five."
"No," Chuck says to her, as Casey walks over to check the satellite link. "Not with these stakes."
Sarah's never thought Beckman was unintelligent, just very stubborn and completely unwilling to brook any argument. Even so, she visibly flinched when Chuck warned her that if she went through with her plan to bring his father in, he would find a way to get to her, causing Casey to bristle and Sarah herself to put a restraining hand on him.
"We're at an impasse, Agent Bartowski," Beckman insisted, leaning forward so that her tiny frame filled the screen. "When you're finished with your little hissy fit, we're still going to bring him in, to find out if he can help us. And if you want to see him, this is a great way for you to do it."
Sarah felt nauseated. Beckman's version of being nice was to say, Hey, want to see your dad again? Before our interference in his life results in his being shot or kidnapped again?
At Chuck's glowering silence, Beckman continued. "If your objection is to Agent Walker's involvement in this plan, I can arrange for a new cover relationship for you. I believe Agent Forrest is available."
"For an engagement party?" Chuck burst out, his fist falling on the table. "Yeah, that's not gonna look weird. I mean, what's a two-and-a-half-year cover relationship got on Agent Forrest, who apparently wanted to blow me up when I made the unforgivable mistake of being kidnapped."
"It only has to look unsuspicious to the Ring."
"Not to my sister. Or anyone else who knows us. Hey, if the Ring already knows who my dad is, why are we even bothering with this? So that when he's picked up and you guys throw him in a bunker for the next five years, at least I can say, 'Oh, he gave a toast so me and Agent Cylon could really remember our special day'?"
"Bartowski," Casey barked, under his breath.
"No. No," Chuck said, shaking his head. "No. If you're going to do this with my cooperation or without, then you don't have it."
"Very well. Agent Walker, I'll expect to see you at Langley in the morning."
Sarah sucked in a swift breath and Chuck glared at the screen, where Beckman was sitting back with her arms crossed, an unmistakably martial gleam in her eye.
And then everything had gone to hell, and Chuck had tried to trump Beckman by saying that if Sarah was out, he was out too, just to be informed in no uncertain terms, just as Sarah had always known, that the moment he decided to stop maintaining his cover, Chuck was a liability to the agency, and would be taken into custody.
Sarah had never heard Chuck use so much profanity in his life. And then, when it was all over, Casey had stopped them, handing Chuck yet another black velvet box.
"Cubic zirconia this time," Casey said gruffly. "They've cut your fake-engagement budget."
And Chuck had taken the box, visibly angry, but even though Casey wouldn't say it, his expression was just faintly sympathetic. Chuck jammed it in his pocket and walked out without another word.
"It's not that I don't want this, you know?" Chuck shifts in his seat, his brow furrowed. "I do. Just not like this. God, not like this. What happens after?"
"What happens immediately after, or what happens once all this is over?" Sarah maneuvers the car smoothly into an opening in the next lane, slamming the car into the next gear, the force sending her back against her seat. Her breasts shift too, free under her backless dress, the silk cool against her nipples.
"Do we give the ring back? Say it was too soon?"
Sarah shrugs, and the movement sends another tingle radiating from her breasts down to her spine. She and Chuck haven't yet had the chance for makeup sex, or any kind of sex, and she's very aware of it. Painfully aware. "Probably. The government does not care how your sister feels about our relationship, as long as she buys it."
"I've spent two years telling her that we aren't that serious." Chuck tugs nervously at his tie. He looks damn good in his suit, she has to admit. "Ever since we moved in together she's been... well, you know."
Sarah nods in speechless agreement. Buying her subscriptions to bridal magazines, suggesting possible honeymoon locations. The pregnancy hormones have made Ellie even less subtle. "It'll be okay, Chuck."
"Not this time," he says softly, and the traffic suddenly blurs before Sarah's eyes, because she knows he's right.
The restaurant is sleek and contemporary, all angles and starched white tablecloths and blonde wood. Ellie and Devon are waiting at the table, and when Devon stands to greet them but casts a concerned look back at his wife, whose eyes are bright, Sarah knows she has to leave, before they go through with this. She can't do it. She can't lie. She's done so much damn lying. Beckman be damned.
"Maybe we should get some Cristal champagne," Sarah murmurs, and Chuck glances back at her with his own concerned expression. Her safeword for missions.
"I'll be sure to get some after dessert," Chuck replies, and there's something in his expression that she can't quite read. Maybe he's decided that they're going through with this, everything else be damned, that for these few days he's going to take what the agency has offered and enjoy it. But Ellie's grinning so widely that Sarah's afraid her face is going to split in half. Like maybe she knows.
Sarah glances at Devon and is positive he does. With Morgan back in Hawaii, only Devon is on the outside, and she's cautioned Chuck to tell him as little as possible, but that never really seems to work where Chuck's involved. She and Casey have even stopped ordering him to stay in the car. That never worked, either.
The food is great, but expensive, and since the agency is footing the bill for this little farce, Chuck insists that they all order what they want, on him. Kobe beef and oysters Rockefeller. The most superb wine in the cellar, whatever the waiter recommends. But there is no hard edge to it; he's genuinely grateful for all his sister and Devon have done for him, and this is just his way of returning the favor.
Except that the brief duration of their engagement will break Ellie's heart.
Sarah's stomach does a somersault and she grips the edge of the table, her appetite suddenly gone. She's been able to do this for years; why can't she do it now? Why can't she just lose herself in it, beam at Chuck when he gets down on one knee?
Because she's never wanted it, she realizes, staring at her now entirely unappetizing plate. She doesn't want a cubic zirconia ring and false congratulations. She wants Chuck, not Agent Bartowski, wants Chuck on one knee with that look of stricken adoration on his face, and when she says yes, she doesn't want it to be for seventy-two hours or his father's capture, whichever comes first.
Her life is a lie. Her entire life is a lie.
Sarah stands and Chuck glances up from the conversation he's having with Devon, about the houses he and Ellie have been checking out, preparing for the little one. "Sorry, I'll be right back," she says, and she has to force herself not to start a flat-out run toward the bathroom. By the time she makes it there she's almost mastered the horrifying impulse to burst into tears. She stares at herself in the mirror, ignoring the pointed stares from the other women crowding at the sink, chattering loudly about their lovers or husbands or children, and then she's alone.
She'll go. She'll sneak out and go back to their apartment, pack everything, and by the time she finishes, she'll know what to do. Maybe she'll intercept Orion, take him to some secure location, explain everything and beg him to see if he can fix Chuck. Or she'll wait for him to get home and they'll turn off the cameras and the bugs and talk, really talk. Something. But she can't do this.
And then Ellie walks in, her dark eyes full of worry, her dress almost disguising the little potbelly, the first obvious sign of her pregnancy. "Sarah," she says in relief, coming over to her, and at least they're alone in the bathroom.
"I'm just so nervous," Sarah carefully blurts out, as Ellie wraps an arm around her.
"I don't know," Sarah apologizes. "I'm so sorry I couldn't come to dinner, last time, I didn't want you and Devon to be upset at Chuck."
"We're not upset with Chuck. He agreed." She gives Sarah a warm, reassuring smile.
"He said he'd be Alaina's godfather." She tilts her head. "I know, it sounds like overkill, but the Awesomes insisted, and Chuck lives close to us. And now that you two have settled down, he really seems to have his head straight. I am just so proud of the two of you," Ellie says, giving Sarah a full hug. "There's nothing to be nervous about."
Chuck will be a godfather, Sarah thinks, patting Ellie on the back. Oh yes. Chuck may not have that much family, but those he does...
"So it's all right." Ellie peers at her face, making sure she's back to normal, that her eyes have stopped shimmering. "Come on, I'm gonna see if I can get Chuck to order us cheesecake." She shoots Sarah a quick grin.
The thing is that Ellie starts crying before Chuck's even actually on one knee.
And the whole thing is enough of a spectacle to begin with, because their table is near the center of the floor, the soft music has faded away, a waiter is standing at the ready with her bottle of Cristal champagne. And then, because enough people aren't looking, Sarah thinks, embarrassed at how embarrassed she is over something that isn't even real, Ellie lets out a loud sob, and it feels like every single eye in the entire restaurant is on them.
"I love you," Chuck says, his voice shaking just that little bit. He's not doing this for anyone else, this isn't a show for anyone else, only her, just the way she'd always wanted it to be. "I love you so much, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Sarah Walker, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
He opens the box and places it on her palm, and when she glances from his open, honest, mostly terrified gaze to the box, she sees it immediately.
This isn't the cubic zirconia ring Casey handed him at Castle.
This is real.
This is the ring his father gave his mother, just like the charm bracelet Sarah is wearing. This is his family diamond.
She glances back at him, her lips parted a little, her eyes swimming again (damn it), and Chuck nods at her, just slightly.
This is real.
She has been primed, from the moment General Beckman very calmly and very coldly ordered Chuck to go through with this, to say yes, to throw her arms around his neck and grin at Devon and Ellie, to fan her fingers and watch the light refract off their cover ring, their cover lives. She has been primed because she is an agent and that is what agents do, and she had never so desperately wanted to walk out of a situation before it got this far.
But this is real. This is none of Beckman's business, what's happening here at this table tonight. This is Chuck Bartowski on one knee, his gaze begging her to understand. If he had to do this, he was going to do it his way.
She nods, once. "Yes," she whispers, her voice hoarse from the tears, and everyone around them is clapping and cheering and Ellie's throwing herself into Devon's waiting arms and Chuck is vaulting up from the floor, pulling her out of her seat and into his own arms, the ring still tucked in its box and clenched tight in her palm.
Oh God, she thinks. Oh God.
What scares her most is that she didn't have to make herself cry, but when he pulls back and touches her face, his own split wide with a grin, it's already wet.
Casey gave them a thumbs-up from the bar as the four of them walked out. It was sarcastic, for Chuck's benefit. And sarcastic for hers. He knows exactly how many ways this can go sideways.
She's always thought the butterflies shouldn't come later.
As soon as the elevator doors are closed Chuck's hand cups over her breast, his thumb stroking the point of her erect nipple through the silk, and Sarah glances up at him in mild shock before she grabs him by the hips, yanking him to her.
He holds his mouth a breath from hers. "It's all real, Sarah, every word of it," he whispers, tucking her hair behind her ear, brushing another feather-light stroke over her nipple. "Every word."
And she thinks, just before his mouth closes over hers, fuck them, fuck them for cheapening this, for making me doubt it.
As soon as he locks the apartment door behind them she, in full view of the cameras, backs him against the arm of the couch, then gets down on her knees, the diamond (this is real) sparkling from her finger as she deftly unbuttons and unzips his pants, sliding them down his legs. She stands up on her knees and blows lightly against his cock, through the fabric of his boxers, and he snarls something as he yanks them down, his knees going weak as she clasps his cock in her fist and gently pumps his entire length. He doesn't sit so much as collapse to the arm of the couch, his legs open so she can kneel between them, his pants still at his ankles.
He threads his fingers in her hair but doesn't guide her as she takes his cock in her mouth, slowly, swirling her tongue around him, and she can feel his pulse beating. She gently slides her fingertip down the underside of his shaft and he shifts so she can cup his balls, and he lets out a low moan.
Sarah will be very surprised if she can finish before her cell phone is vibrating with an angry reassignment from General Beckman, if Agent Forrest isn't knocking on the apartment door before she even gets Chuck to the bedroom.
Sarah unclasps her dress with a single twist of her fingers and the silk kisses her nipples on the way down, leaving her naked to the waist. She shimmies her hips, bobbing her head to take even more of his length, and Chuck's fingertips press against her scalp and she's in her white lace panties, her dress wrapped around her knees, his diamond on her finger and his mother's bracelet on her wrist, nothing else.
"Sarah," he groans, tensing. "God, Sarah."
She carefully slides back until just the tip of his shaft is in her mouth, and drags her tongue hard around it, flicking it up the middle, tasting the first drop of his pre-cum. He's half-bent over her, probably in some hasty well-meaning attempt to block the cameras' view of what she's doing to him, but she pushes him back and takes him in her mouth again, sucking his cock until his entire body is vibrating with need, his hands desperate as they grope over her, his fingers sinking into her flesh.
Then she pulls back, leaving her saliva cooling on his sensitive flesh, takes his shoes and socks off, pulls his pants and boxers off, and stands, smoothly pushing her panties down and stepping out of them, leaving her only in her heels. She takes his tie in her hand and he's so eager to follow that she can't stop a smile from twisting her lips.
She sucks his fingers, which always seems backward, but she found a long time ago that if she wanted to distract him from anything, and she didn't have the time or the privacy to take her shirt off, all she had to do was casually lift one of his hands to her mouth and suck the tip of his thumb, and he was immediately hard. He's remarkably easy to lead around by his dick only because he trusts her enough to let her.
Even so, with his mouth at the side of her neck and his fingers in her mouth, her knees bent and her legs open wide to him, she feels his cock jump every time she sucks one into her mouth and pulses against it. He's rubbing the length of his erection against her lips, and she reaches down and parts herself, and he sighs as his cock slides against the hot slick of her inner lips.
"Chuck," she moans, wrapping her legs around him as his mouth closes over her nipple, and she kisses his palm, her hips writhing against his cock as he suckles her breast. She reaches between them and takes his cock in her hand, stroking it a few times before she slides it up between her lips, rubbing the head of his cock against her clit. Chuck murmurs something that sounds like a curse and gently bites her other nipple, his own hips trembling in anticipation.
Sarah tilts her head back, touching herself with his cock until she's wet and pulsing at the thought of him, but when she begins to guide him down to part her inner flesh he pushes her hand away, and she's shaking. He rolls over with her and he's barely on his back before she's mounted him, her hand at the base of his cock to angle it for her, thrusting down in one rough movement, and she tips her head back, sucking in a quick breath at the familiar ache of his hard breadth and length, buried inside her. She pushes herself up a little and hangs her head, and he meets her eyes, tangling his wet fingers in her hair.
What have I done, she thinks, watching Chuck arch under her, panting as she thrusts her hips down, drawing him deeper inside her. Her wet flesh sucking and rippling against his bare cock.
As soon as she thinks the words his eyes snap open, even though his realization makes his cock jump inside her, and she pants out his name, spreading her knees and shifting her weight so she can angle her hips to stroke her clit against the base of his cock with each thrust.
"Sarah," Chuck whispers, hoarsely, panic on his face, because they've already gone too far.
"I know," she moans, the texture of his hair against her clit driving a shudder up her spine as she begins to come. He stops fighting it then, and when he grips her hips, it's to drive her harder against him, not to push her away. He rolls her onto her back and she tips her head back and screams with his thrust, his only thrust, his cock pulsing in her as he spills between her legs, so deep inside her.
"God," he whispers, as soon as they can speak again, regret on his face. "Oh my God Sarah I'm so sorry, I didn't realize it—"
She puts her palm on his cheek and smiles, far more calmly than she's actually feeling. "It's all right."
"No it isn't." He tries to draw away from her and she just tightens her legs around him, pulling him off-balance, and his weight pins her open under him. "No, we have to go get that pill, and—"
"No we don't," she says, and her vision (damn it) is swimming again, even as she meets Chuck's concerned, panicked gaze. "We can't anyway."
When he opens his mouth again she puts her thumb against his lips, and he flicks his tongue up the pad, their gazes still locked, and her inner flesh clenches against him in answer.
"They don't give it to you when you're already pregnant."