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Chuck is in Castle on a day he shouldn't be (he accidentally left the latest issue of Ex Machina in the detainment cell at the back) when he hears Beckman's voice in the other room, through the video-conference speaker.

"Agent Walker, you will pose as a piece of merchandise on the floor, and catch Halston's eye. He keeps the code to his safe on his person; once you find it, radio Casey and he'll break into the vault. Any questions?"

It is the phrase piece-of-merchandise that gets him, that stops him in his tracks when he has his face relaxed into a casual but maybe a little too eager smile, ready to offer his services, to ask why he wasn't invited to this meeting. He knows that every now and then Casey and Sarah have their own missions and don't need the Intersect's help, but he hasn't ever imagined that it's something like this.

His fingers are slick with sudden sweat on the cover. The paper will wrinkle.

Piece-of-merchandise.

There has to be a better way.

--

He packs three different outfits and takes the Vic since he can't shake the feeling that he'll be in trouble before this night is over anyway. The couples streaming through the front door are in street clothes, jeans and silk; the late model expensive foreign cars are dropping off men in tuxes at the back, flanked by unsmiling bodyguards. He changes into the classic tux, nearly bashing the horn with his elbow and almost dislocating his left knee, and he has no bodyguards, but he really doesn't need any, not now.

It's in the basement (it's always in the basement, really) and he half-bluffs, half-flashes to get through the door. He can't feel Sarah's presence, so he looks around, trying to project old-money-old-money. The entire floor is decorated in that fuck-off pompous gentleman's club way, plush milk-chocolate leather, dark wood, gold lamps. The men are smiling, murmuring to each other, but there's an ugly undercurrent to it, the kind of thing that makes his skin crawl, and he places it, finally, that unabashed hunger. The only time his frat brothers dragged him to a strip club. But this is worse.

The bottom falls out, though, when the first girl is escorted to the floor, to turn and be eaten alive by the vulture gazes of the icy men around her, and her eyes are dead. Even the suave and smooth Carmichael he turns on when he doesn't know how to deal, even Carmichael can't act casual at this.

He's physically sick by the time Sarah walks out on the floor. Usually his gaze centers to her and only her, if only briefly; now, though, he can't forget everyone else in the room, staring at her. Her hair is loose and tumbling free about her shoulders, her dress is a slick black satin so tight that he can almost see the definition of her every muscle, but it's cheaply cut, or else this room is getting to him, because that's a phrase he would never use, ever. He doesn't imagine that the Intersect is that comprehensive.

She keeps her eyes down, though. There's some script he doesn't know about, some way she's supposed to act to attract this guy, and sure enough, when the bids come in, it's the guy in the corner—

He hoped for this, he wanted this, but the flash actually makes him stagger to the wall and lay a palm tacky with sweat against it to keep himself upright.

Halston.

The mincing assistant in the wire rims (there always is one) calls out the next bid in a tired voice, and Chuck can't help it. He calls out a bid a good twenty percent higher, a number he hasn't seen since his back pay provided Ellie's wedding ceremony, a number that will probably make Beckman apoplectic with anger if she ever hears about it.

At the sound of his voice, before she can stop it, Sarah's head snaps up and she sees him, and though she keeps that air of barely tarnished innocence about her, she's tense, doing her slow pirouette on the parquet floor.

Chuck knows that, wherever he is, Casey is snarling epithets.

Sarah's gaze turns to swift, angry warning, for a second, and he shakes his head.

When Chuck wins her, his knees almost go weak in relief.

--

"Good show."

Sarah slides her arm through his but keeps it too tight, as Chuck hovers at the assistant's elbow. Halston makes a sour face as his consolation bid sashays over to him.

"You wouldn't be interested in a taste, would you?"

Sarah's arm drops just as quickly as it touched Chuck's. Halston's frown deepens as he turns, but his very direct stare at the thigh-skimming hem of Sarah's dress tells Chuck that he is very, very interested.

And of course he would be. Of course he would.

"What's in it for you?"

Chuck waits barely a second before answering. "Maybe five percent of the price."

"So you're her john now?"

Chuck—Carmichael, this is all Carmichael—sneers a little. "Hardly. But you and I have some common interests, so just consider this," he makes the faintest gesture in Sarah's direction, "a sign of good faith."

"And you are?"

Halston won't be able to hold out that much longer; Chuck knows that, mostly because Sarah's posture, the thick fringe of her eyelashes, everything about her is meant to draw him, and Chuck would brace her against the nearest flat surface as soon as possible, if he were Halston.

Not that Halston's into anything nearly so vanilla.

"Carmichael. Charles Carmichael."

It takes barely five more minutes for Sarah to vanish with Halston to a back room that is apparently meant for precisely this purpose, and Chuck spends a breathless two minutes distracting, then disabling the assistant. When he wrenches open the door, Sarah's dress is torn apart, her cheek swelled and one heel snapped off, and when Halston turns, face twisted in anger, to see who's interrupting, Chuck can't help it, can't help it at all, and he doesn't even wait for the Intersect to kick in before he's delivering a stunning haymaker to Halston's face.

Sarah's holding her dress up, and when Halston crumples to the floor she glances up at Chuck, her expression unreadable. There are fingermark bruises on her upper arms. Her overblown makeup is smeared.

They just stare at each other for a long moment.

"Is Casey in place?"

She waits a beat before nodding. "He just needs the code. Chuck, what are you doing here?"

Chuck kneels down and starts going through Halston's pockets. "He likes sedative and whips, Sarah. The second you got into his car..."

"You think I can't handle myself?" Despite the words, she leans against the wall for support.

"I know you can." A slender gold chain snakes under Halston's shirt to a laminated card. "I just didn't want to see what would happen if you couldn't."

--

Chuck drives her home in the Vic, pointedly not looking in the mirror as she changes clothes, listening to her soft conversation with Casey once he gets into the vault and recovers the intel. She rubs the dress over her face to take off a layer of paint and flings it to the other side of the car, runs her fingers through her hair until it looks like less of a mess.

"You weren't supposed to be there."

He glances back at her, through the rearview, and she's wearing the button-down and gray Mario mushroom shirt he brought if the dress was casual, and it does something to him.

"I know, but... Sarah, why didn't you guys tell me."

"Because you're not ready for that kind of mission."

"How are you ever ready for that kind of mission?" He frowns as he pulls into the parking lot at her place. "Were you ready? Did you guys know he does that kind of thing? Because I mean it, you would have woken up chained to his radiator. That's the kind of shit he does."

Sarah doesn't answer. "If you come up for a second, I can give you your clothes back."

Her eyes meet his and that's not exactly what she's saying, but he nods.

--

Sarah was dressed as the fantasy, in black satin. The girl next door trying on her mommy's makeup, a little too overdone, still a little bit shy. The kind of girl who couldn't have handled Halston at all. The kind of girl he would enjoy breaking.

He likes her better in his t-shirt, her makeup smeared, curvy silhouette disguised by layers of cotton and denim. She has to roll up the legs three turns to keep the cuffs from dragging the floor.

He hears the shower running and he tells himself that he's two minutes from leaving, that she's just forgotten he's here, but he stays. He stays until she opens the bathroom door and her hair is still mostly wet and she's wrapped only in a towel, all her makeup washed away. The bruised flesh on her upper arms, her cheek, is beginning to darken. He's beginning to wish he'd taken a pair of brass knuckles and given Halston a matching set.

"How did you know where we'd be tonight, Chuck?"

He has the tux jacket folded over his arm. He feels insanely overdressed, next to her. "I happened to be in Castle while Beckman was giving your orders."

"And you flashed on his name?"

Chuck shrugs a little. Every time she breathes in, her breasts rise. Rhythmic. The comedown from the adrenaline has left him lightheaded and she seems to be waiting for him to look into her eyes again.

"Because then you should have just told us."

"I didn't flash until I was there."

"So you followed us... to keep an eye on me?"

Chuck extends his arms in an impatient gesture, flinging the coat to her armchair in the process. "A piece of merchandise, Sarah? Really? How can she—"

He shakes his head. She shifts her weight a little. "It's the job, Chuck."

"Not that, Sarah. Not like that."

Her smile is a little lopsided. "Guess that's what happens when an Intersect is in love with you, huh."

He jerks his head up and she steps fully into the room, hand still holding the towel around her.

"I couldn't let you."

"And one day that's going to get us both killed," she says, but without her usual simmering anger, and he swallows his knee-jerk protest when she opens her hand, lets the towel fall to the floor.

--

She has been telling him for so long that they can't be together, and then there was Prague, and since then they've been off balance, but a part of him has been waiting for this since they woke up together in that motel bed.

Even so, he can't help feeling like it's a trick, like a convenient call from John Casey will fracture this into pieces.

His arms drop as he lets his gaze drift down her body. He knows every curve of her, he's filled in all these details a thousand guilty times in the shower, but the sight of her is infinitely more powerful. His desire pulls him to her, and without even knowing how he gets there he's standing an inch away from her and slowly, slowly his hand comes up, the side of his finger brushes the underside of her breast, and her nipple tightens in answer.

He unbuttons everything, slowly, his shirt, his pants, and she slides the white formal shirt down his arms, nudges his pants down until he's in his boxers, kissing him the entire time. Her tongue darts into his mouth, the tip tracing the sensitive roof of his mouth, sucking on his own tongue. As soon as he's stepped out of his pants he picks her up so their faces are level and buries his hand in her hair, holding her to him.

She makes a soft noise when his hand touches her upper arm and they flinch apart for a second, her breath against his lips, her lashes flicking up as their gazes meet, and she looks faintly vulnerable. She slides back, one knee on the bed, and he curves an arm around her back and lays her down, slides onto the comforter, over her, one of her warm hands pushing down his boxers.

He doesn't bother saying it this time, but he thinks it, hard, don't move, don't breathe. He flips open his wallet and plucks out the condom, stripping off his socks on the way back to bed, and as soon as he climbs back in her arms are around him, her body is tangled around his and the condom falls to the bed to get tangled in the sheets as they kiss hard, harder, desperate, her hand in his hair and the small knob of her ankle rubbing against the small of his back and his hips settle between her thighs, his erection pressed between them.

He tells himself that Halston would never have gotten that far, that she would have been able to fight him off, but that fear still hasn't fully evaporated, and even if they somehow managed to get through this, it will happen again. It will.

His hand cups her breast, stroking her nipple, and she moans into his mouth until he flips them over. Her legs are spread wide and she grinds against his hips and she's wet between, slick and hot, and he fumbles through the bedclothes, pushing up on his elbows, their mouths joined and he sucks on her tongue as his fingertips brush the condom wrapper.

"Here," he whispers, pushing it into her fingers, and he shivers, nibbling down the line of her jaw, the curve of her neck as she takes his cock in her hand and her palm strokes the hot slick of her arousal over his sensitive flesh. She chuckles a little as he pushes her back to straddle his thighs, and he latches onto her nipple, smiling as she arches to give him better access, one hand sweeping through his hair before she rips open the wrapper and takes him in hand again, rolling the condom on.

Then she stops, and Chuck releases her other nipple with a soft pop, pulling back to look at her.

"There's no going back from this."

Chuck runs his hands up and down her sides, settling at her hips. "Why would we want to."

--

Her equilibrium is off. She's let men get rough with her but she always had backup and it never went too far; Casey was across town and her stilettos were no use and she thinks that she could have overpowered Halston in the car, but how is she supposed to know, really.

Chuck isn't the kind to get rough, not at first anyway, but he's been handling her like a particularly fragile china doll. She rakes her nails over his arms, down his abs, across his shoulder blades as he catches her nipple in his teeth, and she draws out her encouraging groan, grinding her hips down to rub her slick inner flesh against the length of his cock.

"Sarah..."

She sucks his lower lip into her mouth and bites it, and he squeezes her breasts, and when she slowly pushes up on her knees he grabs her wrist and rolls her onto her back. He gives her time, cupping the sensitive flesh of her inner thighs before he pushes her knees apart, pressing the length of his cock against the join of her thighs, and she's panting as he draws his thumb slowly up from the slick hollow, up to her clit, and she arches, her hair streaming down in a mass of tangled waves, tilting her chin up.

"Chuck," she breathes, her voice a desperate gasp, and she bucks underneath him as he fits the tip of his cock just inside her, and she's so slick that he almost slips right back out. She grasps his hips and he pushes in by inches, and his thumb flicks her clit and she trembles in the same rhythm, her inner flesh so sensitive it's almost painful, and Chuck groans as he dips to her, his weight centered between her spread thighs as she takes half the length of his cock in one breathless, aching second.

His teeth scrape hers and their rhythm stutters and she presses up on her heels, whimpering as he pulls fully out of her and plunges between her legs again, and she can hear the wet sound of his cock against the rippling press of her inner flesh, she's so wet. She wraps her legs around him and dips her head in to nip at his neck, and his next thrust shoves the crown of her head into the pillow and she gasps in a scream.

"Baby..."

He slows as he traces her cheek, and she digs her nails into his shoulder blades. When he pulls back she rises, his hands grasping her hips and pulling her to him, and with another soft brush against her clit she's straddling him, fucking him, facing him. Another few thrusts and he groans in frustration, bearing her down again; another few thrusts and his foot slips off the bed and he pins her between his body and the edge, she's slick as fuck and he pushes up from the balls of his feet to ruthlessly grind into her. "Yes, fuck, fuck," she pants out, and she can't stop touching him, his cheek, his breath hot against the heel of her hand as he groans with the effort, his unruly curls beginning to darken with sweat, and the tip of her clit rubs against the coarse hair sprinkled below his navel and she clenches hard, and the rhythm of her hips is suddenly frantic as she meets his quickening thrusts.

"I can't—"

He's flushed and he cups her ass, and she can feel his cock straining against her tender flesh and he comes with a groan so relieved it makes her smile, his hips still twitching in response to the rhythmic clench of her orgasm. He pushes forward, already buried to the hilt inside her, pressing her into the mattress as the tension leaves him. His weight presses her thighs apart.

"You can't what," she breathes, burying her hand in his hair, her lips brushing the point of his jaw.

"Stop." His smile is in his voice.

"Was that some failsafe built into the Intersect?"

He pulls back, just enough to look at her. "Can I just say that absolutely none of that was the Intersect? Would you believe me?"

"I'd definitely want to," she says, dropping her gaze to his mouth, and he waits a beat before he kisses her, slowly, maneuvering between them to slide out of her.

"That was all me, Miss Walker."

"And who is 'me'?" The comforter is in a tangle on the floor, the sheet twisted and barely anchored under a corner of the mattress, and when she shifts her weight, watching him as he crosses to the bathroom, the other pillow slides off the bed. She feels thoroughly warm, for the first time in what seems like years. "Chuck, or Charles Carmichael?"

"Well, Charles Carmichael does always come quickly."

"So, Chuck, then." She's hugging her knees when he returns to the bed, sweeping up the tangled bedclothes on his way. "I didn't say thank you, did I."

He shrugs, halfheartedly tucking the sheet back in as Sarah pulls a corner of the comforter over her bare knees. "If we started saying thank you now, we'd never stop, right," he says lightly.

"I didn't say I loved you, either."

"And that's definitely something there's no going back from."

She waits a long time for him to meet her gaze again. "And I do. Love you, Chuck."

He smiles, touching the point of her chin, and just before their mouths touch, he whispers, "I don't think I'd be alive right now, if you didn't."