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The Burbank Station (Chuck/Buffy the Vampire Slayer) (Sequel to 'The Burbank Situation')

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Starfox5, Jun 8, 2019.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter 1: The Bait Part 1
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    The Burbank Station

    Summary:
    Chuck Bartowski lost both his parents growing up in Sunnydale, was framed and expelled from Stanford by his former friend, and his best friend keeps trying to get him to hunt demons. Things changed, though. He’s got a great girlfriend and he’s working for the CIA. If only he were not hunted by both demons and spies… Sequel to “The Burbank Situation”

    Disclaimer:
    I do not own Chuck or any of the characters in the series. I do not own Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any of the characters in the series.

    Author’s Notes:
    This story is set in an Alternate Universe. A number of canon events didn’t happen or happened differently in the series.

    Cover:

    [​IMG]

    Chapter 1: The Bait Part 1

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, November 16th, 2007

    Chuck Bartowski stared at the disc on his desk. A message. From Bryce Larkin, his former friend. They had had plans together - until Bryce had framed him for cheating and got him expelled from Stanford a few months before graduation. Before or after hitching up with Chuck’s girlfriend, Jill.

    Bryce Larkin, who had been a CIA double agent infiltrating a secret organisation named ‘Fulcrum’ and had stolen an NSA top-secret database and search algorithm - the Intersect - only to mail it to Chuck before he was shot and left for dead. Which led to the Intersect ending up in Chuck’s head, and him becoming a high-level CIA intelligence asset.

    And to Chuck working with Bryce Larkin to root out the Fulcrum agents within the CIA and NSA. A mission that had led to Bryce dying - for real, this time - in a bombing that destroyed the rebuilt Intersect and, once more, left Chuck the only Intersect in the world - and Fulcrum’s number one target.

    And left him with Bryce’s last message.

    He picked up the disc. “You should never connect media you don’t trust to your computer,” he reminded himself aloud.

    “What did you say?”

    He jerked, almost dropping the disc to the floor. Sarah! He still wasn’t used to actually living with his girlfriend. He still wasn’t used to a girlfriend, period. Even less to a girlfriend who was one of the best spies in the CIA.

    He heard her steps on the stairs - she wasn’t trying to sneak, or he wouldn’t have heard her at all - and a moment later, she entered his room. “Chuck?”

    “Uh, ah… I was just talking to myself.” He dropped the disc onto his desk with a flick of his fingers that didn’t look as smooth as he had imagined it. “Bryce sent me a message, or so the tag claims.”

    “A message?” Sarah frowned, which made her look very cute, as she walked up to his desk and grabbed the envelope and note with which the disc had been delivered.

    “Classic ‘to be mailed after my death’ message, I think,” Chuck said. That was how it worked in a tv series.

    “Sloppy,” she commented. “You either need someone you trust implicitly, or you set up an automatic delivery system, which you might be unable to stop after at one point even though you’re still alive.”

    “Ah.” That made sense. Of course it did. Sarah was an experienced spy. Her past was so secret, it wasn’t even in her CIA file. Chuck knew that since he knew her file courtesy of the Intersect. “I’m a little hesitant to open the message. Or slide the disc into my drive. The last time I opened a message from Bryce, I ended up with…” He pointed at his temple. “You know.”

    She nodded, putting one hand on his shoulder and squeezing gently. She hadn’t taken offence, had she? Without the Intersect, they wouldn’t have met, after all.

    He cleared his throat. “So… I’m a tiny little bit apprehensive. On the other hand: It’s his last message. It could be important.” He would feel really stupid - and would probably be dead - if they failed to destroy Fulcrum because Chuck hadn’t wanted to listen to Bryce’s last words and they contained crucial information. Which, thanks to the Intersect compiling and analysing data in seemingly random patterns to generate results nothing else could come up with, could be the case even if Bryce himself hadn’t been aware of that information.

    “Yes. Do you want me to stay while you open it?”

    She didn’t question whether or not he’d open it. Of course, she didn’t know that he wasn’t as brave as he tried to act. But he wanted her here. And she deserved to be here. Bryce had been his friend - his best friend, apart from Morgan - but he had also been her lover. “Yes.”

    He’d still run a virus check, of course. And he’d use a fresh laptop from the Buy More stocks. Just in case.

    It would be really embarrassing if he’d catch a virus because he didn’t follow the very security rules he always told the Nerd Herd clients to follow.

    *****

    It was a video message. Chuck winced - reading Bryce’s last words was one thing, but seeing him, hearing him… But Chuck would see this through. He had gone through worse, after all.

    “Well, Chuck, if you see this, then I’m dead.”

    Bryce’s grin on the screen didn’t look like he actually expected that to happen, but he quickly grew serious.

    “And I never told you why I got you expelled from Stanford.”

    He sighed. He looked a little younger than Chuck remembered.

    “And that’s something you deserve to know. Something I don’t want to take with me into the grave, so to speak. In short, the CIA wanted to recruit you at Stanford. Just as they recruited me.”

    He grinned again.

    “Yes, Chuck, I’m a spy. And a good one. Anyway, I knew you weren’t cut out to a spy - it’s not a game, Chuck. It’s a dirty business. Too dirty and too brutal for you. But I also knew you wouldn’t turn them down if they asked. You’d think it were an adventure, like a game. And they would ask you - your grades were just too good, and you fit their other requirements. So, I decided to frame you as a cheater. If the CIA thought your grades were fake, they wouldn’t be interested. Especially since you got caught. I know it would hurt you, but you’d still be alive. Alive and with your family, instead of training to be a killer like me.”

    He sighed.

    “I don’t regret it. Not framing you, not becoming a spy myself. I only regret that you never knew that it was for your own good. Well, now you know.”

    He smiled.

    “Sorry for the late apology. Oh. I almost forgot: Seducing Jill was also for your own good. She would have destroyed you, trust me. So, live long and prosper, Chuck.”

    Bryce grinned until the message ended.

    *****

    Chuck leaned back, clenching his teeth. “For my own good,” he spat. “Fun and games? I grew up on a Hellmouth!”

    Sarah squeezed his shoulder again. “He must have recorded the message before he learned the truth.”

    Chuck closed his eyes. Was it his own damn fault? If he had told Bryce about the supernatural during their time at Stanford… But Bryce had laughed at the hints. If it had been Los Angeles, Chuck might have been able to arrange for a demonstration, but Stanford? Not to mention that ‘my friend doesn’t believe in magic, I want to show him the truth’ sounded really petty as a reason to ask for a favour from the Council, now that he thought of it.

    He sighed. “I know that he didn’t know. But to know what he thought about me? That kinda hurts, you know?” He turned his head to look at her.

    She nodded and sat on the desk, half-facing him.

    He tore his eyes away from her legs. “And there were a few too many ‘knows’ in that sentence.” He forced himself to chuckle. “I…” Not ‘know’. “I’m aware I’m no Casey.” All too aware. “But I don’t exactly look that weak, do I?”

    Her smile twisted a little. “You’ll make a good spy,” she said.

    “Ouch.” He grimaced. “Shouldn’t you salvage my fragile male ego?” He turned it into a joke with another forced grin.

    “You’ve fought demons and spies,” she told him. “Without the advantages of training or magic powers. I told you before: Don’t put yourself down.” She slid off the desk and into his lap.

    He gasped a little at the unexpected weight - not that he’d complain - as his arms closed around her waist and his chair rolled back about a foot.

    “That you don’t look like Casey is an advantage for a spy,” she said. “You’re more attractive as well,” she added with a smirk that had rapidly become familiar to him.

    “Ah…” he knew what was coming - she was already shifting her weight - and his lips were open when she kissed him.

    When they broke the kiss, he wanted to crack a joke. Something like ‘I’m already feeling better’. Or ‘my ego’s been healed.’ But all he managed was a sappy smile.

    He still couldn’t really believe that a woman like Sarah would fall for him. Bryce didn’t believe it either, of course. He fought the annoyance that thought brought with it down. Bryce had been wrong. Sarah wasn’t manipulating him.

    It still felt wrong to make out right after watching his former friend’s last message.

    Then another kiss that left both of them panting, and Chuck pushed the doubts away.

    *****

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, November 17th, 2007

    Waking up with Sarah in his arms was something of which Chuck would never grow tired. And watching her wake up… The way she blinked, half-asleep, completely relaxed, before she snapped fully awake and tensed, glaring around for a moment… A perfect mix of beauty and danger.

    “Good morning,” he drawled.

    “Good morning,” she replied, brushing a lock of hair away from her face.

    Perfect.

    “Good Morning!”

    Hearing Ellie yelling from below, though, wasn’t perfect.

    “Chuck! Sarah! We’ve got breakfast ready in twenty minutes!”

    “Thank you, Ellie!” he yelled back. As if they couldn’t prepare breakfast themselves. Granted, sometimes - well, often - they didn’t manage to get out of the bed in time but, still, it was the principle of the thing. He loved his sister, but she had an annoying tendency to mother him - including trying to run his life. “Breakfast with the family is on the menu,” he said in a low voice, grimacing.

    Sarah smiled. She was a trooper. “We better get up, then.”

    He nodded, even though he would prefer to get up to something else.

    *****

    “So, have you thought about remodelling?” Ellie asked as she served coffee. “Chuck’s got many talents, but interior decorator isn’t among them.”

    “Love you too, sis,” Chuck muttered.

    Sarah, of course, managed to keep smiling and reply: “We haven’t yet talked about that.”

    Did that mean she wanted to remodel his apartment? It wasn’t a man cave, as Morgan had wanted, and IKEA furniture wasn’t really bad, was it?

    “Well, you should,” Captain Awesome said, showing his perfect teeth in a smile. “It’s not a home until you’ve made it yours. Both of you, together. Ellie and I did that.”

    Of course they had. Chuck forced himself to smile. “We haven’t yet discussed that. But we will - Sarah’s great at remodelling. You should have seen her old apartment!” That earned him a look from her.

    “I’d love to see it!” Ellie said. “I’ve got the evening free!”

    Sarah’s look turned into a glare.

    Oh, yes - the CIA had furnished her apartment. Chuck had forgotten that.

    That might complicate matters a little.

    *****

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, November 17th, 2007

    “Oh, I love it! You’ve got such great taste!” Ellie exclaimed. “Chuck, let her decorate your apartment!”

    Chuck forced himself to smile - his apartment was perfectly fine. Behind Ellie’s back, Sarah shook her head at him. “Uh, this apartment is very different from ours, you know?” he said. “What fits one might not fit the other.”

    “Anything is better than ‘Late Nintendo Style’,” Ellie replied.

    “Hey!” He frowned at her. He didn’t even have a Nintendo console! “I’ll have you know that many artists use computer art in their work these days!”

    Ellie raised her eyebrows at him. “You’re no artist, Chuck.” She turned to Sarah, who quickly pasted a smile on her face. “Really, unless you want to live in an apartment styled after video games, you need to take matters into hand.”

    “I’m sure we’ll work things out,” Sarah said, then frowned at him again once Ellie turned to inspect at the low glass table in front of the couch.

    Chuck couldn’t help noticing a distinct lack of Sarah defending his interior decorating choices.

    *****

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, November 17th, 2007

    “The apartment isn’t that bad, you know,” Chuck said once Sarah and he had returned to his - their - apartment. “Of course, it doesn’t have any designer furniture or antiques, but it’s functional. In a Scandinavian way.”

    “You mean it’s a mix of IKEA and comic and video games merchandise,” Sarah replied.

    “TRON is a classic movie!” he protested.

    “About a video game.” She smirked at him.

    He raised a finger to retort, but couldn’t think of an argument that wouldn’t sound stupid. “It’s still a classic,” he finally said, sitting down on his couch.

    “I doubt that Ellie minds your Tron poster,” Sarah said as she joined him on the couch.

    “She’s my sister but she doesn’t live here. Even though she tends to treat it as an extension of her apartment,” he replied. “You’re moving in here, so: What do you mind?”

    “Hm.”

    “That’s where you assure me that the apartment only needs a few feminine touches and is otherwise fine,” he reminded her.

    “You want me to lie to you?” She was smiling, but he still felt the sting. “Also, ‘feminine touches’? Really?”

    He had to wince. “Sorry, I was quoting Morgan.”

    “Ah.”

    He didn’t like that tone. “He’s my best friend.”

    “He also isn’t an authority on interior decoration,” Sarah retorted.

    “Well, aren’t we going to let the CIA specialists do their thing? You know, the safehouse guys?” Chuck had seen their lists and services, after all.

    “You’re too secret for them,” Sarah shot the idea down.

    “What about the guys who built the underground base?”

    “It’s been officially christened ‘The Castle’,” she told him. “But would you really want them to decorate your home? Holding cells, armories and computer screens?”

    The Castle. He hadn’t known that. Shouldn’t he have been told? He shook his head. “Can’t we decorate our home?”

    “We’ll have to.”

    Judging by her wry smile… “Let me guess: Your home wouldn’t pass muster with Ellie either, would it?”

    “I’m a spy, not an interior decorator.”

    Which meant no, it wouldn’t. He tried to hide his grin but failed. She smiled in return.

    *****

    California, Burbank, Buy More, November 19th, 2007

    Morgan made a beeline towards him as soon as Chuck entered the Buy More. Which wasn’t a good sign.

    “Hi, Chuck! You’re not busy, are you? Of course you’re not, or you wouldn’t be here but off doing spy stuff. Listen! I need your help!”

    “What? With your ‘the best assault clips of Medal of Honour’ video?”

    “What? Oh, no, I did that yesterday.” Morgan handed him a memory stick. “Try it out! It’s great!” He smiled. “No, it’s about you know what. Did Caridad talk to you yet?”

    “Morgan, I told you, I can’t control my ‘thing’.” Chuck blinked. “And that sounded much worse than I thought.”

    “She didn’t.” Morgan nodded, apparently ignoring him. “Look, someone’s been poaching.”

    “Poaching?”

    “Yes, in the last week, three half-demons were killed by unknown hunters.”

    “And Caridad is complaining about ‘kill stealing’.” Chuck nodded. Slayers were very territorial - sometimes irrationally so.

    “Uh… the victims were peaceful half-demons.” Morgan winced. “Phil thinks that they were killed for their blood - they were all drained.”

    Chuck winced. “Damn. That’s…” Vampires generally wouldn’t drink slime blood.

    “Yeah.” Morgan nodded. “They were all half-slime demons.”

    Chuck winced again. “Uh. You mean...?”

    “Yes. Jeff could be in danger.”

    “He’s no half-demon. He just has one among his ancestors,” Chuck said.

    “That might be enough for the killer.” Morgan nodded. “We need to protect him.”

    Protecting Jeff… Chuck knew that that was easier said than done. Some people with demon ancestry lived perfectly normal lives. Jeff wasn’t among them. ‘Weird’ and ‘creepy’ described him quite accurately. ‘Lecherous’ as well. There was a reason he was never sent to a female Nerd Herd customer. And, Chuck had to admit, there was a reason that Anna was the only female Nerd Herder who hadn’t quit after a few weeks - she had resorted to physical attacks to stop him stalking her.

    And she wasn’t the only one who had ever beaten up Jeff; such incidents happened quite frequently when he and Lester went drinking together, as Chuck had learned from their chats during work. So they couldn’t assume that someone was the murderer whom Caridad hunted just because they were attacking Jeff. Fortunately for him and the Buy More’s health insurance provider, his slime demon ancestry made Jeff quite resilient and he healed quicker than normal humans.

    “I’ll tell Casey that we might have demon hunters on the premises,” he told Morgan.

    “Are you sure Casey won’t kill Jeff?” Morgan asked with a notable wince.

    “Of course…” Chuck trailed off. Casey actually had often voiced his wish to kill Jeff and Lester, and Chuck wasn’t entirely certain whether he was serious or not. If the agent knew that Jeff had demon ancestry, would he consider the man a threat?

    Chuck sighed. “I’ll tell him not to kill Jeff. But tell Jeff to tone his usual antics down.” Delegation was the key to good management, after all.

    Morgan grimaced but nodded in agreement. “I’ll do it. I’ll threaten him with Caridad.”

    “Good.” They couldn’t threaten Jeff with Casey since that would endanger the agent’s cover - and Casey would certainly kill Jeff to prevent that. Probably enjoy it, too. But Caridad? Even Jeff knew better than to annoy the resident Slayer.

    “Speak of the devil…” Morgan whispered, nodding towards the door to the staff area, where Casey had just appeared. “Good luck!”

    Chuck frowned as Morgan made his exit, then sighed and marched towards the agent. “Hey, Casey!”

    The agent narrowed his eyes at once. “Bartowski,” he growled.

    Chuck had a flashback to that encounter with the neighbours’ pitbull in Sunnydale which had traumatised him for his kindergarten years. “Uh… bad time?”

    “It’s always a bad time in the Buy More.”

    “Ah…” Chuck forced himself to smile. “And a good morning to you as well!” He cleared his throat and checked if anyone was watching them, but he couldn’t spot anyone - this was too early for most customers. “So… I just heard something that might have an impact on our mission.”

    “The poachers?”

    Chuck blinked, How had…? “Caridad told you?”

    “Yes.” He grinned. “First time Jeff will be of any use.”

    “Uh…” What did he…? Chuck’s eyes widened as he made the connection. “You’re using him as bait?”

    Casey grinned. “If we’re lucky, they’ll kill him before we get them. Win-win.”

    “You didn’t actually ask him, did you?”

    “Of course not. If he were aware, he’d give the game away.” Casey bared his teeth.

    “Ah… good plan. Good plan.” Chuck nodded and kept smiling until Casey had disappeared behind the latest game releases.

    This was a bad idea. Very bad.

    *****

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, November 19th, 2007

    “...and they’re using Jeff as bait,” Chuck finished telling Sarah the news before taking another sip from his soda.

    She didn’t look as shocked as he had expected. She was nodding, actually. “It’s smart. That way, they don’t have to split their forces between bodyguarding and hunting.”

    “Casey said if the poachers killed Jeff, it’d be a win-win situation:”

    “He wasn’t serious,” she replied.

    “He sounded serious,” Chuck retorted.

    “He probably just wanted to get a rise out of you,” Sarah said. “Besides, if the target of a bodyguarding mission were killed on his watch, it’d reflect negatively on his reputation.”

    “It’s not an official mission,” he reminded her.

    “But,” she countered with a grin, “it’s a mission from Caridad. She informed him before you heard about this, right?”

    “Right.” Sarah was correct - Morgan had informed him, but Caridad had gone to Casey. “Do you really think there’s something between those two?”

    “Why, jealous?” She grinned, making it a joke.

    “No, no” Chuck was quick to say. “I’m just…” A little jealous - dropped for Casey? Would Sarah do the same? No. “No, I just can’t see him with her. They’re too…”

    “Similar?”

    “Yes!” He nodded at her.

    “Opposites attract, but birds of a feather flock together,” she said as she rose.

    “Ah.” Chuck nodded again, wondering if that meant anything for his and Sarah’s relationship.

    *****

    California, Burbank, The Castle, November 19th, 2007

    “...and according to our, albeit limited, information, Mr Colt is currently in Los Angeles. As he is suspected of being a key figure in the sabotage of the Intersect, his arrest is of utmost importance to uncover Fulcrum’s plot.” General Beckman stared at them as she nodded once. “You will deploy the Intersect at the possible locations of interest we sent you. Any questions?”

    The sabotage of the Intersect and the murder of Bryce and the director, Chuck mentally corrected the general.

    “No, ma’am,” Casey snapped.

    “No, general,” Sarah added.

    This wouldn’t be a good time to ask for leave, Chuck knew. Even though he was supposed to deal - or at least help - with someone targeting half-demons in Los Angeles, and Ellie expected him to turn his apartment into an exhibit fit for 'American Home Magazine’ - yesterday.

    “No, ma’am,” he replied accordingly, then waited until the screen turned black. “Uh…”

    “This takes priority, Bartowski,” Casey interrupted him.

    “But…”

    “We have to find out what Fulcrum knows - if they know about you…” Sarah shook her head as she trailed off. “I’m sorry, Chuck, but the Council will have to solve the poaching problem on their own.”

    “But…” They couldn’t let Jeff get killed.

    “Caridad will manage,” Casey said. “And if she doesn’t, Jeff is an acceptable loss.”

    “No, he isn’t!” Chuck blurted out. Jeff might be creepy, and a lech, and misusing Buy More equipment - though everyone did that - but he was still their co-worker. And if your co-worker was threatened, you were supposed to do something about it.

    And now he sounded like Morgan in his own head. Morgan misquoting a classic move, to be precise.

    Casey snorted. “You’re the Intersect. He’s a drain on company resources. Well, one of the worst of your bunch.”

    “I didn’t know you cared so much about the Buy More’s bottom line,” Chuck retorted. “Big Mike would be happy to hear that.”

    “It’s the principle of the thing,” Casey replied. “And priorities. You’re one, he’s not, and we can’t help everyone.”

    Chuck looked at Sarah, but she shook her head. “You’re more important, Chuck.”

    He knew she didn’t just mean the Intersect in his head, but it still stung. He stood, shaking his head. “I’ll not let him get killed!” he declared as he left The Castle.

    As soon as he could think of a good way to achieve that without endangering the mission and putting Sarah and Casey at risk.

    *****

    California, Burbank, Buy More, November 19th, 2007

    Chuck found Jeff and Lester in the staff area of the Buy More trying to load speakers into Jeff’s van. He cleared his throat, which caused them to freeze.

    “Oh, hi, Chuck!” Lester beamed the worst smile Chuck had seen in days at him. “Didn’t see you there.”

    “What’s up?” Jeff appeared to be considerably less nervous than his friend.

    “I think that’s my line,” Chuck told them, trying to imitate Casey’s glare. Lester cringed a little, but Jeff, as usual, seemed completely unaffected. “Did you buy those speakers?”

    “Uh… we’re not taking them,” Lester said. “We’re… we’re borrowing them!”

    Jeff nodded.

    “To test them. They were defective, and we fixed them, so we need to test them. Wouldn’t want to sell shoddy merchandise in the Buy More, would we?”

    “‘Testing’.” Chuck shook his head. “And how long were those tests supposed to take?”

    “A week? Have to be sure that…” Lester trailed off.

    “Put them back to the warehouse,” Chuck snapped. “Jeff, I need to talk to you afterwards. Alone,” he added.

    For the first time since he had caught them in the act, Jeff looked nervous, Chuck noticed before he left them to check what else they might have done.

    *****

    Fifteen minutes later, Jeff entered Chuck’s office - which had been a broom closet before his promotion to assistant manager.

    “We’re done,” Jeff said while looking at the wall behind Chuck.

    Chuck raised a finger. “One moment.” He walked to the door. “Lester, don’t!” he snapped, then listened to the other man scrambling away. “I wanted to talk to you alone,” he said as he returned to his seat.

    Jeff shrugged. He really didn’t make it easy to care about him, in Chuck’s opinion.

    He sighed. “Jeff, did you hear about the half-slime demon killings?”

    Jeff’s eyes snapped open, and he stared at Chuck. “That wasn’t me!” he blurted out. “I didn’t kill anyone!”

    Ah. “No. I meant, someone has been killing half-slime demons in Los Angeles.”

    “Oh.” And Jeff was back to that half-lidded stare.

    “For their blood,” Chuck added.

    “Oh.” Jeff blinked. Slowly.

    “You might be in danger as well,” Chuck pointed out a few seconds of silence later.

    “Oh.”

    Chuck resisted the urge to rub his face. “Let rephrase that: The Slayer thinks the killers will come for you.”

    “The Slayer?” Jeff’s voice had risen an octave.

    “Yes.”

    Jeff started to look around. “Is she here?”

    “She might be - I wouldn’t know,” Chuck said. “Look, calm down. They’re keeping an eye on you.”

    “What?” Jeff jumped up. “I have to get out… I have to get away!” He whirled and almost ran into the door.

    “Wait!” Chuck yelled as he stood up himself.

    But the man wasn’t listening, and by the time Chuck had gotten out from behind his desk in the narrow former closet, Jeff had disappeared.

    *****

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, November 19th, 2007

    “And it seems that Jeff had prepared a hideout ‘deep in the bowels of the Buy More’,” Chuck told Sarah over dinner - he had made a penne casserole. He shook his head. “It’s a real labyrinth there, dating back about a hundred years, of failed projects and excavations. All of it is unsafe, so it’s been closed off - or should have been. I called Caridad, but she lost his trail in the tunnels below the basement.”

    Sarah frowned. “Couldn’t she follow his scent?”

    “Apparently, Jeff used some chemicals to throw her off,” Chuck told her. Which probably was a good thing - Caridad had looked so mad when her nose didn’t stop running for half an hour after smelling Jeff’s concoction, she might have killed him herself if she had found him.

    Sarah chuckled. “I would have liked to see that.” He frowned at her, but her grin grew a little wider. “And you probably should have expected that to happen when you told him that Caridad would be watching him.”

    “Honestly, it’s sometimes hard to remember just how much some demons fear the Slayer,” he said.

    “There’s also the fact that Jeff and his friends are creepy voyeurs who tried to take upskirt pictures of me with a remote-controlled toy car,” Sarah pointed out.

    “What?” Chuck had a sudden urge to hunt down Jeff himself.

    “I taught them not to,” she replied.

    “Ah.” He blinked. “Was that shortly after you arrived?”

    She nodded. “Yes.”

    “They claimed the toy car had been broken while being unloaded. As did a camera, actually.” Typical.

    She shrugged, obviously not too concerned about the terrible two’s antics. “You probably lose more to thieves every day.”

    “Casey actually put a dent into that,” Chuck replied. A number of shoplifters probably were too traumatised to even go near the Buy More any more.

    “I saw one of his ‘takedowns’,” she said. “In any case, you accomplished your mission.”

    “What?” What did she mean?

    “Jeff is safely holed up, so he can’t be used as bait.”

    “Oh.” He blinked. He hadn’t thought of that. “You’re right.”

    “Of course I am.” She smiled as she finished her plate.

    “But I still find the idea that Jeff has become the Phantom of the Buy More a little disturbing,” he said. More than a little disturbing, actually, given what he knew about Jeff’s private life. Which he hadn’t wanted to know.

    Her grin turned into a grimace.

    He nodded with a similar expression.

    *****

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown, November 20th, 2007

    “And this is the address?” Casey didn’t sound as if he believed Chuck. Which was quite unfair - Chuck had been right every time he had flashed. Well, mostly.

    He tapped his temple. “That’s what my little friend got after you had me watching hours and hours of security tapes showing mercenaries raiding an NSA lab.” And all while he should have been working at the Buy More - now Chuck felt pretty bad for telling off the rest of the staff for their cage fighting event during a two-hour lunch break.

    Casey grunted.

    Sarah rolled her eyes, then smiled at Chuck. “Stay in the car, Chuck.”

    He refrained from smarting off and nodded. He knew he wasn’t a trained spy - or a Slayer. His place wasn’t on the frontlines. But he couldn’t help feeling like a coward as he watched Casey and Sarah leave the car and approach the apartment where Mr Colt was supposed to live.

    Sighing, he leaned back and tried not to worry about them risking their lives while he was watching. Figuratively, of course - he didn’t have a direct line of sight to the suspect’s apartment. That would have been too dangerous for him. Well, there was also the fact that he was in a Nerd Herd Car, and Nerd Herders didn’t make house calls at midnight. If Mr Colt was as good as a spy as he was supposed to be - and, seeing as he had broken into an NSA lab, stolen an Intersect part and ‘lost’ it to an NSA recovery team which failed to realise it had been sabotaged, he had proved his skill - then spotting a Nerd Herder car might ruin the mission.

    But the real reason Chuck was kept out of sight was to keep him safe. Or, rather, keep the Intersect safe, but close enough to support Casey and Sarah if he were needed. Which, even though it was stupid and selfish, Chuck hoped would be the case. He wanted to do something, not just serve as a mobile terminal for the Intersect.

    Sighing once more, he sat up straight and stared at the radio. He wouldn’t ask how it was going. That was stupid and might distract Sarah or Casey at a crucial moment. But couldn’t they at least inform him how it was going? He didn’t even know if they were inside the apartment yet.

    Well, as a glance at his spy watch confirmed, five minutes had passed - unless the building had better security than expected, they should have been inside by now. Ready to charge into the apartment. Sarah would blast open the door with a shotgun, and Casey would enter first - be on point - with an M4. And Mr Colt would…

    “He bolted! Rappelled down from the balcony!” Casey’s voice suddenly sounded from the car’s speakers.

    What? Mr Colt had escaped? Chuck blinked. The balcony opened to the south, which meant… His eyes widened. That meant the closest escape route would lead directly to him!

    He looked to the side just in time to see Mr Colt jump through the bushes to the right of the car, less than ten metres from Chuck.

    For a moment, both stared at each other. Chuck saw the man’s eyes widen - oh, God, the mercenary must have realised what Chuck was doing here! And he was drawing a gun!

    But he froze once more before he could shoot Chuck, then dashed away, disappearing into a side alley. A moment later, Casey broke through the bushes, looking left and right before glaring at Chuck.

    Chuck raised his hand and pointed towards the side alley with a grimace.

    The NSA agent broke into a sprint, following the mercenary, but returned less than a minute later, just as Sarah arrived. “He got away,” Casey growled.

    Chuck held up his index finger. “Two things: I did as ordered and stayed in the car, so I couldn’t have stopped him. And I think this proves that staying in the car isn’t as safe as everyone tries to tell me.”

    “You’re right,” Casey spat. Chuck almost gasped. Did that mean… “Next time, you should stay at The Castle,” the man went on.

    That wasn’t what Chuck had wanted. Not at all!

    *****

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, November 21st, 2007

    “It wasn’t my fault,” Chuck said as he and Sarah prepared to go to bed an hour and a rather terse debriefing later.

    “No one said it was,” Sarah replied.

    That was true. But Chuck had seen the glances. And sitting in the car, watching the enemy run past you… “It feels like it’s my fault,” he said.

    “It isn’t,” she said.

    He was about to retort, but she bent over to pick up her sleepwear, and he stared instead. He cleared his throat when she slipped her tank top on. “I should have done something. Kicked the car door into him.”

    “He would have shot you.”

    Chuck sighed as he picked up his own t-shirt. “He almost shot me anyway.” And Chuck wouldn’t have been able to do anything, trapped in the car. “I was helpless.”

    Sarah took a moment to reply. “And you don’t want to be helpless.”

    No, he didn’t. “Staying in the car won’t protect me. Staying in The Castle won’t protect me either.” Bryce and the director had been killed in the middle of a top-secret base as well, after all.

    “Knowing how to shoot a gun won’t always protect you, either,” she replied as if she had read his thoughts.

    “It would protect me in some situations,” he retorted. “Like today.”

    After a moment, she nodded. “You’re right.”

    “I am? I mean, yes.”

    That made her laugh.

    He pouted. A little. “I just want to do more than just sitting in the car.”

    “I know.” She slid into his bed. “But the training will take a lot of time.”

    He knew what she meant. “Time we won’t have while hunting Fulcrum with only one Intersect.”

    “Yes.”

    He sighed and sat down on the bed. “Perhaps some lessons, at least? With you, not with Casey. He might kill me. Accidentally.” Or on purpose.

    “I think that should be possible.”

    “Thank you,” he said as he joined her in his bed. It was cramped with two people - they were supposed to buy a bigger bed - but he didn’t mind.

    *****

    California, Burbank, Buy More, November 21st, 2007

    It took Chuck half an hour to find Lester after he showed up for work, but he finally cornered the man in the basement of the Buy More. Chuck’s prepared speech died on his lips, though, as soon as he saw what the man was doing. “Are those… panties?”

    “Ah… no?” Lester chuckled with a grimace.

    “They are panties. From our underwear department, unless someone stole our price tags and put them on panties not taken from our store.” Chuck looked at the rest of the stuff on the floor. “Where did you get the beer though?”

    “Jeff’s fridge.”

    Chuck blinked. “And what are you doing here with beer, panties and… chloroform?” He held up the bottle and stared at the label.

    “That’s Jeff’s too!” Lester quickly said.

    “I want to know what you are doing with all this,” Chuck said with his best Casey-glare.

    Lester caved, which surprised Chuck. “Ah… I’m trying to lure out Jeff.”

    “With panties, beer and chloroform?” That was...

    “His favourite things.” Lester beamed at him.

    ...another thing Chuck hadn’t wanted to know. “Uh…” They were quite short-staffed, with Jeff holed up somewhere beneath the store, and Lester now here. On the other hand, Lester would be useless anyway while he worried about Jeff. “Continue.”

    He turned and left, ignoring Lester’s gasp of surprise. He had more important things to worry about.

    *****

    Morgan was waiting at the Nerd Herd booth when Chuck returned to the store. “Chuck!”

    “Hi, Morgan.”

    “Did Lester’s plan work?”

    “You knew about this?” Chuck stared at his best friend.

    Morgan shrugged. “He told me. It sounded like it could work.”

    “He’s trying to lure Jeff out with panties - probably used ones - beer and chloroform.” Each time Chuck said it, it sounded more surreal.

    “It’s Jeff,” Morgan replied as if that explained it.

    Perhaps it did. Chuck sighed and checked the list for today’s house calls. If he shuffled two shifts around, they could…

    “Wow, look at that guy. Do they even make t-shirts in his size?” Morgan blurted out. “He makes Schwarzenegger look puny!”

    Chuck looked up and froze. Mr Colt had just entered the store. And he had spotted Chuck.

    *****
     
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 2: The Bait Part 2
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 2: The Bait Part 2

    California, Burbank, Buy More, November 21st, 2007

    Mr Colt was here! And he had recognised Chuck! This was a catastrophe! His identity was compromised! His family in danger! He had to do something. Anything!

    No, he couldn’t panic! They were in the middle of the Buy More, surrounded by dozens of civilians. Dozens of witnesses. Even Mr Colt wouldn’t dare to start anything here. Not when surrounded by…

    He blinked. He flashed. The young man studying the flat screen tv? Hans Krause, former member of the Légion étrangère, working as a mercenary, wanted for murder in two countries. The woman comparing toaster prices? Antonia Fernandez, ex-FARC soldier, ex-Cartel hitwoman. The man looking at the latest Medal of Honour title? Jimmy Barnes, former Para, dishonourably discharged after an incident in Belfast. The man behind Mr Colt? Kevin Smith, wanted for armed robbery in three states. Takeo Kurosawa. Jim Lee. Franco di Matteo. Calvin Brown. Liam O’Brien.

    He gasped for air. “Oh my God! They’re here. In the store! Dozens of them!” he muttered as Mr Colt walked towards him with a smile on his face.

    “What? Oh my God!” Morgan whispered next to him. “We have to warn Jeff!” He darted away.

    ‘Warn Jeff’? Why would… Chuck’s eyes widened. Morgan thought he had been talking about the demon hunters! “Morgan!” But his friend had already disappeared through the door to the staff area.

    Mr Colt was now just one aisle away, and two of his men were moving to block Chuck’s escape routes. Obviously, the mercenary didn’t care about the few customers in the store who weren’t his men in disguise.

    Chuck was cornered. He needed a distraction. If he announced 50% off of all electronics for the next thirty minutes… No, he couldn’t risk civilians. Wait a minute… Medal of Honour.

    He ducked down in his booth and grabbed the stick with Morgan’s clip, then plugged it into the PA system, turned the volume up to max and hit play. A moment later, the sounds of gunfire and helicopters filled the store.

    And while the mercenaries dropped to the ground and drew weapons, looking for the attackers, Chuck crawled out of his booth and made his way towards the side entrance to the home cinema demonstration room.

    Piece of ca…

    “There he is! Get him!”

    He should have known better than taunting Murphy like that! Chuck winced as he jumped up and started to run. Someone charged at him from the side, but a quick kick to the EA Sports display caused the mercenary to crash and disappear under a sea of game boxes.

    Saved by video games! Chuck would have smiled if not for the half dozen other mercenaries closing in.

    He threw himself through the door, then rolled over the - fortunately - thick shagging carpet until he bumped against the couch. No one had shot, though - they wanted him alive! Panting, he got up and ran to the exit. If he could lose them in the staff area…

    He toppled the trash can behind the door as he passed it, and grinned for a moment when he heard a curse and the sound of someone crashing to the floor behind him. Yes!

    The break room’s poker table was turned into another ready-made obstacle as he dashed towards the stairs.

    “Get him!”

    Uh-oh. That was Mr Colt himself. The man was too damn quick on his feet for his bulk.

    But Chuck was on the stairs now. He slammed the fire door closed behind him, then locked it with his manager key. Safe! He leaned against it to catch his breath. Now he had to call Sarah and Casey…

    He blinked. Why hadn’t Casey been in the Buy More? And Sarah… She should have spotted Mr Colt entering the store from Wienerlicious!

    He pulled out his phone but before he could text Sarah, a huge blade cut through the door next to his head.

    Shrieking, he dashed down the stairs. He needed to hide! Before they broke through the door! He needed to…

    He skidded to a stop in the lower basement. “Lester!” he yelled, startling the man. “Stop this! We have to hide!”

    “What?” Lester jerked and dropped a suspiciously empty beer bottle to the ground.

    “Get him!” Chuck heard Mr Colt bellow above them.

    “No! The killers!” Lester wailed. “Jeff! Jeff! They’re here!”

    “Come on!” Chuck grabbed him and started to drag him towards the entrance to the lower levels. “We need to hide below!”

    “But… I’m not Jeff!”

    “They don’t care!” Chuck snapped as he pushed past the barricade meant to keep people out of the catacombs below the store.

    He took the first turn right - had to break the enemy’s line of sight as fast as possible. Then left - get away further from them. There was no light anymore, but he had his phone for that. Enough to run on. Another right, then left… oh, a ladder in an alcove to the side! “Down here!” he hissed to the panting Lester, then started climbing. “Come on!”

    The ladder led to another tunnel - but further down than Chuck had expected. They must have skipped another floor.

    “Chuck!” Lester landed next to him, collapsing on the floor and panting as if he had run a marathon. “What…”

    Chuck shushed him. “Be silent,” he hissed. “They can hear us.”

    “What… are… we… doing?” Lester asked in a whisper.

    “We’re running away,” Chuck replied. He barely resisted the urge to add ‘what does it look like we’re doing?’

    “I noticed. But…” Lester slowly got up, hands on his knees. “...where are we going?”

    “Uh…” Chuck hadn’t actually been down in the catacombs so far. They were ideal for vampires and other demons vulnerable to sunlight. “Ah, we…”

    Light shone down the ladder. Flashlight! Mr Colt!

    “Run!” Chuck hissed, dragging Lester with him again.

    “They’re down here!” echoed above and behind them.

    Chuck muttered a curse and took the next tunnel right, left, left, right, straight… straight… “Whoa!”

    He managed to stop in time before falling into a hole. In the ground. Behind him, Lester collapsed again, making wheezing noises.

    “I think… we… lost them,” Chuck said between gulping down air. He looked around, letting the dim light from his phone’s screen play over broken down furniture and pots. “But I think we’re lost, too.”

    “Lost?”

    Chuck didn’t have to look at Lester’s face to know he was gaping.

    “What do you mean lost? You lead us! You dragged me down here, and you got me lost?”

    “I was running away from two dozen armed killers,” Chuck pointed out. “Would you rather have been shot?”

    “It’d be quicker than starving to death in the bowels of the earth!” Lester retorted. “In the darkness, once your phone’s battery gives out!”

    “We won’t starve!” Chuck replied. “And we’ll get out of here.” His spy watch had a radio and a GPS locator, after all. And no reception, as he found out when he tried to use it. “Uh…”

    “‘Uh’? What do you mean, ‘uh’?”

    “It might take me a little longer than expected to get us out of here,” Chuck explained. “Wherever ‘here’ is,” he added.

    “I’m eating you before I starve,” Lester muttered.

    “We won’t starve,” Chuck retorted. “We’ll die of thirst long before we starve.”

    “I’ll drink your blood before I die, then.”

    Lester was kidding. Probably. But it would be a good idea to get un-lost before long. “Let’s see where we are!” Chuck announced with an overly cheerful voice. “Perhaps we find something useful.”

    He fiddled with his phone - he was saving the battery of his spy watch, even though it had a more powerful light - and checked their surroundings. Broken furniture - all wood and metal, no plastic. Some broken tanks and pipes, and lots of old barrels… “We’re in an old distillery,” he said. “Probably installed during the prohibition.”

    “They got booze here?” Lester sounded far more lively than a moment ago.

    Chuck looked at the broken barrels. “Nothing left,” he said.

    And Lester collapsed again. “We’re going to die here.”

    “We won’t,” Chuck corrected him. “If this was an illegal distillery, then they had a way to transport the barrels of booze.” He walked along the walls. “Ah! See?” In the light from his phone, he saw old rails on the ground. “There it is!”

    Lester joined him and stared at the ground. “We’re in a mine?”

    “No. But they probably used the same kind of carts to transport the barrels. We just have to follow the rails. We won’t get lost!” Chuck said.

    “We’re already lost,” Lester replied.

    Chuck ignored him. They would get out of this.

    Five minutes later, they were still following the rails and hadn’t stumbled upon an exit yet. At least his phone’s battery was holding.

    “We’re lost,” Lester muttered behind him.

    “No, we aren’t. We’re still on rails.”

    Lester didn’t react to his joke. Was that a bad thing? Morale was critical for surviving in the wilderness, Chuck knew. They weren’t exactly in the jungle, of course, and it hadn’t even been half an hour since they had run away, but Lester seemed to be giving up already.

    “This is all your fault. We’re going to die here, and it’s your fault!”

    Well, he obviously had enough strength left to complain. Things couldn’t be really bad yet.

    Just as Chuck was about to make another joke to lift their spirits, they heard a piercing scream from ahead of them.

    Chuck froze for a moment - only a moment! - then started towards it, following the rails. He had no weapon, other than his emergency pencil-stake, which he clutched in his hand. A little spy training and gear would come in real handy right now, he thought as he - cautiously - made his way forward.

    And some night vision goggles, he added - the glow from his phone might be dim, but it’d still be easily seen at any distance in these tunnels. At least the tunnels were not too straight, which would help. A little.

    Why exactly was he going towards the location of a scream, anyway?

    He hadn’t found an answer, but he hadn’t stopped, either, a few minutes later, when he saw the body on the floor. It was O’Brien, one of Mr Colt’s mercenaries. Still alive, Chuck realised with some relief, but unconscious.

    And covered in some sort of… slime.

    “Uh-oh.”

    Chuck didn’t scream in panic. He merely gasped a little as he whirled, pencil raised, to face… Lester. Whom he apparently had forgotten. No wonder he wasn’t a spy.

    Lester raised his hands and took a step back. “Whoa! It’s me!”

    “Don’t,” Chuck said, in a steady and hopefully slightly menacing voice, “try to sneak up on me.”

    “It’s Jeff.”

    “Jeff?” Chuck almost checked the unconscious mercenary again. “Jeff did this?”

    “Yes, the, ah, slime.” Lester pointed at the puddle.

    Apparently, Jeff’s demonic ancestry was a little more recent than he had led them to believe, Chuck noted. And Lester was aware of it - well, Chuck should have guessed that. “Paralysing slime?” he guessed. And how had Jeff managed to produce so much slime?

    “Ah…” Lester flashed a forced smile in the dim light. “It was meant to be… recreational?”

    “Recrea…” Chuck blinked. “He wanted to create drugs? You wanted to create drugs!”

    Lester cringed. “It was just an experiment! We wanted to see what we could do with his, uh…”

    Chuck really didn’t want to know what bodily fluid they had used. He glared at the other man. “That was your food poisoning?” He and the other Nerd Herders had had to fill in for the duo for an entire week!

    “Well…”

    Chuck sighed. “And the slime is adhesive, right?” He pointed to the mercenary. “He’s stuck to the floor?”

    “Yes?”

    So much for scavenging gear. He sighed. “So, Jeff trapped the tunnels. With his own slime. How much could he produce since he disappeared?”

    Instead of answering, Lester nervously licked his lips.

    Chuck closed his eyes for a moment. He should have realised that Jeff and Lester had behaved a little too well lately. “You stockpiled the stuff.”

    “We were trying to find a formula that didn't, uh, knock people out. Or worked as glue.”

    “In the tunnels below the Buy More.” They were even more stupid than Chuck had thought.

    “No, no! We had a lab in the basement.”

    Chuck stared at him.

    “The old dry cleaning room - no one used it in ages! But Jeff cleaned it out before he moved down here.”

    “We’re going to talk about this once we’re back in the Buy More,” Chuck told him. And he enjoyed seeing Lester cringe more than a little.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, November 21st, 2007

    “I see two men outside. Guards trying to pass as loitering customers.” And doing a halfway decent job of it, Sarah noticed as she informed Casey through the radio. They didn’t look particularly tense, but that would change as soon as the two men she had taken out inside her store failed to report in.

    “Two more at the back,” Casey told her. With the three Casey had dealt with in the parking lot, that made nine enemies outside the Buy More.

    “I’ll take care of the two in front,” Sarah said. They couldn’t wait any longer - she couldn’t reach Chuck either on his phone or through his watch.

    “Careful. There are lots of potential witnesses.”

    She frowned. As if she weren’t aware of that! Did Casey think that she forgot all her training and experience as soon as Chuck was in danger? But telling him off wouldn’t help. “I’m going in,” she said, grabbing a tray and filling it with a bunch of hot dogs.

    The two men outside the store were watching her approach, but they were seeing a waitress delivering food, not a threat. Their eyes weren’t on her hands but on the hem of her skirt. Where she wanted them.

    She flashed them a flirty smile when she reached them, then faked a stumble and threw the tray into the first man’s face. While the man screamed in surprise, she dived forward in a roll and swept the other man’s feet.

    He went down, and she jumped up, blocking the first man as he drew a pistol, taking him out with a palm strike to the face, then turned into a roundhouse kick to the second man’s temple just as he was trying to get back on his feet. “Two down,” she reported, dragging them into the bushes nearby.

    “Going in,” Casey told her.

    Good. She straightened and entered the store. Chuck was inside. And God help Colt if anything had happened to him.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More Catacombs, November 21st, 2007

    “If Jeff’s doing this, then we’re safe,” Lester suddenly said. “He won’t hurt us!”

    “His traps don’t exactly come with IFF,” Chuck pointed out.

    “What?”

    “Identification friend or foe,” Chuck explained. “They cannot tell us from the…” he almost said ‘enemy spies’ “...bad guys.”

    “Oh.”

    “Yes, ‘oh’.” It was obvious, really. Hadn’t Lester ever played decent video games? “Anyway, we still need to find a way out of this maze.”

    “Jeff can lead us out!” Lester exclaimed. “If this is his work, then he has to be close! JEFF! JEFF!” he started to scream. “JE…”

    Chuck’s hand on his mouth shut him up. “Are you crazy?” he hissed. “If there’s one enemy here, it means they are near as well.” They wouldn’t have split up too much.

    “Oh…”

    Was that a light flickering in the next tunnel? Chuck flicked his phone off at once. Yes, definitely a light. Someone was coming. “Jeff?” he yelled.

    No answer. Which was enough of an answer. “We need to go!” he hissed, switching his phone on. They couldn’t risk blindly running into a trap.

    “Why did you yell? You told me not to yell!”

    “I had to check if it was Jeff,” Chuck snapped, already running. The rails led back and were safe - but they would also lead the mercenaries straight to them. “In here!” he hissed as they reached an intersection.

    Lester was panting again - they couldn’t run too far.

    But they could hide.

    Chuck dragged Lester into a small side tunnel, barely wide enough for one man. A few turns later, he stopped, sitting down. Lester fell to his knees next to him, chest heaving for breath. “We’ll hide here,” Chuck said, flicking the phone off. Until Lester had recovered, at least.

    He touched the ground, then rubbed his fingers together. Lots of dust. Not so much as to make breathing difficult, but… Dust. Ground.

    He switched his phone on again and let the light shine on the ground behind them. Footprints.

    They couldn’t hide, either.

    “Lester, we need to go!” he whispered.

    “What?” Lester sounded as if he was half-asleep.

    “We can’t stay; we need to keep moving,” Chuck said.

    “First, you say we need to run, then we need to wait, now we need to run again? You need to decide what you want!”

    Lester really had a talent to get a second wind and a spine at the worst possible times. “You want to get shot?” Chuck snapped. “Get up!”

    “But…”

    "No buts!” They had to move. Chuck led them further down the tunnel. Just a little… He stopped at once, causing Lester to bump into him. “Watch out, here’s a trap!” he hissed as the other man started to complain.

    “Oh.”

    A quick check with the phone - which was starting to grow a little dimmer, Chuck noticed - revealed that there was a small strip of clear ground between the puddle of slime and the walls. “Careful,” Chuck said as he gingerly placed his foot on the clear ground.

    Lester wobbled and almost fell as he followed Chuck.

    “Careful!” Chuck repeated himself. “It’s not…”

    A cone of light appeared behind them. The mercenaries!

    One mercenary, Chuck realised - there was only one flashlight. And Lester was still inching past the puddle of slime. Chuck eyed the tunnel ahead, then clenched his teeth and sped up, passing the puddle in a few quick steps, then turning around to face the frozen Lester. “Jump!” Chuck snapped, holding out his hands. “I’ll drag you clear!”

    “What?”

    “Jump!”

    “Are you crazy?”

    “Here they are!” The cone of light swung around, blinding Chuck. And suddenly, Lester jumped.

    Chuck reached out, grabbing the man, and both tumbled to the floor as a shot rang out, almost deafening Chuck in the narrow confines of the tunnel.

    “Don’t move!” Chuck heard the mercenary yell. “I’ve got them!”

    He had them. In the narrow tunnel, there was no cover. And the next corner was too far away. Not to mention that Lester, seemingly frozen - hopefully not shot - was still on top of Chuck. They were done for, as Casey would say.

    Unless…

    Chuck waited with bated breath as the mercenary stepped closer.

    “No funny business or I’ll riddle you with holes. You made enough trouble for us!”

    “Not enough, apparently,” Chuck said. He had to distract the man.

    That caused a chuckle. “Oh, yes. I’ll take great… Oh…”

    Chuck watched as the man froze, one foot in the puddle, the light from his barrel-mounted flashlight suddenly pointing to the ceiling. Then he collapsed.

    But more would be coming.

    “Get off!” Chuck snapped. “We need to move!”

    Once more, they ran - or stumbled, in Lester’s case - through the dimly lit, twisting tunnel. Chuck had lost all sense of direction, but, so far, they hadn’t run past any intersections. So, if needed, he could find the rails again. Not that he wanted to - the mercenaries had found the tracks as well.

    But he clung to the idea that he wasn’t completely lost in this maze. That he still could find a way out. Theoretically. If there was a way out in the first place.

    He shook his head. He had to stay positive. They were still alive. They had escaped from the mercenaries. And…

    ...they had just reached another large room. Chuck stopped, causing Lester to bump into him. “Watch it,” he hissed.

    “What?” Lester managed to say between panting breaths.

    “It’s a large room,” Chuck told him. “I can’t see the other side with my light.”

    “What?” Lester pushed past him. “Can we stay here? Hide?”

    Chuck checked the ground. Dusty. They were still leaving tracks. “No, we can’t.”

    “But… Oh!”

    A small light had appeared in the middle of the room - presumably; Chuck didn’t know how large the room was. And it looked like… an emergency exit sign? What?

    “There’s the exit!” Lester cried out and started to run.

    “No, wait! It’s a...” Chuck yelled, but it was too late - he heard Lester gasp, then saw him topple into a slime puddle. “...trap,” Chuck finished.

    “Oops.”

    Oops? Chuck dropped to the ground, extinguishing his light. Who had… “Jeff?”

    “Chuck?”

    That was Jeff. “Where are you?”

    “Here.”

    Jeff lit a flashlight, and Chuck could see him in the middle of the room - and almost recoiled. The man was covered with slime. ‘Distant ancestor’, yeah, right. Chuck snorted and got up, then walked towards the half-demon, carefully watching his steps.

    “There are no more traps on that side,” Jeff told him - after Chuck had already reached him.

    “Good to know,” Chuck replied. “You, uh, look a little…” He waved his free hand around. “You know.”

    “If people are hunting me for my blood, I will seek refuge in my blood,” Jeff declared.

    “And it has nothing to do with the fact that like this, you can see in the dark.”

    Jeff’s eyebrows - what was visible beneath his slime layer - twitched. “Why are you here? You don’t have demon blood.”

    “Ah, well…” Chuck cleared his throat. He couldn’t reveal CIA secrets to Jeff. The guy would spread them online on one forum or the other as soon as he got access to his computer. And if he wouldn’t do it, Lester would. “When a bunch of armed people came into the Buy More, I didn’t want to stay around. And then they started to chase Lester and me, and we just kept running. Until…” He pointed at the stuck and slimed Lester, who had a very disturbing expression of bliss on his face.

    “Oh, yeah. I didn’t expect you to come here. Lester never did before.”

    Before? Ah. “So this is where you installed your distillery when you moved it.” Chuck nodded in his best ‘cool spy’ imitation.

    “How do you know about that?”

    Chuck pointed at Lester.

    “Oh.”

    “An emergency exit sign?” Chuck asked. “Where did you get it?” And why would anyone expect others to fall for such an obvious trap?

    “Err…”

    Chuck sighed. Of course. “You stole it from the store.”

    “I borrowed it.!”

    “Like all the gear for your little drug lab here?” It was a shot in the dark, literally, in this case, but Chuck knew Jeff and Lester.

    “Err... We’re product testing!”

    “I think you tested your own product a little too often,” Chuck replied.

    “You’re probably right.” Jeff nodded emphatically, sending a few drops of slime flying. “We should have gone gold with the product already.”

    Chuck rubbed the bridge of his nose. “No, Jeff. Selling drugs is not a good idea. It tends to attract the attention of people who want to kill you.”

    Jeff shook his head, and Chuck had to dodge a load of slime. “No, no! We checked - our product wouldn’t be illegal since it’s brand new!”

    “I wasn’t actually talking about the police, Jeff,” Chuck explained. Jeff blinked but didn’t seem to get the hint. Chuck sighed and added: “I was talking about people like other drug dealers who don’t like competition.” And after the mess Melvin had created, Caridad would slay another drug-dealing demon in a heartbeat.

    “Oh.”

    “Yes, ‘oh’.” Chuck smiled toothly at Jeff. “Now… how about you get Lester unstuck and show us to the actual exit?”

    “Oh… that’ll take a while.” Jeff winced.

    “We can come back for Lester later,” Chuck said. “But I really need to get out of these catacombs.” He needed to contact Casey and Sarah as soon as possible.

    “I think you should stay a little longer.”

    Chuck froze. He knew this voice. Mr Colt. But how had they been able to approach them without their lamps being visible… “Infrared lamps, I suppose,” he said. Coupled with infrared goggles, they would have been able to see in the dark.

    “Correct.” The mercenary sounded amused.

    And, as normal lamps went on and bathed the entire room in their light, revealing not only Jeff and Lester’s pilfered equipment, but also a dozen mercenaries surrounding Chuck and Jeff, Chuck found that Mr Colt had every reason to be amused.

    “You’ve made a lot of trouble for us,” the mercenary said, taking a step closer as his men kept their guns trained on Chuck and Jeff. “But now it’s time to…” He trailed off as his eyes fell on Jeff’s slime-covered form.

    Chuck could hear the mercenaries curse as they stared at the probably half-demon. “What the…” one of them - Vasquez - muttered.

    “What is this?” Mr Colt asked. He didn’t look shocked, but definitely surprised. And slightly disturbed.

    And this was his chance, Chuck realised. He put on the best arrogant expression he could manage and scoffed. “Are you telling me that you came here without any idea about Project S?”

    “‘Project S’?” Mr Colt repeated his words with a frown.

    “We like to joke that it stands for ‘secret’,” Chuck said, “though its actual designation is secret. But as you can see,” he added as he gestured to Jeff, “it’s been a success. Controlled contagious mutations.”

    “Mutations?” one of the mercenaries gasped. Smith, Chuck remembered.

    “Unfortunately, one experimental subject escaped and hid down here,” Chuck said with a shrug. “Sunlight hurts their new skin, so it’s somewhat understandable. Quite a bother to track down, though, with all the traps.” He raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t think the traps were laid for you, did you? They were laid for us.” He pointed at Lester. “As you can see.”

    “And who are you?”

    “Agent Walsh,” Chuck lied. “But you’re asking the wrong question. Do you know which question you really need to ask?”

    Mr Colt couldn’t resist, though his scowl told Cuck that the mercenary would make him pay for this. “And what would that be?”

    “It’s: ‘Have I been immunised to all the mutagens polluting the area?’,” Chuck said “‘Or will I turn into a mutant myself?’”

    The mercenaries were glancing at Jeff and at each other. They looked nervous - some even looked scared. “Moan!” Chuck whispered to Jeff.

    “Uhh?” Jeff sounded more confused than in pain, at least to Chuck. But Fernandez crossed herself and seemed to mutter a quick prayer. Others were trembling.

    “You’ve been inside the contaminated area for quite some time. Long enough to be contaminated yourself,” Chuck went on, trying to project the sort of confidence he really wished he had. “The mutation starts with shivering and sneezing. Then follows the itching on the skin, which soon turns into agony as slime glands grow and stretch, and it feels as if acid is covering your skin. It only lasts until your nerve ends die, of course. A day or two. Most test subjects survive, and some even keep their sanity.”

    “God Almighty!”

    “Gottverdammte Scheisse!”

    “It can be treated if you get help quickly enough - but I’m the only one who can authorise such help. The only one who knows where you can get help.” Chuck grinned. “So, who wants to stay human?”

    “How stupid do you think we are?” Mr Colt snapped. “You covered a friend of yours with the slime you made here, and then told us a bullshit story straight out of a comic book.”

    Chuck could see how the mercenaries started to recover. And they looked angry. Damn. Time for plan B. But he didn’t have a Plan B. Or… “Trigger all your traps!” he whispered to Jeff. They could escape in the confusion.

    “They don’t work like that,” Jeff replied. “They’re shallow pit traps.”

    Meaning, he simply spread the slime out in puddles. Which Chuck should have known.

    Mr Colt grinned again. “I will enjoy beating you to death with my bare hands,” he announced, cracking his knuckles again.

    “That would be a very bad idea,” Chuck replied. There had to be a way out of this. Without fighting and dying to the huge mercenary.

    But they were surrounded. Every exit was covered.

    This really didn’t look good.

    “You should limber up a little,” Mr Colt said, baring his teeth. “Make it more of a challenge.”

    “Uh…” Chuck licked his lips. “My doctor told me not to overdo it with sports.”

    That earned him a chuckle as the man rolled his neck. “I don’t think that will be a problem any more.”

    “Uh…”

    Suddenly, there was a cracking sound and lamps went out, plunging the room into darkness. “Hit the deck!” Someone - Caridad - yelled.

    Chuck dropped, yelling: “They’ve got infrared!”

    More cracking sounds followed. People cursed.

    Then the screaming and shooting began. Chuck covered his ears with his hands and pressed himself into the dusty ground as bullets came far too close to him judging by the stone shards that he felt hitting his skin. He couldn’t see a damned thing.

    “Stay calm and fall back!” That was Mr Colt. “Rally at…” The mercenary was cut off mid-yell. That triggered more yelling. The mercenaries must be panicking with Colt out, Chuck realised.

    Finally, the shooting and yelling stopped. Was it over? Or was that a trap?

    “Hah! A dozen armed poachers down! Eat your heart out, Buffy!” Caridad yelled.

    “Chuck, are you alright?”

    That was Morgan! Chuck cautiously raised his head, but it was still pitch dark. “I’m OK but I can’t see anything,” he yelled back.

    “Let me get the lights… should be somewhere… no… perhaps here? No. Where are the damned lights?”

    “Don’t blame me, I had to break them to save Chuck!”

    “I meant the ones Jeff installed. Where are the switches?”

    “It’s on the right side.” Jeff was OK as well, then.

    “Here?”

    “No, the other right!”

    “There’s just one right.”

    “My right.”

    Chuck snorted despite himself. Everyone seemed alright. Although… “Is Lester OK?” he asked. If they guy had been hurt while trapped...

    “Oh… yes, he isn’t hurt. I think. No blood,” Jeff replied.

    Chuck sighed with relief. Now they could finally leave this cursed place!

    *****​

    Well, Chuck realised as Morgan finally managed to get the lights working, they couldn’t just leave. Not with about a dozen and a half knocked-out mercenaries who wouldn’t stay knocked out for much longer spread around the room.

    “Hah! I knew you were a demon!”

    And a Slayer who had just noticed that Jeff’s demon ancestry was a little more recent than he used to claim.

    “Err...”

    Jeff took a few steps back, and Caridad advanced on him, baring her teeth. “Posing as a harmless human while building your lair here, huh?”

    “Err… We were just trying to make a few bucks!”

    “You’re a full demon? No, you’re a half-demon!” Morgan shook his head. “And I never noticed.” He winced. “Phil won’t be pleased when he hears about it.”

    “Guys!” Chuck cut in.

    “You fooled me!”

    “Guys!” Chuck repeated himself. “We have a dozen armed bad guys we need to disarm and tie up before they wake up!”

    “Right, the poachers.” Caridad cracked her knuckles. “Time to teach them that Los Angeles is my turf! No one hunts demons here without my leave!”

    “We can use our product,” Jeff offered helpfully. “Takes them out and sticks them to the ground.” He pointed at Lester. “See?”

    Chuck grimaced. Jeff was about to get himself killed.

    “Product?” Caridad asked, frowning.

    “Jeff and Lester were experimenting with his slime,” Chuck quickly explained. “As you can see, it didn’t work out. And I’m sure they won’t experiment any further, right?”

    Jeff nodded vigorously, sending more drops of slime flying.

    “And what were you trying to create?” Caridad narrowed her eyes. “Paralysing slime traps?” She growled. “Trying to capture people?”

    "Err… no. We were…” Jeff trailed off.

    “Whatever they were doing, they’re not doing it any more,” Chuck stepped in. He couldn’t let Caridad kill Jeff. The man was a half-demon, had lied to them about it, had stolen from the Buy More to create drugs and was an altogether creepy person, but he still was a co-worker. That didn’t sound very convincing, now that he thought about it. Although Jeff hadn’t done anything really bad. At least as far as Chuck knew. “Anyway, guys, focus - armed people in need of securing!”

    Fortunately, the mercenaries had plenty of zip ties on them. Which raised a lot of unsettling questions. At least the looted weapons she had claimed for herself had put Caridad into a better mood, though Phil probably wouldn’t be happy about his Slayer getting such an arsenal. And storing half of it with the Watcher. But that wasn’t Chuck’s problem - he had to prioritise.

    After the last stripped mercenary had been tied up with their own zip ties, Chuck stood up. “Now, let’s get back to the Buy More so, ah, I can call the police about those robbers.”

    “Robbers?” Morgan asked.

    “Yes. They came into the Buy More armed to the teeth, and they weren’t hunting Jeff for his blood, so what else could they be?” Chuck glared at his friend and then jerked his head towards Jeff, who wasn’t aware of the spy part of this mess.

    “Oh! Of course, robbers!” Morgan beamed. “What else could they be, indeed?”

    “Drug pushers trying to get our product?” Jeff asked.

    Chuck closed his eyes.

    “You were making drugs?” Caridad snarled.

    “Err…” And Jeff bolted.

    Great.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, November 21st, 2007

    Sarah stared at the tunnel in front of her. Who’d have thought there was an entire tunnel system below the Buy More? Which wasn’t on their maps and blueprints? The general wouldn’t be pleased to hear about this lapse. Next time Chuck told her about some ‘extended basement’, she’d personally check out the area.

    Casey scoffed. “You could take out an entire company with a single squad down there. If you know the area and they don’t.”

    She pressed her lips together. Chuck didn’t know the tunnels, not well enough. “We’re wasting time.” Time Chuck didn’t have - it had already taken too long to get the captured mercenaries to tell them what they knew about Chuck’s escape. She gripped her SMG, taken from a mercenary who didn’t need it any more, and nodded at Casey. “We’ll do a standard sweep.”

    “I so missed playing tunnel rat.” Casey grinned. “Had a great time hunting insurgents in Afghanistan.”

    Sarah snorted. Casey might be joking, but he knew as well as she did that the odds of finding Chuck in that maze were bad. But they had to try. She took a step towards the entrance, past the broken down barrier, when her phone vibrated. Who would call... Chuck! It was his number! “Chuck?” she blurted out before she could control herself.

    “Hi, Sarah!”

    She felt a wave of relief. He was alive. Safe - probably. “Where are you?”

    “Uh… we’re in one of the storm drains. Not too far from the Buy More.”

    ‘We’? She checked his locator - it showed up about a mile away. “How are you?”

    “I’m alright,” he said.

    “I saved him!” a familiar and unwanted, loud voice cut in.

    “Caridad! I’m talking!” Sarah heard Chuck complain.

    “Tell her I solved their problem!”

    Sarah clenched her teeth. “Chuck? What happened?”

    “Uh… Mr Colt must have recognised my car and tracked it to the Buy More. He chased us - Lester and me - into the catacombs, where Jeff had laid out traps for the poachers. So, they stumbled into the traps, and Caridad took out the rest.”

    “Most of them! I took out almost all of them!”

    “You captured them?” Sarah asked.

    “Uh, yes. But they are a little heavy, and we only have one mine cart to transport them…”

    “Mine cart?” She shook her head. “Never mind. We’re coming to your position.”

    Chuck was safe. That was all that mattered.

    But she couldn’t help wishing it had been her, not Caridad, who saved him.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, November 21st, 2007

    “Congratulations, agents, Mr Bartowski. Capturing Mr Colt’s entire cell is no mean feat. As soon as he has recovered, we will start his interrogation. And we will find out what he knows about Fulcrum.”

    The general didn’t look as pleased as her words would make you believe, Chuck noted. Her expression when she mentioned the mercenaries’ interrogation was actually terrifying. Or disturbing.

    But everyone was smiling and nodding, including him. Because that was what you did when you had won despite the odds. And when you didn’t want your superiors to ask too many questions.

    “However, the unknown drugs they were subjected to is a source of concern for our medical staff and might delay the interrogations,” Beckman went on. Her eyes narrowed.

    “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find whoever created the drugs,” Sarah said.

    Chuck nodded. It wasn’t quite a lie - Jeff was still hiding inside the tunnels. Whether that was because of Caridad, the demon-hunters, or both Chuck didn’t know.

    “I see.” The frown on the general’s face told Chuck that she probably suspected that this was related to the Council. “If you find out anything about this substance, inform me at once.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Chuck said.

    “Good evening, agents, Mr Bartowski.”

    Chuck sighed and slumped slightly in his seat. “That could’ve gone better, I think.”

    Casey snorted. “With the idiots involved? Hardly.”

    That wasn’t fair. Chuck’s frown was ignored, though. “Well, at least I think this whole affair proved one thing.”

    Casey didn’t take the bait, but Sarah did. “Yes?”

    “That staying in the car isn’t safe at all,” Chuck explained. “As I said before, remember?”

    Unfortunately, neither of the two spies seemed to share his conclusion.

    *****​
     
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 3: The Software Specialist
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 3: The Software Specialist

    California, Burbank, The Castle, November 26th, 2007

    He was in pain. Knocked down on the ground, suffering. He could feel a bruise forming where his leg had been kicked. Just moving hurt. He was doomed, and it was all his own damn fault.

    This had been a mistake. Chuck should have listened to Sarah and Casey and everyone else. He should have stayed home.

    “Are you alright?”

    He forced himself to smile as he rolled onto his back. “Just catching my breath,” he managed to say. “I’m a little more out of shape than I thought.”

    “We can always take a break and continue later. Or tomorrow,” Sarah said. She didn’t look beaten at all. Nor exhausted. Even though she had run five miles with him, and then had spent half an hour knocking him across the mat. She looked like she was just warming up.

    And she also looked great in yoga pants and a crop top.

    “No, no, I’m OK,” he said, forcing himself to smile at her. “‘The more you sweat, the less you bleed’, right?” He started to get up, but his stomach muscles chose this moment to cramp, and his smile died as he groaned with pain and fell back on the mat.

    “Chuck?” Sarah knelt at his side before he managed to stop holding his stomach. “Are you hurt?”

    “Just a… cramp. I think,” he said.

    “Break time,” she told him.

    “Break time,” he agreed with a grimace. “Is there a coke left in the fridge?”

    “I’ll get one,” she told him, patting his shoulder before she stood and left the training room in The Castle.

    He closed his eyes and whimpered. A little. This shouldn’t hurt so much. He had always been good at running, after all - it was a survival trait in Sunnydale. And high school. But, apparently, that didn’t translate into being fit enough to fight. Certainly not on Sarah’s level.

    Which he’d have to be if he wanted to be more than a walking database. A walking database which only worked randomly, not reliably.

    Sarah returned with a bottle and a towel. And another draped around her neck. As if she had worked up a sweat.

    “You read Adams, I see,” he said, trying not to wince as he grabbed the bottle.

    “I did. Although it’s been a while since I read ‘Thoughts on Government’,” she said as she sat down next to him.

    “I meant Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” he explained before taking a large swallow of the coke. “Always have a towel with you.”

    “Ah. I haven’t read much science fiction.”

    “It’s a classic.”

    “You say that about every book or movie you like,” she replied with a smirk.

    “Well… they are!” he defended himself.

    “I’ll bow to your experience.”

    “Good. Because if I had to bow to yours, my stomach muscles would kill me.”

    “No pain, no gain,” she said.

    “That sounds like something Casey would say,” Chuck remarked.

    “With good reason,” she replied with a grin that looked a little too toothy in his opinion.

    He groaned again.

    She shook her head with a smile. “It’ll get better… eventually.”

    “That’s very comforting.”

    Sarah shrugged before doing some stretches on the mat. “You wanted to get trained. Better do it right. Can’t half-ass things in combat. And you should stretch as well, or you’ll feel worse tomorrow.”

    “Uh…” Chuck winced just at the thought of forcing his aching muscles into contortions.

    “Come on!”

    She was like a female Captain Awesome. Well, she was awesome, of course. He blinked. “Uh… I just remembered.”

    “It’s not another appointment, is it?” Sarah frowned.

    “Sort of. For us,” he said. “We still need to decorate our apartment.”

    Hearing her groan in response felt strangely satisfying.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, November 26th, 2007

    “What’s wrong with the living room?” Chuck asked. His apartment was fine. Really. Granted, the furniture was mostly IKEA, but the couch was comfortable. You could even sleep on it - Morgan had done so often enough when his mother had had someone over he couldn’t stand. And the TV was the latest generation, perfect for Medal of Honour.

    “It’s not a living room. It’s a gaming room,” Sarah replied.

    “Well, it’s both.”

    She looked pointedly at the dining table pushed against the wall behind the couch.

    “I usually eat at Ellie’s,” he said. “But we can easily push the table a little to the centre of the room, move the couch a little, replace the sideboards and…” He sighed. “Alright, it’s a gaming room.”

    She nodded in agreement. “And we need to turn it into a living room.”

    “A living room where we can play games as well,” Chuck insisted. This was part of him. And Morgan.

    “Speaking of playing games, we need a bedroom for two,” she said with a grin.

    “Uh… sure.” His own bed was rather cramped with the two of them. Not that he really minded, of course.

    “I’m thinking of turning your ‘storage room’ into a bedroom.”

    “Uh…” He knew his smile was rather weak. “That was supposed to be temporary after I moved in. But, well… I didn’t really need the room for anything else, so…” He shrugged. It was true - between his bedroom, where his computer and desk were, and the living room, he hadn’t really had any use for the third room. “Also, half of the stuff there is not mine, but Ellie’s.”

    “Ah.”

    He wasn’t quite certain how to interpret her expression. “Anyway, we can turn that into a bedroom.” And see if his sis liked it once she had to find space for all that junk in her apartment.

    “With a desk for me,” she added.

    “Of course.” That was only fair.

    “And a big armoire. And a dresser.”

    “Uh, sure.” He blinked. “You seem to have this interior decorating thing down pat.”

    She frowned at him. “Those are just the essentials. We still have to decide on the style.”

    Oh. “Of course,” he agreed. “And do you have an idea yet?”

    Perhaps he had asked a little too sharply since her frown deepened some. “Less Nintendo.”

    “That’s more what you don’t want, not what you want,” he pointed out.

    “Yes, it is.” She beamed at him.

    “Ah.”

    “I’m not saying to get rid of all your merchandise,” she went on.

    “Good. Because some of it will be worth a lot in a few years!” It was an investment. Gaming merchandise from the eighties was worth a lot today. Not that he’d ever sell his vintage Tron poster.

    “But it’s better used a little more sparingly. We can store the rest.”

    He bit down on his first response. She was only making the apartment theirs, instead of his. “I guess we do need the space for your things.”

    Weirdly, Sarah winced at that.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, November 26th, 2007

    “I still have trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that you don’t have anything you’d like to move into our apartment.”

    Sarah sighed and rolled her eyes. It was getting annoying. “Let it drop, Chuck. I told you, I was always moving, so I don’t have a room full of stuff in my apartment.” And she had always been ready to move. Just in case.

    “You probably just don’t want others to know that you collect plush animals,” Chuck said with a slightly forced-looking smile.

    But she accepted his peace proposal and laughed. “Of course!”

    Casey was already in The Castle, cleaning one of his guns. He grunted a greeting at them. “Trouble getting rid of his toys?”

    We’re not getting rid of my valuable merchandise,” Chuck corrected him.

    The other agent scoffed. “Geek toys aren’t valuable.”

    “See, that’s where you are wrong!” Chuck retorted. “Many so-called geeks are earning high incomes, and are quite willing to spend a lot of money on nostalgia. That a fact.”

    “Good for you. You’ll be able to get rid of your crap and make a profit, then.”

    “I told you, it’s not crap!”

    “He’s just jealous that his signed picture of Reagan is worth less than your first-edition Nintendo,” Sarah said.

    Chuck opened his mouth, probably to correct her about the name of his video game console, when he saw her smirk. His pout looked cute.

    Then the general appeared on the screen - it still hurt a little to not see the director there as well - and the briefing started.

    “Good evening, agents, Mr Bartowski. I’ll be brief. We have discovered that a Fulcrum agent stole one of the backups for the Intersect. Fortunately, it’s encrypted so they won’t be able to use the information. However, according to our information, they have hired a specialist, Von Hayes, to decrypt the data. You will infiltrate his home and retrieve the stolen data before he can finish his task.”

    Sarah nodded. A standard retrieval mission.

    “Agent Walker, Mr Bartowski, you will be posing as a freshly married couple. Agent Casey will be posing as a waiter.”

    That was a surprise. Sarah was about to protest Chuck’s inclusion - he wasn’t trained for this, and she was certain the general had an ulterior motive for the assignment - but then she saw Chuck’s smile and held her tongue.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, November 26th, 2007

    A freshly married couple. Sarah and himself. Trying to get some privacy which would provide them with the excuse to wander around in Hayes’s home and search the stolen data. Chuck liked that idea. It was also an easy cover, in his opinion.

    Sarah glanced towards him for a moment, then focused back on the road. “Hm?”

    Oh. He must have said that out loud, Chuck realised. “I meant it’ll be an easy cover story,” he repeated. “Freshly married?”

    “Ah.” She didn’t sound as optimistic or enthusiastic, though. “It might be a little more difficult than you expect.”

    He refrained from frowning. “Difficult?” He could play the affectionate newly-wed husband. He just had to be - mostly - himself. Did she mean she had trouble with this? Did that mean she didn’t feel...

    “It’s easier to get distracted if there are real emotions,” she went on, and he felt his heart beating again and his stomach recovering. “We’ll have to both make it look believable and remain alert and focused on our mission.”

    He nodded, leaning back as they entered the road leading to their home. “Of course.” He could do that. How difficult could it be?

    *****​

    California, Burbanks, Buy More, November 27th, 2007

    Jeff, who had finally been coaxed out of the maze below the Buy More a few days ago, and Lester were not only already present, but actually behind the computer at the Nerd Herd desk, apparently working hard when Chuck arrived in the morning. That meant they were up to no good, as Chuck’s long experience with the two Nerd Herders told him.

    They didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the store, which made it easy for him to sneak up on them despite his muscles still aching a little from last evening’s training. He peered over their shoulders at the screen and had to make an effort not to gasp in surprise - they were actually looking over the scheduled tech support calls for today. He had expected them to watch porn on company time and money.

    Which meant that they had been possessed, replaced by doppelgangers, or they had some scheme going that required legit work. He cleared his throat, and both of them gasped and jerked, staring at him with wide eyes.

    “Chuck! Good morning! Excellent morning, actually! So good we decided to come in early, and do some early hard work, right?” Lester babbled.

    Jeff nodded rapidly.

    Definitely something fishy going on. Chuck crossed his arms and stared at them, trying to project Casey.

    “Uh…” Lester swallowed, growing a little pale, and Jeff started to sweat, looking around.

    “Out with it, guys: What is your scheme?” Chuck snapped.

    “Uh… scheme? What scheme?” Jeff tried to lie at the same time Lester said: “It was his idea. I told him it wasn’t the best idea, but...”

    “Hey! It was your idea!”

    “No, it wasn’t!”

    “Guys!”

    “It was.”

    “I had a hypothetical idea!”

    “Guys!” Chuck snapped, slapping his hand down on the desk and rattling the screen. “What is your scheme?”

    “We hope to sell enough discounted music equipment to a new music school to get to use their rehearsal room for free!” Lester blurted out.

    “I didn’t know we had so much discounted music equipment,” Chuck said. Discounts usually were applied to TVs and stereos - things that tended to become obsolete quite quickly and attracted customers to the store.

    “Err... we kind of…” Jeff swallowed.

    “It’s a proposal,” Lester cut in. “A well prepared, well-thought-out proposal, with everything ready so, should you think it’s a good idea, you can implement it with one mouse click.”

    Both were beaming very forced smiles at him.

    Chuck clenched his teeth. “You were trying to make it look like I had approved of this.” Big Mike would have had his head. Well, the CIA would probably have stepped in, but still, Jeff and Lester wouldn’t know that - they still thought Mr Colt’s mercenaries had been robbers. They hadn’t even had to use the second cover story, of Chuck accidentally taking their hard drive with all their banking information with him during a tech support job.

    “No, no, honest, we weren’t!”

    “It was his idea.”

    Both were backing up rapidly - until they bumped into Casey, who had come up from behind them. “Trouble, Bartowski?” he asked in a growling voice, gripping their shoulders and keeping them from fleeing.

    Chuck smiled as the two miscreants whimpered.

    *****​

    California, Malibu Beach, Hayes Villa, November 28th, 2007

    Hayes was living the life Chuck had, once, before his expulsion from Stanford, expected to live. The life of Charles Carmichael: A semi-retired, rich computer specialist with a villa on the beach. It was a great villa, too - floor to ceiling windows, free view of the sea, large pool in the garden, and almost enough bedrooms to fit a basketball team.

    Of course, Chuck hadn’t planned to make his money helping various criminals, as Hayes was supposedly doing, but he hadn’t planned to be taking part in a CIA operation on US soil either, had he?

    On the other hand, his plans - more like dreams - for a girlfriend had been rather vague, he added to himself when he glanced at Sarah. She looked perfect in her hot red dress, slit all the way to her hip on one side. Classy but sexy. Oh, if this were a real date… It provided easy access to the thigh-holster on her other leg as well.

    But he was on a mission, so he grabbed a glass from a passing waitress and took a sip. “The style clashes a little with the other art,” he commented in a not quite bored tone, nodding at a particularly ugly painting, “but it has a certain je ne sais quoi.”

    Sarah, trained spy she was, didn’t snort and nodded in agreement, but after a few days spent picking prints for their apartment, he could tell that she shared his real opinion.

    “Good eye!” one of the other guests - a businessman Chuck hadn’t flashed on, but that didn’t mean he was clean - commented. “I have a piece by the same artist myself.”

    “Worth looking into, then,” Chuck said, wrapping an arm around Sarah’s waist and pulling her closer, “since we have a little love nest to decorate!”

    Sarah nodded, running a hand over his back. “Oh, yes,” she breathed more than she talked, “we found the perfect home over near Hollywood. But the furniture is so out of date!”

    “We’ve been looking for an interior decorator, but we keep getting distracted,” Chuck added with a wide grin, flashing his fake wedding band with all the subtlety of the nouveaux riches.

    That earned them understanding smiles from the other guests, as they walked over to the buffet. “Nothing in this room,” Chuck reported in a whisper. “Moving on to the other rooms.”

    “Roger,” Casey, posing as a waiter, replied through their comms.

    They grabbed some of the excellent hors-d’oeuvres, putting on a little show of feeding each other a bite, then snuck away from the party’s other guests. Sarah pulled him into a small alcove next to the stairs, and they kissed, arms wrapped around each other. She rubbed her leg over his thigh, and he ran his hands over her bare back. Oh…

    Both were breathing heavily when they pulled apart, and Chuck was really grateful that he was wearing a tailored suit.

    “So…” She glanced around. “Anything?”

    What? Oh, yes. The mission. He shook his head. “No.” He hadn’t flashed on anything. He hadn’t looked at much, either, but he didn’t think Hayes would hide the stolen data in the hallway or on the stairs. “Perhaps we should go somewhere a little more private?” he whispered.

    “Yes,” she replied.

    Chuck didn’t flash on anything upstairs in the hallway, the small sitting room, on the balcony, or in the home cinema room - not quite as up to date as the one in the Buy More, he noticed. But both needed to adjust their clothes a few times, and Sarah’s hairstyle looked a little less perfect now. And Chuck really, really wanted to check Hayes’s bedroom. Or any bedroom.

    Which wasn’t a bad idea, of course - plenty of people hid things in the bedroom. “We should look for his bed,” he whispered. “Or his desk.”

    Sarah nodded, and he caught her licking her lips. “Yes, we should.”

    They found Hayes’s desk first. Which was the perfect height, Chuck noted. Or would have been, if they weren’t on a mission.

    “Anything?” Sarah asked, looking around.

    Chuck shook his head. The office was perfectly ordinary, down to the boring art on the walls. “Safe behind the blue painting,” he commented.

    “Did you flash?”

    “No. But the wall’s thick enough there, without any need for it.” Studying interior decoration had its uses.

    She nodded. “Cracking it will take some…” She trailed off, looking towards the door. “Someone’s coming,” she hissed.

    Damn. Chuck looked around. Perhaps they could hide under the desk?

    But Sarah grabbed him and dragged him to the desk.

    Of course, their cover!

    Chuck didn’t have to act flustered when, less than a minute later, the door was opened, and Hayes and a woman stared at them. “Uh… you see, we were looking for….” he started to say as Sarah readjusted her dress.

    Then he flashed on the woman. And blinked, trying to hide his reaction. She was ‘Juliette’ - a Fulcrum agent! A highly-skilled assassin!

    Hayes shook his head, grimacing, and stared at his desk. “I work here!” he blurted out.

    “Uh, sorry…” Chuck forced himself to smile. “We were, you know, just… uh, we haven’t actually…”

    “Get out!” Hayes snapped.

    “Getting out! Getting out!” Chuck said as he walked - quite quickly - past the man and the assassin, followed by Sarah.

    As soon as they were out of the office, with the door closed behind them, Chuck turned. “Sarah!” he whispered. “That’s Juliette, a Fulcrum agent! She must be here to get the stolen data!”

    Sarah nodded. “Let’s talk there,” she whispered back, glancing towards another small alcove.

    “Uh, ok.” Shouldn’t they charge inside and take her down?

    “Cover me!” Sarah whispered, stepping into the alcove. He followed, blocking her from view, as she pulled out an earbud. “I placed a microphone under his seat,” she whispered.

    Oh. Of course she would have thought ahead.

    She handed another bud to him, then hugged him as they listened.

    “…is my chip?”

    “I’m working on the data. You don’t crack the best encryption the CIA has in a few days!”

    “You did it before.”

    “They changed their codes.”

    “But not their encryption algorithm. What game are you playing, Mr Hayes?”

    “I’m not playing any game! I just didn’t manage to decrypt the data, yet. I’ve got obligations as well! It’ll be ready tomorrow!”

    “That’s a really precise estimate for such a complicated cypher, isn’t it?”

    “What?”

    “I think you already decrypted the data, and now you’re considering looking for another buyer, Mr Hayes.”

    “That’s preposterous!”

    “Is it? Where is the chip? It’s not in your computer.”

    “What? You broke into my…”

    “Where is the chip?”

    “If you kill me, you’ll never find it!”

    Chuck gasped. They had to intervene! They had to… He heard running steps. Someone was coming! Several people!

    “If you don’t hand the chip over at once, you’ll wish I’d kill you.”

    Before he could think of what to do, Sarah was kissing him. Oh, of course. Their cover.

    He saw three men run past him, towards Hayes’s office, pistols drawn. Hayes must have alerted them, somehow. They didn’t hesitate and charged straight into the room.

    “Drop the...”

    Shots rang out, someone screamed, and Sarah pushed past him, her own pistol drawn already, and ran towards the office. He followed her, but she was outpacing him.

    One of Hayes’s bodyguards was on the ground in the hallway, a pool of blood spreading out beneath him. Sarah reached the door and dived inside. More shots followed.

    He reached the door himself and peered around the frame. Another bodyguard was down, Sarah was shooting - he could just see her arms - and… He gasped. Something round was flying towards him. A grenade!

    He threw himself into the room, away from the door, and landed on the floor, hands pressed against his ears, a moment before the grenade went off and he felt as if someone had hit his back while smoke and dust filled the room.

    “Chuck?”

    Coughing, he managed to answer. “Sarah?” He was lying in something wet. Wet and sticky. He blinked. Blood. He was lying in a pool of blood. Oh my God! He had been hurt! He was bleeding! He blinked. No, he wasn’t hurting. And he could move.

    He quickly patted himself down, trying to cover his back. It didn’t hurt. Not much. Nothing like a wound bleeding so much should…

    The dust settled, and he realised that he was lying in the blood of the third bodyguard. He scrambled back, trying not to retch.

    “Chuck!”

    “It’s not my blood!” he yelled. “Where’s Hayes?” He couldn’t see either Juliette or Hayes. But the door to the balcony was open.

    “Hayes is running, chased by a Fulcrum agent, Juliette,” Sarah reported - to Casey, Chuck realised. “They were heading towards the garage.” She looked at Chuck.

    He managed to get on his feet. That was one suit ruined. “Let’s go!” he said, with more confidence than he felt. He didn’t want to look back at what was left of the bodyguard in the hallway, where the grenade had gone off.

    After a moment’s hesitation, Sarah nodded, turned, and vaulted over the railing.

    Chuck suppressed a gasp and ran after her - though he lowered himself from the railing first, before jumping the rest of the way. He wasn’t armed, anyway, and if he broke an ankle, he would be completely useless.

    He reached the garage in time to see a Lamborghini race away, with Casey and Sarah shooting at it. And Chuck flashed.

    “The chip! It’s hidden on his car keys!” he blurted out.

    “Good work, Bartowski,” Casey grumbled. “If we’d have known this half an hour earlier, it would have been actually useful.”

    “I can’t control my flashes!” Chuck retorted. He was doing the best he could.

    “Well, work on that. We can’t afford to fail our missions,” the agent replied, walking off while Chuck shook his head.

    “That’s…”

    “Chuck? Are you alright?”

    He glanced at Sarah. She looked a little dishevelled. More than she had been. “Are you alright?”

    “I fought Juliette,” she said. “She escaped, though.”

    Hayes and the Fulcrum agent escaped? The general wouldn’t be pleased.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, November 28th, 2007

    The general wasn’t pleased, indeed. “You lost the chip, Hayes and the enemy agent. In other words, this mission was a complete failure.”

    Chuck glanced at the others. Casey nodded, but Sarah merely stared at the screen. Neither seemed to be about to say anything, though, so Chuck spoke up. “Uh, we confirmed the location of the chip, general. That’s more than we had.”

    “And we prevented Fulcrum from obtaining it,” Sarah added.

    The general’s frown deepened. “That the mission could have failed in an even worse way isn’t a particularly convincing argument,” she said. “While we are searching for him, realistically, we can only hope that Hayes has been disillusioned enough by the near assassination to seek our protection.”

    Casey grumbled something Chuck didn’t catch, but the man nodded again, as did Sarah.

    “Dismissed, agents, Mr Bartowski.”

    Chuck sighed as the screen turned dark. “That was a little unfair, wasn’t it?”

    “We failed the mission,” Casey snapped.

    “It wasn’t our fault,” Chuck retorted. Once more, he glanced at Sarah.

    “We stuck to our orders, which were finding the chip’s location,” she said. That didn’t sound like rousing support to Chuck.

    Casey scoffed. “You should have taken out the enemy agent as soon as you saw her.”

    “I only told her when we were outside the office,” Chuck pointed out.

    Casey seemed to ignore him, though. “You didn’t because that would have put Bartowski at risk, did you?”

    She didn’t! “Sarah?” Chuck asked, staring at her.

    “I decided to gather more information. I didn’t want to risk the mission if it turned out that Hayes didn’t have the chip on him.”

    Casey didn’t seem to believe her. “You were far quicker to act on other missions. We can’t afford to have you play babysitter instead of doing your job. And Bartowski got almost killed today anyway.”

    “Chuck did well. It wasn’t his fault,” Sarah shot back.

    “No, it was yours.” Casey scoffed again and left The Castle.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, November 28th, 2007

    “I’m not a hindrance, am I?” Chuck asked as they were leaving The Castle.

    Sarah had expected the question ever since Casey’s accusations. “No, you’re not,” she told him, trying to sound as convincing as she could. She wasn’t exactly lying, either.

    “But if you had been with Casey, you would have stopped Juliette and Hayes.”

    He was too damn perspective for his own good. Sarah shook her head. “He wouldn’t have spotted the chip. Nor would he have recognised the enemy spy.”

    He didn’t seem to be listening. “And you wouldn’t have waited to see if he were really alright if he had told you he was fine.”

    Casey was expendable, and Chuck wasn’t. Chuck was the Intersect. “We can’t lose you,” she told him. I can’t lose you. “You’re the Intersect.”

    After a moment, he nodded. “But I’m no real spy, and that is a hindrance.”

    “You’re working on that.” And he wasn’t doing badly - for a civilian.

    “But is it enough? How long until I’m a real spy?” She was about to point out that many spies had less training than he was getting when he added: “I mean like you and Casey.”

    “That will take a long while,” she said. “But the level we were when we started? That’s entirely possible.” She reached out and touched his cheek. “It still won’t be easy, though.”

    “As long as I don’t have to go to Parris Island,” he said.

    It wasn’t a very good joke, and he didn’t look like he thought it was very funny himself, but she laughed anyway.

    It was progress.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, November 29th, 2007

    Chuck was feeling worse the next morning when he arrived at the Buy More. He shouldn’t have been training this morning, not after a mission. But he'd had to do something. Anything. Though two sets of bruises didn’t help. And Sarah might have been a little too enthusiastic as well.

    Seeing Caridad in a Buy More uniform, though, made him forget about his bruises and aching muscles at once. “What?” he asked. Very eloquently.

    She grinned - she wasn’t tired, of course. Nor bruised. Slayers healed fast and didn’t need much sleep. “Hi, Chuck!”

    “What are you doing here?”

    She pouted, but she was faking; he knew her well enough to tell. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”

    “Not when you’re wearing a stolen Buy More uniform,” he replied.

    “It’s not stolen,” Morgan cut in. When had he arrived? And so early in the morning? “She’s an official employee!”

    “Temporary, of course,” Caridad explained as Chuck blinked.

    “Why…” She wouldn’t be doing this just to chase him, would she? No. So… “The demon hunters,” he stated.

    “Yes!” She grinned. “The poachers went after Jeff in his favourite bar, so they know who he is. Which means they know where he works since he usually goes straight there from work.”

    “He’s holed up in the catacombs again, isn’t he?” Chuck asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

    Both his friends nodded. “Safely out of the way,” Morgan added, “while we wait for the poachers to make a move.”

    And he was down one Nerd Herder again. Chuck sighed.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Atwater Village, November 30th, 2007

    Chuck wasn’t certain that he should be at the meeting. He wasn’t a trained spy. Not even a half-trained. Perhaps a ten percent trained. Mostly theory. And he felt like a fake wearing the black pants and turtleneck outfit - unlike Sarah’s, his didn't hide a ton of weapons. But after Casey’s remarks about him, Chuck wouldn’t say anything. Besides, he was the only one who could identify the chip - with or without flashing.

    So, he was pulling his weight. Sort of. As a geek. And only because Bryce was dead, or Bryce could have done this - he had also been at Stanford, and he had even graduated. Chuck sighed as he leaned against the black sedan they were using for this mission and stared at the construction site around them.

    “Don’t worry, Chuck,” Sarah said with a smile. “Hayes will show up. We’re the only ones who can protect him against Fulcrum.”

    This wasn’t the time to correct her misperceptions about the reasons for his sombre mood, so he nodded. “I just feel a little exposed,” he not-quite-lied.

    “Casey’s on overwatch with a sniper rifle.”

    “Wouldn’t help against a blood sucker.” In Sunnydale, this would have been suicide. Hanging out at a deserted construction site at night? Might as well slather yourself with ketchup and enter a demon bar. Heh, he hadn’t really thought about Sunnydale in some time.

    “It will help if I blow their heads clean off, and this rifle can do this,” Chuck heard Casey in his ear bud. “No head means they dust.”

    “Dusting? You’re talking like a Scoobie!” Chuck replied, forcing himself to grin - the NSA agent could see him, after all. “Caridad’s rubbing off on you?”

    Casey scoffed but didn’t answer. Chuck counted that as a point.

    Sarah rolled her eyes, but she was smiling as she did it. He was about to defend himself - a little teasing helped build a team, after all, as the Buy More crowd demonstrated - when he heard a car engine and Sarah’s smile vanished.

    Showtime.

    Hayes was in his Lamborghini. Sloppy, Chuck thought. Even he knew that the car had been compromised, whether or not Juliette had seen the man drive off. “I can see why he needs help,” he whispered as he pushed off their own, far less conspicuous car and assumed a more spy-like pose. Carmichael time.

    Hayes got out of his car with a suitcase in hand. “Mr and Mrs Carmichael?” he asked. He hadn’t changed clothes either, or so it seemed. Survival instincts of a lemming, Casey would say, even though that was actually a myth based upon a stupid fake nature documentation.

    Chuck nodded. “Yes. Sorry about your desk, but we were maintaining our cover,” he added with a grin.

    Hayes chuckled, but it didn't sound convincing. “I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to use that desk again anyway.”

    Chuck nodded again. “It wouldn’t be advisable. Do you have the chip?” he asked, glancing at the suitcase, but looking for the man’s keychain. There!

    “Yes. As long as you get me out of this, it’s yours.”

    “We keep our side of a deal.” Most of the time. When it was convenient. Chuck knew that thanks to the Intersect. Still, Hayes would be safe - if the CIA broke such deals, they wouldn’t get many more deserters once it’d spread. And it would.

    “Good. So, how do we do this?”

    “You’ll come with us. Ditch the car,” Sarah explained. “We’ll take you to a safe house and then set up a new identity for you.”

    “And the money?” Hayes asked.

    “Part of your new identity,” Sarah replied. “We’ll…”

    “Incoming!” Casey’s voice interrupted them. “Two cars just drove through the southern gate.”

    What? How had Fulcrum managed to find them? Only Chuck’s team, the General and Hayes knew about this…

    “Did you contact Fulcrum?” Sarah asked with a snarl.

    Hayes growing pale and starting to tremble was answer enough. “But… they couldn’t track me!” He whirled, starting to run towards his car when the first shots rang out from above

    Chuck was already moving, charging forward and tackling Hayes before the man managed to open the door of his car. They rolled over the dusty concrete and Chuck grabbed Hayes’s keychain. “Stay with us if you want to live!” he snapped.

    Sarah was at their side, gun drawn and looking around. Chuck heard shots fired, then metal getting torn and warped.

    “One car dealt with,” Casey announced. “Changing position.”

    Which meant there was one car full of enemies left.

    “Get to the car!” Sarah snapped.

    Chuck didn’t argue. “Get up!” he yelled, pulling at Hayes. The man had gone limp.

    “But… how did they track me?”

    “Worry later! We have to get away!”

    Sarah was shooting now, covering them.

    Despite her fire, bullets struck the concrete near their feet as Chuck reached their car. Hayes shrieked, but Chuck dragged him on. You didn’t stop when running or you died.

    He reached the car, ducking his head as a few more bullets ricocheted off the concrete around them, and pulled the door open. “Get inside!”

    Hayes crawled inside and Chuck had to push him to the passenger side. “Sarah!”

    “Get Hayes to safety! We’ll extract on foot!” she yelled back.

    Chuck hesitated a moment. Leaving Sarah? In the middle of a fight? But… She was the trained spy. He had to trust her. And do his job. Like a spy.

    He gunned the engine, trying to ignore the shots pinging against the armoured windows and sides, and drove away.

    And felt like a coward.

    *****​

    Sarah crouched behind the Lamborghini, performing a tactical reload. That left her with one full magazine in her pistol, and a half-full in her belt.

    And a highly-skilled assassin hiding in the half-built mall in front of her. She would have to remember to pack more ammunition next time.

    “Relocating,” she heard Casey through their radio.

    “Copy,” she replied. The other agent would take a few minutes to reach another sniping spot, though, since he couldn’t leave the back of the building open and allow Juliette to escape.

    And the assassin would try to escape, now that Chuck - sensibly - had retreated with Hayes.

    Sarah took a deep breath and used the bent mirror on the sports car to check the front of the unfinished building. Juliette would know Casey was moving. And she had seen him take out her minions.

    But the enemy agent had fought Sarah. And that had been a close, ultimately inconclusive fight. Would she try to go through her, or try to go through Casey?

    Sarah grinned despite herself. Juliette would want a rematch, Sarah was certain - she wanted one herself, after all.

    And she had prepared for it. Juliette liked to use grenades. Both to provide cover for herself, and to kill her enemies. But she’d have to get closer to throw one.

    Sarah slid around the car and took cover behind its engine block, scanning the building in front of her. Where… There! Something small and round was arcing towards Sarah.

    She reacted at once, vaulting over the car to take cover on the other side. And triggering the explosives she and Casey had set inside the unfinished mall beforehand.

    The grenade went off behind her, wrecking the sports car, as the pressure wave from her charges washed over her. Ears ringing, she jumped up and charged forward, gun ready. Juliette had been around… She stopped and stared, pressing her lips together.

    “Juliette’s been neutralised,” she informed Casey.

    “Guess she could dish it out but couldn’t take it, huh?”

    Sarah ignored the quip. “Chuck, status?” His radio should still be in range, if barely.

    “Uh… we’re on the highway, as planned,” he said, the last part telling her that they had the chip.

    “Good. Proceed to the safe house.”

    She flicked her radio off as Casey rounded the corner. He raised an eyebrow at Juliette’s remains, but didn’t react otherwise.

    “Chuck did good,” Sarah told him.

    She took his grunt as grudging agreement.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 1st, 2007

    Chuck was already missing the shelf full of his gaming merchandise and selected boxes. And the Master Chief’s helmet had been banished to his room from his place of honour on the living room wall. And half his movie posters - gone.

    “Is this still crooked?”

    Sarah’s question startled him, and as he looked up, he found her frowning at him from her perch on top of the ladder, holding the painting that was replacing his Super Mario Bros poster. “Uh… no, no, it’s fine.”

    She narrowed her eyes at him. “We should have bought the mechanic’s level,” she said.

    “No, no, it’s not crooked. Really.” He smiled at her.

    He was missing his posters and toys. And the gaming couch.

    But it was a small price to pay for living with Sarah.

    Even if the painting - modern art - looked a little crooked now, that he really looked at it, instead of at his love.

    *****​
     
  4. 2 Hot Crown Subdues the Sinful

    2 Hot Crown Subdues the Sinful Desu Vult!

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    I never knew I wanted this. Why does Buffy go with everything?
     
    JamesEye likes this.
  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 4: The High School Reunion Part 1
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 4: The High School Reunion Part 1

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 3rd, 2007

    “Hi, Chuck!”

    “Good morning, Caridad.” Chuck smiled, though it was a little forced. Seeing Caridad in the Buy More uniform was still a little disconcerting. And not just because it meant that Jeff was still hiding, which in turn meant someone had to fill in for the missing half-demon. And Caridad couldn’t do it since she wasn’t exactly a computer expert. Quite the contrary, actually. “What’s up?” No reason to be rude, of course - she was a friend and meant well.

    “Nothing new. Got three bloodsuckers last night, and one Polgara demon. But the poachers didn’t do anything.” She pouted. “Cowards must be hiding!”

    Chuck’s smile slipped. “They’re just being smart. They must know they have no chance against you.” Just like following orders didn’t make you a coward - not if the orders made sense. Probably.

    Caridad scoffed. “If you’re hunting demons, you’ve got no excuse for hiding from a Slayer!”

    Chuck didn’t exactly agree with that - there were many reasons for hiding from Caridad, for example - but he nodded anyway. “I guess so. Well, time to start the daily grind.”

    “Have fun. I’ll be guarding the store.” She waved and disappeared between the toaster and mixer aisles while he blinked. She hadn’t tried to flirt with him at all. What did that mean? Had she finally accepted that he wasn’t interested? And what was that about guarding the store? Now that he was thinking about it...

    “Hi, Chuck!”

    “Morgan!” Chuck nodded. “What’s Caridad actually doing in the store? I don’t remember her appearing on any employee table…”

    “Doing?” Morgan looked honestly confused. “She’s guarding the store and looking for the poachers.”

    Meaning, she wasn’t doing anything. “On the Buy More payroll.” They were bankrolling the Council.

    His friend nodded. “Of course - it’s her cover. Like you and Casey.”

    “Morgan, we’re actually doing the work for which we’re getting paid by the store.” Well, mostly. When national security was at stake, you had to set priorities. Spy privileges.

    “Really?” Morgan shook his head. “Why are you doing that? Isn’t your spy job more important than managing the store here?”

    “Well, yes, but it’s my cover. Which is also very important.”

    “Wow, glad I’m going to be a Watcher and not a spy,” Morgan said. “As soon as I’m a full Watcher, I’m quitting here. Can’t really work two full-time jobs, can I?”

    “Many people actually have two jobs,” Chuck told him.

    “Well, yeah, but how many of them are working jobs where a mistake means people die?” Morgan shook his head again. “No, dude, I’m going to need time to rest and relax, or I’ll burn out. Remember how stressed Buffy and the others were in school?”

    “I think that was because of all the fighting they did,” Chuck replied. “And because of Snyder.”

    “I think it was because they had no time to relax. And because of Snyder, of course. Well, I’m off to check on Jeff. Can you cover for me for the next half an hour?”

    “Uh, sure,” Chuck said, blinking.

    “Thanks!”

    Chuck frowned as he watched Morgan enter the staff area. What his friend was saying made sense. But would the CIA make such an obvious mistake?

    He’d have to ask Sarah. But first, he had to check the schedule for today. Big Mike would get loud if they couldn’t cover all of today’s support jobs.

    *****​

    Alright, if he shuffled the kitchen shifts around and had Casey cover the home entertainment sector in the afternoon, and Morgan fill in at the Nerd Herd desk, Chuck could take that house call at three, which meant...

    “Hi, Chuck!”

    He didn’t gasp - he was merely startled a little noisily. “Sarah!” He glanced at his watch. “Oh my god! I missed our break! I’m so sorry, but Lester got a cold, and Jeff’s still missing in action, and so we’re down two Nerd Herders, and the Hoover guys are holding a seminar for their latest model today, which means we’re down two more employees…”

    “I suspected that,” she said with a smile.

    “You did?”

    “We’ve got your computer system tapped.”

    “Oh.” He frowned, “When did you do that?” And why hadn’t he noticed.

    “Bryce did it. Casey found the links.”

    “Ah.” Of course. Typical of Bryce. The guy probably hacked the system for Chuck’s own good and deleted some calls. Well… there had been complaints about missed appointments which had never been in the system, now that Chuck thought about it. “I see.”

    “So,” she leaned forward on his desk, which really made him appreciate the cut of her uniform top, “let’s take our break now?”

    “Alright!” he agreed, quickly logging off - you never left your computer unattended while logged into the system. Even with Jeff and Lester missing.

    “Jenny? Jenny Burton? It is you!”

    Chuck looked up and saw that Sarah had frozen up while a tanned blonde woman was clasping her hands and beaming at her. “It’s me! Heather Chandler! We went to high school together!”

    Jenny Burton? Sarah hadn’t been a spy in high school, had she?

    *****​

    She wasn’t Jenny Burton. She was Sarah Walker. Now. She had never been Jenny Burton. It had just been another fake identity, courtesy of her father, the conman. She was Sarah Walker. And she had to deal with this problem.

    Sarah forced herself to smile. “Heather, of course!” she said.

    “Well, Heather Ratner now - I married Mark Ratner,” the blonde said. “You remember Mark?”

    Sarah did. The class nerd. An outsider like herself had been. Dick Duffy used to stuff Mark into his own locker at least once a week - to the amusement of Heather the cheerleader. Yes, Sarah remembered Mark. And Heather. “I do,” she said.

    “He’s an engineer now, you know,” Heather went on. That Sarah hadn’t known. Not that she cared. “And what about you?” The blonde pointedly looked at Sarah’s waitressing uniform.

    “I’m the owner-operator of the Wienerlicious,” Sarah said, feeling, once again, the urge to hurt whoever had picked her cover story.

    “That’s great! You were such a shy girl in high school!” Heather’s voice dripped with the same fake sincerity that she had used so much on ‘Jenny’. Sarah wanted to hurt her.

    “Really?” Chuck blurted out, and Sarah had to suppress the urge to kick his shin.

    Heather looked at Chuck as if she saw him for the first time.

    “Hi, I’m Chuck.” He smiled at her. “Her boyfriend,” he added, wrapping an arm around Sarah’s shoulder.

    “Oh!” Heather smiled again. “You work here?”

    “Assistant manager,” Chuck confirmed.

    “That’s great!” Heather repeated herself.

    “Yes,” Sarah lied. She had to deal with this potential breach of security - her cover was in danger. Killing Heather, although effective, would be excessive, though. Probably. No matter how cathartic it would be.

    “Oh, Mark! Mark! Come! You’ll never guess who I met - Jenny, Jenny Burton!” Heather waved at a tall, thin man walking towards them.

    “Hi!”

    “You remember her, from high school, right?” Heather didn’t wait for his reply. “And that’s her boyfriend, Chuck.”

    “Hi,” Chuck said. He seemed to have - finally - understood that this was a problem.

    “We’d love to chat,” Sarah said, “but our break’s over.”

    “Oh, we didn’t ruin your break, did we?” Heather pressed a hand to her mouth like she did in school when she faked compassion. “We’ll have to make it up to you! Let’s have dinner together! Our treat!”

    Sarah was about to politely - or not so politely if dear old Heather couldn’t take a hint - decline when she noticed that Chuck was blinking. No, flashing.

    “Uh… sure, sure,” he said.

    She smiled as sweetly as she could. “Of course, it’ll be great,” she lied.

    Chuck better had a really good reason for this.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, December 3rd, 2007

    “What were you thinking?” Sarah rounded on him as soon as he entered the base.

    “I flashed on the guy - and this was an opportunity to learn more about him,” Chuck defended himself. And it was an opportunity to learn more about Sarah’s past.

    “And if your former classmates are a problem, dinner with them will provide us with opportunities to eliminate them,” Casey added.

    “Uh… we wouldn’t actually kill people for knowing about Sarah’s mysterious and confusing past as a teenage spy?” Chuck said, chuckling at his own joke.

    The distinct lack of immediate denials and Sarah’s glare weren’t good signs, in Chuck’s opinion.

    “We would eliminate them if they’re traitorous scum,” Casey said, dropping a file on the table. “Mark Ratner works at Winthrop-Keller Aerodynamics. He has access to top-secret weapon technology in development.”

    “That was fast,” Chuck said. Big Mike’s announcement about his fishing vacation had held up Chuck while Sarah had gone back to the base, but it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. “How did you…” He blinked and stared at the wall where... “We got a new computer? Oh my God! It’s a DU-97! Freon-cooled! Thirty teraflop architecture! Special modules for cryptographic and facial recognition!”

    “Please have your geekgasm where I cannot see it,” Casey drawled. “And don’t break the computer. Don’t hump it, either!”

    Chuck was about to educate the barbarian just how great this computer was when the general appeared on the screen. “Agents, Mr Bartowski. Good initiative there - we’ve been tracking leaked future technology, and Mr Ratner is one of the people with access to the sensitive data in question. You will use this opportunity to find out if he’s the leak.”

    “What about the threat to my cover?” Sarah asked.

    “Your pre-existing social history with the targets provides the perfect cover for this mission. Its results will determine if and which steps we’ll have to take to protect your current cover.”

    That sounded ominous, Chuck thought. Very ominous.

    But not as ominous as the fact that the general was referring to Sarah’s ‘current cover’.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 3rd, 2007

    If there was one good thing to the whole 'Poacher’ affair, it was the fact that Chuck could leave the Buy More for a briefing without the staff making a mess out of the store in Big Mike’s absence. No one was organising a pallet carrier race in the magazine, there wasn’t a game tournament being held in the home entertainment display room, and no women were standing in line at customer service to complain about remote-controlled cars trying to take upskirt pictures.

    In short, the store looked almost ordinary as Chuck and Casey returned. Almost, since Caridad was staring at a couple browsing the aisles of the home appliance section with all the subtle menace of a stalking cougar.

    She didn’t even turn when he walked up to her and cleared his throat. “Uh, Caridad?”

    “What?”

    “What are you doing?”

    She sniffed the air. “They smell like demons,” she said.

    “The couple?”

    “No, the toasters they are comparing.”

    If not for her sarcastic tone, Chuck would have seriously considered that. It wouldn’t have been the first case of a demonic possession of a device, after all, and such a thing might explain some of the antics of the staff. Like the break room cage fights over who got the last free snack. “Ah,” he said. “And have they done anything suspicious?”

    “They passed a perfectly good toaster that would have fit their professed requirements and was thirty per cent off - much cheaper than the overpriced pieces of crap they are arguing about.”

    It seemed that, although Caridad wasn’t exactly working for the Buy More, she had picked up more than a little of the staff’s knowledge - and attitude. “You, uh, won’t kill them for spending more money than they need, will you? That would run directly counter to the store’s goals, you know.”

    That earned him an eye roll. “This might be an act so they have an excuse to spend more time in the store, looking for Jeff. They could be scouts for the poachers!”

    “Ah.” It was possible. Theoretically. “Wouldn’t they hang out in the electronics section instead?” Jeff’s uniform, which he often enough wore when going drinking after work, made it clear that he wasn’t working the floor in home appliances.

    “That’s what we’d expect,” Caridad retorted. She sniffed the air again. “If they don’t buy something in the next five minutes, I’m going to put the fear of the Slayer into them!”

    He hoped that demons and half-demons weren’t responsible for a significant part of the Buy More’s profits, or Big Mike would probably blame Chuck for the loss of revenue in his absence.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 3rd, 2007

    One of the disadvantages of Sarah’s cover were lunch hours. Namely, that Chuck either had to take an early or a late lunch if he wanted to spend it with Sarah since she usually was swamped at noon. But he was getting used to it. Eating a power bar at eleven am also helped with waiting until half past one pm. If he could keep Caridad from raiding his stack.

    The way Sarah’s face lit up with a smile when she saw him entering the shop helped more, of course. “Hi, Chuck.”

    “Hi, Sarah.” He held up the takeaway boxes. “I got us pad thai.”

    She wasn’t smiling as much as usual, though. Almost a little subdued, or so it seemed to him as they sat down after flipping the ‘closed’ sign. “Is everything alright?”

    “Yes.”

    Which, even he was aware of that, now, meant ‘no’.

    “So, how are you managing the store with Big Mike being on vacation?” Sarah asked before he could think of a good way to probe for more information, as Casey would call it.

    “Uh, as usual,” he replied. “I’m doing what I am doing anyway. Big Mike usually handles human resources and the franchise, and those can wait for a few days.”

    “How’s Caridad doing?”

    He frowned. Sarah usually never asked after the Slayer. “She’s scaring away the demon-scented customers.”

    She nodded without reacting to his joke. “No news from the poachers, then?”

    “No.” This felt like a diversion to him. Time to address the crux of the issue: “Are you concerned about the mission?”

    She stared at him. “Heather’s part of a past I left behind,” she said after a few seconds that felt much longer and more uncomfortable than he had expected.

    “Ah.” He really wanted to know more about that. “A past named Jenny Burton.”

    He didn’t flinch under her glare. Not really. “An alias,” she said.

    Had she really been a teenage spy? Undercover at high school? “Classified?”

    “Yes.”

    “But Heather and Mark don’t know that,” he pointed out.

    “No, they don’t.”

    “And you don’t like that they could reveal information about your past. Classified information.”

    “I almost hope that they are enemy spies so we can eliminate them,” she said.

    This time, he flinched. Her past must be a really touchy subject.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 3rd, 2007

    “Uh, you know, we never really talked about our high school days.” As soon as he had said it, Chuck wanted to wince. That had sounded much better in his head. Smoother, too.

    Sarah turned away from their new armoire and stared - glared - at him. “And now’s the time?”

    “Uh… well, kind of?” He smiled and picked up a pair of dress trousers, Charles Carmichael style. “Do you think those are a little overkill? Or just right for an assistant manager at the Buy More dressing up?” At her frown, he added: “Our cover is that we’re trying to impress the cheerleader who married the geek after dating jocks during high school and now thinks she’s better than her old school friends? Or something like that?”

    She frowned at him for a moment longer, then sighed. “We were never friends.”

    “I, uh, gathered that. I think.” He wet his lips, then ploughed on: “She reminds me of Cordelia. Well, the Cordelia of Sunnydale High School.”

    “Your friend who died?”

    “She wasn’t my friend in high school. Queen bee - or queen bitch, as Morgan used to call her - of the school. Rich, arrogant, and blunt to the point of rudeness. And past that.” Fortunately, their paths hadn’t crossed often.

    “And popular,” Sarah said.

    “Oh, yes. Leader of the cheerleaders. And her family was at the top of the social pecking order.” Chuck nodded. “If she didn’t like you, you were at the bottom of the totem pole. And she didn’t like geeks.”

    “Like you and Morgan.” Was that a sympathetic smile on her face?

    “Well, we were more collateral damage. She was focusing on Willow, Xander and Jesse most of the time, and on Buffy for a while.” He sat down on the new bed - a very good purchase. “Ellie was three years ahead of us, so she wasn’t a target - she had a thing against smart people. Or people smarter than her.”

    “And yet, you became friends after Sunnydale.” Sarah crossed her arms.

    Oh. She probably thought he was trying to make her make up with Heather. “Kind of. She changed a lot. Had to change - her parents fled the IRS to South America and left her without a dime. I later heard she had to take a part-time job to buy her prom dress, and she left for Los Angeles after graduation, where she failed at becoming an actress before she got involved with a group of demon hunters and died to a curse or something.” Best not to get into too much detail about Angel and his crew. “She didn’t marry a geek for money.”

    Sarah snorted. “Unlike Heather, you mean?”

    “Well, I don’t know her, so it could be true love?” He grinned as she snorted again.

    But she quickly grew serious once more and sat down next to him on the bed. “I don’t know her well enough to tell.”

    “Well, you might, after this evening's dinner.” He smiled encouragingly at her.

    “You need to get better at fishing for information without giving the game away. If they are spies, they’ll easily see through you,” she said in a flat voice.

    She was closing up again. Damn. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he protested.

    “But you want to know why I don’t want to talk about my high school days.”

    “Uh… yes. And why you were using a fake name.” Her frown was growing more pronounced, but he kept talking. “I mean - I know I shouldn’t, cover and top secret, and all, and if it’s not even in your Intersect files, it’s probably classified above my clearance, but…” He sighed. “I’m curious and can’t help it. Sorry?” He smiled at her.

    She sighed and shook her head, but she was smiling herself. “I wasn’t a teenage spy, Chuck.”

    “Oh.” He blinked. “That’s kind of comforting. If the CIA recruited high schoolers, that’d be a reason to worry.” Her expression grew bland, so he added: “You know, that’s where you assure me that our employer wouldn’t recruit teenagers as spies.”

    “Chuck, when we were looking into Sunnydale, Casey and I were angry at what we thought was a black op experimenting on teenagers to turn them into supersoldiers or assassins,” she said after a moment.

    “But you thought it was possible,” he said before pressing his lips together.

    “We wouldn’t have expected such an operation on American soil,” she told him.

    “It’s not the fifties any more, after all,” he said. Then he sighed. No need to get into what the US army had gone into during the early part of the Cold War. “Anyway… so, is Jenny Burton your real name?” There. He had done it. Had asked what he really wanted to know.

    “No,” she replied without hesitation.

    “Oh.” But it was a fake name. A cover. And she hadn’t been a spy, so that left… “Witness protection?”

    She actually laughed at that, shaking her head. “My father was a conman, Chuck. I’ve grown up using half a dozen different identities as we moved around, always one step ahead of the law. Until the law caught up-”

    Oh. Chuck hadn’t expected that. He opened his mouth to ask for more details but reconsidered just in time.

    After a moment, she nodded at him and stood to finish dressing. Which included hiding various weapons on her body. Lethal weapons.

    Indeed, restraint was the order of the day, or curiosity might just kill the Chuck.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, December 3rd, 2007

    “Nice restaurant,” Chuck commented as they parked their car - Sarah’s sportscar.

    “She picked that out to rub in the fact that she’s rich and we’re - as far as she knows - an IT support guy and a waitress.”

    “Shouldn’t that be ‘hostess’ as owner-operator of the Wienerlicious?” Chuck’s grin quickly died in the face of her glare. “Sorry!”

    He saw her press her lips together. “Let’s get this over with,” she said and stalked towards the entrance, forcing him to hurry to catch up before they were in sight of the restaurant’s guests.

    “They’re seated already,” Sarah whispered as they entered. “Centre of the room.”

    He glanced over as the maître d’ welcomed them. Indeed, they were there, watching them.

    “Ratner party,” Sarah said.

    “Please follow me.”

    “Jenny! You made it!” Heather clasped her hands together and beamed at them as if that was a great achievement.

    “Hello, Jenny, Charles.” Mark, on the other hand, was much more restrained. Almost subdued.

    “Of course we did,” Sarah said with a smile that was as wide as Heather’s. “We wouldn’t miss this for the world!”

    “I hope you like our choice of restaurant. You’re working in the business, kind of, right?” Heater leaned forward a little.

    “I’m the owner-operator of a speciality hot dog shop,” Sarah replied. “My shop and this restaurant target different segments of the business.”

    “Oh, you sound like an expert. It’s a career for you, then?”

    “Yes,” Sarah lied. “It’s quite a challenge to manage my own business, but I’m doing well.” She leaned over and wrapped her arm around Chuck’s shoulder. “And I’m working right next to my boyfriend.”

    “You certainly wear the uniform very well. Is it your own design?” Without waiting for an answer, Heather went on. “Who would have thought our Jenny Burton from school would ever wear such clothes to work, right, Mark?”

    “Uh, yes.” Mark nodded, studying the wine selection that Casey, posing as a waiter, had brought to the table.

    Chuck tried not to wince as Sarah’s fingers dug a little too hard into his shoulder at the barb against Wienerlicious’s uniforms. “Jenny looks good whatever she wears,” he said with a forced smile. “Watch the Vulcan death grip!” he added under his breath, then managed not to sigh with relief when her grip relaxed.

    “How nice of you to say!” Heather gushed. “How long have you been together?”

    “Months,” Sarah replied. “We met a few days before the opening of my shop.”

    “Oh, yes. I still remember the day she walked into the store,” Chuck added. “Her phone had a malfunction - easily fixed - and that’s how we met.” He patted her hand on his shoulder and didn’t have to fake his smile.

    “Ah, yes - Jenny was always a little challenged by high tech,” Heather commented. “It’s good she’s found a boyfriend who can help her out with that, right?”

    And the Vulcan death grip was back.

    *****​

    “...and then Jenny stumbled into Marcy, dropping the whole pot. Paint went everywhere!” Heather laughed loudly at her own story.

    Chuck laughed politely. It was actually a funny story, but he had no intention to risk Sarah’s ire - her smile was showing enough teeth to make some demon species envious. He cleared his throat. “So, Mark, what do you do?” he said before Heather could launch into another ‘Jenny Burton’s spazzing days at high school’ story.

    Mark looked a little startled at the question. “Ah, I’m an engineer. I’m working at… well, it’s actually top secret.” And the man’s smile, Chuck noticed, looked not really genuine. Although that could be because of his wife’s thinly-veiled exchange of barbs with Sarah.

    “Mark, no is interested in boring engineer tales.”

    Or it was because of his wife, period.

    “So… do you ever go back to San Diego, Jenny? Visit your dad?”

    Her father was in San Diego?

    “He was released years ago,” Sarah replied. “I don’t have any contact with him. Haven’t since high school.”

    Heather frowned for a moment, then turned to Chuck. “Do you know about her dad? Such a scandal back then! It was the talk of the school for weeks, right?!”

    “Of course I know,” Chuck said. “And I also know that it’s in the past, and that we don’t like to talk about it.” He bared his teeth, a little, as he smiled. “So, Mark, you married your teenage sweetheart? The cheerleader and the future engineer?”

    “Oh, no,” Sarah cut in with a wide smile of her own. “In high school, Heather was always with the jocks. Didn’t you date Dick Duffy?” She turned to Chuck. “He was always bullying the geeks, like Mark. Swirlies, wedgies, and lockers, you know.”

    “Ah, one of those,” Chuck nodded and Chuck not to smile when Heather pressed her lips together.

    “Oh, come on, Mark - that was ages ago!” Heather snapped. “You aren’t having a flashback, are you? It was just some harmless teasing.”

    Mark was actually rather pale, Chuck noticed. And sweating - but certainly not because of school bullying, so… He turned his head to see what Mark was staring at and spotted two burly men at the bar in the foyer.

    And he flashed.

    Sergei Ivanov, former member of the KGB, went ‘private’ as an enforcer for the Russian Mob after 1991. Wanted for murder, extortion, kidnapping and smuggling. And, apparently, now involved in industrial or normal espionage.

    Peter Karpov - no relation to the chess player - career mobster, spent more than half his life in various prisons. Suspected of several counts of murder, but there had never been enough proof to overcome his protection by certain high-ranking officials.

    Chuck blinked. And Mark was afraid of them, which meant that he knew them. They were letting themselves be seen, which meant that they were here to put pressure on Mark, but they wouldn’t go further. For now.

    Which meant that something could be done about them. He pulled out his phone. “Sorry… my sister needs to know where the gas for the lawnmower is stored - we share the same yard, and she’s a doctor, so she works odd hours,” he told the rest at the table as he texted Casey with the two men’s descriptions and summarised backgrounds.

    “Your sister’s a doctor?” Heather asked in what sounded honest surprise.

    “Oh, yes, Ellie’s great. She practically raised me for a few years after our parents went missing,” Chuck said. ‘Missing’ had a slightly more permanent meaning in Sunnydale, of course, not that the Ratners would know that.

    “Ah.” The woman nodded. “Absent parents - something that you have in common,” she added with fake sympathy.

    Was she implying that his parents were crooks as well? Chuck clamped down on his anger and shrugged. “Well, they are officially missing, but we used to live in Sunnydale…”

    “Oh.” It seemed Heather wasn’t a complete bitch - the insinuation that the Bartowskis had died when Sunnydale had disappeared into a sinkhole didn’t leave her untouched. “You survived that?”

    He nodded. “We were lucky.” Lucky to get out of the town after graduation. “Not all of my class were as lucky, though.” He sighed, a little too loudly, but it effectively killed that topic. “So, Mark, you work in San Diego?”

    “Ah, yes, at Winthrop-Keller Aerodynamics,” Mark relied, though his attention was still focused on the two drinking Russians.

    “Mark!” Heather cut in. “Don’t space out!” She turned to Chuck. “He’s got a tendency to do that. A little like Jenny used to - she was such a spaz in high school!”

    Chuck readjusted his impression of the woman’s character downwards again. Even Cordelia at her worst would have showed more tact and certainly more subtlety. “Really?” He made an effort to sound very surprised. “She’s one of the most focused women I know - and most of Ellie’s friends are doctors, so the baseline’s pretty high. One of the most graceful women, too,” he added.

    “Thank you, Chuck,” Sarah said. There was a little tension in her voice - and in the hand she put on his - though.

    Oh. Of course! The most focused and graceful women he knew were Slayers, and she would have realised that. “And, of course, the most beautiful,” he said.

    “Oh, how romantic!” So Heather could also do subtle - the sneering sarcasm was understated, but still rather clearly audible in her voice. “Did you hear that, Mark? Mark?”

    “Ah, uh, yes?”

    “Mark!” Heather snapped. “What’s wrong with you? They will think you’re being rude! And you’re sweating like a pig! Are you getting sick?”

    Irony, though, Heather apparently wouldn’t recognise if it hit her in the face with slayer strength, Chuck concluded.

    "Ah, sorry - I’m a little distracted. Work, you know,” Mark lied rather unconvincingly.

    “He’s always working!” Heather said. “We came up here from San Diego to relax, and he’s still thinking about work!”

    Mark’s eyes were still focused more on the Russians than on his wife, Chuck noticed. “Ah… please excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom,” the man said suddenly, getting up and all but fleeing from the table - which would have been an understandable reaction to the scorn heaped upon his head by Heather, if not for the two Russians following him.

    Chuck would have followed them, but Casey was already moving.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, December 3rd, 2007

    “...and after I took out the two goons threatening Ratner, he spilled. They’ve been threatening to hurt his wife to force him to turn traitor, and they’ve increased the pressure lately to get the information about the Raptor II project,” Casey said with a snarl. Apparently, he thought that Mark should have sacrificed Heather instead. Well, after an evening spent in the woman’s company, Chuck couldn’t entirely condemn the idea.

    Judging by her scoffing, Sarah shared Casey’s views. Perfectly understandable, if a little disturbing anyway.

    “Good work, Agent Casey,” the general said. “In light of this information, we’ll wait until the Russians’ superiors contact Ratner again, then arrange a meeting and use the opportunity to feed them fake information.”

    Ah. A classic ploy, or so Chuck understood. “So, mission accomplished?” He smiled.

    The general frowned. “Not exactly. There’s the risk that whoever is behind this will escalate and kidnap Mrs Ratner. We’re arranging a protection detail, but for the duration of their stay in Los Angeles, you’ll have to guard them.”

    "Understood, General,” Casey snapped as Chuck glanced at Sarah. Her expression was composed, but he knew she would loathe this. He wasn’t exactly a fan of it, either.

    But not even Heather deserved to get kidnapped by the Russian mob.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, December 4th, 2007

    “I thought those stakeouts would be more fun,” Chuck commented, lowering his binoculars for a moment and taking a sip from his Mountain Dew bottle. The Ratners were staying in this evening, or so it seemed - Mark was playing the ‘I’m not feeling well, maybe I’m coming down with something’ card, as Casey had instructed him.

    “We’re not on a stakeout,” Sarah corrected him. “We’re bodyguarding.”

    “And using the Ratners as bait,” Chuck said, “like a staked-out goat to attract the tiger. Or the bears, in this case.” They weren’t in a car, either, but in a hotel room facing the Ratner’s hotel.

    She snorted at that but didn’t say anything in response.

    He suppressed a sigh. Sarah didn’t mind using Heather as bait. Mark, perhaps, but not her nemesis from school. And she didn’t resent protecting the woman, either. So that left… “It’s a little funny that the only one who doesn't know about the spy business is Heather.”

    “Mark doesn’t know that we’re spies, either,” Sarah said.

    “Right. But Heather is completely ignorant of the danger. Even though she’s in the middle of it.”

    “She always wanted to be the centre of attention; she probably would be happy if she knew,” Sarah not-quite-spat.

    Chuck laughed at that, but Sarah apparently didn’t think it was funny - she was frowning. “I’m just trying to see the humour in this situation,” he said.

    “There’s nothing funny about this.”

    He bit his lower lip, pondering what to say. “Well, at least Heather has exhausted her Jenny Burton stories before our second dinner with them.” Which was scheduled for tomorrow evening.

    Sarah scoffed at that but, once again, didn’t comment verbally.

    “What’s wrong?” he finally asked after another moment of silence. “This doesn’t seem like you, to be so… stuck on this.” On her.

    “It’s a part of my past that I loathe,” she said.

    “Being a teenager?” he joked before he could stop himself.

    Her frown turned into a glare. A cold glare. “No. Losing my father.”

    Oh. His first impulse was to tell her that, at least, her father was still alive. Unlike his. He managed to avoid that by pressing his lips together. “Sorry,” he said instead.

    Sarah sighed and leaned back in her seat. “I should be sorry. You lost your parents to…”

    “To Sunnydale,” he cut in.

    “To Sunnydale,” she went on, “while I lost my father to his own stupidity and greed.”

    Going out at night in Sunnydale was very stupid as well, but Chuck wouldn't mention that. His parents hadn’t known the truth. Not really.

    *****​

    Sarah wanted to hit something. It wasn’t fair. Chuck had lost his parents, she had been saddled with a crook as a father who had ended up in prison when she needed him. Both of them had to rebuild their lives through no fault of their own, and Heather the cheerleading bitch had the time of her life in high school, then turned and married the class geek who was going to become rich. The same guy who had been the target of her snide remarks, and her friends’, for three years not only forgave her but married her. And was willing to commit treason to keep her safe. And in exchange, she treated him like dirt.

    Consequences apparently were a thing that happened to other people, not to Heather.

    She took a few deep breaths. She was a trained spy. She knew better. She wouldn’t lose her temper. Not over Heather. She hadn’t lost her temper last night despite the woman’s constant needling and attempts to put her down, and she wouldn’t lose it now.

    There was no reason to be jealous either. Heather might have married rich, but Sarah - not Jenny any more, never Jenny to begin with - had a career. And a wonderful if sometimes a little clueless boyfriend. Granted, her career was doomed due to circumstances outside her control, but she might be able to weather that.

    Just as she would weather Heather. She sighed. “I’m being unreasonable, I know. We’re not in high school any more.” They weren’t the people they had been as teenagers any more. Well, with the possible exception of Heather. The bitch hadn’t changed as far as Sarah could tell.

    “And with the possible exception of people like Heather, we’re all glad about that,” Chuck replied. “That we’re not in high school any more, I mean. Not about you being unreasonable. Which, incidentally, I don’t think you are.”

    She smiled at him. He was trying. And it was working.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 5th, 2007

    “Where is Casey? Why isn’t he working already?”

    “Good morning, Lester. I’m doing well, thank you for asking. How are you?” Chuck forced himself to smile at the Nerd Herder. He had been up too long, observing the Ratners, and lack of sleep made everyone cranky. Well, some it made loopy, but Chuck wasn’t among them.

    “Yes, yes, good morning, howdy and whatever.” Lester shook his head. “Focus, Chuck! Where’s Casey?”

    “He’s sick,” Chuck lied. Casey was observing the Ratners today. “Why do you care? Last I heard - from you, actually - you two had some ‘differences’.” Which was a polite way to say that Casey didn’t tolerate the antics of Jeff and Lester, and was quite willing to demonstrate that physically.

    “Yes, we had some differences of opinions. But,” Lester spoke up, “of all the employees of this fine store, Casey is by far the most dangerous. And one of the most primitives as well. But it is this combination of thuggish violence and animal cunning that makes him the perfect security for the store. Have you seen what he does to shoplifters?”

    “You mean you want him to guard you and Jeff,” Chuck corrected him.

    “We’re valuable Buy More employees. Who would be able to satisfy all the most discerning - and rich - Mac users without us?”

    “I could do it myself,” Chuck replied at once, “or I could ask Morgan to help.”

    Lester gaped at him, blinked, then said: “But you wouldn’t be able to do your work, then!”

    “I think I’ll manage,” Chuck said. “It’s not as if Jeff’s been around lately, is it?”

    “He has to hide from the demon hunters!”

    “We’ve got Caridad here. He could be working here and be perfectly safe,” Chuck pointed out.

    “She’s the Slayer! She’s one bad day from flipping out and killing everyone!” Lester retorted.

    “You’ve been listening to Jeff and his very biased view of Slayers,” Chuck replied. “Caridad is a perfectly nice girl, and there’s no reason to…”

    The sound of toppling aisles interrupted him. Whirling around, he saw Caridad, a snarl on her face, charging at a man she had just thrown through the Tupperware display.

    Chuck shook his head. He really should have known better.

    *****​
     
  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 5: The High School Reunion Part 2
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 5: The High School Reunion Part 2

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 5th, 2007

    “Caridad!” Chuck yelled. “What are you…”

    “It’s one of them!” Caridad yelled a fraction of a second before she ploughed into a small sea of plastic containers, scattering them in her wake. Her foot found her target, though, and another aisle was wrecked stopping a human projectile.

    A demon projectile, Chuck corrected himself a moment later as he saw Caridad’s opponent getting up - no human would have survived such a blow. Or would hiss like a snake and charge Caridad.

    But they were in the middle of the Buy More in the morning, not in a parking lot or graveyard after dark. There were too many civilians present. Chuck needed to…

    “Attention all shoppers. We’re conducting a fire drill. Please leave the Buy More store and wait in the parking lot for further instructions. Thank you.”

    That was Morgan. Quick thinking - but Chuck knew that some shoppers wouldn’t listen. Not even a real fire would drive some bargain-hunters out of the store. Fortunately, the customers near Caridad and the demon weren’t among those - they were quickly retreating.

    And another aisle - dishes and plates, Chuck noticed with a wince - was shattered, this time by breaking Caridad’s fall. A strong demon, then. He looked around. Most people had left. A few were watching, though. And Morgan was emerging from the staff area, carrying…

    Oh, hell! He had a crossbow. And an antique, not one from the Buy More’s sports section. Chuck sprinted towards the remaining gawkers. “What are you doing here? Haven’t you heard the fire drill announcement.”

    One of them, a teenager - no surprise there - sneered at him. “So?”

    Casey would have beaten the idiot up just to teach him a lesson. Chuck wasn’t Casey. He pointed at Caridad, who was straddling her opponent and raining down blows on its head. “The gentleman there refused to leave the store when she told him to.”

    “So?” The boy’s sneer didn’t waver, even as the smarter people around them picked up the implication of Chuck’s words and started to leave.

    Teens… Chuck shook his head. “If you don’t leave, she’ll make you leave as soon as she’s finished with this guy.”

    That, at least, sent the idiot boy running. And just in time - Morgan was already aiming his crossbow from behind the closest desk.

    And when the demon threw off Caridad, Morgan took his shot, nailing the monster in the head. That would have been hard to explain as a Buy More policy.

    Unfortunately, the demon ignored the bolt sticking out of its head and roared, attacking Caridad again. He didn’t hit her, though - she evaded his wild blows, landing hits of her own instead. Had she taken his measure, as Phil called it?

    Chuck reached Morgan. “What demon is this?”

    “I don’t know. The bolt didn’t have any effect, so it’s not vulnerable to wood, silver or cold iron,” Morgan replied.

    “It’s not plastic, either,” Chuck added, pointing at the scattered wares on the ground.

    Morgan didn’t laugh at the feeble joke. “And Caridad’s blows don’t seem to faze it, either.”

    That meant decapitation was next. But Caridad didn’t seem to have a suitable weapon.

    Until she hit the demon into the cooking knives display. And proceeded to disarm the stunned demon with the biggest knife on sale. Literally disarm.

    The demon neither relented nor tried to flee, though - it fought on. Caridad cut off its head next - and not even that stopped it. What kind of monster could survive that? Well, there was one demon species… No, Caridad had just stabbed the demon’s left butt cheek, where the particular demon species of whom Chuck was thinking hid its brain, and that didn’t stop it either.

    Screaming, the Slayer started to cut the demon apart piece by piece. It was a… it was actually a very bloodless spectacle, Chuck realised.

    Finally, the demon’s remains collapsed, and Caridad held up an egg-like structure speared on her borrowed knife. “Got it!” she announced!

    “What the hell is going on here? Why are our customers waiting outside instead of spending money inside?”

    Apparently, Big Mike had cut his vacation short.

    “Big Mike!” Chuck smiled at him. “I noticed that we hadn’t yet run the mandatory fire drill and decided to do it today, rather than later when the holiday shopping frenzy peaks.”

    Big Mike blinked. “Oh, ah, yes. That explains the crowd filling the parking lot.” He nodded but kept frowning. “It doesn’t explain, though, what happened here! Why is half the store wrecked? Grimes! You didn’t run your hare-brained Mario Kart promotion stunt again in my absence, did you?”

    Morgan shook his head. “No, no… this wasn’t my fault, Big Mike!”

    “One of the customers didn’t want to leave and got violent when asked to leave,” Caridad spoke up. “I had to subdue him.”

    The burly man rounded on her. “You caused all of this?” He waved his arm to cover the half a dozen wrecked aisles.

    “No, the guy…” Caridad started, but Big Mike shook his head.

    “Who are you, anyway?”

    “Ah, she’s a temp,” Morgan said. “We were short a few people due to sick days.”

    “A temp?” Big Mike glared at the Slayer. “No, you know what you are? You’re fired!”

    “What?” Caridad stared at him.

    “Are you deaf? You’re fired! Get out of my store!” Big Mike waved his hands in front of Caridad’s face. “Shoo! Get lost before you wreck the rest of the store! I can’t use an employee who doesn’t know that the customer is king!”

    Chuck saw that Caridad was snarling and quickly stepped between her and Big Mike. “Alright, Miss, you heard the man - let’s not make a scene, shall we?” He beamed his best smile at her.

    She growled with bared teeth, and, for a moment, Chuck feared that she might push him aside and beat up Big Mike, but Morgan joined him. “Yes, yes - violence isn’t an option here.”

    “I’m getting violent if you don’t leave at once!” Big Mike butted in.

    “And we really don’t want that!” Chuck said with a strained smile. “So how about we go outside? Morgan, please escort her out!”

    He ignored the betrayed look from his friend - Morgan had hired Caridad, so this was his fault, at least in part - and turned to Big Mike. “If you’re here, there are a few things to deal with, Big Mike. Can we go to your office and discuss them?”

    “I’ll show him violence!”

    “No, you can’t.”

    “Yes, I can!”

    “I’m telling Phil!”

    “You wouldn’t!”

    “Yes, I would!”

    Chuck tried to ignore the exchange behind him and all but pushed Big Mike towards the staff area. “So, you see, we’ve had trouble with staffing...”

    “Indeed, I see the problem. Quite clearly!”

    “I’ll show you a problem!”

    “No, no, don’t!”

    Morgan sounded desperate, Chuck noticed. But he was busy enough dealing with Big Mike before the man committed suicide by Slayer. At least they were almost at the staff area.

    “And get the uniform off her before you throw her out! That’s Buy More property!” Big Mike yelled before Chuck managed to close the door behind them.

    Since the door wasn’t broken down by an enraged Slayer a second later, Morgan must have managed to calm Caridad down.

    If that wasn’t proof that he was cut out to be a Watcher, then Chuck didn’t know what would be.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 5th, 2007

    “...and then I had to keep him from firing Jeff for extended absences.” Chuck shook his head as he told Sarah what had happened in the morning.

    “That’s why you missed our break,” she said, putting down a container with chop suey in front of him, “and had me fetch lunch.” Not that she had minded - Chuck had sounded quite stressed when he had called her at noon.

    “Sorry.” He smiled at her.

    “Why didn’t you let him fire Jeff?” It wouldn’t be a big loss, in her opinion.

    “It wouldn’t be fair - Jeff’s in this bind because of us.” He dug into his meal. “Mhh.”

    “The demon hunters weren’t our fault. Nor were they Caridad’s,” she pointed out.

    “But they’re using him as bait.”

    She shrugged, taking a bite from her own red curry. “They didn’t spread news of his presence - Jeff did that himself.”

    “Still, he’s a co-worker. And it’s going to be harder to protect him with Caridad banned from the Buy More.” Chuck sighed.

    “I thought she was fired.”

    “She was banned after Big Mike saw how many goods were destroyed in the fighting,” Chuck explained.

    “Ah.” Well, the Slayer had a talent for collateral damage that probably made Casey jealous.

    “And if she loiters outside the store, he might sic the cops on her,” Chuck went on. “When do we need to relieve Casey?”

    “I’ve closed the shop for the afternoon. I’ll relieve him after our lunch break. You can join me once your shift ends,” she told him. “We can eat dinner there. This time, you’ll get it.”

    “Alright.” He blinked. “I just had an idea. It’s not really ideal if the shop’s closed, is it? Someone might notice your absences.”

    He couldn’t be suggesting what she thought he was suggesting. “No.”

    “But it would solve a couple of problems.” He was beaming at her with that slightly embarrassed smile of his.

    “No. Absolutely not.” She shook her head.

    “She’s already in the know, isn’t she? It wouldn’t endanger the mission. Just for a week or two, until they can catch the demon hunters. And we really need her if another demon attacks the store.”

    That was a good argument. Any demon a Slayer had trouble killing would go right through Sarah and Casey, and they had to protect Chuck.

    But the general would have a fit.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 6th, 2007

    “Welcome to Wienerlicious! Chuck!”

    “Hi, Chuck.”

    Caridad’s greeting sounded a little too enthusiastic in Chuck’s opinion. And Sarah’s greeting was polite. Barely - his girlfriend was frowning at him behind Caridad’s back, apparently showing the Slayer how to use the grill.

    “How may I serve you?” Caridad went on, leaning forward. She was wearing the skimpy uniform of the store quite well, Chuck couldn’t keep from noticing - it certainly showed far more cleavage and more of her legs than the Buy More shirt and pants.

    “I’ll handle that customer,” Sarah said with a toothy smile. “The usual, Chuck?”

    “Uh, yes, of course,” he replied.

    Perhaps his idea hadn’t been quite as good as he had thought.

    He took his usual seat. The store was empty - not unusual at this time of the day; that was why he took his break now, after all.

    Caridad hopped on the counter, crossing her legs, and beamed at him. “This is perfect! I can sense all demons headed towards the Buy More from here, and the fat idiot can’t say anything about it!” She hefted a hot dog overloaded with condiments and took a hefty bite out of it. “And I can get all the food I want for free!”

    Sarah’s frown intensified.

    “Uh, that’s great,” Chuck said. It wasn’t as if the store needed to make a profit, was it? It was a CIA front, not a real business, after all. And unless someone were taking count of how much Caridad ate, the increased consumption of cheap sausages and buns would only enhance the cover story.

    At least Chuck hoped that would be the case.

    “Enjoy it while it lasts,” Sarah said, taking a seat across from Chuck. “It’s only temporary.”

    “Aw.” Caridad pouted and swallowed the rest of the hot dog. “We could make it permanent! I could use the money, and you could use a trustworthy and skilled employee!”

    “Don’t you get paid by the Council?” Sarah asked.

    “Well, yes. But with the free food I’m getting here, I can use the stipend for clothes and weapons!”

    “I don’t think Phil would like you dropping your courier job,” Chuck pointed out. “That allows you to travel the city without drawing attention.” Why was Sarah still frowning at him? He was trying to heed off Caridad’s idea, wasn’t he?

    “I deliver hot dogs,” Caridad replied, grabbing a soda from the fridge. Chuck was pointedly not watching her bend over.

    “We don’t do deliveries,” Sarah said in a tone that told Chuck she was annoyed.

    “Others might not know it,” Caridad retorted. “Most demons won’t check if you actually deliver.” She grinned in a rather feral manner. “They’ll think I’m the delivery.” She ran her hands down her front to emphasise her point.

    Chuck coughed. “Well, we should focus on catching the demon hunters, shouldn’t we? And on yesterday’s demon attack.”

    “Morgan brought the remaining demon parts to Phil for analysis,” Caridad said. “The stuff that didn’t break down and dissolved into slime, at least.”

    “Ah, yes.” That had been a mess. Chuck had assigned Lester to that task - the man knew about demons and hadn’t been needed elsewhere. And it would hopefully teach him not to annoy Chuck overly much.

    And pigs would learn to fly.

    “So, all we can do right now is wait until the poachers or the demons try again,” Caridad said, sitting on the counter and letting her feet dangle.

    “Uh, yes,” Chuck replied, realising a drawback of his idea: Caridad would be present during his and Sarah’s usual morning break. No wonder Sarah was so annoyed. He tried to smile apologetically at her.

    “Oh, Chuck, we need to buy more sheets,” she said.

    “Sheets?”

    “Yes. For our new bed - we’ll be needing them, won’t we, the way things have been going?”

    Apparently, Caridad’s presence wouldn’t stop Sarah from talking about rather intimate topics during their break. And the Slayer was scowling - and growling under her breath, Chuck thought.

    Yes, this really hadn’t been a good idea.

    And that was why Chuck could have hugged Phil when the Watcher arrived ‘bearing important news’.

    *****​

    “I’ve analysed the samples you sent me,” Phil said a few minutes later, after Morgan had arrived as well, pulling thick sheets of paper out of his old, battered leather suitcase. “It was quite peculiar, and without Miss Rosenberg’s latest treatise on alchemy, I wouldn’t have realised what we’re facing. It was really eye-opening, the way she combined chemistry, biology and magic.”

    Chuck resisted the urge to clear his throat and mutter ‘get to the point’ under his breath.

    Morgan, apparently, didn’t. “That’s nice, but what does it mean for us?” he asked.

    Phil frowned, sighing. “The ‘demon’ Caridad fought was actually a construct - a magically animated slime golem.”

    “A slime golem? Shouldn’t they be all-slimy, like slime demons?” Caridad asked.

    “Not if they use the... Oh my God!” Chuck blurted out, sharing a horrified look with Morgan.

    “We’re facing magical T-1000s!” Chuck’s friend yelled. “That’s what they hunt slime demons for!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, December 6th, 2007

    Casey was looking angry and ready to hurt someone when Sarah and Chuck arrived at the hotel to relieve him. In other words, situation normal.

    “About time you got here,” he grunted as he packed up his gear. “No change in status for the Ratners. Try not to shoot the woman, Walker.”

    Chuck saw Sarah rolling her eyes at the dig and frowned. She was a trained spy - she was above such petty things. Well, not that shooting someone was petty. Unless it was with a nerf gun or such. He cleared his throat. “Oh, we’ve got an update for the Buy More situation. We’re dealing with magical T-1000s.”

    “What?”

    “The slime demon hunters? Apparently, they found a way to use the blood to produce magical constructs that can take human shape. Based on slime. Like the liquid metal Terminator in Terminator 2. The killer robot that could change shape.”

    “I’ve seen the movie,” Casey snapped. “How do you kill them?”

    “Well, apart from letting Caridad hack them into tiny pieces, we don’t know yet,” Chuck admitted. “But at least they can’t change shape as easily as the Terminator could.” The fight would have gone much differently if they could change their limbs into melee weapons in seconds.

    “How comforting.”

    Casey really had to work on his people skills. “Well, knowing is half the battle, right?” Chuck said.

    “If you quote G.I. Joe at me again, I’ll feed you your Commander Cobra action figure.”

    Chuck was certain that those had been Casey’s favourite toys - the man looked at Jane’s publications like Jeff and Lester looked at the Playboy centrefold - but the agent also looked very annoyed and tired after his shift. Discretion was the better part of valour here.

    “Boys…” Sarah was rolling her eyes again.

    “Sorry,” Chuck said.

    Casey just grunted and left.

    Chuck waited five minutes to be safe before commenting: “He was rather grumpy. Violence withdrawal?”

    Sarah rolled her eyes once more. She really was on a roll there. He pouted - that hadn’t been a bad joke. Well, not too bad. “I’m just saying that he seems angrier than usual.”

    “Whoever is behind the Russians should have made contact with Mark already,” Sarah said. “They haven’t, which means they must be up to something else.”

    “Ah.” Chuck blinked. “So, was that an explanation why Casey’s so grumpy, or a not so subtle reminder to focus on our mission?”

    She grinned at that. “Yes.”

    He smiled in return and decided to save his apology for getting Caridad hired at the Wienerlicious for later.

    *****​

    “One number five and one number three, please,” Chuck said, pointing at the pictures above the counter.

    “Right away, sir!” the girl behind the counter told him before calling out the order in Thai to the cooks behind her. “What beverages would you like with that?”

    “One regular coke and a diet coke.”

    “The usual, then,” she replied with a smile.

    One thing this mission had going for it - though it wasn’t enough to outweigh the boredom or the awkward hours; Ellie was already wondering what they were doing going out every evening - was the fact that the hotel was next to one of the best Thai takeaways in Los Angeles. Although Chuck wasn’t quite sure if the store’s staff recognising him and his orders was a good thing or a threat. It would be pretty embarrassing if the mission failed because of his taste for Red Thai Curry.

    Perhaps he should ask Sarah to fetch dinner tomorrow… no. That would look lazy.

    And he liked getting out of the hotel and stretching his legs a little. And people watching was always entertaining in Hollywood. He watched a white stretch limousine stopping in front of the Ratner’s hotel and wondered who would get out. A bunch of rich kids spending daddy’s money? A rapper and his entourage? A singer cruising for some groupies?

    A young woman got out of the car in a far too short dress and wearing far too large sunglasses. In the evening. Daddy’s girl, he decided - she had the look. And the accessoires. That Gucci handbag, for example, or the… She turned, pushing up her sunglasses, and he saw her face.

    And flashed.

    Natalia Petranova. Russian spy, suspected involvement in several assassinations of political enemies of the current president. He had to inform Sarah! But he also had ordered dinner - and if he left without waiting for his order, he’d draw attention and probably endanger his cover. No, not probably - certainly. If the waitress yelled or even ran after him, any trained spy would take notice. And Natalia would have backup. The driver, at least. Who, Chuck realised, could be anywhere by now - he hadn’t paid attention to the limousine.

    No, he had to stay and wait, waste valuable time while watching rice getting cooked and meat getting fried and…

    “Sir? Your order is ready.”

    He blinked. “Ah, thank you. I’m sorry, I was lost in thoughts.”

    He ignored the indulgent smile of the woman and grabbed the bag with the takeaway, then not quite ran back into their hotel.

    “Sarah, Sarah!” he yelled as soon as he entered the room - after an agonising trip in the lift that took far longer than it should have thanks to a handful of tourists who must have been spread out over every floor.

    “What?”

    “A Russian spy just entered the hotel! Natalia Petranova!” he blurted out. “She was in that white stretch limousine!”

    Sarah turned around. “Heather and Mark are still in their room.”

    “They wouldn’t break into a hotel room, would they? The Russians, I mean.”

    She shook her head, her attention still on the room in the building across the street. “No. But they might attempt something later, during the night. We need to know which room she took.”

    He nodded. “And how do we do that?”

    Sarah turned back. “That’s where you come in, Chuck.”

    *****​

    “As I’ve told you, sir, I’m Chuck Bartowski, from Nerd Herd. I’ve been sent here in response to a call for tech support for your hotel.”

    The clerk frowned at Chuck, then at his screen. “There’s nothing in the system about a tech support call. Not even a notice about any problems.”

    “That would be the problem, sir,” Chuck lied. “Apparently, some entries never make into the system, and your staff couldn’t find the problem.”

    “But who called you?”

    “I didn’t take the call, sir. I’m tech support, not call centre.”

    “We can’t just have someone work on our system without knowing who’s responsible.” The man - E. Smith according to his name tag - shook his head.

    “Well, sir, someone made the call. Nerd Herd isn’t in the habit to show up without being called. We’re already short an employee this week and had to work overtime to keep our backlog from growing out of control. So, how about this: You find out who made the call while I get to work so neither of us will waste any more time?” Chuck gave the man his best smile. The one that had once convinced Big Mike that he couldn’t fire Jeff and Lester for accidentally feeding his sandwich to a stray dog.

    Smith sighed, but he glanced at his co-worker, who was dealing with one new guest while two more were waiting in line. “Alright. Do you know where the server is?”

    “Straight back, then left?” Chuck guessed.

    “Right, it’s right, not left.”

    “Gotcha!” Chuck nodded, picked up his bag and walked towards the door to the staff area. Morgan would cover for him on the Nerd Herd end, and the CIA’s tools had made faking a call from the reception desk easy.

    Straight, then right. The door was even labelled ‘server room’. Not that the computer Chuck found inside deserved such a lofty name. There were laptops with more processing power in the Buy More’s bargain bins.

    He shook his head - people never learned. Saving money on hardware cost you more in the end.

    And it would mean his search through the scanned passports of the recently arrived guests would take a little longer than planned.

    Not too long, though - there hadn’t been that many people checking in.

    Five pictures and five minutes - the machine was really slow, and whoever had programmed the database deserved to spend a day as a training dummy with Caridad - later, he knew Petranova’s fake identity: She was staying in the presidential suite as ‘Elena Kameneva’.

    Mission accomplished! he thought with a smile as he packed up. Like a real spy!

    *****​

    By the time Chuck returned to their room, Casey had returned, looking none the worse for wear despite having had his sleep interrupted after an already long shift. He looked downright eager, actually, as he set up a sniper position using the bed as a base.

    That explained the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, at least. “Hi, Casey!” Chuck greeted him, albeit a little belatedly. “I found out where Petranova’s staying: It's the presidential suite. I guess posing as some oligarch’s daughter is convenient, huh?”

    Casey just looked at him, then looked away, somehow conveying a lot of scorn in that gaze, but Sarah nodded. “Good work, Chuck. Now we need to bug the suite, and keep an eye on Heather and Mark.”

    “Do you really think they’ll try to break into the Ratners’ room?” Chuck asked.

    “I hope they’ll do,” Casey replied, grinning widely and patting his rifle. “I can blow their heads off from here without getting up.”

    “Isn’t that kind of implied when sniping?” Chuck asked. “You usually do it lying down, right?”

    Casey frowned - and growled - at him, but Sarah chuckled.

    It would still be a long night.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, December 7th, 2007

    “Wake up! Heather’s leaving the room!”

    “Huh?” Chuck blinked as he sat up - he had just been resting a little on the bed, really.

    “The gold digger’s leaving their hotel room, Bartowski.” Casey, of course, was already awake and behind his rifle, even though he had been actually sleeping. “Get with the program.”

    “She’s going out? At…” Chuck checked the time. “...three in the morning?”

    “Yes.” Sarah bared her teeth. “Quite suspicious, isn’t it?”

    “Midnight craving for a snack?” Chuck asked.

    “There’s room service and a minibar for that,” Sarah replied. “And most stores are closed now.”

    And Heather and Mark had eaten a late dinner in the hotel’s restaurant - at the same time as Petranova, actually.

    “More like a craving for some adultery - or treason,” Casey said. “Let’s go!”

    “Where?” Chuck scrambled for his bag. Casey had already dismantled his sniper setup.

    “To track Heather, of course.”

    They reached the ground floor in time to spot Heather hailing a cab on the other side of the street - Chuck ran into Casey’s back when the other man suddenly stopped.

    “Watch it, Bartowski, we can’t be seen.”

    “A cab? Wouldn’t that leave a witness?” Chuck could think of several ways to track a cab or reconstruct a route.

    “Yes. And she looked scared,” Sarah said as they hurried to their car.

    “Could be acting,” Casey added.

    “She was always good at faking tears,” Sarah pointed out.

    *****​

    Sarah had to break a few minor traffic rules, but she quickly caught up to the cab - the car they had taken for the mission might not look it, but it had a tuned engine and could give some of the cheaper sports cars a run for their money. Her high school nemesis wouldn’t get away.

    She blinked. Perhaps she had watched too many of Chuck’s favourite movies. Heather was a suspect and a bitch, not her nemesis. Sarah wasn’t in high school any more.

    Pressing her lips together, she let a stretch limousine slip between her and the cab. If Heather was a spy, she would be looking for tails. And without a second car, they couldn’t do this properly.

    Fortunately, they had alternatives. “Chuck?”

    “Almost!” Her boyfriend replied from the back bench. “I’m inside the cab firm’s system… just searching the cab’s plates… there! Yes, it got a GPS!”

    Sarah smiled as she took the next turn, letting the cab drive on. “Good work, Chuck. Keep tracking it.”

    “On it!”

    He really was good with computers.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, North Hollywood, December 7th, 2007

    Sarah had to drop Casey off and park in a hurry when the next time the cab stopped turned out to be Heather’s destination. Fortunately, as Casey told them, paying the fare took enough time for him to be able to catch up with the woman and tail her to a rather run down-looking apartment building.

    “Not the kind of neighbourhood you’d expect,” Chuck said, panting slightly from their sprint, “Heather to visit, right?”

    “No shit, Einstein,” Casey grunted.

    “It’s ‘no shit, Sherlock’,” Chuck corrected the agent, though Sarah knew Casey wouldn’t care.

    And, at this moment, neither did she. They had a spy to catch. Or two, depending on what exactly Heather was doing here.

    If this was an op ran by a competent enemy - and the Russians certainly qualified - then the door and backdoor would be covered. As would the fire escape. So once they knew on which floor the lift had stopped - fourth - Sarah approached the windows on the ground floor. Whoever lived here was either absent or asleep at this time of the night, and it didn’t take long to jam it open without making a sound.

    She climbed in, crouching down as soon as she touched the floor, and quickly searched the flat. Absent it was - the bed was still made. No one had slept there tonight. Which meant the occupant might return any moment, of course, if they were clubbing or working the night shift.

    She went back to the window and helped Chuck, boosted by Casey, inside. “Let’s go,” she whispered, moving to the flat’s door. Chuck followed, not quite silently, but not stumbling around either, despite Casey’s muttered curse.

    A moment later, they were on the stairs, making their way up to the fourth floor, Sarah on point. Slowly, though - any decent spy would have left… There! A spy camera covering the stairs on the third floor. And she couldn’t see a way around it.

    She signalled the others. Time to break into another flat.

    The third floor’s apartment beneath their target was occupied, but the young couple living there was asleep on their bed when Sarah entered. Asleep and high, judging by the remnants of syringes left on the table.

    Of course, Casey gagged and tied them up anyway. Better than tranquing them, which could cause a fatal overdose together with the drugs in their bloodstream, but still quite a shock. But they couldn’t risk interference from anyone.

    Out on the balcony, she looked up. It wasn’t an easy climb, but doable - for her and Casey. Chuck would struggle, at least. “I’m checking,” she signalled Casey, who nodded and dragged Chuck back inside.

    Sarah climbed onto the railing, balancing herself with one hand on the metal tube holding the sunshade in place, then took a deep breath and jumped, grabbing ahold of the edge of the target balcony and pulling herself up. Jackpot - she had a direct view of the flat’s living room, where Heather was sitting on the couch, faced by a brutish looking man with tattooed arms.

    Neither was looking her way, and she couldn’t spot a camera here, so she quickly climbed all the way up and pressed herself to the wall next to the door - and the window, which wasn’t entirely closed.

    “...need to work on your husband. My boss is getting impatient. If you can’t deliver, he’ll take ‘direct action’.”

    A female voice - Petranova?

    “I just need a little more time. Mark’s sick, and so he hasn’t called work yet. I can’t push him too much without looking suspicious.”

    That was Heather - she had sounded like that every time she had been late with homework.

    “Didn’t you say you had him under control when you contacted us?”

    “I did! And I do! But he’s sick - and on our holiday! That’s not my fault - I told him he should eat less junk food!”

    It actually was her fault - Mark was playing sick to protect Heather. And now it turned out Heather was a traitor.

    Sarah inched a little forward and used a mirror to check the room. Heather, Petranova and the muscle she had seen already. No one else.

    Good odds. And with Heather revealed as a spy, using Mark to feed the Russians disinformation wouldn’t work - he wouldn’t be able to fool his own wife. That meant they could and should hit them.

    She pushed her radio’s button three times - the signal to Casey to charge upstairs. Then she waited until she heard a Russian curse and kicked the balcony door open.

    Her first shot, silenced, dropped the beefy Russian on the way to the door. She turned to shoot Petranova, but the other spy was too quick, and Sarah had to jump to the side, rolling into cover behind the couch, to avoid getting double-tapped. She came up, leading with her pistol, lining up a shot, but before she could fire, someone kicked her gun out of her hand. Heather!

    Sarah slid around the other woman, making her block Petranova’s line of fire, then deflected Heather’s next kick, following up with grabbing the leg. She swept the woman’s other foot, but Heather managed to twist while she fell, planting her foot in Sarah’s stomach.

    That ended up saving her life - as Sarah folded over, two shots from Petranova passed over her head. She dropped to the floor and used a capoeira-move to grapple Heather before the other woman could get up. But Petranova was moving around the couch and would reach…

    The sound of breaking wood, followed by shots told her Casey had arrived. Baring her teeth, she focused on Heather, rolling to the side to avoid a series of punches, then kicked out, landing a glancing blow that opened a gash across Heather’s scalp.

    The woman recoiled but recovered before Sarah could follow through from her spot on the ground and managed to duck under Sarah’s roundhouse kick. She didn’t manage to dodge Sarah’s mule-kick, though, and doubled over, stumbling, with a grunt of pain.

    Just as she was lining up another roundhouse kick that would knock Heather out, Sarah’s opponent charged straight ahead, tackling her. Both went down in a tangle of limbs, with Sarah getting the breath knocked out of her when Heather landed on her. The other woman didn’t waste this opportunity and rabbit-punched Sarah in the chest and stomach.

    That exposed her own head, though, and Sarah hit her with a two-hit combo right in the chin and temple, then headbutted her when she pitched forward.

    Stunned, Heather rolled off Sarah, who quickly jumped to her feet and put the woman down with a kick to the temple. Her former teenage nemesis collapsed like a wet bag of cement.

    Sarah turned around. Petranova was on the ground, a hole in her head. Casey shrugged. “Too dangerous to take alive.”

    Chuck had obviously been trying to avoid looking at either of the bodies. “Sarah!” he exclaimed, rushing over to her. “Are you hurt?”

    “Not seriously,” she replied. She was lying - she would be sporting nasty bruises soon enough. But they would fade.

    On the other hand, she would treasure the memory of beating down Heather for a long time.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, December 8th, 2007

    “Good work, agents, Mr Bartowksi.”

    “Thank you, general.”

    Chuck smiled, even though he hated the way the general emphasised the fact that he wasn’t a real spy. Just an ‘intelligence asset’.

    “We’ve moved Mr Ratner to a safe location. Now that he doesn’t have to worry about the safety of his wife any more, he won’t be tempted to betray the country any more,” Beckman went on. Though the man would be kept under observation for the foreseeable future anyway, just to avoid another attempt to turn him. He had been leaking intel, after all.

    “What about Mrs Ratner?” Sarah asked.

    “She’s currently being treated for her concussion and other wounds, but we’ll be able to interrogate her soon.”

    Sarah’s smile was a little scary, Chuck found. Not just a little, he corrected himself. At least she hadn’t gloated when she had informed Mark that Heather had betrayed him. Mark had been devastated by the news. Anyone would have been, really - Chuck knew exactly how the man was feeling.

    “Now, I’ve been informed that you’ve hired a certain person as an employee of the store serving as a front for this base.”

    After a moment during which Sarah didn’t reply, Chuck cleared his throat. “Temporarily,” he said. “Caridad already knows about our base and mission, so she was the perfect choice to keep the store running while we went on a mission.”

    Beckman looked like she had bitten into a lemon. “Her payment could be considered financing a foreign intelligence operation.”

    “She’s not being paid anything more than standard wages for a waitress,” Chuck was quick to point out. “That’s not enough to pay for any mission.” He glanced at Sarah. This was her cover story, so shouldn’t she say anything?

    Sarah obviously didn’t feel like arguing for her nominal employee. Which, while totally understandable in light of the lingering tension between her and Caridad, felt a little mean to Chuck.

    The general obviously wanted to say something else - ask for more information, probably - but she merely nodded very curtly. “Dismissed.” The screen went dark before anyone present managed to say their goodbyes.

    Chuck sighed loudly. “That went well.”

    “The mission, or your little lie about the Slayer?” Sarah asked.

    “Lie?” Chuck stared at her. “She’s not getting paid more than minimum wage, is she?”

    “She gets free food as part of the contract. Have you seen how much she eats?”

    “Oh.” Chuck hadn’t really considered that.

    Sarah nodded. “We have to hope that this slime demon business is solved soon, or we’ll look as if we’re embezzling money.”

    Chuck winced as if he were the one with bruises covering most of his torso. Although he couldn’t help thinking that this wouldn’t be necessary if they had a cover that didn’t require pretending to be full-time employees to the point of almost working full-time.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 8th, 2007

    “Chuck! Sarah!”

    Ellie was standing in the yard when they pulled into the parking lot. Chuck flinched a little.

    “What’s wrong?” Sarah asked as she parked her car.

    “Ellie must have been waiting for us to arrive,” he explained. “That means she wants something. Urgently.” He knew his big sister, after all.

    “And that’s a bad thing?”

    “Well… if she wanted me to do something for her, she would simply text me if she couldn’t catch me. Which means she wants me to do something for myself.”

    “You mean this is an intervention?” Sarah asked as she got out of the car.

    “Yes,” Chuck managed to say before Ellie reached them. “Chuck! Sarah! Dinner tonight, at our place!”

    “Uh, sis…”

    She shook her head, frowning. “You’ve been eating out all week, and Morgan told me how much stress you had at work, with half the staff sick, and Caridad making a scene. So: Family dinner tonight. Devon’s making his special roast.”

    That pretty much meant they had to go. Chuck nodded. “Of course we’ll be there.”

    Sarah agreed.

    “Great! See you at eight!” Ellie turned and headed back to her apartment.

    “All this dread about a dinner invitation?” Sarah asked with a grin.

    He grimaced. “That’s the bait. She’s planning something, I’m telling you.” He knew her.

    “You’re over-reacting, Chuck…”

    Uh-oh. Sarah didn’t look amused any more. “I’m just saying!”

    She shook her head as they entered their apartment.

    *****​

    “What have you been doing all week? We barely saw you at all,” Ellie said an hour later as she served the mashed potatoes.

    “We didn’t see Morgan or Caridad either,” Devon added, slicing the roast.

    “That’s not exactly something to worry about,” Ellie commented. “We wouldn’t want to roast an entire cow, would we?”

    “Caridad doesn’t exactly eat that much,” Chuck remarked. His sister frowned, so he added: “Just almost?”

    Sarah seemed to find it amusing. “We met two of my old schoolmates who were spending a week in Los Angeles. They invited us to dinner.”

    “All week?” Devon asked with a grin.

    “Not all week,” Chuck cut in. “But, uh…” He reached over to hold Sarah’s hand. “Seeing them having fun going out kind of made us try it as well. A sort of vacation at home.”

    “Yes,” Sarah confirmed his impromptu cover story. “It was a blast, too.”

    “Oh, you could have invited them!” Ellie said. “We’d have loved to meet some of your friends, Sarah!”

    “Ah,” Sarah’s smile grew more than a little forced. “I wouldn’t call them my friends. Back in high school, Heather and I had a little rivalry going.”

    Chuck managed not to cough at hearing that. “Oh, yes. But it’s all in the past, now.”

    “Oh, yes.” Sarah nodded with a smile. “We settled all lingering issues between ourselves.”

    “That’s good,” Devon replied. “Carrying grudges isn’t a good thing.”

    “Indeed.” Sarah nodded with such an honest expression, even Chuck almost believed for a moment.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2019
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 6: The Season Part 1
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 6: The Season Part 1

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 10th, 2007

    “You don’t have to come with me, Chuck,” Sarah told him as they drove up to her usual parking spot. “I’m just checking The Castle before I open the store.”

    He knew that - it was part of their daily routine. And they would have been contacted by the CIA already if there were anything urgent to deal with. “I don’t mind. I’m a little early,” he said.

    “Really?”

    “According to Buy More standards,” he explained with a grin. At her slight frown, he added: “I’m still the most punctual among the staff. Apart from Casey.”

    “Ah.”

    “Speaking of,” he went on, “I was wondering about our cover. The way we had to shuffle things around and deal with Buy More stuff when we get a mission…” He shrugged. “It just feels a little… suboptimal, you know? Do you usually pick such cover jobs?”

    “Chuck, we got these cover jobs because of you.”

    “I kind of figured that out. But usually, you wouldn’t be working close to full time in a store, would you?” He leaned against the counter.

    “No, I wouldn’t. Unless it was the only way to get close to a target.” She opened the secret door to The Castle in the storage room. “But, usually, I’d be leaving the area after a mission.”

    Oh. He pressed his lips together.

    She nodded. “And you can’t really leave your friends and family and move to Langley, can you?”

    He winced behind her back as he followed her down the stairs. “Actually, I think Ellie would be at least a little bit happy if I were to abandon my promising career at the Buy More and get a high-paying job as a data analyst for the CIA.” His sister would be a hypocrite if she got mad at him for finally following her advice to ‘stop wasting your talents, Chuck’.

    “We can’t hire you for the CIA, not even as a cover story,” Sarah said, turning to face him. “A mole would quickly track your past, and you’d get on the radar of Fulcrum.”

    “Uh, I was just commenting hypothetically on Ellie’s reaction.” Mostly. He smiled. “I wouldn’t like to leave my family and friends.” Only sometimes, and that didn’t count.

    “And Caridad would probably try to track you down,” Sarah muttered, checking The Castle’s surveillance system.

    “She’s been a lot less, uh, flirty,” he pointed out.

    Sarah’s huff told him that she didn’t think the Slayer had stopped her pursuit of Chuck. “Anyway, so there’s no chance that we could switch to a less demanding cover here?” he asked.

    “Not for the time being.”

    Chuck was both disappointed and relieved.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 10th, 2007

    “Bartowski! You’re late!”

    Chuck winced as he put down his bag on the Nerd Herd desk. Getting greeted by Big Mike early in the morning was never a good thing. It usually meant more work, a complaint, or both. “Sorry, Big Mike,” he said, “but my girlfriend had a small computer problem, which I had to solve,” he lied.

    “Did she hire Nerd Herd?” Big Mike frowned at him, hands on his broad hips.

    “Uh… no?”

    “Then she doesn’t get your time - the time you owe the Buy More franchise!” Big Mike bellowed. “I know some people have been taking it easy in the store, but from an Assistant Manager, I expect exemplary conduct!”

    “And you’ll get it, Big Mike. Have I ever disappointed you?” Chuck knew he hadn’t - although having a backdoor into the computer system and CIA hacking tools helped a lot with that.

    “Yes. Like, right now, by being late, man!” The large man shook his head. “But things will change. Corporate sent us an expert to increase the store’s efficiency ratings. Emmet!”

    A man dressed in a freshly pressed Buy More uniform complete with tie and wearing an eager smile appeared at Big Mike’s side. “Yes, sir?”

    “Chuck, this is Emmet Milbarge. He’s our new efficiency expert. Buy More Corporate personally selected him. Emmet, this is Chuck Bartowski, my assistant manager.”

    “And chief Nerd Herder,” Chuck added with a grin as he held out his hand.

    “I see.” Milbarge’s handshake was weak and his smile about as honest as a politician’s. “You’re responsible for the store’s staff, then, right?”

    The store’s staff, of which half a dozen people hadn’t yet arrived, Chuck realised with a sinking feeling. “Yes.”

    “I see,” the Buy More Corporate stooge repeated himself as his teeth started to show.

    *****​

    “We need to get Caridad in here!” Lester declared in a whisper at the Nerd Herd desk shortly before Chuck’s regular break.

    “What?” Chuck asked, surprised. That was the first time Lester wanted the Slayer in the store, as far as he could remember.

    “Yes!” Lester glanced over his shoulder. “She can slay Milbarge! I’m sure that he is a demon in disguise, sent to ruin our lives!”

    “She can’t slay him!” Chuck protested.

    “Yeah, dude,” Morgan agreed. Chuck smiled at him in gratitude for the support. Until his friend went on. “I already snuck her in to check - Milbarge is a normal human. No Slayer prey.”

    “Damn!” Lester gritted his teeth. “We have to do something, though - this pest is ruining the store!”

    “Yes,” Morgan added. “Employee morale is in the gutter. Stress levels are up. People are burning out.”

    “Milbarge has been working for a little more than one hour so far,” Chuck pointed out.

    “He’s stressing me!” Lester said. “Told me I wasn’t meeting house call quotas! I’m a Mac specialist! I don’t do PCs!”

    “He’s planning to cut our hard-earned breaks!” Morgan added in a whisper. “I overheard him talking to Big Mike. Soon, we’ll be reduced to eating gruel at our posts, working nonstop from dawn to dusk!”

    “I think you’re being melodramatic,” Chuck said. The usual two-hour lunch break certainly could do with a little trimming, in his opinion. “Now, I’m taking my fifteen minutes morning break,” he announced with a smile as he straightened. “Lester, you’re in charge until I return.”

    “I’m acting assistant manager?” Lester asked, eyes widening.

    “No,” Chuck replied. “You’re handling the Nerd Herd desk. Also, you can’t assign any jobs to me.”

    “Oh.” Lester’s face fell, and Morgan looked relieved. As if Chuck would let Lester run the store!

    “Anyway - see you later, alli…” Chuck trailed off as Milbarge appeared around the next aisle. “Bartowski! Where are you going?”

    “I’m going on my break,” Chuck told him.

    “The break room is the other way.”

    “I’m taking my break with my girlfriend.” Chuck pointed through the store’s entrance towards Wienerlicious. “She runs the store there.”

    “That’s not according to Buy More guidelines,” Milbarge said. It looked like he tried not to sneer too much and was failing. “The staff has an assigned break room for a reason.”

    “We’re not required to spend our break in the break room,” Chuck retorted. “I checked,” he added.

    “Staff members aren’t required to use the break room - although they’re encouraged to do so - but management has to have a constant presence in the store.” The man sniffed. “And as assistant manager, you are, barely, management.”

    All the work and none of the perks, Chuck thought - he was doing his usual Nerd Herder work anyway. “Big Mike is here,” he said. “And he’s the manager of the store.”

    Milbarge narrowed his eyes. “He can’t be everywhere. That’s why you are an assistant manager. And handling the staff is one of your core duties, isn’t it?”

    According to the contract, yes. Chuck nodded, trying not to glare at the man.

    “You can’t do this if you abandon the store to fool around with your girlfriend on company time!”

    “What?” Chuck stared at him. As if they would… Well, he had some fantasies, but fifteen minutes certainly wasn’t long enough!

    “So, it’s my advice - which I’m sure the manager will heed - that management should spend their breaks in the store, to be available in case of emergencies.” The odious man sniffed. “And not support our competition.”

    “Competition? The Buy More isn’t a restaurant or food stand,” Chuck exclaimed.

    “We might expand into catering,” Milbarge retorted. “In any case, my decision stands.”

    Chuck rolled his eyes. “Fine. The break room it is.” He pulled out his cell phone to inform Sarah.

    “And don’t stay too long!” Milbarge tapped his wristwatch. “You’ve got six and a half minutes left!”

    What? Chuck gaped.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 10th, 2007

    “...and then he told me that I was already signed out before he found me, and that it was the employee’s duty to sign in whenever they were on company time, so me failing to do so as soon as he started to talk to me was my own fault, for which I was liable!” Chuck said, snarling, between bites of great Kung Pao. “And then he threatened to report me for not taking my mandatory break in full.”

    “And that’s the reason we’re eating lunch in the Buy More’s parking lot?” Sarah asked.

    “Technically, it’s the loading ramp and, therefore, part of the store,” he pointed out. “But, well… yes?” He sighed. “That man is really a nuisance.” And really annoying. “If he had his way, we’d live in the store, always ready to work when needed.”

    “He sounds rather unpopular,” she commented.

    "Yes!” he agreed. “He’s the personification of all that’s wrong with Corporate America!”

    “That’s treasonous talk, Bartowski.”

    Chuck looked over his shoulder and saw Casey standing behind them and taking a large bite out of a sandwich. He looked angry - although that wasn’t unusual for him. “That’s freedom of speech,” Chuck corrected the spy.

    Casey snarled at him, then bit into his meal as if he was trying to kill it by tearing out its non-existent throat.

    “Do I detect hostility that’s above the norm?” Chuck asked. He tried to hide his grin. “You’ve met our newest employee as well, then?”

    “I’ve met the man.” Casey grinned. “And he has my full support. About time the dead weight around here is taken to task!” He took another bite from his sub, waved the rest and left.

    “There goes my hope that Casey would be annoyed enough to arrange an accident - a non-lethal one, of course! - for Milbarge,” Chuck said in a low voice.

    “That is back on the table as soon as Milbarge becomes an obstacle to our next mission,” Sarah said. “But since he’s only a temporary addition to the staff, eliminating him would pose an unnecessary risk to your cover.”

    Chuck sighed. “Let’s hope he’ll be gone soon. There are a dozen other Buy More stores in the area with staff he could terrorise.”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 11th, 2007

    “You know,” Chuck said, staring at the corpse on the Buy More loading ramp, clearly visible under Casey’s flashlight despite the late - or early - hour, “when I hoped he’d be gone soon, I didn’t mean for him to die. Who did this?”

    “That’s what we’re here to find out,” Casey snapped.

    Sarah pressed her lips together. “According to our surveillance, he was inspecting the store’s stocks after it closed. He must have heard something since he suddenly went out here to check.”

    “He must have found whoever made a noise,” Casey said, “and paid for it with his life. I’m thinking it was a burglar he surprised - your deadbeat friends don’t have the guts to do this.”

    “They wouldn’t murder someone! Not for being annoying, at least,” Chuck added - who knew what Jeff and Lester would do if they thought they were in danger? And Morgan certainly was capable of killing someone - he had killed vampires and other demons before.

    Casey grunted. “He was beaten to death by a masked man. By the time I arrived, the killer had already escaped. Classic startled burglar murder.”

    “Not exactly.”

    Chuck didn’t scream, even though he was startled by Caridad’s sudden appearance. At least he didn’t draw a weapon on her, unlike Sarah and Casey.

    The Slayer ignored both and bent down over the body, sniffing. “He smells faintly like a slime demon.” She looked at Chuck. “This was done by one of those constructs.”

    Shit.

    “They must really want to kill Jeff,” Chuck said after a moment, “if they sent another one to the Buy More after already having lost one construct.” Although it might be a case of the sunk cost fallacy.

    “And with the Slayer on the job,” Caridad added.

    “They might not know that,” Chuck pointed out.

    “Who else could have killed one of those slime constructs?”

    “Good point,” Chuck admitted, ignoring the slight frown on Sarah’s face, and the not so slight snarl of Casey. “Does that make them dumb or desperate?”

    Caridad frowned. “Hard to say. Dumb, probably - they came to hunt in my city, after all. And they could pick easier areas to hunt demons.”

    Chuck had a chilling thought. “Unless they aren’t hunting just any slime demons or half-demons, and they need to hunt in this area.”

    Caridad grimaced. “Oh, no!”

    “What do you mean?” Sarah asked.

    “It could be a prophecy. Which usually means it’s an apocalypse,” Caridad explained. “It’s the season, anyway.”

    “What?” Sarah gasped. “An apocalypse? Like those you told us about?”

    “Well… off-season. May is apocalypse season,” Chuck said, trying to sound less concerned than he felt.

    “Apocalypses are also in season in December,” the Slayer replied.

    “What kind of threat are we facing here?” Sarah asked in a sharper tone. And Casey was glaring.

    “Uh…” Chuck cleared his throat. “That’s hard to say - we don’t know if there’s a prophecy or apocalypse; it’s all speculation so far. If there’s an apocalypse, it’s usually an event that could, if not stopped, destroy a town, or a city.”

    “Or the world, but we haven’t had one of those for a while,” Caridad said. “Three years ago, there were some volcano cultists in the Pacific trying to make an extinguished underwater volcano erupt, which could have caused a giant tsunami somehow, but Faith stopped that.”

    “Faith?” Casey asked.

    “A Slayer,” Caridad replied. “Not the prayer and stuff faith.”

    “Second-most experienced Slayer,” Chuck added. “She was in Sunnydale in my last year there.”

    Caridad pouted. “I was in Sunnydale as well! In its last year!”

    “A giant tsunami?” Sarah looked doubtful.

    “Like Krakatoa, but underwater,” Chuck said. He’d had nightmares for a while after Morgan had casually informed him about this particular mission.

    “Krakatoa.”

    “Yes, the eruption in 1883, which…” Chuck trailed off as he realised that Sarah hadn’t asked for an explanation.

    “That’s what could happen here?”

    “It’s just a possibility,” Chuck was quick to reassure her. “The absolute worst case. It’s much more likely that the demons behind this are just stubborn, dumb or both.”

    “Yeah!” Caridad chimed in. “California’s had a dozen near-apocalypses, but that was before the Sunnydale Hellmouth was closed and Wolfram & Hart destroyed. It’s been pretty safe since then.”

    That wasn’t as reassuring as the Slayer probably thought it would be, Chuck knew. But that was something for the Council to worry about - they had more urgent problems. Such as a body at the Buy More.

    He cleared his throat. “So, uh… What about him? I don’t want to sound too callous, but if he gets found here, it’ll complicate things.” If this really was an apocalypse in the making, the last thing anyone needed was a murder investigation on the spot. Perhaps they could claim an escaped gorilla had killed Milbarge...

    “We can drop the body somewhere else,” Caridad said.

    Casey shook his head. “Half the degenerates on the store staff would be suspects if the police started an investigation. And they will, once he misses work.”

    “And the police might discover some of our surveillance measures,” Sarah added. “And that could draw attention we really can’t afford.”

    “I’ll arrange an accident,” Casey said.

    “And I’ll inform Phil.” Caridad nodded. “He’ll check with the Council.” She waved and left, jumping over the fence behind the store.

    Chuck looked at Sarah. He knew that expression. “And I’m going to tell you everything I know about apocalypses in great detail?”

    She nodded.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 11th, 2007

    “So, the most common attempted apocalypses were centred upon opening a Hellmouth,” Sarah summed up Chuck’s slightly meandering tale.

    “Yes,” he confirmed.

    “But Los Angeles doesn’t have a Hellmouth.”

    “No. Which is why it’s pretty peaceful with regards to demons, compared to Sunnydale.”

    Sarah wouldn’t have called the city ‘peaceful’. Not after her various encounters with demons. “You don’t seem overly worried,” she commented. Chuck didn’t seem to be more nervous than he usually was on a mission. Sarah herself had to struggle with the urge to evacuate the entire station.

    “Well, the Council’s got a good track record,” Chuck said. “The world’s still standing, after all, and the only town that got destroyed under their watch was Sunnydale - and that was a special case. If there’s an apocalypse threatening the city, they’ll know what to do. If needed, they’ll call in every Slayer available. That’s how they saved Los Angeles the last time, in 2004.”

    “Every Slayer available?” Sarah didn’t want to imagine dozens, perhaps hundreds of Caridads, gathered in one place. “Wouldn’t that lead to a famine after a few days?”

    Chuck laughed. Sarah laughed as well. But she was wondering - just how many Slayers did work for the Council?

    But she had to sleep now; it was already far too late for a workday.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 11th, 2007

    Chuck was late to work in the morning - he had stayed up far too late last night, which had been the fault of the late Emmet Milbarge. Even dead the man had managed to make Chuck’s life more difficult. And to make him feel guilty for not being sad about the man’s demise. If they were on a Hellmouth, Chuck would have had the body burned just to ensure it wouldn’t hatch a real demon. He didn’t know any species that reproduced like that, but better safe than sorry. And it would have gotten rid of the body as well.

    As he had expected, he was the last to arrive - Milbarge’s one-day-long reign of terror must have scared the rest of the staff into actually coming to work on time. If not for the fact that everyone looked nervous and jittery, as if they expected to be ambushed at any moment, Chuck would have been happy about that.

    “Chuck!”

    “Morning, Morgan.” Morgan was the only one who looked relaxed, Chuck noticed as he put his case down behind the Nerd Herd desk.

    “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” Subtle, Chuck’s friend wasn’t. Morgan leaned forward on the counter and whispered: “Caridad gave me the great news!”

    Chuck clenched his teeth. “Morgan!” he hissed, “a man was murdered.”

    “It was only Milbarge - trust me, he had it coming.” Morgan chuckled. “Imagine if he had arrived when Caridad was still working here! He would have spent the next month in traction!”

    “It’s not funny, Morgan,” Chuck snapped. “Besides, aren’t you concerned about the possible reason behind the murder?”

    “Nope.” Morgan shook his head. “The Scoobies would have noticed a prophecy already. You know Willow. And they have Seers.”

    “I know that Willow is very, very busy,” Chuck replied. “And that Seers are unreliable.”

    “Well, if there’s a problem brewing, the Council’s send help.” Morgan shrugged again. “I’m not going to let this ruin my Milbarge-free day!”

    “Morgan!” Chuck looked around. “You can’t act like this. No one knows about his death yet. Casey’s arranging an accident, but if you act like this, people will assume you knew already that he wasn’t coming to work.”

    “Yes?”

    “Which means you’ll be a murder suspect,” Chuck explained.

    “Oh.”

    At least now, Morgan looked as nervous as the rest of the staff.

    “Bartowski! Where have you been? First Emmet, and now you? My office, now!”

    Chuck sighed. Once again, Milbarge caused trouble for him posthumously.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 11th, 2007

    “I’ve informed the Council of your suspicion. They’ll look into it.”

    Brown-Smythe didn’t seem to put much stock into Chuck’s theory, Sarah thought. He was the expert, of course, and he had the experience - although Chuck had grown up in Sunnydale. Or Sunnyhell, as he sometimes called it.

    “Yes,” Caridad chimed in between scarfing down her fifteenth free hot dog for today. “If there’s anything to fear, they’ll find out.”

    Sarah couldn’t decide what annoyed her more - the fact that Caridad had managed to get her to close the store for this briefing, or that the Slayer was stuffing herself on the CIA’s dime.

    “More importantly, I’ve managed to find a few substances that might affect the constructs.” Brown-Smythe pulled out a few coloured bottles.

    Sarah frowned. “Are those perfume bottles?”

    The older man coughed. “I found some of those flacons make excellent containers for specially-prepared concoctions. Due to their unique appearance, there’s a very low danger of mixing them up in a fight or when visibility is low.”

    It was a logical explanation. Sarah was smiling anyway. As were Chuck and Casey. Well, Casey was baring his teeth while leaning against the wall with his arms crossed.

    “He still won’t let me bill the Council for my perfume,” Caridad complained.

    “How dangerous are they if they are spilt on a human?” Chuck asked.

    “Like us,” Grimes added.

    “Most are harmless, as long as they do not end up in your eyes or mouth and nose. They might cause a rash on exposed skin, though - like some of the perfume that was in the bottles, I might add,” Brown-Smythe explained.

    “‘Some’.” Casey didn’t move, but he slightly cocked his head.

    “Ah, yes. These two are rather dangerous.” The Watcher held up two bottles - green and red, respectively. “Acidic and poisonous.”

    “That means if we stumble and they break, we’ll be dead or the Joker,” Grimes said with a grimace.

    “Easy solution: don’t stumble,” Casey spat with a sneer.

    “That’s not easy in a fight with demons,” Grimes replied with uncharacteristic backbone. “They tend to knock you around - even tough guys like you.” But Casey bared his teeth again, adding a little growling, and Grimes flinched and ducked his head. “Just saying.”

    Brown-Smythe cleared his throat. “I’ve prepared a variety of flacons so that next time we encounter one of those constructs, we can test them and find out which works best.” He lifted a suitcase and put it on the table he had commandeered for this meeting. “I think it would be best if Caridad kept it here, out of the reach of certain elements of the Buy More staff.”

    Sarah agreed with the decision. As much as she wasn’t keen on having magic vials in the store, she disliked the thought of letting Jeff or Lester, or their friends, get close to such substances.

    Grimes, of course, wanted some ‘ready in the store as the obvious target’, and Chuck just had to support his friend.

    Between Sarah, Casey, Brown-Smythe and the Slayer who apparently wanted to hoard all weapons and what she considered weapons for herself, the proposal to stash some ‘harmless’ vials in the Buy More was shot down. Sarah didn’t think that she was the only one who thought that the Buy More’s future looked a little brighter for that.

    *****​

    Unfortunately, as Sarah realised later when the ‘briefing’ had ended, it also meant that any health inspection of the Wienerlicious would find a case full of very hazardous substances stashed in the store’s storage room. Granted, the case was placed with the cleaning supplies, but Sarah didn’t think that would matter very much to an inspector.

    Not that there would be a real inspection any time soon - the store had been inspected before its opening already. But there was a reason for their regulations. Sarah really didn’t want to find out what spilling a dozen concoctions - magic concoctions - would do to the store. Or to herself, if she were anywhere nearby.

    Or to The Castle beneath the floor. The base was supposed to be isolated and protected, but the planning hadn’t taken magic into account. She could only hope that NBC-proofing would work against such things as well.

    Shaking her head, she opened the case to check on its contents - she didn’t trust the ‘flacons’ that much - and discovered that the case was already missing two bottles. That meant… “Caridad!”

    “Yes?” the Slayer yelled from the main room of the store. “No need to yell, I can hear you whisper and mutter just fine!”

    Sarah pressed her lips together. She didn’t need to be reminded of the woman’s superior senses. Walking out of the storage room, she glared at her. “Where did you put the bottles?”

    Caridad blinked, then her eyes flicked towards the counter.

    Muttering a few curses, Sarah pushed past the Slayer and knelt down next to the counter.

    And closed her eyes. “You’ve placed them behind the condiments.”

    “Yes! Hidden, but handy!”

    If there were a health inspection, they’d be made an example of, Sarah knew.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 11th, 2007

    “...and she thought hiding them behind ketchup and barbecue sauce would be a good idea!”

    Chuck nodded in apparent agreement with Sarah, refraining from adding ‘Yes, dear.’ She was in a bad mood - more so than usual after spending a day with Caridad. “Well, she wouldn’t accidentally mix them up, so she doesn’t really think it’d be a problem for others,” he pointed out.

    “And what would happen if the counter were smashed in a fight with a demon?” Sarah asked as she parked on their usual spot. “I’ve seen what happened in the Buy More.”

    “Oh? When did… ah, the cameras, of course.” Chuck nodded, grimacing - he should have realised that at once.

    “Yes. So don’t tell me it’ll be safe. The last thing we need is our base’s front being closed down for health reasons!” Sarah snapped as she got out of the car.

    Of course, if there were a fight with a demon in the Wienerlicious, the store would be closed for repairs for a few days at least. But Chuck didn’t think pointing out that would help her mood. He started to walk towards their apartment. It still felt nice to think of that - their apartment. Not his. “Well, I don’t think…”

    Sarah interrupted him by pulling him behind him and drawing her pistol. “Someone’s hiding in the bushes,” she whispered, staring towards their door.

    “Hi, Chuck! Hi, Sarah!”

    Chuck blinked He knew that voice. “Harmony?”

    The vampire emerged from behind the bushes, brushing bits of foliage from her skimpy dress. “You need to clean up more here,” she remarked with a frown. “It’s, like, super-dirty there.”

    “I’ll be sure to vacuum the bushes more often,” Chuck replied with all the sarcasm he could muster. “It wouldn’t do to inconvenience any stalker hiding there.”

    All the sarcasm he could muster wasn’t enough for Harmony. She beamed at him. “Thanks! Ellie said she didn’t want to see me around, so I had to hide there.” The vampire pouted. “She was rather mean - I asked if she could warm up my blood bag for me in her microwave, ’cause I forgot to do it before I came here and got hungry, but she refused. Even though I was like all considerate and didn’t even ask if I could come in and do it myself because I know she’s got some issues with vampires. I had to drink my blood cold! Do you know how flat that tastes?”

    “No, I don’t,” he replied. Was there a blood bag littering his garden?

    “Very flat. Blood needs to be warm, or it doesn’t taste right. Fresh would be best, but where can you get an otter in Los Angeles?” Harmony shook her head. “It’s so hard to be a vampire in this city!”

    “How dreadful,” Sarah said with all the sincerity of a used car salesman.

    “Exactly! Not only is it far too sunny all the time, but people look at you as if you were a freak if you ask for a Bloody Mary with real blood!” Harmony’s pout would have been almost impressive, if not for the hint of blood on her lips and the fangs peeking out.

    “Aren’t Bloody Mary’s served cold?” Sarah asked.

    “Well, it’s different with alcohol, duh,” Harmony replied. “Like with Spike and his Weetabix.” She shook her head with a grimace. “Those are awful, but not because of the temperature. Like, how can you eat cereal with blood?”

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Not to interrupt such a fascinating discussion…”

    “Well, you just did!”

    He ignored her. “...but why are you here, Harmony?”

    “Oh, right.” Harmony looked confused, then nodded. “I almost forgot why I came here.”

    Chuck waited a moment, then cleared his throat again. “And why did you visit?”

    “Ah! Lorne sent me. Why he couldn’t just call I don’t know - it’s not as if he can’t use a phone, right? I mean, he’s, like, almost human. But he said that he had a disturbing vision when a new guest got drunk and hummed a song while waiting at the bar. Apparently, there’s a group trying to summon a powerful demon or so. The Lord of Slimes, or something like it.”

    Chuck felt his stomach drop.

    *****​

    “I’ve informed Morgan, who’ll tell Phil and Caridad,” Chuck announced as he stashed his cell phone. He looked at the takeaway boxes on the counter. “I think we should eat quickly; this looks like a double-briefing day.”

    Sarah laughed at the joke if only to break the tension. Chuck smiled in response, which was a good thing. She had known to expect the worst - it was an unspoken rule - but she had hoped that they were mistaken; that the ‘poachers’ were merely stubborn and - hopefully - stupid.

    She opened her own box and grabbed the chopsticks. The noodles were great, but she couldn’t enjoy them properly.

    “I wonder why Lorne sent Harmony, instead of calling us,” Chuck said between finishing one dumpling and picking up another. “She’s not the most reliable person, and this is important.”

    “Saving face?” Sarah asked. “He isn’t exactly a fan of the Council, as I recall.” Or of Chuck and Morgan. She saw Chuck frown and added: “It’s stupid, but so is providing a neutral, safe space for monsters.” Stupid and reckless - at best. Providing aid to an enemy, at worst. She wasn’t a fan of the Slayer, but Caridad had the right idea about demons.

    He nodded, if a little reluctantly, or so it seemed.

    “Or he hoped that Harmony would get herself killed,” Sarah added, grinning to show she was joking. Mostly.

    “Well, hiding in the bushes so Ellie wouldn’t see her wasn’t exactly the smartest decision,” Chuck admitted. “Even for Harmony.”

    Sarah made a noncommittal noise as she swallowed another mouthful of noodles. Before she could say anything in response - and she had a few choice comments ready about that vampire’s intelligence, or lack thereof, ready - their phones buzzed as new messages arrived.

    Sarah didn’t have to glance at hers to know both messages identical.

    Chuck confirmed it: “Phil called for another meeting.”

    *****​

    Casey’s apartment had gained some character, Chuck thought as he entered. It had also gained an impressive collection of medieval weaponry. And modern medieval style weaponry, such as a composite crossbow with more attachments than a maxed-out gun in Medal of Honour.

    He was tempted to ask - jokingly, of course - if Caridad was moving into Casey’s apartment - but managed to control himself. Casey wasn’t exactly Mr Sense of Humour, and the situation was tense enough. Not to mention that Caridad might misunderstand the joke. Or, worse, think that Chuck might be jealous.

    “New acquisitions?” Sarah, obviously, had no such qualms. But she was a trained spy who had known Casey for years.

    The man grunted, then took a bite out of what looked like a ration bar. “Always be prepared.”

    “I didn’t think you were a boy scout,” Chuck blurted out before he could help it. “I mean, I don’t know anything about your childhood, obviously.” It had been redacted in the man’s file.

    Casey glared at him. “Instead of asking stupid questions, tell me what this meeting is about.”

    “We’ve received intel that the people behind the slime constructs are trying to summon a powerful demon, possibly called ‘The Lord of Slimes’,” Chuck told him in his best spy voice.

    Judging by Casey’s snort, Chuck’s best spy voice wasn’t enough. “And what are the capabilities of this demon?” he asked.

    “Uh… I have no idea,” Chuck said. He didn’t cringe under the man’s glare, but he quickly added: “I’m no Watcher in training. That’s Morgan. However, I think we can expect a great amount of various dangerous slime. Probably acidic and poisonous. Or slime that hardens around you and traps you.”

    “You’re speculating,” Casey said.

    “Uh, yes,” Chuck replied. “But it’s based upon our experience with slime demons.” Mostly Jeff, of course.

    Casey apparently didn’t think much of Chuck’s experience. Or of Chuck. But that was nothing new. Sarah reached out and grabbed, then gently squeezed his hand. He smiled at her - she was the best.

    And he was the worst spy in the team.

    *****​

    Morgan arrived fifteen minutes later. “Hi guys! I came as fast as I could.”

    Casey scoffed, prompting Morgan to stare at him, then look at Chuck and mime ‘what’s wrong with him?’ behind the agent’s back.

    Chuck shrugged. Casey was always angry, anyway.

    “Anyway, Phil’ll take a little while longer,” Morgan said. “His Smart’s not the fastest car on the street, and he doesn’t let Caridad drive it.”

    Which was a very smart decision, of course, Slayers tended to drive in a manner that scared professional race drivers. Better late than dead - by heart attack. Slayers rarely crashed.

    “So…” Morgan looked around. “That’s a nice weapon collection.” He walked towards a cavalry sabre mounted on the wall, but before he could touch it, Casey was up in his face, snarling. “Don’t touch them.”

    Morgan recoiled. “Uh… sure. I wasn’t going to. I just wanted to take a closer look. Never get between a man and his weapons, huh?”

    Sometimes, Chuck wondered if his best friend had a death wish. Then he remembered that Morgan’s greatest wish was to become a Watcher - in the field.

    *****​

    Finally, Phil arrived with Caridad. “Good evening, Mr Casey. Thank you for your hospitality. Sarah. Chuck. Morgan.” He nodded at everyone present.

    Casey grunted something that sounded almost polite.

    “Hi, everyone!” Caridad announced. “Oh, you got the pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword!” She was at the wall in a heartbeat and pulled the blade out.

    Chuck winced. That would be…

    “Yes, I did.” Casey bared his teeth. No, that was a smile. “I had to threaten the delivery man so they wouldn’t dare to drop it at the door.”

    “They tried to do that?” Caridad looked like she wanted to demonstrate the sword’s edge on the next FedEx employee.

    “They do it with my other deliveries all the time,” Casey said.

    Chuck blinked. Dear Lord - they were truly bonding! And he couldn’t even whisper to tell Sarah since Caridad would overhear.

    “A fine sword. English quality,” Phil added. “I used one myself on occasion. But we’ve gathered here for something a little more urgent than discussing fine blades.” He turned to nod at Chuck. “I’ve informed London about Lorne’s message. They were alarmed.”

    Chuck felt his stomach drop again. If the Scoobies were alarmed, things were about to turn ugly.

    “As we speak, they’re on the way to Heathrow, to board the first plane to Los Angeles,” Phil went on.

    “They?” Morgan asked.

    “Miss Summers. Miss Rosenberg. Dr Summers. Mr Harris. And Miss Lehane.”

    *****​
     
  8. RedX

    RedX Know what you're doing yet?

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    Big Guns incoming.

    (Huh. Wonder which Summers picked up the PHD and/or MD.)
     
    Starfox5 likes this.
  9. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Dawn of course. Buffy had no time for that.
     
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 7: The Season Part 2
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 7: The Season Part 2

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 11th, 2007

    That’s… almost all of the Scoobies,” Morgan blurted out. “Shit, this is serious!”

    “The Scoobies?” Sarah asked. She looked as if she didn’t trust her ears.

    “Our old high school classmates, mostly,” Chuck explained. “Buffy Summers, the oldest living Slayer in the world.”

    “Stopped a dozen apocalypses!” Morgan chimed in.

    “Willow Rosenberg. Genius and witch,” Chuck said.

    “One of the most powerful magic users on the planet,” his friend added. Fortunately, no one questioned his use of gaming terms.

    “Xander Harris,” Chuck went on. Sarah looked at him, then at Morgan. “Well, he’s Xander.” Chuck shrugged. Explaining Xander was hard. Especially to a spy.

    “Should that mean something?” Casey asked.

    “He’s one of the Council’s most experienced Watchers, though that is partially owed to the regrettable casualties that the fight against the First Evil caused,” Phil said. “He lacks formal training, but he survived for seven years while hunting demons of all sorts on a Hellmouth.”

    Which was far more impressive than it sounded, in Chuck’s opinion.

    “And he knows a ton about everything!” Caridad gushed. “Weapons, construction, tactics - he taught me how to build improvised mines!”

    “And we all should be grateful for it,” Phil said in a very dry voice. “Dr Summers is Miss Summers’s sister, and an accomplished linguist and archaeologist. And Miss Lehane is the second-oldest Slayer.”

    “Don’t call her ‘Miss Lehane, or she’ll kick your ass!” Caridad said. “Call her Faith.”

    Phil didn’t say anything, but Chuck caught a hint of a frown on the older Watcher’s face. “I bow to your experience on that topic, dear,” he said.

    “You haven’t worked with them before?” Sarah asked.

    “I’ve worked with Miss Rosenberg and Dr Summers,” Phil replied, “but I was quickly assigned to Caridad when I rejoined the Watchers Council, and I didn’t work with the others.”

    “But we went to school with Buffy, Willow and Xander,” Morgan said. “It’s like a high school reunion!”

    “Just without people like Heather,” Chuck was quick to add when he saw Sarah’s expression.

    “Let’s hope so,” Casey said. “I’ve had my fill of traitors already.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles International Airport, December 12th, 2007

    Sarah didn’t like airports. Too many cameras, too many half-trained security guards whose reactions couldn’t be predicted in a crisis. Too many people for most ops. And she wasn’t carrying enough weapons for her peace of mind.

    That they had a great cover - a reunion of Chuck and Grimes with their high school classmates - didn’t do much to calm her down. Not so quick on the heels of the Ratners affair. And after listening to Chuck and Grimes’s descriptions of the ‘Scoobies’. Especially the female members of this eclectic group. Meeting the high school crush - crushes in this case - of your partner was always a little stressful, after all.

    “Look, there they are!” Chuck exclaimed, starting to wave. Grimes followed his example. At least they weren’t holding a sign.

    Sarah looked at the group headed towards them. She could spot the two Slayers right away - they didn’t move but stalked. Summers and Lehane. The two most dangerous Slayers in the world, as far as Sarah knew.

    And yet, her first thought upon spotting Summers was: My God, she’s short! Chuck and Grimes’s stories had made her sound as if she was seven feet tall. Even Caridad, who wasn’t a tall girl, would tower over Summers, if not for the blonde’s five-inch heels.

    And the woman looked far too young for a contemporary of Chuck. Barely older than Caridad, Sarah noted with some envy. And in addition to that, she wore the miniskirt-business-chic - Italian cut - very well.

    “Chuck! Morgan!” Summers called out, waving.

    “Yo,” Lehane was much more sedate in her greeting. She wore leather pants and a tiny tank top, under a battered leather jacket.

    “Chuck! Morgan!” Rosenberg - she fit the description and the expected age and she was wearing a long skirt and a colourful blouse - joined them. And hugged both. “Good to see you, despite the circumstances.”

    “You better have some food ready, or Buffy will start chewing on you. She almost made a scene when the flight attendants told her that ‘free snacks’ didn’t mean she got to empty the plane’s pantry. Unfortunately, she never learned to share as a child.”

    And that would be Dr Summers, both through a process of elimination and because that kind of snark was a family privilege. Especially with Slayers.

    “Hey!”

    The only male among them, which would be Harris by default, laughed. “She did grumble about fraud and entrapment for an hour, though.”

    Or perhaps it wasn’t just family, Sarah amended.

    “Hey!”

    “Everyone, this is Sarah Walker, my girlfriend,” Chuck announced.

    They had been eyeing her before, but now every one of the newly arrived was openly studying her.

    “So you’re the spy,” Summers said in a low voice. “Hi!” she added more loudly with a toothy smile.

    Not the most friendly greeting, in Sarah’s opinion.

    *****​

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Uh... how about we move to a more private place for all the private chat? Perhaps hit a drive-in on the way?” Everyone would be cranky and hungry from the long flight, after all.

    “Oh, food! I’m starving!” Buffy said at once. “Let’s go!”

    “We need to get the cars first,” Dawn said. “Unless you want to walk the whole way.”

    “Well, duh, I meant that.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “And you knew it.”

    Definitely cranky, Chuck thought.

    “You didn’t look like you’d remembered. You looked like you’d pounce on the next slice of pizza you saw and savage it with your teeth.”

    “What? Are you still grumpy about that? I told you, I had no idea that was your lunch! It wasn’t marked!”

    “It was on my favourite plate!”

    “No one has favourite plates! No one normal, at least. Besides, it was edible, so how could I have known it was yours? Usually, your pizza has all gross stuff on it!”

    “Healthy food isn’t gross!”

    “On a pizza, it is!”

    Chuck glanced at Sarah. His girlfriend looked… well, not shocked. But surprised. Like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

    “Sorry, Dawnie, I have to side with Buffy on that topic: Pizza’s not supposed to be healthy,” Xander cut in. “But we really should get moving before the nice security guards come and tell us to leave. Giles doesn’t like it if we have to use our diplomatic passports too often.”

    “That was an emergency! They wanted to confiscate my new shoes!” Buffy complained.

    “The new shoes you bought used from a guy selling them in the original packaging for a tenth of their value,” Dawn said.

    “Well, yes. Flea markets are supposed to be cheap.”

    “They’re also known for being outlets for fences.”

    “Fences have outlets now? Wouldn’t that be illegal?”

    “That was my point,” Dawn said.

    “Why didn’t you say so? And what’s that got to do with your attempt to blame me for not properly storing your lunch?”

    “Are they serious?” Sarah asked as they followed the bickering sisters to the airport’s exit.

    “Uh…” Chuck hesitated. He looked around, but Morgan had ‘gone ahead to get the car’ and was no help.

    “Of course we’re serious!” Buffy yelled from ahead of them. “Pizza is serious business! Especially if you’re hungry. Almost as serious as shoes!”

    “Well… you heard her?” Chuck smiled at Sarah.

    She didn’t seem to think it was funny. Neither did he, actually.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 12th, 2007

    “Ah… I missed this! You don’t get this in rainy old England!” Buffy exclaimed as she finished another hot dog in Wienerlicious.

    “You can take the Slayer out of California, but you can’t take California out of the Slayer,” Xander said.

    “It’s more like ‘Valley’ instead of ‘California’,” Dawn said as her sister ripped the first box open. “San Francisco’s got decent food.”

    “Dawn! That’s treason!” Buffy managed to say between bites of greasy sausage and cheap buns.

    “No. That’s me not worshipping junk food.”

    “In junk food we trust…” Xander said, checking the next batch of hot dogs Caridad was preparing.

    “Says the man who packed a suitcase full of Twinkies when he went to Africa,” Faith said.

    “And got mistaken for a smuggler in Kenia,” Dawn added, “losing all your luggage.”

    “Which is why we got the diplomatic passports in the first place,” Xander replied.

    “No, that wasn’t why we got them,” Willow said.

    “But they certainly helped. Should have seen the faces of the cops when I travelled back to Boston, and they tried to arrest me.” Faith grinned behind her own stack of boxes.

    “They wanted to arrest you?” Sarah asked.

    “Well, that was before Giles got me a pardon,” the Slayer answered.

    Chuck winced at the glare he got from Sarah. Shouldn’t she be used to working with people with a less than perfect past? Besides, that wasn’t his secret to tell.

    They were just missing Phil and Casey. And the shift at the Buy More was over, so Casey couldn’t be much longer. In fact, he should be here already.

    Before he could think of a reason for their absence, Buffy cocked her head. “Oh, is that your sister whom I hear?”

    Chuck looked and saw Ellie making a beeline towards the store - from the Buy More. And he suddenly realised that he had forgotten to inform Ellie about the Scoobies’ visit.

    He reached the door just in time to meet her. “Hi, Ellie!” he said, beaming at her.

    She frowned in return - he must have overdone it. “Chuck. I went to buy a replacement DVD player, and I noticed neither you nor Morgan were around, so I thought to check…” She trailed off, looking past him into the store.

    “Ah… some old friends are visiting,” he belatedly admitted.

    “Old friends?” She frowned. “That’s Xander, there. And Willow. And Buffy.”

    “Hi, Ellie!”

    “What are you doing here?” Ellie’s frown deepened. “And Caridad’s wearing the store’s uniform… You’re not bankrupting Sarah by handing out free food to them?”

    “Uh… you know about the slime demon hunters, right?” Chuck forced himself to keep smiling. “That problem is a little bigger than we thought.”

    Ellie was smarter. Probably smarter than himself. She understood right away. “Is this another graduation problem?” she asked, paling.

    “Uh… possibly. We don’t know yet.” In a lower voice, he added: “Sorry, it was all very sudden.”

    “I’ll go tell Devon.” She turned and walked towards the parking lot.

    Chuck sighed. That could have gone better. He should have told her yesterday.

    Casey’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Trouble in the family, Bartowski?”

    “Hi, Casey. Come in,” Chuck said, ignoring Casey’s question and snort as the agent walked past him. Ellie’s view of the Scoobies was family business, so to speak.

    And there was Phil and Caridad! He saw Phil’s Smart park next to two SUVs the Scoobies had rented - despite Willow’s concern that that made them look like government members.

    *****​

    Lehane whistled when Casey entered, all but openly leering at him, Sarah saw. “Hi! I’m Faith,” the Slayer said, pushing off the counter she was leaning against and walking towards the agent with a very provocative sway of her hips only enhanced by that supernatural grace.

    Casey blinked. “Hi,” he said, and Sarah noticed his eyes straying from the Slayer’s face. And, in her opinion, not just to check for threats and weapons.

    Lehane must have noticed it as well - she shifted her weight, all but striking a pose straight out of a pinup calendar. And she was dressed for it, too. “You’re not seeing anyone right now, are you?”

    Subtle as a sledgehammer.

    “Ah…” Perhaps a little too blunt even for Casey - the man looked taken aback. As did Caridad, who was still busy with the hot dogs.

    “Faith! Keep your hormones under control!” Dr Summers snapped.

    “Don’t be jealous,” Lehane replied without taking her eyes off Casey. “I’m just liaising with the locals.”

    “Is that what they are calling it these days?” Harris was grinning.

    Brown-Smythe arrival interrupted the scene, and Casey took a few steps back to lean against the wall.

    “Miss Summers.”

    “It’s Buffy, Phil!”

    "Dr Summers. Miss Lehane.”

    “Faith. It’s Faith, Phil.”

    “Mr Harris.”

    “Xander. Mr Harris is my dad, and we don’t really want him here, do we?”

    “Miss Rosenberg.”

    Brown-Smythe hadn’t taken the advice about Lehane’s name, Sarah noticed. And Lehane wasn’t ‘kicking his ass’. The whole greeting and griping felt a little… not rehearsed, but not new. People going through the motions.

    “Hi, Phil!”

    “How was your flight?” Phil gamely made conversation.

    “We were starved, as usual. And the stupid security people had issues with our weapons, even though they were clearly marked as diplomatic. Should have taken a private jet, but Giles is always so miserly with money, even though we have enough now!” Summers had an impressive pout. And a very immature attitude, in Sarah’s opinion.

    “If he weren’t, we would be broke from your shopping trips alone,” Dr Summers said.

    “That’s not true!”

    “Don’t start that argument again!” Rosenberg spoke up from where she was texting.

    Dr Summers huffed, but her sister stuck her tongue out, then asked: “How’s Kennedy?”

    “Still sore that she couldn’t come,” Rosenberg answered.

    “A broken leg will do that to you,” Harris commented. “Speaking from experience.”

    "Kennedy?” Sarah asked.

    “Willow’s girlfriend. She got hurt fighting a pack of Polgara demons when visiting Cleveland,” Summers explained.

    “Girl forgot that they’re a little more dangerous on an active Hellmouth,” Lehane said.

    “She didn’t forget,” Rosenberg said. “They had reinforcements.”

    “As I said,” Lehane said with a smirk.

    Sarah made a mental note that even Slayers didn’t heal instantly. They could be taken out of action for a while. Which wasn’t a good thing given their current crisis, of course.

    “We’re out of hot dogs,” Caridad said - taking up a spot near Casey, Sarah noted. And sending a glance at Lehane. Who smirked at the other Slayer and slipped her leather jacket of her shoulders and arched her back - as if her supernaturally powered body suddenly needed some kinks to be worked out.

    In response, Caridad moved closer to Casey. “Hey, Casey. Did you get the special bolts for your crossbow?” she asked. Rather transparently.

    Sarah wanted to sigh. They had a potential apocalypse to deal with. They couldn’t afford such drama.

    *****​

    Chuck sighed. Not even ten minutes had passed, and two Slayers were about to clash. And right above the secret CIA base under the store. Which really couldn’t afford to draw the attention a full-blown Slayer brawl would bring. Nor the destruction it would cause.

    He cleared his throat. “So, uh, should we talk about the apocalypse?” Anything to distract Faith and Caridad.

    “We haven’t had dessert, yet!” Buffy piped up.

    “You’ve had a dozen hot dogs,” Dawn was quick to point out.

    “Which means it’s the perfect time to eat dessert!”

    Chuck made a mental note to buy more ice cream on the way home tomorrow. He didn’t think their current stock would survive a visit. He walked over to Sarah. “Better grab your favourite ice cream before the Slayers get it,” he whispered.

    “I heard that!” Buffy complained.

    And even Chuck could hear Sarah grind her teeth. At least he thought so.

    Ten minutes and all the ice cream in the store’s fridge later, the Scoobies were finally ready to talk about the looming threat to the city. For a given definition of ‘ready’, of course.

    “...and we found a prophecy about the Lord of Slimes, which is another name for the Slime Lord,” Willow explained.

    “It’s not exactly a prophecy, more like a demonologist’s treatise about the behaviour and capabilities of it,” Dawn cut in. “What the monster will likely do of released, in short.”

    “A number of scholars took it to be a prophecy,” Willow argued, “so that possibility should not be dismissed out of hand.”

    “They were wrong,” Dawn replied. “And they would have known that, had they translated the original scroll correctly.”

    “We don’t have the original scroll, only Plinius’s transcription,” Willow pointed out.

    “Plinius was the foremost authority of the subject. His treaties on certain demons are still referenced in all modern books,” Dawn retorted.

    “That doesn’t mean he was any more correct on that particular subject than the Greek school.”

    “Girls!” Xander cut in. “It doesn’t really matter. Prophecy or documentary, we’ll stop the monster either way."

    Dawn glared at him, and Willow frowned - obviously, they disagreed about the lack of importance of proper academic classification. But Chuck saw the rest of the group nod in agreement. Even Sarah.

    Willow huffed. “Anyway, we can expect a flood of slime. Whole villages were said to be buried under thick, gross slime in ancient times, suffocating the population and slowly dissolving them.”

    “Like a gelatinous cube!” Morgan exclaimed.

    “Yes!” Willow beamed. “Although it’s not clear if the demon can control and move the slime, or merely starts producing it at one point and lets gravity do the work. What we do know, though, is that it can change the slime’s properties - acidic, poisonous, more or less viscous, colours and possibly even temperature.”

    That sounded horrible, in Chuck’s opinion. “That means even chemical counter-agents won’t work since the slime can adapt.”

    “Not on the slime - but the demon itself isn’t made of slime, according to our sources, but more similar to slime demons.”

    “Which we can kill!” Faith announced, baring her teeth.

    “But we need to catch the thing upon arrival,” Buffy pointed out, “or it’ll be covered in enough slime to fill a house.”

    “Which means it’ll be almost invulnerable,” Willow added. “So we need to keep them from finding whatever they need to summon the Slime Lord.”

    “Which, according to our information, seems to be Jeff, a half-slime demon,” Phil said. “Who is currently hiding beneath the Buy More store.”

    “They haven’t made another attempt, though," Caridad said.

    “Could we use him as bait? Move him to a deserted patch of desert, and, once they arrive, we yank him out and blow the place up?” Xander asked.

    Chuck grimaced. “He wasn’t happy with that plan when we thought we were just dealing with poachers.”

    “We can be quite convincing,” Xander said. His grin was rather grim, Chuck noticed. Quite different from his usual attitude.

    “Well…” Chuck started to say, but Casey interrupted him, staring at his phone. Which was beeping.

    “Someone’s breaking into the Buy More!”

    “Oh!” Caridad sounded positively ecstatic. “I get to use the potions!” She pushed Xander away, none too gentle, and started to collect the vials he had stashed under the counter.

    “We don’t know if they are slime constructs,” Sarah pointed out.

    “Slimerminators? S-1000?” Xander frowned. “No, that sounds lame.”

    “Well, I’ll know soon enough,” Caridad said, grabbing the suitcase with the rest of the vials. “I just have to get close enough to sense them.”

    “Potions?” Buffy looked confused.

    “Some experimental concoctions I made,” Phil explained. “We hope they will affect the constructs.”

    “Oh!” The Slayer perked up. “Gimme!”

    “What? No! They’re mine!”

    “Come on! Share!

    “It would be wise to spread them out. Putting all eggs into one basket is often a foolish strategy,” Phil added.

    “But… I trained for this!” Caridad pouted. Chuck caught her glance towards the storage room where Casey had disappeared down to The Castle.

    Chuck suppressed a sigh. She wanted to impress the agent even though they had to stop an apocalypse. Slayers!

    *****​

    “Two men. They just opened the emergency exit at the north side,” Sarah announced, one hand on her ear. Casey must have told her, Chuck realised.

    “On it!” Caridad took off at once. Buffy and Faith exchanged a glance, then followed her.

    “Who wants to bet they want to check for themselves if the slime golems are really as tough as the reports claimed?” Xander asked.

    “No bet, buster,” Willow replied. “They’ve been speculating on the flight. Just be glad they won’t try to drag one to Cleveland to see if the active Hellmouth affects the constructs.”

    Phil looked alarmed at that while Dawn sighed. “Typical.”

    “Let’s hope that they stop to check before they accidentally attack two normal burglars,” Willow said.

    “What if it’s a trap?” Sarah pointed out. “If more are waiting in ambush, this could be very dangerous. Caridad had considerable trouble with just one of them.”

    “It’s Buffy and Faith,” Xander replied. “But noted. Let’s join them, just in case.” Raised his voice a little, he added: “But keep an eye open for other intruders, and inform us at once, alright, Agent Casey?” He grabbed the gym bag he had brought with them and opened it. “Who wants a shiny axe?”

    Dawn grabbed a short sword even as she announced that she’d stay in the store. Willow declined, but Chuck grabbed one. As did Morgan. Chuck wasn’t the best with axes, but then, that went for most melee weapons, and an axe would be most effective against a slime construct. He didn’t comment on the guns he saw inside the bag, but Xander would need diplomatic immunity if a cop ever got ahold of it.

    “I left the flamethrower in the car,” Xander said, chuckling, as they left the Wienerlicious. “Didn’t think you’d appreciate me burning down the store.”

    Chuck nodded, then caught Sarah’s glance. Had she thought Xander would be kidding about this? He tried to convey that Xander was serious with a nod before they crossed the parking lot and reached the Buy More, but wasn’t sure if he managed it.

    *****​

    A flamethrower. Despite the fact that they were moving towards a fight, Sarah had to snort. Casey would want one as well, she just knew it. And it might be useful against vampires and other demons. As long as you didn’t care about collateral damage. And about carrying a tank of fuel into battle on your back. She couldn’t imagine trying to fight with that weighing you down.

    They heard the Slayers before they saw them.

    “Oh… that must have hurt. No? You’re tougher than you look.”

    “Hold still you damn shell!”

    “You don’t know when to quit, do you?”

    “B! Don’t kill steal!”

    “I’m not! He walked into my swing.”

    “Yeah, right!”

    Despite the noise of breaking furniture - not that Sarah cared about the Buy More stock - the Slayers sounded as if they had the situation under control.

    For a certain definition of the word, Sarah amended her thoughts as they rounded the last corner. The Slayers definitely didn’t mind collateral damage - they were fighting among the remains of two pallets of what looked like gaming consoles. She heard Chuck gasp next to her and briefly wondered if he was appalled at the destruction of the store’s stock or the loss of gaming consoles specifically.

    But Summers and Lehane were almost casually knocking around two stumbling figures, trading barbs and quips - with each other; the constructs didn’t talk - while Caridad apparently was diligently testing the various vials Brown-Smythe had prepared.

    With decent success, Sarah noticed - one of the constructs looked half-melted. But it was still moving, unimpeded despite the damage, crushing a wooden crate where Summers had been a fraction of a second before.

    The Slayer had already slid around the thing. A kick sent it through the crate’s remains, into the wall behind it, with enough force to crack concrete.

    “Big Mike won’t like that,” Chuck mumbled.

    “He doesn’t like anything or anyone!” Caridad exclaimed. “Heads up!” She threw a vial that broke against the back of the construct fighting Lehane, and the blue liquid splashed over it without any visible effect.

    “He would like getting his entire store covered in slime even less, I bet,” Summers said, dodging a few flailing limbs.

    “I don’t know, B. Some people really like such a thing,” Lehane replied. “Drusilla cheated on Spike with a slime demon, didn’t she?”

    “Ew!” Summers made a face and glared at the other Slayer, hands on her hips and seemingly ignoring the slime construct coming at her from behind. Sarah was about to yell at her, but Summers launched a mule kick without looking that sent the slime golem crashing into the next wall.

    And Lehane did the same with her opponent, using a roundhouse kick. “Don’t knock it until you tried it!”

    “Ew!”

    Sarah had thought Caridad was supernaturally gifted, but those two made the other Slayer look weak.

    And where did that leave her?

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 12th, 2007

    Chuck watched, axe in hand, as Buffy and Faith fought. Buffy danced around her enemy, reducing the thing to broken and dissolving parts while it flailed and tried to hit her without success. She also kept up the banter, despite the construct never answering or reacting in any way to it. Faith was more brutal, standing her ground more and blocking blows with guiding parries than weaving around them and lashing out with jabs and kicks that shattered limbs and other body parts.

    The two were grinding down the slime golems like Caridad had done so with the first inside the Buy More, but they made it look easy. And they didn’t get hit at all.

    He was feeling more than a little superfluous. A feeling Caridad probably shared, as a glance towards the resident Slayer told him - she was standing there, frowning at her empty suitcase, and fiddling with a notebook.

    Or, he thought as he saw her writing into the notebook, she’s trying to work out and remember which concoction worked best on the things. Slayers weren’t the best at paying attention to experiments, as Buffy had proven several times in Chemistry.

    They weren’t the best at avoiding collateral damage, either. He winced as he tallied the cost of an entire shipment of Playstation 3s. Some of the consoles might have survived the fight, but all of them would have to be checked for damages. Big Mike wouldn’t like this. Especially without an obvious culprit to blame and bill for, and their insurance would probably demand a police report at least. Which meant more work as they’d have to clean up the location of all slime parts without making it look like they did. The last thing the store needed - well, the second to last thing, seeing as getting buried in slime was worse - would be a police investigation for attempted insurance fraud.

    “Hah! Beat ya, B!” Faith announced as she held up the constructs ‘core’ - it was, as far as Chuck understood, the anchor for the spells holding the thing together and animating it, but any gamer would know that was called a ‘core’.

    “No fair! I was dragging things out so we could gather data!” Buffy complained as she pouted at the twitching remains of her own opponent.

    “C’s been done with her experiment for some time, B!”

    “She doesn’t look done!”

    “That’s ‘cause she’s writing the report, but the actual experiment’s been done for some time.”

    “That doesn’t count! She might have needed a second look!”

    “Two intruders neutralised,” Chuck heard Sarah speak into a small microphone.

    “Oh! Do we get to visit the underground spy lair now?” Buffy asked as she grabbed a core of her own.

    “It’s a spy base,” Caridad corrected her.

    “It’s hidden below a harmless-looking restaurant and used to spy on innocent people. That makes it a lair!” Buffy insisted.

    “It’s also top secret,” Sarah added with a glare at Caridad.

    “We’ve got top-secret security clearances,” Xander replied. “Well, they were meant to cover up the DRI without making the bureaucrats tie themselves into knots about us knowing, but a CIA base isn’t exactly in the same league as the DRI base was.”

    But the Intersect was, Chuck knew. And he was sure that Xander and the rest of the Scoobies knew about it as well.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 12th, 2007

    “The blue vials seemed to work best,” Caridad reported a few minutes later, back in the Wienerlicious. “They melted the most.”

    “Xavius’s attempt at creating a universal solvent? Thank you, dear, that will greatly simplify my work,” Phil replied with a smile.

    As the Slayer beamed at the praise, Chuck caught Buffy and Faith exchanging wry glances at the scene. What was that about?

    Before he could find an answer, or at least a hypothesis, Xander spoke up. “So… with a second attack on the store, it seems clear that the Buy More is the focus of the enemy’s attention. Which means we’ll need to have a base on-site so we can react quickly to further intrusions or attacks.”

    Chuck understood what he meant. As did Sarah, of course. “You want to use our base?” she said in a rather frosty tone.

    “Well, if there’s already a hidden spy base,” Xander said, ignoring Buffy’s ‘lair!’, “which has feeds from all those cameras you hid around the place…” He shrugged. “We could set up shop in the Buy More store, I guess, but we’d have to set up surveillance of our own.”

    “The only suitable location would be the catacombs,” Morgan said. “Big Mike’s been cracking down on our Home Entertainment Display Room Parties, and our extended break rooms. And we aren't allowed to hire temps without his approval any more since he fired Caridad.”

    “Which was totally not my fault!” Caridad blurted out. “That construct attacked me!”

    “And we’d have to come and go through the store, which would present a possible danger,” Dawn added.

    It sounded quite convincing to Chuck. Logical, too. Which, of course, didn’t mean the CIA would see it the same way. Chuck had the distinct feeling that the General wouldn’t, in fact. But did she have to know about it?

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, December 12th, 2007

    This was the nail in her career’s coffin. Sarah was well aware of that. Of course, officially, she was following orders. She was duty-bound to help defend the USA, and this apocalypse certainly qualified as a massive threat to the country, even without knowing all the details of the danger.

    She was also bound not to reveal secrets to people without the needed clearance, and the Council’s secrets certainly fell into that category, even though they weren’t exactly the USA’s secrets.

    But unofficially, she was breaking every rule and regulation of the CIA, especially the unwritten ones. You didn’t let a - technically or not - foreign strike team into your base without orders from your superiors. Certainly not people you had been ‘encouraged’ to investigate. The director might have understood, but General Beckman? The woman was NSA to begin with, not CIA, and Sarah had no leverage with her.

    “Guys! Guys! Remember: You can’t use the briefing room, in case the general calls. She can’t know you’re here!”

    She gently shook her head. Chuck meant well, but he was too naive. This would never work.

    “Oh, look, they have machine guns!”

    “Dibs on the M2!”

    “They don’t have an M2, B.”

    “Why not? It’s a great weapon. And it actually hurts some of the tougher demons, unlike the pea shooters here!”

    “Because they are spies and not the Armored Cavalry. Besides, they have LAWs.”

    “Oh, I bet they’d destroy a slime-thingie in one shot! It worked on the Judge, didn’t it? Can you get us those, Xander?”

    “They’re under biometrical lock and key, Buffy.”

    And thank God for that, Sarah thought. The last thing she needed was the Scoobies using CIA-issued anti-tank weapons in a mall.

    “Willow can crack that, right?”

    “I’m not going to, Buffy! That would be rude.”

    “But you can do it, can’t you?”

    “Well, of course! The encryption isn’t exactly complicated. But I wouldn’t do that unless it were an emergency.”

    “What? It took me more than ten minutes to crack such a lock when I tried it. What are you using?” Chuck exclaimed.

    Sarah clenched her teeth. She should never have let Chuck talk her into this. And she had to talk to him about hacking their own base.

    “Heh, just tell yourself that having them set up their own base, unsupervised, would be worse.”

    She turned to glance at Casey, who looked far too relaxed in the face of this invasion. “If Beckman hears about this, we’re done for.”

    He shrugged. “I’ve already been on borrowed time ever since I was shown that vampire. This is just more of the same.” At her raised eyebrows, he added: “Sometimes, sacrifices have to be made. If you were a soldier, you might understand that.”

    She narrowed her eyes at him. She knew better than him about sacrifices - she had sacrificed her former life for the agency. “I understand enough,” she told him, then pointedly glanced at Lehane and Caridad.

    She didn’t quite smile at his growl.

    *****​

    Perhaps inviting the Scoobies to The Castle hadn’t been a good idea. Watching them, Chuck was having second thoughts. He hadn’t expected them to be as professional as Sarah and Casey, not outside combat, at least, but to see them treat the armoury as if it were a display in a candy store was more than a little disconcerting.

    Seeing Casey not froth at the mouth at the sight, though, was even worse. “Uh,” Chuck spoke up, “shouldn’t we plan how to proceed from here?”

    “We’ve got a plan,” Xander said, looking up from where he was apparently cleaning a bundle of rifles. “Caridad stays in the store during the day, standard guard rotations after work.”

    “One Slayer’s ready at all times,” Buffy added - without taking her eyes off the armoury locker. “Will casts a few spells to cover the area, and we watch TV while we wait for the bad guys to make a move so we can find and crush them. Simple!”

    “Not even Buffy could mess this plan up,” Dawn said.

    “Hey!”

    Chuck saw Dawn suddenly frown. “On second thought, forget what I said.”

    “Thank you.”

    Dawn ignored Buffy’s exclamation. “I’m certain that she actually could mess this up. Easily - she’s gifted that way.”

    “Hey!”

    “You’d know her best, little D.”

    Yes, Chuck thought with a glance at Sarah, who hadn’t stopped frowning for some time, this hadn’t been one of his best ideas.

    Probably still better than his fifteenth birthday LAN party, though.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 12th, 2007

    “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry,” Chuck said, in the bed.

    “You said that already,” Sarah replied - though without looking at him, he noticed - as she slipped into her sleepwear in front of the dresser. Which was kind of distracting, especially thanks to the mirror mounted there.

    “It bears repeating?” He forced himself to smile. “In my defence, they are much more professional when things turn really dangerous.” He shrugged. “They just like to goof around to unwind.” That’s what Xander had told him last time.

    “It’s an act, then?” She slid into bed next to him.

    Chuck certainly hoped so as he nodded. “They probably want to provoke you, too. You know, the more you react, the more they act up.”

    “Like children.”

    “Uh…” His smile slipped. “Very experienced, very dangerous children. Most of them have been fighting demons for ten years.” He thought for a moment. “Just imagine Casey with a sense of humour, and instead of hating communists, it’s demons.”

    “That’s… actually terrifying,” she said.

    “They’re on our side,” he replied.

    “So’s Casey.”

    “Touché.” He winced. Casey was terrifying and - nominally - on their side, too. “I guess I’m biased - I still see high schoolers when I think about them. Teenagers messing around, talking shit, doing stupid things…” And hunting demons and protecting an entire town run by an evil sorcerer bent on becoming a greater demon.

    “Funny. I see teenagers too, when I think about them.”

    Chuck wasn’t sure if he could disagree. Or what that said about the Scoobies.

    On the other hand, Ellie had complained about him not growing up quite often. At least until he had started going out with Sarah.

    Chuck didn’t know what that said about him. Or he didn’t want to know.

    *****​
     
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 8: The Season Part 3
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 8: The Season Part 3

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 13th, 2007

    Dawn was occupying a table - one of the few - in Wienerlicious when Chuck entered for his usual morning break. She was almost hidden behind a wall of old books - antiques, as far as Chuck could tell. Or very good facsimiles. But why would Dawn lug around a facsimile of an old book weighing a ton, if it was a modern reprint?

    “Yes?”

    Oh. He must have been staring at her, and she had noticed. “Uh, nothing. Just wondering about the books.” He gestured at the stack.

    “I’m not going to spill anything on them,” she replied, sounding more than a little annoyed. “Unlike others, I’m perfectly capable of not ruining priceless tomes within ten yards of sodas and greasy snacks.” And her expression seemed to promise doom for anyone nearby who didn’t share that capability. “I just like being above ground, instead of hiding in a bunker. This isn’t a café in London, but it’ll do for studying. If we’re in California, I want to see the sun!”

    “Uh… I wasn’t actually worried about the books,” Chuck was quick to clarify. “I was wondering if those are originals.”

    “Originals? No.” She shook her head. “Those are copies.”

    “Ah.” Chuck smiled, relieved that he didn’t have to worry about damaging valuable tomes. Until she went on.

    “The originals were in Sumeric, and long since turned to dust. Those are copies made by monks in the early medieval period.”

    Chuck forced himself to smile. He was no expert, but such ‘copies’ would still cost a fortune. He gave the table a wide berth as he walked to the counter, where Sarah was waiting. He couldn’t spot Caridad, though.

    Before he could ask, Sarah told him. “She’s in The Castle.”

    “Ah. Casey?” The agent was officially sick so he could keep an eye on the Scoobies in the base.

    Sarah nodded. “And a few very colourful threats from Dr. Summers. Apparently, she’s got experience with Slayers and valuable books.”

    “Ah.” Chuck chuckled. “I remember Giles’s blowing his top once when Buffy damaged a book - we heard him in the hallway. He was posing as our high school librarian,” he added.

    “Some people really love books,” she said.

    “And some people are loud,” Dawn commented from her table. “Besides, books can save lives. How can you stop an apocalypse if you don’t know anything about it?”

    “Uh…” Chuck didn’t think Dawn would like to hear Xander’s quote about hitting stuff with enough force or explosives would generally do the job. And she was, of course, correct - you needed to know what or whom you had to hit. “So, found anything?”

    She scowled. “Not much. Something about ‘Royal Slime’ - no jokes about the British Royalty, please.”

    “Of course not,” Chuck said. Phil was a loyal subject of the Queen, as he had impressed upon Morgan when Chuck’s friend had joked about a particularly tasteless piece of gossip concerning the royal family.

    “So… apparently, those are slime demons directly descending from the Slime Lord, and their blood is supposed to be ‘powerful’. Sort of like Slayer blood, but for demons,” Dawn went on.

    “Jeff’s slime royalty?” Chuck blinked.

    “Perhaps. It would explain why they are so focused on him. Or they think he’s royalty.”

    “He would deserve the title ‘King of Slimes’,” Sarah said, holding out a coke for Chuck.

    Dawn winced. “Creepy?”

    “Very creepy.” Sarah shook her head. “Although his friend is almost as creepy, and without any demon ancestry.”

    “Oh. That kind of creepy.” Dawn made a face. “Just wait until he tries it on Buffy or Faith. They’ll stomp him flat.”

    “I don’t think he will,” Chuck replied. “He’s scared of Slayers.”

    “Would killing him foil the enemy’s plans?” Sarah sounded a little too interested in Chuck’s opinion. He didn’t think she wanted to kill Jeff, but if she thought it would save the city…

    “We can’t tell. Sometimes, the chosen sacrifice has to be killed in a specific way or ritual. Sometimes, they just have to be killed.” Dawn was rubbing her stomach, Chuck noticed, and she was flinching a little.

    Not a good subject, then, he guessed. But they had to ask - the city’s fate might depend on it. He cleared his throat. “So, all’s quiet on the Buy More front, then?”

    Dawn looked at him. “Chuck!”

    “What?”

    “You don’t do that! It’s almost as bad as using the w-word!”

    “The ‘w-word’?”

    “Wishing for something,” Chuck explained. “Don’t do it. Some demons might be listening.”

    Dawn looked tense, then, after a moment, relaxed. “False alert, I think.”

    A moment later, Caridad rushed out of the storage room that concealed the stairs to The Castle. “Multiple demons incoming!”

    The Slayer was carrying a satchel bag - presumably with more of the tested concoctions. Chuck didn’t know if Phil had managed to make more of them in the meantime. Unless…

    Caridad rushed past him, and Chuck turned to Sarah. “She wouldn’t have taken grenades from the armoury, would she?”

    “They didn’t let us!” Buffy answered, almost bowling him over as she and Faith dashed out of the store in… yoga pants, a tank top and trainers? He blinked, then remembered the schedule. Both would have been asleep at this time of the morning. That must be the reason Caridad had beaten them out of The Castle.

    “Come!” Sarah snapped, headed towards the stairs leading to the base. “Now it’s safe to go down.”

    Chuck nodded. Hopefully, she thought that he had been waiting for the Slayers to leave before heading down himself, instead of wondering what to do.

    When they reached The Castle, Xander and Willow were just getting ready to leave. “Demons shouldn’t be attacking so early in the morning,” Xander complained as he stuffed a carbine and axe into a sports bag and headed past them.

    “It’s not exactly early,” Sarah said - to Xander’s back.

    “For us, it is,” Willow answered, hurrying after Xander.

    “Sorry!” Chuck heard her yell a moment later, followed by Dawn stumbling out of the staircase, almost dropping her precious stack of books.

    “Uh… sorry?” Chuck smiled at her - he had completely forgotten to help her.

    She huffed and went to put the books down on the planning table. “One demon attack and everyone goes crazy.”

    “We’ve got multiple demon attacks in progress,” Casey corrected her. He was sitting at the controls for the surveillance cameras. “Half a dozen weirdos - all with the same face - are in the back, trying to get in through the loading ramp. Summer and Lehane are headed there. One is in the Buy More itself - knocked a security guard around. Caridad engaged it already, and Grimes is evacuating the customers. Rosenberg and Harris will be dealing with the snake monster creeping through the bushes at the east side.”

    Snake monster? Chuck took a closer look. He didn’t recognise the demon species, but it looked quite dangerous. Not as dangerous as the Mayor had been, but Chuck still shuddered at the memory. He shook his head. He couldn’t space out. Not now. “We’ll have to evacuate the entire store.”

    “Already on it - gas leak in the food court.” Casey bared his teeth in a grin. “Might remove some competition for you, Walker, if the Buy More decides to sue them after this.”

    “What?” Chuck shook his head. “It’s not their fault that demons are attacking.”

    “I tried their burgers, They deserve worse than this.”

    Chuck hoped that Casey was joking. “So… what do we do?”

    “We’re command and control, and reserves,” the agent answered.

    “It’s not as if we’re needed, not with Buffy, Faith and Willow on the job,” Dawn said.

    “More demons in the back,” Sarah said, pointing at the screen showing the loading ramp.

    Chuck glanced at it. Indeed, three more figures were rushing towards Faith. And there were now what looked like three polgara demons supporting the snake. Out in the open? At this time of the day? “Why are they attacking openly?”

    “They aren’t,” Sarah answered. “All the ones in the open look human. Or close enough. And the rest are hiding.”

    That made sense. But something kept niggling at Chuck. Something wasn’t right. People were streaming out of the store now, fortunately away from the fighting.

    “Either some twins decided to ignore the evacuation orders and try to snap up some special deals, or there are two constructs headed towards Caridad,” Casey said, “Caridad, two more incoming,” he added into the microphone.

    That would be tight, Chuck knew. Even with the vials prepared by Phil, three constructs would be too much for Caridad. If Buffy and Faith finished their enemies quickly… He blinked. “It’s a diversion!” he said, then yelled it. “It’s a diversion.”

    “What?” Casey glared at him, then nodded. “That makes sense. Tie us up and…”

    “...go in through the tunnels,” Sarah finished.

    “It’s a diversion,” Casey told the Scoobies.

    “What?”

    “We can’t leave - the demons will go after the shoppers.”

    Which meant it was up to them - Sarah, Casey and Chuck - to stop the main attack.

    Great.

    Casey was at the armoury in seconds, entering the codes while Sarah took over communications. “We’re moving to the tunnels,” she told the Scoobies.

    “We'll reinforce you as soon… watch out!”

    That was Xander, cut off mid-sentence. Why was Willow having trouble dealing with the demons there?

    “Bit busy here.”

    Buffy.

    “Not for long.”

    Faith.

    Caridad was cursing - she had just been thrown through a shelf, Chuck saw on the screen. One construct had been melted, but another was giving the Slayer a fight, and the third was chasing Morgan through the kitchen appliances aisle.

    “Come on, Bartowski!”

    “Chuck!”

    Chuck ran after Sarah and Casey, who was lugging a pack presumably filled with weapons, while Dawn slid into the seat the NSA agent had vacated. “Lock up behind us!” he yelled at her - that would keep her safe. “Where are we going?” Chuck managed to ask while catching up.

    “Northern Sewer entrance,” Casey barked, taking a shortcut through the bushes.

    “That’s…” Chuck broke off. It was actually the closest entrance to Jeff’s lair. And Chuck needed his breath to keep running. But it was also the nastiest entrance to the tunnels. Apart from the one in the half-submerged storm drains filled with all kinds of refuse, some poisonous or even magical - residue from Jeff and Lester’s experiments.

    Casey had removed the lid on the shaft already when Chuck turned the last corner, a few bits of foliage stuck to his shirt. The agent was pulling on night vision goggles and had a rifle hanging from a sling at his side - a shotgun, Chuck realised. He knew the design from Medal of Honour. And Sarah was pulling out a nasty sword from the pack that Chuck remembered from Casey’s wall. Not the cavalry sword, though. She, too, had goggles strapped to her head already.

    Casey had the cavalry sword, Chuck saw when the agent jumped down the shaft. As did Sarah. Chuck wasn’t a trained spy, nor a commando, so he grabbed a set of goggles and an axe for himself - Sarah must have taken them along for him - and scrambled down the ladder instead. “Wee goin’ down!” he reported before he lost contact with Dawn, his pronunciation slightly hampered by the fact that he was holding on to the strap of the goggles with his teeth. And not the most promising wording, either, he realised after the fact.

    He reached the bottom, ruining his trainers when he landed in something squishy and smelly, and saw Casey and Sarah were already moving away. “Wait!” he blurted out. “Wait!”

    “Keep up, Bartowski,” Casey snapped without even turning his head.

    “We need to watch out for Jeff’s slime traps,” Chuck yelled. “He had a few days to expand since the last check.” In hindsight, telling Jeff that the Scoobies were coming hadn’t been a good idea. That Lester claimed to have developed a phobia of narrow tunnels and refused to enter the catacombs didn’t help, of course.

    “Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, Bartowski!”

    For a moment, Chuck hoped that Casey would stumble into a slime trap. Then he told himself that that would mean he and Sarah would be on their own. It would still be nice to see Casey encased in slime, though.

    “The traps should slow the enemy down as well,” Sarah pointed out as they advanced - not at a run, not any more, thank God - and skirted around a slime trap on the ground.

    “Unless they are immune to the slime,” Chuck replied.

    “Immune?”

    “They could be slime demons themselves. It just occurred to me,” Chuck explained.

    “Great. That idiot is making things worse even now,” Casey growled.

    Chuck hoped that he was talking about Jeff.

    Five minutes later, they were close to Jeff’s lair - Chuck had taken care to memorise the layout after his and Lester’s ill-fated trip. Somewhat, at least - he should be able to find a way out through the larger tunnels. The night vision goggles helped, of course - with just some stray light, the tunnels looked as if they were a maze on the ground, at noon. If the sun were green.

    Another slime trap. They went around it, hugging the wall. Chuck almost scrapped off his goggles when he forgot to take their size into account - games didn’t teach you that - but managed not to hold up the others for too long. No longer than two more biting remarks from Casey, at least.

    It was a good thing that Jeff hadn’t thought of placing traps on the walls for those who spotted the ones on the ground. Jeff obviously had never played D&D with Andrew.

    They were just another tunnel - and probably two traps - from the lair when Chuck heard the chanting. He almost stumbled, then picked up the pace. “We need to hurry! Chanting’s not good. Chanting’s never of the good!” He hadn’t actually seen rituals before, but he had heard enough about them to know that - the Scoobies had impressed the basic rules on everyone, and ‘Chanting bad’ was one of the ground rules.

    “Chuck!” Sarah hissed, and his attempt to push past her was stopped with a hand on his chest. Or solar plexus.

    “Oof.”

    “Don’t blindly rush in!” Casey snapped.

    “But if they’re chanting, they’ve started the ritual. We might be too late if we don’t hurry!”

    "They might have guards,” Sarah said.

    Damn. He clenched his teeth, but she was correct, and as they approached - a little more hurried, but not rushing - Chuck envisioned being caught by waves of slime in these tunnels, trapped and choking to death - or being slowly digested like in the Sarlacc…

    Oh, my God! That was a thought Chuck didn’t want. But now he couldn’t stop thinking about it. That kind of thing would fit major demons perfectly. Trap your prey, and slowly digest them alive over the course of a thousand years… He had visions of a giant gelatinous cube covering parts of Los Angeles as he followed Sarah and Casey.

    And he wondered if George Lucas knew about the supernatural. All those aliens...

    They were close to the large room where Jeff had set up shop, and even a deaf person would have heard the chanting now - or felt the vibrations, at least. Chuck wasn’t deaf. But, he realised when he saw Casey pull out a grenade, he might be deaf in a few seconds.

    “Fire in the hole!”

    Chuck clamped his hands over his head, opened his mouth and dropped into a crouch. A moment later, he felt as if he had been punched in the chest and choked a little on the dust that had been thrown up. “What the…”

    But the two spies had already turned the corner, and he heard gunshots - loud gunshots. He picked up his axe and ran after them.

    There was a construct on the ground, stuck to it - to a slime pool of Jeff’s. And Casey and Sarah were busy hacking off the thing’s flailing limbs so they could pass without getting bludgeoned or grabbed. The thing wasn’t making any sound, but its mouth looked as if it were silently screaming.

    Chuck shuddered as he went to join the two agents. “Let me - I’ve got an axe,” he said. “It’s better for chopping,” he added when Casey glared at him. Well, he couldn’t see the man’s eyes through the goggles, but he was sure Casey was glaring at him.

    And the agent took his axe!

    Chuck got it back after a disturbingly enthusiastic display of hacking and chopping and had to hold it away from him to avoid the slime dropping from the axe head.

    They pushed on - the lair was just around the next corner - but as they turned it, they came face to face with more constructs. Casey jumped back, almost bowling over Chuck, and Sarah ducked just in time to avoid a swing that could throw a Slayer a few yards.

    The grenade must have alerted them, Chuck realised as he fell back. And now they were blocking them from… His eyes widened. “Fall back!” he yelled. “We can’t break through!”

    “We have to!” Casey yelled, grabbing another grenade. He was moving back, but probably just to gain enough distance to safely use the thing.

    “Not here!” Chuck replied, scrambling back himself - the tunnel wasn’t wide enough for three people, and he was the weakest fighter here.

    Sarah, of course, got it. “Casey, fall back!” she snapped. “Let them chase us. Chuck, lead the way.”

    Casey grunted, throwing his grenade, which Chuck took as a cue to turn and run.

    As he jumped over the twitching torso left of the stuck construct, he really hoped that he correctly remembered the alternate route to Jeff’s lair.

    *****​

    “Fire in the Hole!”

    Sarah quickly slapped her hands over her ears when she heard Casey’s yell - even with plugs, a grenade going off was too loud in the tunnels. Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty… The grenade went off, and she felt the pressure from the shockwave even around a corner.

    She slid around the bend to check - three constructs were down on the ground, one missing an arm, but they were getting up, and more were behind them. Fortunately, they weren’t quite as fast as Sarah and Casey.

    Chuck on the other hand… “*Get clear!” she yelled, then raised the LAW to her shoulders and fired it. The construct exploded, and the blast tore through one behind it. She dashed back at once. “Go!” she yelled.

    “I’m starting to run out of grenades,” Casey announced.

    “And that was our last M72,” Sarah said - they would have to buy more when they restocked the armoury. And hope they found a good explanation for using all rocket launchers had been available.

    “We’re almost there,” Chuck replied. He sounded confident. Also stressed and nervous, of course.

    “Really?” Casey sounded doubtful.

    “Yes. A few more turns, then we enter the other main tunnel.”

    “I’ll rig this tunnel to collapse, then.”

    “What?”

    “We can’t let them come after us,” Sarah told Chuck as she pulled him along. He was doing better than he would have a month ago, and he wasn’t out of shape, but he couldn’t keep this chase up as long as Sarah and Casey could.

    “How long do you need?” she asked.

    “Half a minute,” Casey replied, handing her a grenade.

    She nodded in reply, then sent Chuck ahead and dropped in a crouch at the next corner, waiting for the constructs to arrive. There!

    “Fire in the hole!”

    This time, she didn’t wait - she ran. Casey would cut things close. Very close.

    Almost too close - as soon as she reached the alcove Casey and Chuck were in, he detonated the charges he had placed. Sarah threw herself into the alcove, into Casey, almost toppling him over, a moment before Chuck’s yelling was drowned out by the blast, and the pressure wave filled the tunnel.

    She was pushed against Casey with enough force to push the breath out of her lungs and by the time the dust cloud had settled enough to safely take a breath, her chest felt on fire. But Casey was chuckling. “Perfect ambush. Now let’s stop a ritual, blow some cultists to kingdom come, and go celebrate.” He quickly fell into a trot, and Sarah and Chuck followed him.

    “We don’t have a LAW left, do we?” Chuck asked.

    “No,” Sarah replied. He should have known that.

    “Damn.”

    They started to hear the chanting again, and another two slime traps later, they reached the large room. Sarah could see a dozen figures in the centre surrounding an… altar? Yes. And on it, bound by thick chains, was Jeff in half-slime form. She checked herself before she started for them. “Left,” she said, moving up next to Casey.

    “Right,” he confirmed.

    Then they slid around the corner, leading with their blades - no constructs waiting in ambush.

    “Ceiling clear,” Chuck added.

    The figures in the centre hadn’t reacted. Either they hadn’t noticed them, too busy with their ritual - or they couldn’t react without wrecking the ritual…

    “Can we shoot them without causing more problems?” Casey growled.

    “Uh…” Chuck cleared his throat. “Derailing a summoning could cause a big explosion. That was what almost happened at my graduation. But yes, unless Jeff gets killed, the summoning should be foiled.”

    Casey was already shooting when Sarah aimed her gun, but neither of them hit anything.

    “It’s a barrier!” Chuck said.

    Magic. Sarah clenched her teeth. “How do we get through it?”

    “We might be able to pass through if we’re moving slowly,” Chuck replied.

    They moved forward - no more need to try and stay hidden. Casey charged but slammed into the barrier, shoulder first. He stumbled a few steps back, rubbing his shoulder. “No more advice from a tv series,” he barked.

    “Uh…” Chuck grimaced. “It could have worked. I think.”

    “Stop thinking and give us a solution that works!” Casey spat.

    “Uh… if it’s a wall and not a dome, we could…”

    Sarah lobbed a stone up. It cleared the line where the bullets had been stopped - they had fallen to the ground, she now saw - but then bounced off the barrier when it was right over the altar. “It’s a dome,” she said.

    “Burrowing?”

    Casey kicked at the ground. “That would take too long. Even with explosives. But we could set up a charge that buries them, then burns away the oxygen.”

    “That would kill Jeff!” Chuck blurted out.

    “Yes,” Casey replied, baring his teeth. “As will they, if we don’t stop them. Just with more collateral damage.”

    “But if Jeff dies on the altar, it might complete the ritual!” Chuck retorted.

    “Let’s save it as a last resort,” Sarah cut in. “Alternatives?”

    “Can’t go through, can’t go over, can’t go under…” Chuck shook his head. “I’m no wizard; I don’t know how to break through such a barrier. If it’s part of the ritual, it won’t end until the ritual ends…”

    “Guess it’s gonna be Plan Cave-in,” Casey said, pulling out more C-4.

    “We can’t…” Chuck said.

    Sarah placed a hand on his shoulder and gently squeezed, shaking her head. They had no choice.

    “But…”

    Casey was already placing charges at the walls.

    “But Jeff… Wait! Wait!”

    “Chuck…” She reached out to him.

    “No, no!” He shook his head again. “Look! The slime’s passing through!” He pointed at the ground where, Sarah noticed, a thin stream of slime - from Jeff - was flowing through the barrier.

    And, she saw when she crouched next to it, it was carrying small pebbles with it.

    “If we’re covered in slime, we can pass through!” Chuck said, smiling.

    “And where do we get enough slime that’s not knocking us out or sticking us to the ground?” Casey asked.

    “We don’t need too much!” Chuck yelled, already sprinting towards the tunnel where they had destroyed the first constructs. “Just enough to cover a barrel!”

    Sarah looked at Casey.

    The NSA Agent was grinning. “Sometimes, even Bartowski has a good idea.”

    Chuck returned with a rotten bucket he had grabbed on the way, carrying about half a gallon of sticky slime. “Will that be enough?”

    Casey grunted. “We’ll see.”

    “So, we just stick the muzzle into it…”

    “No!” the man barked before Sarah could say it. “That would clog up the barrel.” He pulled out a condom. “Always be prepared!”

    And while Casey pulled the rubber over the muzzle of his gun, Chuck stepped closer to Sarah and whispered. “I can’t help thinking that this is deeply symbolic.”

    Sarah couldn’t keep from giggling.

    *****​

    Chuck knew he shouldn’t laugh - or giggle - but he couldn’t help it. They were next to a barrier, behind which some cultists - possibly human, possibly demons, the cloaked robes could hide anything roughly human-shaped - were about to sacrifice a co-worker of his and bring ruin upon Los Angeles, and now a condom was being used to stop them in a completely suggestive-symbolic way.

    Casey’s glare promised retribution, but not even that could stop Chuck's involuntarily laughter.

    However, the sight of Casey pushing the slime- and condom covered muzzle through the barrier, then blowing the brains out of the closest cultist could and did. And, incidentally, revealed that the cultists were at least human enough to need their brains and to be hurt by bullets.

    Some of them, in any case, Chuck amended his thoughts as Casey continued to mow down cultist after cultist. It seemed they couldn’t move while doing the ritual - another question answered. And as they fell, they tended to squish the candles lining their circle, which should also help with disrupting the ritual.

    “Like shooting fish in a barrel,” Casey commented with a fierce and disturbing grin.

    “Does anyone actually do that?” Chuck asked. “I mean, wouldn’t shooting the fish ruin the meat? It would be better to grab them, wouldn’t it?” Casey ignored him as he reloaded, and Sarah gave him a look. “Sorry,” Chuck said. “Just a thought that came to mind.”

    The last cultist fell, bleeding, among the rest, courtesy of a short burst from Casey’s carbine.

    Cuck let out a breath he hadn’t noticed holding. They had done it! They had saved the Buy More! And probably Los Angeles! And they had saved Jeff. The guy was likely traumatised for life, but he was alive. And he should have gotten therapy already, anyway. So, now, all that was left to do was...

    “Shouldn’t the barrier vanish now?” Casey growled.

    “Uh…” Chuck looked at Casey. The gun was still stuck in the barrier. That wasn’t a good sign. Not at all. “Yes. Yes, it should,” Chuck told the agent. “If the ritual is still going…”

    Casey quickly started putting more bullets into the bodies on the ground. Into their heads, Chuck noticed, wincing at the gore.

    “The one there! He’s moving!” Sarah suddenly yelled, pointing at a cultist near the altar.

    She was right - that guy was still alive. Wounded, but moving. Trying to get up. Trying to reach Jeff.

    “Stubborn bastard!” Casey emptied his magazine into the man, and the cultist collapsed - one hand on the altar.

    A slimy hand, Chuck realised. “Uh… Guys…”

    Suddenly, a light appeared in the middle of the circle, quickly growing stronger. Strong enough for Chuck’s goggles to be overwhelmed, forcing him to pull them off and blink, briefly blinded.

    He heard the splattering noise before his eyes readjusted, and his heart sank. It couldn’t be…

    But he could see the slime splashing on the ground in the circle, falling down like a waterfall from a point in the air.

    “They completed the ritual?” Sarah managed to say.

    “It seems so,” Chuck replied. “Unless this is just some side effect.”

    But the stream of slime was continuously growing.

    “The barrier has vanished,” Casey informed them, falling back.

    “Jeff! We need to get Jeff!” Chuck suddenly said. If the Lord of Slime arrived, and Jeff was still on the altar… He dashed forward, avoiding the growing puddle of slime on the ground. And hoping that the drops splattering over Jeff wouldn’t harm the man. Or Chuck.

    Jeff was conscious, staring at him with wild eyes as he tried to speak through his gag. Chuck started to fiddle with the chains. Where was the padlock? There usually was a padlock, wasn’t it? Or another sort of lock. But where?

    Then Sarah was next to him, crouching. And working on the padlock on the floor. And Casey, cursing, was holding a broken plank as an improvised umbrella, to keep them from getting covered with slime - the stream had grown even more now, and was already lapping against the altar on the other side.

    “Done!” Sarah announced.

    Casey all but ripped Jeff away from the altar, and they retreated as fast as they could, Chuck trying to unwrap the chains from Jeff - which was harder than he expected, with Casey carrying the half-demon.

    And behind them, a veritable flood of slime was building up. They had failed. And they’d probably drown in slime before they could get out.

    When they entered the tunnel they hadn’t blocked, Chuck glanced over his shoulder and froze for a moment. Something was moving in the centre. And a wall of slime was rushing towards them.

    “Run!” he yelled. “Oh my God, run!” And he ran. Even though they couldn’t outrun the slime tsunami. Not at that speed. Any second now it would reach them, and smash them against the tunnel walls, drag them along, break and drown them… Any second…

    He glanced over his shoulder again, almost against his will. The slime wall was now an actual wall, sealing the tunnel entrance. He blinked and stopped running.

    “Chuck!” Sarah yelled, “Ru... What?”

    “Another barrier,” Chuck said, staring. But who could’ve… Willow?

    “How long will it hold?” Casey asked.

    “I don’t know. If this is Willow…” Chuck trailed off. How long would a barrier cast by Willow last? She had managed to seal off the entire Wolfram and Hart holding in Los Angeles, back in 2004, containing whatever magic and portals the demons had prepared while Slayers killed the people and demons responsible, but she’d had help back then. And had looked like death warmed over afterwards.

    “Comms are still not working,” Casey said. “We need to get a move on before that thing breaks down.”

    Chuck looked at the man. “Yes, I… Jeff!”

    Jeff was on the ground, groaning. Casey must have dropped him, Chuck realised, frowning at the agent.

    “What? He can walk now, can’t he?”

    Chuck swallowed his retort and bent down to help Jeff get the chains off. Casey hadn’t dropped Jeff until they had been safe, after all. Actions spoke louder than words.

    “Hurry! I don’t like this,” the NSA agent added.

    Of course he didn’t like it - he couldn’t shoot a wall of slime. Well, he could, but it wouldn’t do a thing. But with Sarah’s help, they soon had Jeff freed.

    “Thank you! Thank you!” Jeff stammered, reaching out to hug Chuck. Which left him covered in slime. “They were trying to sacrifice me to summon the Lord of Slimes! You saved me!”

    “We know that,” Casey replied. “They’re not doing any summoning any more. Or anything else.” He grinned.

    Chuck tried to wipe his clothes and grimaced. Sarah wasn’t helping - well, there wasn’t much she could do, anyway. At least she wasn’t grinning. Much. “So,” he said, trying to create a diversion, “we really should start moving, before the barrier breaks down.”

    “It won’t break down. Red’s on it.”

    Chuck whirled around, almost braining Jeff with the handle of his axe when the half-demon tried to hide behind him.

    Faith was standing there. Her clothes were sporting some tears - how her top was staying on, Chuck couldn’t tell - and she was covered in blood and some slime, but she was grinning. “Yo. We were just in time. Had to help out Caridad and Morgan, first, but they were on the way anyway. Red’s sealed the entire room.”

    So it had been Willow. Good. “Uh… how long will it last?” Chuck asked, moving his upper torso in an attempt to shake off Jeff, whose hands seemed glued to his back.

    “Long enough for us to find a way to banish old slimey back to slime hell,” Faith replied with a shrug. “At least that’s what she said.”

    That sounded not as reassuring as Chuck had hoped. Apparently, what he had seen moving had been the Slime Lord.

    *****​

    They found the rest of the Scoobies - well, Faith led them to them, navigating the tunnels as if she had spent days down there already - near the third entrance to the old still. Willow was in a lotus position, eyes closed, and facing the slightly glowing barrier in front of her.

    “Uh…” Chuck started.

    “She’s just reinforcing the spell,” Xander interrupted him. He didn’t look hurt, even though his clothes were covered in blood of various colours. “Once she’s done, it’ll hold for a few hours.”

    “A few hours?” Casey took a step forward. “And then it breaks down?”

    “Chill there, GI Joe!” Buffy said. “She’ll simply renew it then, no sweat.”

    “That doesn’t sound like a long-term solution,” Sarah pointed out.

    “That’s because it isn’t!” Buffy grinned, flashing her teeth. “And it doesn’t have to be one, either - it just has to last until we know how to banish Slimer back to his home.”

    “And Giles and Dawn and the mini-Watchers back in London are already working on that, so it won’t be too long until we can finish this,” Xander said. He was smiling, he sounded confident and he had the experience.

    But Chuck still worried. If too much pressure built up… he blinked. “Uh…”

    "Yes?”

    “Is the spell just covering the exits or the entire room?” Chuck asked. “Because if the pressure builds up too much, the rock could give way. And what if the Slime Lord does something?”

    “She’s sealed the entire room,” Buffy said. She didn’t sound as confident as before, though. “But the spell will hold Lord the Slimy - it’s based on a summoning circle.”

    “We’ll ask once she’s done here,” Xander added. “To be sure.”

    “Where’s Caridad?” Casey suddenly asked.

    “She’s back up in the store with Morgan to handle things,” Buffy replied. “Store got trashed, but both are OK.” She peered at Jeff, who was still trying to keep Chuck between him and the Scoobies. “Is that the sacrificial-guy?”

    “No!” Jeff yelled - and took off at a speed that might have let him outrun the slime wave.

    Chuck sighed, Faith chuckled, and Xander shook his head. “Buffy!”

    Buffy blinked, surprised. “What? That was so not my fault!”

    “You scared him off.”

    “I didn’t! I was all friendly-like. And why would he flee from little old me, and not Faith?”

    “Obviously, I was too hot to scare him off, B!”

    “What? No, you’re not!”

    “I’m not touching that,” Xander said.

    And neither was Chuck.

    *****​

    “...and I managed to seal the entire room - and, yes, I did reinforce the room, too, thank you very much, did you think I would make such an amateur mistake? - just in time. It was good that you were so fast, though, so all of the slime was inside the room when I sealed it. I would have been forced to either seal you inside or let part of the Lord of Slime’s slime escape, and either would’ve been of the bad - what if he could travel through the slime? Now he’s trapped, though, and as it is, I only have to renew the spell every five or six hours - five, to be safe - until we can deal with the root of the problem. Although I expect that as time passes and the slime pressure raises, the spell will require more frequent renewing, so we really should deal with the big slime soon, otherwise, it will reach a point where I will have to keep renewing the spell constantly, and I won’t be able to keep that up forever, you know?”

    Chuck marvelled how Willow managed to breathe while she babbled. Though what she said… “So, we’re under a time limit,” he summed her explanation up as they sneaked past the crowd in the parking lot - was the news there as well? - and into Wienerlicious.

    “I just said that, didn’t I?”

    “He just translated for us, Red.”

    “But…”

    Standing on the stairs leading down to The Castle, Chuck stopped listening to Willow and grimaced.

    Dawn was talking to the general.

    *****​
     
  12. JamesEye

    JamesEye Making the rounds.

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    Hey I read this before I’ve off to read the first of the series. Really like this though, I can totally see how seamlessly both universes fit together. I’d have liked Chuck to be more badass but that would ruin the dynamic and most of the Chuck series haha. Love Jeff being a slime demon or descended from one,really is a funny reoccurring laugh.

    I like how redundant Bryce trying to protect Chuck was. Can’t wait to see him fin out about demons and such in the first story.
    Have to say I don’t spot any obvious grammar mistakes and the story quality is really quite nice, hope you get a bunch of encouraging comments.

    Thanks for writing this.
     
    Starfox5 likes this.
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 9: The Season Part 4
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 9: The Season Part 4

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 13th, 2007

    “...and don’t worry, General, we’ve got this,” Dr Summers’s cheerful voice announced as Sarah followed Chuck down the stairs.

    “Ah. Agent Walker. Agent Casey. Mr Bartowski. I’ve heard you were busy.”

    Sarah managed not to wince at the general’s tone. Yes, this was the nail in her career’s coffin. “General.” She nodded. “We have a situation here.”

    “So I was told - by a civilian. A Weapon of Mass Destruction in Los Angeles? And you didn’t inform me at once?”

    “You lack the necessary security clearance, General,” Casey added. He was standing straight, not quite at attention, but close.

    “Really.” Beckman’s expression didn’t change, but her tone grew even colder.

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “Uh… you see,” Chuck said, “It really was an emergency, and we’re bound to help protect the country from such threats, so we rendered any assistance needed to…”

    “...a foreign strike team?” the General finished for him. “Without permission or orders?”

    “Hey! We’re Americans!” Summers cut in. “Born in California! I could even become president if I wanted to!”

    “No one would vote for you,” Dr Summers said.

    Sarah clenched her teeth. This wasn’t the time to joke around! “Ma’am, you’re aware of our orders from the Secretary of Homeland Security.”

    “The order was to leave certain foreign intelligence assets alone.”

    “Well, we couldn’t actually sit around and let someone destroy Los Angeles, could we?” Chuck said. He looked angry, now, Sarah saw. “And as we said, you don’t have the needed clearance to know about this.”

    “As opposed to you, Agent Walker and Agent Casey.”

    “Uh, yes.” Chuck nodded. “Exactly!”

    “I’m their superior officer,” Beckman spat.

    “Yes, but you’re not our friend,” Summers replied. “Chuck is, and he’s vouching for Sarah and Casey, so we told them. And since we have the authority to decide whom we inform, it’s all hunky-dory.” She beamed at the general.

    “So you can tell me,” Beckman retorted with a glare at Dr Summers. Just what had the woman said to the general before they had arrived?

    “We could, but we won’t,” Rosenberg said. “No one’s vouching for you, after all.” The general glanced at Sarah and Casey, and Rosenberg frowned. “They’re your subordinates. That means that they can’t vouch for you, obviously.”

    “Well, they could, but we’d have to consider the imbalance of power there,” Dr Summers said. “Besides, if you need to know, your superiors will tell you,” she added with a rather pronounced smirk.

    “They don’t like the military,” Chuck whispered next to Sarah.

    She would have been able to tell without that.

    “That aside,” Beckman said - through clenched teeth, “I didn’t give you permission to let anyone use this facility.”

    “Hey, Madam General!” Summers stepped forward and stood with her hands on her hips. “Do you really want to make a fuss about us using your secret lair to save the city? Do you realise how stupid your complaint will sound?”

    “Complaint? I am the commanding officer of this mission!”

    “Oh! So you are planning to punish Sarah and Casey?” Rosenberg said rather than ask. “For saving the city? Typical! Is there something in the water at the Pentagon that turns people into stupidheads?”

    “Besides, all we have to do is ask nicely, and you’ll get ordered to transfer your base to us for the duration of the ‘save L.A.’ mission,” Dr Summers added.

    “Oh! Let’s do that!” Summers was almost bouncing on her high-heeled feet. Sarah couldn’t tell how she managed. “Do you want to do the honours, Willow?”

    “Let’s not,” Harris said. “We have a mission to focus on, haven’t we? We still have to defuse the ‘weapon’.”

    “What?” Beckman blurted out.

    “Ah, right.” Summers turned back to the general. “Yes, we eliminated the bad guys, but the thingy is still dangerous, so we need to deal with it. That’ll take a little longer. So, how about we do our job, you do yours - whatever that is, apart from glaring at people through a TV screen - and we share the base like mature people?” Her smile was anything but mature, in Sarah’s opinion.

    And Beckman’s expression clearly showed that she shared that view. But the general nodded - very curtly. “Alright.” The connection was cut without further words.

    Sarah closed her eyes.

    “Wow, you made her really angry, Dawn!” Summers said.

    “Did not! I was all polite-like! It’s not my fault she didn’t like getting told that she had no need to know - I didn’t make their rules!”

    This was bad. Very bad. So bad even Chuck noticed. “Will they fire you?” he asked in a low voice.

    “If they do, we’ll hire you!” Summers announced. Of course, the Slayer would have overheard.

    “They won’t,” Casey said. “Not yet. The Intersect is too important. And they don’t want to risk a leak.”

    “Ah, that is good, isn’t it?” Chuck said.

    Sarah pressed her lips together. Casey just scoffed.

    “Uh… they wouldn’t try to kill you, would they?” Chuck said.

    “Dead men don’t tell tales,” Casey said.

    “But…” Chuck looked around. “They know this would mean war?”

    “Only if they’re caught,” Casey said with a sneer.

    Sarah nodded. That was how things were done by spies. “Plausible deniability,” she said.

    “We’re not playing by those rules,” Summers said with a scowl. “We’re not spies. And they should know that, after Sunnydale.”

    Sarah refrained from rolling her eyes. “What matters is that the CIA and the NSA play by those rules. And would you honestly start a war with the USA if Casey or I die under suspicious circumstances, but you had no solid evidence?”

    “We can get evidence!” Summers said with a rather feral grin.

    “Yes. It’s not the safest use of magic, but we can find out whether or not the CIA killed you,” Rosenberg added. “I mean, hypothetically - I don’t think and, of course, I certainly don’t wish that either of you got killed, you know. It’s just, should something happen to you, we can check if General Grumpyhead was behind it.”

    “Letting future employees of the Council get killed without retaliation sets a very bad example,” Harris said.

    Ah. Sarah narrowed her eyes slightly, then forced herself to relax so she wouldn’t show her thoughts. Was that why Dr Summers had riled up the general? To drive Casey and Sarah into quitting and joining the Council more quickly? To make them need protection only the Council could grant them?

    Summers didn’t seem to be the type to play such games, but the best spies never did. And Summers was the one who took over the Council with her friends, according to Chuck. A bunch of kids barely in their twenties didn’t manage such feats unless they were far more skilled at subterfuge than they let on.

    “But…” Chuck shook his head. “You can tell the government to keep them in check, can’t you?”

    “We sure will!” Summers declared.

    “But the government doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to keeping their spies under control,” Dr Summers remarked.

    The woman was correct, though Sarah was also aware that many officially unsanctioned missions had actually been ordered by the government. Or at least tolerated.

    “But a direct order not to kill us will help, won’t it?” Chuck asked, looking at everyone present. Sarah was reminded that he was still somewhat naive when it came to the spy business.

    “They won’t be killing you, Bartowski,” Casey spat. “They need you.”

    “Uh… only until they have restored the Intersect,” Chuck replied.

    “And there’s Fulcrum to consider,” Sarah pointed out. “By moving against us, the Agency would lose a valuable asset in the struggle with that conspiracy.”

    Casey snorted. “They’ll consider us compromised already - barely better than Fulcrum.”

    And it would make it easier for Fulcrum to launch missions against them and Chuck.

    “Why can’t the government be reasonable for once?” Summers complained. Sarah almost expected her to stomp her foot. Which would probably damage the floor, now that she thought about it.

    “They wouldn’t be the government if they were,” Harris replied. “It’s probably in the constitution somewhere.”

    Casey growled while the Scoobies snickered.

    Sarah didn’t feel like laughing.

    *****​

    “Anyway, if we have to, we can take General Grumpyhead to a demon bar,” Willow said. “But I’d really prefer not to have her type know about demons and magic. She reminds me of Walsh.”

    “Ew!” Buffy made a face.

    Chuck shuddered as well. He hadn’t met the woman in question, but what he had heard about her work. He certainly hoped that Beckman wasn’t like that. “But we have to do something!”

    “I’ll call Giles and tell him to tell Mr Government to tell the general to call off her killers,” Buffy said, then frowned. “I didn’t forget any ‘to’s, did I?”

    “No, you didn’t,” Dawn said. “Now go and get yelled at by Giles!”

    “Yes… Hey! It’s not my fault! I shouldn’t get yelled at!” Buffy pouted.

    “You volunteered!” Xander said. “No take backs!”

    “Yep, B. Shouldn’t have volunteered.”

    “Anyway, get a move on, Buffy!” Dawn said. “We need that problem dealt with since we have to deal with the Lord of Slime.”

    Right. Chuck winced - after the revelation that the CIA might be sending killers after Sarah and Casey, he had briefly forgotten about the demon beneath the Buy More. “Uh… and how do we do that?” he asked.

    “Don’t mind me, I’ll listen in from the next room,” Buffy said as she stepped into the locker room.

    “Don’t worry, we wouldn’t stop on your behalf!” Dawn yelled back.

    “Hey!”

    “Anyway!” Xander said. “Slime Lord. Solutions?”

    “We need to banish him back to his realm,” Willow replied.

    “The realm of all slimes? Is that a special hell for politicians?”

    It wasn’t one of Xander’s better jokes, but Chuck snorted anyway. Once.

    “We don’t exactly know. Plinius didn’t say anything about it,” Dawn said. “But we have testimonies about past appearances in medieval times, and the book supposedly used to summon it. Unfortunately, the Council’s copy of the tome was destroyed when the First had the old headquarters blown up.”

    “Blown up? They used explosives?” Casey asked.

    “Some demons will use anything. Adam used magic machine guns,” Xander replied.

    Chuck was sure there was a flicker of envy on Casey’s face when the agent heard about magic guns. “So, we need to find another copy?” Chuck asked, to get back on topic.

    “Yes. And in a few days, or we’ll have to prepare plan b,” Willow said.

    “Plan b?” Sarah asked,

    “Plan B,” Faith said, grinning. “Hit it until it dies.”

    “It works every time!” Buffy yelled from the next room. “Sorry, Giles!”

    “The Lord of Slimes is in the middle of a giant compressed slimeball,” Chuck pointed out. “How would you even get into range?”

    “We’ll find a way,” Faith said, flashing her teeth, as she dismissed his concerns. “So… I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling hungry and horny.”

    And that was Chuck’s cue to leave.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 13th, 2007

    Ellie was out of her apartment’s door and moving towards them before they had finished parking the car. Yes, she had been waiting for them. Chuck winced before he got out of the car. “Hi, Sis!”

    “What happened?” she replied, frowning at him, then smiled at Sarah before he could answer. “They didn’t rag you into this… affair… as well, did they?”

    “Ah, no,” Sarah replied. “I let them use my store, though.”

    It was technically correct, Chuck guessed - he had been the one to drag her into the supernatural world, not the Scoobies. Unless you count indirect dragging - it had been the Scoobies who had told him about the truth behind Sunnydale’s ’weirdness’.

    “Good,” Ellie said. “They can handle it. They did handle it, I hope.”

    “Well…” Chuck began.

    “What happened?”

    “I was about to explain,” he replied, a little peeved. Ellie was worried, afraid, but she could let him finish, couldn’t she? “Anyway,” he continued after a moment, “They stopped a giant slime demon from burying the Buy More.” No need to go into details about his own role here. He hadn’t done much to speak of anyway.

    “That was why the store was evacuated?”

    “Uh, it was related - there were some attacks there, too. Morgan and Caridad handled the store.”

    “And what did you do?”

    “I helped Sarah.” Once more, technically true. Chuck still felt bad lying to Ellie. But next to lying to her about his work as a spy - or an intelligence asset, to be precise - this was a small thing. More or less.

    “Ah.” Ellie seemed to approve. “So, the ‘situation’ has been dealt with?”

    “Not entirely. They still need to figure out how to get rid of all the slime that came through a portal before they stopped it.”

    Ellie laughed at that. “I would suggest buckets. Lots of buckets.”

    “I could loan them a mop, too,” Sarah added with a giggle.

    Chuck forced himself to laugh as well.

    *****​

    “That was rather smooth, how you handled Ellie,” Sarah told him half an hour later, when they were eating their takeaway.

    “Uh, thank you.” Chuck wasn’t entirely sure - not at all, to be precise - if he wanted to be complimented for lying to his sister. But being told you did good by your girlfriend who was also one of the top spies of the CIA? That felt good. As long as it was honest - but then, Sarah didn’t really hold back with criticism during their training, did she? “So… just how bad is the situation with the general?”

    Sarah took the time to take another bite out of her pizza, chew and swallow before answering. “I don’t exactly know. But I don’t think they want to risk losing you.”

    “If they try to kill you, they’ll lose me for sure,” he said. “And I think I could tell if it was them thanks to this.” He pointed at his temple.

    She smiled at that. “It all depends on how Beckman will take the Council’s intervention.” Another bite. “And speaking of that: How good are the Scoobies at these kinds of politics?”

    She was worried - Chuck could tell. He did his best to smile reassuringly at her. “Don’t worry. That’s being handled by Giles, and he’s really good at that. He’s an experienced Watcher, and he basically rebuilt the Council, recruiting more Watchers, getting older Watchers out of retirement, that sort of thing.”

    “That’s good to know.”

    Her smile was a little forced, or so it seemed. Apparently, Chuck hadn’t managed to reassure her that Giles would have things in hand.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, December 14th, 2007

    “...so thanks to Giles’ friend’s information, we know the book was sold through the Barnes & Sons Auction House - which is a really sexist name, by the way, and they should really change it, I can’t believe they get much business in California in the twenty-first century with such a name. What if they have a daughter who wants to get into the family business? Anyway, we don’t know who bought the book, and since those sexist relics don’t use computers, I couldn’t just hack their records to find out. So, we have to use alternate means to acquire the information we need.”

    “Breathe, Willow,” Xander said.

    “I am breathing. I couldn’t talk if I didn’t breathe, could I?”

    Chuck wasn’t entirely certain if that was a good argument, but he decided to focus on the matter at hand and leave deciphering the mysteries of Willow’s talking speed to another day. “You mean we’ll have to break in and steal the records?”

    “Copy them,” Willow corrected him. “There’s no need to steal anything - even though that might teach them not to keep all their records on paper, probably in those horrible old-fashioned ledgers.”

    "Don’t let Giles hear you!” Xander laughed.

    Willow sniffed. “We’ll get him to use a computer sooner or later. With most of our records now in digital format, especially the microfilm copies of the main library we managed to recover, he doesn’t have a choice. He will have to adapt.”

    “Leaving Giles’ Luddite tendencies aside,” Dawn cut in, “we need to do this quickly. Once we know the name of the buyer, we still need to acquire the Tome of Orean.”

    “What if the buyer sold it in the meantime?” Sarah asked.

    “Then we’ll have to find the next buyer,” Willow said. “So, there’s no time to lose!”

    “That’s what I said!”

    “It bears repeating!”

    "Sounds like a standard mission,” Casey said with a grin - was it aimed at Faith? Chuck hadn’t paid attention to the NSA agent, and he had been actively trying to ignore Faith before Sarah got angry. Had Casey and Faith done it last night? No, Caridad wasn’t trying to kill her, so Chuck guessed they hadn’t.

    “Well, since they handle occult books often, we’ll have to expect some supernatural defences,” Willow said.

    That made Sarah and Casey frown, Chuck noticed.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown, December 14th, 2007

    “Welcome to Barnes & Sons, Mr Carmichael. I’m Anna Lopez.” The thirty-something woman greeting Chuck and Sarah was dressed well, though only in California would her skirt length have been called modest.

    “Thank you.” Chuck resisted the urge to add 'glad to be here' - sometimes he still felt as if it were a game when he was on a mission. But it wasn't a game.

    "How can we help you?"

    "I have recently acquired a few old books in a sale - they came with the house - and since my interests don't cover Latin books, I'm looking to sell them. Your firm was recommended to me by an acquaintance."

    “Ah!” The woman’s polite smile grew a little. “Our firm has handled such transactions before, to the satisfaction of our clients.”

    “So I was told.” He looked around as they walked over to the desk and flashed.

    “Who was it who referred you to us, if I may ask?”

    “Ah, an old friend of my late father. Rupert Giles,” Chuck replied.

    Lopez’s eyes widened a little - unless she was impressed by Giles’s academic efforts, this could be a hint that she knew about the supernatural. Many auction houses dealing with antiques had had incidents with cursed items, after all. At least Dawn claimed so. “Ah.”

    “Yes,” Chuck went on, “he bought a few old books himself, but said the rest would get better prices if I had them auctioned off.”

    “I agree.” Judging by the woman’s smile, she definitely knew about the supernatural and was relieved that Giles apparently had taken care of potentially dangerous tomes. Perhaps they could have simply asked for the name - but then, Dawn had also said that the firm was very discreet. Too discreet.

    “Oh, look, Charles!” Sarah piped up. “This scroll here would go so well with the leather couch! It’s the same tone!”

    “Really?” Chuck made a show of joining his girlfriend and peering at the old map. “Oh, it’s a map. How much is it?”

    “It’s an original map dating by to Vasco da Gama,” Lopez said, with a slightly strained smile. “It’s not for sale, actually.”

    “Aw!” Sarah did her best imitation of Harmony - Chuck had to suppress a shudder. “Are you sure?”

    “Yes, Miss,” Lopez replied. “It’s not for sale.”

    “Really? But it would fit our living room so well!”

    “Really, Miss.”

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Ah, so… how about we look at my books?” He pointed at his bag. Carmichael would have dropped it on the next table, but Dawn had warned him against damaging her books. Very thoroughly. And impressively.

    “Of course. If you would join me in my office?”

    “Of course.” That was why they were here, after all. He looked at the back wall and flashed. “Omega Mark 3 Security cameras, linked to a central server,” he whispered. “Laser sensors on the vault doors.” But they didn’t need the vaults.

    “Got it,” Sarah replied in a low voice as they followed Lopez into her office - which was quite a little larger than Chuck had expected. The woman must have a higher position in the firm than he had thought.

    “So…” He carefully put the bag on the table and opened it. “What do you think?”

    Lopez didn’t quite whistle, but she looked like she wanted to. Badly. “Is that an original ‘Ars Naturae’?”

    “A what?” Chuck acted as if Dawn hadn’t told him about every book.

    “One of the earliest surviving encyclopedias,” Lopez replied without looking at him. She was pulling on gloves now.

    Sarah cleared her throat. “Excuse me. Where is the toilet?”

    “What? Ah, down the hallway, left.” Lopez answered. “Oh, and a treatise by Newton?”

    Chuck smiled and nodded while Sarah sneaked out. She returned ten minutes later, although Chuck didn’t think Lopez had noticed anything outside the books he had on display.

    He almost felt bad for taking them away again, to ‘think this through’ after Sarah suddenly started talking about a collection.

    “Got it?” he asked as soon as they left the auction house.

    “Yes,” she replied, raising her bracelet with the hidden camera.

    Perfect. Mission accomplished. Like a real spy.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 14th, 2007

    “So, now we know that the book was sold to Trevor Martini. An ‘independently wealthy’ collector of antiques,” Willow said.

    “Is that a collector, or a ‘collector’?” Xander asked.

    “The second means a practitioner of magic or a demon, gathering artefacts and other dangerous items,” Chuck explained in a whisper to Sarah. She didn’t thank him, so she probably had guessed that already.

    “If he’s involved in the supernatural then he hasn’t made any waves in the area,” Phil replied. “Neither Caridad nor I have heard the name before today.”

    “He’s also not known in the usual circles competing with us for grimoires and other relics,” Dawn added.

    “So he might be a legitimate collector of antiques, then?” Chuck asked.

    Casey scoffed. “Always assume the worst.”

    Caridad nodded. “Yes.” She handed a plate of hot dogs over to Buffy and went back to make more - which was pretty much the reason this briefing was held in the Wienerlicious, and not The Castle, Chuck suspected, no matter how often Willow claimed they didn’t want to provoke Beckman further.

    “You’re an experienced man, indeed,” Faith added with a smile that made Chuck breathe a little more quickly even though it was aimed at the NSA agent. It also made Caridad scowl, he noticed. And Sarah, too. Oops.

    He cleared his throat. “So… how do we get the book we need?”

    “Well...you’re the spies, isn’t that what you do?” Buffy replied. “Getting whatever information is needed to save the world. Or at least the country.”

    “You want us to take the lead on this?” Sarah asked. “Even though there might be supernatural defences in place?”

    “Yes!” Buffy said. “Willow has to stay close to the lair so she can renew the spell, and we need two Slayers here to protect her during that time, but you can have one Slayer with you. Should be enough to deal with any trouble.”

    “I’ll go!” Caridad said.

    “You’re the one with a cover here,” Faith said. “And you’re known to the spies’ bosses. And I’ve got some experience with breaking into houses,” she added.

    “I also have experience with breaking in!” Caridad retorted. “And we’re going to do it at night, so the store’s closed anyway!”

    “And General Grumpypants doesn’t like anyone of us,” Dawn added.

    “And I have the most experience working with them!” Caridad said, putting both her hands on her hips.

    “Sounds to me that’s a reason for others to gain some experience working with our spies here,” Faith replied. She was smirking, but Chuck couldn’t tell if she was serious or merely yanking Caridad’s chain.

    “What for? You’ll fly out after this anyway!” Caridad sniffed. “It would be a waste of time.”

    “Oh, it would be anything but a waste of time, I’m sure.” The Slayer leered at Casey.

    “Faith! We’re talking about a break-in, not a…” Buffy trailed off.

    “A what, B?”

    “You know what I mean!”

    “I don’t. I’m talking about coordination and cooperation for a smooth experience - even though it might get a little rough,” Faith drawled while her grin showed more teeth than some demons.

    “I like it rough.”

    Chuck wasn’t the only one turning towards Casey. The NSA agent blinked, probably surprised himself at what he had blurted out.

    Faith smiled widely, and, for a moment, Chuck thought Caridad would attack the other Slayer. But then she turned around and stomped out of the store. Phil excused himself a moment later and followed her.

    “I guess that means I’m coming with you,” Faith said, sounding utterly unrepentant.

    “Ah, yes.” Casey sounded like he had second thoughts.

    “Good. Let’s go then - we have no time to waste. In and out and done. Just as I like it,” the Slayer said.

    Chuck exchanged a glance with Sarah. She seemed to share his bad feeling.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, December 14th, 2007

    “Have you noticed how many Santa Clauses are around? Even at this time of the evening?” Chuck shook his head. It had seemed that every street had one of them, coming, going, or standing there and asking for donations for something.

    “It’s the season, Bartowski,” Casey replied as he took another turn.

    “Boston had more,” Faith, who had commandeered the passenger seat up front, added.

    “I’m just wondering if that would be a decent cover for a mission. Who’s paying attention to Santa? After seeing half a dozen of them in the last half an hour? It might as well act as an SEP field.”

    “SEP field?” Sarah asked.

    “Somebody else’s problem,” Chuck started to explain. “It’s an invention of…”

    “The guy who wrote the Hitchhikers Guide!” Faith cut in. “Red made a spell like it, once, but it wasn’t working out right. People forgot all about the area, wandered off, then remembered what they were doing and returned… it was a funny loop, but not exactly subtle.”

    “That sounds like it was a good start,” Chuck commented.

    “Well…” Faith shrugged. “She would have had to have it mess with memories to work right.”

    “And?” That shouldn’t be too hard, should it? Chuck thought.

    “Red doesn’t like memory spells.”

    “Ah.” Chuck didn’t really got what that meant, but he understood what her tone meant: That the Scoobies didn’t like to talk about it. “So… no Santa disguise?”

    “We can dress you up as one of his elves,” Casey said. “And let the opposition laugh themselves to death.”

    It wasn’t really funny, in Chuck’s opinion. Not at all. Faith probably was just laughing because she wanted to sleep with Casey. Not that he would say that, of course. Faith had a reputation for sex and violence, after all.

    Ten minutes and another Santa later, they reached their destination - the home of Martini. It was an older villa, different from the current style preferred by the stars du jour. A tall wall and dense garden surrounded a house that would have fit better into an old town on the East Coast. “He really wants that Old Money impression,” he commented. Martini had made his fortune as a stock trader in New York.

    “Many of the nouveaux riches do,” Sarah agreed.

    “Discuss the architecture later and focus on the security systems,” Casey barked. “Let’s split up and do some recon.”

    They had satellite pictures, and Willow had found a ‘Home’ article depicting the house shortly after it had been built, but none were up to date. “So…” Chuck nodded across the street. “We’ll take left, and you’ll take right?”

    Casey snorted, as if Chuck had made a joke, but agreed, and they split up.

    “Let’s hope Faith doesn’t distract Casey too much,” Chuck commented five minutes later when Sarah and he were observing the back of the house from a hundred and fifty yards away, hidden by some scrubby bushes. Far enough for Slayer hearing to miss his words. So he hoped, anyway.

    “He’s too professional for that,” Sarah replied. She was studying the door in the wall there through binoculars, as was Chuck himself.

    He made an agreeing noise. He heard the implied rebuke, too. Focus on the job, not on your team members’ social lives, got it. Or Sarah was simply tired of the Slayers.

    “Do you think she’s really interested?” Sarah asked a minute later.

    Perhaps Chuck had misinterpreted her. He cleared his throat. “I don’t know. I never knew Faith very well. She wasn’t at school with us.” And he wouldn’t go into details about the reasons for that. “It could be that she just wants Casey because Caridad is interested and Faith wants to show her who’s boss. Slayers are big on the ‘pack order’.” Xander had told him that, once. During the Wolfram and Hart affair, Chuck recalled. When an army of Slayers had descended on Los Angeles.

    “‘Pack order’?”

    “Yes. Dominance plays and such.”

    “You make it sound as if they’re animals.”

    “Uh…” That was a comparison one should never utter near a Slayer. “Not like that. It’s just that they are all highly competitive. Remember Caridad going on about ‘poaching’ in her town?”

    “That sounds like a predator behaving claiming a territory.”

    “Well…” Best to change the topic. “Perhaps Faith just wants a fling with the guy close to getting testosterone poisoning?”

    Sarah snorted at that. Good.

    *****​

    The wall was tall and topped with ornamental but functional spikes. But the garden had grown a little too much and would hide their approach to the house, once they were over the wall. Of course, it would also hide traps and other nasty surprises, like guard dogs.

    But Sarah had dealt with such obstacles before. Easily. They wouldn’t be much of a problem.

    She hadn’t dealt with magical defences, though. Those would be tricky. An SEP field… She imagined falling victim to one such spell, wandering around in a confused haze, and pressed her lips together. What could you do against such traps? Lehane had mentioned that Rosenberg hadn’t pursued that spell further, but that didn’t mean others didn’t have similar tricks.

    Sarah really could do without her mind being magically controlled - or wiped. The worst was that she couldn’t spot any magical traps. She could tell where the cameras and other sensors of the security system were - they had to cover certain angles and she knew how they worked and what they could do, and Martini would have hired competent people to install his security. She could also tell how to circumvent them. But how did you check for magic? She didn’t know what rules governed magic, or what limitations it had.

    And she hated it.

    She keyed her radio. “Back route looks good,” she whispered. “The wall’s half-hidden by the trees, and the back door has a standard lock. Three cameras, none of them with overlocking areas.”

    “Amateur hour,” Casey commented through the radio. “Front’s covered better, but not by much.”

    “Isn’t that weird?” Chuck asked. She didn’t have to look at him to know he was frowning in that ‘I’m thinking’ manner of his. “Shouldn’t a man with as much money as Martini protect his home a little better?”

    “It’s enough to keep out the kind of trash that would actually bother burglarising his home,” Casey replied. “And he doesn’t have the money to keep out the real pros.”

    Like top spies, Sarah thought.

    “But there wasn’t any report of even an attempted break-in in the files we got.” Chuck was being stubborn. “And it’s not exactly in the middle of Hollywood. So… wouldn’t someone have tried, at least?”

    He had a point. Sarah pressed her lips together and narrowed her eyes. Perhaps…

    “Could be they break in, but never get out,” Lehane said, finishing Sarah’s thoughts.

    Casey’s curse told her that he had come to the same conclusion. “Good thinking, Chuck,” Sarah said.

    “It doesn’t change anything,” Casey went on. “We still need to get in, get the book, and get out.”

    “And we will.” Lehane snorted. “We just might get to kill whatever monster the guy’s feeding burglars to, too.”

    She sounded as if she was looking forward to the experience. Sarah didn’t approve - adrenaline junkies were the worst partners. The trouble Carina had gotten Sarah involved in the past proved that, though with Carina, it was also her impulsiveness and impatience, of course.

    Which, Sarah realised, would fit every Slayer she had met so far as well. Great. “Well, unless we want Los Angeles to be flooded with slime, we need to move,” she said. “Meet at our position.”

    A few minutes later, they were making their way to Martini’s backyard by crawling, using he scarce, dry bushes and the larger rocks littering the area as cover. Another sign of sloppy security, Sarah thought - these plants should have been cleared. On the other hand, Martini hadn’t even bothered with keeping the area near his backyard from ruining his security…

    She reached the wall and pressed herself against it, inching her way to the side until she could see the camera supposedly covering the area. It had a blind spot large enough to stand up in - and Sarah did exactly that. A minute later, the camera was looped. “Done,” she whispered into her radio.

    “Going in,” Lehane replied. Then the Slayer jumped over the wall, easily clearing the spikes. And, Sarah thought as she pressed her lips together, the woman probably has been taking care not to jump too high to be covered by the trees...

    “Clear,” the Slayer reported at once. “Can’t see, smell or sense anything in the garden. Come on over.”

    Grappling hooks got the rest of them over the wall, though Chuck had to be pushed over by Casey, with Sarah helping him over the spikes. She made a mental note to focus a little more on climbing than running in their training before she had to focus on the mission at hand again.

    One camera at the house, and another ‘hidden’ on the almost over-grown gazebo. Neither posed any challenge. But they weren’t the same type. Either Martini had updated his security at one point, or he’d had to replace part of it.

    The lock on the back door looked brand new, too. Lehane bent down and sniffed it. Frowning, she straightened, “Smells like a slime demon.”

    “What are the odds that Martini’s corpse is lying in the freak’s lair, compressed into a thin paste by tons of slime?” Casey asked.

    “Or rotting inside his home, his book stolen by slime demons?” Sarah pointed out.

    “Let’s find out!” Lehane replied.

    Like the cameras, the lock wasn’t an obstacle to a trained spy, and Casey had to door open in less than a minute. It opened into a kitchen, though it didn’t look like it had been used recently.

    But before Sarah could move further, Chuck flashed.

    *****​

    Chuck shook his head, blinking. “Uh, guys… there’s a LaserTrack-2000 security system hidden inside the kitchen. Who would install such a system in his kitchen?”

    “Someone who wants to catch thieves inside his house,” Casey replied, baring his teeth.

    “What does it do?” Faith asked. “Shooting lasers?”

    “Uh, no,” Chuck explained. “It is a sophisticated motion detection system. Very sensitive. Could track a Slayer as well.”

    The Slayer chuckled. “He must have been very concerned about midnight food runs.”

    “I doubt that it has a line to the police, but we can’t assume that Martini’s dead. So we can’t risk triggering it,” Casey said.

    “Let’s see how much it covers,” Sarah said, pulling a can out of her backpack. She aimed the can at the centre of the kitchen, then pressed the top. The fine mist that started to fill the room allowed them to spot the lasers covering the kitchen - the entire dozen of them.

    Chuck swallowed - they had to get past that?

    Faith, though, didn’t seem to worry. “Nice trick!” she said. “So, how do I turn it off?”

    “The controls are usually protected by a code reader,” Chuck replied, still, staring at the web of lasers crisscrossing the room.

    “Hm.” Faith looked at Sarah. “You up for some gymnastics?”

    Sarah not-quite-glared at the Slayer, Chuck noticed, as she nodded, baring her teeth. “Yes.”

    Faith moved through the room like a hot knife through butter. Or something like it. The Slayer dashed forward, jumped, rolled, then jumped again, landing in a crouch next to the door leading into the rest of the house.

    Chuck wasn’t really watching her, though. He was watching Sarah. The spy - his girlfriend - took it more slowly, moving with precision and timing - and a grace, that, to Chuck looked more impressive than the supernatural smoothness of a Slayer. And she looked great doing it, even though she took half a minute to clear the room. And another thirty seconds to disable the lasers.

    “Now where would he keep the book?” Chuck wondered when they entered the corridor behind the kitchen.

    “Basement. Bad guys always hide things in the basement,” Faith replied, already headed towards the stairs up ahead. She sniffed the air and cocked her head. “Doesn’t look like there’s anyone home.”

    “But smart bad guys would try to subvert that,” Chuck protested as he followed the others downstairs.

    “Most bad guys aren’t exactly smart,” the Slayer retorted. “And that doesn’t look like the man’s concerned about his wine,” she added, pointing at the sturdy metal door at the bottom.

    Once more, it took Sarah less than a minute to pick the lock, then Faith pushed the door open, revealing a room that perfectly fit the ‘mad scientist’ or ‘evil wizard’ cliché: Massive tables - some with restraints - cages containing what looked like human remains - Chuck shuddered - beakers, rows of vials and bottles containing weird ingredients, and… no, there wasn’t a shelf full of books, actually.

    But there was a safe.

    “I think we found our cultist leader,” Faith said, pointing at something in a cage. Something that looked like a half-formed human. No, a half-formed construct, Chuck realised.

    Which was starting to move. As were the others in the room.

    *****​
     
    James Wilt, mauke, JamesEye and 3 others like this.
  14. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Indeed, I think they can mesh very well. And yes - Chuck's not a badass. Not yet, in any case.
     
    JamesEye and Prince Charon like this.
  15. Threadmarks: Chapter 10: The Season Part 5
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 10: The Season Part 5

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, December 14th, 2007

    “Guys!” Chuck yelled - but everyone else was already moving as slimes flowed through bars and cages swung open, releasing more monsters. A kick from Faith shattered the molten head of the closest construct, sending it reeling while she whirled around, grabbed a chair and hurled it into a half-slime something that was oozing down a table. Casey and Sarah were falling back towards the door, weapons ready but not firing.

    “Chuck!”

    Right. He quickly joined them before he could end as slime food - or collateral damage of Faith’s attack; she had already pulverised a table.

    And she seemed to enjoy it - as Chuck took cover behind the spies, he saw the Slayer grin ferally. “Don’t worry!” she yelled as she crushed a ‘core’ of a construct with her bare hands, “I’ll be finished in no time!”

    True to her words, the construct collapsed and started to melt, joining the others already reduced to puddles on the floor. Growing puddles, Chuck noticed. “Uh…”

    Faith shattered another core, and the slime puddle grew even more - covering half the floor now.

    Chuck blinked. If that slime was adhesive or poisoned… Or, he added as he watched a table leg starting to sink into the puddle, dissolving as it did so, acidic… “Faith! Watch the slime on the floor! It dissolves stuff!”

    “What? Fuck!” Faith leapt on the next table and used a roundhouse-kick to fling another construct into a wall.

    Casey muttered a curse next to him and backed off further, pushing Chuck towards the stairs. Chuck slid around. He had to observe.

    “Chuck! Be careful!” Sarah said, joining him.

    He quickly calculated a few things. There were about half a dozen slime-constructs in various stages left. And more than half the floor was covered in slime already. If Faith finished all of them off, then the entire floor would be covered. That would make getting to the safe complicated. “We might have to get climbing gear,” he told the others, “if we want to crack that safe.”

    Nearby, a metal pole started to tilt, then crashed into the slime, the bottom half-dissolved already.

    “And we need to do it right now!” Chuck blurted out. “The slime’s dissolving metal too. If it starts on the safe… Or we can use the stones from the garden as stepping stones! The slime doesn’t dissolve stone! Easier to use than the climbing gear.”

    “They’re too heavy,” Casey objected.

    “I can carry them!” Fatih yelled, crushing another core. “But it’ll be a close call. Fuckers are stubborn!”

    “Let’s get the climbing gear now - she can fetch stones once she’s done,” Sarah said.

    Casey was already pulling out… a crossbow? Modern model, Chuck noticed. And a grappling hook - of course!

    A moment later, the agent had it aimed and fired, and bolt appeared in the back wall, above the safe, with a line fastened to it. Three seconds and a grunt as Casey recocked the crossbow later, a second bolt trailing a line joined the first.

    And Sarah was about to finish fastening her climbing harness.

    Chuck clenched his teeth.

    *****​

    Sarah finished getting ready, watching as Lehane smashed another construct, then had to jump off a toppling table and perch on a slowly sinking shelf while the last two constructs ambled - or flowed, in the case of the legless one - towards her. “Almost done!” the Slayer yelled.

    And the way to the safe was clear - more or less. Sarah took a deep breath and hooked her harness to the lines Casey had secured.

    “Sarah…” Chuck trailed off.

    She looked at him and smiled. “We can’t wait for the Slayer to finish and then get the rocks down here.” She didn’t need to be a genius to calculate how fast the slime ate through metal.

    “I heard that!” Faith yelled, then launched herself into a jump-kick, smashing a construct’s head, propelling herself into the air once more and landing with both booted feet on the second, flattening its upper half.

    “Be careful,” Chuck said, biting his lips.

    She nodded, hesitated a moment, then grabbed him for a quick kiss. “You too,” she whispered. Then she hooked herself to the lines and pushed off, sliding along the line towards the safe. She had to pull up her legs to avoid touching the growing pool of slime on the ground, but only for a second or two before she hit the wall, feet first.

    She spent a second checking the bolts that held the lines, then used her harness to descend, upside down, towards the safe’s door. Below her, the slime was already lapping against the safe’s base.

    No pressure, she thought with a grin and started to work on the lock. Which was, she discovered to her dismay, a little more sophisticated than the locks on the doors. Not impossible to pick, of course - far from it.

    But, she added to herself, holding a small flashlight in her teeth as she started to work, with the safe already beginning to tilt as part of its base was being dissolved, it might take time she didn’t have.

    *****​

    Chuck bit his lips until he tasted blood. The safe was now imitating the Tower of Pisa, and Sarah was still - hanging upside down - working on its lock. In the other corner of the room, Faith was finishing the last construct by ramming a wrecked chair through its core. The construct collapsed, and Chuck could see it dissolve into slime as the pieces sunk into the pool on the floor.

    “Hurry!” he yelled. “Get the rocks from the garden!”

    “Yeah, yeah!” the Slayer snapped as she jumped off a sinking table, landed on the remains of a shelf - which her boots smashed into the slime - and jumped off again before the slime could touch her. She twisted in the air, hit the wall - not quite running - and jumped off again in a display of athletics rarely seen outside video games and Hong Kong movies, landing next to Chuck and Casey. “Be right back!” she snapped - and she was gone.

    And Chuck was back to watching Sarah and worrying. The safe was tilting even more now, any moment it would topple, crushing Sarah. “We should drop something heavy on the backside of the safe’s roof,” he said. “Make it stop tilting forward. Gain some time.” The added weight pressing down on the safe wouldn’t do much to speed up the sinking, would it?

    “Yeah, we’ll just wiggle our noses and blink, and teleport an anvil over, right?” Casey, watching the ropes, scoffed.

    “It was just an idea,” Chuck defended himself. Perhaps Faith could drop the first rock… “Faith! She can drop a rock in front of the safe, and stop the tilting!”

    “And block the safe’s door,” Casey retorted.

    “Uh…”

    “Walker’s a skilled spy; she knows what she’s doing,” Casey added in a whisper.

    Chuck blinked. That had sounded almost… The NSA agent wasn’t looking at him, but Chuck smiled at him anyway.

    For a moment. Then a curse from Sarah made him whirl around. She was swinging from her harness, apparently having pushed off the safe - which was now slowly tilting forward. “Sarah!”

    “Almost!” she spat, swinging forward and grabbing the handle on the safe again.

    Chuck held his breath. The safe would topple over any moment now…

    Sarah wriggled something in the lock, then put her boot against the tilting safe’s frame and pulled the door open.

    But that was too much for the safe - it fell over - until the open door hit the ground and stopped the fall. And Sarah lowered herself further, and almost crawled inside the safe.

    “No!” Chuck yelled. The door was already melting in the slime. All it did was slowing the collapse.

    Next to him, Casey cursed.

    “Sarah!”

    She wasn’t listening. She would become trapped inside the safe, the slime would reach her if she wasn’t crushed first…

    “Sarah!”

    “Holy shit!” Faith was back, carrying a huge rock - as big as Chuck’s torso.

    “Can you throw it and block the safe from toppling?” Chuck asked.

    “Fuck, no!” Faith cursed, dropping the stone about two yards from the stairs into the slime. Then she stared at Sarah.

    Chuck was about to yell at her to get the next rock when the door suddenly slipped, and the entire safe followed it.

    “Sarah!” Chuck yelled as Faith jumped on the rock in front of them.

    But in the last second, Sarah managed to push off and back, her foot almost getting caught by the safe’s frame as she swung back, dangling from her harness inches above the slime.

    And Chuck started to breathe again.

    “She’s got a book!” Faith announced, but he didn’t care. All he cared was that Sarah was safe.

    “There was only one book inside the safe that looked old enough,” Sarah said as she reached them, patting the bag dangling from her hips which - supposedly contained the tome.

    Chuck didn’t even bother looking; he moved to hug her. “Don’t do that again!” he whispered. “I almost died watching you.”

    “She almost died doing it,” Faith said. “Now stop hugging and let’s see if you got the right book.”

    As it turned out, it was the correct book.

    Chuck still didn’t care.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 14th, 2007

    “So, Morty was the cultist leader… or the cultist Frankenstein. Or both.”

    “Martini,” Dawn corrected Buffy.

    The Slayer glared at her. “Anyway, Marky made those constructs. And had the book in his safe. And with his body being slime-food in the lair below, that’s one loose end tied off already,” she declared. “Good work, spies!”

    “I was there as well,” Faith added from the counter, where she was emptying an entire bottle of ketchup on a stack of half a dozen hot dogs.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Shouldn’t we have this talk below? In The Castle, not the lair.” People would notice them. Had noticed them, actually - a security guard had come by but had left after being told this was a private party.

    “And get ketchup stains all over your carpet?” Dawn shook her head. “The general’s been mad enough at us already.”

    “We don’t actually have a carpet there, do we?” Chuck asked. He didn’t remember there being a carpet.

    “I didn’t mean literally. But you know how messy hungry Slayers are,” Dawn went on. “They’ll get condiments all over your shiny computers.”

    “Uh.” Chuck winced, then nodded. That was a good reason to feed the Slayers in Sarah’s store.

    “Hey!”

    “Let’s get on with the debriefing,” Casey snapped. And, wonder of wonders, the bickering stopped. Although with lots of pouting.

    “Shouldn’t Willow be here for that?” Chuck asked.

    “She’s renewing the sealing spell,” Buffy explained. “Xander and Caridad are covering her.”

    “Oh.” Chuck frowned. Was that within the expected intervals, or was the frequency increasing? More than anticipated?

    “Relax,” Dawn told him before he could work it out. “We got plenty of time to study the book and figure out how to banish the Lord of Slimey back to his home dimension.”

    “Wouldn’t want to have Spygirl here have risked her life and Chuck’s sanity for nothing,” Faith added - apparently having finished her hotdogs already.

    “I’m not ‘Spygirl’,” Sarah said with a glare.

    Faith chuckled and sat on the counter, letting her legs dangle. “You’re the only female spy here. And spy-woman sounds like a Marvel character.”

    “Oh! Xander’s been rubbing off on you?” Dawn cut in. “You sound like an expert!”

    The Slayer glared at her while Buffy snickered. “You can’t not pick stuff up around him.”

    “Mhh.”

    Faith rolled her eyes and jumped down. “Anyway. My job’s done. You don’t need me for the reading and studying stuff. I got the hungry taken care of. That leaves the horny.” She grinned at Casey. “You up for some fun, spyboy? Or getting cold feet?”

    Casey bared his teeth at the Slayer. “I’m always up for fun.”

    “Let’s go then. Your flat. Unless you want to do it on the fancy spy table below.”

    “My apartment.”

    Chuck sighed as the two walked out. There would have been no way for Mr Macho to turn that offer down. Not the way Faith had asked. But Caridad wouldn’t like it. Not at all.

    “She’s not exactly thinking much,” Dawn said. “Not right after a fight.” She shrugged with a sigh. “She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

    That wasn’t much of a consolation, of course. On the other hand, Casey was single. And it wasn’t as if Caridad had indicated any interest beyond Faith’s desire for some fun without ties. You couldn’t exactly claim dibs on people, after all. Well, some tried, but they usually grew past that after high school. Chuck sighed. “So, all we have to do now is to wait?”

    “More or less,” Buffy said. “And celebrate your successful mission, of course! Drinks and food on the house!” she added with a beaming smile.

    Sarah cleared her throat.

    “Oops.”

    “Well done, Buffy. Offer the spy-lady her own food and drink?” Dawn sighed. “Please excuse my sister. She doesn’t think at all.”

    “Hey!”

    *****​

    “...and then we heard the mission was a success and aborted our own,” Morgan finished his explanation. “And here we are!”

    “The curator was receptive to our proposal in general, but grew, understandably, suspicious when young Mr Grimes asked for immediate access to the museum’s recently acquired collection,” Phil added.

    “It wouldn’t have done us any good if we had been allowed to help catalogue it a week from now,” Morgan defended himself. “Besides, it all worked out!”

    “We might have found other dangerous or valuable tomes,” Phil retorted. “The late Mr Graves was a known collector of the occult.”

    “He was named ‘Graves’? That’s, like, almost a sure sign of badness,” Buffy said.

    “You can’t judge people after their names, Buffy,” Dawn said.

    “Of course I can - it works more often than not! And hey! Everyone judges me for my name!”

    “Only until they know you.”

    “Right.” Buffy nodded.

    “Then they judge you for your character - or lack thereof.”

    “Hey! Says Miss Sarcasm 2007!”

    “Yes.”

    Fortunately, Willow, who looked like she had just run five miles under the sun at noon in summer, Xander and Caridad’s return broke up the latest intra-sister conflict before it escalated to either a food fight or name-calling.

    Unfortunately, Caridad sniffed the air, looked around, then at the door to the secret passage leading to the Castle.

    “They went home,” Buffy answered her unspoken question with a grimace. “Mr Spy’s home.”

    Chuck could see Caridad clench her teeth. And he wasn’t quite certain that the crunching sound was just his imagination.

    “Please tell us how the renewing of the spell went, dear,” Phil said. “I believe Miss Rosenberg is set on starting her research immediately.”

    “Oh, yes! You found the book, then? Great!”

    “You just have to get it away from Dawn without her biting you,” Buffy said.

    “Funny,” Dawn replied. “Very funny.”

    “It should be.”

    “Settle down! We’ve got research to do!” Willow looked better - but Xander was hovering near her and Dawn’s table, so that was probably just her enthusiasm pushing her.

    Well, the Scoobies could handle that, Chuck knew. But that left Caridad.

    “We went down to the lair, and Willow did her thing. No demons or other threats were around, and I didn’t smell anyone else either. Then we came back,” she said in a flat voice. “I’ll go patrolling now.”

    She was out of the door without waiting for a response. Chuck almost pitied the demons out and about.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 15th, 2007

    It was past midnight when they arrived home, and Chuck was feeling a weird mix of exhaustion and restlessness. Or nervousness. Perhaps some guilt, too, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. And a lot of relief and worry whenever he thought of Sarah risking her life.

    At least Ellie and Devon were asleep already, and Casey… Better not go there, he thought. Casey would be with Faith. Busy. And Caridad would be prowling the city for demons to kill, to vent her anger.

    “Will Caridad be alright?” Sarah asked as they entered the apartment, as if she’d read his thoughts.

    “What?” He blinked.

    “She seemed quite upset when she stormed out. That’s not a good state to be in when fighting.”

    “Oh.” Sarah was right - Caridad might be too reckless tonight. He drew a breath through his teeth. “Well, most demons will be hiding. Most dangerous demons. News of the Scoobies’ presence has made the rounds, so the smarter demons will have left or gone to ground.” So he hoped, at least.

    “And the demons who think this is a good opportunity to attack?” Sarah asked. “The slime cultists weren’t particularly scared.”

    “Uh…” He sighed and sat down on their bed. “There shouldn’t be any such demons left in a city with a resident Slayer?” He caught her expression and winced. There wasn’t much they could do but hope for the best.

    Just as Chuck hadn’t been able to do anything earlier.

    Sarah started to get ready for bed. Usually, that was a sight Chuck enjoyed very much. But today? He couldn’t help thinking of the safe falling on her, trapping her, crushing her… while he was watching, helplessly.

    “What’s wrong?” Sarah suddenly asked.

    Right, she was a trained spy. Noticing things was what she did. Like risking her life. He sighed again. “Will it always be like today? Being a spy, I mean.”

    “You mean risking your life?”

    “More like watching you risk yours,” he replied.

    “Ah.”

    He didn’t like the way she paused. Not at all.

    “Sometimes,” she went on. “Not every time.”

    “But often enough.” He pressed his lips together.

    “It’s part of the job,” she told him. “Spying is dangerous.”

    “It’s not the danger I mind,” he replied. “It’s the feeling of being helpless. Useless.”

    “You’re not,” she said, frowning at him.

    “I know. Intellectually, that is.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “I know that I - or, rather, the guest in my head - can help you. But it doesn’t feel like it, you know?”

    “Casey and Lehane could only watch either,” she said. “There wasn’t enough room for two to work on the safe.”

    “That doesn’t help,” he said.

    “Being a spy means you’ll have to sit back and wait - or watch - as others risk their lives,” Sarah said. She was smiling, if a little sadly, but her tone was firm, or so he thought. “You can’t do everything by yourself.” She slid into the bed and under the covers.

    “I know.” He didn’t sound petulant. Not really. But he didn’t know if he could bear it.

    He did know, though, that he couldn’t bear losing Sarah.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, December 15th, 2007

    “We need more M72s,” Casey said. “And more grenades.”

    “And an M2!” Summers yelled from the ‘temporary dorm area”, as the part of the base where the Scoobies on duty were sleeping - or sleeping on duty, as Harris called it - was called. By Harris, of course.

    Sarah rolled her eyes.

    “And a Barret!” the blonde Slayer added. “And a minigun!”

    “A minigun for a mini-Slayer?” Dr Summers had to add, apparently.

    “Says Dr Beanpole.”

    Sarah tuned them out. “Headquarters won’t like delivering so much ordnance without a detailed report,” she said.

    “They do it all the time,” Casey replied. “Classified mission, end of story.”

    “This time, the general herself doesn’t know about it,” Sarah pointed out. That meant bureaucrats would be encouraged to use whatever leverage they could get to gather information.

    Casey didn’t try to defend Beckman, He grunted. “They still will have to restock or armoury.”

    “Eventually,” Sarah replied.

    “If they drag their feet too long, we can go through the Council,” Casey said.

    Sarah looked at him and raised her eyebrows. After a moment, he frowned and glanced towards the locker area. Both of them knew the Slayers present would hear whatever they said.

    That made discussing how they were relying more and more on the Council awkward. And they had to discuss it. They were planning to join anyway, but Sarah didn’t like getting manipulated. And she doubted that Casey liked it any better.

    She finished filling out the requisition forms, changed into her waitress uniform, then headed upstairs. It was time to open the store.

    Caridad was already there, heating up the grill, Sarah noticed when she entered Wienerlicious. The Slayer’s scowl only slightly lessened when she saw Sarah. “Morning.”

    “Good morning,” Sarah replied.

    Caridad grumbled something Sarah didn’t catch and didn’t think she needed to know. “Any progress on the banishing?” the Slayer asked after a moment.

    Sarah shook her head. “Not that I’ve heard.” She hadn’t expected any, either. Rosenberg had been very tired, after all.

    Caridad huffed. “They should hurry.”

    Sarah couldn’t help thinking that the Slayer was more concerned about the Scoobies leaving the city as soon as possible than about banishing the Lord of Slime.

    Caridad huffed again, then sighed and put the first batch of hot dog on the grill. Sarah was about to point out that they wouldn’t need that many hot dogs at this time in the morning - they wouldn’t open for fifteen more minutes, and they hadn’t many customers who wanted a hot dog for breakfast. Then she remembered that Caridad wasn’t cooking for customers.

    Nor was the Slayer cooking for herself. Less than a minute after she had started grilling sausages, Summers appeared in the storage room, sniffing the air as if she were a dog. “Oh! That smells yummy!” A moment later, she was standing at the grill. “I’ll have two with everything!”

    “Those are for me,” Caridad snarled. “Wait your turn!”

    “Hey!” Summers shied away, raising her hands. “Didn’t you have breakfast already?”

    Caridad’s answer was a growl.

    Sarah was tempted to hand out some desserts as snacks but decided against it. That might only prompt the Slayers to raid the fridge as well as the hot dog supplies. If they weren’t already doing it. Sarah frowned, then went to check the fridge. And then fetched the forms to order more ice cream.

    She was still sitting at her and Chuck’s break table, filling out the forms - and calculating how much of her budget this would take, and how she could explain that to the general without getting accused of graft - when Grimes entered the store.

    “Wow! Did you guys see what Caridad did to Caritas? Oh, hi, Caridad! Impressive work, there.”

    “Uh… thanks.”

    The Slayer didn’t exactly look proud, Sarah noticed.

    “You burned Caritas down again?” Summers exclaimed after swallowing her third or fourth hotdog. “Without telling us?”

    “I didn’t burn it down!” Caridad replied. “I just had a fight inside.”

    “But the club’s closed for a week!” Grimes said, smiling widely. “You must have completely wrecked the furniture!”

    “I only put a bouncer through the stage when they interfered with my investigation. The rest were just tables and chairs. And the wet bar.”

    “You wrecked Caritas? Without telling us?” Harris was standing in the door to the storage room.

    “Don’t make it sound as if you wanted in!” That was Rosenberg. “It’s important to encourage demons to peacefully integrate into society. Caritas is a good first step, even if it isn’t - or wasn’t? - perfect.” She pushed past Harris to glare at Caridad. “Really, I found that Lorne is perfectly reasonable if you talk to him.”

    “That’s because you’re Willow. Everyone’s reasonable if you ask,” Harris said. “Also, if the bar’s still standing, then you didn’t win the pool.”

    “You bet on Caritas’s destruction?” Grimes asked. “After telling Caridad off for busting a few demons?”

    “I started the betting pool, and I put down the rule that if you wrecked the bar, you couldn’t profit from it. That way, Buffy wouldn’t go and start trouble there,” Rosenberg said. She was blushing a little, though.

    “You still expected it to get wrecked,” Harris pointed out.

    “I was only being realistic,” the witch replied.

    “Sure you were, you little bookie, you!” Harris grinned.

    “Willow! Gambling! Betting money on others’ misfortune! I’m shocked!” Summers claimed with a gasp.

    “Hey! You were the first to place a bet!”

    “I trusted you to keep everything above board!”

    “She’s sneaky. Always was. Did I ever tell you how she sabotaged our third-grade teacher’s lesson, then framed Cordy for it?” Harris chuckled.

    “I had to! She was teaching from an outdated book! And Cordy was mean!” Rosenberg defended herself.

    “You’re claiming self-defence?” Summers shook her head.

    “Defence of others! I had already read the correct book.”

    “And so you made them read a second book? That’s assault! Or torture!”

    “That was your fault?” Grimed chimed in. “I’m still traumatised!”

    “Hey! That was over ten years ago!”

    “That we still remember it should tell you how traumatic it was!”

    Sarah shook her head at the Scoobies’ antics. She’d seen worse, of course, from other spies or some soldiers - or marks.

    And she took note of the fact that none of the Scoobies mentioned Faith and Casey. Or teased Caridad.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 15th, 2007

    Chuck was wheezing like an old man when they neared their home. At least it was winter - if he were doing this in summer, he’d probably be dead. Of course, winter wouldn’t last forever, so he could only hope that he would be in better shape in a few months.

    “Let’s slow down,” Sarah said.

    “No!” he protested. “Let’s… fin…ish… this!” he managed to say.

    “You’re about to collapse.”

    “I… can… do…”

    “Ellie will kill me if she sees you like this,” she interrupted him.

    No - his sister would kill him. He slowed down. And sat down. “I was always a good runner. I let myself go,” he said after a minute when he had recovered his breath.

    “You’re a sprinter, not a long-distance runner.”

    That was true. If things went wrong in Sunnydale, you either managed to reach a safe place quickly or not at all. “I guess so…”

    “You also doubled our normal distance.”

    “We’ve been doing this for a while,” he said. “Time to step it up, right?” He looked at her. She wasn’t exhausted, but she was covered in sweat. And she looked beautiful. He was probably smiling like an idiot.

    “That means adding a little, not doubling.” She smiled at him and sat down as well. “So… what brought this on?”

    Uh. “Why did you let me double the distance, then?” he asked instead of answering her question.

    “So you’d learn to listen to me.”

    “I always listen to you!” he protested.

    “Not when you’re set on something,” she replied. She was still smiling, though. “Which isn’t always a bad thing,” she admitted. “But when it comes to training?” She shook her head. “I know how to train.”

    “And I don’t.” He sighed.

    “You don’t. But you usually don’t overdo it either.”

    Her smile had faded a little. And she was not quite frowning at him, but would soon enough - he knew that expression. Sighing again, he looked away before answering: “I need to step up my training.”

    “Why?”

    “I didn’t do anything against the slime lord. Couldn’t do anything,” he added. “You had to help me over the wall. You picked the locks - and I had to watch you almost get crushed and trapped in a pool of acidic slime.” The entire city was in danger, and he couldn’t do anything.

    “You did help us getting the information we needed to find the book.”

    “You could have done that without me,” he said. “Anyone could have played my role.”

    “No one is irreplaceable. And you did well.”

    He scoffed. “I don’t feel like I did well.”

    “You’re still learning.” She patted his shoulder, then squeezed it.

    “Not fast enough,” he said. He almost shrugged her hand off, but that would have been childish. Instead, he put his hand on hers.

    “You’ll get there - as long as you don’t overdo it, and get yourself hurt.”

    “I know.” He hoped so, at least. “It won’t be fun until I’m not just dead weight and a computer search algorithm.”

    She snorted at that, and he smiled. “Chuck, you are doing great work with data analysing. Spies in training don’t get to do missions at all. You’re already pulling your weight.”

    It wasn’t true, but it was nice of her to say so. He nodded anyway. “I’m not dying any more. Let’s go back?”

    “Let’s.”

    They walked - slowly - home, after a few stretching exercises. Chuck knew he’d be in pain the next day anyway, though he was fine right now. Which was enough.

    But when they reached their street, Sarah tensed up. “Someone’s hiding in the bushes ahead,” she whispered.

    Uh oh. Chuck couldn’t see anyone, but he trusted her.

    “Keep walking,” she went on. A glance told him that she had drawn one of her knives hidden in her belt bag. “But stop and tie your shoelaces at the tree there.”

    That would provide him with cover against most guns, Chuck knew. But it also meant he’d stay safe while Sarah would rush in. Again.

    But he had no choice - she was counting on him not doing something stupid.

    So he knelt behind the tree and announced. “Just a second! Have to tie my laces!” While Sarah used the cover to get into the bushes herself.

    Chuck waited a few seconds. Sarah would reach the assassin at any moment...

    “Chuck?”

    He blinked. That was… “Devon?”

    He peered around the tree. Yes, there was Captain Awesome, smiling at him. And behind him, hidden in the bushes and looking at Chuck as if this was his fault, was Sarah.

    “Chuck! I was waiting for you! You took longer than usual for your run.”

    “Uh, yes. We took a longer route. You know, gradually increasing the distance.”

    “Already? Good for you! Ellie will be so proud! We can start running together soon!” He looked around. “Wasn’t Sarah with you?”

    “Uh…” Chuck glanced behind Devon, but Sarah had disappeared into the bushes again. “She had to, uh…”

    “I thought I saw a cat in the bushes,” Sarah announced as she reappeared to Chuck’s left. “Hi, Devon.”

    “Hi, Sarah!” Devon looked around. “Uh… mind if I take Chuck for a moment? I have to discuss something with him. In private.”

    “Of course now,” Sarah said. “I’ll go look for the cat again, then.”

    Which meant she’d be keeping an eye on them. But as long as Devon didn’t know that, and didn’t realise how close he had come to getting beat up - or worse - by a trained spy, it was fine. Or so Chuck hoped.

    “So… what’s up?”

    “Ah.” Devon looked actually nervous, Chuck noticed. “Is something wrong?”

    “Wrong? No, no.” Devon shook his head. “I just… You know, you’re the man in the family, right?”

    Chuck blinked. What did…

    “So, I’m asking you for the hand of your sister.”

    *****​

    “He wants to marry Ellie.” An hour later, back home, Chuck was still struggling with the news.

    Sarah, of course, had adapted very quickly. “They’ve been living together for years. I would have thought you’d have expected this.”

    And she was probably getting a little tired of his reaction, Chuck realised. He sighed and leaned back on the couch, not even watching the tv. It was a rerun anyway. “I know I should have,” he admitted. “In hindsight, well… yes. But things haven’t changed much since I moved into this apartment after… Stanford.” Remembering his expulsion still hurt. Even after knowing Bryce’s reasons - if those hadn’t been a lie. He sighed. “Nothing really changed, actually.”

    She leaned against him. “And nothing will change. They’ll keep living together in the apartment next door. The only thing that’ll change is that they’ll be wearing rings, and Ellie might change her name.”

    He looked at her, frowning. Not that she could see his face since her head was resting on his shoulder and she was looking at the screen. Marriage was supposed to be a big change in your life. A commitment to a partner. A symbol. Something that mattered more than sharing an apartment. And… “Kids.”

    “What?” She pulled away and looked at him.

    “They’ll have kids. Probably. I think. That’s what happens when you marry. Well, unless you’re a rich old man marrying a twenty-something model. Then it’s a divorce. Sometimes after they have a kid or two.”

    She laughed at that. “Kids with their schedules? Can you see either Ellie or Devon stop working?”

    He gasped. “You’re right. They’ll want us to babysit.”

    She started to laugh again, then stopped. “You’re joking.”

    He shook his head.

    “They can’t expect us to babysit,” she insisted - though she sounded doubtful. A rare occurrence.

    He grimaced. “Did I ever tell you why Ellie’s pet rabbit started following me around in her senior year in Sunnydale?” Until one morning, only some bloodstains were left in the broken cage in the backyard, but that was neither here nor there.

    Sarah sighed. “You had to take care of it while she studied so she would get the grades needed for a scholarship.”

    Of course she’d know that. He nodded. “She said if I had time to raise animals in games, I could take care of a real animal as well.”

    “Great.”

    Well, at least she was sharing his worries now. “Well, if Ellie hears that Devon asked me for her hand in marriage before he asked her, there might not be a wedding,” he said. Ellie wasn’t fond of sexist traditions, as Willow would put it, and she would probably never stop thinking of Chuck as her little brother in need of some mothering.

    They had a short laugh about that.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 16th, 2007

    Willow was looking exhausted again, Chuck noticed when he entered Wienerlicious for his mid-morning break. “Renewed the spell?” he whispered as he approached the counter.

    “Yes,” Caridad answered from the grill, her Slayer hearing easily picking up his question. She was looking angry, so Casey and Faith were probably back. Or not. Same result, either way.

    Chuck tried to calculate if the frequency of renewals was increasing, but he didn’t know how much time had passed since the last time Willow had had to renew the spell.

    Or how many coffees she’d had - there were half a dozen empty cups on her table. Wait a minute. Willow and coffee? “Did she drink all of these?”

    “It’s decaf,” Caridad whispered.

    “And she hasn’t noticed?” he whispered back.

    “Of course she did, but she’s acting as if she didn’t so the placebo effect will kick in.”

    “I don’t think that’s how it works,” he said.

    “We’re all just waiting for her to fall asleep so Buffy can tuck her in and Dawn can keep working on the anti-slime ritual,” Caridad explained.

    “Ah.” He looked around

    “Sarah’s downstairs. Paperwork.”

    Spy paperwork, then. He nodded.

    “You’re early,” Caridad said.

    He knew what she meant - Sarah usually was around when he arrived - and shrugged. “They’re still fixing stuff in the Buy More, so I took an early break.” Before Big Mike tried to make him supervise the repairmen. That wasn’t his job, and anyone could check if they tried to steal stuff. Well, given the theft rates, not all of the staff could, but Chuck had assigned one of the more dependable staff members to that job. The stock in the broken shelves was already written off, anyway.

    “There!”

    He turned, but there was no sign of Sarah. Ah. Willow had fallen asleep. And there was Sarah, wearing her waitress uniform, coming out of the storage room behind Buffy.

    He smiled at her. Until he realised that her smile looked rather forced. “Uh… did anything happen?” he asked while Buffy carried Willow downstairs and they reclaimed their break table.

    “Beckman called,” Sarah said, ignoring Buffy’s ‘General Grumpypants!’. “She told me that a new agent has been assigned to the station.”

    Oh. “Uh… when will they arrive?”

    “Tomorrow.”

    “What?” That would complicate matters. “What’s the agent’s name?” he asked.

    “Kirsten Bane.” Her voice was dripping with scorn.

    He flashed.

    *****​
     
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 11: The Season Part 6
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 11: The Season Part 6

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 16th, 2007

    Chuck blinked, shaking his head as the Intersect stopped dumping information into his mind. “Wow.”

    “Wow?” Sarah asked.

    “Bane’s got an impressive file,” he told her.

    “Really.”

    Oh. She didn’t sound impressed or amused. “I mean… She’s not as experienced as you are. But we’re not getting a raw recruit.”

    “Is she trustworthy?”

    “I didn’t flash on anything connected to Fulcrum,” he replied.

    “Fulcrum? That sounds like a bad-guy-acro-thingie.”

    And Buffy was listening in. Chuck winced. Granted, the Scoobies knew about the Intersect already - Caridad certainly did - and probably about Fulcrum, but this still felt like a security leak. Which was his fault.

    “Oh, don’t worry, my lips are sealed!” Buffy mimed zipping her lips. “Totally silent! Like a… uh, like a totally silent girl. That’s me.”

    “And totally convincing,” Dawn said. “Not.”

    “Hey! I so can keep a secret!”

    Chuck sighed. “So, is Willow now resting?”

    “Yes, she is. Like a baby. Sleeping, that is,” Buffy said. “Well, actually, she’s sleeping much better than a baby - those usually cry a lot and wake up everyone. Dawn was especially bad.”

    To Chuck’s surprise, Dawn only glared at Buffy The Slayer, in turn, even looked a little guilty. He shook his head - it was none of his business. The Scoobies had a lot of baggage - like pretty much every Sunnydale survivor. “So… any chance that you’ll be done with the slime problem before our new co-worker arrives?”

    “Oh! Will she be working at the counter here as well?” Buffy asked.

    “No, she won’t,” Sarah declared before Chuck could tell Buffy that this wasn’t really the point.

    Dawn laughed. “Bet she would look cute in the uniform. Who had the idea of using this as a cover, anyway?”

    “Someone working for the general,” Sarah replied.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Since everyone’s evading the question, I take it you don’t expect to be done by tomorrow?”

    “Depends on whether or not we find what we need in the book you recovered. It doesn’t exactly have an index, and the documentation of the rituals in it isn’t really up to university standard, either,” Dawn said.

    “Excuses, excuses,” Buffy said.

    Dawn sent her another glare, then rolled her eyes. “We’re working on it, but any prediction would be about as precise as Windows’s update prediction.”

    Which was actually more precise than most people thought, but Chuck knew from experience that trying to correct people about such things wouldn’t achieve anything. “So, we can just hope you’ll get lucky?”

    That caused a round of snickering between the Summers sisters. So much for Dawn’s vaunted maturity.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 16th, 2007

    They hadn’t gotten lucky, as Chuck put it, by the time Sarah parked her car at their home. She blinked. Home? Was it her home? She hadn’t had a real home in… well, too long to think about it right now. And the apartment didn’t feel like home. Chuck, on the other hand...

    “I wonder if Devon has asked Ellie yet,” Chuck said, stretching next to her car.

    “If he has, we’ll know.” Should have known already, actually - that’s what messages and phones were for, after all. But perhaps Ellie and Devon wanted to tell such news in person.

    Or not - since they weren’t ambushed on the way to their apartment by a beaming, happy couple. She sighed. A little distraction would have been nice.

    “What’s wrong?” Chuck asked as he closed the door.

    She looked at him and felt the urge to sigh again. He was so smart, yet so naive in some aspects. “We’re getting a new agent while we’re in the middle of an unsanctioned operation with a foreign strike team, as Beckman called the Scoobies.” A not altogether incorrect term, of course, even though all of the Scoobies present were Californians.

    “Yes. Not exactly good timing.”

    She rolled her eyes at that. “She’s a spy, Chuck.”

    “Yes? I mean, of course, and for Beckman, I realise that,” he added, sounding a little annoyed.

    “Good.” She sat down on the couch. “You saw her file.”

    “Yes. She’s an experienced spy.”

    Not as experienced as Sarah, but that wasn’t the point. “She’s a honey trap, Chuck.”

    He blinked, then held up his hand. “I know what that means. But why...”

    “Why are they sending us a spy specialising in seducing marks to gather information or gain access to restricted areas?”

    He nodded. “I mean… we already did such missions, sort of.”

    Those hadn’t been real honey traps. But that wasn’t the time to educate him on the differences. “She’s here for you.”

    “What?”

    She suppressed a frown. “They want you, Chuck. Or, more precisely, they want the Intersect in your head. And since your ties to the Council means kidnapping - or killing you - isn’t a good option, they’ll try to turn you.”

    “Oh.”

    “Yes. You’ll be her target, Chuck.”

    “Ah.” He smiled. “But since I’m now forewarned, that won’t work, right?”

    Once more, she suppressed a frown. That shouldn’t have been a question.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 17th, 2007

    Chuck was in a good mood as he approached the Buy More. The morning run had gone well - they hadn’t overdone it - and the night before… He had to make an effort not to grin stupidly. Wow! Things were looking up.

    The store was back to normal, too, he noticed - the last aisles had been restocked, and the holes in the walls repaired. They were still down two - Casey was ‘sick’ for the duration of the ‘Slime Crisis’, and Jeff was still hiding, although from the Slayers this time - but otherwise, things were back to normal.

    “Chuck! Chuck!”

    Like Morgan having a problem. “Yes, Morgan?” Chuck smiled at his friend as Morgan rushed up to him.

    “We need you!” he whispered. “I just heard that Dawn and Willow found the correct ritual, so they’re doing it now, but we need more people to watch out for them while they do the ritual.”

    “Well, Casey…”

    “We need all three Slayers in the ritual - Rule of Three, Bane of Slimes, something something, Dawn said. Or Willow. That means Casey can’t come or Caridad and Faith will have a go at each other. And Sarah’s stuck at the store while Caridad is away. That leaves Xander, Phil and me.”

    “And me,” Chuck said with a sinking feeling.

    “Yes,” Morgan nodded emphatically. “Make up a house call in the system and let’s go!”

    “Uh…” Chuck winced. So much for a good day. But ensuring that the city wasn’t buried under slime and eaten by a demon took precedence over a lazy morning. “Alright.”

    *****​

    “I was told that we would be guarding a ritual,” Chuck muttered twenty minutes later, deep under the Buy More. He was gripping a flamethrower in his hands, the muzzle aimed at the entrance of a tunnel. It was an unwieldy weapon, but, as Xander had told him, it was one of the best weapons to use in a tunnel if you were facing demons and weren’t a Slayer with superhuman reflexes and aim. And he had used one before, at his graduation.

    “We are,” Morgan replied, fidgeting with his own flamethrower next to him. Phil and Xander were covering the other tunnel leading to the cavern.

    “No one said anything about guarding naked women,” Chuck told him through clenched teeth. No wonder the Scoobies thought Casey’s presence would lead to violence!

    “It’s due to the symbolism of returning to the natural state,” Morgan said. “Or so I think. I didn’t exactly study magic rituals.”

    Which was a good thing, of course - bad things happened to amateurs when it came to rituals. Xander’s experiences were proof of that.

    But knowing that behind your back, five naked women were kneeling in a pentagram? That didn’t make it easy to focus on guarding them. He clenched his teeth. He was - training to become - a spy. He could focus on his task.

    Although a little distraction wouldn’t go amiss. They had tripwires in the tunnels anyway, courtesy of Xander. “What language is that?” he asked as the chanting grew louder behind them.

    “Sumerian.”

    “Isn’t that one of the languages that only spell trouble?” Buffy had claimed that if Chuck recalled correctly.

    “They’ve adapted the ritual. Translating it would have taken longer,” Morgan said.

    Considering the fact that the Scoobies had stayed in The Castle and Wienerlicious, where Chuck spent considerable time - more than Morgan, in any case - it seemed that Chuck had been out of the loop with regards to the ritual. Had that been deliberate, or had it just been a coincidence?

    And was it a good or a bad thing that Chuck was worrying about such things, and not about possible demon attacks?

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 17th, 2007

    By the time Sarah and Chuck’s usual break time came around, he still hadn’t returned. She knew that the ritual was supposed to take a few hours, and that he was with the Council’s best, but… If it were perfectly safe, if the had sufficient security, they wouldn’t have needed him. And flamethrowers? She shook her head and hoped he’d be back safe and sound, and soon.

    Movement drew her attention. Someone was coming towards the store. No, not someone. Kirsten Bane. The agent hadn’t made much of an effort to disguise herself. Large sunglasses - not unusual in Los Angeles, especially among the starlets and wanna-be actresses - and the kind of clothes you saw in the gossip pages. Usually next to articles reporting about stars who couldn’t handle their fame, Sarah thought. Bane didn’t look like an anorexic starlet, though. She looked athletic, with a healthy tan and a chest that would fit in with every other boob job on the West Coast. Like a cheerleader in her twenties hunting for a sugar daddy.

    Or a nerdy intelligence asset.

    “Hello! I’d like a Virginia Special,” Bane said.

    Whoever had chosen the codewords must have been the same agent who had chosen the store as a cover.

    “Of course. If you’d like to wait here,” Sarah replied, pressing a button to alert Casey.

    Bane looked around, and Sarah saw her polite smile twist into a smirk as she took in the store’s interior before making a point of looking at Sarah’s uniform. Which hadn’t been chosen by Sarah, anyway.

    Perhaps she should reconsider having Bane not work a shift in the store.

    The door to the storage room opened, and Casey appeared inside - not visible from outside the store, of course. He nodded at Bane. “Down here.”

    “I’m coming. Just waiting for my hot dog.”

    Sarah blinked. Was the agent really expecting her to fry a hot dog?

    “Just maintaining my - our - cover.” Bane flashed pearly-white teeth at Sarah. “And I’m feeling a little peckish.”

    Oh, yes, Sarah foresaw a sudden need for Bane to take over a shift at the store. Definitely. Just to maintain her cover, of course.

    *****​

    The lunch rush was coming up when Sarah’s phone received a message. Chuck!

    Coming back. All done.

    She closed her eyes and sighed with a smile. He was safe. And the city was safe. And the rest of the group, presumably, was also safe. She made a quick mental calculation. Moving cautiously, it took about ten to fifteen minutes to reach the ritual chamber. She shook her head; it was still weird to use that term seriously. Adding some time spent cleaning up after themselves - and dressing again, she thought with a frown; apparently, the ritual had to have been done in the nude - Chuck would be back about… Right when the lunch rush started.

    She hesitated a moment. Maintaining your cover was something that was ingrained in any good spy. It was why she was here and hadn’t gone down with Chuck. And yet… Screw this!

    She quickly finished the order for the two students in the store, then ushered them out and hung a ‘technical difficulties’ sign Chuck had made for her as a joke on the door before she went down to The Castle.

    “...this looks quite advanced,” she heard Bane say as she descended the stairs. “Better hardware than at headquarters.”

    “Yes,” Casey replied. The NSA agent sounded a little more curtly than Sarah had expected. He would have realised Bane’s actual mission, of course. And he might have decided that one jealous Slayer being angry at him was enough, she added to herself with a snort.

    “Ah, Agent Walker. Is something amiss in the store?” Bane asked with a fake smile.

    “Nothing, though I closed it for the time being.”

    “Oh?” Bane raised her eyebrows. “Why would…”

    “The mission’s done?” Casey asked, interrupting the other spy.

    “Yes. They’re on the way back.”

    “The mission?” Bane frowned.

    “Weren’t you briefed?” Sarah asked with her best ‘honestly puzzled’ tone. “There was a weapon of mass destruction hidden in Los Angeles. The terrorists responsible have been dealt with, but safely defusing the weapon required further action.”

    “While you were minding the store and Agent Casey was giving me the tour?” Bane sounded doubtful.

    “Yes,” Casey said in a flat voice.

    “I see,” the other spy said, though Sarah thought she was bluffing. Besides, who cared about their reputation when they were already set to leave the agency and join the Council?

    She still wanted to teach Bane a lesson, of course. This was her - and Casey’s - mission, and no ignorant latecomer would take over. Or take Chuck.

    “What kind of weapon of mass destruction was it?”

    “Classified,” Casey grunted.

    “I’m cleared to know,” Bane retorted.

    “Not even General Beckman has the needed clearance,” Sarah pointed out. She wasn’t smiling. Well, perhaps a little.

    “But you know.”

    “Yes.”

    “Ah.”

    They stared at each other. Bane was about to look away when they heard the door to the store open. Followed by the Scoobies’ voices.

    “I told you: piece of cake.” Dr Summers.

    “We had to use the flamethrowers, though.” Harris.

    “To burn down some plants blocking the tunnel. That doesn’t count!” Rosenberg.

    “There was no such stipulation,” Harris retorted. “And the plants were probably mutated.”

    “Nothing mutates that quickly, and I sealed the entire area before anything could get into the tunnels!” Rosenberg huffed. “Pay up!”

    “There were contaminated traps in the area. They would have had enough time to affect the… Ah, hello! You must be the new agent,” Harris said with a smile. He looked a little singed, but not seriously hurt. And Sarah didn’t smell anything but flamethrower fuel and smoke, either.

    Bane blinked but quickly recovered. “That is correct,” she said with a practised smile. “Kirsten Bane. And you would be?”

    “Harris. Xander Harris.”

    That caused a round of giggles among the rest of the Scoobies. Sarah didn’t check if Bane showed any sign of being annoyed. Chuck was there, bringing up the rear with Grimes.

    *****​

    “Chuck!” Sarah didn’t quite rush into his arms, but she pretty much pushed through the rest of the group without taking her eyes off him, Chuck noticed. And she carefully looked him over once she’d reached him.

    “Uh, I’m OK,” he told her, shifting the strap of the flamethrower’s tank a little - the damn thing got heavy after an hour or so. He should have burned off some fuel himself and lightened the load, but that might have reduced the oxygen down there a little too much after Xander’s stunt. “Really,” he added in a softer voice.

    “Good.” She ran her hand over his arm.

    “But I need to drop this before I collapse.” He wasn’t entirely joking, either.

    “Mr Bartowski?”

    Apparently, Bane had already arrived - and was headed towards them. She was wearing nice clothes - tight jeans, tight top, ankle boots. Something Sarah might wear as well, he thought. And very well. “Yes, Agent Bane?”

    “You’ve seen my file, of course.”

    “Comes with the territory, so to speak,” he replied. He would have pointed at his temple, but he was still holding the flamethrower with both hands.

    “I wasn’t aware you were doing field missions. Of that nature, I mean,” she said, looking at it.

    He shrugged, then struggled not to wince when the motion made the damned straps dig further into his hurting shoulders. “I do what’s needed for the mission.” That sounded professional, didn’t it?

    Bane was smiling at him, but Sarah was frowning. Almost glaring. Apparently, it hadn’t sound professional, then.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, December 17th, 2007

    “Ah! I needed that!” Chuck heard Buffy announce as she stepped out of the locker area. “Shower’s free, by the way,” she added, but Dawn was already pushing past her. “You really need more showers in your lair,” the Slayer added.

    “Or make the one you have bigger, so we can share it,” Faith said with a leer. “Save water, and all.”

    “I don’t think that’s what people had in mind when they talk about saving water,” Willow replied.

    “Well, pity for them,” Faith retorted, craning her neck while she shifted a little on the seat she had commandeered, both boots on the table. “Of course, he shower’s not that small,” she said, glancing at Casey with a smirk. “We might give it a try anyway, if you’re up for it.”

    Chuck didn’t think it would work - Casey was built, after all, and Faith, while no amazon, was a little taller than Buffy. Although there might be positions...

    Caridad stood abruptly, interrupting his wayward thoughts. “I’ll go home to shower,” she spat as she stomped out. Chuck glanced at the floor to check if she had damaged it, but saw no dents. Phil quickly followed her.

    Faith shook her head, chuckling until she noticed the disapproving looks Buffy and Willow sent towards her. “Hey! You were the ones who told me that you can’t call dibs on people.”

    “That wasn’t exactly what we meant,” Buffy said.

    “It was about respecting the right of self-determination, instead of trying to throw people over your shoulder and carry them off,” Willow added.

    “Well, that’s what I’m doing.” Faith turned towards Casey. “And you’re very self-determined, aren’t ya?”

    “Huh?” Casey looked startled for a moment. “Yes, of course.” Was he having second thoughts? More second thoughts?

    “Although Caridad had a good idea: What do you say to blowing this joint and calling it a night at your flat? I’m in the mood for some post-mission celebrating.”

    Casey’s second thoughts took second place, it seemed, since the man stood. “My shift’s about over, yes.”

    “Good.”

    As the two left as well, Chuck saw Bane shaking her head. The new agent didn’t quite look shocked, but she didn’t look as composed as she had at the start either. “Won’t there be a debriefing?” she asked. “I know I’m not cleared for it, of course.”

    “We came. We spent far too long in dusty tunnels dealing with icky stuff. Then we were done,” Buffy said.

    “And we had to burn some plants to secure our route,” Xander added. “Mission accomplished.”

    “And briefing done!” Buffy announced.

    “It’s a debriefing, Buffy,” Willow corrected her.

    Judging by Bane’s smile she didn’t realise that the Scoobies weren’t making fun of her - well, they were, but this was their real debriefing. Chuck cleared his throat. “So, Agent Bane, do you have any questions about the station?” He noticed that Sarah was glaring at him again and quickly added: “I mean, within the constraints of or regulations.” Which should have been implied.

    “How much longer will this facility be hosting our… allies?”

    “Scoobies. Our official designation is ‘Scoobies’,” Xander replied before Chuck could.

    “Giles would never let you make this official,” Buffy retorted.

    “That’s not what our records say.”

    “What? But… Oh. Computers.” Buffy shook her head. “That’s a dirty trick.”

    “Yes.” Xander grinned.

    Bane didn’t. She looked distinctly not amused, Chuck noted. And probably still hadn’t realised that the Scoobies weren’t - just - kidding.

    “We’ll be out of your hair in a day or two, Agent Bane” Willow said.

    “Depending on how long it takes for everyone to stop whining about whatever hotel we pick,” Xander said. “And whether or not we get to stock up on hot dogs before we leave.”

    “Oh… no more free food.” Buffy pouted.

    “Hotels have buffets,” Willow pointed out.

    “Not all of them.”

    “The good ones all do. It’s sort of a requirement,” Xander said. “Of course, some take a dim view of people cleaning out the buffet by themselves.”

    “That was one time! And I still say they were in the wrong - if you announce an all-you-can-eat buffet you should deliver!” Buffy declared.

    Bane had stopped smiling by now. Chuck didn’t think that that was a good sign.

    *****​

    Bane had finally lost her fake smile, Sarah noted with satisfaction. She wasn’t overly fond of the Scoobies’ antics, but if they were aimed at the right target...

    She stepped forward. “So, with the debriefing done, shall we start preparing your relocation to more comfortable quarters?”

    Summers blinked, then nodded. “Yes! The beds here are too hard, anyway!”

    “Wimp.” Dr Summers must have finished her shower.

    “Says Miss ‘I need my caffeine just so’!” Summers retorted.

    But the Slayer was moving towards the area the Scoobies had taken over, presumably to start packing.

    “Oh… Faith left without taking all her weapons!”

    “No pinching stuff!” Rosenberg yelled.

    “I’m not! But She should have packed up her stuff!”

    “Don’t be a baby. Just pack it up.” Sarah caught a glimpse of Dr Summers drying her hair.

    “She’ll complain about me touching her stuff,” Summers replied.

    “She only does that to rile you up,” Rosenberg said, walking over.

    Harris sighed, shaking his head. “No foreplanning there.”

    “I heard that!” Summers yelled.

    Harris chuckled.

    Bane cleared her throat. “Your team seems a little… lively.”

    Harris turned towards her, grinning. “Oh, we’re all about the living. First rule: Don’t die!”

    “A sensible rule,” Bane agreed.

    “Yes.” Chuck nodded. “Not dying is good. Essential, even.” He stretched. “So… party tonight?”

    “As usual,” Harris replied.

    “Party?” Bane asked.

    “A traditional end-of-mission party,” Harris explained. “Good for morale.”

    “Ah.”

    “Would you mind keeping watch here while the rest of us celebrates, Agent Bane? You weren’t on the mission. It’s not an order, though - you have just arrived, after all, and will need some time to get acclimated, I guess..” Sarah smiled at the other spy. And even more when Bane shook her head.

    “No, no, it’s OK. I can handle it,” Bane claimed.

    Perfect. It wasn’t as if the spy could refuse - not without making a bad impression on Chuck.

    “Thank you, Agent Bane. That’s very nice of you.” Chuck smiled at her.

    “It’s my pleasure.” Bane flashed a sickeningly sweet smile at him. “You’ve certainly earned a celebration - not many agents, much less analysts, would dare to go on a field mission with a flamethrower.”

    “Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” Chuck said - was he blushing? Sarah narrowed her eyes. “It’s all hands on deck in such a situation, after all.”

    “It’s still brave - you could have kept watch on the base, couldn’t you?”

    “Uh, that would have been…” Chuck coughed, awkwardly smiling at Sarah. “It wouldn’t have been optimal.”

    “Ah.”

    Sarah frowned. There were very good reasons she had stayed back instead of going with Chuck. Someone had to maintain the cover for the base. Especially with a new agent arriving - who could have been a mole. Still could be, of course.

    “So, let’s go eat lunch,” she declared, reaching for Chuck’s hand. “We can keep the store closed for the afternoon. And we need to change.”

    She dragged him off to the locker room area before he could do something stupid, like inviting Bane along.

    “Whoa… you’re really hungry, are you? Or were you really worried?” Chuck whispered as they reached their lockers.

    “Worried,” Sarah said. It wasn’t a lie.

    “Sorry.” He smiled at her, then reached out to hug her, and she felt a brief pang of guilt for not being completely honest with him. But she couldn’t speak freely with a Slayer in the base.

    “It’s OK,” she whispered. “Now, at least.” After a moment, she pulled away and added: “Let’s head home and take a shower first. I smell like a fryer, and you smell like…”

    “A gas station?”

    She nodded with a laugh.

    “Ah, we could shower here and then hit a restaurant on the way back,” he said.

    And leave him to Bane while she was showering? Certainly not! She shook her head, then stepped up to him again, whispering in his ear: “We can share the shower back home.”

    “Oh…”

    Seeing his silly grin, she knew there wouldn’t be any problems with leaving Bane for today.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown, December 17th, 2007

    The Scoobies had rented a small restaurant for the party. Situated at the edge of Downtown L.A., it didn’t look particularly expensive - and wasn’t, as a quick check of their website had revealed - and it didn’t have an impressive view of the town, squeezed as it was between two taller buildings. But it was private and had a well-worn charm, sort of. A little like the Bronze, Chuck thought, not for the first time, with some nostalgia. Just without the regular demon attacks.

    Not that he had been a frequent visitor to the club in Sunnydale, anyway. Gaming nights had been more important, and the few times he and Morgan had visited usually hadn’t turned out well.

    But this was different. They were celebrating saving the city. Stopping an apocalypse - his third after the Mayor and Wolfram & Hart. How many could boast of that? Well, boasting might be a little… boastful. And not in the good sense. But he had done his part, small as it had been.

    “Penny for your thoughts?”

    He looked up. Sarah had returned from the bar, holding out a drink to him. Whisky Cola. Much more cola than whisky, Chuck believed. He didn’t mind - getting drunk wasn’t a good idea in general, and specifically not around the Scoobies. Or at night. Or both, as was the case.

    “I was just woolgathering for a moment,” he replied. “You know, lost in thoughts like old men.”

    She chuckled at that as she took her seat next to him, crossing her legs. Which were clad in very tight leather pants. He focused on her face as he took a sip from his drink.

    “You’re not old.”

    “I feel old,” he replied, nodding towards the impromptu dance floor the Slayers had created by moving a few tables. Buffy, Faith and Caridad were dancing as if it was a competition. It probably was, for Slayers - they tended to see contests and challenges everywhere.

    The rest of the Scoobies had taken their short turns on the floor and were now watching the three, amused or exasperated in Dawn’s case. Though Chuck thought that that was faked. Or not, since Morgan was talking to her while Xander and Willow seemed to be Slayer watching with the occasional quips being exchanged. Phil had excused himself a little earlier, citing the need to write a proper report.

    And there was Casey. Standing at the bar, looking rather stiff for the amount of drinks he had downed so far. The agent wasn’t the easiest man to read Chuck knew - that dubious honour belonged to Andrew - but Chuck was certain that the only thing keeping Casey from leaving was his macho pride. And the knowledge that a Slayer would track him. Two Slayers, probably.

    “That’s not going to end well, I think,” Sarah commented in a low voice. Possibly low enough not to be overheard even by Slayer ears so close to the oversized speakers Xander had brought. Which, Chuck realised, might have been brought just for that purpose.

    “I think so too,” he replied in a whisper. Then he blinked. Didn’t he once read that whispers carried farther than a low voice? Did that apply to Slayer hearing? Perhaps he should have asked Willow for a privacy spell, if such a thing existed in the first place.

    “Nothing we can do,” Sarah said. Which probably meant ‘nothing we should do’.

    Chuck nodded anyway. “At least the new agent wasn’t as bad as we expected,” he said to change the subject.

    “Chuck.” Uh-oh. He knew that tone. And that expression. “She’s behaving exactly as predicted - doing her best to make a good impression and gain your trust.”

    “Uh.” It seemed that he had missed that. Well, there had been the ritual, so he had been a little tired and distracted. On the other hand… “Wouldn’t anyone try to make a good impression the first day on a new job? Well, other than Casey, perhaps.”

    Apparently, that wasn’t funny. “Chuck. She’s been assigned to us after Beckman got told off by the Council. She’s an expert on seducing people to manipulate them - and we don’t have a mission in need of such a speciality. She’s here to seduce and turn you.”

    He took a swallow from his drink. If she put it like that… But, anyway. “Well, forewarned is forearmed. She won’t succeed, so her being nice won’t hurt us.”

    Sarah took a swallow from her own drink. A rather large one, Chuck noticed.

    Then the music stopped, and the Slayers seemed to take a break. And headed towards the bar. Where Casey was standing.

    “Uh…” Chuck started to stand up, but Sarah’s hand on his arm - holding his arm, with quite a strong grip - stopped him.

    “Don’t,” she hissed.

    “It’ll come to blows!” He retorted.

    “And you’d be in the middle of it.”

    “But…” He had to do something. Caridad was a friend. As was Faith, sort of. And Casey was a team member.

    “Summers isn’t doing anything either,” Sarah pointed out.

    He blinked. Buffy was watching - from a distance. She nodded at Chuck before turning her attention back to the trio at the bar. And Morgan wasn’t moving either.

    Sighing, he sat down as Sarah released his arm. This was… He shook his head and finished his drink. And wished he had Slayer hearing. Faith was hanging all over Casey. If he had been sitting, she’d be in his lap. But the agent seemed uncomfortable. “You wouldn’t have some spy gadget to listen in?” he whispered. “Parabolic mic?”

    “Not on me,” she replied.

    “Pity.” And the Intersect wasn’t any help either.

    Caridad was about a yard from the couple - if it was still a couple - and was glowering and glaring, or so it seemed, at everyone nearby. But mainly at Casey. Faith pulled back, frowning. She nodded towards the door. Casey hesitated, raising his glass to his lips. His empty glass.

    And Faith tossed her head and started for the door. Uh-oh. Chuck pressed his lips together. This wasn’t the time to comment on Slayer attitudes. Really not the time.

    Buffy followed Faith out, nodding at Chuck - and Sarah - as she passed them. Chuck was confused for a moment. Until Buffy turned at the door and looked at him, then at the bar before she left. Oh.

    Sarah sighed. “Our turn it seemed.”

    “Ah…” Chuck licked his lips. “So… how do we split? Spies or sexes? I mean, do you talk to Casey and I to Caridad, or do you have a girl talk with her and I get maimed by an angry NSA agent?”

    Sarah looked at him for a moment, then sighed. “Talk to her. I’ll handle Casey.”

    Chuck stood and started towards the bar. “And then we switch in halftime!”

    It wasn’t a good joke, but Sarah snorted anyway as they approached the bar, empty glasses serving as an excuse.

    “I don’t want to talk about it,” Caridad hissed before he could say anything. Slayer hearing, probably. Or Chuck had been too obvious.

    He did his best to look puzzled. “I wanted to ask you to dance,” he lied. Which wasn’t a half-bad idea, now that he thought about it. Slayers were physical people, prone to go stir-crazy if they couldn’t move, burn off their energy. Or so Willow had said, once. Dawn too, probably.

    She snorted, then glanced at Casey, who was glaring at Sarah. “Let’s dance then.”

    And they were off to the improvised dance floor, right when the music changed again to something rocky. Great. Chuck wasn’t a great dancer. Not even a good dancer, to be honest. But he did his best to move with the music while trying to think of a way to talk to Caridad without making things worse.

    At least Sarah was doing better with Casey - the two were drinking together at the bar. Although… they didn’t seem to be talking much. Well, Casey was the silent, violent type. And there was the fact that Caridad would hear everything they talked about.

    Well, nothing he could do about that. They danced for two more songs - about ten minutes - before Caridad stopped and took a deep breath. “I need some fresh air.”

    “Good idea.” Chuck nodded and followed her after exchanging a glance with Sarah.

    The street outside was not quite deserted, but there were few pedestrians, and only a handful of cars passing. Caridad leaned against a lamp post. “Some time ago, I would have been thrilled if you asked me to dance,” she said without looking at him. “Even if it was out of pity.”

    “Uh…” He swallowed. Honest, be honest, he reminded himself. “I’m your friend. And it’s not pity. More… damage control.”

    She snorted. Once. Still, progress. “I’m not going to attack anyone. I’m not stupid.”

    “No one thinks you’re stupid.”

    She turned towards him. “Faith told me I was stupid.”

    Ah. “She says a lot of things she doesn’t really mean.”

    “She lies less than others,” Caridad retorted.

    “Ah. But you’re not stupid.”

    “I was.”

    He bit his lower lip to refrain from making a stupid joke. Quips didn’t always help in tense situations. “How so?”

    “Casey.”

    “Ah.” That didn’t tell him anything.

    Fortunately, she elaborated. “I like him.”

    “We noticed,” he commented.

    That earned him another snort. “He’s tough, skilled, experienced, and he has a dark sense of humour.”

    Chuck managed to stop himself before he blurted out: ‘He does?’

    He must have given something away since she frowned and added: “He does. And he isn’t taken. Wasn’t taken.”

    “Uh. I don’t think Faith is looking for a long-term relationship,” Chuck pointed out.

    “But I am.”

    “Ah.” Things started to make sense. Sort of. “And you think Casey isn’t, since he, uh, hooked up with Faith.”

    She looked quite vulnerable as she nodded.

    Chuck suppressed a sigh. He was pants at this sort of talk. At least Sarah had an easier time with Casey.

    *****​

    “She’s gone outside,” Sarah told Casey after she had watched Caridad leave the restaurant with Chuck in tow.

    “With your boyfriend,” the agent replied. “Aren’t you concerned?”

    “No.” She gave him a look. She trusted Chuck. And if he were interested in the Slayer, he would have returned Caridad’s affections long before she had met him.

    Casey scoffed. “Figures.” He grabbed another drink from the bartender.

    Sarah took a sip from hers as she studied the agent. He was hard to read, but he seemed a little off. “What happened?” she asked. Straight and to the point might be the best strategy.

    “I fucked up.”

    Yes, he did. But she didn’t say that. She took another sip and waited instead.

    “I shouldn’t have started anything with Faith - Lehane. It’s unprofessional. You don’t date your co-workers.”

    She took a swallow from her drink. Chuck and she weren’t like that. “That’s not the issue,” she told him, narrowing her eyes at him. “The issue is that you didn’t sort out things with Caridad before you had some ‘fun without strings’ with Lehane. Or whatever you call a series of one night stands.”

    He glared at her and ordered another drink.

    At least Chuck was having an easier time with Caridad.

    Or not, she corrected herself when she saw Chuck return without Caridad and wearing a rather dejected expression. She glanced at Casey, who was ignoring her, then grabbed a second drink for herself and another for Chuck and went to join her boyfriend at their table.

    “I hope your talk went better than mine,” he said, taking his drink.

    “Casey’s being stubborn,” she replied, sitting down.

    “Caridad’s out venting her frustration on demons,” he told her. “I didn’t find the right words.”

    “Sometimes there aren’t any,” she said. And killing demons seemed to be the standard Slayer therapy.

    “I know,” he said. “But I should have been able to tell her more than some platitudes about how things will work out in the end.”

    She wrapped her right arm around him and rested her head on his shoulder. “Sometimes, they do.”

    But she didn’t think they would in this case. Not with Casey.

    “Hey, at least we saved the city,” Chuck said.

    “Good point,” she agreed with a smile.

    Compared to preventing Los Angeles from being drowned in demon slime, being unable to solve a love triangle was a minor thing. At least in Sarah’s opinion.

    *****​
     
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