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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.

    *****​
     
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  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.
     
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  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.

    *****​
     
  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 12: The Gift
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 12: The Gift

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

    By the time they finally arrived home, Chuck was feeling better. Dancing with Sarah usually had that effect, and he had enjoyed talking with Willow, Xander and Dawn, too. They’d head back to London respectively Cleveland soon, and there wouldn’t be a chance to just hang out and reminisce about the good parts of Sunnydale. Few as they were.

    But now his bed was calling. Strongly.

    “Chuck! Sarah!”

    Not as strongly as Ellie, though, who was waving at him and Sarah. Obediently, they changed course and headed towards his sister’s apartment. “Ellie?”

    She held up her hand, grinning widely. “Devon asked me to marry him!”

    Sarah squeed in response - if Chuck hadn’t known better, he would have been convinced that this news had come as a surprise to her. He had to make do with blinking.

    Fortunately, Ellie took that as the shocked reaction she’d expected. “It was so romantic! He took me out to our favourite restaurant, and then we drove to the beach where he went down on one knee and presented me with the box! The ring, I mean.”

    Part of Chuck wanted to know which beach, and if the sun had gone down already - some vampires liked to hunt at the beach; it was easy to dispose of corpses there, especially if you didn’t need to breathe, and the authorities would assume a missing person had drowned instead of suspecting a crime.

    He ignored that part. “That’s great, Sis!” he announced, hugging her. “When’s the wedding?”

    “We’re thinking spring. Organising will take a lot of time. Fortunately, Devon’s parents will be helping.” Her smile slipped a little - as always when she was reminded of their own parents’ demise.

    Chuck nodded. “Well, we’ll help, of course!”

    After a moment, Sarah nodded as well. “Of course.”

    “Thank you!”

    She hugged both of them. “Now come inside! We want to celebrate!”

    “Uh…”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 18th, 2007

    “Come on, Chuck, time for our morning run.”

    “I can’t run. I’m busy being dead.” Chuck felt dead. He’d had… well… four or three hours of sleep by his count. He squinted at the alarm clock. Five hours? It didn’t feel like five hours. And his mouth felt as if something had crawled in and died there.

    He blinked. Were there demons who did that? “Oh my God!” He quickly sat up and started towards the bathroom, but crippling headaches stopped him. “Oh my God.”

    “Chuck?”

    “Don’t mind me, I’m busy dying from demon poison.”

    “You’ve got a hangover. You won’t die.”

    Oh, yes. Now he remembered - Devon had had to show them his awesome new cocktail recipes. And Chuck had had to try them. He groaned. “Devon will lose his license.”

    “What?” Sarah asked. Far too loudly, in his opinion.

    “He violated his Hippocratic oath. First, do no harm, right? Serving us those cocktails most certainly did us harm,” Chuck explained.

    “You weren’t forced to drink all of them.” She shook her head but made no move to help him.

    He laid down again on the bed. “Peer pressure. And you were there, so it’s your fault, too!”

    “Get up, Chuck. We’ve got to be at work in an hour.”

    “We can call in sick. It wouldn’t even be a lie,” he replied.

    “Get up, Chuck.”

    She was a slave driver. He got up.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 18th, 2007

    Chuck had managed to survive the first part of his shift in the Buy More. Sending off everyone who got close to him with an errand or two had driven off most of those who’d disturb him, and ‘testing VR goggles’ - a set of night vision goggles on which he had glued some Sony logos - had allowed him to take a nap for the rest of the time. Who’d have thought Morgan’s tricks to catch up on some sleep after a night spent gaming or working with Phil would be so useful?

    Still, Chuck wasn’t exactly a hundred per cent fit when he entered Wienerlicious.

    “Hi, Chuck. Wow, you look like shit!”

    And Caridad looked far too chipper for a heartbroken Slayer. He didn’t say that, of course. “Hi, Caridad. Where’s Sarah?”

    The Slayer pointed at the storage room with the concealed stairs. Downstairs, then. It was their usual break time, but if Sarah was in The Castle, then Chuck probably should go down as well.

    Sarah was there. So was Bane, though.

    “Good morning, Mr Bartowski!”

    “Good morning, Agent Bane.”

    She didn’t comment on how he looked. Since she was a spy, she hadn’t missed that but was ignoring it. “Hi, Sarah!”

    “Hi, Chuck!” Sarah smiled, but it looked a little forced.

    “Is something wrong?”

    “No. It’s good news, actually.” Her smile didn’t change. Bad news then. Chuck steeled himself. “Congratulations to your graduation from Stanford.”

    He blinked. “What?” Graduation? He had been expelled from Stanford years ago. How could he have graduated? And without realising it?

    As if he had asked the question out loud, Sarah went on: “You were expelled shortly before your graduation because of Bryce framing you.”

    Bryce. His former best friend. Now dead in the line of duty. “Yes.”

    “So, the CIA pulled a few strings to explain your innocence to the dean, which led to your expulsion being reversed.”

    “Years after the fact?” Chuck asked.

    “Well, while they weren’t exactly at fault, it would look very bad to a jury if they didn’t do what they could to undo the damage caused by this.” Sarah smiled, though more than a little cynically.

    “Ah.” Money talked. “But I was expelled shortly before graduation - I hadn’t actually graduated.”

    “That’s the second thing the CIA did,” Bane cut in. “We arranged for your stellar work for us to be accepted as practical studies. That awarded you enough credits to graduate.” She beamed at him.

    “Oh.” Chuck blinked.

    “You were working with the most advanced electronics in the world, after all, on various missions. You identified, countered and even took over sophisticated security systems. That perfectly fits the requirements for practical studies at Stanford,” Bane went on. “Congratulations, Mr Bartowski.”

    He had done it! He had graduated! After all those years… “Thank you!” He smiled widely. He was no longer a dropout!

    “And here’s your diploma, Chuck,” Sarah said, handing it over.

    He took it - already framed. And an expensive frame, too. “Wow! Ellie will be over the moon.” He blinked. “Oh… what do we tell Ellie? We can’t tell her I graduated thanks to my work for the CIA.”

    “You can tell your sister that you had been working for a while on reversing your expulsion, and had, in anticipation of a positive decision, filed for a practical studies credit,” Bane explained. “Everything will check out, I can assure you of that.”

    “Wow. You’ve thought of everything.” Of course, Chuck knew how good the CIA was with creating covers. Arranging a graduation wouldn’t be a challenge for them.

    “It was the least we could do for you, Mr Bartowski.” Bane nodded. “You’ve more than earned it, too.”

    “Indeed,” Sarah said, though her smile still looked a little forced. “Which is why you’ll also get a nice sum for the emotional and financial damage you suffered due to Bryce’s actions.”

    “You made Stanford pay?”

    “No. It wasn’t their fault, after all,” Bane replied. “And we would rather not strain our good relations with the faculty. No, the agency is taking responsibility for Agent Larkin’s action, although officially, it’ll be paid by a fund of the bank where he was officially employed. That way, you can also access the salary you’ve earned as a civilian consultant without the IRS asking questions.”

    “Ah. Convenient.” And very welcome, especially with Ellie’s wedding coming up.

    “Of course, going forward, we’ll have to find another cover for your income,” Bane went on.

    He almost said that the Council could handle that, but given what the CIA just had done for him, that would have been gauche. “I’ll worry about that then,” he said instead. “It’s not as if I’m going broke.”

    “Unlike the Wienerlicious,” Bane replied.

    “What?”

    “We’re not going broke,” Sarah said with a glint in her eyes. “We simply need a little more money than was budgeted to cover the additional expenses incurred during the last mission.”

    “Ah.” Apparently, feeding three Slayers was even more expensive than Chuck had thought.

    “And it’s a drop in the bucket compared to restocking our armoury,” Sarah said.

    “An also unexpectedly high rate of consumption for which, I have to remind you, you still haven’t accounted,” Bane said.

    “It’s classified,” Sarah told her with a toothy smile. “Now, come, Chuck, we’ll celebrate later, but we can take our break now.”

    Her smile hadn’t changed, which made it clear to Chuck that refusing wasn’t an option.

    “Congratulations, Chuck!” Caridad greeted him as soon as he stepped into the store.

    “Thank you,” he replied. “Did you know?”

    “I heard,” she said with a grin.

    Slayer hearing, of course.

    Sarah wasn’t looking happy as they took their usual seats. “What’s wrong?” he asked after the first sip from his cola.

    “The Agency’s trying to bribe you,” she said.

    “What? You mean I haven’t actually earned the diploma?”

    “What?” She shook her head. “No, of course you did. But the fact that they are doing this now? And the convenient laundering of money? They’re trying to butter you up. Bane, the diploma, the money - and the hint that future payments need another cover. Like official work for the CIA, perhaps?”

    “Oh.” That made sense. “But since I now know about that, it won’t work, right?”

    Once again, Sarah didn’t look as if she agreed.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 18th, 2007

    “Oh, Chuck, this is wonderful! Devon, come, look at this! Chuck graduated from Stanford!”

    Yes, Ellie was over the moon. Chuck smiled as his sister showed his diploma to her boyfriend. Her fiancé, he corrected himself. Future husband - Chuck had to get used to the thought. He glanced at Sarah and noticed that she was genuinely smiling.

    “Now you’ll be able to quit the Buy More and get a real job!”

    Uh. Chuck felt his smile slip. He hadn’t considered that reaction. In hindsight, that was a very obvious mistake. “Uh, Sis, let’s not be hasty, OK? The Buy More’s a real job - I’m an assistant manager. And it counted for Stanford.”

    “What?” Ellie frowned at him. “It’s a dead-end job! You want to be Big Mike in twenty years? Or run your own software firm?”

    In hindsight, telling his sister about his dreams might have been a mistake as well.

    “I agree, Chuck. You need to find a better job,” Devon cut in, handing the diploma back to Chuck. “No offence to your colleagues, but tech support isn’t a Stanford graduate position. You need an awesome job! And you’ll get one!”

    Chuck would get an awesome reaction if he rendered all the effort the CIA and NSA had made to protect him and hide his identity obsolete. The Castle alone would have cost a fortune. “Look, let’s not rush things! I’ve got a decent job, things are stable - there’s time to carefully consider my future. Our future,” he added, wrapping an arm around Sarah’s waist.

    “Oh, of course!” Ellie looked a little guilty. “I guess you’re growing up.” Not too guilty, though.

    “How did you manage to get your expulsion reversed?” Devon asked. “Stanford wouldn’t have been eager to admit a mistake.”

    Fortunately, they had prepared for that line of inquiry. “Oh, in the aftermath of Bryce’s death, apparently several unsavoury things he had done came to light as his affairs were settled, and the police contacted me. Virginia’s, not ours,” he clarified. “I couldn’t tell you since it was an ongoing investigation - they were very clear about that. Sorry.”

    “We understand,” Ellie said, still smiling. “I knew the man was a rat.”

    A spy, actually, who died on a mission. But that was classified. “And afterwards, well, I had already contacted Stanford, but I didn’t want to raise your hopes in case it didn’t work,” Chuck went on.

    “But it all worked out,” Sarah added. “And now he’s a Stanford graduate!”

    “Larkin was a banker, wasn’t he?” Ellie frowned. “I read his obituary. You should sue his estate and get compensation for the damage to your reputation, the loss of income, and the time you lost until you could graduate..”

    “Already handled, Sis,” Chuck said. “I have a settlement with the bank. It’s not as big as it could be, I guess, but I didn’t have to sue and pay half of it to my lawyer.” He handed over the balance sheet.

    “Chuck!” Ellie looked at him, then at the sheet, then back at him. “With that amount, you could found your own firm!”

    “Well, a very small firm,” Chuck said. “And I’d have to work out of my apartment.”

    That’s how Apple got started,” Devon pointed out.

    “And they almost went broke a few times, I think,” Chuck retorted. “Let’s not spend all at once, hm? We also have your wedding to consider, after all.”

    “Oh, that’s another piece of good news!” Ellie said. “I almost forgot - we got a notice today. Apparently, Dad had set up a fund for such an event, without telling us so we wouldn’t feel the pressure, but there’s enough money for a dream wedding!”

    What? That was a little too convenient. And where would Dad have gotten the money? They’d had to struggle after his and mum’s deaths. Wouldn’t he have used the fund to provide for his orphaned kids, first?

    Chuck exchanged a glance with Sarah. She, too, looked like she suspected something.

    “Uh, Sis, which firm was handling the fund?”

    “Bradbury and Lem, here’s their letter,” Ellie replied.

    ‘Bradbury and Lem’? Had Dad picked them because they had the same names as two classic science fiction authors?

    Or was that a front? They’d have to investigate.

    “Don’t worry, we’re only using half the fund - the other half is reserved for your own wedding,” Devon told him with a smile, derailing Chuck’s thoughts.

    His own wedding? They weren’t planning his wedding, were they?

    *****​

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

    “Bradbury and Lem is a front,” Sarah said as she dealt out several sheets at the planning table in the base. “Their records check out, but all they do is holding money in escrow for ‘selected clients’.”

    “With the right clients, that should be lucrative,” Chuck pointed out. “Also, probably illegal.”

    “Exactly,” Bane said. “Money laundering and black books.”

    Sarah frowned. She had spent most of the day researching this - this was her intel. “More or less. We haven’t found any evidence of such activities, but we haven’t checked their books yet. But their CEO is a lawyer who will sign anything for money and is the official CEO of several dozen firms all set up in a similar way.”

    “A true entrepreneur,” Chuck quipped. “There’s a demand, and he provides the service. Pure capitalism.”

    Casey growled at him and showed his teeth at the dig. “It’s a crime, not capitalism.”

    “More importantly than discussing politics,” Sara nipped the discussion in the buds before it could escalate, “we need to investigate them and uncover who’s behind the money - and what their goals are.”

    “Didn’t your father go missing?” Bane asked. “It might be him, using the firm to keep his identity and current whereabouts secret.”

    Sarah pressed her lips together. Chuck’s dad had gone missing in Sunnydale.

    “My father’s dead,” Chuck said in a flat tone.

    “Presumed dead,” Bane tried to correct him.

    The agent didn’t know about demons and Sunnydale. If not for the pain this was causing Chuck, Sarah would have been happy about Bane putting her foot in like this.

    She spoke up again: “Speculation without any evidence or information won’t serve us. We need to investigate this firm.”

    Chuck smiled at her as Bane frowned. The agent recovered quickly, though. “Of course. This presents a clear threat to Mr Bartowski’s cover - and to his family.”

    “At least it’s not Fulcrum,” Chuck threw in. “If they did suspect me, they would attempt to kidnap me.”

    Sarah winced. He wasn’t completely wrong, but there were several reasons for a more subtle approach. It could be a test for a theory and a distraction at the same time. On the other hand, setting up such a payment took quite the effort - and they would have had to care about Ellie’s upcoming wedding. And Fulcrum had, at least in the past, used far more direct means. Although they might have lost too many assets or had a change in command resulting in a different tactic. “We’ll have to be certain not to tip our hand,” she said. “Someone might be watching for signs.”

    “Do you think your cover might be compromised?” Bane asked.

    “No,” Sarah replied at once to the blatant hint. “But we’ve been operating in this area for some time, now, and basic analysis will show that.” And Fulcrum was bound to have more skilled analysts on their payroll.

    “Your close relations might increase that danger.”

    “My cover was chosen with that in mind.” Sarah smiled. “Fortunately, as things turned out.”

    “Yes,” Chuck agreed with a smile, then frowned. “Wait… you’re not suggesting we break up, are you? I mean for show.”

    “That would make it harder to work together and protect you,” Sarah quickly said before Bane could say anything.

    “Nothing of the sort,” Bane said. “I was merely pointing out that your close relations mean that if one of you becomes compromised, it will endanger Miss Bartowski.”

    Casey glared at her. “My cover includes being his co-worker and neighbour.”

    “Which is another potential weak spot,” Bane retorted.

    “Protecting the Intersect requires such close covers,” the NSA agent replied.

    “Yes,” Chuck added. “We’re like, all-in. But we have a good hand. An excellent hand, even. And a few aces up our sleeves.”

    Sarah smiled as she nodded. It wasn’t the best turn of phrase, but it fitted their situation perfectly, in her opinion.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Malibu Beach, December 20th, 2007

    “Well, apparently, signing anything put before you pays really well,” Chuck remarked as he took in Larry Grover’s home. It wasn’t a beach house, but it was close to the beach. Probably a third-tier beach house, if that was a technical term. And it had good security - the gate wouldn’t budge for anything short of a tank, and the walls looked massive, not ornamental.

    “If it didn’t, the slimeball wouldn’t risk it,” Casey growled. “Also, get used to being quiet. The hired help doesn’t make jokes. Not in this business.”

    “Got it,” Chuck replied, swallowing his comment about Casey’s unfortunate choice of words so close to the averted slime apocalypse. And about the fact that he wouldn’t actually go inside with Casey. “I’ll be a good criminal minion.” He fought the temptation to tug on his fake beard. He would much prefer to be in his Charles Carmichael persona - that would have allowed him to be with Sarah, too - but he’d had to talk fast to get onto this mission at all, seeing as it was aimed at his civilian life, despite him being the best hacker on the team. Even Bane, who supposedly was trying to earn his trust, had been against his participation. But Sarah had come around on his side - though she had insisted on Chuck posing as the driver while Casey and Bane went to meet Grover.

    The gate started to open - they were expected, after all - and he drove the armoured SUV onto the grounds, stopping in front of the main entrance to let Casey and Bane out before parking to the side.

    “We’ve arrived,” he said.

    “Good. Do you see any guards?” Sarah, hiding under a blanket in the back, asked.

    “No.” He took another look. “Just a security camera covering us.” As predicted. “Wait, there’s another one.”

    He flashed. “Shit. That’s a Hallwyl Custom system. The cameras we saw on the pictures are the decoys; the real ones are better hidden. Closed-circuit, with image-recognition and motion detection routines, and backup batteries.” Quite a good system. Not the best, of course, nor the newest, but better than expected.

    Sarah remained unflappable, though. “Can you see their data lines?”

    “Uh…” He leaned back, acting as if he were just a bored driver. If they had installed the lines inside the wall, that would… They hadn’t. “Yes, there is a metal pipe running down from the camera, disguised as a lightning rod.” Not quite sloppy, but Grover shouldn’t have tried to save money there - he could see the cable branch out to the camera.

    “We’ll stick to the plan, then,” Sarah decided.

    *****​

    Whoever had installed the security system was good, Sarah had to admit as she studied the wall through the tinted windows of the car. The two cameras - the visible and the hidden one - completely covered the parking area without leaving a blind spot - on this side.

    But Chuck had parked the car at an angle that left a blind spot between the rear door and the bushes framing the parking area. She rechecked the angle of approach, then told Chuck: “Let’s do it.”

    “Alright. Operation Distraction is a go.”

    His smile was a little forced, but when he got out of the car, he looked like an average driver stretching his legs. Sarah watched him circle the SUV as she moved to the back. There he ducked, then straightened - any observer would see him noticing something near the undercarriage. Nothing suspicious.

    And opening the rear door so he could get a towel to clean whatever stain he had noticed? Completely natural. And, thanks to the blind spot, no one saw her slipping out of the car and rolling into the bushes while Chuck ‘searched’ for a towel.

    By the time he had finished cleaning the mud they had sprayed on before the mission, Sarah had crawled fifteen yards and was one dash across the small pathway circling the house from reaching the camera’s data line.

    She should be in a blind spot, but she waited until Chuck opened the trunk to the car again, providing a small distraction, before she crawled to the wall. You could never be sure, after all.

    The metal pipe looked strong - almost like a real lightning rod; it might even serve as one, which would probably fry the security system - but there was a gap at the bottom, and Sarah had no trouble connecting a small transponder. “Done,” she whispered into her radio.

    “Alright,” she heard Chuck’s reply. “Give me… hm… that’s a standard… yes… almost… Oh.”

    She clenched her teeth. Chuck’s sometimes-habit of commenting on his own work wasn’t as adorable in the field as it was in the kitchen.

    “And done! We can now control the feed. Starting a loop.”

    Good. Sarah had already connected another to the feed from the regular camera.

    Five minutes later, both cameras were looped, and Chuck could leave the car without being seen. Sarah was picking the lock of the door facing the parking area - it had a security lock, so it took her a few minutes until she could signal to Casey and Bane that they had completed the first part.

    Then they were inside, Sarah on point. The hallway behind the door was clear - no camera. That was a little sloppy. But then, they weren’t dealing with a spy, but a lawyer turned criminal. He probably didn’t want to be caught on his own cameras. Well, whatever his reasons, as long as it made it easier for her - not that she needed it - and Chuck, she wouldn’t complain.

    “Are you sure his office is on the first floor?” Chuck whispered.

    “Yes,” she hissed her reply. That was where the architect had placed it, and people like Grover tended to follow ‘expert advice’ - as they expected their own advice to be heeded.

    Movement! Sarah pulled Chuck back into the hallway. Ah. She pressed herself against the wall as a woman carrying a tray with beverages and snacks walked towards the front of the house. Where the salon for visitors was located.

    With the coast clear, they snuck upstairs by taking the smaller stairs next to the kitchen. Dashing past two guest rooms - which probably were never in use since there were two more impressive ones in the back - they reached the door to Grover’s office. No security there, but it was locked. Thirty seconds later, they were in.

    “Whoa!” Chuck exclaimed - fortunately, in a whisper. “That’s a Ceres Hi-Power! Back when they came out fifteen years ago, they were top of the line! Morgan and I used to dream of owning one, but the manufacturer went bankrupt after a year.”

    “Can you hack it?” This wasn’t the time of gushing over old computers.

    “Uh, I should. I’m just saying that this is an almost priceless antique. It belongs in a museum.”

    “Yes, Dr Jones,” she shot back. Antiques were older than fifteen years.

    He blushed a little but started working on the thing. Sarah went to cover the door as he worked. They didn’t have all the time in the world - there was only so long Casey and Bane could drag out negotiations.

    *****​

    Chuck realised straight away that this wasn’t an original Ceres Hi-Power. Someone had upgraded the software with a custom OS, or at least a shell - his usual exploits and tricks wouldn’t work here. He bit his lower lip. He could open the case and get the drives out, to crack them at the base, but… if someone went as far as to write custom programs, maybe even a custom OS, then they would have protected the dives against such tampering, too. Encrypted, perhaps even with a self-destruct system - he was pretty sure that the computer’s hardware had been updated as well; who’d focus on software and keep a fifteen-year-old core running? Outside businesses where the management saw the IT department as the best place to cut costs if the firm had troubles, of course.

    “Chuck?”

    “I’m thinking,” he replied. He couldn’t hack this. A quick attempt proved that. Not in the time he had. “Think, Chuck, think!” he whispered. The machine was too bulky for them to carry it off without getting noticed. But, perhaps… He grinned. The weakness in any system was the human factor. People were lazy, and Grover made his living by acting as a strawman for criminals, keeping their money for them without doing anything strenuous.

    Would such a man practice basic computer security? Chuck didn’t think so. “There’s always a weakness!”

    He looked around the desk upon which the keyboard and screen rested. Unfortunately, there was no post-it note with a password ‘hidden’ nearby - Chuck was quite familiar with the common spots where lazy users hid such information. Grover wasn’t as careless as Chuck had thought. Perhaps he had done the man a disservice, and Grover had memorised the password - he would have used it often enough.

    Oh. Of course! He looked around, spotted the shelf in the back and grinned. “Perfect!”

    “Chuck?

    “I’m working on it,” he told her as he approached the shelf. And the latest expensive laptop perched there. A model Chuck knew how to crack since some people with more money than sense kept locking themselves out of their status symbol.

    Grover might have had enough sense not to write down his password, but Chuck suspected that the lawyer had used the same password on the laptop as he used on the Ceres. He picked the machine up and carried it to the desk so he could work on it. “Let’s see what you’ve got…”

    To his relief, Sarah didn’t question his change of target. Chuck could crack the laptop’s laughable security in under a minute, but he took a little more time here - he couldn’t rush this. If whoever maintained the Ceres also ran Grovers other machines… But they didn’t, and Chuck managed to retrieve the password.

    He turned to the Ceres and took a deep breath as he entered the password. “Here goes…Everything!” he hissed in triumph. “We’re in!”

    He quickly called up the file manager - another custom job. He frowned. He had never seen that shell, but it looked familiar, somehow. And elegant. “Who made you?” he mumbled as he started a search - which ran faster than he expected.

    “Bartowski… no code names for us? I almost feel insulted,” he joked as he connected a memory stick to the computer and started downloading the data. First, the files covering him and Ellie, then the rest - waste not, want not. The CIA would make good use of such compromising information, wouldn’t it?

    He carefully put the laptop back on the shelf - exactly where it had been. More or less. Returning to the desk, he discovered that the data had already been copied.

    “I’ve got to meet the programmer,” he mumbled as he pocketed the stick. If Windows were as quick to move files, his work would be much less boring. Well, his work at the Buy More.

    “Done,” he announced - but Sarah was already moving.

    Five minutes later, they reached the door to the parking area. Sarah held up her hand, and Chuck stopped, waiting in the hallway while she checked the outside. If anyone was waiting to ambush her… But no one was.

    “Clear.”

    Chuck held his breath as they ran, crouched, to the SUV. The cameras were looped, but that wouldn’t help if anyone outside, or at a window, saw them. But no one yelled at them - or shot at them as they climbed into the car, Sarah sliding under the blanket in the back again.

    “Package secured,” Sarah reported to Case and Bane.

    “Good,” Chuck heard the reply in his ear bud.

    He started to relax, fiddling with his driver’s cap. Mission accomplished.

    Then he berated himself - the mission could still fail. They weren’t in the clear yet.

    *****​

    California, Burbanks, The Castle, December 20th, 2007

    Chuck rubbed his chin and shook his head. This didn’t make much sense, as far as he could tell.

    “Chuck? Is there a problem with the data?”

    “Huh?” He looked at Sarah. “Yes. I mean, no, there’s no problem with the data. But…” He took a deep breath. “The funds sent to Ellie? They came from Grover’s very first client.”

    “Oh?” Sarah frowned and bent forward to look over his shoulder.

    He smelt her scent as he pointed at the screen. “See? The first files related to this client are at least a year older than any other files in the system.”

    “He started with your fund. And branched out later,” Sarah said.

    Chuck blinked. That made sense - only it didn’t make any sense. “Why would a criminal prepare funds for us? Fifteen years ago?”

    Sarah looked grim as she replied: “I don’t know. But we’ll find out.”

    *****​

    “Alright,” Chuck said a few hours later, “the funds weren’t marked for us fifteen years ago. The ‘Bartowski’ tag was only added a little while ago, probably when Grover received orders to arrange the payout.” He smiled, obviously relieved, Sarah noticed. “So, we weren’t marked by a criminal fifteen years ago. Whew!”

    She hated to say it, but she had to. “But that means that someone who was hiding money from dubious sources fifteen years ago and probably started Grover’s entire business recently took an interest in you. Enough of an interest to move money out of their hidden funds.”

    Chuck’s face fell. “They know that I’ve got the Intersect in my head!”

    She put her hand on his arm, gently squeezing. “At most, they’ll suspect.”

    “Which is bad enough,” Casey snarled. “If they’re part of Fulcrum…”

    “But why would they pay for Ellie’s wedding?” Chuck asked. “And anonymously? They’d know that we’d not naively think they’re the good guys.”

    “And as a bribe, it’s not really much,” Sarah pointed out.

    “People have sold out America for less,” Casey said.

    “But we wouldn’t!” Chuck said - a little heatedly. “And they’d know that!”

    “It’s the first step,” Bane interjected. As everyone turned to look at her, she smiled, Sarah noticed. “A valuable gift or favour, but nothing overly generous. The recipient will be, even unconsciously, grateful. It gives you an in. All you need is a plausible story to explain why the mark received the gift. Then you build from there.”

    The agent was probably quoting her own playbook. But she had made a good point, Sarah had to admit. This was an opening move. Someone was planning a long con.

    “Can we, uh, interrogate Grover?” Chuck asked. “His security isn’t really up to snuff, is it? We could go in and grab him. Find out what he knows.”

    Casey grinned. “Feeling a little vicious, Bartowski? Do you want to do the waterboarding yourself?”

    Sarah glared at the NSA agent. Chuck was worried about Ellie, as Casey would know, but he wasn’t a torturer. Well… unless it was demons - Sarah remembered the demonstrations arranged for them.

    “Kidnapping Grover runs the risk of alerting the donor to us,” Bane pointed out.

    “And I doubt that he knows the donor personally,” Sarah added. “Whoever set this up was very cautious; they would know that Grover is the weakest link in the chain, and wouldn’t have let him know their identity.”

    “But they installed the computer!” Chuck retorted. “That would have had to be done in person.”

    “Hired help, nerd.” Casey scoffed. “Like your day job, just for criminals.”

    “No, no, no, guys,” Chuck replied after a moment, shaking his head. “This wasn’t some tech support. Whoever rigged up this system was a genius. Not the kind of person you hire for some delivery and installation job.”

    “Even geniuses can fall on hard times,” Sarah said. Like Chuck.

    Chuck looked at her for a moment, and she saw him understand what she hinted at - his lips twisted in that forced smile of his. “Point taken. But the thing is, the ‘donor’ would know how valuable the ‘programmer’ is. Whatever they are doing for a living, a genius programmer and tech guy will help. A lot.”

    “Trying to convince us or yourself?” Casey interrupted with a grin. Sarah felt a sudden urge to hit him. Chuck was turning into a good spy, even without the Intersect.

    Chuck frowned at the man. “I’m not wrong. In any case, if Grover is a dead end - not literally, I hope - then whoever programmed this is the key.” He pointed at the screen. “That was fifteen years ago. They will have done other things. And they will have left tracks!” He tapped his temple. “And the Intersect is perfect for finding them!”

    *****​

    California, Burbanks, The Castle, December 23rd, 2007

    Another dead end. Chuck sighed. He had been so sure this would pay out. A selection of the best code from various skilled hackers, both the kind to make headlines and the ones working for various spy agencies.

    And he had flashed, solving two high-profile hacks in the process. But there was nothing on the elusive ‘Baker’, as they had code-named the programmer - on Chuck’s suggestion, since Ceres, the goddess, had been synonymous with grain and bread in the Roman era. Not that anyone had cared. Not even Sarah. But she hadn’t been rude about it, unlike Casey.

    He sighed again. He hadn’t found pieces of the Ceres code in commercial programs. Nothing distinctive, at least. And now the illegal programs hadn’t paid out either - not even the Intersect had helped.

    He clenched his teeth. The Intersect was useless. He was useless. Ellie was in danger because of him, and Chuck couldn’t do anything. Useless!

    “I don’t get it!” he complained.

    “Hm?” Sarah looked up from her report.

    “‘Baker’ started at least fifteen years ago, and we know he kept updating Grover’s computer regularly. That means he was active for one and a half decades - and yet the Intersect has nothing on the guy? It had data on a kid hacking his grades in high school in 2001!” It didn’t make sense. This was what the Intersect had been designed for, so why wasn’t it working? It was as if the Intersect was blind… “Oh my God!”

    “Chuck?”

    He looked at her as his stomach seemed to drop. “Sarah… who exactly created the Intersect?”

    *****​
     
  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 13: The Investigation
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 13: The Investigation

    California, Burbanks, The Castle, December 23rd, 2007

    Who exactly created the Intersect? It was a good question, Sarah had to admit. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s classified,” she added with a grimace.

    “Oh.” Chuck blinked. “And whoever created the Intersect wiped themselves from their databanks, probably hard-coded a blind spot in the core of the program. No, they would have wiped their involvement from the databanks. Otherwise, we could find them by process of elimination - just find the programmer who doesn’t show up in the Intersect.”

    “Yes.”

    “But someone has to know who programmed the Intersect,” Chuck went on.

    “Beckman probably knows,” Sarah said.

    “Probably?”

    “It was a black project and took years to build. Her predecessor might not have informed her,” Sarah explained.

    “We can still ask, can’t we?” Chuck asked. Sarah must have betrayed her thoughts since he winced. “She will love to throw ‘it’s classified’ into our faces, right?”

    She nodded. “Yes.”

    “That’s not very professional for a general,” he pointed out.

    “But very common for a general,” Sarah replied. “The Pentagon politics make the Capitol look tame.” And the CIA politics were worse - literally lethal, at times.

    Chuck sighed. “I guess we can’t interrogate her, hm?”

    She raised her eyebrows at him. He had better be joking!

    He raised his hands. “Kidding, kidding!” Another sigh followed. “But it’s our best lead. We need to find out if ‘Baker’ was behind the Intersect - and who they are.”

    “We don’t have a lead, though,” she told him.

    He clenched his teeth. “There has to be a way! Some hardcopy archives they couldn’t wipe.” His eyes widened. “Discrepancies between hardcopy and electronic records! If we compare them, we could find the blind spot - and the identity of ‘Baker’!”

    It wasn’t a bad idea, Sarah knew. “That means we’d have to have access to the physical archives and the electronic data of the Intersect project. And hope no one wiped the hardcopy data to protect the project from scrutiny.”

    “Oh.” He looked crestfallen. “I guess we’d need to talk to Beckman for that?”

    “Unless you get the Council to pressure her into cooperating, yes,” Sarah.

    “Hm. I don’t think that the Intersect falls under the Supernatural,” Chuck said. “I don’t think Giles would go for that. And it wouldn’t be fair to ask the Scoobies, anyway.”

    Sarah was both disappointed and relieved.

    “Could we follow the money?”

    She shook her head. “Fifteen years have passed, and they’ll have taken precautions.”

    “So… we can do nothing but wait until they make contact? If they make contact and don’t do anything more dangerous, instead.”

    “We have to inform Beckman anyway. She might be reasonable.” Though Sarah didn’t think so.

    *****​

    “You suspect that the same person who built the Intersect sent a significant sum of money to Bartowski through a lawyer known to handle such transactions for criminals?”

    Yes, the general wasn’t happy. Chuck forced himself to keep smiling and looking sorry. In hindsight, they probably should have informed the general right away.

    “Yes, ma’am,” Casey said.

    “That’s our best estimate,” Chuck added. “It would explain why the Intersect can’t find this person.”

    “That would have been deliberate sabotage of the project,” Beckman said with a scowl. “That’s a serious accusation.”

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “It’s a theory. A theoretical accusation. A hypothesis,” Chuck explained. “Without knowing who programmed the Intersect’s core architecture, we cannot verify or disprove it.”

    “I see.”

    Did she? Chuck perked up.

    “Unfortunately, the designer of the Intersect went AWOL before it was completed.”

    “What?” Chuck blinked.

    “They deserted?” Casey asked with a growl.

    “Yes. They vanished ten years ago,” the General explained. “After wiping all the information about them from our databanks. We haven’t been able to catch them since then.”

    “I’ve never heard about that,” Sarah said.

    “Neither did I,” Casey added.

    “It was kept quiet,” Beckman said with a scowl.

    “The Intersect is ten years old?” Chuck asked. He ignored Casey’s ‘nerd’. That was… an antique.

    “The core of the program is that old. But it has been continuously updated with the latest data,” the general said.

    “How long did they work for the NSA?” Chuck asked.

    “Five years in total.”

    “That would mean… they contacted Grover right after or shortly before starting the work on the Intersect,” Chuck said. “They must have expected or even planned something like this.”

    “And they haven’t been caught?” Sarah asked.

    The general looked embarrassed. “They have been a step ahead of us for years - mostly due to their unparalleled mastery of computers.”

    “And we don’t even know their sex?” Bane spoke up for the first time.

    “We don’t. We only know their code name: Orion.”

    *****​

    “So we’re hunting a phantom,” Chuck said, leaning back in his seat as soon as the general had ended the call.

    “Not alone,” Sarah pointed out. “Several teams are on the same mission.”

    “Technically,” Bane said, “we aren’t hunting Orion; we’re merely investigating a potential threat to the Intersect that might be connected to Orion.”

    Casey’s snort summed up Chuck’s opinion of that. “And our investigation involves hunting them,” Chuck said.

    “It’s not as if we’re going to be coordinating with anyone,” Sarah said.

    “Certainly not when any electronic communication is banned because Orion might be listening in,” Chuck agreed, then blinked. “Say… didn’t the general violate that order by discussing this on a conference call?”

    “She’s the one in charge; she can rescind and reissue the order as she sees fit,” Casey replied.

    “Convenient,” Chuck said. “But what if Orion did listen in and now knows that we’re hunting them?”

    “They would already be expecting that after sending money to Ellie,” Sarah pointed out. “Especially if, as we have to assume, they know that Chuck is the Intersect.”

    Chuck nodded, grimacing. They had managed to keep the secret, but now an unknown party - a deserter from the NSA - was aware of it. And Ellie was in danger as a result. And it was all his fault. Partially, at least.

    “But how are we supposed to do better than teams who have been hunting Orion for years?” Bane asked.

    “We can hardly do worse,” Casey retorted.

    “It’s hard to find someone who wiped all their data from our systems before vanishing. We don’t even know their sex.” Bane crossed her arms under her chest and faced the NSA agent.

    “Well, Orion’s probably a male,” Chuck said. At the looks he received from Sarah and Bane, he added: “They hired him fifteen years ago. Back then, there weren’t many female programmers of that talent. Hell, Willow was probably the best - they sent the head recruiter for the world’s leading software developer to meet with Willow in Sunnydale High solely on what was known about her.” He blinked. “I’m so stupid!”

    “Good analysis, Bartowski,” Casey grunted.

    Chuck stared at him, then shook his head; this was more important. “I should have asked Willow about this. She was, well, more into the hacking scene back then than I was. She should know the big names.”

    “Willow?” Bane asked.

    Chuck suppressed a wince. He shouldn’t have revealed that. On the other hand, if a software firm knew about Willow, then the CIA probably did as well. And if Bane thought Willow was a hacker, she wouldn’t expect her to be a witch. “Willow Rosenberg, you’ve met her. If I hurry, I can catch them before they go on their flight.” He pulled out his phone.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles International Airport, December 23rd, 2007

    Sarah smiled as she entered the lounge at the airport. Chuck probably hadn’t meant it literally when he spoke about catching the Scoobies before their flight - he really should have considered that it was the day before Christmas Eve, and the Scoobies wouldn’t be able to get another flight to be back in England in time for the holidays.

    Of course, none of that would have been necessary if they could trust electronic communication. The Scoobies might have protections even Orion might not be able to circumvent, but the Burbank Station didn’t - and if anyone got into their files…

    “Hey!” Chuck said, waving as he spotted the Scoobies.

    “Hey yourself!” Rosenberg said, standing up. “What was so important that you had to meet in person?”

    “Surprise Christmas presents?” Harris asked with a wide grin that didn’t reach his eyes, Sarah noticed.

    Summers waved as she hastily chewed what looked like the remains of an entire club sandwich. Dr Summers merely nodded, as did Faith.

    “Ah…” Chuck looked around. “Are we safe from listening devices?”

    “That’s the first thing I did after your call.” Rosenberg nodded, then frowned. “Are you under CIA surveillance?”

    “Ah, no.” Chuck shook his head, then looked around. “Let’s sit down.”

    “How did you get into the lounge without tickets?” Summers asked. “Some special spy badge?

    Chuck blushed slightly, Sarah noticed. “We kind of have temporary tickets.”

    “There’s no such thing as… You hacked the booking computers!” Rosenberg announced. Loudly. But no one nearby reacted, though - whatever the witch had done must be working.

    “Yes, but it was needed,” Chuck defended himself. “You see, we’ve got a problem. Ellie received a respectable sum to pay for her wedding.”

    “That’s a problem?” Summers asked. “Or did you lose it, and need to recover it? Or was it meant for a mob boss who wants it back?”

    “Buffy! Let him tell explain instead of listing the plots from cheap movies!” Dr Summers interjected.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Well, it might actually be dirty money. You see, when we looked into the origin of the money, we found out that...”

    *****​

    “...and then I thought you’d know more than me about the kind of computer specialists who could do such a thing,” Chuck finished.

    “Oh!” Sarah saw Rosenberg, who had been shifting around in her seat since shortly after Chuck had mentioned the Intersect’s inventor, nodded rapidly. “I do know - only out of interest, you know - most of the hackers of our time. The good ones, I mean - well, good in both senses; both skilled and not wanting to use their skills for evil, you know? I mean, some of the hackers were really bad. Not quite Sunnydale-bad, but really non-white hats. Black hats. Which, I just realised, sounds really racist. Oh Goddess, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it, but… Well, there was this hacker from Texas holding hospitals hostage until the FBI caught him, and...”

    “Willow!” Harris interrupted her, “We do have a flight to catch, so best save the details for your report.”

    “There’s a report?” Rosenberg gasped, then pouted. “Oh, you!”

    “You’ll be writing a report on the plane, Red, don’t deny it.” Faith chuckled. Sarah couldn’t tell if the Slayer was still angry about the whole mess with Casey and Caridad, but she seemed to be trying a little too hard to appear laid-back.

    “Well…” Rosenberg pouted again. “It’s still not nice!”

    “Think of it as giving you an advance warning or a reminder,” Harris said as Summers patted Rosenberg’s hand. “So… summarise?”

    “Ok.” Rosenberg sighed. “I can’t think of many hackers who would fit the requirements and aren’t either in prison, already very anti-authoritarian fifteen years ago, or publically known. I mean, some of the guys in prison might have done a deal with the government after getting arrested, but they were arrested years after this ‘Orion’ started working on the Intersect. They - the government - would have had to set up some cover story and probably sent someone to prison in their place, and why would they do that for someone who wasn’t known in the first place?”

    “The government does a lot of stupid things,” Harris said.

    The Scoobies nodded in agreement, and Sarah clenched her teeth for a moment. She disagreed with the general attitude, though this wasn’t the time or place to discuss this. And she was aware of a number of government screw-ups herself, of course. All classified, though.

    “You said you couldn’t think of many hackers,” Chuck said. “That means you can think of some.”

    “Well...” Rosenberg winced.

    “Willow?” Chuck asked.

    “Well, two are dead,” Rosenberg answered. “The L33t Ranger was murdered by the Russian Mob after exposing their off-shore accounts in 2001. And, well, your dad…”

    Chuck froze for a moment, then slowly shook his head. “Dad was a good programmer. Not a hacker, though.”

    “Uh…” Rosenberg grimaced. She really had no poker face in Sarah’s opinion. Unless this was merely a facade. “That’s not entirely accurate.”

    “Willow! No movie quoting in delicate family situations!” Summers admonished her.

    “I wasn’t! Was I?”

    “ID4,” Harris replied.

    “Oh.”

    “Red.”

    “I’m so sorry! Really! I didn’t want to make light of your loss, but…” Rosenberg shook her head. “Your Dad was a hacker. He caught me once when he was fixing the Sunnydale high school system.”

    “You hacked the high school computers? But Dad was... when did you do that?” Cuck asked.

    “I was twelve,” she replied. “And I wanted to know if Xander, Jesse and I would be in the same homeroom.”

    “Or correct that if we weren’t,” Harris added, which caused Rosenberg to blush.

    “Anyway, Dad’s dead, so who else did you think of?” Chuck asked.

    “Well, the only one not confirmed dead or sold out to the man,” Rosenberg replied, “would be Infinity. They were quite good, and not as, ah, attention-seeking as most others. Though they haven’t been heard of in years.”

    “That fits,” Chuck said. “Thank you, Willow.”

    “I’ll contact you if I think of anyone else,” she said.

    “Not electronically,” Chuck reminded her.

    “Alright. I’ll send a letter.”

    “By post owl?” Harris asked.

    Since everyone laughed, Sarah assumed that it was a joke she wasn’t aware of. She could ask Chuck later, of course, without losing face. But there were more important things to think about, anyway.

    Such as the question of whether Chuck’s father had actually died in Sunnydale. Chuck had said that his parents had vanished, and if there was no body, you couldn’t be sure of anyone’s death. Sometimes not even if there was a body, if someone could fake or alter the right records.

    But talking to Chuck about this would be difficult.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 23rd, 2007

    Chuck sighed and closed his eyes, letting his character get shot in the game. He heard complaints and curses from the other members of his team but ignored them. It was just a game, not the end of the world. Not really important.

    But the chatter and curses were annoying, and so he switched off his computer. Let them assume he had been disconnected before he had stopped playing. It didn’t matter. He had real problems to worry about. Ellie’s safety. And the mysterious Orion’s goals.

    And yet, he couldn’t help thinking about Dad. That was Willow’s fault. He didn’t like to think about his parents. Their deaths, Ellie struggling to replace them, trying to take care of him, even though he hadn’t needed it - much. Sunnydale had destroyed their family.

    If he were honest, he’d have to admit that it wasn’t actually Willow’s fault - Christmas, when families came together to celebrate, tended to remind him of everything that had gone wrong in Sunnydale. Still… He shook his head. Dad was dead. If he weren’t dead, he’d have returned to them. And he had been a programmer, not a hacker.

    Not Orion.

    “Chuck?”

    Sarah. He smiled. “Come in.”

    “Did you finish your game?”

    “Oh, yes.” He wasn’t technically lying. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

    She nodded, then took a seat next to him on the couch. She didn’t look happy.

    He winced. “I guess whatever you found wasn’t good news?”

    Sarah shook her head. “I don’t think you’re going to like it, Chuck.”

    Shit. “Now I’m feeling even more apprehensive.” His eyes widened. “Wait! It’s not Elle, isn’t it? She’s safe, isn’t she?”

    “Ellie’s safe,” Sarah quickly told him. He started to relax. “As far as I know.”

    His relief vanished at once at hearing her qualifier, replaced by - now familiar - anxiety. “Great. So… shoot? Not literally, I mean. You know.”

    “Yes.”

    She was still smiling in that particular way… she was nervous, he realised. A veteran spy, nervous. This must be really bad. He shifted a little on the couch.

    She took a deep breath. “Chuck, I’ve checked the dates.” She hesitated. Again. “Your father vanished shortly before Orion started working on the Intersect. Shortly before Grover received the Ceres computer.”

    He froze for a moment. “That doesn’t prove anything!” he snapped. Dad was dead. What did she think… No - he had to control his temper.

    “No, it doesn’t,” she agreed. “But we can’t exclude the possibility that your father isn’t dead, but in hiding instead. It would explain the connection to your family.”

    “But it wouldn’t explain why he went into hiding!”

    “To protect you and Ellie, presumably.”

    “What?”

    “He was working on a top-secret intelligence project. Probably the most important project of the agency,” she explained. “If the CIA and NSA had known about his family, they would have sent a protection detail - or taken you into custody. Standard procedure.”

    That wouldn’t have been too bad, Chuck thought. But… Sunnydale. “Spies versus vampires?”

    She snorted, then grew serious again. “It would have made vanishing afterwards impossible. You and Ellie would have been leverage. And even if he had managed to extract you and delete your files, you’d have been forced into hiding with him.”

    That would have been… well, Ellie probably wouldn’t have become a doctor. And he wouldn’t have been able to study at Stanford. Chuck nodded. Although… Sarah seemed quite understanding about what was, legally and effectively, treason, he noticed. Treason against the CIA, even. Well, she was the experienced spy of the two of them, and she had mentioned how difficult it would be to quit the CIA. But he had to focus on the subject at hand.

    Chuck took a deep breath. “That assumes two things. First, that he was planning to desert from the project even before he began it. And second, that he cared enough about us to ‘protect’ us, but not enough to choose us over the Intersect.”

    “He might not have had a choice, Chuck. The CIA or the NSA aren’t really willing to take ‘No’ as an answer if they consider you vital for national security. You would have been leverage or in hiding even if your father had refused to work on the project. And he would have been aware of it.”

    That made… well, a warped sort of sense. Damned if you did, damned if you didn’t. But… “If he had done that, why didn’t he tell us?” Why would he have just left them? Let them think he was dead? If he actually was in hiding and not dead. Eaten by a demon in Sunnydale.

    “Chuck… you were kids. You wouldn’t have been able to keep the secret. And you’d probably have tried to find him, or contact him, if you’d have known.”

    He pressed his lips together. He wanted to say that they wouldn’t have, but they would. Well, Chuck would have. Ellie might have been more sensible. “It’s still just a theory.”

    “But it fits all the facts. According to Willow, your dad was a hacker. Good enough to catch her.”

    “When she was a kid,” Chuck pointed out.

    “And yet, the Intersect didn’t find him when you were looking for hackers,” she replied.

    That was true. The timelines added up. The lack of any data in the Intersect also fit. Willow’s information about Dad being a hacker. But… He shook his head, then looked at the now-dead tv screen. It couldn’t be true. “The Intersect also didn’t find much about ‘Infinity’.” Although enough to confirm their existence somewhere in Southeast Asia. “Dad’s been dead for fifteen years. At least that was what we thought.” It would be easier if his father were dead. Dead instead of hiding. Instead of being hunted. He shook his head again. He couldn’t think like that. First rule: Don’t die. Dead was bad.

    She laid her hand on his arm. He looked at her for a moment, then she reached out and hugged him.

    He closed his eyes, holding her. Being held. He wasn’t crying. Barely. Dad might - might! - still be alive. Not dead. Just the CIA’s most wanted.

    He snorted. It almost came out as a sniffle. “What a mess.”

    She didn’t reply. Just held him some more.

    *****​

    “So, what do we tell the others? About your theory, I mean,” Sarah heard Chuck ask from their bedroom while she was brushing her teeth.

    She finished while she pondered her answer. “You mean Casey and Bane, right?” she asked as she left the bathroom.

    “Uh, yes. I mean - Morgan needs to know. He knew Dad, after all. And Caridad and Phil should know as well. Just in case, you know, it’s not Dad but something looking like him,” Chuck said. “And Ellie can’t know.”

    Sarah nodded. “I think the CIA would have noticed if he were a vampire,” she said.

    “Unless he did everything online and never met them. Wouldn’t they know his sex at least, if he had met an agent?” Chuck retorted.

    “Ah, he did meet a few members of the Intersect team,” Sarah said as she slipped into their bed. “But all of them were dead by the time he disappeared.”

    “What?” Chuck sat up next to her. “Do you mean… he killed them?”

    “If he did, then he managed to make it look like an accident,” Sarah replied. “They died during an unauthorised test.”

    “How do you die during a computer test? Did they overclock the CPU until it blew up?” Chuck shook his head.

    She didn’t quite frown at him. “They died testing the neural-optical interface. Fatal cerebral haemorrhaging.”

    He blinked. “Uh… you mean the thing that put the thing in my head? And they bled to death?”

    “If you want to use the technical terms, yes,” she said.

    “You mean… I could have died when Bryce sent me the Intersect?” Chuck gasped.

    “That’s a good question,” she replied.

    “I think it’s more than a question - it’s my life on the line!”

    “Orion vetoed the test and said further adjustments were needed for compatibility. Apparently, his co-workers disagreed,” Sarah told him.

    “That sounds… sloppy of them,” Chuck commented. “Or it was a trap - by Orion.”

    “It’s possible, though as far as the agency knows, Orion isn’t a killer.” If he were, he could have killed a number of people just by leaking classified information, after all.

    “Where did you get the file, anyway? I mean, I assume you’ve got a file, since the data we had wasn’t covering that, or I’d know, you know.”

    “It was sent to the base by courier and arrived today. Hardcopy.”

    “Oh. So, back to my brain almost turning into Swiss cheese.”

    She took a deep breath.

    “Uh-oh. I know that breath. There’s another piece of bad news coming, right?” he blurted out before she could speak.

    “Possibly,” she replied. “According to the files, the Intersect isn’t compatible with everyone, but only select people who have the correct neural setup.” Which she suspected included Chuck for a reason.

    “‘Neural setup’? Is that a medical term? Because it doesn’t sound medical,” Chuck said. “It sounds more like a computer term.”

    “It was coined by programmers,” Sarah replied. “Orion, I believe.” Not that she’d know since all data had been erased.

    “Figures. But at least Orion would have had to be a doctor as well, wouldn’t he? Or he couldn’t have built that neural-optical interface.”

    She knew what he was trying to say: His father hadn’t been a doctor. “One of the team members was a neurologist,” she told him. “He died in the accident.”

    “Oh. So… does that mean that it’s more or less likely that the accident was a trap?”

    More, in her opinion. But that didn’t fit the profile the agency had. “That’s hard to tell,” she replied.

    He nodded. After a moment, he went on: “Speaking of telling… do we tell the other spies?”

    “We probably need to tell Casey, but not Bane.”

    “Ah.”

    “Otherwise, Casey might shoot Orion at the first opportunity,” she explained.

    “And we kind of trust him, don’t we?”

    “Within reason.” They were the man’s best option in their situation. Of course, bringing in Orion might change that - the Agency would forgive a lot if they got their hands on the man.

    “Ah. And Bane?”

    “Absolutely not. She’s a mole for Beckman. She’d sell us out at the first opportunity. If they have Orion, they don’t need you any more.”

    “Oh.” Chuck looked shocked. “I hadn’t thought about that.” He blinked. “So… we can’t let them get Orion.”

    “No.” Which was one of the reasons Sarah hoped Orion was Chuck’s father. It would make things simpler.

    Provided Orion’s motives were as noble as she had told Chuck. If not… Well, there was one way to ensure the CIA would never get their hands on Orion and to keep Chuck safe - from both Orion and the CIA.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 24th, 2007

    “Christmas Eve, and we’re working,” Chuck commented as he leaned against the wall next to where Casey was tagging new games.

    “Like everyone who actually works for a living,” the agent replied with a sneer.

    “That’s the spirit of the season!” Chuck said before he could stop himself. “Cheerful and joyful!”

    Casey narrowed his eyes at him, and Chuck took a step to the side. Pure reflex. “Did you just come to make useless pansy comments? Life isn’t a holiday commercial.”

    “Hey! Some of those commercials are vicious!” Chuck retorted. Overdone and not serious, and in that ‘trying too hard’ way, but vicious.

    Casey scoffed in reply. “You don’t know vicious.”

    Uh. “I grew up in a town with worse murder rates than an active war zone,” Chuck replied. It wasn’t entirely correct, depending on your definition of an active war zone, but Sunnydale hadn’t been a picnic!

    “And yet you turned into a typical Californian milquetoast. Guess it’s genetic.”

    Chuck looked around. “Speaking of genetic… did you check for bugs? The spying kind, I mean.”

    “Always.”

    Chuck took that to mean that Casey hadn’t found any. Asking would make him sound stupid, anyway. “So…” he lowered his voice. “Sarah had that theory. About Orion.”

    “That he’s related to you. Probably your father.”

    Chuck blinked. “How did you…?”

    “I saw the file. You survived the integration of the Intersect. Several others - people who had worked on it - died trying that. And someone with the skills of Orion is sending your sister money for the wedding. Add the timeline, and odds are your father didn’t die.”

    “Oh.” So much for the big spy-like reveal. “Uh, well… we’re planning to discuss it this evening, in private.” Meaning, not at the base. “So, you’re cordially invited to the annual Bartowski Christmas Eve Party.”

    He could see the other man open his mouth to turn him down before Casey reconsidered. After a moment, the agent nodded with a glare.

    “Perfect!” Chuck beamed at him. Casey would probably rather spend the evening with a bottle than with Chuck’s family - especially since Caridad would be attending as well - but that would make Casey look both afraid and less than perfectly dedicated to duty. “You’ll love the dinner.”

    “I’m certain that it’ll be awesome.”

    Chuck ignored the subtle dig - Casey was a spy, not a thug, he reminded himself; the man could do subtle - and nodded. “It’ll be! Until later, then!”

    He didn’t sigh with relief until he was out of sight. Mission accomplished. So to speak. Now he could focus on… Morgan talking to Bane? He blinked. No, not talking. Flirting. Well, in a Morgan way.

    “Yes, I’m Chuck’s best friend - we grew up together. Practically brothers,” Chuck heard Morgan as he approached, hidden from sight by an aisle full of toasters on sale - which, apparently, hadn’t sold as well as Big Mike had thought they would. Chuck made a note to reduce their price further after Christmas.

    “Oh. In Sunnydale?”

    “Yes. Rough town, but we survived,” Morgan said, in a rather transparent imitation of a particular NPC in the latest expansion for his favourite CRPG. Well, transparent for anyone who had played the game. Like Chuck.

    “Rough town?” Bane sounded like a naive girl.

    “The worst,” Morgan replied. “Very violent. It made L.A. look peaceful.”

    “Ah. I wouldn’t know that - it’s my first time in the city.” A little sigh emphasised Bane’s statement. “Which is why I’m so grateful for your invitation. Otherwise, I’d probably spend Christmas Eve at the base.” What?

    “No problem,” Morgan said. “It’s the least I could do.”

    What did he do?

    “Well, I have to return; break’s over. See you later, Morgan.”

    “Laters, Kirsten!”

    Chuck rounded the corner as soon as the sounds of Bane’s heels on the floor faded. “Morgan!”

    “Oh!” His friend looked startled, then straightened. “Chuck! Is there another attack?”

    “What? No.”

    “Ah, good.” Morgan smiled. “Oh, I wanted to tell you: I’ve got a plus one for the party tonight. Kirsten.”

    ‘Kirsten’. “I’ve heard,” Chuck said. “What were you thinking?”

    “Hey! She’s new in the city, lonely, and it’s Christmas Eve!”

    “She’s a spy, Morgan - sent here to ferret out our secrets,” Chuck told him through clenched teeth. And to seduce me, he added to himself.

    “Well…” Morgan set his jaw. “That’s more of a reason to keep her close, then, so you can keep an eye on her, right? Besides, it’s a party, not a secret meeting.”

    They had been planning to use the party to discuss Orion. Ellie and Devon as well as their friends could be handled. But Bane? But if Chuck told her not to come, she’d grow even more suspicious. What could he do? What could they do?

    “Chuck?”

    “What?” Chuck blinked as his thoughts were interrupted.

    “I’ve got to finish taking stock of the home appliances! See you later, OK?”

    “Uh…” Apparently, Chuck’s lack of response had been taken as agreement.

    And now Chuck had to explain this to Sarah.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 24th, 2007

    So far, the Bartowski Christmas Eve party was a success. Sure, Casey was staying as far from Caridad as he managed, basically standing in a corner and glaring at anyone from the half a dozen friends and colleagues of Elie and Devon at the party whenever they came too close. He was probably waiting for a home invasion. Or a demon invasion.

    And Caridad was reenacting the biblical plague of locusts at the buffet in the other corner. Comfort food worked on Slayers, or so it seemed. It wasn’t any comfort to the household’s budget, though. But Ellie and Devon looked happy - well, whenever they didn’t look at Caridad. And no one had been assaulted or killed yet - with half a dozen clueless colleagues and friends of Ellie and Devon present, that was a serious consideration. At least the lie that Caridad was bulimic and very sensitive about it kept them from commenting about the Slayer’s appetite.

    “My standards for a successful party have gone down,” he muttered.

    “Hm?” Sarah asked.

    “I was just thinking that the party was a success since no one has been killed yet. And we’ve been at it for over half an hour,” Chuck told her.

    “‘Yet’,” she replied. “Miss Honey-Trap hasn’t arrived yet.”

    So she was still angry at Bane’s invitation. “Morgan invited her,” he whispered.

    “You didn’t have to accept that.”

    Morgan was his best friend and had been trying to help - well, partially, at least. That Bane was hot had certainly played a part. A big part. “That would have needlessly antagonised her,” he said.

    “She’s already an enemy.”

    It was surprising how Sarah could keep smiling happily while they were having an argument. And a little disturbing. “So why hasn’t Casey killed her already?” he asked before he could stop himself.

    “That would force Beckman’s hand.”

    “Ah.” He grimaced. Why would he have expected another answer? Sarah was a spy, after all. “But isn’t it a good thing that she’s after Morgan?” And not after Chuck.

    “He’s just a stepping stone to get to you. It’s an old trick - go for the unattractive friend, then let the real target get jealous,” Sarah replied. She knew a lot about honey-traps, Chuck noticed not for the first time. “And Morgan is a source of information.”

    “He won’t betray us,” Chuck defended his best friend. At her glance, he added: “He knows she’s a spy. And he’s gotten better at information security.” ‘Information security’ - he was talking like a real spy.

    “She’s probably already seducing him.”

    Morgan was actually late to the party - he usually was one of the first, and they had officially started half an hour ago. “She wouldn’t hurt him, would she? She knows that we know that she’s his date, after all.”

    “I don’t think so,” Sarah said.

    As if on cue, the doorbell rang. Ellie made a beeline for the door. Chuck saw her smile falter a little, then noticed her surprise. “Speak of the devil,” he whispered.

    He was right - Morgan and Bane entered, coming towards Chuck and Sarah, with Ellie in tow.

    “Yes, I’m a co-worker of Sarah, of course I know her,” Chuck heard the spy say.

    “Employee,” Sarah quickly corrected her. “I wanted a little more free time and flexibility, and business is good.”

    “That’s how I met Morgan,” Bane added, hooking her arm through his. “And he invited me to this party. Isn’t he sweet?”

    Everyone agreed, though with varying levels of sincerity, and Ellie left to restock the buffet.

    “Nice party,” Bane commented, looking around.

    “They’re Ellie and Devon’s friends,” Chuck said. Civilians who didn’t deserve CIA attention. “I barely know them.”

    “Ah.” Bane nodded.

    “Mostly doctors they know from university or work,” Morgan added.

    “Right. Your family isn’t aware of your position, is it?”

    “No,” Chuck confirmed.

    “You must be very good at maintaining your cover,” the spy went on. “But isn’t this a little dangerous? For them and for you - anyone could use them to get close to you.”

    Like Bane was trying to use Morgan?” Chuck shrugged. “If anyone suspects me, there are more ways to get to me.” Like faking a house call for Nerd Herd.

    Bane nodded. “Do you suspect Orion will try more direct methods?”

    “That doesn’t seem to be his modus operandi,” Sarah cut in. “But it is too soon to tell.” Her smile wouldn’t have looked out of place on Caridad’s face when trying to get the last tuna sandwich at the buffet, in Chuck’s opinion.

    Bane wasn’t flinching, though, and returned a similar smile.

    “Well, let’s get something to eat,” Morgan said, ”before all the good stuff’s gone.”

    Bane agreed, and the two left for the buffet. Chuck sighed with relief.

    Sarah’s glance at him had ‘I told you so’ written all over it.

    *****

    Half an hour later, Chuck was about to head over to Casey for another attempt at having a private talk without interference - why did every slightly inebriated medical professional present try to talk to an obvious anti-social grump? At least none of the women tried to flirt with Casey, so Caridad wasn’t making a scene - or a mess - when he saw Ellie coming towards them.

    “Chuck! We need more toast!” she blurted out. “Caridad is eating more sandwiches than usual.”

    “Uh… I think we have some at home,” he managed to say. She stared at him, and he caved “I’ll get it at once?”

    “Yes.” She nodded sharply, as if it was his fault that Caridad was using food therapy to

    “I’ll come with you,” Sarah said. “A little bit of fresh air will be nice.” ‘Fresh’ meaning ‘not shared with Bane’ for her, Chuck knew.

    But she was correct - it felt nice to take a deep breath outside, despite the air pollution. “So…” he began when Sarah suddenly tensed. A moment later, she had drawn her gun.

    “Something’s in the air!” she hissed. “Above us!”

    Chuck froze. Was that noise…? “That’s an RC helicopter,” he said. It sounded like the one Morgan had wrecked in that stupid stunt in the Buy More’s magazine when he had been trying to ‘revolutionise logistics’.

    Something hit the ground near them. A moment later, Chuck hit the ground courtesy of Sarah tackling him.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2019
  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 14: The Kite Affair
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 14: The Kite Affair

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 24th, 2007

    Chuck, although a little belatedly, opened his mouth, pressed his hands on his hears and waited for the explosion. Which didn’t happen.

    After a few seconds, he felt Sarah roll off him and quickly crawled into the closest bush behind the low wall in the yard. A few more seconds later, he crouched and peeked over the wall.

    Sarah was staring at the thing that had dropped down next to them. It was a padded case - he recognised the model - for shipping small, fragile items with postal services that handled them with their usual care. Meaning, the drop wouldn’t have damaged whatever was in the container.

    “I don’t think it’s a bomb,” Chuck told her. “It would have exploded on impact, otherwise, wouldn’t it?”

    She glanced at him with an annoyed expression, and he hunkered down a little more behind the wall. It hadn’t been him who had overreacted, had it?

    She looked at the sky - Chuck couldn’t hear the RC helicopter any more - then turned back to the container. After a moment’s hesitation, she knelt down and opened it, revealing a mobile phone. As soon as she picked it up, she dropped it again.

    “Sarah?”

    “It vibrated.” She cocked her head. “A message arrived.”

    He stood and walked around the wall towards her. It wasn’t a bomb. If whoever had sent the phone had wanted to kill him, they could have replaced the container with C-4. Enough, as Chuck knew, to completely destroy the yard and kill anyone inside it. So, it was safe to pick up the phone.

    He still felt more than a little nervous when he reached Sarah. At least she didn’t send him back, so she must have agreed that it was safe. Relatively.

    Crouching down, he picked up the phone. “Locked,” he told Sarah.

    “There’s no note with the code in the container.”

    Chuck didn’t need a note. Not with that model. He pulled a screwdriver from his back pocket and turned the phone around. A minute later, he had disabled the lock and could read the message.

    Kite Affair.

    He closed his eyes and swore under his breath.

    *****​

    “‘Kite Affair’?” Sarah looked at Chuck. He was muttering curses and had his eyes squeezed shut. He obviously knew what that meant, but didn’t react.

    “Chuck?” she tried again. No reaction. “Ellie will be wondering what we’re doing.” It was a low blow, but they were exposed here. And she wanted answers.

    He blinked, looking lost for a moment, then nodded. “Let’s go inside.”

    They entered his flat, and he went straight to the kitchen, grabbing all their bread. “That should be enough, right?”

    She looked at him and, after a moment, he sighed. “Kite Affair.” He sighed again. “When I was eight, I got one of those complicated kites for Christmas. You know, the Chinese-style. I don’t know any more why I wanted one, but I was over the moon. I spent all of Christmas Day putting the thing together. And on Boxing Day, we went up Kingman’s Bluff - that’s a cliff overseeing the sea and Sunnydale. Well, only the sea, now. There was almost always a breeze there. I let the kite fly, saw it rise - and then it broke apart and fell into the sea, leaving me holding the string. I was devastated for the rest of the holidays. Ever since then, my family has called it the ‘Kite Affair’.”

    Which meant that whoever sent him that message was probably his father. Orion. Sarah didn’t say that, of course. She didn’t have to, either - Chuck knew that already. “So,” she said instead, “we need to go to Kingman’s Bluff?”

    “On Boxing Day,” Chuck confirmed. “It’s the only thing that makes sense, I mean. Same day, same time.”

    She nodded in agreement. “Back to Sunnydale?”

    Chuck’s face showed a mixture of emotions for a moment. Apprehension, loathing, longing. Then he shrugged. “Back to the bay, actually - Sunnydale doesn’t exist anymore, after all.”

    It still haunted him, though, Sarah knew. Him and probably every other survivor. At least those among them who knew the truth. She hugged him.

    *****​

    Sarah was so… Chuck sighed as he held her. How did he deserve her? She had realised that Orion was his father while he had denied it. And she wasn’t rubbing it in. He didn’t deserve her. But he’d do everything to be with her.

    He took another deep breath. He wouldn’t cry. Couldn’t cry. Ellie would notice and wonder what was wrong. And she couldn’t know about Dad and the CIA. “So… let’s go back before Ellie sends Devon after us.”

    She released him and nodded. “Let’s go. We can make plans tomorrow.”

    “We need to tell Casey, though.”

    “Yes,” she agreed. “And we need a story to tell Bane.”

    “Yes.” He opened the door and found himself face to face with Caridad.

    “Road trip?” the Slayer asked with a grin. “You can tell Bane that it’s another classified mission!”

    Slayer hearing. Chuck should have expected this. Although that was a good idea. He blinked. “You want to come with us?”

    “I have to, to maintain the cover, haven’t I?” Her grin grew. “And I might even catch a few demon cultists!”

    “Demon cultists?” Sarah asked.

    “Oh, yes. Some demons make pilgrimages to the ‘Lost Hellmouth’, as they call it.”

    “They worship the site?”

    “Yes. Sometimes - well, often - with sacrifices and the whole stuff.” She nodded. “You’ll need me.”

    Chuck hadn’t known that. And he wished he had never heard of it.

    *****​

    California, near the Sunnydale Bay, December 26th, 2007

    “Most demons do their thing at night so we should be pretty safe during the day,” Chuck said as he checked the map. He had grown up in the area, and he had taken a trip to Los Angeles often enough as a kid, but he hadn’t been back to Sunnydale in years. At least Ellie had accepted his explanation that he wanted to show Sarah where he had grown up - she had done something similar with Devon. Once.

    “You’d be safe in the middle of the night under a full moon - you’re with me!” Caridad announced from the backseat.

    “How often do you patrol here, anyway?” Sarah asked.

    “Oh… once or twice a month, usually. On the days suitable for rituals, according to Phil,” the Slayer replied.

    Which meant that any demon cultists had free reign of the area most of the time. Well, the Hellmouth was closed, and the town had been buried in a sinkhole before the ocean had filled the new bay - there was a limit to what even determined demons could do. At least Chuck hoped that this was the case.

    “We might not have trouble with demons,” Sarah said, “but that doesn’t mean we’ll be safe.”

    Caridad’s snort left no doubt about how little she thought of the threat by spies.

    Chuck clenched his teeth. She should know better than that. Matter of fact, she had been quite appreciative of… of course. He almost groaned. This was aimed at Casey - who wasn’t with them in the first place.

    “Can you detect a sniper half a mile away?” Sarah asked.

    “Why would they want to meet Chuck in Sunnydale if they want to kill him? They could do this at home,” Caridad retorted.

    Chuck winced. It might be true, but no one liked to hear how others could kill them.

    “They might think that it’s easier to take us out and kidnap him there instead of in Los Angeles,” Sarah told her.

    “Ah…” Caridad obviously hadn’t thought of that. “Why are we going there, then?”

    “Because it probably isn’t a trap,” Chuck told her. “And because the only one who’d know about the Kite Affair would be my dad.” Although this whole meeting looked like it was set up by a spy with all the secrecy. Of course, if Orion was behind this, he’d have to be an experienced spy, or he’d have been caught long ago. But was Orion Dad? Chuck probably would find out soon. Either he’d meet his dad, who’d be alive, but hiding from everyone, including his family. Or he’d meet someone who knew something no one but Chuck’s family was supposed to know.

    He felt Sarah’s hand on his thigh, gently squeezing. He must have let his emotions show on his face, he realised as he smiled at her in return. Well, with her, he could face this.

    “Do you have another sandwich? I’m running on empty here.”

    Leave it to Caridad’s appetite to ruin the moment.

    *****​

    California, Sunnydale Bay, Kingman’s Bluff, December 26th, 2007

    The place hadn’t changed, Chuck noticed as Sarah stopped the car a little below the top of the cliff. Not that there was much to change, of course - there was just grass and a very deep drop. The view, though… Where once, you could have seen the entire town below, now you only saw the almost perfectly circular bay. Geologists were still arguing with conspiracy theorists about the whole incident.

    He stepped to the brink - well, not too close; he wasn’t a fool. Dad had taught him better when they had come here.

    “I’ll do a perimeter check!” Caridad announced. A moment later, she was running down the slope.

    “Did she learn that term from Casey?” Sarah asked, looking around - once the Slayer was too far away to overhear them.

    “No. Xander taught them,” Chuck told her. “Well, the Slayers who were activated here in Sunnydale.” The day the town had been destroyed.

    “He sounded like a veteran soldier,” Sarah commented. And she’d know that he had been a classmate of Chuck - and hadn’t served by the time all this had happened.

    “It’s complicated,” he said. It wasn’t his story to tell. “But he’s got the experience.” And, Chuck realised, Xander had been - probably still was - very popular among the new Slayers. Was that part of the reason Caridad was after Casey? It didn’t make sense, though. The two men were very different. Casey was a hardass, overly-serious soldier. Xander was cracking jokes all the time and incredibly laid back. When it wasn’t about killing demons, of course.

    “I don’t see anything out of…” Sarah trailed off as Chuck once again heard the sound of an RC helicopter. No, something bigger. “A drone?”

    “He would be checking for an ambush,” Sarah told him.

    “Ah.” Or, Chuck knew, this could be the ambush. But no bombs were dropped on them, nor were more phones to redirect them to another spot. The drone disappeared after circling for a while. He was actually relieved - even though no one had mentioned it, the real reason Caridad was with them was because this could be a trap by a demon wearing Dad’s face or body. Not a vampire - it was closer to noon than to dawn.

    Then they heard a car.

    For a moment, he thought it would be their old car. Dad had always used the same car, as far as Chuck could remember - a worn Ford Escort. But they had sold the car, after his disappearance. And, of course, such a car would stick out these days.

    It was a Ford, but a Pickup. F-series. Not the latest model, nor the most expensive. One of the most common, though. Easy to blend in, but not too generic, unlike the ubiquitous FBI cars in the movies.

    He was thinking like a spy, Chuck realised. Then the pickup stopped, the door opened, and Chuck wasn’t thinking anymore.

    “D-Dad?”

    The man’s - Dad’s - face twisted into a sad and embarrassed smile. “Hi, son.”

    Before Chuck could say anything, Caridad appeared right behind Dad, sniffing. “Clean,” she announced, and Dad jerked, startled, whirling around. “What the…?”

    The Slayer grinned. “Just checking if you’re a threat.”

    “How… You’re the Slayer!”

    That surprised Caridad, and her grin slipped. Chuck was surprised as well. “You know about Caridad?” he asked.

    Dad shook his head. “I didn’t know it was her.”

    Chuck blinked. How could he not… ‘it’? “The Initiative. You’ve read their files.”

    Dad smiled in a very familiar way. As if Mom had just caught him sneaking a few cookies before they had properly cooled down. “Guilty as charged. Though they didn’t have the Slayer’s identity on record.”

    They should’ve had it, as far as Chuck knew. Though perhaps they hadn’t passed on all information - or not everything had been entered into computer data banks.

    “And you’ve hacked our files,” Sarah spoke up.

    Dad inclined his head. “A necessity, given my circumstances. They’ve learned not to save or use anything electronically, but sometimes, they slip. Like when Beckman was talking to you about me in a video call.”

    “That’s the reason you contacted us?” Chuck asked, feeling hurt. Would he have been left thinking his father was dead if they hadn’t started searching for Orion?

    “I was going to anyway, but this accelerated the process.” Dad smiled. “I knew I couldn’t send the money to Ellie without starting… this.”

    “You knew Chuck is the Intersect,” Sarah said.

    “That secret isn’t as well-protected as it should be,” Dad replied. Chuck couldn’t tell if he was angry or merely annoyed. Or if all of it was an act.

    “No. You knew because you arranged it.”

    “What?” Chuck looked at her. She was glaring at his father.

    “Others who tried to integrate the Intersect died. Chuck didn’t,” she went on. Tense, he noticed. As if she was about to attack.

    “He’s my son; we have very similar brain structures.”

    “And out of all the possible people, Chuck is the one to whom Bryce mails it? In a form that would trigger the neuro-optical interface?” Sarah shook her head. “Too much of a coincidence.”

    That was… it made sense. In a disturbing way. “You knew Bryce,” Chuck said.

    Once more, his father nodded. “I contacted him once I realised both of you were targetted for recruitment by the CIA.”

    “You told him to keep me out of the CIA?” Chuck asked.

    “To keep you safe.”

    “And in exchange, you helped him,” Sarah said. “He was promoted very quickly thanks to his many successful missions - missions he accomplished with your help as a hacker. And while he was promoted, you had a mole inside the CIA who would gain more and more power. Someone who was able to sabotage the Intersect.”

    “And infiltrate Fulcrum,” Dad confirmed her accusation. With a lopsided smile, he added: “You’re like me, Chuck - you love smart women. Of course, I already knew that after fourth grade.”

    “Fifth grade?” Caridad asked.

    “A crush,” Chuck shut down the tangent. No one needed to know about his brief, immature pre-teen crushes on teachers. “So, you wanted me to have the Intersect?”

    “Not exactly,” Dad replied. “I wanted it destroyed, but I told Larkin a little too much - mainly to stop him from trying to assimilate the Intersect himself. He was willing to do almost anything to root out Fulcrum. He must have figured out that you’d be able to do it.”

    So, it was, once again and still, Bryce’s fault.

    Chuck’s father sighed and leaned against the car. “I didn’t know what Larkin was planning, or I would have tried to stop him. Or, at least, erased all traces of his mail to you so that the CIA wouldn’t have been able to find you.” He shook his head. “I should never have accepted to work for them. If I had known what it would cost me, us… I wouldn’t have done it, but when I realised what they wanted me to do, what I had to do to avoid that, it was too late.”

    Chuck felt the urge to walk over and hug him but suppressed it. “And you thought leaving us in Sunnydale would be a good idea?”

    Caridad snorted at that but didn’t comment on it further.

    “I didn’t know the truth about the town, Chuck. By the time I found out, you and Ellie had already left for Los Angeles.” Dad shook his head again. “If I had known about vampires, I’d have taken you out of there, even if we would have had to hide afterwards.”

    For a moment, Chuck wished his father had done that. Had taken them away from Sunnydale. Stayed with them. But only for a moment. Their lives wouldn’t have gone well, he knew.

    And he wouldn’t have met Sarah. Or, worse, he would have met her as an enemy.

    “How convenient that Bryce is dead and so he can’t contradict your claim,” Sarah said with a flat stare.

    And, Chuck reminded himself, having Sarah as an enemy would be terrifying.

    “Do you honestly think that you would have found Chuck if I had arranged for him to become the Intersect?”

    Though, apparently, not terrifying enough to unsettle Dad. He met her eyes calmly, Chuck saw.

    Sarah pressed her lips together but didn’t retort.

    “So…” Chuck said after a moment, “what happens now? Will you, uh, stay around?” He licked his lips, unsure what he wanted to hear.

    Dad sighed. “I wish. But my presence would endanger you. You and Ellie.”

    Ellie. Chuck could handle Dad being Orion. He wasn’t a spy, but he had some experience by now. And friends who could handle it. Ellie was a civilian. And Devon was awesome - but not a spy.

    “Your identity might be compromised anyway,” Sarah pointed out. “If we can deduce it, so can others. And headquarters is aware of our speculation.”

    Dad nodded. “I’m aware of that. That’s another reason I wanted to meet you, Chuck.”

    “Another reason?”

    His father chuckled, but it sounded sad rather than amused. “I wanted to see you and talk to you, after all these years. And there are a few things you need to know about the Intersect. But, a little more urgent, I want to arrange a decoy.”

    A decoy? Chuck frowned. What did he mean?

    As usual, Sarah was quicker on the uptake. “You want to frame someone as Orion. Probably to fake your death.”

    Whoa! Dad wanted to kill someone to save his cover? That was… Chuck blinked. Sarah didn’t seem to be appalled.

    “There are a few thoroughly disgusting people among Grover’s clients,” Dad replied. “It wouldn’t be too hard to make one of them appear to have been behind an attempt to replace his computer specialist with you.”

    “What?” Chuck shook his head. “Why would a criminal want to recruit me? And why would they go through Ellie?” Wouldn’t they contact him? Probably with a sexy woman tempting him into a life of crime?

    “Leverage. If Ellie’s using dirty money for her wedding, she can be framed for laundering money. What would you do to save her from that?” Dad asked.

    “Oh.” That made somewhat sense. “But why would they pick me? I’m not exactly what people would consider top recruiting material.”

    “Talented computer specialist, expelled from Stanford for cheating? Working a dead-end job in a mall?” Dad shook his head. “That’s a good fit for many organisations.”

    “I graduated from Stanford,” Chuck retorted. Late, and only thanks to the CIA, but he had graduated.

    “You hadn’t when you first caught their attention.”

    What?

    “You already arranged a cover story,” Sarah said.

    Dad inclined his head. “Nerf Herd has a number of people with ties to organised crime among their clients.”

    “And you had Chuck take those jobs,” Sarah accused him. “Probably by manipulating the call for tech support. Or arranging the exact problem so he would be the only one able to handle it.”

    Holy shit! He had arranged all of this already? Dad was a spy.

    *****​

    Orion had manipulated Chuck’s life for years, starting at Stanford with Bryce. And now he was using his own son to save himself. Sarah knew the type - Orion was a spymaster. She narrowed her eyes at the man but refrained from showing her feelings more clearly.

    “Contingency plans,” he admitted. “You don’t evade the CIA for years without planning ahead.”

    “And what would you have done if the criminals you set up had decided to recruit Chuck for real?” she asked.

    “I’d have put a stop to it, of course,” the old man replied.

    “Plans don’t always go according to plan,” Caridad pointed out. The Slayer had been remarkably quiet so far, in Sarah’s opinion.

    “I’ve got some experience with such setups,” Orion retorted.

    Sarah believed him. This wasn’t the first time he’d have done that.

    “You’ve done this before?” Chuck had come to the same conclusion. And, apparently, didn’t like it.

    “Yes, Chuck.” Orion sighed, looking weary. Or acting like he was. “Only people who deserved it, though. Mob members. Drug lords. Murderers.”

    “Oh.”

    Sarah hoped Chuck didn’t think that his father was some sort of vigilante.

    “Arranging this deception won’t take much,” the man went on, “and it’ll put a dent in the local drug trade - for a while, at least.”

    “Good,” Caridad chimed in. “Drug dealers gave us some trouble before I killed Melvin.”

    “A vampire who ran a drug dealing organisation,” Chuck explained.

    “Oh. I wasn’t aware that demons were involved with that,” Orion said.

    “You don’t know much about the supernatural, do you?” Sarah asked.

    “More than most, I would wager,” he retorted. Was that some annoyance she could hear?

    “But not enough!” Caridad said. “If you want to hang out near Chuck, you’ll need to know more.”

    Sarah pressed her lips together. She didn’t like the thought of Orion learning more about demons nor his presence near Chuck. But, she realised with a glance at him, she wouldn’t be able to keep the man away. Chuck wanted his father.

    And to think she had wished for this reunion to happen.

    “Well, there are things you need to know as well,” Orion replied. “About the Intersect.”

    “Oh?” Chuck blinked. “Right. As we found out, no one really knows much about the Intersect. At the CIA, I mean.”

    Sarah suppressed the urge to point out that the NSA didn’t know anything, either.

    “I was quite thorough when I erased the information before I quit,” Orion said. “Helped along by the secrecy on which the CIA insisted, of course.”

    “And by the coincidental deaths of most of the core team,” Sarah said.

    Orion winced. “I told them not to attempt any upload without me, but they didn’t want to listen to an outsider.”

    He sounded sincere - but anyone who had survived ten years on the run from the CIA would be able to lie convincingly.

    “What happened?” Chuck asked.

    “The Intersect is patterned after my own neural structure - I used myself as a model,” the older man explained. “That means the optical interface will overload most people’s brains.”

    “Ew.” Apparently, Chuck’s imagination was a little more fertile - and more gruesome - than Sarah’s.

    “Yes. It wasn’t pretty, or so I found out.” Orion shook his head. “It can be adjusted, but that requires special knowledge - I never wrote those steps down.”

    “Insurance,” Sarah commented. And leverage.

    “Exactly.” He nodded at her. “And as it turned out, I was wise to prepare such insurance. Otherwise, the CIA would have uploaded the Intersect to many agents - including members of Fulcrum and other moles.”

    “That… would have been bad,” Chuck said.

    An understatement, if Sarah had ever heard any.

    “Worse,” Orion said. “The Intersect isn’t just a database with an advanced algorithm to filter and connect information.”

    “What?” Chuck and Sarah said in unison.

    “It ties much deeper into your central nervous system,” Orion said. A moment later, he was holding a gun.

    And before Sarah could blink, Orion was on the ground, with Caridad on top of him, holding the gun. “Hah!”

    “Wait!” The older man groaned - she had him in an arm lock. “I was merely going to demonstrate the advanced capabilities of the Intersect.”

    Sarah blinked. That meant… “You have the Intersect in your head as well!”

    “What?” Chuck said.

    The man laughed, if a little forced. “Of course. I wouldn’t let anyone risk their mind without testing it myself.”

    And, Sarah thought, he wouldn’t let himself miss out on all the advantages it offered.

    *****​

    Dad had the Intersect in his head. Chuck couldn’t believe it. Wait - of course he could. Why wouldn’t Dad do this, if he had built it? That would have been worse than building a high-end custom computer for a customer without trying it out in the Home Entertainment Display Room after work! But… “Advanced capabilities?”

    “Can I get up?”

    Caridad growled.

    “Please, let him up,” Chuck told her.

    The Slayer did so - but with obvious reluctance. “He better not try anything like that again.”

    “Of course not. Apparently, Slayers are even more formidable than I thought.”

    That made Caridad grin, as expected. It didn’t make her look much more friendly, though.

    “Anyway, I’ve got an early version of the Intersect in my head. Most of the information isn’t up to date any more,” Dad told them, rubbing his shoulder after he got up. “But the skills work.”

    “Skills?” Chuck repeated. Did he mean…

    “Shooting. Fighting. Athletics. The ‘spy package’, as I like to call it.” Dad grinned. “The CIA wanted a way to turn the most reliable agents they had into the perfect spies without having to train them for years.”

    “A spy is more than just a collection of weapon and fighting skills,” Sarah said. She was looking decidedly unamused, Chuck noticed.

    “Oh, yes. I never said the CIA’s order was very smart. But those skills certainly help any agent - or anyone trying not to get disappeared by them.”

    Oh. Chuck blinked - he had almost forgotten about that.

    “May I demonstrate the Intersect’s secondary function?”

    Caridad growled, then slowly nodded. “Fight me.”

    “Err…”

    “She won’t hurt you,” Chuck was quick to say.

    “Alright…” Dad rubbed his shoulder again, then suddenly lunged at the Slayer.

    Who easily evaded the strike, as well as the follow-up swing. And the next combo.

    But even as the Slayer demonstrated why every demon with half a brain feared her, Chuck realised that his father knew Kung Fu.

    After a few minutes, Dad stopped, panting. “Did that suffice?”

    “Yes,” Chuck said, nodding.

    “You’ve got the skills, but not the endurance. And probably not the muscle tone, either,” Sarah remarked.

    “Yes,” Caridad agreed. “You fought like someone possessed by a warrior spirit - all the knowledge, but your body isn’t used to it, so you don’t reach your potential.”

    “It’s a little hard to go to a gym when you’re on the run,” Dad said. He sounded a little defensively, in Chuck’s opinion. “But it certainly is an advantage against any normal enemy, isn’t it?”

    Definitely, Chuck agreed. “There’s just one question,” he said. “Why can’t I do that?”

    “I don’t know the exact reason, Chuck,” Dad told him. “It could be that the skills package was cut out - though I don’t think anyone would have known enough about the Intersect to be able to do that. Anyone except me, obviously. I don’t think Larkin would have been able to do that. But I would need to examine you to find out for certain - and with rather expensive and bulky medical devices.”

    “Like, scanning my head?” Chuck felt a little queasy. What if something was wrong with his brain? He hadn’t been examined, not medically. There had been that examination in the Buy More, but that had been more like a test, with questions and pictures, without the doctor actually seeing him. This would be an actual examination. And what if something went wrong? What if he had some metal in his head and the scan would send it whirling around inside his head? He hadn’t, to his knowledge. But what if they found out that he had cancer?

    “Well, sort of.” Dad smiled reassuringly. Just not reassuringly enough.

    “Is it dangerous?” Caridad asked.

    “It shouldn’t be, though you can never be a hundred per cent certain.”

    So Dad hadn’t lost the habit to be a little too precise and honest for his own good - and for Chuck’s peace of mind. This was almost as bad as the time they had been to Disney World, and Chuck had asked if the roller coaster was safe. He hadn’t gone on any roller coaster for years after hearing about everything that, theoretically, could go wrong.

    But Chuck had to know if there was something wrong with his Intersect. Or with his head. He nodded. “Alright.”

    “Do you have a way to get access to such devices without risking Chuck’s cover?” Sarak asked.

    “I usually wait for an opportunity at various clinics,” Dad replied. “When they receive new scanners who need to be tested, for example, so I can replace the technician doing that. But that isn’t the case currently. Not over the holidays.”

    “We should be able to arrange that,” Sarah said.

    Chuck almost asked: ‘We are?’ Of course the CIA would be able to arrange such things. But… “Can we do that without Bane knowing about it?”

    “Yes.” Sarah sounded confident. “It’ll take a little while, though.”

    “Oh.” Chuck felt both relieved and disappointed. “So… what now? I mean… what do we do now? What do you want to do now? And what do we tell Bane and Beckman? And what about Casey?”

    Dad chuckled. “Good questions.”

    Chuck narrowed his eyes at him with a frown. “That means you don’t know.” It had meant that, at least, when Chuck had been a kid.

    “Guilty as charged,” Dad replied with a wry smile.

    Once more, Sarah stepped up. “Bane and Beckman can’t know about this. Casey… in the short run, it’d be safer not to tell him, but that will cause problems in the long run. And we already told him about our suspicion of Orion’s identity.”

    “Wouldn’t he understand about need to know?” Chuck asked.

    “It’s about trust,” she told him. “And no matter how professional an agent is or claims to be, there’s always something personal when it comes to such things.” She looked at the Slayer as if Chuck didn’t know what she meant.

    Caridad scoffed. “You should tell him. If he causes problems, we deal with him.”

    “He’s a very good agent,” Sarah retorted. “We might not realise what he has done until it’s too late.”

    “Such as informing Beckman about my identity?” Dad asked.

    Sarah looked grim. “It would allow him to save his career. Or attempt to do so.”

    “But would he attempt that? Knowing what he does now?” Caridad asked. A little pleadingly, in Chuck’s opinion Not that he’d tell her that - he wasn’t suicidal.

    “We don’t know. Orion having invented the Intersect is one thing. Orion being able to use it to turn people into highly-trained soldiers? That’s a game changer, and Casey will realise it. Any country with that capability would have a huge advantage over everyone else. Casey might very well think this is worth betraying us. And I won’t risk Chuck and his family to find out,” Sarah declared. Dad nodded approvingly at her, Chuck noticed.

    Caridad had a mulish expression but didn’t contradict Sarah. And yet...

    “Uh...” Chuck trailed off. “Won’t he suspect anyway? Even with the drug dealer framing?” Which was kind of really ruthless. “Or especially with the framing? We did tell him that we thought Orion might be you, Dad.”

    “He’s smart,” Caridad said, nodding. “And if he thinks we don’t trust him, he won’t trust us, either.”

    Which meant they would push him into the very action they wanted to avoid, Chuck realised. He hated such problems in games, and there, one could usually save and redo the decision if one didn’t like the outcome. Or read a guide.

    “Agent Casey’s file doesn’t portray a man willing to put teammates over what he would consider the country’s best interest,” Dad said.

    “Well, he’s willing to join the Council,” Caridad pointed out.

    “The Council?” Dad looked puzzled.

    Oh. He didn’t know about the Watcher’s Council. Chuck looked at Caridad.

    “Me?”

    “You’re the Slayer. You know them best,” he told her.

    “I’m usually not the one to do exposition,” she replied.

    “Morgan’s not here.” Which, given that Dad probably still saw him as a bumbling little kid, was a good thing.

    “Alright.” Caridad took a deep breath. “So, there’s the Slayer - one girl, now hundreds, to fight the demons and stuff. But there’s also the Watchers Council. Founded before writing was invented, they are the successors of the Shadow Men…”

    *****​

    “...and that’s basically the new Council,” Caridad finished her colourful and slightly unstructured explanation.

    “That…” Dad slowly started to smile. “That changes everything!” he said.

    Chuck blinked. “What?”

    “They can put pressure on the government to make them back off.” Dad shook his head as his smile grew. “I wouldn’t have to hide any more.”

    “Yes, you would,” Sarah told him. “Chuck’s the Intersect, but the CIA can still rebuild and update the database. Sooner or later, Chuck’s version of the Intersect will become less crucial.”

    Obsolete, Chuck reminded himself. As more and more data became outdated, he wouldn’t be able to trust the Intersect’s conclusions any more; even small errors would ruin the results. His days as a spy - or at least a spy-like asset - had an expiration date. Unless he got the Intersect’s skills as well.

    “You, though, built the Intersect,” Sarah went on. “You can build another Intersect. For anyone. You can update the Intersect. And you can maximise its potential.”

    Dad looked grim now. “They won’t let me be.”

    “No.” Sarah looked at Caridad. “And even with the Council’s pressure, they’ll use black ops and proxies to go after him.”

    “They would be stupid to do that - we’d find out!” the Slayer retorted.

    “They can’t afford to let him go to someone else,” Sarah replied. “Especially with Chuck having the most recent version of the Intersect to build upon.

    Chuck winced. If he were part of the reason his father wouldn’t be able to finally stop hiding and be with them again… “But they don’t know it’s you,” he said. “What if we, uh, do that drug dealer framing and make it appear as if they had kidnapped you long ago, or so?”

    “They’re already looking for the creator of the Intersect,” Sarah shot his idea down. “They won’t be fooled by such a story.”

    Meaning it was a stupid idea. Chuck pressed his lips together. But he didn’t want his dad to disappear again. There had to be a way to solve this.

    “We can use a ‘kidnapped to a hell dimension’ cover story,” Caridad said suddenly.

    “Hell dimension?” Chuck blinked. “Oh. But fifteen years?”

    “Some dimensions have a different time. A day here could be a hundred years there,” Caridad replied. “Buffy had to clean up one such dimension, once - in L.A.” She grinned. “And it means we could say the details are classified!”

    “‘Hell dimensions’?” Dad asked. “Are those what I think they are?”

    “Well,” the Slayer replied, “if you’re thinking fire and brimstone, that exists. But mostly, they are dimensions ruled by demons.”

    “Like the layers of the Abyss or the Nine Hells,” Chuck told his father. Dad had been playing D&D with him and Morgan, after all. Before he disappeared.

    “Oh.”

    Caridad rolled her eyes. “Something like that. Anyway, some demons like to keep humans as slaves. A number, actually. If anyone asks for more details, we can ask Fred to fill you in. She escaped such a dimension herself.”

    “Fred?” Dad asked.

    “She’s a genius scientist. Some demon lord tried to possess her, but Willow fixed that,” the Slayer explained. “Unfortunately, she’s still hanging with those losers.”

    “Angel and his crew,” Chuck explained. “They moved.” He wasn’t going to talk in detail about that mess. “Anyway, is that possible?” he asked Sarah.

    She frowned in response. “Only if it doesn’t happen too close on the heels of the current situation,” she said after a moment. “And if there’s a good explanation for the transactions.”

    Which meant frame the drug dealer was still on.

    “I can make it a double-bluff,” Dad said. “Make it look like Orion wanted to use the drug dealer to get closer to the new Intersect. That would also make it look like there was no prior connection between us, or I wouldn’t have needed that deception.”

    “That might work,” Sarah said after a moment.

    It certainly sounded paranoid enough for a spy plan, in Chuck’s opinion. “And we can explain Dad’s absence to Ellie without revealing the Intersect,” he added. “Willow could claim she wanted to reunite our family for the wedding.”

    “Willow can’t lie worth a damn,” Caridad said - a slightly unfortunate choice of words given the topic of conversation. “Ellie would see through her.”

    “I don’t think that that’ll be a serious problem,” Chuck retorted.

    “Just saying:” Caridad shook her head. “And what about Casey?”

    “Good question,” Chuck said, then pouted at Dad’s chuckle.

    “Tell him and watch him. If he betrays us, we finish him,” Caridad said.

    Chuck couldn’t tell if she wanted Casey to betray them or not. “He’s ready to work for the Council with us,” he pointed out. “Even though that means Chuck will take the Intersect with him.”

    “He doesn’t have much of a choice,” Sarah replied. “Catching Orion would offer him another chance with the NSA.” She’d said that before, of course.

    “But that wouldn’t change, would it? And sooner or later, he’ll find out the truth,” Chuck said. The Scoobies weren’t exactly the best at keeping secrets. His whole class had known after a few months that Buffy wasn’t normal.

    “You know Agent Casey best,” Dad added, looking at them.

    Chuck looked at Sarah. She had worked with Casey before. This was her call.

    *****​
     
  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 15: The Truth
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 15: The Truth

    California, Sunnydale Bay, Kingman’s Bluff, December 26th, 2007

    Chuck expected her to make the call? Sarah struggled not to wince. He was dumping this on her? No, he was trusting her with this? His father’s freedom and life, potentially?

    Because she was the experienced spy. And knew Casey better than he did. Supposedly - Casey and Chuck had spent quite some time together in the Buy More. She sighed.

    Would it be bad if she told Orion that Casey couldn’t be trusted and would see through the deception? She didn’t really trust the man. The accident that had taken the lives of the rest of the Intersect team had been a little too convenient. And no one stayed ahead of the CIA for ten years without being a cunning and ruthless spy. Not to mention that Orion had faked his death to work for the CIA in the first place - his argument that he had done it to protect Chuck and Ellie wasn’t very compelling, in her opinion. Working for the CIA wasn’t that bad. Unless things had changed a lot since before she had joined up.

    But if Orion left, Chuck and Ellie would still be in danger. Especially Ellie - she was leverage against both Chuck and Orion, who had proved that he cared for her.

    And, most importantly, Casey already knew about Orion. All but knew for certain. He would have suspicions - especially if they claimed the meeting had been a bust. And if he suspected that they didn’t trust him, he wouldn’t trust them. And he wouldn’t have any reason to protect them.

    No, it would be best to tell Casey the truth.

    “We’ll tell him the truth. And if he tries to betray us…”

    “We’ll crush him,” Caridad said. The Slayer might mean it literally.

    Sarah didn’t particularly care. If Casey betrayed them, Chuck and Ellie would have to go into hiding. The Council might be able to pull a few strings, but it wouldn’t be enough to prevent them from having to get a new identity. And be on their guard all the time.

    If Casey caused this, he deserved whatever an angry Slayer would do to him.

    *****​

    Chuck was relieved. Lying to Casey wouldn’t have been right - or so he thought. They were a team, after all. Sarah, Casey and Chuck. It was bad enough that they had to keep lying to Bane, but that wasn’t anyone’s fault but hers. And Beckman’s.

    “If you’re certain…”

    Dad didn’t sound as if he was fully behind this, though.

    Chuck nodded. “It’s for the best.”

    “The alternative would be worse,” Sarah added.

    Although that wasn’t the enthusiastic support Chuck would have liked. And he still couldn’t tell if Caridad hoped Casey would prove their trust well-placed, or that she could crush him. “One less person we have to lie to,” he said.

    After a moment, Dad replied: “You haven’t told Ellie the truth about yourself, have you?”

    “Uh…” Chuck winced. “We’ve got to maintain my cover, or she’d be in danger.”

    “You don’t trust her to keep a secret?” Dad looked disappointed.

    “Wasn’t that why you faked your death?” Chuck shot back.

    “You were kids at the time. You’re adults now.”

    “She’s no spy,” Sarah said. “She’s a civilian.”

    “She knows about demons and Slayers,” Caridad cut in.

    “As a doctor, she has a lot of responsibility and is protecting her patients’ privacy,” Dad said.

    “She already worries a lot about Chuck whenever he helps out with demon hunting,” Sarah pointed out. “If she knew about him being a spy, that would be worse.”

    Chuck nodded in agreement. It was for Ellie’s own good.

    “Were you happy about my decision for your own good?”

    He clenched his teeth. That was unfair. He hadn’t faked his death, making Ellie think he was dead.

    But he was faking his work, his life, and making her think he wasn’t risking his life as a spy. If something happened to him…

    “I’d prefer not to lie to my children any more,” Dad said, sighing with that lopsided smile again.

    “She’ll resent you for leaving her and faking your death,” Sarah pointed out. “If she thinks you were kidnapped by demons, that won’t happen.”

    “Ellie’s smart. She’ll realise the truth sooner or later - Chuck isn’t that good at lying,” Dad replied. “And I really don’t want to lie to her any more. Trust me, lying to people you care about is the worst part of living in hiding.”

    Or living as a spy, Chuck realised as he slowly nodded in agreement.

    “And if you tell her the truth now, she might forgive you sooner - it’s Christmas, after all,” Caridad added.

    Chuck winced. Ellie wasn’t the most forgiving type. And while she would be most angry at Dad for his deception and abandoning them, she would also be angry at Chuck for his lies.

    He really wasn’t looking forward to revealing the truth to his sister. But he nodded anyway. “So… I guess it’s settled.”

    And then he hugged his father for the first time in fifteen years. And didn’t think about anything but the good times for a while.

    *****​

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

    “How did it go?” Casey asked as soon as they entered his apartment. His usual grim expression faltered - was he wincing? - for just a moment when he spotted Caridad behind them. But the Slayer didn’t enter. Instead, she went to Chuck and Sarah’s apartment to ‘check for threats’. Like Casey betraying them.

    “We found Orion. And he’s my Dad,” Chuck told him as soon as the door closed behind them.

    Casey grunted but didn’t say anything.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “So… he also told us about the Intersect. It has a greater potential than we thought. Though he doesn’t know why I can’t fully use it, yet.”

    “You mean he doesn’t know why you can’t flash on command?” Casey narrowed his eyes.

    “Uh… we didn’t actually talk about that.” They should have, Chuck realised. But there had been so much else to talk about. “Anyway, it should also grant me combat skills.”

    “Combat skills?”

    “Orion has an earlier version of the Intersect himself,” Sarah cut in. “It provided him - or so he claimed - with advanced combat skills. His demonstration with Caridad supported his claim.”

    “Well, he could have trained in Kung Fu for fifteen years, of course,” Chuck pointed out. “While hiding from the CIA. And hacking all their computers. But I think it’s the Intersect in his head. Which, by the way, is patterned after our neural structure. Others tried to access it and died from the strain.”

    “The Big Brains fried their brains?” Casey chuckled. Once.

    “Anyway, apparently, he was press-ganged into working for the CIA,” Chuck went on, “and that’s why he faked his death. And why he later erased all his information and went into hiding.”

    “After the rest of the Intersect team had an accident trying to download the database into their heads,” Sarah added.

    “A convenient accident, huh?” Casey asked.

    “Yes,” Sarah agreed. “I suspect sabotage - but we don’t know whether it was his work, or Fulcrum’s.”

    Chuck blinked. He hadn’t thought about that. In hindsight, it was a little odd that everyone in the team would attempt such a lethal procedure. On the other hand… “Unless the first one to download the Intersect went berserk and killed the others before dying of cerebral haemorrhaging.” Both spies looked at him, and he raised his hands. “Hey! I’m just pointing out that if the Intersect can turn you into a kung fu master, that might be a bad thing if your brain’s also getting overloaded by all the images and pictures. You know.”

    “Right.” Casey sounded doubtful. “You’re the one who had his brain fried by this.”

    “I’m actually the one who didn’t have his brain fried,” Chuck retorted. “Because the Intersect is patterned for my kind of brain.”

    Casey glared at him. “And for your sister’s, too, then.”

    “What?” Chuck blinked. “Oh my God - you’re not turning Ellie into an Intersect!”

    “No, we’re not,” Sarah agreed. “But someone might think of it if this information gets out.”

    “Uh.” He winced. “It won’t get out, right?”

    Casey grunted again. “So, what deal did you make with Orion?”

    Chuck couldn’t tell if his question being ignored was a bad thing or not. “Uh… we kind of agreed to help him frame a drug lord for the payment and make it appear as if Orion wanted to get close to me through my sister because he wants the new Intersect. And, obviously, has no other connection to me, like being my father. It’s really...”

    “You want to help him hide from the CIA,” Casey cut him off.

    “He is my dad,” Chuck told him. “And his leaving the CIA prevented Fulcrum from taking over the Intersect - we still haven’t found all the traitors, have we?”

    Casey grunted again. “He’s a traitor.”

    “Technically, he’s a deserter, not a traitor,” Chuck said. “He didn’t go to another country and told them all about the Intersect. He just didn’t want to work on it any more. And he didn’t want to endanger us. Me and Ellie, I mean.” Why wasn’t Sarah saying anything? She knew Casey best, didn’t she?

    “And you’re planning to let him join the Council.”

    “Well… it would mean he’d be safe from other intelligence agencies. Relatively safe. And if he manages to get the skill part of the Intersect working, that would help a lot of Watchers, I think,” Chuck said. “Like Morgan.” Casey growled at that. “Perhaps Morgan was a bad example,” Chuck backpedalled. “But it could be useful for saving the world.”

    “And if the agency catches Orion, Chuck and Ellie will become hostages,” Sarah added. “They don’t need Chuck as the Intersect any more once they have Orion. And they don’t need us any more, either.”

    Casey rubbed his chin, then went over to his desk, grabbing a bottle of whisky - expensive single malt, Chuck recognised the brand and managed to refrain from making a joke about unpatriotic beverages.

    Casey didn’t say anything as he filled a glass with the liquor, then took a big swallow. “And you’re wondering about my loyalties,” he finally commented.

    “Yes,” Sarah replied.

    “Uh, what she said. Yes,” Chuck said. “I mean, it’s not as if we’d doubt you, but… there’s a little niggling worry…”

    Casey scoffed. “We’ve been burned. Even if we handed Orion over, they wouldn’t trust us. And they wouldn’t like the information about the Intersect’s full potential to spread.” He downed the rest of the drink, then refilled his glass. “Not to mention that I like living in a world free of demons and doing my part to keep it demon-free.”

    Chuck smiled - cautiously. So far, things were going well.

    But he still had to break the news to Ellie.

    *****​

    “Can you pass me the whipped cream? Thank you.”

    Chuck ignored Sarah’s glance as he covered his piece of cake with more cream. Ellie didn’t bake very often, but when she did, it was delicious. Ample reason not to ruin the mood - which might result in him and Sarah having to leave the apartment - before dessert was finished.

    And yes, he was stalling. Besides, Ellie deserved a nice meal as well. She had cooked it, after all. Slaved in the kitchen for hours. Well, two hours, if you counted the baking. Pasta didn’t take that long to make. Still…

    “Out with it, Chuck.”

    “Huh?” He looked up.

    “You’ve been away for most of the day on a trip and haven’t told us anything about it. Just vague descriptions of the road up north.” Ellie was narrowing her eyes at him. “Towards Sunnydale.”

    Damn, he should have expected that - Ellie was smart. Not a nerd, but as smart, as Andrew would say. Perhaps smarter, since her social intelligence was higher. Certainly smarter than Andrew.

    “Chuck?”

    And he was stalling again. He sighed. “Sorry, sis.”

    “Just tell me what you did.” Ellie was quite unfairly focusing on him, ignoring that Sarah had been with him. And Caridad.

    Devon nodded encouragingly. “Yes, please. It’s ruining the mood a little.”

    Not just a little. Chuck took a deep breath. Here goes nothing. “We went to Sunnydale.”

    Ellie nodded. “Showing the bay to Sarah?”

    “Not exactly. We had a meeting,” Chuck told her.

    “A meeting?” Ellie sat straighter, and her frown turned into a glare. A meeting at the Sunnydale Bay meant demons. Normally. “There?”

    “Yes.” He sighed again. “Someone dropped me a note with the words ‘kite affair’.”

    “What?” She blinked, then snapped her mouth shut and her glare intensified. He saw how she worked it out. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

    Straight to the point. No, she was evading the point. She wasn’t asking if it had been Dad. “We wanted to check it out. In case it was a trap.”

    “You went with Caridad.” Ellie couldn’t complain about being left out, could she? Not after trying to keep the supernatural out of her world.

    “Of course.”

    “And?”

    He swallowed. “Dad’s alive.” Not a vampire.

    She gasped, looking shocked before closing up, an angry expression appearing on her face. “He left us. Made us think he was dead like Mom,” she spat through clenched teeth. “Left us all alone.” Devon stood and moved with his chair to wrap an arm around her shoulders.

    Chuck winced. “Uh, yes. Yes, he did - but he had a good reason. Kind of.”

    “Reason? Stop stalling, Chuck!”

    “Uh. He was hunted by the CIA. Well, he worked for them on a top-secret project before he left, and he didn’t want us to become hostages,” Chuck explained.

    “Our father worked for the CIA. And faked his death to cover that up?” Ellie’s voice rose. “Chuck! You don’t believe that, do you?”

    “Uh… we confirmed it. Kind of.”

    “What?” she snapped. “How would you confirm that? You didn’t try to hack the CIA, did you?”

    “What? No, no.” He wet his lips. “You know, Ellie, I kind of work for the CIA.”

    “What?”

    “I’m a high-level intelligence asset for the CIA. And the NSA, technically,” he told her.

    “We’re spies,” Sarah spoke up for the first time.

    “And that’s Dad’s fault. Kind of. And Bryce’s,” Chuck added.

    “A spy. Spies.” She was shaking her head. Devon looked caught between interested and incredulous.

    “We can prove it,” Chuck said.

    “How? Do you have some special spy badge?” Ellie was using sarcasm. And referring embarrassing childhood secrets. Not a good sign.

    “We can show you our secret base,” Chuck told her. After they checked that Bane wasn’t in The Castle.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 26th, 2007

    “Your secret base is in a hot dog store.” Ellie shook her head as they entered through the back door. She hadn’t asked after Dad. And Chuck hadn’t volunteered any information. They’d cover that once Elle knew he was telling the truth. Or so he assumed. They hadn’t actually talked about it.

    “It’s a cover,” Sarah told her. A little more sharply than Chuck expected.

    She opened the secret door in the storage room, revealing the secret stairs before Ellie could comment further. “Follow me. I have to disable the security system.”

    Half a minute later, they were in The Castle.

    “This… this…” Ellie was at a loss for words, it seemed.

    “Impressive, isn’t it?” Chuck smiled. It was his base, too, after all. A little, at least. Or a lot since it was built because of him. “And it got a supercomputer!”

    “Awesome!” Devon commented.

    Ellie ran a hand over the planning table. “This....” Her head snapped up, and she looked a Sarah. “How long has this been going on? With Chuck?”

    He frowned, He could answer that himself. “Uh… I was recruited by her.”

    “She recruited you? And the CIA built this base? In Burbank?” Ellie faced him, arms crossed. “What is going on here, Chuck? With this, with you, with Sarah? With Dad?”

    He smiled weakly. “Uh… good questions?”

    “Good questions?” Ellie snarled.

    “Very good questions. Let’s see… uh…” Chuck backpedalled. “It’s all Bryce’s fault!”

    “Larkin?”

    “The guy who betrayed you?” Devon added. “This started at Stanford?”

    “What? No!” Chuck blinked. “Well, in a way it did. Kind of.”

    “Chuck…”

    He winced. The general would… well, Chuck didn’t know what the general would do to him if she heard about this. But it wouldn’t be pleasant. “Ok, ok. Bryce was a CIA agent. He was recruited at Stanford. And, supposedly to protect me from being recruited as well, he framed me. Dad was working with him, too, I think.”

    “Dad got you kicked out of Stanford on false charges?” Elie sounded outraged.

    “Uh… I don’t think that’s the important point,” Chuck replied with a weak smile. At her scowl, he quickly cleared his throat. “Anyway… this summer, I received a mail from Bryce. Which dumped a top-secret computer database into my head. A database Bryce apparently destroyed to keep it from falling into the hands of a group of traitors in the CIA.”

    “And in the NSA,” Sarah added.

    “Yes.” He nodded at her.

    “You’ve got a computer in your head?” Devon didn’t seem to believe him.

    “I’ve got the data in my head. It was encrypted in a series of images, working through a neural-optical interface,” Chuck explained. “Basically, I’m a walking database with all the secrets the CIA doesn’t want anyone to know in my head. Almost all - there’s nothing about the supernatural in there, and Dad wiped all data about himself before he quit.”

    “Dad?” Ellie was still glowering. And sneaking glares a Sarah, Chuck noticed wit a wince.

    “He, uh, built the whole thing. Under duress, kind of.”

    “That’s a lot of qualifiers here,” Devon said.

    “That’s the CIA for you?” Chuck tried to joke.

    Ellie didn’t laugh. No one else did, either.

    “Moving on. So, the NSA and the CIA sent agents here to protect me. And built the base.” There was no need to go into details there, in Chuck’s opinion.

    “They didn’t move you to an existing base and extracted the database?” Devon asked.

    So, perhaps some details were needed. “They don’t know how,” Chuck replied. “And they need to keep my identity a secret from the traitors in the organisation.”

    “We would have moved him, if not for the Council intervening,” Sarah cut in. He frowned at her, but she ignored it.

    “So you’re a CIA agent sent to protect Chuck,” Ellie said, turning to Sarah. “And the hot dog store is a cover.”

    “Yes.”

    “What about your relationship?” Ellie asked with narrowed eyes.

    Uh… Chuck wet his lips.

    “It started as a cover and became real,” Sarah said, meeting Ellie’s glare.

    “And I knew about the cover from the start,” Chuck hastily added.

    Ellie scoffed in return and glared at him. “I bet you thought this was like one of your games.”

    Hey! Well… only a little. At the start.

    “Chuck knows it’s not a game,” Sarah said. “We’ve been on several missions already.”

    “You’re a spy?” Ellie sounded shocked.

    “You’re a secret agent?” Devon sounded delighted.

    “Uh… yes?”

    “How does a database in your head turn you into a spy?” Ellie growled.

    “Ah…” Chuck cleared his throat again. “The database kind of works. There’s this algorithm, you know, which manages to link different sets of data to reveal tips and critical information… and you don’t really want those details.” And he shouldn’t reveal that, either.

    “You’re using him as a walking computer? On Missions?” Ellie whirled on Sarah.

    “Hey! I want to be a spy,” Chuck stepped in. “And it’s well-paid, too!”

    “It’s dangerous!” Ellie shook her head.

    Devon suddenly blinked. “Larkin was a spy, wasn’t he? He wasn’t a banker killed in a robbery, was he?”

    “Chuck!” Chuck winced as Ellie gasped. “You’re risking your life working for the CIA?”

    “I’d be in danger no matter what I do,” he defended himself. “Everyone wants the Intersect.”

    “That’s the database?” Devon asked.

    Oops. Chuck grimaced as Sarah frowned at him. “That’s top-secret. You can’t tell anyone!” he said.

    “And Dad built this?” Ellie shook her head. “He worked for the CIA - after leaving us. And now you’re working for the CIA. And dating a spy.”

    Uh. Ellie really wasn’t taking this well. “Well, we’re working on getting Dad off the CIA’s most-wanted list. And we won’t be working for the CIA forever, either,” Chuck told her.

    “Really?” She didn’t seem convinced.

    “Really!” He smiled at her.

    She frowned, though. “And what will you be doing after quitting the CIA? Working at the Buy More and Wienerlicious?”

    “Uh.” His smile slipped. “We’re kind of planning to work for the Council.”

    “CHUCK!”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 26th, 2007

    Chuck sighed for the sixth or seventh time since Ellie had stormed out. “Perhaps we should have had Dad with us. She might have focused on him,” he said, dropping his head on his arms and closing his eyes.

    “Will she calm down?” Sarah asked, sitting down in her usual seat across the table from him.

    “Eventually.” He raised his head. “She can carry grudges. Especially when it concerns me.”

    “Against you or against everyone else?”

    “Uh… Mostly the later,” he admitted. Ellie had never really forgiven the Scoobies for recruiting him for the battle at the graduation. He saw her grimace. “Err… well, she likes you?”

    “She liked me as long as she thought I was a hot dog store owner-operator,” Sarah retorted. “I think knowing that I’m a spy changed that.”

    He closed his eyes again. “I should have played up the analyst angle. She would have liked me working in a high-paying job.”

    “Would that have helped after explaining why you were recruited by the CIA?”

    No, it wouldn’t have helped. He shook his head.

    “Devon seemed to be taking it well.”

    “He thinks it’s awesome,” Chuck said.

    “So, it’s not all bad,” Sarah said.

    “Are you trying to cheer up me or yourself?” Chuck looked up at her. She winced. He sighed once more. “Well, having family rows over the holidays is a tradition, right? Not that we’re a traditional family.”

    That made her laugh a little. “Probably.”

    “So, what do we do now?”

    “I’ll talk to her.”

    He blinked. “Are you sure? You saw how she stormed off? You heard what she said?”

    Sarah nodded. “Yes. But I think I can explain things to her.”

    “Woman to woman?” he joked.

    “Yes.” She was smiling at him, but she wasn’t very amused. He could tell.

    “Sorry.”

    “It’s nothing.” She made a dismissive gesture with her hand. She was about to say something else when she suddenly frowned and looked to the side.

    Chuck followed her gaze and saw Morgan coming towards the store. His friend was waving at them. “Ah…”

    “I’ll let him in,” Sarah said, sighing as she got up.

    “Chuck! Sarah!” Morgan was beaming at both of them as he entered the store. “Caridad said you’d be here. How did it go?” That explained why he was coming to a closed hot dog store on Boxing Day.

    “Ellie’s not speaking to any of us,” Chuck told him.

    “Oh.” Morgan blinked, taken aback. “She doesn’t like you being a spy?”

    “I think that would have been OK. But the whole not telling her, meeting Dad without telling her, being a target for a spy ring that has penetrated the CIA wasn’t OK,” Chuck said in a dry voice. “And when she heard that we’re planning to quit the CIA and join the Council…” He grimaced.

    Morgan nodded, wincing. “Oh, yes. That would do it. She really doesn’t like the Scoobies.”

    “So, you came here to ask about that?” Chuck asked. There were phones for that.

    “What?” Morgan perked up. “Oh, no, I wanted to tell you that I got Kirsten handled.” He grinned widely. “She was far too busy with me to investigate where you were going. Trust me, I’ve got this - you won’t have to worry about her.”

    Oh. Chuck forced himself to smile. “As long as you have the situation under control…”

    “Oh, definitely.” Morgan nodded several times, then sighed with a dreamy expression. “I’ve got it.”

    Chuck glanced at Sarah, who frowned. “You haven’t forgotten that she’s a spy? A honey trap, to be exact,” she told Morgan.

    “Oh, believe me, I wouldn’t be able to forget that if I wanted to!” Morgan replied. “She’s… the things she can do… Wow!”

    Chuck felt his smile slip. This was really far more than he ever wanted to know about Bane. Or Morgan.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 27th, 2007

    This was a bad idea - Sarah knew that very well. But she couldn’t just do nothing. Not when it was at least partially her fault that Ellie was mad at Chuck. And at Sarah, of course. So she took a deep breath, pasted a smile on her face and rang the doorbell.

    It took a little longer than usual, but the door swung open, and Ellie glared at her.

    “Hi, Ellie,” Sarah said right away. “We need to talk.”

    Ellie frowned at her. “Did you wait until Devon’s shift had started so I would be alone?”

    “Yes.” There was no need to deny it.

    Chuck’s sister glared at her. “You’ve got us under surveillance.”

    “Yes.” She didn’t add ‘for your safety’ - Ellie knew that, and mentioning it would only make her angrier.

    Ellie stared at her for half a minute, making Sarah wonder if the doctor would close the door in her face, but then scoffed. “I can’t stop you anyway,” she said, stepping aside.

    Sarah nodded and entered, heading to the living room.

    “You dragged Chuck into this!” Ellie blurted out almost before Sarah had sat down on the couch. “He’s in danger because of you!”

    “He’s in danger because Bryce sent him the Intersect,” she retorted. “I’d have never heard of him otherwise.”

    “And why were you sent here?” Ellie crossed her arms.

    “To secure the Intersect,” Sarah replied. Honesty was the best policy. And Chuck would probably spoil any cover story anyway.

    “The Intersect. Not Chuck.” Ellie sniffed.

    “I hadn’t met him yet.” Sarah smiled.

    “So you fell in love with him, and that changed everything?” Ellie’s voice was dripping with suspicion. “Love at first sight?”

    Tilting her head a little, Sarah replied: “Not at first sight.” Though she had liked him from the start. “That came later. After we started going out as a cover for me protecting him.”

    “‘Protecting him’!” Ellie shook her head, scoffing. “How is letting him risk his life protecting him?”

    “I’m not ‘letting’ him risk his life,” Sarah replied. “He chose to work with us.”

    “Chuck ‘chooses’ to do a lot if he thinks it’s the right thing to do. And people exploit that.”

    Ah. They were getting close to the core of the issue. “You think we manipulated him.”

    “Of course.” Ellie spat the words.

    “Like his other friends.”

    Sarah saw Ellie clench her teeth at that. “Friends don’t drag their friends into danger.”

    “I don’t think they dragged him into fighting demons,” Sarah replied in a soft voice. “I think they asked for help.”

    “Chuck will always help his friends. And they know it.”

    “They haven’t asked him to join the Council, did they?”

    “They don’t need to. Not when he jumps into a fight whenever they ask.” Ellie pressed her lips together, and Sarah saw her clench her fist.

    “And how often does that happen?”

    “Who knows? It’s not as if he told me about joining the CIA either! For all I know, he could be hunting demons every night!”

    Ah. “Well, he isn’t,” Sara told her. “And he couldn’t tell you about the CIA because it’s classified.”

    “And why did he tell me now? Just because Dad’s alive after faking his death and leaving us for fifteen years? For our safety?” Ellie’s voice rose as she shook her head.

    Sarah leaned back a little. Ellie wasn’t crying, yet, but it wouldn’t take much. “Your father’s appearance changed the situation.”

    “And if that hadn’t happened, Chuck would have kept lying to me.” Ellie blinked a few times, then wiped her eyes.

    “He wanted to protect you.”

    “Really? And how’s lying supposed to protect me?”

    “You can’t spill a secret you don’t know,” Sarah told her. “And you won’t have to lie to people.”

    “I’m already lying to my friends about demons,” Ellie retorted. “What’s another few lies?”

    “Your friends aren’t trained spies. They won’t see through your lies.”

    “Spies?”

    “Like Bane,” Sarah said.

    “What? She’s also a spy?”

    “She’s spying on us for the CIA.”

    “What?”

    Sarah suppressed a sigh. “The CIA wants to get control over the Intersect. Which means Chuck. So, since they can’t just press-gang him thanks to the Council’s pressure, they use other means. And since they don’t trust me any more, they sent Bane.”

    “Why wouldn’t the CIA trust you any more?”

    “That’s actually Chuck’s fault,” Sarah said, faintly chuckling. “He showed me demons, and my superior isn’t cleared for that knowledge. So they grew suspicious when I stopped investigating the secret behind the Council’s influence, as they see it.”

    “That’s…” Ellie trailed off.

    “I know. That’s why we want to work for the Council. Once the business with the Intersect is dealt with.”

    “And how long will that take?”

    That was a good question. Sarah winced.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, December 27th, 2007

    “I’ve talked to Ellie.”

    “Uh…” At hearing Sarah’s statement, Chuck froze for a moment in the process of grabbing his coke. He hadn’t expected her to talk to his sister right away. But then, she was an experienced spy. She wouldn’t procrastinate.

    She chuckled. “It didn’t go too badly.”

    “Ah.” That was a relief. A small relief. “But how well did it go?”

    Sarah shrugged. “She’s processing what I told her. Which is,” she went on, preempting his question,” is just the truth about how we met and why we didn’t tell her the truth.

    “Why I lied to her, you mean,” Chuck corrected her.

    “This isn’t your fault,” she replied. “You did what you were told to.”

    “That hasn’t worked as an excuse since the Second World War, I believe.”

    She frowned at him. Perhaps he shouldn’t equate the CIA to a Nazi government. Although the CIA had been working with former Nazis after the war, hadn’t it? Maybe he could flash if he looked at some history books…

    “Chuck?”

    “Oh, sorry,” He smiled at her. “I just had a thought.”

    “Yes?”

    “Uh, not about Ellie. A tangent. History.” He nodded. “I think I should test if the Intersect offers new insights into our history. Cross-reference files and uncover the truth about historical events.”

    Was that a wince? Sarah’s smile certainly slipped. “I don’t think the CIA would be happy about you revealing past plots and blunders.”

    “Oh. And if it’s the Russians’ plots? Or Soviets’, at the time?”

    “That might cause diplomatic troubles if the information were made public.”

    “Really?” The Cold War was over, although Russia wasn’t exactly an ally, was it?

    “Yes.”

    “Alright. No making enemies of diplomats and spies. Got it.”

    Another frown, probably at his sarcastic tone. “We’ve got enough enemies already, I think.”

    He blinked. “Uh. Good point.” After taking a swallow from his coke, he went on: “So, what’s next? Other than waiting for Ellie to calm down? And waiting for an opportunity to scan my brain?”

    “Handling Bane,” Sarah replied. She was looking past his shoulder, he noticed.

    He glanced over his shoulder and winced. There were Morgan and Bane in the parking lot, leaning against the hood of a car, kissing. If the car had an alarm it would have gone off, in Chuck’s opinion. “They’re practically crawling over the hood,” he muttered.

    “She wants us to see them,” Sarah replied in a rather dark tone.

    “Oh.” He frowned. “An attempt to make me jealous?”

    “Yes. It’s an old ploy.”

    She had told him so before. Still… “What if she’s after Morgan’s secrets?”

    “That’s probably a secondary objective.”.

    “Well, Morgan’s no fool. He knows about her being a spy,” Chuck said. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

    Sarah didn’t say anything, but her expression clearly told Chuck that she disagreed.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, December 27th, 2007

    “...and this is how you change the battery and force a reboot of the system, see?”

    “Ah! Like this?”

    “No. Like this? See?”

    “Ah!”

    “Almost. You need to keep this button pushed as it restarts. See?”

    “Ah. Thanks!”

    “Have a nice day.” Chuck’s smile vanished as soon as the man had turned away. “Some people shouldn’t be allowed to buy computers,” he muttered.

    “He probably got it as a gift,” Morgan commented. “As a professional salesman, I can assure you that none of my peers would have sold the man a device that’s so obviously beyond his capabilities.”

    “Really?” Those people with more money than ability were among their best clients.

    “I’d have sold him a Mac instead,” Morgan went on.

    “He wouldn’t have known how to handle that either,” Chuck pointed out.

    “Yes, but he would have been Jeff and Lester’s problem:”

    “Good thing you didn’t, then,” Chuck told him. “Jeff’s still a little jittery from the whole Slime Lord affair.”

    “Did he trigger again from seeing a kid playing with silly putty?”

    “Fortunately, no.”

    “Props for making people think he was a traumatised war veteran who was wounded in an Iraqi chemical factory, by the way.”

    Chuck winced. Not his best excuse, but he had been stressed. The days after Christmas were hell in the Buy More. So many people trying to exchange gifts they didn’t like, or having problems with new electronic devices they had bought for Christmas…

    Morgan looked around, then leaned against the Nerd Herd desk. “So, any news from Ellie? Or your Dad? I’m still handling Kirsten, so there’s no rush.”

    “Yeah, we’ve seen that.”

    “You did?” Chuck’s friend blinked. “Oh. The parking lot? Or the storage room?”

    “The storage room?” What had they done there? On second thought, Chuck didn’t want to know. “Never mind. But you are careful, right? She’s a spy, after all.”

    “Careful is my middle name!” Morgan grinned, then pushed off the desk when they heard Big Mike yell in the background.

    And promptly backed into a customer bending over to check a USB stick on the lower shelf.

    As the customer lost his balance and fell into the aisle, causing dozens of electronic merchandise to be spilt all over the floor, Chuck winced.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 27th, 2007

    “I have to admit,” Chuck said, hours later, when he and Sarah were in bed, “Bane might be a cause for concern.”

    “Really?”

    He glanced at her with a frown. “Morgan might be a bit overconfident.”

    “A bit.”

    Chuck’s friend wasn’t that bad. “He’s been working as a Watcher-in-training for years.” And still alive, which was the most important test.

    “And in that time, he hasn’t passed his Watcher test, has he?”

    “Just because he isn’t the best at rote learning doesn’t mean that he’s bad at dealing with a spy,” Chuck said, looking at the ceiling.

    “He’s not exactly a ‘player’, either.”

    “No.” Chuck sighed. This wasn’t the time to mention that Morgan used to have a t-shirt with ‘I’m a gamer, not a player’ on it. “He’s had a crush on Ellie for years. As a kid. And he’s been pining for Caridad for a while as well.” Two women out of Morgan’s league.

    “That history makes him an easy mark for Bane,” Sarah said. “Easy to manipulate someone like him. What does Phil think about this?”

    “Oh. I don’t know. Caridad will have told him, but I haven’t yet spoken to him about it,” Chuck told her. He sighed. “What a mess. Ellie’s mad at us. Morgan’s getting manipulated by a spy. And Dad’s planning to fool the CIA. More than he usually does, I mean.”

    “You forgot Fulcrum trying to discover your identity so their agents can either kidnap or eliminate you. And the CIA planning to recruit you against your wishes.”

    “Right.” Chuck grimaced. “I limited myself to family-related troubles.” It was a good excuse for forgetting, if only for a little bit, about the spies trying to find him. He snorted. “I just realised: I’m like Dad - I’m hunted by spies because of the Intersect.”

    Sarah didn’t laugh at his joke. But she patted his hand.

    *****​
     
  21. Threadmarks: Chapter 16: The Sting
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 16: The Sting

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

    “So, what happened on your trip up north?”

    Bane had shown remarkable patience, in Chuck’s opinion, for waiting two days before asking that question.

    “It’s classified,” Sarah replied at once, looking up from the documents she was reading at the planning table in The Castle with a wide smile. She had been waiting to be able to do that, Chuck knew.

    “I was under the impression it was related to our current mission.” Bane hadn’t lost her own smile. Did that mean that she hadn’t gained any intel from Morgan, or was she trying to confirm what he might have spilt?

    “No, this mission was a joint mission with Caridad’s organisation,” Sarah said.

    “And the search for Orion is a side-mission,” Chuck corrected her. “Our primary mission remains finding and neutralising Fulcrum.”

    “Which would be greatly helped along if we could get ahold of the creator of the Intersect,” Bane replied. She leaned against the wall near the door, legs crossed. The agent hadn’t yet changed out of the Wienerlicious uniform, which left most of her crossed legs bare, but she wasn’t drawing attention to them. Not that Chuck could tell, at least.

    “We don’t even know if it’s Orion behind the payments,” Sarah told her as she stood and walked over towards Chuck, handing him a document - and placing her hand on his shoulder as she leaned over to point at a picture there. “Check this out.”

    A picture he already had tried to flash on. But he knew better than to point that out. It wasn’t as if he minded Sarah hanging over his shoulder. He could smell her perfume, feel her body when she leaned a little closer to him…

    “Who else could it be?”

    “Apart from someone related to a classified matter,” Sarah replied, not moving from where she was touching Chuck, “Chuck fits the recruitment criteria for several criminal organisations.”

    “What?”

    “He’s a highly-qualified computer specialist, both software and hardware,” Sarah explained. “And until he was cleared, he was registered as having been expelled for cheating from Stanford.”

    “I see,” Bane said, nodding. “Frame the sister for money laundering then offer to help - in exchange for favours.”

    “Or direct recruitment,” Sarah said as she straightened. “There are many reasons for having Chuck on your payroll.”

    “Deniability and discretion.” Bane crossed her arms.

    “Money buys loyalty,” Sarah replied. “That’s more important in such a situation.”

    Bane made a noncommittal sound. “We should take another look at Grover’s clients, then.”

    “That’s what we’re doing,” Sarah said.

    Technically, it was true. But they weren’t really investigating - it was more a private game of ‘guess Dad’s victim’. A very cynical game, of course, seeing as they were speculating about someone dying.

    Chuck pressed his lips together. They were talking about a drug dealer. Or a mobster. Or a terrorist. Not an innocent victim. Someone who would likely be killed someday anyway, by his competitors, subordinates or the police. Someone whose death would save others.

    As often as he told himself that, he still felt guilty, though. Queasy. His father would be killing someone. Premeditatedly. And Chuck would be helping. Was helping, already.

    But then, this was what spies did. Sarah had killed more than once in the line of duty. And not all of her victims had deserved to die - Chuck had read the files. Some had merely been working for the wrong people. Security guards. Bodyguards. Soldiers.

    He sighed. Did he want to become a spy? It wasn’t as if he had a choice any more, had he? Not as the Intersect. Not with Fulcrum after him. And if he had to choose between a drug dealer or human trafficker and Dad or Ellie…

    “Chuck?”

    Sarah. Beautiful, strong, deadly Sarah. The spy he had fallen in love with.

    He forced himself to smile at her. “Just feeling a little down at not making any progress with this.” He nodded at the pictures of several of Grover’s clients. It was technically true, from a certain point of view. A very twisted point of view.

    “Don’t worry, we’ll get them.” She smiled at him.

    “Yes,” Bane added.

    Chuck closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. Was he moving his lines? He had killed himself, after all. Demons. Monsters. Threats to humanity.

    And, perhaps, some monsters who had just been at the wrong place, or forced to fight for a stronger demon.

    He focused on the pictures in front of him again. He didn’t want to think about the Wolfram & Hart battle. Not now.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 29th, 2007

    “We’re invited to the annual Bartowski New Years Party,” Sarah heard Chuck announce as he entered their apartment.

    Sarah smiled at him as she put down the breadbasket on the table. “Does that mean she’s forgiven you?”

    “Us you mean,” he replied, stopping on his way to the kitchen to kiss her cheek. She liked the correction. Then he sighed. “Not completely.”

    “Ah.”

    “Yes. She’s still mad, but not as mad as she was. We’re kind of like Caridad now. Or maybe the Scoobies,” Chuck said as he brought the salad bowl.

    “Really?” That didn’t sound too bad.

    “Probably. I only have two points for comparison. The Graduation and Wolfram & Hart.”

    She’d read about the second incident. Most called it the L.A. Riots of 2004. “So?”

    “Well, it’s a little different. Both times, she was mad at me, but relieved that I survived - and it was over. This time, we’re still in danger, and she knows I’m going to take some risks.”

    “Ah.” That would change how Ellie felt.

    He winced. “And, well… I didn’t lie to her for months, in either case.”

    “Oh.” She nodded.

    “But she’s my sister. She’ll come around.” He didn’t sound as sure as he should be, though. “Well, she is coming around, hence the invitation.”

    “Or she doesn’t want us to attend another party with more spies and council members,” Sarah pointed out as she carried the pasta to the table.

    He blinked. “Oh… I didn’t think of that angle.”

    “It might not be true,” Sarah told him. “She probably is warming up.”

    “Cooling down, you mean,” Chuck corrected her with a small smile. “I hope so.” He sighed as he sat down. “For fifteen years, it’s just been us.”

    She nodded, serving the spaghetti.

    “First Mom disappeared. Then Dad, and Ellie had to take over. She did a good job, though she had a lot of support - Sunnydale’s government had lots of experience with caring for orphans.”

    And there went the mood. “I’ll work out,” she told him.

    He nodded, though it looked a little forced. “So… any news about the hospital thing?”

    Ah. “Yes. We should have access to a scanner in two days.”

    “Before the party? I don’t suppose we could smuggle Dad to the party afterwards...”

    She raised her eyebrows at him - he knew better - and he sighed. “Just a thought. It’s a little unfair that I’m getting all the blame for this situation even though it’s all Dad’s fault.”

    Life wasn’t fair. But Chuck deserved better than some callous remark. So she reached out and squeezed his hand before they started eating.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, December 31st, 2007

    “I thought we would be visiting a hospital,” Chuck said as they parked in front of a warehouse.

    Sarah shrugged. “That would have been a little harder to arrange without Bane finding out.”

    “I’m just… I’d feel a little better if this were a hospital. With that reassuring smell of industrial-strength detergent and bleach.” He was only half-joking.

    “On the other hand, this machine will be brand-new - no need to disinfect it,” Sarah pointed out as she opened the side entrance to the warehouse.

    “You say ‘brand-new’. I hear ‘untested’,” he replied. “And as an expert for all the problems that brand-new electronic devices can be plagued with, I feel even a little less assured now.”

    “Do we need to get some pampers in case you wet yourself?” Casey grunted. The man looked even grumpier than usual, Chuck noticed. Probably because Caridad was present as well.

    “I was just making a few comments,” Chuck told the man. “Whoa!” He took the whole set-up in - it looked like something out of Stargate. Or Star Wars. Too jury-rigged for Star Trek.

    “We’ve had to improvise a little with the power supply,” Dad commented, standing up and stretching his back. “We’re almost ready. Caridad and Agent Casey were very helpful.”

    “Mostly me,” Caridad announced from… above? Chuck looked up. The Slayer was straddling one of the beams below the roof, rigging up something. “Done!” she announced, then pushed off and jumped on a catwalk five yards below her.

    Chuck wasn’t the only one who winced the sound that that caused.

    “So…” he said, walking over to Dad.

    “Just a second, son,” Dad replied without looking up from his PDA. “A few last checks and double-checks… Done!” He beamed at Chuck. “We’re good to go. Perfect timing.”

    “Not quite perfect,” Casey had to comment.

    “Pretty much perfect, with Los Angeles’ traffic,” Caridad replied.

    For a moment, the Slayer and the NSA agent were staring at each other. Then Dad cleared his throat. “So, let’s scan Chuck. There’s a party waiting for him, after all.”

    “Right.” Chuck nodded with more confidence than he felt as he stripped off anything metal on him, eyeing the gaping opening of the scanner with growing trepidation. If there was a metal implant in his brain… “Uh, Dad?”

    “Yes?”

    “I don’t have an actual computer in my head, right?”

    “Not to my knowledge.”

    That wasn’t really reassuring. He cleared his throat as he dropped his belt. “I mean, what if someone put an implant in my head, and the Intersect took it over?”

    “It’s not designed to do that,” Dad told him. “The CIA didn’t want to risk their secrets going viral, so to speak. And how would you get an implant without noticing?”

    “Well, there was a demon on the Internet, once, in Sunnydale.”

    “What?” Dad was staring at him. The same as everyone but Caridad.

    “Ah, right - Moloch.” The Slayer nodded. “I heard the story.”

    “Moloch? The god?”

    “A god? No, just a demon. Kind of - Willow apparently had a school project where she scanned books in the high school library, and accidentally scanned a cursed book in which a demon was bound or something.” Caridad shrugged. “She’s a little sensitive about the whole thing, so I never got the full story. But the demon took over some techno firm and started building a robot body while trying to seduce her, so Buffy killed it.”

    “Fascinating.” Dad’s Spock imitation hadn’t gotten better with age. “A demon on the Internet…”

    “Yeah, all the parent groups would freak out if they knew.” Caridad chuckled.

    They would probably still blame computer games, Chuck thought.

    “I was more thinking of the potential. Mixing magic and technology…” Dad looked pensive.

    “That’s dangerous!” Caridad retorted. “Buffy had to deal with killer robots who looked like real people in Sunnydale.”

    “What?” Dad looked shocked.

    “Yes,” Chuck replied. “Apparently, she had a robot double so good, it could fool an evil god.” He hadn’t actually heard the whole story about the Buffy bot - Buffy was sensitive about it - but he had pieced most of it together from remarks.

    “And it was a better sister than Buffy herself, according to Dawn,” Caridad cut in.

    Although in hindsight, Dawn probably wasn’t the most reliable source.

    “Robot doubles? Able to pass as real people?” Dad was shaking his head. “Good thing the CIA never heard of that.”

    “They’d have built fembots and terminators,” Chuck said, shuddering.

    “Oh, yes,” Dad agreed. “Part of the Intersect project - and a huge part of the reason I left - was the potential to use the technology to program people as sleeper agents - against their will. If they could have used robots instead…”

    “Uh… could you do that?” Chuck asked. “I mean, I don’t want you to do it. But it’d be really useful to know if such a thing is possible.” If someone could program him…

    “Theoretically, it might be possible, but I never pursued that particular idea.” Chuck’s father shook his head. “Anyway, we should probably x-ray your head before putting you into the scanner. Fortunately, this firm has x-ray scanners in stock as well. It shouldn’t take long to set up one.”

    Half an hour later, Dad nodded at the screen. “I can’t see anything in your head that might be accidentally sent spinning around inside it, so you should be safe.”

    Dad really had to work on the reassuring stuff, in Chuck’s opinion. But he was going into the scanner anyway.

    *****​

    “Hm…”

    Dad had been studying the results of the brain scan for half an hour without commenting. Chuck couldn’t tell if that was a good sign or not. Casey was reading a gun magazine and doing his best to act as if he were not interested at all. Sarah and Cariad were chatting about the party later today. And probably about Ellie.

    He put the computer magazine he had been reading down and cleared his throat. “So, what’s the verdict?” He noted with a little satisfaction that the others paid attention as well.

    “Huh?” Dad looked up. “Ah, sorry. I haven’t found anything amiss, yet. You should have access to the skills.”

    He should? “So why doesn’t it work?”

    “I’m still working on that.”

    Chuck heard Casey snort behind him. Probably aimed at him rather than at Dad. Or perhaps at both of them.

    “Perhaps your neural net hasn’t connected properly to it,” Dad said, rubbing his chin.

    “Wouldn’t you see that on the scan?” Caridad asked.

    “No. Such details won’t show up on a commercial scanner.” Dad shook his head. “It might be a psychological issue, too.”

    “So he’s too scared to use the skills?” Casey scoffed with a sneer.

    Chuck clenched his teeth. He wasn’t a trained spy, but he wasn’t a coward.

    “No,” Dad said, with a frown of his own. Aimed at Casey, Chuck hoped. “It’s probably due to unmonitored integration of the Intersect.”

    “So… can that be fixed?” Chuck asked.

    “I don’t know - I don’t even know what’s the issue. It might fix itself over time.”

    Chuck nodded with his lips pressed together. It was a slim hope, but better than nothing.

    *****​

    Chuck looked rather sad after Orion had left again, Sarah noticed. Did he miss his father so much? She hoped not. Orion had abandoned his family before - he would do it again if he deemed it necessary. No matter the cost to Chuck and Ellie. “Well, now we know that there’s nothing wrong with your brain,” she tried to cheer Chuck up.

    He started to smile, but Casey cut in: “Just with your spine.”

    “There’s nothing wrong with Chuck’s spine!” Caridad snapped.

    Sarah cut in before they could start to bicker. “Let’s do a final sweep to see we didn’t leave anything behind, then go. The warehouse is closed for the holidays, but some people might still come to work if only to escape the arguments at home.”

    She had aimed that at Casey and Caridad, but it was Chuck who flinched. Damn. “Sorry,” she mouthed.

    He shrugged half-heartedly in response, and she suppressed a sigh. This might be worse than she thought.

    Ten minutes later, they were in Sarah’s car, on the way home - and finally outside Caridad’s hearing range. “I wasn’t talking about you and Ellie when I mentioned arguments.”

    “I know,” he replied. He wasn’t looking at her, though, and didn’t sound very convincing, either.

    “What’s wrong?” she asked after a moment. This wasn’t the time to be subtle about it.

    “Nothing.” She caught him glancing at her and raised her eyebrows. “Ok, not nothing,” he went on after a moment. “It’s just… It’s a little much. Dad, Ellie, my brain hosting a computer with more features than I thought and a possible kill switch…”

    “Ellie’s calming down. Your father’s got a plan, and we just checked that your brain’s fine.”

    “For a given definition of ‘fine’,” he retorted, sounding more than a little bitter. “I can’t use the Intersect.”

    “You’ve used it to great effect,” she told him.

    “I’ve just been lucky. I can’t control my flashes. They happen - or they don’t. And as Dad has shown, I can’t even trust the database since it was manipulated from the start. And now I know that the Intersect could offer so much more if only I were able to use it.”

    That wasn’t good. She pressed her lips together as she overtook a delivery truck, then replied: “You are using the Intersect as intended - and getting great results.”

    “Dad’s doing better.”

    “We don’t know that,” she retorted. “You two are the only ones using the Intersect at all.”

    “And Dad has mad spy skills, while I… don’t.”

    Ah. That was the issue. “Your father has a lot more experience. You’ve been doing this for a few months while he’s been at it for fifteen years.”

    “I don’t think he started out as a spy,” Chuck told her. “He became one after he used the Intersect on himself.”

    “To be a spy is more than just a skillset.” She snorted. “It’s a mindset.”

    “Which I also lack.” He sighed.

    “You’re doing fine, You’re doing better than I was doing, three months in.”

    “Really?” He sounded surprised but quickly started to frown again. “But I feel so useless, compared to…”

    Compared to her. She frowned “You’re not useless. You’re a great asset, Chuck. And you’ll be a great spy - with or without the Intersect.”

    He snorted but didn’t contradict her.

    It was true, anyway. Chuck would be a great spy - eventually. If he survived.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, December 31st, 2007

    Chuck checked himself in the mirror once more. No stubble on the face. No stain on the shirt. Belt matching shoes… not quite. But he wasn’t wearing dress shoes. The rule didn’t apply to sneakers, did it? If the Intersect in his head worked properly, he’d know.

    He frowned as he pushed the thought away. He looked sharp enough. Probably.

    “Chuck?” Sarah called from the living room.

    “Coming!” he yelled in return and left the bathroom. “I was just having a short moment of self-consciousness,” he told her.

    She hadn’t dressed up for a fancy evening, but between the fancy top, the tight - very tight - shiny black pants and the ankle boots, she looked great.

    “So, once more into the breach.”

    “I was wondering about having two parties so close together,” she said as they walked towards the door.

    “Well, it started out as a compromise between Ellie and Devon, when they started dating,” he told her. “Or a competition. Ellie did the Christmas Eve Party at her home, and Devon did the End of Year Party at his. And by the time they moved in together, it had become a tradition.”

    “Ah.”

    “Yes. Devon still tries to add more awesome to ‘his’ party, but it’s quieted down a lot since they were at Uni.” Caridad getting into a tussle with Devon’s old fraternity members had been responsible for that, but there was no need to go into that.

    They had a party to enjoy. Well, they had to make an attempt to enjoy it, at least.

    *****​

    An hour later, Chuck still hadn’t managed to enjoy the party. Standing in a corner, he sighed - his mouth hidden behind a glass of cola - as he looked at the room full of slightly inebriated doctors. It really was the Christmas Eve Party reloaded. Christmas Eve 2.0. There were mostly the same guests - a few who had gone to visit their family had been replaced by a handful who had just returned from their family visit, but overall there were no new faces. The music was the same as well, only with fewer Christmas songs. At least the food was different - Devon had tried something new and gone for a mix of Asian and Hawaiian dishes for the buffet.

    The Red Thai Curry had been good, though Chuck wasn’t quite as fond of the Loco Moco. “Why are the other guests gushing about it?” he asked Sarah as he took another bite out of the burger.

    “Nostalgia,” she replied. “It’s a cheap, filling meal, so it’s popular among students.”

    “Ah! A taste of a supposedly happier time, then,” he said, nodding. Chuck certainly didn’t remember his time at Stanford very fondly. Not after his expulsion. “At least Ellie stopped trying to hitch me up with one of her colleagues.”

    “Oh?” Sarah leaned a little closer.

    “Didn’t I tell you about my last birthday party? Ellie had organised it as a surprise. Just imagine this party, but with a cake.” He snorted. “I left for my apartment after an hour, and no one except Ellie noticed. Well, from this crowd.” He nodded at the doctors. “Morgan and Caridad noticed as well, of course. And tried to drag me to a demon hunt.” Right when Ellie had tried to drag him back to the party. That hadn’t been fun.

    “Ah.” Was Chuck imagining things, or was Sarah eyeing the assembled female guests with a more hostile expression?

    He cleared his throat. “Anyway, I feel the same urge to leave that I felt back then. This isn’t my crowd.” For different reasons, now, but still. Of course, it wasn’t Caridad’s crowd either, but the Slayer would never turn down free food. She was currently cleaning up the Curry parts of the buffet.

    “Why don’t we leave, then?”

    “And make Ellie mad? Madder, I mean.” He shook his head. “Besides, Morgan’s bringing Bane.”

    “He’s late,” Sarah remarked.

    “Uh…” Chuck a good idea about what was holding up Morgan and Bane. Mainly because Morgan had called and told him.

    “Ah.” And judging by her expression, Sarah had a good idea as well.

    He shrugged. “Well, they’re both adults.”

    “And she’s a spy,” Sarah all but hissed.

    Chuck nodded. In some ways, Sarah was like a Slayer. She reacted to Bane like Caridad reacted to supposed ‘poachers’ in her ‘territory’. Not that Chuck would ever tell either that. “So… dessert? Apart from the bar, this is the best part of the party unless you like discussing medical procedures and emergencies while you eat.” And Chuck knew better than to get drunk any more. With Fulcrum after him, he had to keep his wits all the time.

    Something else that set him apart from the others in the room. He sighed again.

    “Hm?” Sarah glanced at him.

    “I just realised that I started to think of everyone else here as ‘civilians’. Well, everyone else but Caridad,” he added before the Slayer could glare at him.

    “Ah.” Sarah nodded. “Yes, that’s bound to happen. Although you weren’t exactly a civilian before this, were you?”

    “The demon hunting?” He shook his head. “I didn’t actively hunt demons. I just helped out when there was an apocalypse in the area. I only fought twice in those, too. Three times if you count the Slime Lord.”

    “Most people never fight at all,” she replied. “And you didn’t just fight when you had no choice - you choose to put your life on the line.”

    “If we hadn’t fought, the Mayor would have eaten all of us and probably destroyed most of the county. Or California.” The Scoobies hadn’t been too precise about the area of effect of the Ascension. “And Wolfram & Hart were planning to destroy the world.”

    “Still, not many would have done what you did,” she told him. “Most would have fled in panic.” She smiled. “And you grew up in Sunnydale.”

    That made some sense. “I guess I haven’t been a civilian at all, then.” He snorted. “More like a member of a militia. Or the National Guard.”

    She laughed as well. “Don’t let Casey hear that.”

    “I’m not suicidal.” After a moment, he added: “Thank you.”

    In response, she leaned over and wrapped her arm around his waist.

    Perhaps he could enjoy the party anyway.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, January 1st, 2008

    “Good morning, Agent Casey, Agent Walker, Agent Bane, Mr Bartowski.”

    General Beckman looked far too crisp for a briefing on January 1st of any year. Well, so did everyone else, Chuck thought. Casey looked ready for war - as always. Bane looked ready to seduce someone. Sarah looked beautiful. Which she was, but which was still better than she had any right to look like after last night.

    He forced himself to sit straighter. “Good morning, general,” he said together with the others. Perhaps he could wing this.

    “Did you have a rough night, Mr Bartowski?”

    Or perhaps he couldn’t. “Uh, no, general. Just a short one,” he replied.

    The general raised an eyebrow at Sarah for that quip but didn’t pursue it further than slightly frowning. “You’ve got a new mission.” Her picture shrunk, and another appeared on the screen, showing a handsome blond man. “This is Dirk Albert Martinez. We suspect him to be involved in industrial espionage focused on startups in the Silicon Valley. Your objective is to infect the stolen data he’s carrying with a worm that will allow us to find his accomplices and employers.”

    Chuck frowned as he realised that if not for Bryce - and his Dad - he might have been one of the man’s targets. “Are they posing as investors?” he asked.

    “Exactly. Did you flash?” Beckman answered.

    “No, ma’am. Just a deduction,” he replied.

    “Ah.”

    He tried not to show his annoyance at the dismissal. He wasn’t just an interface for the Intersect.

    “Martinez normally uses the same method: He poses as an investor to gain access to a firm’s secrets. If that doesn’t work, he usually seduces an employee with access to the data centre and uses her to copy what he’s after,” Beckman went on. “You will use your cover as Charles Carmichael to lure him in, Mr Bartowski.”

    “I don’t actually have a software firm,” Chuck pointed out.

    “You don’t need one; the electronic trail of one will suffice. You will make contact in Los Angeles on a business trip with your personal assistant, with the prototype of a new search algorithm in your possession. According to his psychological profile, Martinez won’t be able to resist the opportunity to acquire it.”

    That sounded easy. Although… “My personal assistant ma’am?” Sarah usually posed as his girlfriend.

    “Agent Bane will be playing that role.”

    Oh.

    “Yes, ma’am.” Bane sounded eager.

    And Sarah looked angry.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, January 2nd, 2008

    Standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom, Chuck straightened his tie - or tried to - for the third time. It still looked a little crooked. Special Agent Charles Carmichael wouldn’t wear a crooked tie, would he? On the other hand, Charles Carmichael, software entrepreneur and nerd, might. He had to look the part of a mark, after all.

    Chuck sighed as he left the bathroom. His room wasn’t quite a suite, but spacious enough to come close and offered a great view of the city. A good fit for his cover. And the mission wasn’t dangerous. Industrial espionage. Not drug dealing or spies going after arms research. Nor were demons involved - Caridad had checked out Martinez last evening. Apparently, The Castle’s soundproofing still wasn’t Slayer-proof. Well, that wasn’t a problem for Chuck, and Beckman and Bane didn’t know about it.

    He tensed anyway as he heard knocking at the door. Just because a mission was supposed to be safe didn’t mean it was actually safe. “Yes?” he called out, hand slipping to the taser hidden in his pocket.

    “Room service.”

    He blinked. That was… The door opened, revealing Sarah dressed as a maid and pushing a trolley inside.

    She smiled at him - though a little toothily - as she closed the door behind her. “Casey’s already in the hotel bar. I’m covering the hallways.”

    “Ah.” He nodded. They were the backup. Just in case. “Good cover,” he said, then clenched his teeth at the banality of the comment.

    Sarah smiled, though. “It’s a good way to carry weapons,” she said, nodding at the covered trolley. “And it explains my presence in your room.”

    Her rather sultry smile made him blush. Who hadn’t had a fantasy about a maid and a hotel room? Her outfit wasn’t the kind advertised as ‘sexy maid’ for Halloween parties, but it certainly was sexy. In a classy way. He swallowed. “I see.”

    She nodded in return and took a step closer to him, reaching out to straighten his tie. “All part of the service,” she whispered.

    How long did he have until he had to be at the bar? Based on Martinez’s usual schedule… twenty minutes. Not long enough for a fantasy. But, perhaps…

    Someone else knocked on the door. “Mr Carmiachel?”

    Bane.

    *****​

    Sarah took a step back, her smile slipping, as the other agent entered.

    Bane was dressed for business, Sarah noticed. Not quite conservatively enough to work in a bank, but close enough. The skirt was a little too short, ending right above the knees, the shirt a little too tight, the heels a little too high, the hair a little too stylish. Just what a personal assistant with a crush on her employer might wear. It would present Martinez with an easy but not too easy target - Sarah knew how this worked, having done it before herself.

    But she also knew that this was aimed at Chuck as well. Which was one reason she was here, of course. With an outfit she had carefully picked for the occasion. Something Bane realised immediately, of course - for a moment, Sarah saw the other agent’s lips twist in a frown before Bane smiled again.

    “Agent Walker. I take it the hallways are safe then?”

    “Yes,” Sarah replied, matching the woman’s smile.

    “Good,” Bane lied. “Are you ready, sir?” she turned to Chuck, and her smile changing from polite to seductive.

    “Uh… ‘sir’?” Chuck blinked.

    “I’m your personal assistant,” she replied. “It’s good to stay in your role. Helps with maintaining your cover.”

    “Uh, of course,” Chuck answered, nodding at the platitude. And missing the subtle dig at Sarah.

    “There’s still time until the mission starts,” Sarah said. “We wouldn’t want to appear too eager, would we?” A short step and she was in front of Chuck, reaching for his tie to fix it.

    “Thanks.” He smiled at her. Warmly. Not nervously. Not slightly wary.

    She leaned forward. “Carmichael’s supposed to have a girlfriend at home,” she whispered - loud enough for Bane to hear. “This will help with that cover story.” She kissed him.

    And then she had to fix his tie again. But Bane wouldn’t have any trouble to play the role of the frustrated personal assistant whose boss ignored her crush because he was in love with his partner.

    Sarah refrained from smiling triumphantly at Bane. But she enjoyed the other agent’s expression very much.

    *****​

    Chuck straightened as he stepped out of the hotel room. Charles Carmichael was a successful businessman. Wealthy, smart and suave. Pretty much the opposite of Chuck Bartowski. But for the smart part. Although both had a great girlfriend. Partner.

    He took a deep breath. Sarah had been right again - kissing her had certainly helped. This mission was in the bag.

    The hotel bar was next to the lounge - he could see a couple of guests with fancy drinks on the couches there as he passed through. A glance at the clock on the wall told him that they were right on time. Well, he had known that already. But double-checking never hurt. Usually.

    Inside, Martinez was leaning against the bar, as expected, watching the room. And Casey was playing the bartender. Perfect.

    Chuck made a beeline to the free spot next to the mark, putting his elbow on the bartop and flashing his credit card. “A whisky cola for me and… a Long Island for you, Marcy?” he turned to address Bane who had just reached the bar.

    “I shouldn’t drink, sir,” she replied.

    “Nonsense!” he said, shaking his head. “We got the contract. That deserves a toast. Live a little, Marcy!”

    “If you say so, sir.” Bane reluctantly nodded, placing herself between Chuck and Martinez.

    “Good work there, by the way,” Chuck went on while Casey fixed their drinks. “Your presentation really sold our new algorithm.”

    “Thank you, sir.” Bane beamed at him. She was good at her role. If Chuck didn’t know better, he would have fallen for her act.

    And Martinez was paying attention, Chuck noted. As planned.

    Their drinks arrived, and Chuck raised his glass at once. “Cheers!”

    “Ah… cheers, sir.”

    He took a large swallow - Casey had toned down the whisky, a lot, so there was no danger of getting drunk. Martinez would ‘t know that, of course.

    Bane took a sip of hers, then coughed and stumbled, taking a step back and bumping into Martinez. “Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” she blurted out, turning to smile at the man.”

    “No worry.” Martinez returned her smile with perfect teeth. “No harm done.”

    The agent nodded and turned back to Chuck. The bait had been set, and judging by Martinez expression, he was nibbling already. Time for the next step. Chuck drained his drink. “Ah. I needed that!” he exclaimed as he set his glass down.

    A moment later, his phone went off, as planned - Casey had sent the signal to Sarah. “Cindy?” Chuck said, a little loudly. “Good news, darling! We got the contract!”

    “Great, Charles!”

    “I told you so, didn’t I?” Chuck went on. “Marcy worried, the dear. You know how she is!”

    “Oh, yes,” Sarah replied.

    “So, I was thinking we should celebrate that. How about we take out the yacht tomorrow? Just you and me?”

    As Chuck went through the script, Bane downed her own drink. She was playing her role so well, Chuck almost felt bad for her.

    Not for Martinez, though, who was smiling behind her back.

    *****​

    “I feel like a peeping tom,” Chuck commented an hour later, back in his hotel room, as he nodded towards the laptop on the desk. Which showed the feed from the camera Bane had hidden in her room.

    “We’re her backup,” Sarah said. “We need to be ready to intervene at a moment’s notice.”

    “I know. I still feel weird,” Chuck replied. On the screen, Bane was currently busy being undressed by Martinez.

    “What? You getting embarrassed by seeing two naked people?” Casey chuckled. “Never watched porn?”

    Chuck did his best to ignore the remark. There wasn’t any good answer to that question.

    “She’s doing what she does best,” Sarah said.

    Well, Bane certainly knew what she was doing, Chuck couldn’t deny that. Martinez was still thinking that he was seducing her, exploiting a vulnerable moment of a naive, heartbroken woman.

    But to see - looking away wouldn’t be very professional, not for a spy - her getting it on with Martinez… They were working with the woman. And Bane knew they were watching. Wouldn’t that be awkward in the morning?

    Worse, Bane was, officially, with Morgan. Was this cheating? Morgan knew that she was a spy trying to turn him into an informant on Chuck and the others. But Chuck knew his friend - he wasn’t the kind of person to keep his emotions out of such a relationship. Should he tell him? It might help remind Morgan that Bane was a honey trap - a spy specialised in seducing her marks.

    But what if it broke Morgan’s heart? Chuck knew that it was likely that Bane would be breaking Morgan’s heart anyway, but to be the one who ruined this for his friend… No. He couldn’t do this to Morgan.

    He was too much of a coward for this.

    “They’re finally at it,” Casey interrupted Chuck’s thoughts. “I bet he won’t last longer than fifteen minutes.”

    Chuck didn’t look at the screen. The audio would be enough. And others were watching anyway.

    Casey certainly didn’t seem to be embarrassed. Nor did Sarah.

    She might have done a mission like this herself. But would she still do such a mission if she were ordered to?

    Chuck didn’t dare to ask her.

    *****​
     
  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 17: The Vengeance Plot
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 17: The Vengeance Plot

    California, Burbank, The Castle, January 3rd, 2008

    “Excellent work, agents, Mr Bartowski.” Beckman smiled, though it looked more polite than genuine. At least Chuck thought it did - he didn’t know the woman very well. He had never met her in the flesh, after all; he only ever talked to her through video calls. “The virus you planted is working; we’ll soon know the extent of Martinez’s network.”

    “Thank you, ma’am,” Casey snapped. Chuck refrained from mentioning that it was a worm.

    “Other teams will take down his organisation once we have gathered enough information,” the general went on. “You’ll be contacted once there’s a new mission for you. Until then, continue with your current duties.”

    That didn’t sound like Beckman expected their search for Orion to pan out. On the other hand, the general was a spy as well, wasn’t she? So this might be disinformation. Or a subtle reminder for Bane to continue spying on them. Or both.

    Chuck sighed when the general’s image faded out, and the screen turned dark. He still didn't have a grip on the higher levels of spy work.

    “Well, that’s one mission accomplished. Anyone up to celebrate it?” Bane stood. “The night’s still young.”

    That was putting it mildly - it was barely after six.

    “We’ve already got plans for the evening, sorry,” Sarah said, putting her arm around Chuck.

    He managed not to blurt out ‘we have?’ and nodded instead. “Yeah, sorry.”

    Casey grunted something about having to do maintenance on the armoury. Or his own arsenal. The man had more weapons than some museums.

    “Ah, I’ll go out with Morgan then. See you tomorrow.” Bane smiled and left.

    And Chuck remembered that he still hadn’t thought of a way how to break the news that Bane had seduced a mark to Morgan.

    Well, that could wait another day. It wouldn’t be nice to tell Morgan right before he went out with the spy. He cleared his throat. “So… where are we going for dinner? Or is it a surprise?”

    “It’s a surprise. We’ll have to dress up,” Sarah replied.

    “Ah.” He nodded. She didn’t look flustered at all. So, this was probably not just a way to shoot down Bane’s offer, but planned beforehand. Or Sarah was just good at improvising.

    Chuck wasn’t about to ask her, of course.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, January 3rd, 2008

    Three hours later, Chuck still didn’t know if Sarah had been improvising. Reservations at ‘Angelo’s’, a pricey but popular Italian restaurant, weren’t easy to get on short notice, but not too hard either. Especially for a spy.

    Not that he cared much any more, anyway. Dinner had been great, and they had started clubbing afterwards, hitting the same clubs they had visited when they had gone on their first date. It hadn’t been much over three months ago, but it felt much longer.

    So much had changed since that day. He had a great girlfriend, an important job, he had graduated from Stanford, he had discovered that his dad was alive… If not for the fact that a secret organisation was after him and the CIA after his father, this would be perfect.

    He still hadn’t learned to dance, though. Certainly not like Sarah. Watching her move was just… He shook his head with a smile when she danced closer, rolling her shoulders in that way of hers that… He gasped when she turned in front of him, then pressed her back into his chest. Oh.

    She turned back to face him just as the music changed to a slower song and wrapped her arms around him as she drew close. “So, like my surprise?” she whispered into his ear.

    “Totally. This was a great idea,” he replied. “Perfect!”

    She smiled, then leaned in to kiss him.

    And then his phone started to vibrate in his pants. He cursed himself as he broke the kiss and pulled it out. “Sorry,” he mouthed to her, “could be important.”

    It was. It was a message from Morgan.

    Trouble with demons. need help. Los Globos.

    Great. One perfect evening, ruined. He grimaced and leaned towards the frowning Sarah. “Demon trouble with Morgan and Bane,” he told her. “Los Globos”.

    She nodded curtly, then turned and started to move towards the exit. He followed her.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Silver Lake, January 3rd, 2008

    A perfect evening, ruined. Sarah wasn’t happy at all. But you didn’t let your friends and partners hanging if they needed help. Even if they were Grimes and Bane, and probably deserved whatever trouble they had found. Los Globos - there had been vampire trouble in that club when Sarah had visited it before.

    “Caridad’s coming too,” Chuck told her as she parked her car. “As is Casey.”

    Sarah nodded - she hadn’t expected anything else. “What about Phil?”

    “I don’t know. He’s usually, uh, mission control, but he might be on the way as well, once we know more.”

    ‘Once we know more’, right. Grimes hadn’t sent another message with more information, and Bane hadn’t answered her phone at all. That wasn’t a good sign. Not at all. Especially since the phones were still registering on the closest cell tower, as Chuck had found out.

    Of course, there could be a simple explanation for the lack of calls. But they were dealing with demons, not spies.

    She checked her gun and her purse, where she kept her vials of holy water, before getting out of the car.

    “Should have taken a crossbow,” Chuck whispered as he joined her. “I feel under-armed.”

    “You used to walk around with a stake and a vial,” she reminded him as they crossed the street between two stretch limousines.

    “I wasn’t hunting demons or spying back then,” he replied. “Perhaps a concealed gun wouldn’t be a bad idea. Casey keeps ribbing me about it.”

    That sounded like Casey. ‘Any man without a gun is underdressed’ or something like it. “Guns don’t work well on demons.”

    “They work well on spies. And with the right ammunition, they work on some demons,” Chuck said.

    Sarah couldn’t reply - they reached the entrance to the club, and the bouncers wouldn’t react well to overhearing such talk. Instead, she smiled and made a comment about dancing and drinking as they entered the club.

    “Should we split up?” Chuck asked.

    “No.” He wasn’t trained enough for that.

    “Never split the party, got it,” he replied.

    Close enough, and easier on him. “Use the scanner now,” she told him. They were inside and should be able to find the phones now.

    “Alright.” He pulled the scanner out and started to move it around. Sarah winced and stepped in front of him to shield him from view - at least partially.

    “This way!” he said, pointing towards a dark corner - as Sarah had expected.

    They found the two phones on the ground, under a couch there. Bane’s had a broken screen and Grimes’ a cracked case.

    “Demons,” Chuck said. “You need a lot of force to crack that case on this floor.”

    “Unless they threw it against the wall,” Sarah pointed out.

    He went to check it with the flashlight app on his phone, then shook his head. “I’m stupid! We’ll have Caridad check them.”

    Sarah nodded, though she knew she should have thought of that as well.

    They did a quick sweep through the club on the way out, including the toilets. No sign of Grimes or Bane.

    Caridad was just dismounting from her bike outside when they left the club. “What do you have?” she blurted out.

    “We found their phones,” Chuck explained, pulling them out.

    The Slayer sniffed them, then growled. “Demon!”

    “Can you track them?”

    Caridad nodded. “Let me check around the club.” She took off at a run.

    Sarah looked at Chuck. “Uh… we best wait here,” he said. “Caridad won’t take long.” She saw him bite his lower lip. “Those must have been demons who can take a human form since Morgan and Bane were taken inside the club without anyone noticing.”

    “Or they distracted the security,” Sarah retorted. “Human-looking or not, people usually notice if you drag a couple out of the club.”

    “Right.” Chuck wet his lips. “That would mean… I don’t think demons would hack the security cameras. But they could’ve bribed the security. Or impersonated them.”

    “Either would be possible.” And throw a really bad light on the club’s security. Not that the standards for bouncers were very high to begin with.

    “I found their tracks,” Caridad announced, startling Sarah - the Slayer had approached them from behind. “Track leads that way.”

    “Are you sure?” Chuck asked.

    “Yes,” Caridad spat. In a slightly softer voice, she added: “I could clearly smell Morgan’s aftershave.”

    “Ah!” Chuck suddenly smiled. “That’s why he uses that hideous concoction!”

    “No,” Caridad replied, turning away. “He thinks it smells manly.”

    “Oh.”

    But the Slayer had already taken off again, and Sarah and Chuck had to struggle to keep up as she led them down the street, then into a side alley. Sarah still managed to check with Casey and keep him updated - the NSA agent was still on the way to the area but should catch up with them soon.

    Sarah hoped it would be soon enough.

    *****​

    Chuck clenched his teeth as he ran after Caridad. Demons, in Los Globos - what were the odds? Alright, clubs did attract demons, what with the bad lighting, the opening hours being friendly to the sunlight-challenged, and the number of drunk people ready to ‘go home’ with anyone half-way attractive, but… hadn’t Caridad hunted enough demons in that particular club for the news to spread? Perhaps those demons were new arrivals? But why Morgan?

    Was this a hit on the resident Watcher-in-training? Bait for Caridad? A challenge? Or just coincidence? It wouldn’t be the first time, but… assuming so usually was a bad idea. “How… much… longer… until… we… meet… Casey?” he managed to ask while running. He really needed to step up his training.

    Before Sarah could answer, Casey’s car shot around the corner - his private car - and slid to a stop nearby, half of it on the sidewalk.

    Chuck had seen worse parking.

    The NSA agent left the car, a duffel bag in hand. Sarah pointed ahead. “This way! They changed course,” she snapped before Chuck could start to explain, and Casey fell in with them. He wasn’t wearing his “Federal Suit” or black spy getup, Chuck noticed. Private car, slacks and shirt - had he been out in town? That would explain his late arrival.

    More trouble with Caridad? Chuck forced the thought away. He had to focus on Morgan. And Bane.

    His phone vibrated. He pulled it out. Morgan! No - Chuck’s friend had lost his phone. It was Caridad.

    Construction site.

    Damn.

    Construction sites were almost as bad as sewers when it came to demons. “Uh... “ he blurted out as they turned the corner - he had fallen behind a little reading the message, “They’re… in there!”

    The construction site - half an apartment building - was looming ahead, raising three floors, the fourth still under construction, no windows set anywhere yet, just raw concrete walls and stairs. And, presumably, basements.

    He really wished he had a crossbow with him. And a flamethrower.

    Caridad hadn’t waited for them - not that Chuck had expected her to; Slayers generally didn’t do patience well even when lives weren’t on the line. Chuck looked up as they approached the building. He couldn’t see anything or anyone moving up there. Granted, it was dark, but things such as walls and stairs breaking, which was normal for Slayer fights, tended to be noticeable even at night. “Basement it is, I think,” he said.

    Casey grunted and opened his bag, pulling out a pair of crossbows as well as some blades. And an axe!

    Chuck smiled when he took the axe and smaller crossbow. “Thanks!”

    Casey grunted again and entered the building, followed by Sarah. So, Chuck would be the rear guard. Or rear bait, as Faith sometimes called it. Swell.

    Although with Caridad ahead of them, the odds of a demon laying an ambush were low. At least Chuck told himself that as the three of them sneaked down the dark, unfinished stairs.

    “Tracks on the ground,” Casey announced.

    “What kind of tracks?” Chuck asked.

    “Do I look like a cavalry scout or forensic expert?” the agent retorted.

    “No, of course not!” Chuck replied. “I was just asking… You know, to find out who and how many are waiting for us.” He heard the sound of something breaking, followed by a scream. “Or fighting,” he added.

    But Casey and Sarah were already rushing down, leaving him to run after them. Again.

    They passed the body of a dead demon - or human; there was no time to stop and check, and Chuck didn’t see any horns or fangs on the severed head - and reached the second basement. Where Caridad was fighting half a dozen snarling demons. Snarling humanoid demons with red eyes.

    And there were Morgan and Bane, stuck in a cage. A cage the demons had started to surround with wood, Chuck realised with a gasp. They were going to burn them!

    “Chuck! They’re bulletproof!” Morgan yelled. Then he screamed as one demon dropped a torch and the wood went up in flames.

    But a moment later, Caridad rammed a demon into it with a shoulder charge, scattering the burning logs. And Sarah and Casey moved in with their swords, literally crossing blades with the demons.

    Chuck, though, gritted his teeth and circled around the fighting. He Dodged the burning logs that rolled over the floor courtesy of Caridad and rushed towards the cage. He had to get them out - Morgan was coughing already, and Bane didn’t look well either. And the smoke and heat from the logs that hadn’t been scattered weren’t helping Chuck, either.

    There was a padlock on the cage door - nothing a good axe couldn’t handle. Or a bad axe. After a few blows, with hardly any missing and hitting the bars, the lock split and Chuck could open the door.

    Before he could help them get out of the cage, though, Morgan yelled: “Behind you!”

    Chuck dived to the side, but something still hit him, and he was thrown right on top of a burning log. He hit the wood with his side, pain flaring up in his ribcage. And then he was on fire. His shirt was burning. Chuck screamed and rolled off the log, then cried out some more at the pain in his side that that caused. He was on fire! Drop and roll. Drop and roll. He was already dropped, so he had to roll. Roll! Roll!

    He rolled. A sword hit the ground where he had been a moment before. Screaming even more loudly, he rolled again. And again, avoiding another blow from the sword. Then he hit the wall and couldn’t roll any further, and the demon was raising its sword with an evil, toothy smile, and now it’d cleave him apart…

    Morgan tackled the demon from behind, screaming like a banshee. Both crashed down on Chuck, knocking the breath out of him. The demon howled, lashing out, but Morgan was holding on to its sword arm, pulling it back.

    Chuck caught a painful blow to the stomach, another to the cheek, but managed to pull out his vial of holy water, and when Morgan pulled the monster off him for a moment, he splashed its contents into the demon’s face.

    The screams that produced were hideous and drowned out everything else. Fortunately, Morgan used the opportunity to grab the sword it had dropped and finished the thrashing, wailing demon from behind. Well, hacked it several times to bring it down - and shut it up - then finished it off.

    Chuck shook his head - his ears were ringing - and forced himself to get up. There were still… no demons left standing any more. He blinked.

    “Chuck!” Sarah rushed towards him. “Are you hurt?”

    “Uh…” He was hurt, wasn’t he? But he could still walk, probably run and fight. Did that count? He blinked again. Had he caught a blow to the head?

    “Chuck! Your shirt!”

    Oh… It was smouldering. Chuck wanted to make a joke about being smouldering hot, but Sarah ripped the shirt off him before he found the words. He wanted to joke about ripping his shirt off, but by the time he thought of it, they were rushing up the stairs.

    And then they were outside the building and moving towards Casey’s car. And each time he coughed from all the smoke in his lungs, Chuck’s ribs felt as if they were still on fire. Or something like it. He wasn’t the only one. Not the only one coughing. Bane was too, as was Morgan.

    “We should have quit smoking earlier,” Chuck commented.

    No one laughed even though that was quite funny.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, January 3rd, 2008

    Chuck was finally sleeping. Sarah brushed a lock of hair from his forehead and sighed. He looked quite vulnerable and hurt in the hospital bed. But he would be fine. That was the most important thing, in Sarah’s opinion. According to the doctors who had treated him, he had a minor concussion, some minor burns - the logs had been soaked in gasoline, but not much had clung to his shirt - and his bruised ribs would be hurting for some time, plus assorted other bruises, but he would be fine. He hadn’t suffered any damage to his lungs from the smoke, either. But he would have to stay at the hospital for observation for the rest of the night because of his concussion.

    Grimes and Bane were in similar shape, minus the concussion. Which meant they weren’t asleep yet.

    And could answer questions.

    She left Chuck’s room, feeling slightly guilty for doing so, and headed to Grimes’ room - after checking if there were nurses around; visiting hours were over and she wasn’t supposed to be in the hospital any more. Grimes was still awake, typing on his phone. Sending messages, probably to Bane. His smile died when he met her eyes. Good.

    “What exactly happened?” she asked.

    He talked.

    *****​

    “...and then I noticed those guys who had been eyeing us had red eyes which glowed in the dark. Reflected the light, actually, I think.”

    That explained how he had recognised them as demons. She nodded. “And then?”

    “They had us surrounded and knocked our phones out of our hands right after I texted Chuck, but Kirsten took one of them down with some martial arts move, pushed him into the others and we managed to slip away.”

    Or they had been allowed to run away because they would have been easier to catch outside, where no club security and no witnesses were present.

    “So, we ran, but they were close on our heels, and, well… We got captured.” He smiled weakly at her.

    She refrained from rolling her eyes. “And got dragged to a basement which had been prepared to burn you alive.”

    That made him grimace. “Uh, yes.”

    “Why? Did they know you’re working for the Council?” Was this an attack aimed at provoking a response? As a distraction? Or to frame someone?

    “I don’t think so. They said they were after Kirsten.”

    What? “They were after Bane?” Sarah couldn’t believe it. The spy knew about demons? Was involved enough to be hunted by demons?

    “So they said. They weren’t locals, so they didn’t recognise me. I told them I knew the Slayer, but they didn’t believe me,” Grimes replied. “But they were arguing about it, so it helped.”

    “Did they say why they were after her?”

    “Err…” Grimes bit his lower lip. “I think they were hired - one of them said they weren’t getting paid enough to tangle with a Slayer, but they were talking in a weird demon dialect, so I couldn’t understand everything.”

    “Demon mercenaries?” That sounded far-fetched.

    “Oh, yes. Many demons work as mercenaries - usually for other, more powerful or richer demons,” Grimes explained. “Buffy had to deal with a lot of such demons. Like the Order of Taraka. They’re assassins, and Spike hired them to go after her. That was before he got a soul and joined the Council, of course.”

    “Ah.” She’d heard about that particular vampire, though she had never met him - apparently, he avoided Los Angeles as long as Harmony stayed here. Sarah could understand that. “So, someone hired them. Did they mention who did it?”

    “They said ‘Mathew sends his regards’ when they were preparing to burn us.”

    And he couldn’t have said that right away? Sarah kept a leash on her anger. Grimes wasn’t a trained spy. And he was Chuck’s best friend. He still should’ve mentioned the name without having to be prompted.

    “It sounds like a vampire. No last name,” Grimes added.

    “Bane would know who this ‘Mathew’ is. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been ordered to tell her;” Sarah said.

    “Ah, yes. Of course.” Grimes frowned. “I would have never expected her to know a vampire.”

    She’d fooled him completely. As Sarah had expected. “We’ll have to ask her some questions.”

    “Err… right.”

    Bane’s room was next to Grimes, though Sarah had to let a nurse pass before she could head over. It as too easy - Chuck would need better protection. It would be best if she stayed with him.

    Bane was also still awake when they entered her room, staring at her phone. She didn’t look as attractive as usual, not without her hair and makeup done and wearing a hospital gown. “Oh.” the agent commented when she spotted Grimes behind Sarah.

    “Debriefing,” Sarah told her. “Who’s Mathew?”

    “That’s classified!” Bane snapped.

    “Mathew hired people who fall under his organisation’s purview,” Sarah retorted, nodding at Grimes. “I’m cleared for the information.”

    “It’s a classified CIA operation,” Bane insisted.

    “Which endangers our mission here.” Sarah walked up to Bane’s bed and leaned over. “They sent mercenaries to kill you - and tell you why. The mercenaries are dead, but their employer - Mathew - won’t stop. We need to know how to find him.”

    “He’s dead!” Bane replied. “I killed him myself. It has to be someone else.”

    Sarah frowned. It wasn’t implausible - if someone wanted to take revenge for Mathew, letting Bane know why she was to be killed without revealing their own identity would be smart. And yet, since demons were involved, all bets were off. “We need the information,” she said.

    “It wouldn’t be the first time a death was faked in our business,” Grimes chimed in.

    “Agent Larkin’s death was faked,” Sarah agreed. The first time only, though.

    “I shot him dead,” Bane said.

    “It could’ve been a double,” Sarah retorted. Or a demon that regenerated its wounds.

    “I can’t release this information without authorisation.” Bane shook her head.

    She was serious, Sarah realised. “Then we’ll have to ask the general. Let’s go.” This couldn’t wait.

    “Err…” Grimes looked at her, then at Bane, then back at her before he followed her out of the room.

    The hallway was clear.

    “So… back to The Castle?” Grimes asked.

    “No,” she told him. “This hospital isn’t secure enough to leave Chuck here without a guard.”

    “Ah.” Grimes nodded. “I’ll call Caridad. She can guard him. And me and Kirsten. And you can call the general.”

    That wasn’t what Sarah had had in mind. On the other hand, as much as she hated to admit it, the Slayer would be able to protect Chuck against all demonic threats. Better than Sarah could.

    She sighed. “Do it.”

    “Alright!”

    She pressed her lips together for a moment. She hated being unable to protect Chuck adequately. But if her father had taught her anything, apart from conning people, then that life wasn’t fair.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, January 3rd, 2008

    “...and that is why we need access to the files covering Agent Bane’s mission,” Sarah finished, then watched the general. Despite the lateness of the hour - it was close to midnight - Beckman was still in her office. A possible hint that she was already aware of the current incident - or involved. Or she was handling another problem somewhere; the agency was facing global threats.

    “I see.” The general looked at Bane. “Is this true, Agent Bane?”

    “Yes, ma’am.” Bane nodded. “Although I am certain that the man they mentioned is dead. I personally verified it.”

    Which Beckman would already know - Sarah had seen her skim a file on camera. The general nodded, then read the file for half a minute longer. “I’m transmitting the file to The Castle,” she announced. “Find out who is behind this attack.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Sarah replied, but the screen was already fading out.

    Perhaps the general was a little more tired than she had seemed. Or that was what she wanted them to think; Sarah didn’t know the woman as well as she had known the director.

    The computer terminal on the side beeped, announcing a file transfer. Bane, sitting at the planning table, made no move towards the computer, so Sarah walked over.

    It suddenly struck her that Orion would have been able to get them the file if she had asked. Or any electronic files they needed or wanted. She pressed her lips together - she didn’t like even considering that. To betray the agency like that… And she didn’t want to owe the man anything. Unless Chuck was in danger and they were being stonewalled by Langley, of course.

    On the other hand, if she had reason to suspect that the data she received was edited…

    She shook her head and studied the files they had received. It looked like a standard mission for Bane. Seduce a mark, get his trust and access to his files, steal the data she as after, leave. And, in this case, tie up the loose ends, apparently. “Mathew Lindor?”

    “Yes,” Bane replied.

    She read on. A former drug runner who broke off and started his own operation, in New York of all places. Apparently without running afoul of the local mob. And diversified into running stolen goods, including stolen prototypes. Which brought him to the CIA’s attention. Which in turn resulted in Bane seducing and killing the man. “If someone faked his death, they went to great lengths,” Sarah commented. There was a police report, a medical examiner’s results, a death certificate… “Buried in Haiti.”

    “His home country, as he called it,” Bane replied. “And he is dead. I shot him personally. Head and heart, just like a mob execution. And it was him - I spent enough time with him to tell. There was no double.”

    Sarah had done honeypot mission herself, but she hadn’t assassinated her mark. To sleep with someone, for weeks, and then kill him? Bane didn’t look as if she was affected by the deed. Was that a facade, or was she plotting how to kill Grimes, should she be ordered to?

    “Hello!”

    Speak of the devil… Sarah closed her eyes for a moment.

    Grimes entered the room, a bottle of Mountain Dew in hand. He caught her glance and shrugged. “I got thirsty waiting for the general to sign off. Haven’t had this flavour since high school, I think.”

    He wasn’t trying to subtly signal something with this comment, Sarah told herself.

    “So… got the file?”

    “Yes,” she replied.

    Bane didn’t say anything; she merely watched him. Trouble in paradise?

    “Cool. So, who is it?” Grimes put the bottle down on the table, fortunately not spilling any soda on the surface.

    “Was,” Bane said. “He’s dead.”

    “Probably,” Sarah corrected her. “Without an exhumation, we cannot prove that.” And they would need DNA from his relatives as well - which would mean they needed to verify those identities first.

    Grimes nodded. “Yeah, I guess so.” With a sigh, he added: “I hate digging up bodies. I hope they didn’t bury it too deep or compressed the soil too much.”

    Sarah blinked. Grimes seemed to speak from experience. Then she snorted. Of course he’d have experience - she had heard the Scoobies’ stories as well, after all.

    “So, where is the grave?”

    “In his home village in Haiti,” Bane answered.

    And Grimes winced. “Haiti? Please don’t tell me that he was a Vodouist!”

    Bane frowned. “He was, actually. Why?”

    “Err… I’ve had some bad experiences with his kind,” Grimes replied.

    Vodou. Haiti. Sarah fought the urge to groan. Were they dealing with a zombie?

    “‘His kind’? What, a Vodou cult?” Bane asked,

    “Err, yes.” Grimes nodded. “Rituals, sacrifices, the works?”

    The agent frowned, then Sarah saw her eyes widen. “Did they burn people?”

    “Ah, no, no,” Grimes replied, then glanced at her.

    So, he wanted her to take the lead? Well, she could do that. Preferred to, actually. Unlike Grimes, she wasn’t sleeping with the spy. “Did they act as if they wanted to sacrifice you in a religious ritual?”

    Grimes blinked, then shook his head. “No, they didn’t. No chanting, no candles, no runes painted on bodies or the ground.”

    “They were on drugs,” Bane told them. “So much, their eyes were bloodshot. I doubt that they could have done anything more complex than trying to burn us.” She shivered slightly, or so Sarah thought - the other agent was quite skilled at hiding her emotions.

    “They were functional enough to capture you,” she pointed out.

    “Because there were so many. Some of them weren’t as high as others and coordinated them, I assume,” Bane retorted.

    Sarah didn’t make a crack about assuming, though she imagined Chuck making one - not that he’d do it where Bane might overhear him. But she tilted her head a little in response.

    Bane pressed her lips together and glared at her. “There was a dozen of them, and we had lost communications.”

    “Did you identify the language they spoke?”

    “No. I’ve never heard that language before,” Bane replied. “But Morgan did.”

    Sarah should have expected that deflection. Bane would have noticed that Morgan could understand them.

    “Err, it was similar to an African dialect I studied. But I’m no expert. You’d need Dawn for that.”

    “Foreigners, then.” Sarah nodded. “Did you notice anything particular about them?” she asked Bane.

    “You fought them as well,” Bane shot back. “They looked and were dressed like locals.”

    “Like a local gang,” Morgan chimed in, unhelpfully.

    “Although they didn’t use guns.” Bane looked at them. “And neither did you.”

    “We assumed body armour,” Sarah replied.

    “And if they were on drugs, then bullets wouldn’t have stopped them quickly enough,” Morgan added.

    It didn’t sound very convincing. And Bane didn’t look very convinced, either. But the agent didn’t push the issue. She wouldn’t forget it, though, Sarah would bet on it.

    “So… we’re going to Haiti?” Morgan asked.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, January 4th, 2008

    “We’re going to Haiti?” Chuck blinked in surprise.

    “We need to check if Lindor rose from his grave,” Sarah, sitting on the edge of his bed, told him.

    “Right.” Chuck nodded - gingerly. Concussions were serious. Could be serious, at least.

    “And his base of operations might be there, after his organisation in New York was dismantled following his apparent death,” she went on. “If he rose, of course. This could be someone else using his name.”

    “Right.” But Chuck didn’t think so. And neither did Sarah, as far as he could tell. “Zombies.”

    “Morgan seemed to have experience with them.”

    “There was a zombie problem in Sunnydale, though that wasn’t Vodou, I think.” Chuck remembered something about a mask. “Anyway, yes, someone was making zombies a few years ago, in Los Angeles. Raised the recently dead to plunder their bank accounts.”

    She frowned. “That sounds rather… mundane.”

    Chuck slowly nodded. “Yes. It wasn’t particularly successful, either. But it was a mess.” Dead bodies appearing everywhere, the press speculating about identity theft and grave robbing - Caridad had been running herself ragged trying to find the Vodouist, and Morgan had almost ended up being arrested as a grave robber when exhuming potential victims. Speaking of… “So, what about Bane? Does she, uh, know?”

    Sarah sighed. “It doesn’t appear so. But she could be playing dumb. She explained their appearance with drugs.”

    “Ah. That happened a lot in Sunnydale. But I think there was also a spell involved, covering the town.” Which was a very creepy thought. “Anyway, is she coming with us?”

    “Leaving her would be considered too dangerous since the enemy obviously knows where to find her. And the general didn’t want to reassign her, despite her compromised cover.”

    “Ah.” Both of which Sarah would have preferred, of course.

    “Beckman probably thinks this is a good opportunity to gather information about the Council’s assets in other parts of the world,” Sarah went on.

    “Oh.” That wasn’t a good thing, was it? “It would be hard to hide the truth from her if she’s coming with us, wouldn’t it?”

    “Yes,” she agreed. “And if anything happens to her, Beckman will suspect that we did it.”

    Oh. That was even worse.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, January 4th, 2008

    “So, what’s the cover story for our trip to Haiti?” Chuck asked as he saw the maps on the planning table.

    “A vacation,” Sarah replied.

    “Oh.”

    “Did you expect something stupid like being placed in quarantine to cover up our absences?” Casey asked, baring his teeth.

    “No! Of course not!” He had, actually. Not that he would admit that. Not to Casey. And not to Sarah. Even though she smiled as if she knew already. “I’m just saying… if all of us take a vacation at the same time, it might look a little suspicious. Right?” And the Buy More would be short-staffed, though Chuck knew Casey didn’t care about that.

    “That’s actually a good point,” Sarah agreed. Casey grunted. “We can close Wienerlicious for repairs or refits. That would explain my and Bane’s absence. And if we take a vacation, it would make sense that our boyfriends take a vacation as well.”

    “That leaves Casey without a cover story,” Chuck pointed out.

    “I don’t need a cover story.”

    “But what if Big Mike won’t let you take a vacation? Perhaps you have to visit your sick mother on the other side of the country?” That would be a decent cover story, in Chuck’s opinion. Big Mike wouldn’t make a fuss about it. Well, not a big one.

    Casey grinned and racked the slide of the pistol he had just cleaned. “I’d like to see him try to stop me.”

    Chuck didn’t. He really didn’t want to see Big Mike dead. Casey might be joking, but if he wasn’t… “Uh…” Think, Chuck, think. “If Big Mike gets killed, there’ll be an investigation, and you’d be a suspect, endangering your cover.”

    “Not if it looks like an accident.”

    He had to be joking. Chuck looked at Sarah. She didn’t seem to be concerned. So, odds are, Casey wasn’t serious. Still… “I’ll file our vacations,” Chuck said. He cleared his throat. “So… has anyone been to Haiti already?”

    “No,” Sarah said.

    “I’ve been to Costa Gravas,” Casey said. “They call me ‘Angel de la Muerte’ there.”

    Chuck laughed. That had to be a joke. But no one else was laughing. He coughed. “Uh… Yes. Sorry. I thought of a joke.”

    The NSA agent glared at him but didn’t say anything.

    “So… how do we get to Haiti? Private jet? Submarine insertion?”

    “Economy class, nerd,” Casey spat. “We’re on vacation.”

    “Yes,” Bane spoke up. “Just three couples taking a vacation in Haiti.”

    “Three couples?” Casey frowned. And then frowned some more.

    “Caridad will be coming with us,” Chuck explained, flinching when the other agent growled. As if they would tackle a potential zombie plague without a Slayer.

    “Why?” Bane asked. “This doesn’t concern her, does it?”

    “Uh…” Chuck forced himself to smile. “She’s very protective of her friends.”

    Casey grunted again, then added: “We’d have to kill her to stop her.”

    Chuck, once again, hoped that the man was joking.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Oct 13, 2019
  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 18: The Vacation
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 18: The Vacation

    California, Los Angeles International Airport, January 5th, 2008

    James Bond never flew economy, Chuck was certain. And Bond wouldn’t have to stand in line at the check-in desk for the flight to Florida. Behind an overweight man noisily snacking on something with far too much garlic. “I think I know why the Scoobies use private jets,” Chuck muttered.

    “I think they’d also use a scheduled flight if they wanted to be tourists,” Sarah whispered. “Or pass as tourists.”

    He knew that. But that didn’t mean he had to like it.

    “Buffy has to fly economy or pay herself whenever it’s not an emergency,” Caridad said behind them. “Too many shopping trips to New York, or so Faith said.”

    Chuck had his doubts about the veracity of Faith’s claim. On the other hand, Buffy liked her shoe shopping.

    “It’s always nice if you can combine business and pleasure,” Bane, who had disguised herself with dyed hair, makeup and large sunglasses, said. Was she unaware of how that sounded for someone with her specialisation?

    “It won’t be much longer,” Morgan chimed in. Apparently, he hadn’t caught the implications. “Standing in line and waiting for your flight is part of the vacation experience, right? It makes you enjoy the holiday even more.”

    “Once you finally arrive,” Chuck replied. Which wasn’t assured, of course. He blinked. What if someone used the opportunity to get rid of them? Plant a bomb on the plane? Private jets of the CIA were guarded, but liners? The TSA wouldn’t be able to keep a trained spy from planting an explosive or sabotaging the plane’s electronics. Or poisoning the food onboard. Or…

    He felt Sarah’s squeeze his hand. “It’ll be fine,” Chuck.

    He blinked. Had she read his mind? Or did she think he was afraid of flying? That wouldn’t look good for his career. What kind of spy had a fear of flying? “It’s alright,” he said. “As long as our cover holds.”

    “Then better start acting more like a dumb tourist, Bartowski,” Casey butted in. “Instead of a dumb idiot.”

    “‘Idiot’ already implies being dumb,” Chuck retorted.

    “Some idiots, you have to add a qualifier,” Casey shot back.

    “Yeah, I know one,” Caridad cut in.

    Fortunately, the line moved and interrupted the argument before it could start. Chuck hoped that the two would get seats far from each other.

    He sighed and squeezed Sarah’s hand. This wasn’t exactly an auspicious start for his first mission to a foreign country.

    *****​

    Florida, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, January 5th, 2008

    Four hours layover until the flight to Port-au-Prince. Long enough to be a pain, not long enough to actually go and rent a room. Or something. Chuck leaned back on the bench and closed his eyes. It was still early in the morning in Florida, and while he had slept on the flight, he was still tired. “Vacations are overrated,” he said. At least the flight hadn’t had any trouble.

    “Technically, it’s not a vacation,” Sarah replied as she sat down next to him. “We’re going to be working.”

    “But we’re travelling as if we were normal tourists,” he said. “So, if this were a normal vacation, it would be overrated.”

    “Don’t let Big Mike hear that. He would think we were not properly grateful that he allowed us to take a vacation together,” Morgan said.

    Chuck glanced at him. His friend was rubbing his neck. “That inflatable pillow didn’t work.”

    “Oh, let me,” Bane said, standing up and walking behind him. “Yes, you’re quite tensed,” she said as she started to massage Morgan’s neck.

    “Oh… thank you!” Morgan sighed with apparent relief.

    “You can return the favour,” she told him.

    “I will!”

    If Chuck didn’t know that Bane was a trained spy specialising in seducing marks, he’d assume they were a normal couple. A normal couple in love. He pressed his lips together. It wasn’t his business. Well, technically, it was Chuck’s fault, but Morgan knew that Bane was a spy. And that she was a honeypot. He could trust his friend, couldn’t he?

    “Do you need a massage as well?” Sarah interrupted his thoughts.

    She probably was just reacting to Bane giving Morgan a massage. But Chuck did feel a little tensed. “I wouldn’t turn one down,” he said. “And I would return the favour.”

    Well, at least things were starting to look up. He suddenly laughed.

    “Chuck?”

    “Oh, nothing. I just realised how stupid it is to complain about the hardships of flying economy when we’re trying to track down and deal with a possible Vodou-cult.” And zombies. And, perhaps, more demon mercenaries. Some vacation.

    Of course, Caridad was looking forward to fighting zombies and Vodouists. Casey probably as well.

    If only they could stand each other again. Chuck wasn’t an officer, or a natural leader or whatever, but having two members out of six angry at each other wasn’t a good thing on a mission, no matter how professional they might claim to be.

    Of course, having another member of questionable loyalty with them wasn’t helping, either.

    Spy missions in foreign countries were overrated.

    *****​

    Haiti, Aéroport International Toussaint Louverture, January 5th, 2008

    Fort Lauderdale had been warm and humid, but it had nothing on Haiti. As soon as they stepped out of the airport, Chuck started to sweat. Not exactly the picture of a suave, smart spy. On the other hand, it fit his cover story. That was a small consolation, though.

    But they piled into a climatised shuttle bus soon enough, and Chuck breathed a sigh of relief. “Don’t get used to it,” Casey snarled. “The yacht won’t have air conditioning.”

    “But we’ll be out on the sea,” Sarah said. “The fresh breezes there will help.”

    Had everyone realised how uncomfortable he had been? Chuck shrugged. “I’ll be fine,” he lied.

    “A week of sailing in the Caribbean!” Morgan exclaimed. His friend was playing the tourist role very well, Chuck had to admit. If Morgan was playing a role at all - he hadn’t exactly taken many vacations, and never in the Caribbean, as far as Chuck knew. And given how he acted with Bane...

    Chuck really had to talk to Morgan about Bane’s work. Preferably before they were on the yacht and couldn’t really talk without Bane - or the others - overhearing. Not that Caridad was likely to miss it anyway - the Slayer wouldn’t leave Morgan or anyone else out of her sight, or at least her hearing range.

    Yes, he’d talk to Morgan today. Once they had settled in at the hotel. Or, perhaps, after dinner.

    He closed his eyes in frustration. He was procrastinating again.

    *****​

    Haiti, Port-au-Prince, La Villa Creole, January 5th, 2008

    For the best hotel in Port-au-Prince - at least according to a quick web search - the menu in the restaurant wasn’t very large. Of course it didn’t really matter since they were only staying one day, but still… At least the food served was good, Chuck found.

    And not too expensive, which was a boon given Caridad’s appetite - the Slayer was ravaging the buffet. If Chuck ever had to find Slayers in hiding, he’d simply open an all-you-can-eat buffet and waited. He snorted at the thought, then blinked. What if demons did exactly that and poisoned the food? Perhaps he should mention this to the Council.

    “So, what are we doing after dinner?” Morgan asked. “I heard there’s this really hopping club in the city.”

    “We should discuss our yachting trip. Routes, supplies, etc.,” Sarah replied.

    “I thought that was already… Ah, right, yes. We need to discuss that. Routes and supplies, yes,” Morgan said.

    Chuck frowned. Not at Morgan’s near-blunder. No, if they had a briefing after dinner, or a planning session, Chuck wouldn’t be able to talk to Morgan in private.

    Damn.

    At least, dessert was great. And the hotel staff hadn’t tried to throw out Caridad. Not yet, in any case - if they stayed longer, there would probably be issues with her appetite.

    *****​

    Sarah set up the laptop as soon as they were back in her and Chuck’s room. They’d need it for the briefing. They’d had one in The Castle, but there was always something that came up afterwards. Sometimes something essential.

    And when it concerned demons, Sarah wasn’t about to take any risk that could be avoided. She was confident in her ability to adapt and overcome, to quote Casey, if a mission went pear-shaped, but zombies? Vodouists?

    If only they could talk freely. But that was all Bane’s fault. Chuck was nervous as well, more nervous than Sarah had expected. This might be his first mission in a foreign country, but he had been on dangerous missions before. She checked the clock on the laptop. Casey and the others wouldn’t arrive for some time. Bane might even have a quickie with Grimes. Sarah shook her head as she turned to Chuck. “It’ll be alright,” she said.

    “What?” He blinked. “Uh, sorry, I was lost in thoughts.”

    “I noticed,” she said with a smile.

    It didn’t help to calm him down, though. “Uh, yeah, of course you noticed. Because you’ve been trained to notice, I mean…” he babbled.

    “Chuck.”

    “Yes?”

    “What’s wrong?”

    “Nothing?”

    She frowned at that. He should know better than to try to lie to her like that. And he should be a little better at lying, anyway.

    He caved. “Sorry… I wanted to talk to Morgan. About Bane, you know?”

    She didn’t. “About Bane?” she prompted him, turning her seat to face him and crossing her legs. Which drew his attention - her skirt was shorter than her uniform in Wienerlicious.

    “Uh… yes. I mean… I think he’s a little too close to her, you know?”

    That she knew, indeed. She nodded. “Yes.”

    “So, I wondered if, well, I could talk to him and remind him that she’s a spy who’s supposed to be spying on us, not like you and Casey,” Chuck went on, gesturing with his hands.

    “Technically, we’re supposed to spy on you as well,” she reminded him.

    “Yes, but you and Casey don’t, do you?” Chuck asked. Rhetorically. “But Bane…” He winced. “I don’t want her to break Morgan’s heart.”

    Sarah was more concerned with Bane turning Grimes. Or using him as a source of information. Men did stupid things when they were in love, and Grimes looked like he was falling in love. But Chuck’s intervention would help with that, too. So she nodded. “Yes. And you want to talk to him in private.”

    “Yes. And I don’t think we’ll have a lot of privacy on the yacht. I mean, there are separate cabins, but…”

    They weren’t exactly sound-proof. “Yes. I’ll see what I can arrange after the briefing.”

    “Thank you.” His relieved smile made her feel both warm and slightly guilty.

    *****​

    “...and so we will sail to Petit-Troup-de-Nippes. Lindor’s home village, a fishing village, is to the west of it, but approaching it from the sea would run the risk of being noticed if there are people who were involved in the attack on Agent Bane,” Sarah said.

    “They will pay attention to Americans on a yacht either way,” Casey added, “and we won’t be able to move around the village unobserved.”

    “We could stage a distraction,” Bane said. “Draw the attention of any observer.”

    Of course Bane would think of that. It was a decent plan despite the source - Sarah had played a distraction herself - but the real reason they wanted to approach the village overland was so they could send in Caridad as a scout ahead of them, without giving the game away to Bane or the opposition. So Sarah replied: “The risk of being discovered is too great. We would need to sneak off the yacht at night for the exhumation, and afterwards, depending on the results, we might need to stay longer, which would require a good excuse.”

    “Something on the yacht could break,” Bane proposed.

    “That would result in a replacement yacht being sent, and probably more attention,” Sarah retorted.

    “And our budget won’t thank us for it,” Chuck added. “I think.”

    Sarah smiled at the joke. “Our best bet is to make a day trip in Petit-Troup-de-Nippes. We can spend a day at sea to analyse the results, then make landfall near the target village later, in case further operations are needed.” Meaning, if they had to kill a few people. Or demons.

    Caridad snorted. The Slayer wasn’t planning on leaving any demons she encountered alive, Sarah knew. Or whole, in the case of zombies which couldn’t be called alive, as far as Sarah knew.

    “Do you disagree?” Bane asked.

    “No.” Caridad’s own smile was toothy and about as honest as Bane’s, in Sarah’s opinion.

    “Well, I think it’s a good plan,” Grimes said. “In and out, without anyone the wiser, right?” His smile faltered a little when the Slayer and the agent kept staring at each other. Well, he was sleeping with Bane, so he had brought that down upon himself, as far as Sarah was concerned.

    *****​

    “...and we will board the yacht tomorrow at eight.”

    A normal yacht, not one that was sporting nifty spy equipment, Chuck knew. Still, they would have scuba gear, harpoons, and sophisticated cameras. And Chuck’s - limited, but recent . sailing experience would come in handy; neither Morgan and Caridad nor Bane had any sailing experience, and Casey’s was probably limited to charging a beach.

    It felt good to contribute without relying on the Intersect.

    “Any questions? No? Good. This briefing’s over, then. Agent Bane, a word.”

    And there vanished Chuck’s good mood. Sarah was holding back Bane, so it was now or never. “Uh, I’ll go and check if the shop has a computer magazine,” he said, looking at Morgan and all but wiggling his eyebrows.

    His friend didn’t pick up his intentions, though. “Good idea! Can you get me the latest issue as well? Ow!”

    “Sorry,” Caridad said while Morgan rubbed his foot. “Didn’t see you here.”

    “Really? Err…” Ah, the coin had just dropped. “Perhaps I’ll check myself. A few newspapers would help our cover, right?”

    Sometimes, having a Slayer eavesdrop on you was convenient.

    “So, what was so important that you had Caridad crush my foot?” Morgan asked as soon as they were in the hallway.

    “She didn’t,” Chuck replied. “Anyway, I wanted to talk to you. In private.”

    “And you asked Caridad for help? Isn’t that kind of...” Morgan shrugged, probably remembering that they were still within the range of the Slayer’s hearing.

    “I wanted to talk to you about Bane,” Chuck said as they descended the stairs.

    “Kirsten? I told you, I have it under control,” Morgan said. Chuck was reminded of a smoker claiming that they could quit anytime they wanted.

    “It’s not that,” he lied. “Do you know about the last spy mission we did? When Caridad checked the hotel beforehand?”

    “Err… shouldn’t I?”

    So he did, and Chuck wouldn’t be revealing classified information. Good. “It was a sting. We set up a conman with a computer virus,” he told Morgan. “Bane played my personal assistant. Who let the conman seduce her so he wouldn’t get suspicious.” There. He had said it.

    “Ah, right.”

    That was a rather underwhelming reaction. Chuck had expected something more. He glanced at his friend as they entered the lobby. Morgan was looking straight ahead. “So, uh, I just wanted to let you know.”

    “I know she’s a spy, Chuck. That’s what spies do. James Bond does it all the time.”

    James Bond was a fictional spy. And didn’t have a steady relationship. Not counting the Lazenby movie. But Morgan didn’t want to talk about it, Chuck knew the signs. Like in fifth grade. He sighed. “So… if you want to talk about it… well, we won’t be able to, on the yacht. But afterwards. I’ll be here.”

    “It’s fine, Chuck, really.” Morgan pointed ahead and said, a little too loudly: “Look, there are the newspapers!”

    That could’ve gone better.

    *****​

    Haiti, Port-au-Prince, Harbour, January 6th, 2008

    Sarah could tell him how it wasn’t much of an expense compared to other missions all she wanted, Chuck still was impressed by the yacht the CIA had rented for the group. Sleek, large enough to fit three couples comfortably and still easy to handle for a beginning sailor such as himself.

    Of course, a yacht fit for three couples wasn’t exactly ideal for two couples and a definitely-not-couple.

    “I’ll sleep on the deck. Someone has to stand watch anyway.” Casey said after a look belowdecks.

    “This isn’t a Navy ship, Mr Marine.” Caridad snorted. “I’ll stand watch. You can sleep safe and sound in your bunk there. I’m the better guard anyway.”

    Chuck rolled his eyes. It was true - Slayer senses were far beyond a normal human - but to Bane, it had to sound like bragging. Or, worse, valuable intel.

    “Everyone needs to sleep,” Morgan cut in. “So how about a rotation?”

    “We do need a watch on deck if we’re sailing,” Chuck pointed out. Which was why most such trips saw the yacht at anchor overnight in a bay or port - few tourists wanted to stand watch at night.

    “We won’t be sailing at night,” Sarah said. “That would be too conspicuous.”

    Right. Chuck should have considered that. An experienced spy would have. He cleared his throat. “In any case, a watch is still a good idea.”

    “Yes,” Morgan agreed. “There could be pirates!”

    “Pirates?” Caridad blinked.

    “More like robbers going after rich tourists who just happen to be on a boat instead of in a car, but technically, that makes them pirates,” Chuck explained.

    “Err, yes.” Morgan nodded. Chuck saw him mouth something towards Caridad. Probably ‘zombie pirates’ or ‘pirate ghosts’. There hadn’t been any reports about ghost ships in the area according to Phil, but that didn’t rule them out. And where there were zombies, zombie pirates were a distinct possibility.

    “Let them come!” Caridad announced, smacking the palm of her left hand with her fist.

    Casey scoffed, which triggered another exchange of glares.

    They were off to a good start, indeed.

    *****​

    Caribbean Sea, West of Port-au-Prince, January 6th, 2008

    An hour after leaving port, Chuck was in a better mood. The weather was perfect - sunny with a light breeze just strong enough to let them sail at a nice pace and turn what might have been a humid heat into comfortable weather. And everyone was maintaining their cover. Which meant they were doing what tourists did - relaxing. Or sunning themselves in bikinis on the foredeck, in the case of the women on board. Which wasn’t as great as it appeared at first sight.

    He sighed as he adjusted the course of the yacht a little to compensate for the wind’s drift. He didn’t mind the view, so to speak, but he couldn’t help feeling as if he were watching a competition or pageant, not three girls enjoying a vacation.

    “It’s a great day, isn’t it? Here, have a drink!” Morgan had returned from belowdecks and handed him a coke.

    “Thank you.”

    “This is great,” Chuck’s friend went on. “Like a dream vacation.”

    Chuck knew what kind of dream Morgan meant - his friend was staring at Bane. Who looked more like a pinup girl or Playboy model posing for a shoot than a tourist on vacation. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” he replied. “We’ll arrive at Petit-Troup-de-Nippes in the afternoon.” At which point the mission would start for real.

    “Don’t get distracted,” Casey growled from their left. Port, Chuck reminded himself. The agent was fishing but hadn’t caught any fish yet. “We’re on a mission, not on a pleasure cruise.”

    “Kirsten would say it can be both,” Morgan replied.

    Casey scoffed at that. As did Caridad, Chuck noticed - another reminder of how awkward Slayer hearing could be.

    *****​

    Haiti, Petit-Troup-de-Nippes, January 6th, 2008

    “Let’s check the market!” Sarah said - a little too loudly - as she grabbed Chuck’s arm. They were tourists, after all. Harmless tourists, not trained spies on a mission.

    “Yes!” Bane agreed. “And let’s find a nice restaurant for dinner.”

    Sarah’s smile slipped a little. If not for the spy, this could feel like a real vacation. Chuck and her, exploring the town. Granted, she was wearing a few throwing spikes in a thigh holster under her short summer dress, and she carried a gun in her purse, but she’d do that on a vacation as well - tourists were targets for criminals, after all.

    But they were on a mission, which meant they had to stick together. Well, with the exception of Casey, who had stayed on the yacht, and Caridad, who was ‘roaming’, as the Slayer had told them. Probably trying to sniff out demons - literally, in this case.

    Sarah chuckled at the thought.

    “Hm?” Chuck was looking at her.

    “Just a funny thought I had,” she told him. “Let’s enjoy the evening.” And, at least she hoped so, the night before Caridad returned to the yacht.

    “Alright,” he said, smiling at her. “Window shopping, then?”

    “Yes.” Just like a couple on vacation. Or on their honeymoon. She grabbed his arm, and they strolled down the road.

    It was a beautiful day. Just enough of a breeze to keep the temperature from being too hot, but no clouds, not even a hint of rain. And while there were a lot of souvenir shops, there were also enough shops that looked genuine to make window shopping enjoyable instead of an exercise in maintaining cover.

    “Oh, look, a stuffed shark! Wouldn’t that be a nice gift for Big Mike? A counterpart to his Marlin!”

    If only Grimes would stop falling for every tourist trap in the town! Couldn’t Bane monopolise his attention?

    “I don’t know, Morgan. Doesn’t he usually prefer trophies he caught himself?”

    “That’s what he claims.”

    “That still means he won’t like a shark that everyone will know he didn’t catch,” Chuck pointed out. “And I don’t think it’ll fit into our luggage.”

    “We can have it shipped home, though,” Bane said.

    “Right!” Grimes perked up. “So… how much is it?”

    A glance at the vendor’s grin told Sarah that Grimes would pay far too much for the fish. Well, he had brought it upon himself.

    And, she discovered soon afterwards, having to drag a shark around that was almost his own size certainly made it harder for Grimes to engage Chuck in conversation.

    She used the opportunity. “So, Chuck, what kind of dinner do you fancy?”

    But Chuck was blinking at a stand with several carved figurines.

    *****​

    Chuck drew a deep breath when his vision returned to normal. This was bad. Really bad. “Guys, I flashed,” he whispered, glancing around. There were too many people nearby to talk about this.

    Sarah took charge. “Let’s go find a place to eat,” she said. “Sailing all day is hungry work.”

    “Chuck and I did most of the sailing,” Morgan cut in. “Didn’t you mostly sunbathe?” Sarah shot Chuck’s friend a glare that had him wince even as Bane chuckled. “Dinner it is!” Morgan added hastily.

    They found a nice little restaurant in a side alley. Far enough from the most obvious tourist traps so they wouldn’t be serving tourist food, but not so far that the group would stick out too much. And it had authentic Haitian cuisine, as far as Chuck could tell. Unless that was ‘authentic Haitian cuisine for tourists’.

    But he had intel to share. “Guys,” he whispered, leaning forward as soon as the waitress had left to fetch their drinks, “the carved figurines? Used by a syndicate to smuggle drugs to New York.”

    “A syndicate?” Morgan asked. “Like a cartel?”

    “Locals, I think,” Bane said. “Probably Mathew’s old gang. I don’t think foreigners would get away with moving drugs on someone else’s turf.”

    Sarah nodded. “We’ll have to assume that they’ll have a significant presence in the town. Including contacts among the local police and authorities.”

    That sounded bad. Even worse than Chuck had thought.

    “And some loyal followers in the Vodou cult,” Morgan added.

    Could things go even worse? Chuck winced at his own thought. Tempting Murphy was a really bad idea. “We need to inform Caridad,” he said. “She isn’t aware of this. Casey as well.”

    “I’ll inform her,” Morgan said, pulling out his phone and starting to text. Sarah merely nodded and did likewise.

    “The drug smugglers might have made a deal to avenge Mathew’s death to get cooperation and support from his family,” Bane said. “Wouldn’t be the first time people did such a thing.”

    Chuck nodded, even though he suspected there was more to this. “We still need to check the grave,” he said. “And Caridad might find out more intel.”

    “She’s still roaming,” Morgan reported. “She hasn’t encountered any trouble so far.”

    That meant no zombies or demons. No drug smugglers, either. Probably - Caridad’s definition of ‘no trouble’ was, sometimes at least, a little generous. At least in Chuck’s experience. But as long as Morgan didn’t seem to be concerned…

    The waitress returned with their drinks, and everyone played tourist again. That was the safest course of action until they knew more about the enemy.

    But the Haitian food, genuine or not, was excellent.

    *****​

    They returned to the yacht after dinner. Perhaps a little early for tourists, but they had the excuse of being tired. Morgan certainly was tired from lugging around a stuffed shark. Chuck could only imagine Big Mike’s reaction.

    Casey had cooked the single fish he had caught, not that it had improved his disposition, at least in Chuck’s opinion. “So, things just got a little more interesting,” the agent said in lieu of a greeting.

    “Yes,” Sarah replied. “Though we suspected such a setup,” she added, with a glance at Bane. “We don’t know yet where the organisation is based; here or in Lindor’s home village.”

    And whether or not zombies - and Vodouists - were involved, Chuck thought.

    “Well, we’ve got a long day ahead of us,” Sarah said. “We best get some rest now.”

    She meant before Caridad returned, Chuck knew.

    “Good idea,” Bane agreed.

    For a moment, the two spies glanced at each other, then Sarah headed belowdecks. “Coming, Chuck?”

    He did, of course.

    *****​

    “...so, I didn’t find anything unusual or interesting,” Caridad said between eating a sandwich large enough to feed Big Mike for a day. “Town looks clean. Suspiciously clean, even.”

    No supernatural threats, then. Which was, by itself, a little suspicious. Or more than a little. The Vodouists might be keeping a tighter lid on their area than expected. Although if they controlled the town as well, then Caridad should have discovered signs of that. Magic, especially warding magic, usually used some visible signs. Symbols, talismans, runes.

    “No sign of any criminal activities?” Bane asked.

    “None related to drug smuggling,” Caridad replied. “I didn’t bother with thieves and the like.” She took a bottle of soda and drank half of it in a few swallows, then burped loudly. Phil would have been appalled at the sight, Chuck thought, slightly amused.

    “Do we stick with the plan, then?” Morgan asked. “Day trip tomorrow, Caridad goes ahead scouting the village while we play tourists?”

    “Yes,” the Slayer said at once.

    “I’ll provide backup,” Casey said. “I’ve dealt with cartels before.”

    “I can handle it,” Caridad retorted at once. “You’d slow me down.”

    “Rushing in will endanger the mission,” the agent growled.

    “It’s just a scouting mission; I could do it in my sleep.”

    “After the attack in Los Angeles was foiled, they might expect such an intrusion and could be prepared,” Casey pointed out.

    Caridad scoffed. “They’re not prepared for me, or they would have hired more people!”

    “Overconfidence is a fatal weakness,” Casey countered.

    “Yes.” Caridad bared her teeth.

    “Hey, hey, hey!” Chuck raised his hands. “Time-out. We’re a team, aren’t we? So, we should be working together.” Caridad glared at him, but he managed not to flinch. “Uh… and you two are our best scouts for this. So…” The glare intensified, and he trailed off. They knew what he wanted, anyway.

    “Yes,” Morgan said, nodding. “I can’t provide much backup here, so Casey would be the better choice. Seeing as he’s done this before. With drug smugglers, I mean.”

    “We’re on a mission,” Sarah added. Bane nodded as well.

    Caridad looked from one to the other, then stuffed the rest of the sandwich into her mouth, glaring at the wall.

    Chuck took that as agreement. A very grudging agreement, but agreement nonetheless. With Slayers, you had to take what you could get.

    *****​

    Haiti, West of Petit-Troup-de-Nippes, January 6th, 2008

    “I feel a little guilty,” Chuck said as they stopped their rental car at a nice spot on the coast; a bluff above a cosy-looking small cove that would be ideal for swimming - or to anchor a yacht.

    “Hm?” Sarah turned her head to look at him, lowering her binoculars.

    “Caridad and Casey are scouting, and we’re playing tourists,” he explained.

    “We’re doing our part,” she replied. “And we’re doing reconnaissance,” she added, “in case we need to sail here. Which is likely since I doubt Caridad can exhume Lindor’s body by herself.”

    “Good point,” Chuck admitted. “Certainly not in the middle of the day - but don’t tell her that or she might try it.”

    That made her laugh. “She would, wouldn’t she?”

    “Unless she thought it was a trick to make her do all the work.”

    “Did you do that before?” She raised her eyebrows.

    “Well… Morgan did,” he admitted. “But I helped. A little.”

    “Ah.” She laughed again. “You’ll have to tell me the whole story, once we’re done here.”

    She probably meant the entire mission. Chuck hoped so, at least - there was no way he’d tell that story where Caridad might overhear him. He changed the subject. “I hope no one will break into the yacht.”

    “We took all our spy gear with us,” Sarah replied. “They won’t find anything.”

    He knew that. “But we would have to react like typical tourists, wouldn’t we?”

    “Yes. Complain to the police, and go on. We won’t actually have to deal with the paperwork with the rental agency, though. It’s just an act, after all.”

    “Ah.” ‘Just an act’. He knew the feeling. Sometimes he felt as if his whole work as an intelligence asset was just an act. He wasn’t a trained spy; he was just a walking Intersect interface. With an expiration date on his usefulness - although Dad could probably change that. If they pulled off their deception. But the CIA would notice, wouldn’t they? On the other hand, by that time, they’d be working for the Council. If everything went according to plan. Which would…

    Sarah’s sudden curse interrupted his thoughts. “Casey sent a message. There’s trouble.”

    “What happened?” Chuck asked.

    But Sarah was already pulling out the radios. Of course - text communication wouldn’t work well in a battle; Call of Duty had proved that already.

    As Sarah as setting up the radio, Bane was grabbing weapons from the hollow bottom of the suitcase in the car and assembling them. And Morgan did the same with the Watcher gear, if not as smoothly.

    What could Chuck do if there wasn’t anything to flash on? He clenched his teeth and went to help Morgan with the crossbows. They were modern ones, far easier to disassemble and hide in luggage than the classics Giles and others preferred.

    “Someone spotted Caridad, Casey said. It seems that the entire village is chasing her,” Sarah informed them.

    “The entire village?” Chuck blinked. And why hadn’t she torn through them already? “Oh no!”

    “These Vodouists use living zombies,” Morgan said, echoing Chuck’s thoughts. “Mind-controlled minions.”

    “What?” Bane stared at them, holding a carbine in her hands. M4, Chuck noted.

    “They are controlled through a combination of substances and conditioning,” he explained, “and triggered by orders. Like a village of sleeper agents.”

    That she understood - he saw her frown. “They won’t be trained combatants, though. It shouldn’t be too hard to deal with them.”

    But apparently, she didn’t understand that you couldn’t just kill mind-controlled minions. Well, you could, but it was wrong. Very wrong - Chuck didn’t really remember the bezoar incident, but he had been told about it. If Buffy had shown less restraint… “We can’t kill them,” he said, staring at Bane. “We need to take out the Vodouist controlling them. And his men.”

    “We’re here to find out who’s behind the attack in Lindor’s name,” Bane replied.

    “Which this situation is part of,” Chuck told her, climbing into the car. “Now let’s go.”

    “Yes,” Morgan agreed - if a little belatedly - as he joined them.

    Sarah smiled at Chuck before she gunned the engine and started racing towards the village as if this were Paris-Dakar.

    *****​

    So much for Bane’s morals, Sarah thought as she drove down the unpaved road - more like a dirt track, really. You didn’t propose to kill mind-controlled civilians; not to Chuck and Grimes, at least.

    Even though they might have to, at one point, she added as she gritted her teeth. Some of the villagers might have weapons and knew how to use them. And some might be mind-controlled drug smugglers or mercenaries. Why pay your hired help if you could simply turn them into zombies? She shuddered at the thought.

    Though the thought that some people in the agency would want to use the same method to create sleeper agents of their own was even more chilling. If the CIA started dabbling in magic… Perhaps they would have to join the Council before officially quitting the agency.

    But this wasn’t the time to dwell on such thoughts. They had a Slayer and an NSA agent to rescue. She accelerated some more and slid around the next turn. At her current speed, it was about ten minutes to the village.

    “They’re using villagers to herd her while setting up snipers; engaged and neutralised two so far,” Casey reported over the radio. “But they’ve made my position.”

    “Why doesn’t she just rush out of the village?” Chuck asked. “She could easily go through a dozen fishers.”

    “She’s probably trying to get to the Vodouist,” Grimes replied.

    That would fit the Slayer, in Sarah’s mentality. Too stubborn and focused on her target for her own good.

    “Caridad?” Chuck tried to raise her.

    “Busy!” they heard the Slayer’s reply. “They have more of those mercenaries here!”

    Demons, then. Of course.

    “They’ve covered the escape routes,” Casey said. They could hear automatic fire over the radio. “There are far too many for mere guards. This is an ambush. A trap.” A curse followed, then more shots. “I’m going to…”

    The transmission broke off.

    “Casey? Casey?” Chuck asked, almost yelling at the radio. “Casey?”

    “Casey?” That was Caridad on the radio.

    Sarah pressed her lips together. His radio could have been hit. Or lost. That the transmission had been cut off even pointed towards that.

    But any hit that could take out a radio could take out a man as well.

    “I’m going after him!” Caridad announced. Then she cursed in Spanish. “They have him!”

    “We’re coming,” Chuck told her. “We’re almost there.”

    “Don’t do anything rash,” Grimes added.

    Sarah hoped that the Slayer would listen. But she feared the girl wouldn’t.

    *****​

    This was bad. Very, very bad. Casey captured. Caridad about to go ballistic. And they were still a few minutes out. Chuck shook his head. His friends were in mortal danger, and he couldn’t do anything to help them. He hadn’t flashed on anything. Couldn’t provide any information. And he wasn’t even as good a shot with a crossbow as Morgan was.

    He was the weakest link. And he loathed it.

    “We’re almost there,” Sarah said.

    “We’re almost there,” Chuck told Caridad. At least he could use the radio, freeing the others for more important tasks.

    “They dragged him to the centre of the village,” she replied.

    Damn. “We’re almost there,” he repeated himself. “Hold out.”

    “I’m not the one in trouble,” she retorted.

    But she would jump headfirst into trouble for her friends, Chuck knew. And Casey, for all her issues with him, was her friend. Their friend. He cleared his throat. “Uh…”

    Bane’s scream interrupted him. “Ambush!”

    A moment later, there was an explosion, and the car flipped.

    And everything went black.

    *****​

    Chuck blinked, shaking his head, as he woke up. The first thing he saw was a man in a white suit. He flashed. Paul Obas. Drug Runner turned gang leader. Working with the cartels to supply New York. Suspected of multiple murders. Brutal murders.

    Obas yelled: “We have your allies! If you want to save them, surrender, Slayer!”

    What? Chuck tried to move and realised that someone was holding his arms. Two someones. Big, burly men. Or demons - his arms felt as if they were locked in vices. And there was Casey, on the ground, at the man’s feet. He looked much worse than Chuck felt. Someone had roughed the agent up.

    “Did you hear me, Slayer? Surrender, or we’ll kill your friends - slowly!” Obas grinned, showing gold-plated teeth.

    Ah. Chuck blinked again. No! He turned his head. Morgan and Bane were held by thugs as well. At least Bane’s disguise seemed to have fooled the thugs. For now. And Sarah… No!

    Sarah was getting dragged towards Obas.

    “Perhaps the woman can serve to show the Slayer that we’re serious.”

    No! No! They were going to torture Sarah to get Caridad. In front of Chuck. No! He struggled, but to no avail - the men holding him laughed. He kicked out, but didn’t have the right leverage, and only caused more laughter. “Sarah! Let her go!” he yelled.

    “Did you hear him, Slayer? Last chance!”

    No! No! Chuck started to pant when he realised that he would have to watch her getting tortured. Helpless. Useless. Useless. He shook his head, tears gathering in his eyes. “Let her go!”

    More laughter.

    Sarah was forced on her knees and Obas crouched in front of her, flashing a stiletto.

    And, suddenly, Chuck knew Kung Fu. And Muay Thai. And how to escape. And...

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Oct 6, 2019
  24. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    If it's January, shouldn't it be 2008?
     
  25. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Oops. Good Catch. Fixing.
     
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  26. Threadmarks: Chapter 19: The Break-Through
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 19: The Break-Through

    Haiti, West of Petit-Troup-de-Nippes, January 6th, 2008

    Everything was suddenly so obvious. He was being held by two people. They were gripping his arms, but his legs were free. He knew their height - knew where their heads were. Knew how to move.

    Chuck whipped his legs up, jackknifing while being held upright. His feet hit their faces, teeth shattering on the steel-capped boots he wore. He reversed direction, pushing off and flipping, landing on his feet as they released his arms in their shock. He dropped low and swept both of them off their feet with his leg.

    He kept turning, rising into a roundhouse kick to the face of one of the men holding Morgan, then slipped behind the reeling brute, drawing the pistol stuck in their waistband at the same time.

    One of the guards with rifles was taking aim at Chuck but hesitated due to the human shield he had. Chuck shot him in the head, then shot his human shield, who was still standing despite the kick, then shot the other man who had just released Morgan.

    Double-tap to the head. Down. Morgan dived to the ground, scrambling for the rifle the guard had dropped. Chuck crouched as well and shot at Obas, putting three rounds into the man’s chest. Down.

    Or not. Obas reeled but kept standing. He wasn’t wearing a vest, though. Chuck quickly checked his gun - a .45 - then fired again. Obas refused to go down. And one of the men Chuck had shot was getting up.

    But Sarah had used the distraction and gotten away from her own captors. As Chuck jumped behind a pillar nearby, he saw her slit the throat of one of the guards, then crush the throat of the other.

    Obas turned to face her, though. And Chuck had only two rounds left in his pistol.

    Before he could plot the best course of action to get another weapon, the sewer lid in the centre of the square shot in the air, followed by a screaming figure - Caridad!

    The Slayer flipped in the air, then landed in a crouch, beheading a guard on the way with her kukri. The dead man was still in the process of dropping to the ground while she shot off like a rocket towards Obas. The man whirled, brandishing his knife at the Slayer, which got him stabbed in the back by Sarah, right before Caridad cut his head off.

    There was less blood than expected, Chuck noted before he dashed forward, dived into a roll and came up holding a discarded submachine gun. Two bursts later, Casey was free. This gun was working properly, at least.

    Sarah was running towards him. Good. Joining forces would be more effective. And Morgan had managed to free Bane while Casey had recovered a rifle despite his injuries. Chuck put a few more rounds into a staggering guard before Caridad beheaded them, then looked for more threats. There weren’t any - Bane had just dispatched the last of the men on her side, assisted by Morgan. And Casey had shot a man on a motorbike trying to drive away. But… there! More people moving towards them, in a ragged line, even.

    Easy targets.

    “Chuck! No!” Sarah screamed.

    He blinked. “What?”

    “They’re mind-controlled!”

    Oh. OH! He gasped. He had almost gunned down the zombies the villagers had been turned into. The living zombies. “Oh my gosh!” He shook his head. “I…”

    Sarah pulled him into cover behind a pickup in the corner. “What happened, Chuck? Did the Intersect activate?”

    The Intersect. Yes. “It must have…” He shook his head again, staring at the gun in his hand. How had he… “It’s gone again.” The tougher guards must have been demons, he realised.

    “They’ll keep obeying the last order!” Caridad yelled. “They won’t stop until we’re gone.”

    “How does he control them?” Bane yelled.

    Chuck almost replied with ‘Magic!’. “Then we need to leave!” he yelled, instead.

    “There are still guards outside the village,” Casey interjected.

    “We can shoot them on the way out!” Caridad replied. “We can’t shoot the villagers!”

    “Let’s take the car,” Sarah yelled, climbing onto the driver’s seat.

    Chuck hurriedly followed her, still grasping the submachine gun. Bane and Morgan climbed onto the back with Casey.

    “Caridad!” Sarah yelled, starting the engine.

    The Slayer was knocking down zombies. She was almost surrounded.

    “Caridad!” Morgan screamed. There were more zombies coming - they were converging on the square from all sides.

    She pushed a tall man back with a kick to the chest, then whirled, jumped over two grasping zombies and sprinted towards them, going full-tilt.

    Sarah was already accelerating, but the Slayer caught up, grabbed the fender with one hand and pulled herself up and onto the truck bed in one smooth motion.

    “Hit it!”

    Sarah accelerated, drifting around the next corner, barely missing a family of zombies trying to bar the way, and kept going towards the edge of the village.

    *****​

    Sarah hissed through her teeth when she almost ran over a few civilians - including children - when she took that corner. To mind-control people and use them as cannon fodder like that…

    “Was Obas the man controlling them?” Chuck yelled to the truck bed. He had acted weird as well - the Intersect, no doubt. But she couldn’t wonder about that. Not now.

    “I don’t know,” Caridad yelled back. “Don’t think so, though. He didn’t feel like the big bad.”

    Damn. That meant there was still a Vodouist controlling the villagers. And the armed guards or drug runners.

    “‘Feel like the big bad’?” Bane asked.

    Sarah tuned Grimes’ explanations - or attempts to cover up Caridad’s slip - out and focused on the road. More villagers blocking the way. They were spread out in the street and on the sidewalk. But... There!

    “Hold on and take cover!” she yelled, then pulled the steering wheel to the right, crashing into and through a wooden gate. In the yard behind it, the pickup scattered a flock of chickens and rammed a manure heap, spreading chicken shit all over the area.

    “Whoa!”

    “What are you doing?”

    “No!”

    Sarah ignored the complaints, drove over the heap and kept accelerating. She needed enough speed to break through the gate on the other side of the yard, or the zombies would corner them in the yard. And that wouldn’t end well for anyone.

    “Hold on!” she yelled again, then ducked - this gate was lower, and the stone arch tore off the pickup’s roof as the wooden gate splintered and gave way.

    But they were on the road again, and almost out of the village.

    “Everyone OK?” Chuck yelled.

    “Are you trying to kill us?” Bane yelled back.

    “They’re OK,” Chuck reported.

    Another corner, but no zombies. And the road out of the village was free.

    “Sniper!” she heard Casey yell.

    She reflexively made the truck swerve moments before a shot hit the windshield, turning half of it into a spiderweb of cracks. And Chuck screamed.

    “Chuck!” She kept weaving and risked a glance at him.

    “I’m OK. Just…”

    He was OK. She pressed down on the accelerator. The wide-open road wasn’t ideal, but going off-road would be worse, and taking cover behind a building would see them overrun with zombies in short order.

    Someone - Casey - was shooting back from the truck bed. Another one joined, probably Bane. But another shot hit the hood, so the sniper was still active. She ducked again and told Chuck to take cover. He couldn’t do anything right now.

    She weaved the truck back and forth over all over the road - but it was a narrow road, and the more she swerved, the slower she drove, which made her an easier target. And made it harder for Casey and Bane to shoot back.

    Another shot hit the hood, and the engine’s noise changed.

    “Uh, oh,” Chuck commented.

    “It’s still running,” she said.

    “We’re leaking oil!” Caridad yelled from the back.

    Another shot hit the side window right behind her, showering her with fragments. The sniper was behind them, now. And there was a patch of forest coming up ahead.

    “Rocket!”

    Sarah drove the truck into the ditch, narrowly avoiding the explosion that tore up the road. She also managed to keep the pickup from rolling over, but she didn’t manage to avoid the large rock in the way.

    Fortunately, they’d lost enough speed, so the impact didn’t throw her through the remains of the windshield, but she was still stunned for a moment from hitting the steering wheel.

    “Everyone OK?” Chuck yelled again.

    “Hurt my ankle!” Grimes yelled back.

    “No worse than before,” Casey reported.

    “Yes.” Bane must have jumped off before the impact - she was already in the ditch and firing.

    And Caridad… Sarah slid out of the car and saw the Slayer was trying to pull the pickup off the rock. “It’s done for,” she snapped at the woman. “We need to take cover - the truck will draw more rockets.”

    She crouched down in the ditch and took stock of the situation. They were about two hundred yards from the edge of the forest. The sniper was still firing, but they could use the ditch as cover.

    “Got the sniper!” Casey announced.

    “Let’s move into the forest, then. Before they move up the RPG,” Sarah replied.

    “I can take them out as well,” the agent insisted.

    “The zombies are coming, too!” Caridad said, pointing back at the village.

    Indeed, a veritable mob was forming there, covering the road as they advanced.

    Casey cursed but slid down into the ditch. “Let’s book it, then.”

    “Ah…” Grimes said. “I can’t exactly run.”

    “I’ll carry you.” Caridad didn’t wait for an answer but grabbed Grimes and slung him over her shoulder. “Let’s go!”

    They hurried as best as they could - you couldn’t run well in the ditch, not hunched over to keep from exposing your head - but still outpaced the zombies, and no one took a shot at them until they reached the forest.

    Unfortunately, the mob of mind-controlled villagers - she wouldn’t call it a zombie horde - didn’t look like they were giving up.

    *****​

    Chuck was panting when they reached the forest after what felt like an hour running under invisible guns which would fire at any moment to cut them down, but he wasn’t exhausted. He still sat down behind the thickest tree to catch his breath, of course, while Caridad put down Morgan and the others got into firing positions.

    “We’ve got a few minutes, tops,” Sarah announced, “before the mob gets here.”

    “Someone really doesn’t like us,” Caidad said. “And they don’t care about the attention they catch.”

    “They probably control the area,” Sarah retorted. “And don’t have to worry about the authorities.”

    “With mind control, that would be easy,” Bane agreed. Chuck didn’t like her tone, though. She sounded less horrified and more impressed. Envious, even. “We’ll have to move quickly, so we won’t be caught in the open when they leave the forest.”

    “The Vodouist behind this is still alive,” Caridad objected. “And we haven’t checked Lindor’s grave yet.” She peered through the underbrush. “But Morgan won’t be able to outrun the zombies. Or outwalk.”

    Chuck could see that Morgan was aware of that, but trying to be brave. “I could cover…” he began.

    Chuck cut him off. “No.”

    “No one dies. It’s a rule,” Caridad added.

    Sarah took charge. “We’ll split up. The wounded fall back and lure the mob away, the rest of us circle around and take out whoever is behind this.”

    Chuck nodded. It was a sound plan, especially given their situation. But…

    “Casey won’t be able to carry Morgan,” Caridad pointed out what Chuck had just thought of.

    “You’ll have to go with them,” Sarah replied. “Bane, Chuck and I will go back.”

    It was a sound plan, with decent odds. Probably. Chuck wasn’t sure if it was the best pan they could make. But time was running out. Even Caridad realised that, though she was frowning heavily.

    “Move along the road in the forest, then cut cross-country to the bay we discovered. Don’t call anyone local for transportation,” Sarah told her.

    Casey bared his teeth as the Slayer nodded, then closed his mouth again. Chuck didn’t know what had made the man angry.

    “Let’s go!” Sarah snapped, after a last glance at the advancing mob.

    Then they were off, moving through the forest together before splitting off. They weren’t running, for which Chuck was grateful. Even jogging wasn’t easy, in the rough terrain, but he wouldn’t tire out too quickly at this pace.

    “If we get spotted, we’ll be mobbed,” Bane said when they reached the edge of the forest, near a small pond with the remains of a hut.

    He chuckled at the rhyme, then frowned at his loss of control.

    “We’ll have to be careful,” Sarah retorted.

    “They’ll notice once we take out their leader.”

    At which point the spell on the villagers would be broken. Chuck hoped so, at least. It had worked for the bezoar in Sunnydale, but he wasn’t an expert for Voodoo mind control. Or Vodou, in this case.

    “We can evade them once the leader is dead,” Sarah said.

    He realised that he was still carrying the SMG. It was a Heckler & Koch MP5 - an older model. Very, very belatedly, he checked the magazine. It was about half-full - not exactly a lot of ammunition. Not that he could shoot very well, anyway. Not without the Intersect. Which hadn’t kicked in since the fight.

    “We have to find him, first,” Bane pointed out.

    “Uh…” Chuck spoke up. “That shouldn’t be too hard. They’ll be ordering people around and probably carrying a lot of Vodouist symbols and stuff. I think.”

    Bane didn’t look convinced, but Sarah nodded. “We’ll use the small stream to the west to get into the village. We can fashion some floating debris as cover using the hut here.”

    “Are you serious?” Bane stared at her.

    “Would you rather attempt to seduce a mind-controlled villager or guard?” Sarah shot back. “Or crawl through the fields?”

    Bane glared back but didn’t voice another protest.

    Ten minutes later, they had some ‘broken crates’ ready that would let them breathe and keep their weapons dry while floating downstream. And hide their approach. In theory.

    Bane still didn’t look happy, but Chuck couldn’t tell if it was because she thought the plan wouldn’t work, or because it was Sarah’s plan. He pulled off his white shirt - it would only hinder him in the water - but he kept his black slacks on. Camouflage for his pale legs. And he really didn’t want to go into combat in his underwear.

    Sarah and Bane didn’t have that problem - their skirts and tops weren’t tight and skimpy enough to pass as swimwear, but they would still let them swim easily.

    “Keep behind me,” Sarah told them. “We’ll find a spot with some cover to get out of the stream, then look for the leader.”

    Chuck nodded, stuffing his shirt and submachine gun into the ‘crate’, then slowly lowered it into the stream.

    “Chuck.”

    He turned his head while he kept a grip on the crate. “Yes, Sarah?”

    She kissed him, then smiled and backed off. “Be careful.”

    A moment later, she was in the water, head disappearing beneath her crate.

    “Love you,” Chuck whispered, then followed her.

    The current wasn’t very strong, and the water was colder than expected. Perhaps he should have kept his shirt on? And trying to keep track of Sarah was difficult, even though the crates they used as cover had large gaps - Chuck tended to get turned around while drifting.

    But this was what spies did, he reminded himself. Sneaking into forbidden, dangerous places to find secrets. And, in this case, to kill enemies. Which made it more like an assassination - or would, if they weren’t going after a mind-controlling Vodouist working with demons. He pressed his lips together. Sending so many civilians - children! - at them, not to mention that the entire village had been effectively enslaved… Focusing on that helped, he found.

    Despite that, he was still feeling cold and wanted to get out of the water straight away by the time they finally reached the village. But Sarah led them on, past the first buildings, to… Oh. The old mill. It looked abandoned, but it was built partially over the stream. It would provide the perfect cover to get out of the water and take a rest to recover before proceeding with the mission. The upper floor might even serve as an observation post. Or sniper nest.

    Oh. There was the mill. Chuck was almost carried past the building by the current, which seemed to have grown stronger. But he managed to slide in next to the wheel. Climbing out of the water behind it, without losing his weapon and clothes, or getting spotted, was harder, but Sarah helped him.

    And hugging her, even if it was only for a moment, helped with the cold as well.

    “Upstairs,” she whispered. “Let’s take a look.”

    So he had correctly anticipated that. Nice! He was smiling as he followed her up the stairs, then winced when they creaked. If anyone heard it…

    But they reached the floor above without anyone sounding an alert. The view through the dusty windows wasn’t the best, but most of the village was open to them.

    “I don’t see anyone who might be…” Bane suddenly gasped.

    “Lindor?” Chuck asked.

    “He’s dead!” she hissed.

    “Not yet,” he corrected her. Although he suspected that the man might be dead - some practitioners allegedly turned themselves into zombies. The undead variant, not the mind-controlled one. He took a look himself. There was a man matching the pictures in his file, in the square, talking to - no, ordering - the guards.

    “He must have faked his death,” Sarah said next to him. “Or used a body-double.”

    “Or it’s a twin,” Chuck added.

    “Or this is a body double,” Bane replied without taking her eyes off the man. “I can nail him with my rifle from here.”

    Which would give away their position, but wouldn’t do much against a zombie. Chuck really wished that he had a flame thrower. Even though that would risk setting the village on fire. “I think we need to be closer,” he said. “We need to confirm his death and his identity.”

    Bane stared at him. “We can get a blood sample after his death.”

    “Uh, I think we need to get the body. All parts of it.” To properly dispose of such a zombie, they would have to take the body to a safe place. Beheading it and sewing its mouth shut after stuffing salt into it took time. At least that was what Morgan had told them would be most likely to work on any zombie you couldn’t simply behead or burn.

    Bane was staring at him as if he were crazy. Well, to someone who didn’t know about demons, chuck would sound weird.

    “There are half a dozen guards. We need to take them out, then take Lindor down,” Sarah said.

    “I can shoot him from here. With him and Obas dead, the rest should be thrown into disarray,” Bane insisted.

    It didn’t seem as if the spy’d come around. Chuck glanced at Sara. She was frowning. “Wait until we’re in position,” she said. “Chuck and I will move closer.” So, she had also realised that Bane wouldn’t budge.

    “That’s…” Bane started, but Sarah was already moving down the stairs. Chuck flashed a smile that probably wasn’t as confident as he wanted it to be, then followed her.

    His wet slacks were covered in dust, he noticed. They would need new clothes if they wanted to return to the yacht without drawing attention. He shook his head. He had to focus on taking down Lindor. Anything else could wait. “So… how do we do this?” he asked in a whisper when he crouched down next to Sarah at the mill’s door.

    “We’ll go through the backyards there,” she replied, pointing at a row of houses lining the stream’s shore. “That will get us close to the square.”

    Close, but not close enough, if Chuck remembered the village’s layout correctly.

    “We’ll have to rush the last leg, though,” Sarah confirmed his assumption.

    “Ah.”

    This would be a good time for the Intersect to start working again, Chuck thought.

    But it didn’t. That he stumbled over the uneven floorboards, following Sarah out of the mill proved that. And since they were dealing with the supernatural, he couldn’t even hope to flash on something useful. And while he had experience in fighting demons, he hadn’t fought zombies. Well, not before today.

    But he still followed Sarah, dashing across the street and climbing over the fence there, into the yard of the closest house. Which took longer than it should have, of course, since his shirt got caught on the fence and ended up with a huge tear in it.

    But now they were in the backyards, hidden from sight, and moving towards the village centre. One fence a time.

    His trousers were sporting two tears and the shirt one by the time they reached the end of the row. But they had made it. Now all that was left was the assault straight down the road.

    Which usually didn’t end well in any movie Chuck had seen where the enemy had automatic weapons. But Sarah knew what she was doing. She was an experienced spy.

    “Alright, I’ll give Bane the signal. Once she starts shooting, we’ll rush ahead, to the corner there, and break into the café to take cover,” she whispered, crouching behind the gate to the street.

    “Right,” Chuck replied, then swallowed. He could do this. He had to do this. His friends were counting on him. Sarah needed his help.

    “Open fire,” Sarah whispered into her comm.

    A moment later, a shot rang out from the mill, followed by another as Chuck heard screaming ahead of them.

    “Go!”

    Sarah was out of the gate and running before Chuck could start to follow her. But he ran. As fast as he could. Halfway to the corner, a man appeared there, clutching an assault rifle - FAL - in his hands. Sarah shot him before Chuck could call out, and the man dropped to the ground.

    She scooped up the rifle as she crouched down at the corner. “Get in through the window,” she snapped when Chuck caught up.

    The window was closed. Should he break it… No, there was an open window. Feeling stupid, he quickly pushed it open and climbed inside. “Clear!” he announced a little belatedly.

    Sarah joined him a moment later, sliding over the windowsill in a smooth movement that left her crouching and facing the front. “Come!”

    They moved to the front of the café - or perhaps ‘tavern’ would suit it better; it didn’t look like a café. ‘Dive’ might also fit.

    Then Chuck glanced out the front window and gritted his teeth. “I can’t see Lindor,” he hissed.

    “He’s behind the wall on the other side. Bane hit him, but he’s not down,” Sarah said.

    How had she… Oh. There were two guards on each side, glancing behind them regularly. And some blood on the ground - not much, though. The two downed guards in the centre of the square were lying in pools of their own blood, in comparison.

    “Bane can’t hold out much longer - they’re moving to flank her,” Sarah said. “We need to eliminate the guards and take out Lindor.”

    “Alright,” Chuck said with more confidence than he felt. He wet his lips. “Ready.”

    “Fire!” Sarah whispered, raising.

    Chuck stood, aiming his submachine gun at the guards on his side. Semi-automatic aimed fire, he reminded himself as he squeezed off the first shot. And another. And another.

    But he missed, and the guards took cover - or started to; one of them was shot by Sarah, who had dropped the guards on her side already, before he could reach the wall behind them.

    The other, though, was behind cover now. And Lindor would be warned.

    Sarah didn’t berate him, though - she dashed out of the house. Rushing the enemy position.

    Chuck cursed himself and followed her. If only he had hit his targets. Killed them. If only the Intersect worked. Now… His eyes widened as three armed thugs appeared on the right side of the square just as Sarah and Chuck were halfway across and completely exposed. They were dead! And it was his fault! “Sar..” he started to yell.

    And then his gun was firing, and the men dropped to the ground. Three shots, three kills. He charged forward, vaulting over the wall, firing before he hit the ground and putting two bullets into the last guard who had been about to fire on Sarah.

    Chuck rolled and came up with his gun aimed at Lindor before the man could react, squeezing the trigger. On an empty chamber. He threw himself to the side, making Lindor miss his shot, then pushed off and jumped towards the fallen guard’s weapon. Another shot missed his legs by inches as he grabbed the gun - a G3 - and fired a burst into the Vodouist.

    Lindor was hit in the chest and stomach and sent stumbling back but didn’t fall. He didn’t bleed much, either. And he still had his gun.

    But before the man cold shoot Chuck, Sarah appeared on the wall and pounced, tackling Lindor to the ground. Her knife flashed, cutting the man’s throat as she kicked the gun out of his hand.

    Lindor threw her off, his slashed throat making gurgling noises as he tried to speak, but Chuck reached the zombie before he could pick up or draw a weapon. He kicked Lindor’s leg, sending him sprawling again, then jumped on him, going for a pin.

    As they struggled, Sarah joined in, grabbing Lindor’s hair and pulling his head back. Then she started to saw with her blade.

    The zombie kept struggling, kicking and trying to hit Chuck with his fists, until, finally, his head separated from his neck and he collapsed.

    “Salt!” Chuck spat. “Salt and sewing!”

    Then he saw the bracelet on the corpse’s arm and flashed.

    A museum. A masked thief on a security camera record. A dead body of a known burglar found on a beach. A missing goldsmith specialising in custom orders and known for his distinct style.

    He blinked. “The bracelet! It’s a gris-gris! A Vodouist talisman! Stolen from a museum in Paris five years ago. He must have had it worked into a bracelet.”

    Sarah looked at the bracelet, then at him.

    “It holds his power… I think.” Morgan was the Watcher-in-training, but Chuck had read up on Vodouists on the way here.

    “I didn’t think your information covered this,” Sarah said.

    “It doesn’t,” he told her what she was asking. “But this was filed as an art theft. The talisman was part of a collection in Paris. And if Lindor had had it stolen, it must be powerful.”

    “Can we handle it safely?” She asked, looking around. “Target down,” she said into her comm.

    “Uh…”

    “Bane’s had to move. There’s still a group of guards around,” she informed him as she moved to the corner, leading with her gun.

    Which left him to deal with the body. And the possibly-evil-and-dangerous artefact. Before the enemies returned to ask for new orders. “No pressure,” he mumbled, kneeling next to Lindor’s corpse.

    He should have brought gloves. Surgical gloves would be very useful right now. Or just leather gloves - he didn’t want to touch the gris-gris with his bare hands. Although his shirt was beyond hope anyway.

    He pulled it off and wrapped it around his hands, then fiddled with the bracelet. Where was the latch? Was there even a latch? If this was what had kept - and probably was keeping - Lindor from passing on, then the Vodouist might not have wanted to have it be removable. Not without cutting off his hand. Did Chuck have to do that? He didn’t have a knife, and this was… There!

    Something snapped, and the bracelet came off. He gathered it in the shirt, then wrapped the head in it as well.

    “Done!” he said. “We can leave.”

    Instead of answering, Sarah fired a burst from her rifle.

    It seemed that leaving would be a little more difficult than Chuck had thought.

    *****​

    Sarah fired another shot at the thug on the other side of the square, missing but driving the man to take cover behind the corner. It was obvious that Lindor’s men hadn’t been mind-controlled - at least not the group attacking them. And that Bane hadn’t kept them distracted enough. “We need to fall back,” she told Chuck. They were too exposed here.

    “Uh… where to?”

    She glanced behind for a moment, to adjust the map in her head. There was the road they had taken with the pickup, but it was too exposed - and they would risk running into the forces chasing Casey and the others. That left crossing the stream and going west. She shot another bullet at the corner, to discourage any rush, and activated her comm. “Position?”

    “I’m near the beach,” Bane replied. “Still under fire.”

    The beach. The fishing boats. “We’ll head there as well,” she told Bane. “Hold out.”

    Sarah glanced back. Chuck had stripped off his shirt and used it to carry Lindor’s severed head. The barbarian look didn’t fit him, in her opinion. “We need to get to the beach,” she told him.

    “Aren’t the enemies between us and the beach?”

    “Yes. We’ll sneak around them.”

    “Uh… ok.”

    It was better than trying to break through their lines. And there was a route through the smaller alleys. “Come,” she said firing again, then falling back under cover of the wall. “We’ll go through that house.” She pointed at the big house behind them. It looked too shabby to be Lindor’s or Oba’s. Probably the mayor’s.

    The door looked sturdy and locked, but the windows weren’t much of an obstacle, though she had to help Chuck climb in without cutting himself on the remains of the glass panes. Apparently, the Intersect’s skills weren’t working any more.

    They hurried through the cluttered - and dusty - house to the backdoor. She took point, checking the yard. Clear. But their pursuers would be close behind. And she was down to one magazine for her rifle. “Go!” she said, pointing at the fence. “And head left after clearing it.”

    She covered the back of the house while Chuck scrambled over the fence, then followed him. A shot went past her right when she dropped to the ground - the enemy had arrived.

    She fired back through a gap in the fence, then rolled to the side behind a stone pillar. “Chuck!” She nodded to her left, the direction of the beach.

    He ran in a crouch while she covered him with two more shots. Seventeen left. Not ideal.

    As soon as he had reached the temporary safety of the corner, she dashed out of cover herself. More shots rang out, but didn’t even come close, and a moment later, she slid to a stop next to Chuck. “Go!” she snapped.

    They rushed down the back alley. If the enemy wasn’t incompetent, they would be trying to flank them, Or overtake them. That meant… She reached the next corner and crouched, aiming down the alley to the main road.

    A few seconds later, a man appeared, running. She shot him before he could react, then rushed on - still going towards the beach, roughly. But they would have to cross the main road at one point, to reach Bane.

    They took the next corner, and Sarah led them to the main road. Their enemies would have become more cautious after losing one man, which would slow them down. A glance around the corner confirmed it - two more were just about to sprint past the next alley.

    Sarah shot at them, hitting one in the leg, and both took cover. She bit her lower lip for a moment - they had to risk it. “I’ll cover us,” she whispered. “Run across the street!”

    He didn’t argue, and she slid around the corner, firing as they ran. She used ten more bullets, missing with all of them, but so did the enemy, and Chuck and Sarah were on the beach side of the main road.

    Now all they had to do was to reach the beach and get a fishing boat. And escape the village without getting shot. And gather up Bane.

    *****​

    They sprinted down the next alley. Chuck tried not to think of what exactly was hitting his leg with each step. And hoped that his trousers were still wet from the trip in the stream, not from the blood leaking out of the severed head.

    And, panting and struggling to keep up with Sarah, he once more promised himself that he would run harder in the mornings. Would the Intersect’s skill take exhaustion into account? Or would he try to accomplish something, only to fail utterly? He’d have to ask Dad about that.

    He shook his head. He was running for his life; he had to focus.

    The alley had several turns, which was a good thing because it meant any pursuit couldn’t shoot them from far behind. But it also meant they couldn’t see too far ahead, and might unexpectedly run into some guards.

    Or, as it turned out, a wall. Shit.

    But as Chuck was about to turn and backtrack, Sarah sped up, running straight at the corner where the wall met the house next to them, jumped, kicked off the other wall, and landed on top of the obstacle barring their way. “Jump, Chuck!” she yelled, holding out her hand as she straddled the wall.

    He blinked, then clenched his teeth and ran towards her. He could do this. He had to do this. It would be great if the Intersect took over right now. He pushed off, slinging himself at the wall - at her - one hand reaching for hers.

    And she grabbed it. He pulled himself up, feet scrabbling for purchase on the brick wall. He weighed more than her, even without the severed head and assault rifle on his back, and if he managed to drag her down with him… But he reached the top, Lindor’s head smacking against the wall as he grabbed the top of it, then dragged himself over it.

    “Down!” Sarah suddenly yelled, and he felt her hand on his belt before she heaved, and both of them tumbled down as several shots rang out.

    Their enemies had caught up. Well, they had to go over the wall as well, now.

    “Move!” Sarah pushed him forward. He reached the next corner - there was the beach ahead - and glanced back. Sarah was moving backwards, rifle at the shoulder. Something appeared on top of the wall, and she fired. A head flew back with a spray of blood.

    “That’ll hold them for a while. Look for a boat, a fast one,” she snapped, falling further back.

    A fast boat. A fast boat. He scanned the beach. Fishing boat. Fishing boat. Old sailing fishing boat. Rowboat. That one looked fast. It also looked like it was missing an engine.

    He blinked. This was a village ruled by a drug lord. They wouldn’t bother with old boats or fishing boats. And there was a boathouse there, down the beach.

    He started to run. Obas or Lindor would have kept his private craft in the boathouse. Well-maintained so he would have been able to set out whenever he wanted. It would have been the fastest boat in the village. Perfect.

    When the armed man stepped out from the boathouse, gun rising to aim at him, Chuck realised that drug lords also tended to have their toys under guard. He dived to the ground, rolling through the sand, as the man fired. Missed! He scrambled for his rifle, but the sling had slipped, and there came the guard…

    “Chuck!” Sarah shot the man down with a burst and dashed forward. “Are you hurt?”

    “No!” He spat out some sand.

    She passed him and grabbed the rifle from the dead thug. “Come!”

    He got up, almost falling down again, and fell into a run. They were horribly exposed.

    As if someone had read his thoughts, more shots were fired, and bullets kicked up sand next to him.

    Sarah returned fire, crouching and moving so Chuck wouldn’t block her line of sight. And drawing fire, he realised. For him.

    He reached the boathouse and whirled around, finally managing to bring his own gun to bear. “Sarah!” He started firing. Covering fire - he didn’t have to hit anyone. And he didn’t hit anyone.

    She jumped up and dashed towards him. “Get the boat moving!” she yelled, whirling to take over at the door.

    “Yes,” he replied, turning around. A shot broke through the wall next to him, and he ducked with a shriek. “I’m OK!” he yelled before she could be distracted.

    There was the boat he had expected. It looked fast, more modern than the fishing boats outside… he flashed.

    It was a 2004 Stingray 180. And he knew exactly how to handle it.

    A minute later, the engine was running. “Sarah! We need to open the doors!”

    She heard him, touched her ear - her comm - and sprinted along the wall towards the front of the boathouse. Towards the gate. “Start sailing!” she yelled, then kicked the bar keeping the gate closed way.

    He pushed the throttle, and the boat started to move - faster than he expected. But Sarah was ready, nimbly jumping down into.

    Then they were on the water, speeding away.

    “Drive in a wide circle,” she yelled over the noise from the engines. “We’ll pick up Bane at the mouth of the stream.”

    He looked to their side, calculated the course - and pushed the throttle all the way up.

    “Hold on!” he yelled as the boat shot through the water, cutting through the waves. The remaining thugs were shooting at them, but Chuck couldn’t pay attention. Just keeping this monster on course and from capsizing took all he had. But they rapidly approached the stream’s mouth, and… there was Bane, sprinting across the beach, firing wildly at some unseen enemies before jumping into the water where it was deep enough for the boat to approach.

    Which Chuck did, slowing down as Sarah started to shoot again. But she was alone, and they were a big target. Chuck saw several shots hit the boat. Hopefully, they wouldn’t do any damage. Well, the craft only had to last an hour longer, or so.

    Then a burst hit the windshield, and he flinched. “Hurry!” he yelled. That had been far too close!

    “I’m out of ammo,” Sarah announced. “Hand me your gun!”

    He managed to pass her the G3 without getting entangled in its sling, and Sarah started firing again just as Bane finally climbed inside.

    Chuck gritted his teeth and pushed the throttle up again. He took a tight turn, almost running aground, but they made it and soon were out of range of the thugs’ weapons.

    Mission accomplished.

    *****​
     
    Prince Charon, mauke, RedX and 4 others like this.
  27. Threadmarks: Chapter 20: The Complication
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 20: The Complication

    Haiti, West of Petit-Troup-de-Nippes, January 6th, 2008

    “Team One to Team Two. Mission accomplished. Over. Team One to Team Two. Mission accomplished. Over.”

    While Sarah tried to reach Casey and the others, Chuck kept an eye on the beach and village behind them. He had slowed down the boat some so the engine noise wouldn’t make talking over the radio impossible - and that would make them an easier target. Granted, they were out of range of most small arms, but if the drug smugglers had an anti-material rifle...

    “I can’t raise them on the radio,” Sarah said. “We must be out of range.”

    “What about the boat’s radio?” Chuck asked.

    “Not compatible with our encryption,” she replied.

    “Ah. I think I could link them, though,” he offered. It wouldn’t be too hard - there were tools in the boat. Or should be.

    “Even so, they wouldn’t be able to answer,” Bane said.

    “We’ll move to our rally point and try to contact them from there,” Sarah said.

    Chuck pushed the throttle, and the boat sped up again. “Aren’t we leading them straight to our yacht?” he yelled over the engine’s noise.

    “They only know the direction down the coast we’re using,” Sarah yelled back.

    “Alright. I don’t see them pursuing us, anyway,” Chuck replied.

    “They might be in vehicles on land,” Bane pointed out.

    Chuck hoped the drug smugglers were scattering instead. Or looting Lindor and Obas’s homes. Although if they had been mind-controlled as well, and that hadn’t ended with the death of Lindor… If Lindor was actually dead already.

    Couldn’t this boat go faster? They had a Vodouist to kill.

    *****​

    The first rallying spot was the cove they had visited before the whole mission had started to go wrong. Chuck guided the boat onto the beach - there wasn’t anything to serve as a pier, apart from a couple rocks that were too far apart for anyone but Caridad to comfortably and safely use as stepping stones - while Sarah tried to contact Casey and the others again.

    “I’ve reached them!” she announced as the boat came to a stop with the bow in the sand. “They managed to lose pursuit.”

    “Did the zombies stop chasing them?” Chuck asked.

    “Casey couldn’t tell if they stopped because they lost them, or because the mind-control broke,” Sarah told him.

    “How would that break?” Bane looked at them. “You said they would be following the last order.”

    Damn. “They probably got confused,” Chuck explained, “when they lost their target, and, absent new orders, what with Obas and Lindor dead…” He didn’t actually know what would happen. Morgan would. Probably.

    Bane nodded, though she didn’t look convinced. Or happy. “How long until they’re here?”

    “They’ve acquired a car, so fifteen minutes.” Sarah jumped on the beach, still carrying the assault rifle he had originally picked up.

    “Fifteen minutes?” Chuck frowned. They hadn’t taken that long to reach the village from here.

    “They’re taking a detour to avoid pursuit,” Sarah told him.

    “Ah.” He should’ve known that.

    “How’s Morgan?” Bane asked.

    Sarah looked surprised for a moment, Chuck noticed. “Casey didn’t say anything about anyone else getting wounded,” she said.

    “Good.” Bane smiled.

    If it was a fake smile, then she could have become an award-winning actress instead of a spy, in Chuck’s opinion. On the other hand, he knew that Bane was a very good spy.

    “Stay in the boat, Chuck,” Sarah said over her shoulder. “We’ll cover the approaches.”

    “Right,” he replied. Because he hadn’t a longarm left - and wouldn’t be able to use it as well as Sarah and Bane, anyway.

    Sixteen minutes after they had made contact, a beat-up car - a Citroën 2CV, Chuck recognised the model without help from the Intersect - arrived at the cove. Casey must have stolen it from a local. Well, they would hopefully get it back after the group had left.

    Casey was driving, looking none the worse for wear as he bared his teeth in what probably would have been a friendly smile on someone else. Caridad got out before the car rolled to a stop, then practically ripped Morgan out of the 2CV.

    “I can limp!” Morgan protested, but she seemed to ignore him as she lifted him up and carried him over to the boat. “No time!” she yelled.

    Chuck looked up to where Sarah and Bane had taken up positions.

    “We picked up a tail,” Casey explained as he made his way to Chuck.

    A moment later, Sarah and Bane started shooting.

    Great. Chuck hoped that they had enough fuel to reach the port where they had left the yacht. Or, at least, a safe spot to make landfall.

    He started the engine, getting ready to back away from the beach. Caridad dropped Morgan on the bench behind him and jumped on the foredeck. “Wait!” Chuck yelled. She turned her head and glared at him, and he swallowed. “They’ll stop them, then fall back and we’ll sail away!”

    The Slayer frowned.

    “We’ve got wounded,” Morgan added.

    Of course, Casey didn’t take the hint. “I can fight,” he grunted and moved towards the foredeck as well. At least he hadn’t jumped overboard right away.

    Fortunately, just then, Sarah and Bane scrambled back, then slid down the slope leading to the beach, and Casey dropped on the deck with his rifle - presumably to cover them. Were the enemies so close? And were they zombies or criminals?

    Chuck wet his lips and gripped the throttle, glancing over his shoulder to judge if he should back out of the cove all the way in reverse, or if he should risk a turn inside. It looked large enough for a spin, but what if he had missed some rock under the water?

    Sarah reached the boat first, scrambling up the bow. Bane was close behind but stumbled on the beach. Shots rang out, hitting the sand near Bane - and the boat. One whipped past Chuck, and he ducked with a gasp.

    Casey returned fire. “Gotcha, bastard!” Chuck heard him mutter as he straightened. Where was Bane?

    There! The spy had reached the boat, throwing her gun on top of the deck, then gripped the railing.

    And Caridad reached down and hoisted her on board.

    Chuck put the boat in reverse and pushed the throttle forward. Casey kept firing, joined by Sarah - the others must have brought more ammunition. He glanced up the slope. There were several people shooting at them. Stopping would be too risky, Chuck decided. “Hold on!” he yelled, and sped up, weaving the boat a little as he took the direct route to the open sea.

    More shots hit the boat, making him flinch, but no one got hit - and nothing vital broke. At least not that he noticed.

    Then they were out of the cove, and he turned the boat around in a tight turn before sailing away at max speed eastwards.

    He didn’t relax until they were out of sight of the cove. “Whew, guys!” He smiled. “Guess we made it. And we should have enough fuel to…” He trailed off as he checked the gauge. “Uh…”

    “‘Uh’? I don’t like hearing that,” Casey growled.

    “What’s wrong?” Sarah asked.

    “Someone must have holed the fuel tank,” Chuck replied, grimacing. “We’re losing fuel at a high rate.”

    “I’ll check!” Caridad said. “Stop the boat for a moment!” A second later, she was hanging from the railing, peering at the boat’s hull - and at the water.

    Chuck coughed after stopping the engine. “Err… the fuel tank is there.” He pointed at the location.

    She sent him a withering glare - and another at the grinning Casey - then jumped into the water.

    Less than half a minute later, she resurfaced. “There’re a few leaks. Give me something to plug them!”

    “Uh…” What would be the best way to plug the holes? Welding? Or glueing? Did they have the supplies and tools?

    “Stuff some rags into the holes!” Casey snapped, interrupting Chuck’s frantic thoughts. “Use your strength to push them in so they won’t get ripped out once we sail again.”

    To Chuck’s surprise, Caridad followed the orders - or the instructions without complaints, and a few minutes later, they were speeding off again. They didn’t have quite enough fuel to reach the yacht any more, but they would be close enough to make it the rest of the way on foot.

    Which, now that Chuck was thinking of it, would allow them to check for a trap or an ambush before sailing into the port. If they even wanted to head back to the yacht - their cover was probably compromised, if someone ran the plates of their rental car. If there had been any plates left after the ambush on the road.

    Well, that wasn’t much of a problem, Chuck thought. Unlike… “So, guys… we need to deal with Lindor’s head,” he said. With the reduced speed to save fuel, the engine noise wasn’t too loud any more, either.

    “You took his head?” Caridad asked.

    “Well, if he is an undead zombie, you need to stuff salt in his mouth and sew it shut,” Morgan said.

    “What?” Bane asked. “You aren’t seriously proposing that we do such a thing, are you?”

    “Well… it’s kind of a Vodouist burial rite?” Morgan smiled - rather weakly, though.

    “We just need a DNA sample, so we can check it against the samples I took when I killed him,” Bane replied. “If it matches, he had a twin. If not, someone passed himself off as him. I know I killed him.”

    “It certainly wouldn’t hurt doing the salt and sewing thing,” Morgan retorted. “Just in case, you know?”

    “‘Just in case’?” Bane frowned. “Is that more superstition?”

    “Yes,” Morgan said. “Then we burn it and scatter the ashes into a river.”

    Bane’s expression would have been amusing if this wasn’t serious.

    And, Chuck added to himself, if they didn’t have to keep the supernatural a secret from the spy. Something Morgan was apparently ignoring.

    “Guys!” Chuck stepped in. Not literally - he still had to steer the boat. “We don’t have salt or a sewing kit right now, right? So…”

    “I’ve brought both,” Morgan interrupted him. “Seeing as we were entering zombie land.”

    “Good thinking,” Caridad added.

    “Thank you.”

    Chuck pressed his lips together. Was he the only one trying to keep the secret? He suddenly had a sinking feeling in his stomach. Was Morgan trying to tell Bane about the supernatural without being obvious about it? And why?

    Well, the obvious reason would be that Morgan had fallen in love with the spy and wanted to show off. On the other hand, he knew what Phil would say about this. As did Caridad, of course.

    “Let’s just do it,” Casey growled. “I’ve seen enough weird shit in the jungle to not take any chances.”

    “Agent Casey!” Bane seemed to feel betrayed. “Are you saying…” she trailed off.

    “Take the DNA sample,” Sarah said. “Then we dispose of the head before we leave the island.”

    Chuck couldn’t see Bane’s expression as she went to work, not while steering the boat, but he was certain that she didn’t look happy.

    *****​

    Sarah stood up after Grimes started to sew. She had seen enough to do it herself, should the need ever arise. Which she hoped wouldn’t be the case.

    Shaking her head, she joined Chuck at the helm. “That’s the head taken care of,” she commented.

    “We still should burn it,” he replied. “Fire cleanses.”

    “Save some fuel, then,” she told him, though with a grin.

    “I’m trying to save fuel,” he said.

    “And doing a good job,” she reassured him. Casey would be able to do better, but since the NSA agent hadn’t insisted on taking over, Chuck had to be doing well enough - not even the wounds he had taken would stop Casey otherwise. Especially not with Caridad present.

    “Thanks,” he said, but he didn’t seem to believe her.

    She touched his shoulder. “Chuck, you did well,” she repeated herself.

    “I got lucky,” he retorted. After a glance over his shoulder - checking for Bane, she realised - he added sotto voce: “If the Intersect hadn’t kicked in…”

    “But it did. You had a breakthrough.”

    “No. I couldn’t duplicate it. Not consciously.”

    Ah. “But you did activate it again. We just have to find out how to do so reliably.” And she had some suspicions. Although if she was correct, then testing would be difficult. Or dangerous.

    He nodded with a sigh.

    So, it wasn’t just that. What could…? Oh. “Does it bother you that you killed those thugs?”

    “They were trying to kill us,” he said quickly. Very quickly.

    So, yes, it did bother him.

    “I just did it, you know? Hit them, grabbed a gun, started shooting. Without thinking about it. I just knew, and did it,” he went on.

    She turned around and leaned against the side of the helm’s console. That way, she could keep an eye on Bane, who was in the back, looking at the coastline. “It would be a reason to worry if it didn’t bother you.”

    “It feels like mind-control. Only it doesn’t. If that makes any sense.”

    It didn’t, so she looked at him and frowned with a puzzled expression.

    He sighed. “It doesn’t feel like mind-control while it’s happening. Or rather, moving like that feels natural, not like being a puppet. I guess that would be body-control.”

    “Well, you’ve got the Intersect in your brain,” she replied. “But we’ll have to look into this.” With Orion.

    He nodded. “I don’t want to start killing without thinking about it. What if I had done this when the villagers were chasing us?”

    As Bane had suggested. Sarah winced - that would have destroyed Chuck. Her as well, probably. Maybe even Casey. “We’ll look into it,” she said again. And Orion better had some answers and a solution. She wouldn’t lose Chuck to the Intersect. “And we’ll have to step up your training,” she added.

    “I need more stamina,” Chuck replied, looking glum.

    “More stamina never hurts,” she told him with a grin, “but I was thinking about more martial arts. Your body needs to get used to the techniques you used, or you’ll be sore every time you use them.” Or suffered strains and similar afflictions.

    “Uh…” he winced.

    She patted his shoulder. “I’ll give you a massage tonight,” she reassured him.

    “Thank you.” He was smiling at her, and, for the first time during their conversation, it looked honest. Then it vanished again. “Do you think Bane has any suspicions about magic? Morgan was a little too eager to dispose of Lindor, I think…”

    She let out a sigh through her teeth. Grimes wouldn’t know subtle if it hit him in the head. “She might think Morgan is just superstitious, but in light of an entire village being mind-controlled... “

    “And there were demons among the guards we fought. Some of them were tougher than normal humans,” he said. “If she’s working on Morgan…”

    “...then he’ll spill,” Sarah finished for him with a frown.

    *****​

    There wasn’t much fuel left when they made landfall, but enough to burn a severed head. An old steel bucket served as both crematorium and urn - after Caridad crushed the bones to powder with two rocks. Chuck approved, of course - he had heard the story of the Master’s bones in Sunnydale as well.

    They scattered the ashes in the next few streams on the way to Petit-Troup-de-Nippes, hopefully without attracting attention. And now they were in sight of the yacht they had left in port.

    “With the setup the scum had, the authorities won’t investigate the incident until they believe Lindor and Obas are dead,” Casey said without lowering his binoculars. “That means they won’t have found the car we rented yet. We go in, sail out, arrange an accident on the open sea for our current cover and use our second set of identities to leave the island. Easy.”

    “Corrupt cops might have gone in already,” Bane pointed out.

    “They’ll be too busy trying to cover up their involvement - and loot the place - to investigate us,” Casey replied.

    “Finding - and silencing - a scapegoat is usually a good way to cover up your own deeds,” the spy retorted.

    “If you have the means.” Casey lowered the binoculars and shook his head as he turned back to face the rest of the group. “And the kind of cops working in such villages won’t.”

    “They could have bought the chief of police in Petit-Troup-de-Nippes,” Sarah said. “He would have the means and the motive to come after us - or to prepare an ambush for ‘drug smugglers’ that leaves no one alive. We can’t risk simply going to the yacht and sailing out. We need to know the setup in the town.”

    Everyone was suddenly looking at him, Chuck realised.

    “Uh…”

    *****​

    Haiti, Petit-Troup-de-Nippes, January 6th, 2008

    “Relax, Chuck. I’m with you. We’ll be fine.”

    But Caridad’s presence wasn’t as reassuring as she thought. Chuck knew very well that Slayers often had a little problem with cutting and running from a fight. Mostly when demons were involved - which might be the case here.

    That they had lost the disguise kits and had to improvise didn’t help, of course - Chuck really would have preferred a more thorough disguise than a large hat, different clothes and a different girlfriend. Especially since he didn’t speak the language, and if he did, he wouldn’t have the local accent, so they still had to pose as tourists. In clothes stolen from a local farm.

    Hell, even if no one saw through their disguise, they might be arrested by mistake if a beat cop mixed up their descriptions. Or simply used the opportunity to hassle and extort some tourists for a bribe. And his muscles were starting to hurt.

    “Anything?” Caridad asked as they walked across the market.

    “No,” he replied, terser than he wanted. He hadn’t flashed on anything or anybody.

    “I guess we’ll have to track down the chief of police, then,” Caridad said. “Or scout out the port for an ambush.”

    Brave the police headquarters, or a possible ambush… Great. And the clock was ticking. If, as Morgan suspected, the enchantment on the zombies was ending with the death of the Vodouist responsible, sooner rather than later the local authorities would be hearing about the fighting. And it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to connect the events to the tourist group who had arrived earlier. “We’ll pass by the police on the way to the port,” he decided. “Perhaps I’ll flash on the building, or catch a glimpse of an underling.” Or should that be minion?

    “Alright!” She grabbed his arm and all but dragged him towards the older part of the town. “Let’s go!”

    Slayers - they generally didn’t do patience well, unless actually lying in ambush waiting for a demon.

    Chuck didn’t flash as they walked past the police headquarters. But he didn’t break his cover either, nor did he start babbling when a cop asked if they were lost, so he considered the detour a qualified success. Sort of.

    But that meant they had to visit the port. They wouldn’t stand out - there were a number of tourists there - but Chuck still grew more nervous as they approached the waterfront.

    “I don’t sense any demon,” Caridad whispered. “Haven’t spotted any ambush, either,” she added as they stopped to look at a picturesque old fishing boat.

    “I haven’t flashed on anything, either,” Chuck replied. It seemed as if Case was correct and they could simply head to the yacht and leave. He smiled as he looked over the port, watching the various fishing boats tied up at the pier, a handful of yachts among them, the motor yacht entering the port.

    He flashed. He saw pictures of the yacht. Suspected armament. And pictures of its owner, Enrique Sanchez - a leading member of a Colombian drug cartel. And he suddenly knew what the man was doing here as the Intersect connected the facts.

    “He’s Lindor’s partner…” he whispered.

    “Who?” Caridad asked.

    “Enrique Sanchez, the owner of the yacht. Which is armed better than a patrol boat, by the way,” Chuck replied in a whisper.

    “Really?” Caridad asked, staring at the yacht.

    “Yes. And a ship that size… At least a dozen crew can fit easily on it.” Chuck could see half a dozen preparing to set anchor. “If Sanchez is on the yacht, then those would be his best men, too.”

    “Or his most loyal,” Caridad pointed out. “As a drug cartel leader, he’d have to be wary of assassination attempts by ambitious underlings. Like vampires and demons.”

    “Ah, yes.”

    “So, is that the ambush we had to discover?” Caridad asked.

    “Uh…” They didn’t know, did they? “I think this visit was planned before our attack,” he replied. “But Sanchez will either have heard about Lindor’s death already or do so soon. And with his powerbase intact, he’ll likely take over easily. Which means any confusion among the surviving ranks of Lindor’s gang will end soon. And any contacts among the authorities of the town will answer to him.”

    “We’ll have to rush and be gone before he gets things organised!” Caridad said. “Let’s head back to the others!”

    “Wait! There is someone on the deck… Quick, let us take a picture!” Chuck said, waving at Caridad to pose - in front of him, with the yacht in the background.

    “What?”

    “Do it!” he hissed. She complied grudgingly.

    And Chuck used the zoom on his camera to check out the yacht. There was Sanchez, indeed, wearing a white suit. And carrying a suitcase that…

    He flashed again.

    He saw a museum in Mexico City. A curator arrested for corruption and theft. An artefact replaced by a forgery. And a courier using a certain suitcase.

    “Oh no!”

    “What’s wrong?”

    “Sanchez’s brought a stolen cursed Mayan sacrificial dagger.” A dagger rumoured to possess its wielders.

    *****​

    “We’ll have to abandon the yacht,” Casey said. “It’s too dangerous to try to recover it. We’ll draw attention, and if they notice that we’ve got wounded…”

    Chuck’s muscles were really hurting now, but he didn’t include himself in that. He could still walk and run.

    “That doesn’t matter,” Caridad cut in. “We need to take out Sanchez.”

    “We need to recover the stolen dagger,” Morgan corrected her.

    “Yeah, yeah - once we’ve taken out the big bad, we can loot his stuff as long as we want.” The Slayer made a dismissive gesture.

    She wasn’t correct, Chuck knew. Unless they managed to avoid drawing any attention - and Slayers rarely managed that - the authorities would get involved. But she was right that odds were, they had to take out Sanchez to get the dagger - it didn’t look like he left the dagger alone.

    “What’s so important about this dagger?” Bane asked.

    “There’s a stolen chip hidden on the dagger that our allies need to recover,” Chuck replied. He had thought of that excuse on the way back.

    “Err, yes,” Morgan said, nodding. “We only know that it’s important, not what’s on it, though. But we need to be careful - the dagger is said to be cursed.”

    “Cursed?” Bane looked sceptical.

    “Several people who handled it suffered from violent delusions. It has been theorised that there’s an unknown hallucinogenic substance present in the dagger’s handle, but Mexico refused to allow a thorough analysis,” Morgan explained. Apparently, he had learned the Watchers’ ‘excuses for the ignorant’ by heart.

    “Yeah! So don’t touch it!” Caridad added. “Leave that to us!”

    Chuck silently hoped that Morgan would handle the dagger. If Chuck’s friend got possessed, he would be far easier to handle than if that happened to Caridad.

    Bane, at least, let the matter drop. “So, how do we get the dagger?” she asked instead.

    Which was a good question, indeed. How would they run such an operation on the fly? Unless Lindor had kept a lot of secrets and everyone he had taken in confidence was dead, Sanchez would know, or would know soon, about Bane, which meant he’d be on guard against similar ploys. And he might know about the presence of a Slayer as well. He would certainly expect another attack like the one against Lindor.

    Chuck looked at Sarah.

    She smiled. “I’ve got a plan.”

    *****​

    Standing in a side alley, dressed in a stolen police uniform, Chuck wasn’t entirely sure if he was still on board with Sarah’s plan. Not only did it seem to have a quite significant potential to cause collateral damage to the entire port, but his own part also seemed a little questionable - he didn’t even speak the local language! What if someone spotted him, and came up to talk to him?

    “Calm down, Bartowski,” Casey whispered next to him. “Stick to the plan and things will work out.”

    “Really? You’re not just trying to calm me down?” Chuck replied. In his experience, plans tended to run into problems and needed adjustment in mid-execution.

    “Do you really want me to answer that?” The agent’s grin told Chuck that the answer to that question was ‘no’.

    He looked away, focusing on the part of the harbour he could see from his spot instead. If he craned his neck a little, he could see their own yacht, still swinging at anchor. As far as they knew, no one had boarded it so far. He pressed his lips together. Compared to his part in the plan, Sarah and Caridad’s parts were far more dangerous.

    “They’ll be fine,” Casey whispered - or growled at low volume - as if he had read Chuck’s thoughts. “They know what they are doing. Well, Walker knows.”

    Chuck wondered if being hurt made Casey more sociable. Or whether the man was simply managing a potential weakness of his team. “I’m just worried. What if they have miscalculated? What if the guards anticipated their plan? What if…”

    A far louder explosion than he had expected cut him off.

    “That’s our cue!” Casey snapped. “Move! And leave the talking to me!”

    They rushed out of the alley, on to the next pier, into the midst of the crowd staring at the remains of their yacht, which had just been turned into a spectacular fireball. Casey was pushing through the throng, shoving people away with enough force to make them stumble and, in one case, fall, towards the small dinghy that had been tied up at the pier here, guarded by two of Sanchez’s men.

    They were staring at the wreckage as well, but Chuck saw how one of them noticed Casey and Chuck approaching and hit the other in the shoulder. Damn.

    Casey yelled something in Spanish - presumably that he was commandeering their boat to search for survivors; at least, that was the plan.

    It was obvious, though, that the men didn’t want to hand their boat over. One angrily gestured as he spoke, the other put a hand on his belt, close to his barely-concealed holster.

    Casey hit the first with a strike to his chin, knocking him into the second. Chuck rushed forward, wincing at the pain that caused, and drew his baton, but, despite his injuries, Casey was quicker and took the second out with a kick to his knee, followed by a kick to his temple as the man collapsed, then subdued the first with a chokehold from behind.

    Chuck half-twirled his baton, trying to look like he had intended that, and went to board the boat. He could do that, at least.

    *****​

    Even in the water, and on the other side of Sanchez’s ship, Sarah had felt the yacht blowing up. It was a little disorienting, but she had expected that - and she had a job to do. Kicking her legs, she broke the surface and quickly swam to the rear of the yacht, where the ladder let swimmers climb in. Before she reached it, she saw Caridad grab it, then push off the ship’s side with both legs and vault on top of the deck. Suppressing a familiar envy, Sarah quickly climbed up herself after kicking off her fins.

    Two guards were on the floor there, knocked out. “Worked like a charm,” the Slayer whispered as Sarah dropped her air tank and slid the diving mask up her forehead. “They were staring at the explosion when I came up behind them!”

    Sarah nodded. It had been her plan, after all. “Let’s go!” she whispered.

    Caridad took the lead as they climbed up to the bridge. A guard there noticed them, but too late - before he could cry out, Caridad’s punch robbed him of breath, followed by a quick jab to the temple that knocked him out while Sarah grabbed the other man on the bridge in a chokehold from behind. The man struggled but soon fell unconscious. Four down. Two more at the pier, whom Casey and Chuck would be dealing with, made six. That left about half a dozen more.

    “Overwatch here. No one else on deck,” Grimes’s voice rang out in Sarah’s ear. Grimes was on the roof of a building on the other end of the harbour, acting as a spotter for Bane, who had their best rifle - it wasn’t as if the man could do anything else with his strained ankle.

    “Copy,” Sarah replied.

    “I heard,” Caridad whispered, then slid down the ladder leading inside the ship. Sarah followed her example - they were on a timer and had a cursed dagger to recover. And, probably, a drug lord to deal with.

    *****​

    Navigating their way through the burning wreckage left by the bomb that Sarah had planted was a little harder than Chuck had expected. It wasn’t as if their zodiac would sink as soon as it hit something, but he’d still rather avoid hitting anything in the first place.

    And he couldn’t help glancing at Sanchez’s yacht, even though Casey was keeping an eye on it. Sarah and Caridad had disappeared inside, and who knew what was awaiting them? Not Chuck, of course.

    They could handle it. Sarah was an experienced spy, and Caridad was a veteran Slayer. They were up against half a dozen guards and a drug lord, and they had the element of surprise. Easy.

    If only he believed it. He gritted his teeth as he manoeuvred around the remains of the yacht’s bow, trying to appear as if they were looking for survivors. Dozens, if not hundreds, were staring at them now, after all, so they had to play their role. The plan depended on it.

    “Stick to the plan...” he whispered to himself. No matter how hard it was. Even though he really wished he could have been with Sarah.

    *****​

    Caridad was moving through the yacht’s interior as if she were on rails, barely giving some rooms a glance as she descended another set of stairs in one leap. Sarah hoped the Slayer was following a scent - or sense, as Chuck had called it - and not just developing tunnel vision. It wasn’t as if she could do anything but stick to the woman - splitting up would have been foolish, and she couldn’t stop the Slayer.

    Another guard stepped in their way, gun rising. Caridad ploughed into him, smashing the man into the wall with enough force to break a few ribs and crack the wooden panels. But there was a second guard, to the side, who yelled a warning before Sarah could shoot him with her silenced pistol. She cursed under her breath - they had lost the element of surprise.

    “No sweat!” Caridad announced with a fierce grin as she rose. “We’re close! I can feel the thing!”

    Before Sarah could reply, she turned to face the wall to the side, then ran straight at it. The wood splintered under the impact, and the Slayer disappeared through the hole. Sarah pursed her lips and followed, stopping at the opening.

    Behind it, Caridad was already fighting Sanchez in a lavishly furnished bedroom. Or, rather, the Slayer was fighting a possessed man - the cartel leader was screaming in a language Sarah hadn’t heard before and wielding the dagger with more speed - and force, Sarah added as she saw him cut a chair in half with a single swipe that had missed Caridad - than was possible for a human.

    She moved a little to the side, avoiding the splintered wood that lined the hole, but Sanchez and Caridad were too close and too quick for her to take a shot.

    The sound of steps on the stairs made her turn around - Sanchez’s guards were on the way. And she was in the middle of a hallway with no cover!

    Clenching her teeth, she slid through the hole, trusting her diving suit to withstand the ragged edges, and crouched down. She shot the first guard on the stairs before he set foot in the hallway, but there were more behind him. And while they wouldn’t brave the stairs and hallway without cover, Sarah and Caridad wouldn’t be able to escape through that route either.

    She glanced to her side. Caridad broke another expensive-looking antique chair on Sanchez’s head, although it didn’t seem to faze the possessed man. But he moved back a little to avoid the next swing, and Sarah used the opportunity to put a bullet in his leg.

    As the drug lord stumbled, Caridad dashed forward, blade flashing - and Sarah winced as a hand holding a knife went flying in a spurt of blood, followed by Sanchez screaming - until a kick to the head shut him up.

    “Couldn’t kick it out of his hand, was like glued,” the Slayer explained. “Don’t touch it!”

    Sarah hadn’t planned on touching it. She was back to watching the hallway. The guards had to hear the screaming as well, which meant… Yes, another attempt to rush them. She shot the first man down, but the second started hosing down the hallway with a submachine gun, and Sarah had to dive to the side to avoid the bullets - they were punching through the interior walls.

    “We need to go!” she yelled as she rolled and came up in a crouch.

    Caridad didn’t answer; the Slayer simply scooped up the dagger and hand with a plastic bag, then dashed over to the porthole above the remains of the bed. It was large enough to serve as an exit, but climbing through would take time they might not have.

    Or so Sarah thought. Caridad apparently had other ideas since she ripped the porthole open, then grabbed Sarah and heaved, and Sarha found herself pushed through the porthole with enough force to fly two yards before she hit the water. She was still on the way back to the surface when another body - Caridad - hit the water next to her. And Sarah hadn’t been able to inform the others.

    *****​

    “Two in the water,” Bane reported.

    Chuck was already turning the boat towards the yacht when Casey asked: “Ours or theirs?”

    “Couldn’t tell.”

    Chuck remembered to use callsigns. “Striker? Striker?”

    “We’re in the water, need pickup,” Sarah’s voice answered.

    Chuck gunned the engine, turning so tightly, he heard Casey curse as the man had to sit down to avoid falling overboard. “Watch it!”

    Chuck ignored the complaint and sped towards Sarah and Caridad. There! He could see them in the cone of light thrown by the open porthole… which was suddenly blocked. By a head.

    And then unblocked by Casey shooting said head.

    Chuck winced. But he had to focus. If he mistimed this… He wet his lips as he cut the engine and let the boat drift to a stop. Yes, right next to the girls.

    Casey pulled Sarah into the boat while Caridad leapt out of the water into the zodiac, and Chuck gunned the engine again, turning away from the yacht as they sped up. “Are you alright?” he yelled over the noise

    “We’re OK,” Caridad answered.

    “Two men on deck!” Morgan’s excited voice sounded through their comms. “They’ve got an RPG!”

    Casey whirled, pushing past Chuck. “Evade!”

    Chuck started weaving, the zodiac bumping against some wreckage in the process. Casey began to return fire, though, with the range opening, Chuck doubted that the man would hit anything with his pistol. Not from a moving boat.

    But Bane was on a roof, with a rifle. “RPG neutralised,” she announced.

    “The other is taking cover,” Morgan added.

    No one else took a shot at them ut Chuck didn’t relax until they had left the harbour and turned to sail towards the rally spot, where they’d pick up Morgan and Bane.

    Before they’d finally leave the island.

    *****​
     
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