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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 22: The Demonstration
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 22: The Demonstration

    Montego Bay, Jamaica, January 8th, 2008

    The Buccaneer Bar was a stark contrast to the Pirate’s Eye Bar. A blinking neon sign hung over the entrance, but the interior was far darker, the music louder, and the decor more garish. And the bouncer looked as if he had been brought up on a strict diet of steroids, in Chuck’s opinion. Or, he added to himself as he noticed Caridad’s scowl, probably whatever demons ate to grow up.

    “Vampire?” he whispered?

    “Not human,” she whispered back.

    Chuck didn’t think Zabuto would have let a vampire work as a bouncer. Unless he had gone off the deep end. But even a demon bouncer was bad news. Usually. On the other hand, not every demon was a threat to humans. Just the vast majority of them. And bouncer was an often violent profession. Although most demons would be unlikely to control themselves in such a position, and that would have caused trouble with the authorities, so perhaps this bouncer could control himself…

    “Keep on your guard,” Sarah said, “but don’t start anything. Not yet.”

    Casey grunted in apparent agreement, and Caridad scoffed but didn’t disagree. Chuck had no intention of starting anything anyway. There were too many civilians - it looked like the bar was a tourist trap. Possibly literally, he added with a shudder.

    “We just walk in? And if they try something, we take them down, hard?” Casey asked.

    “Yes,” Caridad replied.

    The agent nodded. “Fine by me.”

    Chuck exchanged a glance with Sarah, then they were off towards the bar. Chuck couldn’t help feeling like John Wayne crossing the street to enter a saloon where the black hats were hanging out. Well, not John Wayne - probably his young sidekick. Not Sinatra, though.

    The bouncer looked them over, but nodded - apparently, their tourist disguises worked. Though the man’s toothy grin… well, perhaps he had mistaken Caridad’s stare for interest. Of the wrong kind.

    Inside, the music - quite generic hits, from what Chuck could tell - made conversation difficult. And the packed dance floor combined with the dim lighting made for ideal hunting grounds for vampires and other demons. At least the tribal mask from West Africa didn’t seem to be a cheap copy. He looked at Caridad, who was scowling as she glanced around. “More threats?”

    “Don’t know. But I don’t like it. Something’s wrong.”

    They skirted the dance floor and reached the bar. Chuck whistled at the prices listed. Tourist trap, indeed - these prices would have been outrageous even in Downtown Los Angeles. Or in Las Vegas.

    Yet the bar was busy. Three bartenders barely kept up with the orders. And the drinks listed below the tribal mask did seem appealing. Yes, they should try out one. Or more. If people paid that much, the drinks had to be worth it… “I think I’ll take a Bloody Mary,” he said, picking a drink at random.

    “Screwdriver for me,” Casey said.

    “Cosmopolitan,” Sarah added.

    “Damn! It’s a spell!” Caridad exclaimed. “You’re under a spell!”

    “What?” That was stupid. Chuck wasn’t under a spell. He just wanted to buy a good drink. He could afford it, anyway, so why not? He was on vacation, after all! Time to indulge!

    “You’re under a spell!” Caridad repeated. “Everyone here is!”

    “That would mean you were under a spell as well,” Chuck pointed out. “But you’re the one claiming we’re under a spell.”

    “Because I am the Slayer. And you are under a spell!”

    “No, we aren’t,” Casey grumbled. “We just want to get a drink or two.”

    “And if you continue making a scene, we won’t get a drink,” Chuck told her. “Because they’ll throw us out.”

    He saw Caridad flash her teeth in a vicious smile a moment before she pushed him with enough force to make him fall on the table behind them. Then she picked up a chair as screaming tourists scattered and threw it at the tribal mask, breaking it.

    Chuck was blinking. Why had he wanted to buy an overpriced drink? And a Bloody Mary - he didn’t like tomato juice or vodka! “Oh my God!” he exclaimed. “We were under a spell!”

    And, as he realised, they were now the centre of attention in the bar. Damn!

    The demon-bouncer was wading through the patrons backing off - and fleeing - from the brewing fight, coming towards them, and two more bulky men were on the way from behind the bar. Caridad broke off two table legs and swung them around in a flashy move, grinning in anticipation.

    And Casey and Sarah had drawn their guns - which caused even the drunk tourists - and there were a lot of them - to start running. And screaming.

    In less than a minute, the bar was empty but for the staff, Chuck’s group, and half a dozen people who had apparently drunk themselves into a stupor.

    “So, who wants to get slayed first?” Caridad snarled with a feral grin.

    But before the demons could charge - or Caridad pick a target - a voice interrupted them.

    “What’s going on here?”

    A woman stood there, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and decked out in jewellery. Glowing jewellery.

    “She’s a witch,” Caridad confirmed Chuck’s guess.

    “Who are you and why are you attacking me?”

    “We didn’t attack you; you attacked us,” Caridad spat. “You charmed my friends! And you consort with demons!”

    “What?” The woman - the witch - narrowed her eyes. “I don’t consort with demons!”

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Uh… She didn’t mean it that way, I think. But we were affected by the spell on the mask.”

    “Mind-controlled into buying drinks,” Casey spat.

    “Yeah!” Caridad yelled. “And that’s an attack!”

    “You’re a Slayer,” the witch stated. But she was glancing around, Chuck noticed. Probably estimating her odds.

    “You bet your ass I am!” Caridad said. “And you’re going down!”

    “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Chuck stepped up. “Hold it - please.” He wasn’t very keen on fighting a witch. He didn’t want to be turned into a rat. Or see any of his friends suffer that fate. “We didn’t come here to fight you,” he told the witch.

    “Really.” The witch didn’t sound as if she believed them. But she didn’t seem to be as confident any more. And neither did the demons.

    “We came to fight vampires!” Caridad said. “But I’ll take other demons as well!”

    “We don’t tolerate vampires in my bar,” the woman replied.

    “Because you want all the spelt tourists for yourself!” Caridad retorted.

    Damn. The Slayer looked like she was spoiling for a fight. Well, more than usual. Chuck licked his lips. “Uh… I have to say, using magic to sell drinks is a little…cheating?” he shrugged.

    “It’s an effective form of advertising. People come here to drink and dance. I merely encourage their intentions.”

    “Bullshit!” Casey snapped. “I didn’t come here to have a drink.”

    “Why then did you come?”

    Chuck looked around. They were still caught between the bouncer behind them, and two demons and the witch in front of them. Not great odds, but not too bad either. But he didn’t really want to fight.

    “We were told this bar was a hunting ground for vampires,” Sarah told the woman, speaking up for the first time.

    “What? Who said… Dixon!” The woman shook her head. “I bet it was him.”

    “Jim Dixon?” Chuck checked.

    “Yes. I taught him a lesson, and he carries a grudge.”

    “A lesson?” Chuck repeated.

    “That his gang better leave me and mine alone.” She bared her teeth as she spoke.

    Ah. That would fit Casey’s theory. On the other hand, the witch was putting the mind-whammy on tourists and employed demons. Or half-demons. Not exactly the deeds of a pillar of the local community. Well, mostly the spells. Not all demons were bad, after all. And, well, tourists had to expect to get fleeced, didn’t they? “And you don’t let vampires into the bar?”

    “I like repeat customers,” she said.

    “Charmed to return?” Sarah asked in a flat tone.

    Uh oh. She was madder than Chuck had expected. Of course - this had been the first time she had been affected by a mind-controlling spell!

    “No need. People like what my bar has to offer.”

    Caridad scoffed. “You mean they think the drinks are worth the money thanks to your spell, and so they keep coming back!”

    The witch spread her hands with a grin. “Just trying to earn my share of the tourist money.”

    Chuck snorted at that. Well, it wasn’t exactly wrong.

    “With dark magic!” Caridad shook her head. “You’ve been manipulating people! And you’re doing it again!” With a snarl, she flung two throwing spikes at the witch, though both were stopped by a sort of barrier.

    And Chuck blinked. What? Why had he thought it was OK to put spells on tourists? The Scoobies had told him that mind-controlling magic was of the über-bad! “She put another spell on us!” he yelled.

    But Caridad was already moving, charging straight at the witch with a short sword she had drawn from… somewhere. A demon tried to block her path, but the Slayer jumped over him, blade flashing, and sent his head flying.

    “Chuck! Watch out!”

    Sarah! Chuck turned, then gasped - the bouncer was coming right at him! He blinked.

    The man was coming right at him - perfect for a throw! Chuck ducked under the arms grasping for him, grabbed one arm and pushed his hip out.

    He must have miscalculated, though, since the impact didn’t just send his attacker flying - straight into a pillar - but also threw Chuck to the side and away. Chuck didn’t go down, though - he slid a yard back over the dancing floor, falling into a modified Krav Maga-stance. One down… no, the man was getting up.

    Gritting his teeth, Chuck went on the offensive before the man could fully recover from his fall. He took a few steps, speeding up, then jumped, his foot hitting the man in the face, breaking his nose and sending him down on the ground. Chuck landed in a crouch, then stepped forward, kicking the man in the temple. Down.

    Or not - a hand grabbed his ankle, and before Chuck could react, he lost his balance and crashed to the ground himself. A moment later, his enemy pounced, going for Chuck’s throat.

    But that meant he had released Chuck’s foot. He rolled to the side, avoiding the man’s attempt to pin him, and jumped to his feet in a kip-up motion, then slid to the side, dodging the next attack.

    Unbalanced by that, the bouncer crashed into another table, breaking it, and rolled into the chairs behind it. Chuck used the opportunity and grabbed a chair to the side, breaking it over the man’s head. Green blood?

    He blinked.

    That allowed his opponent to recover and get up, and throw a broken chair at him with surprising force. Chuck dodged that by dropping to the floor, following up with a leg sweep. He grabbed a chair leg as the man crashed to the ground, then smashed it against the bouncer’s head. Until the man finally stopped moving.

    So much green… liquid. Blood.

    He blinked.

    “Chuck!”

    Sarah! “Yes?” he turned. Oh. Sarah and Casey had killed the other demon, and Caridad…

    “The witch ran,” Sarah said. “Are you OK?”

    “Uh, yes. I think. Demon blood! Had he gotten demon blood on himself? That could have bad effects. He quickly checked himself No green stains. Or not many. “Where did they run off?”

    “Backroom,” Casey replied. The agent was at the door, peering into the room from which the witch had come. “Don’t see them… there’s a trapdoor.”

    As if on cue, the entire building suddenly shook. Earthquake! Chuck thought as he struggled to keep standing.

    Then he heard the roar. From below.

    “What was that?” Sarah asked.

    “Uh…” Chuck swallowed. “Something big and dangerous.”

    “Thank you, Sherlock.” Casey flashed his teeth at Chuck in a grimace, then entered the backroom.

    He wasn’t a Watcher! He couldn’t identify monsters by sound! Chuck doubted that anyone could. Not unless they had heard this monster before. It wasn’t as if there was a huge library of demon sound files.At least he didn’t know about one.

    “Come on, she might need help!” Casey was already at the trapdoor when Chuck and Sarah entered the room. They ran after him, down the narrow stairs.

    They passed through a surprisingly - or not so surprisingly - large basement filled with beer casks, wine and liquor bottles, snack food and assorted junk, through another door - and there was Caridad, fighting a huge worm. Worm-like demon, Chuck corrected himself - the thing was about fifteen feet long, and three feet thick - it was hard to tell in the dim light shining from strange, glowing plants. But Chuck clearly could see that most of the demon’s head was made out of teeth. Sharp, jagged teeth that barely missed Caridad as she sliced into the thing’s flank, then jumped away.

    Sarah and Casey started shooting, but the bullets didn’t seem to hurt the thing, so they stopped after a few shots.

    “What can we do?” Casey asked.

    Good question. Chuck had no idea. Attacking it with blades or clubs was out - Caridad had trouble keeping up with the monster and was bleeding from several wounds already. Anyone else would have been a monster-snack by now.

    Chuck looked around. The floor was covered with mushrooms - or something like them. Several tunnels seemed to lead further away - and down. And there were baskets full of mushrooms at the back, but no sign of… He noticed a reddish smear on the ground, then saw what was left of the witch behind the broken remains of a particularly tall plant.

    He was definitely not going to go near that monster - Chuck didn’t want to end up squished. But they had to do something! Fire! If they couldn’t behead a demon, setting it on fire was the next default tactic. “Come on, guys! Let’s get some Molotov cocktails!” he yelled, turning back to the storage room. He remembered seeing a jerry can of gasoline on the way through.

    “Hold on a little longer!” he yelled as they rushed back. “We’ll be right back!”

    Caridad didn’t answer, which was a bad sign. Either she had to focus so much on fighting, she couldn’t afford to quip, or she was fixated on her enemy. They had to hurry.

    Both Casey and Sarah had passed him, and when Chuck reached them, Casey was already emptying bottles for Sarah to fill with gasoline. “Find some rags!” Casey yelled. “What a waste of booze!”

    Rags. Rags. Rags! There! Chuck grabbed some towels and rushed to Sarah. She ripped them up, then soaked them in gasoline.

    And then they were rushing back, each of them carrying two or three Molotov cocktails. Caridad looked worse when they arrived - she was bleeding heavily from one of her arms - but she was still going at the demon with all she had.

    “Fall back!” Chuck yelled.

    The Slayer didn’t react. Instead, she went in low, slashing at the thing’s belly. And got almost crushed before she rolled to the side.

    But that was the opening they needed. Two burning bottles smashed into the demon’s head, followed by Chuck’s bottle. With an inhuman shriek, the monster reared up, hitting the ceiling, which shook the earth again. Two more bottles flew. Chuck was about to throw his second when it was ripped out of his hands. Caridad was there. Baring her teeth in a feral snarl, she launched the bottle herself, straight into the demon’s mouth.

    The shrieks grew loud enough to hurt, and the worm started thrashing on the ground, setting the plants ablaze and causing the entire cave to shake.

    Chuck looked at the others with wide eyes. “Uh…”

    “Run!”

    *****​

    “Run!” Sarah barely heard herself over the deafening shrieks of the burning, thrashing demon. But everyone was already running towards the door leading to the bar’s normal basement. She stumbled a little when the ground suddenly shook particularly violently but kept her balance. Chuck, though, slipped and fell in front of her, catching himself on his hands.

    She gasped, then coughed from the smoke rapidly filling the room as she moved to help him, but Caridad was there already, hoisting Chuck up as if he weighed nothing.

    Relief warred with envy as Sarah kept running after the Slayer and Casey. She coughed again, worried - who knew what the smoke from the burning plants would do to a human inhaling it? Nothing good, she thought. But she couldn’t hold her breath so long and run at full speed.

    Behind her, something crashed to the ground. Not the worm - parts of the cave’s ceiling, she realised with a glance over her shoulder. And another part hit the ground, causing more tremors as they entered the bar’s actual basement.

    Her eyes widened a little when she spotted the number of broken liquor bottles on the ground. Strong liquor. Flowing towards the cave…

    She turned. She had to close the door behind them, or the whole basement would go up. But the smoke was already filling the tunnel and entering the basement, obscuring her view. Definitely not natural. She didn’t let that stop her, though, slamming the door shut in the face of approaching flames. And tried not to breathe too many fumes. Now… she turned and stumbled after the others.

    “Sarah!”

    That was Chuck - being carried up the stairs. She gritted her teeth and went after him. Hoping there wouldn’t be too many alcohol fumes. She was already feeling lightheaded, and if not for the railings, would have fallen on the stairs - and probably tumbled to her death.

    “Sarah!”

    “Oh hell! Run, Chuck!”

    Someone - Caridad - grabbed her belt and a moment later, she was hoisted on a shoulder, almost knocking her head against the stairway as she was carried upstairs.

    “Run! Run!”

    From her position, she could see the flickering light cast by flames appearing behind her as they rushed out of the backroom, towards the bar’s doors.

    “I’m running!”

    Then they were through the door, out in the street, and Sarah found herself dumped on Chuck, who stumbled on her weight. “Here!”

    By the time Chuck had managed to put Sarah down on her own swaying feet, Caridad had already rushed back into the bar. What was the Slayer… Oh. The drunks left behind. “We need to help her,” Sarah mumbled. But her legs didn’t cooperate. And neither did Chuck’s. Casey managed to get to the bar’s entrance, probably on sheer spite and pride, then was almost bowled over by a body hitting him.

    As Casey stumbled back, dragging the drunk with him, Sarah realised they were surrounded by a crowd. Of course - the earthquake would have had sent everyone in the area out of the buildings! She really should have expected that! She giggled - she was being silly.

    “Sarah?”

    “Hm?” She snorted again when she saw Casey drop the drunk in the middle of the street. Oh, the flames had reached the bar, or so it seemed - the flickering light was growing stronger in the back.

    “Fire! The bar’s on fire!” someone yelled from the crowd.

    They were slow too. Sarah giggled again. She should sit down and watch the fire. Oh, she was sitting already. Heh! Funny!

    The Slayer appeared in the door once more, throwing two bodies into the street, then disappeared again. Drunk tossing!

    “Sarah?”

    “Chuck?”

    “Are you alright?”

    “Yes. Yes. It’s just funny.”

    Caridad reappeared, carrying two more drunks. She didn’t toss them, though, to Sarah’s disappointment, but carried them out into the street. Feh.

    But then the bar blew up, like a firework, and Sarah clapped. Pretty!

    Chuck clapped as well. Only Casey didn’t, of course. And Caridad. Probably mad she hadn’t been able to personally kill the monster.

    Feh. Sarah leaned against Chuck, who was sitting now, too, and rested her head on his shoulder. She was feeling rather tired, and Chuck made for a good pillow.

    *****​

    Montego Bay, Jamaica, January 9th, 2008

    Sarah woke up with a splitting headache. Just how much had she drunk last night? Then she remembered. The meeting with Jim. The bar. The spell. The witch and the demon. She hadn’t drunk anything.

    But she had inhaled the smoke from burning mushrooms - and burning demon, probably. Oh, damn!

    She closed her eyes and groaned. She was in their hotel room, but where was Chuck? “Chuck?” She had to cough - her throat hurt, too.

    “Sarah? Did I wake you?”

    There he was, standing in the door to the bathroom. “No, you didn’t.” She shook her head, but that made the headache worse.

    “You inhaled the most of the smoke, I think,” Chuck said. “You were pretty, uh…”

    “Stoned,” she finished for him.

    “Uh, yes.” He nodded. “Morgan says the mushrooms are like weed, just stronger. We didn’t get a sample, but we could describe them for him. And we checked with London.”

    That was good news. “No lasting effects then?” Chuck and Grimes had had some stories about those. Stories which were not really funny once you thought about it happening to yourself.

    He shook his head as he sat down on the bed next to her. “Not as far as we know. It seems as if the witch wasn’t just selling overpriced drinks, but also special ‘weed’ laced with demon mushrooms.”

    “Ah.” She pursed her lips. First Sarah had been magically mind-controlled, then drugged. If the witch hadn’t been killed already, Sarah would go and hunt her down herself. She frowned at another thought. “I didn’t do anything that… compromised our cover, did I?” Or Anything embarrassing.

    “Uh… no. You just wanted to use me as a pillow. In the middle of the street,” he told her with a lopsided smile. “It was cute.”

    She snorted. Of course Chuck would think so. It was still embarrassing. And even if it could have been much worse, she wouldn’t let this go. Couldn’t. “We need to pay another visit to Jim.” He had sent them there, after all.

    Chuck nodded. “Yes, we do.”

    *****​

    “Did you notice the earthquake?” Bane asked at breakfast. “They say it was very localised; limited to parts of the town. It sounds more as if someone used explosives underground. A bar burned down as well.”

    “It was a drug lab,” Casey said. “It went up while we were sorting out a misunderstanding.”

    Technically correct, Chuck thought.

    “A misunderstanding?” Bane’s eyebrows rose.

    “We were given faulty intel by a local source,” Chuck explained. “Someone might have tried to use us to deal with their competition.”

    “That’s an old trick,” Bane commented. “That’s why you always double-check your intel.”

    “That’s not always possible,” Chuck pointed out.

    “We were scouting the place out when we were attacked,” Sarah said. “We just defended ourselves.”

    “They had drugged the drinks,” Chuck added.

    “What? Is our cover compromised?” Bane looked alarmed.

    “No,” Caridad said between emptying a huge platter from the breakfast buffet. “They didn’t know who we are or they wouldn’t have dared to attack us.” She grabbed a pot of coffee and refilled her mug for the third or fourth time.

    “Really.” Bane didn’t seem convinced. “They will expect retaliation, though.”

    “Won’t help them,” Caridad replied.

    “We might need to talk to our, err, mutual contact, though,” Morgan pointed out. “This might be another misunderstanding.”

    Sarah scoffed. “I don’t think so. They must have known what was happening in this bar.”

    Chuck agreed, but it would be better to check with Zabuto anyway. Before he could say so, though, Casey spoke up: “We don’t want to give them another warning. Let’s just hit the scumbag and find out what he planned.”

    “Uh…” Chuck grimaced. “We’re not about to torture him? I’m bad with torture. I mean, I feel bad about it. I mean, about doing it to someone, too. Not just about getting tortured.”

    “We get it, Bartowski.” Casey scoffed. “Don’t worry - you can go and play some games in the arcade while we ask the questions.”

    “There’s an arcade here?” Morgan perked up. “Where? It’s been ages since I was in a good arcade!”

    Now that he thought of it, Chuck hadn’t been to an arcade in years, either. Perhaps…

    “I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Casey said, baring his teeth. “It was just a figure of speech.”

    “Oh.” Morgan sounded disappointed.

    “So… we go and hit the guy? I mean, go and ask him a few questions about not telling us all we need to know?” Caridad asked. A little too eagerly, in Chuck’s opinion. This could have been a mere misunderstanding or faulty intelligence on Jim’s part.

    “Exactly,” Sarah answered with a fierce smile.

    Chuck winced. If Sarah and Caridad agreed on a course of action, things were bound to turn violent.

    “I can check the location out,” Bane offered. “He hasn’t met me, yet.”

    “He’ll know that you’re with us,” Sarah told her. “We arrived together.”

    “A mistake, in hindsight,” Bane said after a moment.

    “It would have been more suspicious to arrive separately and then quickly become close friends here,” Sarah retorted.

    Chuck wouldn’t call them ‘close friends’, though. Anything but, what with the tension between Casey and Caridad and Sarah and Bane. And Caridad and Sarah didn’t get along perfectly well, either. And Casey was quite abrasive…

    He snorted. Where team dynamics were concerned, Team Bartowski was one of a kind.

    “What’s so funny?” Casey asked with narrowed eyes.

    “Uh, nothing, nothing. Just a stray thought. A real stray thought, you know, not a flash,” Chuck quickly explained. “Uh, so… how do we do it? If he’s not at the bar, we’ll have to find him.”

    “He might be in hiding already,” Caridad said. “He’s must know that we won’t take this lying down.”

    “They know him at the bar. They’ll tell us his address.” Casey grinned.

    “Uh…” Chuck grimaced. “But won’t he expect that? He won’t be at home, will he? And you still have another mission, right?” he reminded Caridad.

    “Right,” she agreed - though with a pout.

    “Well, he used the bar as a meeting spot. If he has gone to ground, then we can at least make trouble for him there,” Sarah said.

    “And if we can always come back and settle things,” Caridad added.

    It seemed both spies and Slayers held grudges.

    Although… Jim was a contact of Zabuto. If Jim wasn’t trustworthy, then Zabuto probably wasn’t either. And that would interest the Council. He forced himself to smile. “So… tonight, we hunt?”

    Instead of laughing, everyone nodded. Even Morgan.

    *****​

    “...though results are not to be expected quickly.”

    Hearing the news on the radio about a team of geologists investigating the ‘localised earthquake’ and driving past several buildings where people were fixing small damages, Chuck felt guilty. A lot of people had to deal with the aftermath of the battle against that demon worm. The ones whose homes had suffered some damages were actually better off - they could fix it - but the geologists were on a fool’s errand; even if they managed to discover the actual reason for the ‘earthquake’, the Council would cover it up. Which would mean more work for the Council. Well, they would already have to deal with the police investigation of the fire. Unless the witch had paid off the local cops, that would require intervening - the local authorities wouldn’t miss the underground cave system once the rubble had been cleared enough to gain access to the basement.

    Well, Chuck and his friends and allies hadn’t known about the demon when they visited the bar, had they? It wasn’t really their fault, was it? The ones at fault were the now-dead witch, her equally dead demon minions - and, should he have known about it, Jim Dixon.

    Whom they were about to visit in the evening. But first, they had to scout out a good spot for a demonstration with a vampire. It wouldn’t do to catch a vampire without having a safe and secluded place ready. In Los Angeles, they, especially Caridad, knew their way around. There, they’d be able to improvise even in an alley. But here? In a tourist trap?

    He winced at his choice of words, even if he hadn’t actually said them out loud. They had just burned down a literal tourist trap, after all.

    “Chuck? Is something wrong?” Sarah asked. She sounded tense.

    Oh. “Just thinking,” he told her, “about the aftermath of the ‘earthquake’. The Council will be covering it up.”

    “Will they be annoyed about having to send more people to the island just after they had a courier come pick up the artefacts?” Sarah asked as she took another corner.

    “I don’t think so. This is pretty routine, after all. Usually, the local Wachter would be handling this, but since they don’t have a local Watcher in Jamaica…” He shrugged. Someone familiar with the Caribbean would do it, he thought. “They might let Zabuto handle it.”

    “Even though his local ‘friends’ might be responsible?”

    “Well… keeping the supernatural secret is something even demons support. Most of them, at least. But I think that the Council won’t trust Zabuto as much as they had until now. Once they receive Morgan’s report, at least.”

    “Do you think they’ll ask us to investigate him?”

    “Zabuto? Hm.” Chuck pursed his lips as he considered this. It would make sense, but did the Council trust them enough to set them on such a task? Caridad would be trusted, but she wasn’t exactly an investigator or auditor, and Morgan was still in training. But… “They might ask Morgan to investigate, knowing it would involve us as well, I think.”

    “Ah.” Sarah didn’t sound pleased hearing about such machinations.

    “We could consider it a test?” Chuck ventured.

    Sarah nodded, though Chuck had the impression that she was more motivated by dealing out some payback for the whole affair than anything else. “So… see any useful warehouse?” he said after a moment. They had left the area affected by the tremors, and the tourist zones as well.

    “A few, but we’ll have to check them out,” Sarah replied, nodding towards a cluster of buildings ahead of them. “An isolated place outside the town might be better,” she said.

    Chuck nodded. Caridad was checking out the countryside, under the guise of doing some bicycling in the area, but she hadn’t reported back yet.

    So, they had to check out warehouses. Chuck hoped they weren’t too successful and found a deserted one that had already been taken over by a few vampires or demons. It was the middle of the day, but that didn’t mean such an encounter would be safe.

    *****​

    As it had turned out, the warehouses weren’t quite deserted. Just not used very much. But there were security guards patrolling. Fortunately, they had readily believed that Sarah and Chuck had merely gotten lost on the way to a beach. But they couldn’t use the warehouses for a demonstration. And since Caridad hadn’t found a secluded spot close enough to Montego Bay to drag a vamp there on foot, they would have to trust that they could find a deserted side alley for a demonstration. Which was what they were doing now.

    Chuck shook his head as he and Sarah walked with the rest of the group through the harbour area of Montego Bay, mixing with a throng of tourists out to enjoy the nightlife. At least Casey would be able to scare off any passers-by - the man was constantly scowling, it seemed. Not exactly like a tourist would behave on vacation, in Chuck’s opinion. Not that he’d mention that to the agent, of course.

    “Where are we going?” Bane asked from the rear - Morgan was still on crutches but didn’t want to miss out on this. ‘As the only Watcher available, I should be present’, he had claimed, though Chuck suspected his friend mostly wanted to be there when Bane found out about demons.

    “I’ve heard about a great club,” Caridad, leading them, said. “It should be around here, somewhere.”

    “You said that ten minutes ago,” Bane replied. “Can’t we ask for directions?”

    “No,” Caridad told her. “I’m sure it’s right…” She trailed off, and Chuck could see her grin widen. “Gotcha!”

    And the Slayer sped away - towards a dark side alley.

    Chuck almost groaned as they gave chase - sort of. Unlike the Slayer, they had more trouble pushing through the crowd on the street; they weren’t supernaturally fast and graceful, nor did people give way to them almost instinctively. Well, Casey probably could come close.

    “Let’s go!” he heard Morgan behind him.

    “What? You can’t fight like this!” Bane objected.

    “I won’t have to, trust me.”

    The Chuck was at the alley’s entrance, looking into it. It was very dark - a twisting turn ensured that you couldn’t see much of it from the main street. If Caridad hadn’t entered first, he wouldn’t like to go down this alley. Well, he didn’t like it anyway, but it was - probably - safe.

    Sarah pushed past him, taking the lead as they entered the alley, Casey falling back. “I’ll keep this end clear,” he said.

    The sounds from the street faded slightly after the first twisting turn. In exchange, Chuck could hear the sounds of fighting. And taunting.

    “Oh, did that hurt? As much as this, or not?”

    “Bitch!”

    “Oh, I’m hurt! Not!”

    “Ow!”

    “No running! I need you… yes, keep that face!”

    Sarah drew her pistol a moment before someone appeared in front of them, stumbling. Oh, a tourist, probably drunk. He didn’t seem to be hurt - Chuck couldn’t see blood, at least - but was obviously terrified. “Mo-monster!” he stammered, reaching for Chuck.

    “Ah…” Chuck took a step back. He didn’t want to deal with a drunk vampire victim. Or demon victim. But probably vampire.

    “Run!” Sarah snapped.

    The man blinked, then ran. Or tried to. It was more like a fast stumble. But it got him away, and Chuck and Sarah continued.

    Another turn - Montego Bay’s long history was showing here - they reached Caridad and her enemy. Or victim. The Slayer had a vampire in game face on the ground, one foot on its back. The demon’s arms and legs were broken - even a vampire’s limbs didn’t bend that way.

    “There you are! Where’s Bane?”

    “She’ll be right here,” Chuck said. “Morgan can’t run.” Which Caridad should have known.

    She huffed for some reason, then slammed her heel on the vampire’s hand. Chuck winced at the sound of crunching bones. It was just a corpse possessed by a demon, he reminded himself as he started to pull a few sticks, a couple vials and a decently-sized mirror out of his pack. And a lamp. They would need light for the demonstration, after all.

    Chuck hoped that if the alley was secluded enough for a vampire feeding, it would be secluded enough for a vampire killing.

    “Ah, there we are!” Morgan had arrived. “Sorry guys - that idiot almost tackled me.”

    “What are you doing?” Bane asked. She stepped closer, a frown on her face. “And who is this?”

    “Not who, what,” Caridad replied with a grin as she, once more, broke the vampire’s arms.

    “It’s a vampire,” Chuck said. “It tried to eat the drunk guy you saw.”

    “A vampire.” Bane didn’t quite scoff, but it was clear she didn’t believe him. “Really.”

    Well, they never did. Which was why Chuck had brought so many things to prove his claim. Even though it was usually the mirror check that convinced people that this wasn’t a trick.

    He bet Bane would insist on using her own mirror before she was convinced, though.

    *****​

    As Chuck had expected, the cross and holy water hadn’t been enough, nor the way the demon healed its wounds. It had taken the mirror. Bane’s own mirror, to be exact. And she had double-checked it for any sign of tampering before she had finally accepted that this wasn’t a trick played on her.

    “Vampires exist.”

    “And we hunt them! Well, I do. The rest is helping.” Caridad said as she staked what was left of the vampire.

    “Demons exist.”

    “Only as long as they behave, or we destroy them!”

    “Magic is real.”

    “And a bitch to fight!”

    Chuck couldn’t help thinking that Bane wasn’t really listening to Caridad’s replies. He cleared his throat. “Yes. Now you know what the Council’s doing. They’re fighting a global war on demons and other threats to humanity as a whole.” Putting it in familiar terms would hopefully help.

    “And we’re winning!” Caridad announced.

    “That’s…” Bane blinked. “Those were real zombies!” She stared at them. “That wasn’t a twin - that was a zombie!”

    “Yes. A magic-using zombie, we believe,” Morgan said. “Who controlled the rest.”

    “And he had demons as bodyguards,” Caridad added.

    “And what... who are you?” Bane looked at the Slayer. “You’re inhumanly strong and fast.”

    “Hey! I’m human. Just a little better. Well, a lot.”

    “She’s a Vampire Slayer,” Morgan interrupted Caridad. “Chosen by fate to fight demons. Empowered by a great power many millennia ago, Slayers have been fighting the forces of darkness forever. As soon as one falls, another is called.” Morgan’s delivery could use some work, Chuck thought. But it was essentially correct.

    “Well, only until we changed the rules!” Caridad cut in. “Now there’s an army of us, and we’re cleaning house!”

    “An army?” Bane looked alarmed.

    “A strictly neutral army,” Chuck pointed out. Best to nip whatever Bane was thinking into the bud. “The Council’s not getting involved in politics of any kind.”

    “Not unless demons are involved,” Caridad said. “We’re like the UN of the Supernatural. Just not useless.”

    That was a slightly unfortunate comparison, in Chuck’s opinion. The UN did get involved in politics - or would like to if it had the power.

    Bane shook her head. “So, that ‘misunderstanding’ last night…?”

    “A witch was using magic to make tourists buy overpriced drinks in her bar,” Caridad said. “And when I took offence to that, she ran to her demon patron. The earthquake? That was the thing thrashing around as it died in its cave.”

    “What?”

    “Oh, don’t worry - it was a normal demon, just larger than normal. Not a real apocalypse. We already stopped one this season.” The Slayer smiled.

    “Apocalypse?”

    Uh oh. Chuck winced. Perhaps they should have planned out these revelations a little better.

    “Attempts to end the world, or destroy a city or so,” Morgan explained. There are usually one or two per year. We prevented Los Angeles from being buried under demon slime with the Council last month.”

    “Demon slime? Los Angeles? What is going on here?”

    Chuck sighed. They never took that part well.

    *****​
     
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 23: The Disclosure
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 23: The Disclosure

    Montego Bay, Jamaica, January 9th, 2008

    “...and then we contained the slime until we could close the portal to the slime dimension,” Morgan finished.

    “With magic.”

    “Yes.”

    “A portal to the ‘slime dimension’.”

    “Yes. Or a rift - the definitions are a little unclear.”

    “I don’t think the exact terminology matters, Morgan,” Chuck cut in.

    “Yeah,” Caridad agreed. “Suffice to say that we stopped the whole slime invasion.”

    “We and the Scoobies,” Morgan corrected her.

    Caridad huffed in response but didn’t contradict him.

    “This is insane!” Bane exclaimed. “You’re talking about a global conspiracy to hide the existence of a threat to the entire world! A threat the CIA and NSA are completely unaware of! This is ridiculous!”

    “Actually, the government and selected people in the intelligence services are aware of it,” Chuck pointed out.

    “Yeah, there was the whole Initiative debacle,” Morgan added.

    “I think we shouldn’t discuss this in the middle of an alley,” Sarah cut in. “Let’s gather Casey and return to the hotel.”

    “Yes,” Chuck agreed.

    “There might be more vampires around,” Caridad said, looking down the alley.

    “Did you sense anything?” Morgan asked.

    “No.”

    “We took long enough to find one vampire. Let’s go back to the hotel now.”

    Morgan could be decisive if he had to, Chuck noted.

    Caridad still grumbled all the way back to the hotel. Fortunately, that wasn’t a long walk - now that they weren’t following a roaming Slayer on a hunt.

    *****​

    “So… anyone want a snack?” Morgan asked, sitting - awkwardly, with one leg, the one with the sprained ankle, stretched out - next to the minibar in Casey and Caridad’s room. He opened it and blinked at the, as Chuck could see, empty fridge. “Never mind.”

    “Vampire hunting is hungry work,” Caridad replied from her bed, where she was sprawled out amidst half a dozen sandwiches she had bought from a food stall on the way back.

    “I don’t think a single fledgeling vampire is enough to work up an appetite,” Casey said from his bed.

    “Hey! If I had staked it quickly, maybe. But I had to keep it down while Miss Spy there tried everything she could think of to prove reality wrong. That took some time.”

    Fortunately, Bane seemed to ignore the not-so-subtle dig, Chuck saw. The spy shook her head. “This doesn’t make sense. The United States wouldn’t leave such a crucial area of defence to foreigners.”

    “Technically, they have special forces hunting demons,” Chuck told her.

    “In South America,” Morgan added.

    “They’re more like walking demon bait - anything serious crops up, we have to bail them out,” Caridad cut in after swallowing a large mouthful of bread and sausage. “But they’re useful when it comes to keeping the other military idiots from trying to deal with demons and magic. Buffy and the others already had to save one military base in Sunnydale.”

    “What?” Bane gasped.

    “Demon Research Initiative,” Morgan informed her. “They had a secret underground base for capturing and researching demons. It went wrong after a few months, and the demons took over. The Scoobies had to clean the base out and save the few survivors before an army of demon-soldier-hybrids swept across the country.”

    “That was after graduation,” Chuck said. “Morgan and I had already left the town, so we weren’t around for that.”

    “We helped stop Mayor Wilkins from turning into a major demon and eating all of Sunnydale at our graduation, though.” Morgan smiled. “Even though we had to blow up the school to save it.”

    Casey grunted something unpleasant - someone was touchy about the old military joke, it seemed.

    “What?”

    “Oh, that wasn’t normal. Sunnydale was built above a Hellmouth,” Chuck explained. “So it attracted demons and other weirdness from all over the world. But the Hellmouth is closed now.”

    “And the town disappeared into a sinkhole as a side-effect,” Sarah spoke up. “As you can see, dabbling in magic is not recommended.”

    “And you’ve known about this, but kept it secret from the general.” Bane narrowed her eyes at Sarah, then at Casey.

    “Yes,” Sarah admitted. “Although that was merely following the lawful orders of her superiors.”

    “The general’s not cleared to know this,” Casey added.

    “And you are?” Bane retorted.

    “Yes,” Morgan said. “Since the Council cleared them.”

    “A foreign organisation.”

    “Actually, it’s headed by Americans these days,” Chuck told her. “But it’s also an allied organisation. There are treaties with the US government.”

    “It’s all above board. Well, sort of,” Morgan added with a shrug.

    “The Council takes care of the supernatural threats, and the government stays out of our way,” Caridad summed up.

    Bane shook her head. “And why doesn’t anyone know about this? You say vampires and demons are hiding among humans - and preying on them! Why is this a secret?”

    “Ah…” Chuck winced as he raised his index finger. “That’s because if too many humans believe - really believe - in demons and magic, the Old Ones will wake up.”

    “And no one, not even the demons, wants that to happen. That would be the end of the world. Literally,” Morgan said. “And the hell dimensions will probably follow.”

    Bane blinked. “...what?”

    *****​

    They left Grimes to explain the finer details of the supernatural world and their role in it to Bane and returned to their rooms. Or, in Caridad’s case, went hunting, as the Slayer had announced while leaving. Sarah didn’t know if that was merely an excuse not to spend the evening in the same room as Casey and didn’t really care, either.

    “Do you think she’ll…” Chuck shrugged. “I mean…”

    “...play ball?” she finished for him.

    “Yes.” He nodded emphatically.

    She shrugged in response. “I don’t know.” Not yet. “She seems to still be in shock.” Sarah certainly had taken the whole revelation about vampires, demons and magic much better than Bane.

    “Morgan’s with her.”

    That might not help matters overly much, in Sarah’s opinion. Which she didn’t share with Chuck. “It’s a lot to take in,” she said, instead. “But she knows our orders.”

    “Both the official and unofficial ones,” Chuck agreed.

    “Yes.” She started to undress, taking care to appear unconcerned and casual. He was staring at her, she noticed with satisfaction as she dropped her shirt.

    He cleared his throat. “Uh....” And there he licked his lips. “I mean… do you think she’ll follow the official or unofficial orders?”

    With her back to him, she slowly pulled her pants down, putting a little extra wriggle into it. “I think she is smart enough to realise that if she doesn’t follow the official orders, her superiors will use her as a scapegoat as soon as the Council puts pressure on the agency.” And if Bane wasn’t smart enough, then she deserved what would happen to her.

    “But doesn’t that mean that she’ll also realise that, like you and Casey, she’ll be seen as compromised?” Chuck said.

    She looked over her shoulder at him while she dropped her sports bra. “That’s likely, yes.”

    He cleared his throat again, and she noticed that he was blushing. “So… she’ll be looking for a way out as well?”

    Bane probably had a few plans to get out should she end up burned by the agency - Sarah had made such plans herself, after all. “She might work on Morgan,” she told him turning around and picking her robe up from the chair on to which she had dropped it earlier.

    Chuck didn’t answer until she had slipped into the robe. “Uh, yes. But she’s doing that anyway, isn’t she?”

    “Yes.” She faced him, not bothering to close her robe. “Aren’t you getting ready for bed?” she asked with a sly smile.

    He blinked, almost as long as when he flashed, then nodded. “Uh, yes…”

    “Let me help you,” she told him as she walked over to him, hips swaying. “And don’t bother with pyjamas.”

    She hadn’t used a favour so they could stay at this hotel on the CIA’s tab for nothing, after all.

    *****​

    Jamaica, Montego Bay, January 10th, 2008

    The Pirate’s Eye Bar hadn’t been affected by the ‘earthquake’, as far as Chuck could tell. He couldn’t see any damage or fresh repairs, and they didn’t seem to have picked up the business of the now destroyed Buccaneer Bar, either - the patrons appeared to be the same mix of mostly locals and a few tourists that they had seen during their last visit.

    But… “Guys, I think the bouncer’s wary of us,” Chuck said in a low voice as they approached the bar. Did the staff have a guilty conscience?

    “He should be,” Caridad said, chuckling. “They know I’m the Slayer. And they know what happened to the Buccaneer Bar when we visited it.”

    “I bet the traitor’s fled,” Casey said in a low growl.

    “We’ll see,” Sarah said.

    “And we’ll talk, first, right?” Chuck looked at the others. “Right?”

    After a slightly too long pause, they nodded - if grudgingly, in Caridad’s case. Chuck breathed a sigh of relief as they reached the entrance.

    The bouncer didn’t bother them - didn’t even attempt to search them for weapons. Jim must have informed them of their identity. Or, at least, Caridad’s.

    Well, they had expected that. As before, Morgan and Bane had stayed at the hotel. Morgan because he was still limping, Bane because she still hadn’t fully recovered from last night’s revelations. And if anything happened, they would be able to call in help from either the CIA or the Council. Or both.

    Inside, the group slowly made their way to the bar, checking for ambushes and curses on the way - well, the others did that. Chuck tried to check on the people present; see if the Intersect triggered on any of them.

    But it didn’t, and they reached the bar without incident.

    “Jim’s waiting in the back room,” the bartender told them in lieu of a greeting.

    That was a surprise. Jim must be either confident or ignorant. Or this might be a trap. Chuck looked at Caridad, but she merely nodded with a grin. So, she hadn’t smelled anything demon-y, yet.

    “Fine,” Sarah told the bartender, then turned away and headed towards the door to the backroom. Chuck sped up a little to catch up to her. He wasn’t carrying weapons other than a stake and the holy water vials, but, in a pinch, the Intersect should activate.

    Sarah didn’t bother knocking - she went straight into the room.

    Where Jim and Zabuto were waiting.

    Great.

    “You sent us against a witch with demon allies without warning us!” Caridad spat. “Are you stupid, evil or both?”

    Chuck winced. That wasn’t helping - even if she was correct.

    Jim frowned at her, then sneered. “Hey - you’re the Slayer; you said so yourself. You could easily deal with Mary and her crew - and you did, too!” he retorted in his heavy accent. “I didn’t think you wanted or needed a warning.”

    “Really? You didn’t want to see us get hurt, maybe lose a few people walking into a trap, huh?” Caridad marched straight up to Jim’s desk, then veered off and stepped to the side - the one opposite Zabuto.

    Jim looked more nervous now, Chuck noticed. Did he realise that he had miscalculated? Chuck looked at Zabuto, who hadn’t said anything yet. What was he doing here?

    “And don’t try to point your gun at me or I gut you like a fish!” Caridad snapped, and a knife that almost qualified as a short sword appeared in her hand.

    Sarah and Casey drew their guns at once and spread out, covering both Jim and Zabuto. And Zabuto had a crystal in his hand - probably containing a curse that would be released should it shatter. Like, say, if the retired Watcher got shot.

    But would Sarah and Casey be aware of that? Enough to stop them from shooting him out of reflex, should things start to go wrong?

    “And tell your crew to stay put!” Caridad told the young man with a glare at the door behind Chuck. “If they enter this room, it’ll go bad for them!”

    Zabuto raised his crystal. “I believe that you all would be well advised to calm down,” he said - his Queen’s English a sharp contrast to Jim’s accent.

    “Or?” Casey aimed at him.

    “This crystal both is fragile and contains a rather nasty curse,” Zabuto confirmed Chuck’s expectations.

    That didn’t make Casey lower his pistol, of course. Quite the contrary, actually. “You’d be dead before the thing hits the ground,” the agent stated with a twisted grin.

    And, as a glance told Chuck, Caridad was now eyeing Zabuto. Probably trying to figure out how to stop the crystal from getting shattered without shattering it herself.

    “And you’d join me soon afterwards - and you’ll wish you had been shot,” Zabuto retorted.

    Chuck caught Sarah glancing at him and cleared his throat. Best to get on with why they were here before someone started a fight by accident. “You withheld vital information,” he told Jim. “You didn’t treat with us in good faith.”

    “I told you - it didn’t look as if you needed anything else than the address.”

    Caridad scoffed. “Your ego couldn’t handle me being better at hunting demons.”

    She still wasn’t helping! Chuck gritted his teeth and frowned at her, but she ignored him, staring at Jim. “We’re all on the same side,” he said, hoping that he wasn’t lying. “Playing such games - for whatever reason - only helps the demons.”

    “The Council isn’t exactly interested in cooperation,” Zabuto said. “Yet we’re expected to drop everything and support them without question when they call on us?”

    “We’re not your dogs!” Jim spat.

    “We’re not the Council,” Chuck replied. “We’re just another group working with them - with Caridad, to be precise.” Which was true even though they were planning to join the Council. “And we came to you so we wouldn’t cause trouble out of ignorance. We told you that. And yet, you withheld information - and so we ended up with a bar burned down, and a small earthquake damaging the area. Exactly what we wanted to avoid.”

    Jim pressed his lips together and glared at him, but Zabuto nodded if a little reluctantly.

    “You knew about the spell on the bar, didn’t you?” Caridad said.

    “We suspected,” Zabuto admitted. “But given the animosity between Jim’s friends and Mary, and my own reputation, we were unable to confirm it without causing the very fight we wanted to avoid.”

    “You should have told us!” Cariad exclaimed.

    Zabuto looked at Jim. “Sorry,” the young man muttered.

    As far as apologies went, it was one of the least honest Chuck had ever seen since the time the school board had forced Snyder to retract a detention against a bullying victim. And he knew his friends thought the same. But they weren’t here to start another fight, even if Caridad might have temporarily forgotten. So he nodded with a thin smile. “Alright. Glad we sorted this out. Now, are there any similar problems we’re bound to encounter during our stay?”

    “No.” Jim scoffed. “We keep the island safe.”

    Caridad snorted but, for a change, held her tongue.

    Chuck looked at Zabuto. The older man inclined his head. “There are a few practitioners on the island,” he said, “but they keep a low profile and wouldn’t bother the Slayer.”

    That wasn’t exactly a rousing endorsement, but Chuck was willing to take what they could get before someone got a cramp and everyone started shooting everyone. “Alright. So, we will enjoy our vacation, and you keep doing what you do, and in less than a week, we’ll be out of your hair.”

    He was the only one smiling at his proclamation, he noticed. But no one was shooting or cursing or slashing anyone.

    Which was a step up from their latest tense discussion inside a bar.

    *****​

    Jamaica, Montego Bay, Sandals Montego Bay, January 10th, 2008

    “Get up, stand up; stand up for your rights!”

    Chuck closed his eyes and sighed. The weather was perfect, the room great, the food excellent, and the pool just like he liked it, but he wished there was a little more variety in the music. He’d heard enough Bob Marley and love songs for a year.

    “Getting homesick?” Sarah asked as she got back from a brief dip in the pool. “Two more days and we’ll fly home.”

    “Oh, no, no,” he quickly said. “I’m just trying to avoid singing along with the lyrics which seem to have been burned into my mind.” He blinked. “And that was an unfortunate choice of words, sorry.”

    She chuckled at his lapse. “The music selection here is a little… conservative,” she said.

    “Bob Marley, conservative? He’s got to be turning in his grave,” Chuck said. “Although I guess the saying that the older you get, the more conservative you become holds true for songs as well.”

    She laughed again. He loved seeing her laugh. It made her look carefree. And beautiful, of course. But she always was beautiful. “Thank you,” he said. “For this,” he added, gesturing at the pool and the bar next to it, when she raised her eyebrows in a silent question.

    “You’re welcome” she replied. “It’s too bad it was cut short so much.”

    “We’ve spent most of our days relaxing,” he said. “It’s only the nights that were really affected by, well, you know.”

    “And not all of the nights.” She sent a sly grin at him that made him blush a little. Which, in turn, made her smile again.

    “Does this happen often?” he asked after a moment. “To spies, I mean.”

    “Hm?”

    “Spending a week on vacation.” It wasn’t the first time they had spent some time ‘maintaining their cover’, after all. But the first time in a Caribbean resort.

    “It’s not uncommon,” she told him. “Spies need to decompress as well, after missions. And doing so while maintaining a cover ID is simply efficient.”

    “I bet it is.” He gave her a sceptical look, to which she responded with another smile. “I could get used to this,” he said. “Well, less lethal danger would be preferable, of course. But, still…” He could get used to being a spy.

    As long as it was with her, of course, he added to himself when she nodded in agreement.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, January 13th, 2008

    “Home sweet home!” Chuck said as they disembarked from the plane. After hours stuck in a narrow seat, he couldn’t wait to stretch his limbs again. Another hour in that plane, and he’d need another vacation to recover. He’d prefer fighting a vampire to flying economy. Well, only if he had a flamethrower and the vampire was tied down.

    Shaking his head, he snorted.

    “What’s so funny?” Casey growled behind him. “Care to share with the class?”

    Chuck suppressed the flashback to Sunnydale High that brought up. “Just a stray thought,” he said. Casey was grumpier than usual, what with having to spend hours next to Caridad, and Chuck didn’t want to further annoy the man.

    Contrary to Ellie’s opinion, Chuck did learn from his mistakes. Eventually.

    “I’ll have to check how bad things got in my absence,” Caridad announced behind them.

    “Phil will have kept things under control,” Morgan said.

    “He’s no Slayer,” Caridad retorted. “And he better not have fought demons without me!”

    “If there were a problem, he’d have called in another Slayer. Or a team.”

    “What? Los Angeles is my town!” Caridad’s growl sounded remarkably like Casey’s, Chuck noticed. “He better not have called in someone else!” She looked like she was about to rush off to Phil.

    “We need to get our luggage,” Chuck reminded her. And their weapons and other gear.

    “Right.” She nodded, then made a beeline towards the baggage claim area.

    Chuck didn’t bother reminding her that it would take at least a quarter-hour until their luggage would appear there. Probably longer - the airport was packed.

    Still, it wasn’t as if they had anything better to do, and they followed in the Slayer’s wake at a more sedate pace so Morgan could keep up. Chuck glanced at Bane, who was helping his friend. They hadn’t really talked about things. Not since the revelation. Well, Morgan had talked to her, a lot - they had certainly looked like a couple at the hotel - but Chuck wasn’t entirely sure if he could trust his friend’s judgement when it came to the spy.

    The debriefing with the general would be interesting. But more interesting would be what Bane would be reporting privately afterwards.

    They hadn’t told her about Orion being Chuck’s dad, after all. She had no idea that even her secure channels would be monitored. Or so Chuck hoped - the woman was a veteran spy and might expect that.

    But between Dad and Willow, they should have all bases covered.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, January 13th, 2008

    “...and then we withdrew and used the prepared alternative airport to leave the island.”

    Casey nodded sharply as he finished his report. Which had been both completely true, technically, and full of holes. Chuck almost nodded in appreciation - for all of Casey’s carefully cultivated image as a straight shooter, the man certainly knew how to stretch the truth and bend the rules. But then, he was a spy, wasn’t he?

    Judging by her unamused expression, General Beckman was aware of that as well, though. “I see. Thank you, Major Casey. I’m looking forward to the written reports - from all of you,” she added with a stern glance.

    Chuck struggled not to wince. That would require a lot of coordinating so they didn’t contradict each other or accidentally revealed anything classified. He glanced at Bane, but her expression didn’t let on anything.

    “And what about your time spent in Jamaica?” the general went on, steepling her fingers as she leaned forward on the screen.

    Uh-oh. Chuck swallowed, but Casey was already talking. “There was an incident involving a classified matter, ma’am. It was resolved without issue.”

    “I don’t know whether I would classify setting a building on fire and using enough explosives to cause a minor earthquake as ‘resolving an incident without issue’, Major.”

    “The details are classified, ma’am.” Casey remained unflappable.

    But Chuck glanced, again, at Bane. The spy seemed to be imitating Casey’s stony expression now. She sat straight and stiff in her seat - even Chuck could see that she wasn’t acting as she usually did.

    And so would Beckman, though the woman didn’t say anything. “I see. So, the threat to Agent Bane has been neutralised, a drug-running organisation was destroyed, and a case of art and antique theft solved.”

    “The organisation run by Lindor might yet recover - we were unable to confirm the death of his partner,” Casey pointed out.

    Chuck didn’t have to look at Sarah to know she was frowning - despite the fact that it hadn’t been her fault that she had to leave Sanchez’s yacht in a hurry before taking him out.

    “Our sources report infighting among Sanchez’s cartel, so there’s a high probability of his death,” Beckman told them.

    Casey nodded in response, as did Sarah and Bane, so Chuck followed their example.

    “Do you have anything else to add?”

    Was that a not so veiled hint for Bane? Or just the usual question at the end of a debriefing?

    “No, ma’am.”

    “Dismissed, Agents, Mr Bartowski.”

    A moment later, Beckman’s image faded to black.

    Chuck took a deep breath and leaned forward, resting his forehead on his arms. “She wasn’t happy.”

    “No shit, Sherlock,” Casey replied with a scoff. He didn’t slouch, but he stopped standing at parade rest.

    “She considers me compromised,” Bane muttered. Chuck looked up and saw that the spy was slumping in her seat.

    “Like us,” Sarah said.

    “Unless I tell her the truth. At which point shell consider me crazy.” Bane shook her head.

    Chuck almost asked if she’d only realised this now. But she’d had days to think this over. “Yes. Like us,” he said. “Well, like Sarah and Casey.” Stressing that they were in this together would help, wouldn’t it? “She doesn’t really consider me an agent.” Even though she wanted him to sign up with the CIA. As an analyst, though. Not an agent. Although if she knew about the Intersect’s skill package… He buried that thought. He wanted to become a spy to work with Sarah, and that wouldn’t be possible under Beckman.

    “She doesn’t know what you can do,” Bane replied.

    “It’s a simple ploy to make you feel different from the rest of us,” Sarah pointed out.

    “Well, it’s not working.” Chuck shook his head. He might not be a trained spy - yet - but he was part of the team. The Burbank Team. Or Team Burbank? The Burbank Station? Or was that just a naval term?

    Sarah, standing next to his seat, put her hand on his shoulder. They smiled at each other until Casey scoffed again.

    “So… what happens now?” Bane asked.

    “We protect Chuck and his family and wait for the next mission,” Sarah replied at once.

    “I meant about the Council,” Bane explained, frowning at the other spy. “You’re planning to jump ship, aren’t you?”

    “Uh…” Technically, that wasn’t true, was it? At least not for Chuck. Or did it count if he was being paid by the CIA, without being a real agent?

    “Yes,” Sarah admitted, to Chuck’s surprise. Then again, it was kind of obvious, after Haiti and Jamaica, wasn’t it? “Do you want to follow us?”

    Now that was a surprise! Chuck really hadn’t expected Sarah to… wait. She hadn’t offered Bane to join them, had she? Well, it was implied, and she wouldn’t ask, only to turn her down? That would make an enemy out of Bane for sure!

    “I’m also checking other options,” Bane replied. “But it’s an obvious move.”

    Sarah and Casey nodded while Chuck felt a little lost. What did that mean? For Bane, for them, and for Morgan?

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, January 14th, 2008

    “...and see, here? That’s the menu to reset your default settings.”

    “Ah, thank you! It had disappeared - I did exactly what you just did!”

    Of course. And the man had remembered this exactly like he remembered how to turn his laptop off. Chuck forced himself to nod as the customer blatantly lied in his face. “That happens sometimes,” he lied in return.

    His smile disappeared as soon as the man turned away to leave the store. “That was the third customer today who shouldn’t be allowed to have a computer, and it’s not even break time yet! Did Big Mike tell everyone like them to come back today?” he asked rhetorically.

    Or not so rhetorically - Jeff and Lester were cringing at his, completely understandable, outburst, Chuck noticed. He narrowed his eyes at them and quickly grabbed Lester’s collar when the man tried to run. “Not so fast, buster!”

    “Uh… but we’ve got an urgent call. Two urgent calls!” Lester protested.

    Jeff nodded, and not in his usual sloth-like slow movement. Which, Chuck realised, might be due to his demon nature. “Yeah.”

    “Then let’s make this short!” Chuck smiled at them like Casey would - all toothy and threatening. They winced in return, and Lester even whimpered. “Did you reschedule all the annoying customers for today, when you knew I’d be back?”

    “I plead the fifth!” Lester blurted out, Jeff nodding with every word. “You can’t prove anything! We had no choice! No, we didn’t!”

    Chuck closed his eyes and sighed. “Guys, that’s not OK. We don’t do that kind of thing here - we don’t push off our work on others,” he explained when he saw their confused expressions.

    Both of them glanced towards the staff area. Why would… Chuck groaned. Big Mike’s office was there. “Guys, Big Mike’s management.”

    “So are you!” Lester shot back.

    Chuck frowned at the man, and he flinched back again. “I’m assistant manager,” he corrected him. “I’m still working at the Nerd Herd desk, as you can see. And we don’t push off our work to our colleagues. Especially not when they’re on vacation.”

    “But there was so much work!” Lester complained again. “And we’re Mac specialists! Not PC support!”

    “Really? It seems you need some remedial training, then,” Chuck said. “Like, say, an evening course in PC support?”

    “Ugh…” Jeff groaned. The two miscreants exchanged glances. “No, no, we’re good!”

    Chuck let them scurry away and rubbed the bridge of his nose with another sigh. “I’d prefer to get shot at, I think,” he mumbled. Then he blinked when he realised that it was actually true. Mostly.

    “I hope I’m not turning into Casey,” he muttered, watching the agent scare away another potential customer just by being his not so lovable self.

    “Chuck! I need a hand!”

    That was Morgan. But he was still on sick leave, wasn’t he? Chuck turned towards the entrance, then blinked. Morgan was there, still on crutches, and next to him was a dolly with the stuffed shark he had bought in Haiti. Pushed by Bane.

    He had actually sent the thing home? And it had arrived already? Why didn’t that ever happen when they needed some crucial spare parts for work? “Morgan?”

    “Hi, Chuck! We’re here with Big Mike’s souvenir! Can you give us a hand to help get it to him?”

    Chuck forced himself to smile. This wouldn’t end well. Not at all.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, January 14th, 2008

    “...and Big Mike actually liked the thing! He said it went well with his Merlin! Can you imagine that? The two fishes take up half of his office!”

    Sarah laughed at Chuck’s tale. He pouted in return. “It doesn’t make sense.”

    She shrugged, then took another swallow from her soda. “Apparently, he likes stuffed fishes.”

    “He can’t even claim he caught it - everyone saw Morgan cart it inside, and he’s currently telling everyone how he found it in some hidden, secret shop in Jamaica.”

    Jamaica, not Haiti? That must have been Bane’s influence. Sarah didn’t think that Grimes would have thought of lying about the actual origin of the stuffed shark by himself. She shrugged again. “I don’t think that will stop him from inventing a story about catching it himself. Anglers are infamous for making up such stories, aren’t they?”

    “Yes, they are,” Chuck admitted, downing his coke with a frown.

    She cocked her head and studied him. “Is something wrong?” He wasn’t like this, usually.

    He sighed. “I’m just a little annoyed at having to deal with stupid customers and worse co-workers.”

    “Jeff and Lester?”

    “Yes.” He leaned back and shook his head. “They told every annoying customer to come back today, when they knew I’d be back.”

    “Ah.” She frowned. “That wasn’t very nice.”

    “No, it wasn’t. And with Morgan on crutches for a few more days, we’re still a man short,” Chuck complained. “At least as spies, we don’t have to deal with that sort of stuff.”

    “We only have to deal with traitors and assassins,” she replied. And she didn’t yet know whether Bane would reveal herself as either of those.

    Chuck sighed. “You’re right. Still - isn’t it annoying to come back from a mission only to have to deal with annoying customers again?”

    “You get used to it,” she told him. “It’s just a cover, after all. And,” she added after a moment, “pretending to be normal, and dealing with normal problems, is also nice.”

    “Oh.” He nodded. “I didn’t look at it like that.” He chuckled. “Not that I’d call Jeff and Lester ‘normal’, you know?”

    She nodded with a snort. Those two were anything but normal, even discounting Jeff’s real species. And yet, they were less annoying, and far less dangerous, than some of Sarah’s past co-workers.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, January 16th, 2008

    “I don’t know about this…” Chuck trailed off as he looked around.

    “What?” Sarah, standing next to him, frowned. “We need to know what exactly the Intersect is doing to you,” she told him. “It’s in your head affecting your brain. And your father’s the best choice to examine you.”

    “The only choice, actually,” Chuck replied. It wasn’t as if there were any other experts with his knowledge and experience - even leaving aside the need for secrecy, Chuck didn’t want some CIA-scientists with only a hunch about the real capabilities of the Intersect to poke around in his brain. “But I’m concerned about the fact that we’re about to openly walk into a clinic for the examination. During business hours.” Fake IDs and disguises notwithstanding, it felt wrong.

    “A private clinic,” Sarah retorted. “One known for the discretion of the staff.” She smiled and took his arm “Come on, Mr Cadbury, we’re going to be late to your appointment with your private doctor.”

    He smiled weakly as they entered the clinic, but as Sarah had predicted, the nurse at the reception desk didn’t even blink at their large sunglasses, nor did she more than glance at the fake IDs they presented.

    Although that probably was because Dad had completely penetrated the clinic’s system and scheduled everything - Chuck didn’t think a disguised journalist could enter as easily. At least he hoped they couldn’t.

    A nurse led them into the clinic and to an examination room. “Dr Waters is waiting inside, Mr Cadbury,” she told them with a professional smile as she opened the door.

    And that was Dad there. Even with a wig and fake beard, Chuck could recognise him at once. “Ah, Mr Cadbury. And Mrs Cadbury. Good afternoon. Everythings set up,” Dad told them - for the benefit of the nurse closing the door behind them, of course. As soon as the door closed, Dad pulled a device out of the pockets of his lab coat. A prototype CIA scanner, Chuck knew the type - without the Intersect, he realised.

    “We’re clear,” Dad announced after a minute. “So… tell me what happened!” He smiled as he sat down at the desk and took out a notepad, like a real doctor. Or psychiatrist.

    “Well…” Chuck began, “we were in a village, captives of drug dealers, and they were about to hurt Sarah when I suddenly knew all sorts of martial arts…”

    *****​

    “...and that was the last time the Intersect activated like that,” Chuck finished.

    Dad nodded. “It looks like this is triggered by stress.”

    “I was plenty stressed in other situations,” Chuck retorted.

    “But not in lethal danger,” Sarah pointed out.

    “I wasn’t in lethal danger when it activated the first time. But you were about to be tortured,” Chuck replied.

    “That’s a good point,” Dad agreed. “If it were just triggered by lethal danger, the Intersect wouldn’t have activated I think. And it’s not simply strong emotional reactions, either, that trigger it.” He rubbed his chin through his fake beard. “Fascinating, really.”

    “I’m so glad that my situation is interesting,” Chuck said in a flat voice. Sarah giggled but put her hand on his arm, and he smiled at her, “Sorry. It’s just… It’s bad enough to know I have a computer in my head that can turn me into a stone-cold killer, but to not know how it activates?” He shook his head. “I need to be able to control it, not the other way ‘round.” Or he’d never be a competent spy.

    “Yes, you’re right, Chuck,” Dad told him. “But It’s not all that bad. For one, we know that the whole thing is still evolving. It wasn’t active for months after you received the Intersect, was it?” He smiled. “Your brain’s still adapting to the Intersect’s neural connections, I think. Things will probably change for some time still.”

    Chuck wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. “What if the Intersect is adapting to my brain?”

    “Oh, I designed it to do that.”

    “What?” Chuck gasped. What if it was taking over his mind? Changing him? “It’s influencing me?”

    “What? No, no. It shouldn’t do that. It should only offer options and information, without influencing your decisions.” Dad frowned. “Of course, by offering information and options, it is influencing your decisions, but not mind-control. Everyone is influenced by the information and options they have at their disposition, after all.”

    Dad was a brilliant scientist, but his bedside manner and personal touch really needed some work, in Chuck’s opinion. “So, I’m not going to turn into a killer without scruples, am I?”

    “You shouldn’t,” Dad replied. “Well, not because of the Intersect, in any case.”

    “Very reassuring, Dad,” Chuck said.

    Sarah chuckled as she squeezed his hand in support.

    “Now, let’s scan your brain and check if there are no physiological changes.”

    “‘Physiological changes’?” Chuck gasped. That was possible?

    *****​

    “Scans are clean. Your brain chemistry is normal as well. Blood pressure had some spikes, but nothing lasting,” Dad said an hour later as Chuck dressed again.

    “And the verdict?” Chuck asked.

    “As I said before: It’s too early to tell,” Dad replied. “It’s all still in flux. We’ll have to repeat this after your next episode.”

    That made it sound as if he were sick, in Chuck’s opinion. Or going crazy.

    “But I think we can assume that it’ll keep activating in lethal danger, or other, similarly stressful situations.”

    “Nice. So in the event of me killing my co-workers, I’ll have an excuse.” Chuck snorted.

    “Which you can’t use in court, though,” Sarah pointed out. “It’s top secret.”

    Not that any such incident would go to court, anyway. The CIA would cover it up.

    “So, all we have to do is wait for the next mission, or the next apocalypse,” Chuck said, sighing.

    He didn’t like the way Dad cleared his throat at that. “Speaking of missions,” his dad spoke up. “I’m done with the groundwork for faking my death, so to speak.”

    Oh.

    “Which means the next step is framing the mark,” Sarah said.

    “Exactly.”

    *****​
     
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 24: The Family Trouble
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 24: The Family Trouble

    California, Los Angeles, January 16th, 2008

    “I’ve picked a suitable mark,” Orion explained in the small motel room on the south side of the city. “Marco Gonzàlez.” He hit a key, and a picture of a middle-aged man with a moustache appeared on his laptop’s screen. “He’s an independent drug smuggler with contacts to various cartels in Mexico.”

    Sarah nodded. “That means there will be plenty of suspects for his murder.”

    He didn’t flinch at her wording, though she saw that Chuck did.

    “Indeed. And since he has been laundering money and investing into legal businesses for some time, it would look quite convincing that he would have wanted to secure the services of Chuck. I already inserted a few inadequately hidden tech support calls from a business he indirectly controls,” Orion went on.

    “We’ve been tracking Chuck’s Nerd Herd calls for a while,” she pointed out.

    “You have?” Chuck said. “I mean, of course you have. But… only since I received the Intersect, right?”

    “Yes,” she told Chuck with a smile. Sometimes, his lack of cynicism was very endearing.

    “I’ve already taken care of the CIA’s records as well,” Orion told her.

    She managed not to frown. Even though Orion was Chuck’s father and an ally, it was still vexing to be reminded of how easily he could hack the Agency’s systems.

    “Uh… Gonzàlez is a drug smuggler?” Chuck asked.

    “With all that entails,” Orion replied. “Including the murder of competitors, witnesses, subordinates that might become a problem or decide to quit, and, of course, police officers who won’t accept bribes.”

    “In Los Angeles?”

    “Both here and in Mexico. The Los Angeles Police Department is not quite as riddled with corruption as the often underpaid Mexican police forces, but the local cops are by no means immune to bribes and blackmail.” Orion shrugged. “No one will miss him.”

    Sarah wasn’t quite sure about that claim - many successful drug lords had a loving family, and often a large number of dependents who would definitely miss them and their support. That wasn’t altruism on the part of the drug lords, of course, but pragmatism to foster loyalty among their subordinates. But telling Chuck that would be counter-productive. They needed to lay this affair to rest, after all.

    “Ah.” Chuck didn’t sound too convinced, but he looked less disturbed.

    “And his death will disrupt one of the established supply channels for cocaine in Los Angeles and Southern California,” Orion went on. “It won’t stop the drug trade, of course - though I can’t think of anything that would. Nothing which would be politically feasible, in any case.”

    “So… what exactly do we need to do to frame Gonzàlez?” Chuck asked. “If you’ve already hacked his system.”

    “I haven’t, actually.” Orion frowned. “Gonzàlez is practising better computer security than most CIA operatives I know, and keeps his key computer systems offline.”

    “That isn’t exactly an option for the CIA,” Sarah felt forced to point out. “Information has to be distributed and often as quickly as possible for operations.” With the exception of a few top secrets, of course. And some missions that never had a paper or electronic data trail to begin with.

    “Point,” Orion admitted with a grin that looked far too similar to Chuck’s for Sarah’s comfort. “But it still means that we need to access Gonzàlez’s files to convincingly frame him. And that means physically entering his home.”

    “Provided he has his files there,” Sarah said.

    “He will have a way to access his files - in his business, a significant delay for such a task could spell his ruin,” Orion countered.

    It was true, but Sarah couldn’t help wondering just why Orion was so familiar with the drug trade.

    “So… where is his home?” Chuck asked.

    Another picture appeared on the screen. A high-rise, all glass and steel.

    “That’s the new apartment tower in Downtown!” Chuck exclaimed. “We’ve had a few calls there when new tenants had trouble with their overpriced home entertainment systems.”

    “Exactly,” Orion said. “You’ll be familiar with the layout of an apartment there.”

    “It also has one of the most advanced security systems on the civilian market,” Chuck added. “And that’s just the building, not the different apartments.”

    “Yes,” Orion admitted. “On the other hand, we won’t have to contest with a private army guarding a villa.”

    That was a small consolation, in Sarah’s opinion. Although… “Some of those apartments will be available for rent. If you can secure one, we’d have a base of operation.”

    “Yes. Although I fear I’ll need some help arranging the cover identities for that. I could do it, and I’ve done that before, but in this case, I think we need to minimise the risk that this might end up connected to me or the CIA.”

    “That doesn’t leave us with many choices, does it?” Chuck said.

    Orion nodded. “I was thinking of asking your friends for a little help.”

    “Our friends? Do… oh. The Council?” Chuck asked.

    “Yes.”

    Sarah didn’t like that. It would make them even more dependent on the Council and create leverage against them. On the other hand, it would let her see how good the Council was at this sort of work.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, January 16th, 2008

    “So… do we tell Bane about this?” Chuck asked as Sarah took the second-to-last turn before their home.

    “About Orion? No,” she answered without hesitation.

    “Uh…”

    She suppressed a sigh. “We’ve told her about vampires and magic, but we don’t know yet if she can be trusted.”

    “Ah.” He didn’t sound convinced. She could tell. And she knew that he wanted to come clean to Bane - he didn’t like hiding things from a team mate.

    “This is too important to risk. Remember what we discussed about Casey?” she reminded him.

    “He realised the truth himself, or would have,” Chuck retorted.

    “Bane won’t,” Sarah said. The other spy was still dealing with the revelation that the things that go bump in the night were real.

    “Won’t she notice that we’re up to something?”

    That was a potential problem, yes. But there was a solution, too. “Morgan will have to keep her busy,” she told him.

    Chuck stared at her.

    She reined in her annoyance. “He can ask Phil for help. She’ll want to know as much about magic as possible.”

    “I’ll tell him, then. Once I can catch him alone. And after checking for bugs,” Chuck added with a smile before she could remind him.

    She smiled in return as she parked her car. He’d make a fine spy.

    “Now we’ll have to tell Casey,” she told him after getting out of the car.

    “Ah… alright.” He grimaced a little, she noticed. But they couldn’t leave Casey out of this - they needed his help.

    And so, instead of returning home, they went straight to the other agent’s apartment.

    He had a small pair of cutters in hand when he opened the door, Sarah noticed. Preening his bonsai? Or fiddling with a bomb, perhaps? With Casey, it was hard to say.

    He didn’t ask what they wanted, nor did he invite them inside - he merely stepped aside with a grunt and let them enter.

    “Good evening,” Chuck said. “Oh… is that a bonsai?”

    “Don’t touch it!” Casey snapped.

    Chuck jerked back. “I was just taking a closer look!” he complained.

    Sarah cleared her throat. They weren’t here to discuss Casey’s hobby. Or his hangups and insecurities. “We’ve met with Orion,” she said.

    “What did he say about Bartowski’s brain? Is it going to melt?”

    “What? No, it’s not going to melt!” Chuck said, raising his voice. “It’s too early to tell what exactly is happening,” he added.

    “So, your brain could still melt,” Casey replied.

    Sarah rolled her eyes. “That’s unlikely,” she said. “Orion estimates that it’ll keep activating in lethal danger, or other, similarly stressful situations.”

    “Like sex?”

    Sarah refused to take the bait. Casey was deliberately being crude, she realised.

    “What? No, sex doesn’t trigger the Intersect!” Chuck hadn’t realised that, alas.

    “He’s trying to get a rise out of you, Chuck.”

    “What? Uh, I mean… oh.” Chuck trailed off.

    He looked cute when blushing, she noted, not for the first time. “We’re not here to talk about that.”

    “Especially since there are no results, yet,” Casey replied. “So, did he pick a target, then?”

    Chuck looked surprised - he shouldn’t underestimate Casey. The man was a spy, not the simple soldier he often played.

    “Yes, he did. Marco Gonzàlez,” she told Casey.

    “Ah.”

    “You know him?” Chuck asked.

    “I know of him. Never got the chance to plug him, but it seems my luck just changed,” Casey said with a feral grin. “So, what’s the plan?”

    “We know where he lives, and we have a rough plan to infiltrate the building, but we’ll need support from the Council for our cover,” Sarah summed up.

    Casey nodded. “He doesn’t want us to use CIA resources. Smart.”

    Sarah nodded. “And he’ll get to judge the Council’s capabilities.”

    Chuck blinked, then slowly nodded.

    Yes, Chuck, your Dad’s a spy as well, and playing spy games, she thought. Out loud, she said: “This is his address according to Orion.”

    Casey glanced at the picture and the map. “That’s going to a bitch to withdraw from, should things go pear-shaped.”

    “We could base jump if we’re in a hurry?” Chuck said with a shy smile.

    “Really? How many base jumps did you do so far?” Casey snarled.

    “Well… none?”

    Then why was he… oh. “Do you really want to bet your life on the Intersect being programmed to base jump?” Sarah asked. “Spies aren’t usually trained for that.”

    “It’s not exactly the same as parachuting,” Casey said. “Close, but not the same.”

    “Uh… that’s a good point.” Chuck grimaced. “So… stairs or lift?”

    “Lift shaft,” Casey replied with a grin. “Stop the car above you, then rappel down quickly.”

    Sarah saw Chuck’s expression and said: “Spies generally are trained in that technique.”

    “I hope that was included it in the Intersect,” Chuck said.

    “Didn’t your dad give you a list?” Casey asked.

    “Ah…” Chuck winced. “He didn’t do my version. There were some changes, some self-selecting algorithm, probably some tinkering with the database... He doesn’t know exactly what I can do and can’t do when it triggers. And without knowing how to trigger it safely, we can’t test it.”

    Casey shook his head as if that was Chuck’s fault.

    It wasn’t, and Sarah would make sure to tell Chuck that.

    After they finished some more preliminary planning.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, January 17th, 2008

    “A spy mission you can’t tell Kirsten about?” Morgan asked, a little too loudly for Chuck’s comfort - the Buy More’s Entertainment Display Room wasn’t really sound-proof.

    “Not so loud,” he whispered in response. “Yes. It involves my dad.”

    “Oh.” Morgan blinked for a moment. “And you don’t trust her?”

    Chuck tilted his head slightly - like he had seen the general do. “Do you trust her with that?” It was his dad, after all.

    “Err…” Morgan frowned as he seemed to mull it over. “Well…”.

    “You don’t, do you?”

    “I don’t distrust her,” Morgan protested.

    “But you don’t know if she can be trusted,” Chuck said. It was obvious, really.

    “I’m working on that,” his friend said.

    “Good. Please keep at it. Keep her busy,” Chuck told him.

    “Another distraction?”

    “Yes.”

    “Oh.” He nodded. “I can do that.”

    “Ask Phil for help if you need to. This cannot get back to the CIA, Morgan. This is big.”

    “I know, I know. You can count on me.” His friend nodded. “Err… Are you going to test her? You know, feed her fake information and see if she betrays us? Because if you do, she probably expects it. Well, not probably - she does. She told me about this sort of stuff,” Morgan went on.

    “Ah.” It seemed that the exchange of information hadn’t been as one-sided as Chuck and the others had assumed - but what if Bane had an ulterior motive for telling Morgan about spy tactics? Chuck still wasn’t very comfortable with this kind of spy mind games. He doubted he’d ever be, too. And he didn’t want to become like Casey, whose only reason for not proposing to kill Bane was that the CIA would blame them.

    *Yeah.” Morgan nodded with a serious expression. “That’s the really annoying thing about all of this, you know? That I don’t know what to believe.”

    Chuck nodded with a wince - that was a very familiar feeling.

    “How did you know you could trust Sarah?”

    Chuck winced even more. “Uh… I just did, you know? Sort of.”

    “You trusted your heart?”

    That sounded too sappy. Like in one of the series Ellie watched when her and Devon’s shifts didn’t align with each other. “It was a calculated risk,” he lied.

    “Ah.” Morgan nodded, and Chuck couldn’t help feeling as if his friend had heard a lot more - or something different - than what Chuck had intended to say.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, January 17th, 2008

    The bonsai had been placed back on a shelf, Chuck noted as he took a seat in Casey’s living room, next to Sarah. Next to an autographed picture of Ronald Reagan. Chuck still didn’t know if that was just part of Casey’s cover or his real life. As far as the man had a real life - even his Intersect file was redacted, after all.

    And yet, they trusted him. Far more than Bane, whose file was more or less complete, as Dad had confirmed.

    “Earth to Bartowski. Wake up,” Casey said.

    Huh? “I wasn’t asleep!” Chuck protested. “I was gathering my thoughts!”

    “You must be a real scatterbrain if that took you so long,” the agent replied.

    Was that a dig at the Intersect in his brain? Chuck wondered. Or just a biting comment?

    “I’ve arranged for a set of fake IDs from the Council,” Sarah said. “They should arrive within a week, or so he claims.”

    “Did he request our biometric data?” Casey asked.

    “No.”

    “Willow probably already has access to our CIA files, so she could take the data from there,” Chuck pointed out. He didn’t think she had used magic to scan them, or something. “So, the IDs should be solid.”

    Casey scoffed but didn’t comment. He probably was jealous. “What about Bane?” he asked, staring at Chuck.

    “Uh…” Chuck coughed. “I talked to Morgan. He’ll keep her distracted during our mission.” After a moment, he added: “He, uh, also told me that she probably expects a test, or a trap, to see if she’s loyal.”

    “Of course she would,” he heard Sarah mutter.

    “She won’t risk her cover for minor secrets. It’s either Orion’s identity or magic,” Casey said.

    “And should she find out about Orion, she won’t pass on that information through electronic channels,” Sarah added.

    “If she decides to pass on that intel,” Chuck pointed out. They didn’t know if Bane would do it, did they?

    “If she does, she’s dead,” Casey said. “And she knows that.”

    Chuck was tempted to quote Moff Tarkin in response. But Tarkin had been wrong, hadn’t he?

    “So, if she wants to betray us, she will probably try to take us out, first,” Sarah said.

    “Uh.”

    “Don’t fret, Bartowski,” Casey said with a sneer. “We’re prepared for that, And she knows that as well.”

    That wasn’t really as reassuring as Casey probably thought it was. All those mind games… Perhaps Chuck had to check with the Scoobies how they handled working with Spike. Before the vampire got a soul, of course.

    Because if you couldn’t trust your allies, then that was of the bad, as Xander and the other Scoobies would say.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, January 20th, 2008

    As she glanced at the spy flirting with Grimes, Sarah wished, not for the first time, that Bane had a different cover story than ‘employee of Wienerlicious’. She knew that it made it easier to keep an eye on the spy, but it also made it easier for Bane to keep an eye on them - not that a trained spy would have trouble avoiding surveillance anyway.

    But she really didn’t like how Bane’s presence intruded on her morning break with Chuck. This was supposed to be their time to relax and enjoy each other’s presence, not spend it watching Bane and Grimes.

    “Is something wrong?” Chuck asked.

    She blinked. Had she let her thoughts show on her face? No. But Chuck had still picked up on her mood. “No,” she said, then glanced over at Bane again.

    “Oh.” He looked surprised, then pensive. Did he understand why she was annoyed? “I didn’t notice anything,” he said in a low voice.

    He didn’t. She smiled. “Me neither,” she replied. “It just feels a little crowded here.”

    “Oh!” Now he got it and started to smile as well. “We, uh could have our break somewhere else. Like… Uh.”

    She chuckled. There weren’t many places that would be called romantic near the Buy More. Well, not unless you were a teenage mall rat. “Dinner tonight?”

    “Ah, sure!” He beamed at her. “The usual table?”

    “Yes.” She took a sip from her soda to hide another glance at Bane and Grimes. They looked like a typical couple still in the honeymoon phase. But that didn’t mean anything. Bane was good enough to fake it, and Grimes could have fallen for her despite knowing that she was a spy - he was naive enough to be fooled easily by Bane.

    They still didn’t know if they could trust the spy.

    Well, Bane wouldn’t try to do anything incriminating here, under Sarah’s eyes. So she might as well enjoy the rest of her break with Chuck. She set her glass down and smiled. “And perhaps a little dancing, afterwards?”

    “Sure! I’d love…” He was interrupted by his phone ringing. “It’s Ellie,” he told her after a glance, wincing. “Sorry.”

    “It’s OK,” she replied, watching him take the call.

    “Hi, Sis!”

    “As a matter of fact, yes.”

    “No, I was about to…”

    “Tonight?”

    “No… I mean… yes… Look… I have to ask Sarah.”

    What? She frowned. That didn’t sound good.

    “Ellie wants to have another ‘wedding preparation dinner’ this evening,” Chuck told her as he handed her the phone.

    There went their romantic evening.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, January 20th, 2008

    “You know, you could have told her that we had plans.”

    Standing in front of her dresser, Sarah rolled her eyes before turning to frown at Chuck, who was standing in the door to their bedroom. “After you didn’t?” That would have made Ellie blame her.

    “Uh…” He winced. “You know how Ellie is when she has something on her mind.”

    “Yes, exactly.” And Ellie was Chuck’s sister - he could handle her. Should, at least.

    He sighed. “Sorry, but…” He shrugged.

    “Yes.” She nodded and went back to dressing.

    “We could still go dancing afterwards,” Chuck said.

    She glanced over her shoulder at him. “You remember the last such dinner?”

    “Uh… I had successfully suppressed the memories,” he said with a lopsided grin.

    She had to laugh at that. “It shouldn’t be as bad today,” she said. “I think we went over the most controversial points already.” Or so she hoped.

    *****​

    “...and Devon thinks we should take the white napkins while I think the turquoise ones will fit the colour on the walls better.”

    “All I said was that white usually goes with everything. I’m not set on it.”

    “Then we’ll take turquoise ones. And the matching plates.”

    “But white plates look better.”

    Sarah had been wrong. The devil was, as the saying went, in the details. She forced herself to keep smiling as Ellie turned towards her. “What do you think, Sarah?”

    “White is a classic,” she said, “but a little colour doesn’t hurt.”

    “See?” Ellie nodded at Devon. “She agrees.”

    “That didn’t sound like agreement to me,” Devon retorted. “Chuck?”

    “Uh, what?”

    “What do you think?” Devon cocked his head, looking at Chuck.

    “Uh… I think both will look nice?”

    “See, he agrees!” Devon said, smiling at the scowling Ellie.

    Sarah closed her eyes for a moment - not that either of the two would notice - and sighed as the argument she had expected started in earnest. If this continued, then she doubted that there would be a wedding at all.

    *****​

    “Guys! Guys!” Chuck almost waved his arms, trying to interrupt Ellie and Devon’s argument. “Guys!” He had to stop them.

    “What?” Ellie snapped, turning to glare at him.

    “Uh…” He swallowed, then smiled. “How about we take a break from all the planning?” Before they broke up over napkins and plates. She huffed, but his smile didn’t waver. Much. “Please?”

    “Yes,” Sarah chimed in. “I think we’ve talked enough about the banquet.”

    Well, Chuck hadn’t talked much about it, or at all. Neither had Sarah, now that he thought about it. “Alright!” He stood and started collecting the plates and cutlery, with Sarah quickly joining him, and waving off Ellie when she wanted to help as well.

    “Perhaps we should have hired a wedding planner,” he whispered as he started filling the dishwasher.

    “They’d still have the last word on the decor,” Sara replied on a low voice.

    “But they’d sort it out with the planner, not with us,” Chuck pointed out.

    Judging by Sarah’s expression, she disagreed. Drat. “Look,” he said, glancing towards the living room, to check if Ellie and Devon were still frowning - glaring - at each other, “we have to do something before they plan this wedding into ruin or something.”

    “And how do you propose to do that?” she retorted with a toothy smile. “Without dragging us even more into this?”

    “Uh…” He blinked. He hadn’t actually thought that far. But there had to be something. He gasped. “Yes!” He turned around and marched into the living room. “Ellie! Devon! As an early wedding gift, we’re giving you a weekend in Malibu!”

    “What?” They were staring at him, obviously surprised. So was Sarah, he noticed. “Uh. There’s this great resort there, the Malibu Beach Inn.” Which he had seen in an ad earlier today for the first time, but no one had to know that. “So, you spend a weekend there, and if you like it, you can spend two weeks there during your honeymoon, hm?” He did his best to smile at them.

    Devon grinned. “That’s very generous of you! Thank you.”

    Ellie, on the other hand, frowned at him. “This isn’t a plan to get us out of town because there’s another apocalypse threatening the city, is it?”

    He blinked, then shook his head. “No, no. I swear, Ellie, this isn’t a plan to get you out of the city. We just want to be sure that you’ll like your wedding gift, you know?”

    “Yes,” Sarah said, stepping up him and wrapping her arm around his waist, “it would be a shame if we’d pay you two weeks in a hotel you don’t like.”

    Chuck had to struggle not to wince when he felt her pinch his side. Apparently, Sarah wasn’t fond of his plan.

    Ellie, though, was smiling now. “That is so thoughtful of you!”

    “Of course.” Chuck hoped that she wouldn’t bring up Christmas gift he had bought for her in fifth grade. He hadn’t known that Ellie hadn’t been serious when she said she wanted a kitten. And he hadn’t known that most demons considered kittens a delicacy.

    But the argument had been dealt with, and that was worth whatever two weeks and a weekend in the inn cost.

    *****​

    “Did you check the prices before you picked the hotel?” Sarah, back in their apartment, asked after a quick search on her laptop.

    “Uh…” Chuck stopped pulling his shirt off. “It was a spur of the moment thing.”

    “So, you didn’t.”

    That didn’t sound good. Not at all. “Uh. How much will this cost us? Me, I mean. It was my idea, and I didn’t ask you, so I’ll pay for it,” he blurted out.

    Without a word, she turned the laptop so the screen was facing him.

    He blinked. That was… “Uh…” That was a lot of money.

    “Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t spend much of your CIA salary so far,” Sarah replied.

    Chuck didn’t quite whimper as he nodded, but he came close. “Well, it’s not too expensive if it counts as couples therapy, right?”

    She snorted, shaking her head.

    He pouted. She could at least admit that he had saved them from being dragged into another row.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, January 23rd, 2008

    “Agents, Mr Bartowski, you’ve got a new mission,” Beckman said in her usual no-nonsense manner. “We’ve discovered that the schematics for a new prototype scanner have been stolen from a CIA laboratory and the copies have been deleted. The thief has been apprehended, but he had already handed over the stolen data to a courier. Fortunately, we’ve had surveillance on the courier due to an unrelated case and so we’ve managed to track him to the apparent location where he’s supposed to make the drop.”

    She tapped a key, and a new picture appeared on the screen next to her head. A very familiar picture, Chuck realised with a sinking feeling.

    “The courier, Keith Adams, a former race car driver, is staying in the Malibu Beach Inn this weekend,” Beckman continued. “He’s booked Thursday to Sunday.”

    Chuck closed his eyes. No.

    “Your mission is to apprehend whoever is coming to pick up the stolen schematics and secure the data.”

    No.

    “Shouldn’t we secure the data as soon as possible to minimise the risk of losing it?” Casey asked.

    “No, it was deemed too much of a risk. We need to catch the courier’s contact without them growing suspicious. We suspect this is a ploy of Fulcrum, so this is of crucial importance,” the general explained.

    Damn.

    “Mr Bartowski, is there a problem?”

    “Uh…” Chuck winced. “My sister and her fiancé are spending the weekend in the hotel there.”

    “Really.”

    It was remarkable how much annoyance the general managed to pack into a single word, Chuck noted.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, January 23rd, 2008

    “Well… that could’ve gone better,” Chuck said after they had returned home. Beckman had torn a strip off his hide. So to speak. The woman could be nastier than… no, Snyder had still been nastier when he got going.

    “It could’ve gone worse, too,” Sarah replied. “We’re still on the mission.”

    “And Ellie and Devon’s weekend hasn’t been cancelled,” Chuck pointed out. It might be a little petty, but he’d have hated to have to cancel the weekend and spend all that money for nothing. And explaining the reasons to Ellie...

    “Because the general thinks we’ll be finished with the mission before they arrive,” Sarah retorted.

    “Uh…” Chuck blinked. “You don’t seem to share that view?” It had sounded logical to him that the bad guys would get the transfer done as soon as possible. Thursday evening. Friday at the latest.

    “There’s always the possibility of delays. Flights get missed or cancelled, accidents happen, mistakes are made…” Sarah shrugged as she sat down on the couch. “Good spies will plan for that.”

    The general wasn’t a good spy? Chuck frowned.

    She must have noticed his reaction since she added: “That’s why we’ve got the whole weekend booked ourselves.”

    “Ah. And that’s why we didn’t simply replace Ellie and Devon,” Chuck said. The general had explained that Fulcrum was probably monitoring the hotel already.

    “That’s one explanation,” Sarah said.

    “One explanation?” he echoed her. She was pressing her lips together in that manner of hers she did when she had bad news, he noticed.

    “She should have made us cancel their reservations,” Sarah said. “The risk of that drawing attention from Fulcrum is minimal. Certainly less than the risk of them breaking our cover, and Fulcrum’s operatives catching on.”

    “What?” He gasped. “But why would the general…” he trailed off. “Oh.”

    “Yes. If they get involved, she might try to push for protective measures involving them,” Sarah told him.

    “And I’d owe them.” Or worse.

    “Yes.”

    He sighed. “I don’t like these sort of games.” He really didn’t.

    “That’s part of a spy’s life,” she told him. “Wheels within wheels.”

    “Well, at least we won’t have to deal with that once we’re working for the Council,” he said.

    She pressed her lips together once more.

    “What?” He knew the Scoobies. He trusted them.

    “We still haven’t gotten the cover IDs,” she said.

    “Because Willow’s, uh, in need of rest after an incident in Marseille,” he pointed out. “And she’s their best hacker.” Probably their only decent one, too.

    “Do you think they haven’t already been preparing fake IDs for us, ever since we got in contact with them about working for the Council?” she retorted. “With the means at their disposal?”

    “Uh…” That would have been logical.

    “They either are stalling for some reason, or they need Willow to do something before they hand the IDs over,” Sarah explained.

    “Oh.” That sounded a little paranoid to Chuck. But pointing out that this could’ve been an honest mishap was probably not a good idea, Chuck decided. That might make the Council look unprofessional in her eyes.

    On the other hand, the Scoobies had been at that for years. Wouldn’t they have planned ahead?

    Drat. Chuck was turning paranoid himself.

    *****​

    California, Malibu, Malibu Beach Inn, January 24th, 2008

    “So… this looks pretty nice for a Buy More training event,” Chuck joked as they got out of their car in front of the hotel.

    “Play your role, nerd,” Casey’s voice sounded in his ear.

    Chuck frowned. The CIA had arranged for their cover at the Buy More - his and Casey’s, Sarah and bane were supposed to be sick - after all, so that had been an obvious joke. Perhaps too obvious? It wasn’t as if anyone could overhear them. “I’m Charles Carmichael, got it.” He could do that role in his sleep by now. Mostly.

    Sarah smiled as she hooked her arm into his, and they entered the lobby while one valet parked their sports car and another fetched their luggage.

    He pretended not to notice them - he was a rich software entrepreneur, after all, and used to this sort of treatment. And he didn’t blink at paying the hotel’s exorbitant rates. Even if Chuck did, in private. He might have earned a lot of working for the CIA, but money had been a little tight for most of his life after his parents had disappeared. Spending so much on a few days still felt wrong.

    He cleared his throat. He was Charles Carmichael. And he was on a mission. Time to check in. And then start the surveillance. The parts Bane, working as a temporary waitress in the pool area, and Casey from the outside, couldn’t do, at least.

    And hope that Fulcrum was doing the transfer tonight. Or tomorrow before the evening, at least. Because that was when Ellie and Devon would arrive.

    *****​

    Half an hour later, they were strolling through the hotel - ‘doing recon’, as Casey called it over the radio. Chuck still wasn’t sure if the hotel’s amenities were worth the price, but it certainly was a very nice hotel. Better than the resort in Jamaica, he decided after a trip through the lobby and a peek at the pool area.

    “Did you flash on anything?” Sarah asked in a low voice as they headed to the bar.

    “No,” he replied. He would have told her, of course - if she had missed it. Although... she might be asking for the benefit of Casey and Bane.

    “The courier hasn’t left his room yet,” Casey announced over the radio in Chuck’s ear.

    “Hasn’t ordered room service either,” Bane added over the same channel. “He’ll probably dine in the restaurant. Easier to make contact with the agent that way.”

    Yes, having your contact walk up to your room and knock wouldn’t be very subtle. Even Chuck could see that. “Well, we’ve got the main stairs and lifts covered - we’ll spot him once he appears,” he said, lips hidden behind the rim of his cocktail glass.

    “You better.” Casey was, as usual, very encouraging.

    “So… what do you think?” Chuck asked, leaning against the bar in a relaxed pose. Well, as close to relaxed that he could manage on a mission.

    “About?” Sarah replied. She glanced at him but then returned to watching the lobby.

    “The hotel,” he said. “For Ellie and Devon, I mean.” They couldn’t just wait without talking, could they? That would endanger their cover, wouldn’t it?

    “I think she’ll be impressed by the amount of money you’re willing to spend.”

    “Really?” he perked up.

    “Not favourably, though,” Sarah added, tilting her head to look at him with a rather sardonic expression.

    “Oh.” Of course - Ellie was a practical woman, after all. Still, this was related to her honeymoon, so perhaps that would sway her. And she might also appreciate that he could spend so much money on her thanks to his new job.

    Which, he realised with a sinking feeling in his stomach, would mean that she would be even less happy about their eventual employment by the Council.

    A swallow of his cocktail - worth the price, at least - dealt with his stomach. He wasn’t a teenager any more; Ellie would have to accept that he made his own choices in his life nowadays.

    “There.” Sarah’s hissed announcement interrupted his thoughts.

    He turned his head and saw Adams walking down the stairs. The former race car driver looked very fit for his fifty years, though Chuck thought that the man’s tan looked a little overdone. And sunglasses in the evening? Indoors? That was just tacky. Almost as tacky as the golden lighter Adams was toying with while… Chuck blinked. And flashed. He saw a laboratory. Schematics. Technical data. And explosions.

    “The lighter,” he whispered as soon as he recovered.

    “What?”

    “It’s a custom-made CIA device, with a solid-state drive built into it. And a self-destruction function based on an NSA incinerator tied to a biometric scanner!” he added with more than a little concern. Those things were nasty.

    “What? Are you sure?” Casey asked.

    “Yes. Well, I flashed on the lighter’s model, but they might’ve disabled the self-destruct,” Chuck replied.

    “I doubt that,” Casey said with a scoff.

    So did Chuck, but he’d had to mention it.

    “That will make retrieving the data more difficult,” Sarah commented as they watched Adams enter the restaurant. “Can you disarm it?”

    “Uh…” Could he? He closed his eyes for a moment, going over the data in his head. “Yes,” he said, with more confidence than he felt. He could do it - he had the tools, the knowledge and the skills. It was like bypassing the security of a sophisticated phone that the owner had accidentally locked.

    Only that phones generally didn’t explode with enough force to completely destroy a car if you made a mistake.

    Sarah looked at him for a moment, then nodded. “Good. We won’t make a move until we’ve identified his contact, though.”

    “Of course,” he agreed. He had been briefed, after all.

    “He’s sitting alone at a table,” Bane reported. Apparently, she had transferred to the restaurant staff.

    “Good, keep him covered,” Casey said.

    “Won’t be too hard - he’s staring down my cleavage.”

    Chuck almost snorted at the comment before he saw Sarah’s expression. She wasn’t amused. “So… let’s go eat dinner?” he asked with his best smile.

    “Yes,” she agreed, relaxing. “Let’s.”

    Chuck put his now empty glass down on the bar counter, nodding. “Good. I’m feeling a little…”

    “Bartowski? Chuck Bartowski?”

    He blinked. A woman was headed straight towards him, trailed by an amused-looking man. Both well-dressed, but that was a given in this hotel.

    She was beaming at him. “It is you! Wow, I would never have expected to meet you here!” She turned to address the man with her. “Ralph, this is Chuck Bartowski, we went to high school together!”

    He finally recognised her. Aphrodesia Walker - a member of Cordelia’s clique in Sunnydale who he hadn’t seen since graduation. Apparently, she had a better memory for people than he had. And she had just blown his cover.

    This was bad. Very bad.

    *****​
     
  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 25: The Hotel Dilemma
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 25: The Hotel Dilemma

    California, Malibu, Malibu Beach Inn, January 24th, 2008

    “Aphrodesia Walker. How nice to see you,” Chuck lied, forcing himself to smile. What was a former member of Cordelia’s highschool clique doing here of all places? Should he have lied and claimed he was Charles Carmichael? But Aphrodesia wasn’t Harmony; she wouldn’t have bought that. And now Sarah was glaring at him. Damn.

    “It’s Brown,” she said, holding up her hand, displaying a ring. “Freshly married to Ralph!”

    Chuck didn’t have to flash to know it was very expensive. “Congratulations,” he said.

    She fake-gasped. “Oh, I’m sorry we didn’t invite you - we didn’t know your address.”

    What she meant was that he hadn’t been important enough - not rich, not popular - for her to care about, Chuck knew. “This is Sarah,” he said. “Sarah Walker.”

    “Oh, we’ve got the same name. Well, we had the same name,” Aphrodesia said, smiling. “We’re not related, though, are we?”

    “No, we aren’t,” Sarah said with a smile that looked more honest than Aphrodesia’s, but was as fake, as far as Chuck could tell. “I’ve researched my family tree a while ago.”

    “Ah.” Aphrodesia nodded. “I should do that as well, I think. We should do it,” she said, smiling at Ralph. “Imagine what we might find!”

    “Right,” her husband agreed.

    “So, what are you doing here?” she asked, turning her attention back to Chuck. Or, rather, to his clothes. And to Sarah.

    He needed an excuse. “Ah… Well, it’s a little embarrassing, you know.” He flashed her a smile as she leaned a little forward.

    “Really?” She beamed at him. “Oh… you were on the way to the restaurant, right? We too! Let’s dine together!”

    Obviously, Charles Carmichael’s taste in clothes and girlfriend was good - expensive - enough for her. Chuck nodded with a fake smile. “We’d love to.”

    As they turned to take the lead, he glanced at Sarah - and winced. She was glaring at him and showing her clenched teeth.

    Drat.

    *****​

    What was Chuck thinking, blowing their cover like this? Sarah forced herself to smile before the other woman turned around to address them. “Table for four, at the window, OK?”

    “Yes,” Sarah lied. She sent another glare at Chuck as soon as the woman turned around again.

    “Sorry!” he mouthed at her as they followed the Browns to their table.

    “Who are those people?” Casey asked through the radio.

    “She’s an old school friend of Chuck’s who recognised him,” Sarah replied in a whisper.

    “She’s not a friend,” Chuck insisted.

    “Can it, Carmichael,” Casey replied. “And fix this before it ruins the mission.”

    They reached the table, and Sarah moved quickly to ensure she took a seat with a good view of Adams’s table and the rest of the restaurant.

    “So… ‘embarrassing’?” the woman prompted with an eager smile as soon as everyone was seated.

    “Ah, yes,” Chuck said, nodding. “You see, we’re here because of Ellie, my sister. You remember her?”

    “Of course I do,” the woman obviously lied.

    “So, she’s recently gotten engaged to a colleague at work - she’s a physician, a neurologist, in Los Angeles, you know - and, well, we’re planning to gift them two weeks here as a honeymoon,” Chuck said.

    “Oh? So you’re here to check out the hotel?” Ralph asked.

    “Yes. Although under a fake name - wouldn’t want the hotel to know about this, right?”

    The woman nodded emphatically at Chuck’s bullshit story. Adams hadn’t talked to anyone yet, not counting the waiter.

    “Only, Ellie and Devon were stressed from the wedding preparations, so we spontaneously booked them for the weekend,” Chuck went on. “After we had already booked under a fake name. So, we’re kind of trying to hide from them, or they might feel as if we’re watching them. And some people might think we’re cheating on each other, or something.”

    “Ah.” The woman nodded a little too emphatically again. “And what have you been doing since graduation?”

    “Oh, I went to Stanford. Computer sciences. After graduation, I started working as an IT consultant. Security systems, data analysis, custom search algorithms - there’s a lot of demand for experts in that field.”

    “Well-paid, too, I’d say,” she replied.

    “Well...” Chuck shrugged. “Supply and demand, right?”

    Ralph nodded. “Words to live by. I’m in investment banking myself.”

    “And you, Sarah?” Brown asked.

    “I’ve got my own business. Gastronomy,” Sarah said.

    “Ah.”

    Sarah didn’t like her smile. Not at all. “And you?” she asked with her best fake smile.

    “Oh, I worked as a style consultant until I met Ralph,” Brown replied.

    “Ah.” Sarah returned the woman’s smile with interest.

    Ralph cleared his throat. “So… you went to high school together? In Sunnydale?”

    “Yes.” Chuck nodded. “We were in the same year. She was a member of Cordelia Chase’s clique.”

    Sarah noted that Brown didn’t like being referred to in that way. Good to know.

    “And he was part of the nerds,” the woman replied.

    “Good old Sunnydale high school. It was such a blow when it blew up at our graduation,” Chuck said with a sigh.

    “It blew up at your graduation?” Ralph blinked, then stared at his wife. “You never told me about that!”

    “Ah, I don’t like talking about it. Or thinking about it. I lost a friend in the explosion,” Brown said. “Poor Harmony.”

    Her? A friend of Harmony? And she didn’t even know that the woman was now a vampire? Yeah, right.

    “Oh, I’m sorry, darling.” Ralph grabbed her hand. “I didn’t want to bring up sad memories.”

    “It’s OK. It’s been years, after all.” Brown sniffled for effect.

    Well, Brown wouldn’t be a good spy. Or a good actress, in Sarah’s opinion. That was the worst acting she had seen since Grime’s attempt to convince Chuck that he needed an extra day off work.

    *****​

    “...of course we won’t tell Ellie about your presence, right, Ralph?”

    “Sure, darling.”

    It was going well, in Chuck’s opinion. Thanks to a little fast-talking, he had managed to solve this potential problem and save the mission. And there hadn’t been too many embarrassing high school stories told - mutually assured destruction worked, after all. “Thank you,” he said, smiling.

    “Oh, of course - I know how it is, having to deal with family,” Ralph told him. “My mother wanted to run our wedding for us.”

    Aphrodesia winced at that, Chuck noted. He nodded. “It’s a lot of work, organising a wedding. I would have hired a wedding planner, but…” He shrugged. “Ellie’s been the mom of the family since our parents disappeared years ago.”

    “Ah, right,” Aphrodesia nodded as if she had just remembered that the Bartowskis had effectively been orphans in Sunnydale. “I mean… I didn’t want to bring it up,” she added, not quite convincingly.

    “Thank you,” Chuck told her.

    “Wow… I mean, I’ve heard about the sinkhole, but…” Ralph trailed off, looking embarrassed.

    “Oh, we were already living in L.A. when that happened, or Stanford, for me,” Chuck said. “But a couple friends of mine were among the last to get out before the whole town was sunk.”

    “Oh? That must have been terrifying.” Ralph shook his head. “Are they OK?”

    “Oh, yes,” Chuck replied. “They’re now living in England, most of the time, working for an NGO.”

    “You mean Summers and the others?” Aphrodesia asked. “England?”

    “Yes.” She must not have kept in touch with anyone from her old clique, Chuck realised - Cordelia would have told her friends about the Scoobies, before her death. But then, apart from Aura, none of the Cordettes had shown up to Cordelia’s funeral, had they? Well, Harmony probably would have, if the funeral had been held at night.

    “Wow. Who’d have expected that? Although… wasn’t the librarian they always hung out with from England?”

    “Giles,” Chuck told her. “And yes, he’s from England. Old Money,” he added, just because of her attitude.

    “Oh? An honest British Lord?” Ralph asked.

    “What? And he worked at Sunnydale High School?” Aphrodesia shook her head.

    “He, uh, had a falling out with his family and wanted to see the world,” Chuck said, wincing - and hoping this wouldn’t get back to Giles. “But they reconciled. And he’s upper class, but not actual nobility, I believe.” Though as far as Chuck knew, the leader of the Watchers Council often was knighted, once a sufficient pretext could be found. He shrugged. “But I didn’t really know him well, you know - he wasn’t really fond of computers.” Which was an understatement, of course.

    “Unlike Willow,” Sarah cut in.

    “Oh, Rosenberg. The biggest nerd in school,” Aphrodesia said, giggling. “Cordelia was always on her case.”

    “One of the smartest people I’ve met,” Sarah said with a toothy smile. “And I’ve met a number of Chuck’s friends and teachers from Stanford.”

    Aphrodesia frowned at the subtle rebuke and took a sip from her wine to mask her reaction, or so Chuck thought. He hadn’t known Sarah was so fond of Willow as to defend her like that, though. “She’s also quite known in the information technology scene,” he added.

    “Really?” Aphrodesia’s frown grew more pronounced.

    “Yes,” Chuck went on, “she discovered quite a number of network security exploits.” He winced when he felt someone - Sarah - pinch his thigh. He glanced at her, but she was looking at Adams. Who was getting up from his table.

    Oh. And they were stuck here with the Browns. He cleared his throat, trying to think of an excuse. Perhaps…

    Sarah rose next to him, holding up her cell phone. “I’m sorry, but I need to take this call - work,” she said. “I don’t know, though, how long it’ll take me to sort this out. Please don’t wait for me.”

    She turned and walked away before the Browns could say anything in response, leaving him with them.

    He smiled as best as he managed. “Sorry, she works very hard… Did Aphrodesia tell you about the time there was a cheerleader audition and a girl caught fire?”

    *****​

    Sarah kept the phone pressed to her ear even after she had left the restaurant. There were cameras, after all - and it was also a good cover. Adams was already halfway up the stairs - was he returning to his room? He hadn’t passed on the prototype, so his contact hadn’t met him, yet. A dead drop was possible, but she thought that unlikely. If Fulcrum were planning to use a dead drop for this, they wouldn’t have sent Adams to a hotel.

    But his contact could be waiting in his room, having sneaked in during the meal.

    They would have to observe the room and check. And with Bane currently working as a waitress, they hadn’t many options to do that.

    “I need to check that on my laptop,” she said, a little more loudly than usual, then started up the stairs, after Adams. Mumbling more fragments of a fictional conversation, she kept him in view - they had placed surveillance in the hallways and stairs, but that wouldn’t help if they had to move quickly to tail someone making contact with the courier.

    But Adams didn’t talk to anyone, or touch anyone, before he entered his room. Which was facing the sea, therefore denying anyone a good spot to look into it. But that also meant there was not much of a risk of anyone observing her room.

    Not from the outside, at least. A few keystrokes displayed the feed from the camera covering the balcony of Adams’s room - from the side, unfortunately- on her laptop, but no one was climbing out there. She quickly pulled her dress off and slipped into dark grey jeans and a tight sweater as well as trainers. A cap to hide her blonde hair followed, and she was ready.

    But she hesitated a moment. If Adams had a camera covering the facade, this would alert him. No. He was a courier, a driver. Not a spy.

    She went out, crouching, and quickly looked for anyone out on the balconies with a view of her route. Seeing no one, she slid over the railing and started climbing.

    There were two balconies between hers and Adams’s. The first was dark - as was the room connected to it. No sweat; Sarah traversed it without stopping. The second, though, was illuminated from inside.

    She hung from the railing and peered through the bars. Oh. That was an affectionate couple. But also a distracted one. She pulled herself up and over the railing, landing on the balcony without a sound. A last check - they still weren’t paying attention to anything outside their bed - and she dashed past the door, then onto the railing.

    Another leap and a quick move later, she could peer into Adams’s room. Where the man was watching tv on his bed.

    She moved a little; the risk of being spotted increased, but she had to change her position to cover the entire room. Adams was alone. A former race car driver turned courier, watching sitcoms in his room? By himself? Well, there went plan b, aka “plan Bane”. If Adams was content watching tv in the evening, he would probably smell a trap if a maid came on to him.

    “Room’s clear. He’s watching a sitcom,” she whispered into her radio, then started the climb back. They’d have to keep the balcony and door under surveillance during the night, of course, but she had a feeling that Adams’s contact wouldn’t make a move tonight. They probably hadn’t even arrived yet.

    *****​

    Sarah returned after fifteen minutes. Chuck didn’t quite sigh with relief - he wasn’t desperate; he still had some tales from Stanford left, and neither he nor Aphrodesia had mentioned Cordelia so far - but he was grateful for the distraction anyway. “Hey, honey!” he exclaimed. “All problems sorted out?”

    She nodded. “It’s admirable that my staff work late if they feel they have to close a contract, but it’s not so admirable that they needed my help to actually do so,” she said as she sat down next to him. “Sorry about that.”

    “Oh, it’s OK,” Ralph said. “I’ve been there myself. He smiled as he took Aphrodesia’s hand. “She’s the first woman I met who could stand my working hours, but I had to promise her not to work on our honeymoon.”

    Chuck wasn’t the best expert on women, but he would’ve thought that was pretty obvious. He certainly wouldn’t want to even think about work on his honeymoon. Or be able to, he added with a glance at Sarah.

    Fortunately, the dinner ended soon after dessert and the Browns left for their own room. “I guess she remembered why they’re here,” he heard Sarah mutter as she and Chuck made their way to their own room.

    That was a little catty, in Chuck’s opinion. Something Cordelia would have said if she were feeling nice. “Well, we hadn’t talked since high school,” he said.

    “And not much during high school, either,” she replied. It wasn’t a question.

    “Uh… yes,” he admitted. “But it was the same with Cordelia.”

    “I somehow doubt that the new Mrs Brown will decide to join the fight against demons,” Sarah remarked as they entered their own room.

    “Well, at least she won’t rat us out to Ellie,” Chuck retorted.

    “Probably not.” Sarah nodded. “But we can’t count on that.”

    What? “Do you think we’ll have to tell Ellie why we’re here?” Chuck didn’t want to. She’d worry. And might do something stupid as a result.

    “I hope not,” Sarah said.”

    That sounded less reassuring than Chuck would have liked.

    At least he had managed to preserve his cover. Or so he hoped.

    *****​

    California, Malibu, Malibu Beach Inn, January 25th, 2008

    “Adams must be scamming his employer out of a paid vacation,” Chuck commented as he glanced at the lunch menu the hotel was offering. “I bet he’s scheduled contact for Sunday.” Otherwise, the courier would have handed over the prototype already, and the mission would be over. Mostly.

    “He’s maintaining his cover,” Sarah replied, putting her menu down and shifting on her chair near the pool. “Sticking to schedules that fit a vacation makes it harder to trace such couriers or spies.”

    Chuck looked at her over the rim of his sunglasses, and she grinned. After all, she had introduced the concept of ‘maintaining your cover’ to him by taking out a sailing yacht on the CIA’s dime. He huffed, and she giggled.

    “Perks of the job,” she said.

    “It’s a problem for us, though,” he replied. “Ellie and Devon will arrive in the evening.” Or late afternoon, depending on how fast they drove.

    “Brown’s more of a problem,” Sarah pointed out. “Ellie knows that we’re spies.”

    “But she won’t believe that we’re here by coincidence,” Chuck retorted.

    “Why not? What possible reason would we have for wanting them to be present during a mission?” Sarah looked honestly puzzled.

    “Sis isn’t always logical,” Chuck told her. “Especially not when it concerns family.” Though, to be fair, some of the excuses Chuck and Morgan had tried to use on Ellie in their teenage years might have played a part in that. ‘Occam’s Razor’ was still a four-letter word, as far as she was concerned. Or a sure sign someone was trying to scam her.

    “Well, we’ll have to talk to them, then.”

    “Once they arrive, right.” Chuck nodded.

    Sarah looked at him, then tapped her phone. What… Oh.

    He felt dumb. “I’ll call her during her lunch break.”

    *****​

    Sarah smiled. Sometimes, she envied Chuck for having a family - well, their fathers were kind of alike, both in trouble with the law and absent since their teenage years - but not always. This was certainly one of the times she didn’t envy him.

    “What do I say if she wants to cancel the trip?” Chuck asked.

    “Do you think she would?” Sarah didn’t believe so herself. Both Bartowskis hated to waste money, especially so much of it. And the general wouldn’t like it either - for a different reason, though.

    “Good point,” Chuck acknowledged. He sighed. “Well, it should be safe.”

    “Yes,” Sarah agreed. Fulcrum were traitors and ruthless, but they were professionals. Killing civilians was, barring false flag operations and similar circumstances, unprofessional. It drew too much attention from authorities, which no spy agency liked. And this was a simple drop-off, not an assassination mission. At least for Fulcrum. “So… have you decided on your lunch?” she asked.

    Chuck didn’t reply right away. He was staring at a woman walking through the lobby towards the reception, she noticed. No, not staring. Flashing.

    He blinked, shaking his head slightly, “That’s Emma Bones. A former CIA spy. Retired five years ago for medical reasons, but went freelance afterwards. Her speciality is, uh, honeypot missions.”

    Sarah frowned. Retired for medical reasons, but working freelance? Someone either made a deal to cover up something shady, or someone pulled strings to get her out of the CIA. Probably Fulcrum - her presence here couldn’t be a coincidence. “That might explain why Adams was watching reruns last night - if she’s supposed to be his vacation affair, having a one-night stand could complicate things.”

    “Ah.” Chuck nodded. “Uh… so… she’s his contact?”

    “Probably. We’ll have to verify it.” She leaned back a little. “Casey, did you catch that?” she whispered.

    “Yeah,” the NSA agent replied through the radio. “I’ll inform the general.”

    “Copy. We’ll be waiting for further instructions,” Sarah mumbled. It was the general’s call whether they were to tag Bones to track her or to capture her. Sarah would prefer to arrest the woman - Bones was ex-CIA, so she knew how things worked and would be checking for tails and bugs.

    “So… we need to observe both of them now? Adams and Bones?” Chuck asked.

    “For now,” Sarah confirmed. Bones just finished checking in and was now headed to her room - presumably.

    “I’m tracking her through the cameras,” Bane informed them over the radio. “I’ve heard of her; she’s good.”

    Of course, Bane would have heard of Bones. Probably studied her old missions in training, Sarah thought.

    “If she’s not in a rush, she won’t make contact with him until tomorrow evening,” Bane went on. “That looks less suspicious, and she won’t have to spend more than one night with him.”

    Sarah refrained from reminding Bane that she knew how such things worked. “Keep an eye on her. She might break with the pattern,” she told the other spy instead.

    “So, uh… what do we do?” Chuck asked. “Casey’s contacting the general, Bane’s on surveillance…”

    “We eat lunch,” she told him with a smile. “And you call Ellie.”

    “Uh.”

    *****​

    Chuck rejoined her at the pool after lunch. Sarah could tell from one look at his expression that his call hadn’t gone well. “She’s still coming, right?”

    He sighed and nodded as he sat down next to her. “Yes. I didn’t even mention the possibility, and she still told me that she doesn’t want to ‘waste so much money’, or so she claims.” He closed his eyes. “What a mess.”

    “Look happy,” she told him. “Your school friend is swimming and might notice.”

    “She’s not a school friend. If she didn’t think I was rich now, she wouldn’t give me the time of day - she’d probably complain to the manager about my presence, instead,” he replied. “She’s as egocentric as Harmony, just not as dumb.”

    Sarah had known that, of course - she knew the type. Chuck had mentioned it before, too. And she knew Harmony. But they were on a mission. “Well, since she thinks you’re now rich enough to be her friend, she will pay attention to you. So better look happy before she thinks there’s trouble.”

    “Right, right.” He flashed a quite obviously fake smile at her.

    She chuckled in response. “Almost.”

    His next smile was better - good enough. “So… is our courier still playing tourist?”

    “Yes.” Adams was lounging near the bar, his second drink - of the afternoon - in hand. “Nothing suspicious happened yet, but…” she trailed off. There was Bones at the entrance to the pool area, in a bikini that probably covered less than her sunglasses did.

    She leaned a little forward, masking the movement by grabbing her own drink. “Bones arrived,” she reported in a whisper. “She’s closing in on Adams.” Who had the lighter in his shirt pocket.

    “Copy,” Casey replied.

    “I’ve got eyes on them,” Bane added.

    The freelance spy swayed her hips as she walked. Just enough to draw that extra bit of attention her bikini’s lack of fabric might have missed. And she had drawn Adams’s attention, alright - the man was smiling at her as she drew closer. Text-book contact-making. Almost a little too obvious.

    Or not. Bones walked past Adams without glancing at him. “No contact,” Bane reported, unnecessarily - Sarah had seen that herself.

    “Perhaps they don’t want to be too obvious,” Chuck speculated as Bones took a free deck chair on the other side of the pool.

    Sarah wasn’t certain if she agreed. Playing hard to get might draw a bit more attention to the scene than some casual flirting. And the way Bones was dressed - and the way she put on sunscreen - she wouldn’t exactly fit the role anyway.

    “Aphrodesia won’t like that,” Chuck commented.

    “Hm?”

    “Bones is sitting close to Ralph.”

    Indeed. A little too close - she had picked the free chair which was closest to the Browns, actually. “Right.” Had Bones missed that Ralph was with his wife here? A former CIA-spy should have noticed that the chair on the other side of Ralph was almost touching his, and that there was a towel on it with the logo of a cosmetics brand. Ralph, though, hadn’t missed her - he was sneaking glances, Sarah noted. And he looked nervous.

    “Uh. Here she comes.”

    And indeed, Aphrodesia was leaving the pool. Not as slowly as she had entered it - and she headed straight to Ralph.

    “Do you think she noticed that he was eyeing Bones?” Chuck asked.

    “I don’t think she cares whether or not he did,” Sarah replied. Aphrodesia struck her as the kind of woman who’d assume any attractive woman not in a relationship - or even those who were - was a rival.

    And yes, Mrs Brown immediately took steps to monopolise Ralph’s attention, asking him to put sunscreen on her before she had finished towelling off. Probably asking all sorts of questions, too, to keep him busy.

    The woman was really rather insecure. On the other hand, seeing as how Bones was watching the display, perhaps she had cause to be wary. Sarah narrowed her eyes. Flirting with a married man was a little much as far as a smokescreen went. If a jealous wife made a scene, then that would draw a lot of attention. And if things escalated…

    And Ralph looked very nervous. Guilty, too. Too guilty for merely sneaking glances at an attractive woman at a pool. Oh.

    “Bones isn’t here for Adams,” Sarah said. “She’s here for Ralph.”

    *****​

    “She’s here for Ralph? That’s a problem!” Chuck said.

    “I don’t see the problem,” Casey replied over the radio. “Bones’ll keep the Browns from interfering with our mission.”

    “Yes, Bane agreed.”

    “Guys… you don’t know Aphrodesia. She’ll try to use us to help keep Ralph from straying.” Chuck knew how Cordettes thought. And unlike Cordelia, Aphrodesia didn’t seem to have changed at all since high school.

    As if she had heard him, Aphrodesia stood, pointing at them, and tugging on Ralph’s arm.

    “He’s right,” Sarah agreed as the other woman all but dragged her husband with her.

    “Get rid of them,” Casey snapped. “We here to find Adams contact, not to do couple’s therapy.”

    That was easier said than done, of course. Chuck knew that. Aphrodesia wasn’t Cordelia, not even close, but she had the same attitude and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Well, unless you hit her over the head with it, perhaps literally, but that would make a scene and draw attention. From Adams as well.

    “Chuck! Sarah! How do you like it here?” Aphrodesia asked, a little too loudly, and sat down on the chair next to Chuck’s, pulling Ralph with her.

    “It’s very nice,” Chuck replied. “Well worth the price. Better than the resort in the Caribbean that we visited over the holidays.”

    “Oh?” The woman perked up.

    “Yes. Great beaches, but the staff was a little underwhelming, and the town was a tourist trap,” Sarah said.

    “Ah, that’s the Caribbean for you!” Aphrodesia launched into a rather prejudiced tale of her and Ralph’s own vacation in the Caribbean, a cruise, last year. Since she was more interested in dragging Ralph into the conversation as much as possible, Chuck used the opportunity to check on Bones and Adams. Adams was just ordering another drink - and staring down Bane’s cleavage. Bones was… about to hit the pool. And keeping her attention on them. No, on Ralph.

    Who, Chuck belatedly noticed, was looking nervously at her when Aphrodesia wasn’t paying attention. Oh. Of course! It all made sense. He had to inform the others!

    “I’m going to get a drink at the bar,” he said, getting up. “Do you want anything?”

    “Just a coke,” Sarah told him. “Thank you.”

    “Mineral water,” Aphrodesia said.

    “Bloody Mary,” Ralph ordered. And ignored his wife’s glare. Definitely nervous.

    As soon as Chuck was out of earshot, he whispered. “Guys! Bones and Ralph know each other! He’s much too nervous in her presence.”

    “We figured that out already,” Casey replied. “Probably had an affair and now comes the blackmail.”

    Oh. Chuck pressed his lips together. So much for his analysis. Of course, the veteran spies would’ve picked up on that already.

    Sighing, he continued towards the bar - and almost collided with a man leaving it. “Sorry,” he said quickly as he took a step back.

    “No problem,” the man replied, smiling at him.

    And Chuck flashed. Corpses. Bodies. Murders. And drinks and food. And a name. Marcel Boucher.

    “Are you alright?”

    He blinked. “Oh, yes, sorry,” Chuck managed to say. “I think I got a little too much sun.” He forced himself to laugh as the other man turned away. Then he used the radio again. “Guys! The man I almost ran into? He’s Marcel Boucher! A hitman specialising in poison!”

    And he was headed towards Adams.

    “Shit!” Casey cursed. “This isn’t a drop, but a trap. They want to get rid of Adams. They must have found out that we fingered him. Stop Boucher and keep Adams alive!”

    Damn. Boucher was already sitting down next to Adams. Next to the man’s drink. And with Sarah stuck in Aphrodesia’s claws, and Bane currently on the other side of the pool serving drinks to a group of tourists, that left Chuck to intervene.

    He clenched his teeth and quickly ordered the drinks for Sarah and the others, keeping Boucher in sight. The man hadn’t made his move yet. Probably waiting until Adams felt at ease. But all it took was one distraction, and Boucher could poison that drink.

    Think, Chuck, think! How do you save Adams? Without breaking cover? Oh! His eyes widened as he had an idea and he turned back to the bartender. “And two pieces of that delicious cheesecake, please!”

    A minute later - Chuck’s neck almost felt strained from the constant glances over his shoulder - he was on the way back to Sarah ad the Browns, carrying a tray with the drinks and the cake. Now all he had to do was to make it look natural.

    And he had to hurry - he saw Boucher’s arm move when Adams was looking at Bones getting out of the pool as if she was in a steamy movie scene. The courier was reaching for his drink without looking. His poisoned drink.

    Chuck stepped up his pace. Five yards. And Adams was about to drink. “Whoa!” Chuck yelled, launching himself forward in a stumbling run. “Watch out!”

    Boucher pulled away in a smooth motion, rolling off the chair. Adams wasn’t as quick and froze, drink in hand, a moment before Chuck’s tray hit him in the chest, spilling drinks, soda and cake all over him.

    Chuck fell to the ground. “Sorry! I’m so sorry!” He didn’t have to fake his groan - he had hit the deck chair in a rather painful way.

    But the poisoned drink had been spilt as well, and Adams was safe. Angry at Chuck, but unpoisoned. “Look at my shirt!” the man snapped.

    “I’m so sorry! I will, of course, pay for the cleaning. Or a new shirt?” Chuck babbled.

    “What? Forget it! I need to take a shower. And change!”

    Chuck smiled as Adams turned away and walked towards the hotel.

    Then he caught Boucher’s glare. Uh oh.

    *****​

    “Now that brings back memories!” Brown exclaimed as Chuck took a dive. “Like in high school!”

    Sarah made sure to ‘accidentally’ step on the woman’s foot when she got up. “Chuck! Are you alright?” she exclaimed.

    By the time she reached him, Adams was already walking away, presumably to his room. “Good work,” she whispered as she made a show of inspecting Chuck.

    “But I think Boucher grew suspicious,” he replied. “He looked as if he wanted to kill me.”

    She nodded. They’d have to take out the assassin anyway, but this made it personal. “Limp a little,” she told him. That would give them an excuse to leave the Browns. And they could follow Adams. Well, limp after him, but no plan was perfect.

    They managed to keep the man under surveillance anyway, with the help of Casey, until he entered his room.

    “Do you think that Bones was the distraction meant for Adams?” Chuck asked once they were in their room, pulling off his own stained shirt.

    “I doubt it,” Sarah replied after a moment. “She could have distracted him by responding to his advances or by flirting. If the poison had a delayed effect, she wouldn’t have been a suspect even after his death.”

    “Ah.” Chuck nodded. “That makes sense.”

    “We cannot dismiss the possibility entirely, though,” she added.

    “Oh.” After a second, he went on: “So, what do we do now?”

    Sarah smiled thinly. “We take out Boucher and capture Adams. With Fulcrum planning to kill him, he should prove cooperative.” If the man believed them, of course. On the other hand, once he was in the CIA’s custody, he would be a loose end, so cooperation was his best chance to survive anyway.

    But they had to capture him, first. And deal with Boucher.

    Which, as Sarah found out quickly, though not unexpectedly, wasn’t easy. The assassin didn’t actually drink or eat anything at the pool bar, so Bane couldn’t use his own methods - although with non-lethal poison - against him. It had been a long shot anyway - Boucher might be able to detect even supposedly undetectable poisons, given his experience.

    But the man was very cautious, almost paranoid. He was constantly looking around, even to the detriment of his cover, in Sarah’s opinion. Did he suspect anything already? That would mean Chuck was in danger.

    At least he was keeping his distance from Adams after the courier had returned to the pool. Though it meant they had to keep eyes on both now. Something the Browns weren’t helping with at all.

    “Did you apologise to your victim?”

    “Of course I did,” Chuck replied, sounding more than a little annoyed at the implied condescension,

    “It was merely a small accident. No harm was done,” Sarah cut in.

    “Apart from your ankle,” the woman replied.

    “Oh, it’s manageable. I just don’t want it to get worse, you know?” Chuck patted his calf above the bandage they had wrapped around his ankle.

    “And his supposed ‘victim’ wasn’t hurt at all,” Sarah pointed out.

    “He certainly doesn’t act like it,” Ralph added, nodding towards the courier, who was nursing his next drink.

    Adams did seem to be a little too fond of alcohol, Sarah noted. If it had started to affect his work, perhaps that was the reason Fulcrum wanted him dead. Or one of the reasons.

    Boucher got up. Was he making another attempt? No. He didn’t even go near the courier or the bar.

    “I’ve got eyes on Boucher,” Casey informed her a minute later through the bud in her ear. He had switched from Overwatch to the hotel - hey needed him here, with two targets now. “He’s going to his room.”

    That left Adams, who didn’t seem to plan to leave the pool area anytime soon. Probably related to Bane’s continuing attempts to ‘innocently’ draw Ralph’s attention.

    Which left Sarah and Chuck stuck with the Browns.

    She would almost prefer another assassination attempt.

    *****​

    “So... how do we capture Boucher and Adams?” Chuck asked as they got ready for dinner in their room. If he had to sit through another afternoon with Aphrodesia…

    “We’ll break into their rooms during the night,” Casey said from where he was watching the feed from the security cameras covering the hallway to Adams and Boucher’s rooms.

    Chuck understood the necessity for the surveillance but he wished the man had a room of his own. Chuck had liked the privacy he and Sarah had enjoyed until now. Wait… “So, we capture both of them, right?”

    “If possible,” Casey said with a twisted grin.

    “But the objective is to capture them, isn’t it?” Chuck pointed out.

    “That changed the moment you identified Boucher. He’s an assassin for hire. He won’t know anything about Fulcrum,” Sarah, stepping out of the bathroom where she had changed, replied.

    “He’s an obstacle, nothing more,” Casey added.

    “Oh.” An obstacle they’d be removing. Chuck swallowed. Boucher was a murderer. A poisoner. The Intersect data also told Chuck that the man had no qualms about collateral damage. But to murder him in cold blood...

    “Getting cold feet?” Casey glared at him.

    “What? Of course not!” Chuck protested. “I’m just thinking about how best to get to him.”

    “Don’t waste your time. We’ve already plotted the hit,” the NSA agent told him.

    “You have?” When? And what was Chuck doing, then?

    “Yes. You’ll be the distraction for Adams,” Casey said.

    “We’ll go to him to apologise once more,” Sarah explained. “And then hit him with a sedative so we can ’help’ him.”

    “Ah.” That was… well, it wasn’t murder. It was OK.

    Chuck nodded. “I can do that.”

    “You better do, nerd.” Casey just had to have the last word, didn’t he?

    *****​

    “There are Ellie and Devon,” Chuck whispered half an hour later. His sister and his future brother-in-law had just entered the restaurant. He checked his watch. “They must have been speeding, or L.A. traffic wasn’t as bad as usual on a Friday afternoon,” he added and noted with relief that they weren’t seated even near the Browns or Adams.

    “Boucher still hasn’t left his room,” Casey reported. “I don’t like this.”

    “He must be preparing something, then,” Chuck pointed out.

    “Really? I had no idea.”

    Casey was good at conveying sarcasm in the most biting way, Chuck noted, not for the first time. He clenched his teeth, wishing he had a good comeback that wouldn’t sound unprofessional.

    He focused on the excellent meal, instead. He wasn’t sure if it was worth the money, but his steak was perfectly done, and the side dishes were a marvel. Even better was that Aphrodesia wasn’t constantly talking, not to him, at least - she was talking Ralph’s ear off, as far as he could tell; Bones was sitting at the table next to the Browns, and Ralph looked ready to commit suicide to escape. It was amusing - as long as you weren’t in the middle of it.

    And now came dessert! Oh, the treats on the cart… He blinked. The waiter pushing the dessert cart looked a little like…

    “Boucher,” Sarah hissed. “He’s slipped out and disguised himself as a waiter!”

    And Ellie and Devon were waving the assassin over, diverting him from his path to Adams!

    He had to do something. Anything. And right now! Something that didn’t break his cover or ruined the mission. Something…

    He spotted the couple two tables over, having crêpes flambées for dessert. Yes! “I’m doing a distraction,” he whispered, getting up. “Be ready to take them out.”

    “What?” Sarah gasped. “Chuck!”

    But he was already on the way, passing the next table. And faked a stumble to tackle the waiter setting the dessert on fire. “Sorry!” he yelled as the cognac bottle spilt on the white table covers of the next table, as planned.

    A moment later, the table was ablaze, the people backing off, everyone was screaming.

    Then the sprinklers were set off, and panic set in as everyone got wet and scared.

    Perfect. Chuck rolled off the waiter and came up in a crouch, looking around. There! Boucher was one the ground, Casey acting as if he was helping the man. And Adams…

    ...was trying to flee but had found the exit blocked by everyone else trying to get out. Sarah was coming up behind the courier, too.

    But the man turned and started to run towards the restaurant’s terrace. Which would take him past Chuck.

    Hidden behind the toppled table, Chuck pushed the dessert tray into the man’s way, causing him to slip and fall. And before Adams managed to recover, Chuck’s sleep hold had taken him out.

    It was easy to hoist the ‘poor fainted man’ on his shoulder and carry him out of the restaurant.

    Past the glaring, soaked and fuming - metaphorically, fortunately, not literally - Ellie.

    Uh oh.

    *****​
     
  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 26: The Game Night Part 1
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 26: The Game Night Part 1

    California, Malibu, Malibu Beach Inn, January 25th, 2008

    Chuck winced but kept walking. Ellie was smart. She wouldn’t make a scene and endanger their cover in public. She would let him have it, from both barrels, in private. Ellie knew how to keep grudges. Morgan could tell you all about it.

    But he had a mission. And Adams was kind of heavy. And the lighter Chuck had taken from him might be holding an NSA Incinerator charge that would turn him, Adams and everyone else within a few yards to ashes if it went off.

    So he hurried towards the exit, almost colliding with Casey, who was carrying Boucher. Now, if everything had gone according to plan, then Casey would have been driving a fake ambulance to ‘take the two unconscious victims to the hospital’. But with Casey having been needed in the hotel…

    There was the ambulance! Sarah, wearing a paramedic’s jacket, was driving! Chuck beamed at her.

    “Be glad that she reacted quickly to your harebrained stunt,” Casey grumbled next to him as they rushed over to the ambulance.

    “I had no choice,” Chuck retorted through clenched teeth. “I had to do something.” Ellie and Devon’s lives had been at stake.

    The NSA agent scoffed. “Next time, don’t act on your own.”

    But it had worked out perfectly. Chuck swallowed the obvious retort, though, as Casey dropped Boucher into the ambulance, then pushed Adams on top of him. “I’ll handle things from here on,” he snapped and bound men’s wrists. “Get out and play the happy couple again, Walker!”

    Chuck held the door while Sarah handed the jacket to Casey and climbed out. “Grouchy, is he?” Chuck muttered after the ambulance had left.

    Sarah made a sort-of-agreeing noise, which wasn’t really agreeing.

    “I’m just saying,” Chuck went on, “that it worked. No one but the bad guys got hurt. And we got all our objectives.”

    “We were lucky,” Sarah replied as she took his arm. “But it could have gone wrong.”

    “How?”

    “If we hadn’t been close enough to Boucher, or if Adams had been closer to the exit and had managed to escape in the confusion. Or if his lighter had gone off.”

    “Uh. Right, the lighter. I kind of need to disarm it, still,” Chuck admitted.

    “I thought so,” Sarah replied. “That’s why we’re not going back to the hotel yet.”

    “Ah.” Right. Smart. “But won’t that endanger our cover?” he asked.

    “A couple sitting at the beach, recovering from the shock, and the man fiddling with his lighter?”

    “Right.” He cleared his throat. “But, uh… shouldn’t you keep your distance? If I, uh, make a mistake?” And blow myself up?

    “That would look weird,” she said. In a lower voice, she added: “I trust you.”

    “No pressure,” he replied. But he was smiling.

    They found a secluded nook - a bench surrounded by bushes. At least, Chuck thought as he took out the lighter and a set of tools, no civilians would be hurt if I mess up. And he’d escape Ellie’s lecture.

    He chuckled at that. Then he got to work. According to the lighter’s schematics, the detonator was triggered by opening the case the obvious way. But there was a hidden latch on the front, which would reveal a tiny switch to disarm the charge. He wet his lips, then pressed down on the spot in front and flipped the switch.

    Nothing happened.

    Releasing the breath he had been holding, he opened the lighter, then took a look at the inside. “Ah… they modified it. There’s an additional module wired to the memory.” He took out another tool and studied the connections. “Probably… yes, it’s an encryption module.” Clever - a mini-router to encrypt the data, inaccessible from the software side. Unless you knew it was there, and bypassed it, or used it to access the memory, you wouldn’t get usable data.

    He pressed his lips together as he mulled it over. “Never try to solve a hardware problem with a software patch,” he mumbled, then started to connect his phone to the encryption module.

    It took him ten minutes, but he managed to crack the module’s bios and download the data from the lighter’s memory. A quick check revealed the schematics and production notes. Whew. “We’ve got it,” he told Sarah.

    “Great.” She smiled at him, then gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “Let’s go back to the hotel, then.”

    “Ah… shouldn’t we drop off the data, first?” he replied.

    “We can hand it over to Bane,” she told him, standing and pulling on his hand. “You’ve done enough.”

    He nodded and let her pull him up. He had, hadn’t he?

    And, he realised, halfway to the hotel, he had done most of it without the Intersect triggering.

    But when they arrived at the hotel, where the fire had been put out in the meantime and firemen were still walking around in the cordoned-off restaurant, he realised something else: They would be blaming him for the fire.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, January 26th, 2008

    “Come on, Chuck! It’s not so bad.”

    Chuck frowned at Sarah. It was bad. Really bad. “They threw us out! And they’re still billing us for the rooms - and the fire!” He crossed his arms and leaned back on his chair.

    “Well… you did start the fire,” she pointed out as she added another peeled orange to the blender.

    “Barely any damage was done,” he replied. “A table, some scorch marks on the floor, a broken chair…”

    “Dozens of guests fleeing in a panic? Trampling each other?”

    He winced. “Technically, that’s not damage done to the hotel.”

    “Well, the CIA will pay the damages,” she said as she turned the blender on.

    “It was a necessary sacrifice,” he said.

    “I’m sure the general will agree. Here!” She poured half the juice into a glass and put it down on the table in front of him.

    “Thanks.” He took a sip. “Was that sarcasm?” If the CIA docked his pay for this, then things could get a little tight, money-wise.

    “No. She understands making the call in the field.”

    “She does?” He blinked as he grabbed a slice of toast. “It’s just that Casey wasn’t of the understanding.” He coughed but didn’t correct himself. Stanford had taken care of his ‘Sunnydale-ism’ for the most part, but, sometimes, they still crept up.

    “Casey is always critical of everything,” she told him.

    “With the exception of Our Lord and Saviour, Ronald Reagan.”

    That made her laugh. “But you did good, Chuck. And Ellie and Devon are enjoying their weekend.”

    “Unless Aphrodesia is trying to use them to replace us,” Chuck said. “Speaking of - what about Bones?”

    “What about her?” Sarah asked.

    “Shouldn’t we be doing something about her? I mean… she’s trying to blackmail Ralph or something. It’s not as if I care about Aphrodesia’s marriage, not really, but Bones is a spy, so…” Chuck shrugged.

    “The CIA will keep an eye on the situation. Bane’s still there, too.”

    “Ah.” He blinked. “Won’t our cover be in danger if Fulcrum looks into the incident?”

    “That’s why it’s a cover,” she told him. “If needed, we can replace it.”

    “Oh.” He hoped that they wouldn’t have to - he had grown fond of Charles Carmichael, suave man of means.

    “Besides,” she went on, “you won’t have to face Ellie for two more days.”

    He grimaced, and she giggled. That was a faint consolation. But, perhaps, Ellie would have calmed down a little until Sunday evening. And pigs might fly. “Well, all that doesn’t change the fact that we’re kind of stuck here since we’re supposed to be at the training weekend. Although Los Angeles is so large, the odds of us encountering anyone who might recognise us are rather low.”

    “Well, that’s true. Although I was thinking of a few ways to pass the time indoors…” Sarah said, grinning at him.

    He blinked. She was wearing that short bathrobe, he realised. And probably not much else, he added when she bent a little towards him, smiling. “Ah.” He wet his lips. “Right.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, January 27th, 2008

    Looking out of the window, Chuck rubbed his aching shoulder. Sarah hadn’t just had that particular ‘something else’ in mind, yesterday. They’d also done some sparring. And working out.

    And the Intersect not only didn’t consider dying from exhaustion a danger that would make it trigger, but it also didn’t grant stamina or muscle tone. Both had to be earned the hard way - a way Chuck had just started to travel down. Or up - he wasn’t the best with metaphors when he had sore muscles and was dreading his sister’s return.

    Which was weird to begin with. He wasn’t a teenager any more. He wasn’t a failure any more, either. He was a spy - sort of. An intelligence asset. An analyst, at least - or the CIA would like him to become one. He was a future Watcher. Watcher-spy. He had his own life and his own future.

    But Ellie was his older sister. And would remain his older sister for the rest of their lives.

    Which was also kind of threatening, now that he thought about it.

    No, he would tell her that it hadn’t been his fault, just a coincidence. And that everything had been under control until the poisoner had appeared in the restaurant…

    No. He needed a better story. And - he winced as he looked out of the window - he needed it right now since Ellie and Devon had just arrived.

    They weren’t headed to Chuck and Ellie’s apartment, though - he watched them enter their own, first. Both were smiling and looking happy, which made him smile as well. It seemed his plan had worked - and Ellie seemed to have calmed down over the weekend as well.

    Then Ellie stepped out of her apartment and came straight towards his apartment. And she wasn’t smiling any more. Drat.

    He was at the door before her, opening it with a smile. “Ellie! You’re back!”

    “Yes,” she replied, glaring at him. “And we’ve got something to talk about.”

    “Uh…” So she was holding a grudge. “What do you mean?”

    His sister huffed as she walked - marched - past him into the living room. “Hello, Sarah.”

    “Hi, Ellie!” Sarah wasn’t as enthusiastic as she sounded, Chuck knew. On the other hand, she wasn’t as anxious as himself, since this was his fault. Or so she claimed.

    “Ellie wants to talk,” he said.

    “With both of you,” his sister added.

    “Ah.”

    Chuck shot a tight smile at Sarah as he sat down on the couch. No escape for her, either. Now… he had to take the initiative. “It was all a coincidence, Sis. We only received the mission in Malibu after I had already booked your stay,” Chuck blurted out.

    Ellie, who had started to pace, stopped and looked at him. “I know, Chuck.”

    “You know? I mean, yes… I mean, good?” he babbled.

    “Yes. Sending us to a hotel where you were on a mission would have been reckless and stupid. And you’re not stupid,” Ellie explained.

    He could hear the ‘but you’re reckless’ as plain as if she had said it but he nodded in agreement anyway.

    “However, setting fire to the restaurant? What were you thinking? Did you consider the effect a panic would have, or what would happen if the fire spread out of control?” Now she was glaring at him. “Why would you do such a thing? And don’t tell me that it was an accident; I know you’re not that clumsy.”

    “Uh… it was an emergency,” he replied. “I needed a distraction.” And he wasn’t actually clumsy.

    “And arson was the first thing that came to mind?”

    Well… fire solved a lot of demon-y problems. And setting fire to something was a classic distraction in many novels and a few TV series, too. ‘Kill it with fire’ was almost the default solution among the Scoobies. Right after ‘cut off its head’ and ‘beat it up’.

    “Chuck!” she snapped. “Did you consider what you’d cause? What if someone would have had a heart attack? Or smoke poisoning?”

    He hunched a little. “I panicked,” he admitted. “But…”

    “The waiter with the dessert cart was planning to poison people,” Sarah cut in.

    “What?” Ellie’s eyes widened. She wouldn’t have forgotten that she had ordered dessert as well.

    “He was an assassin sent to silence a witness,” Sarah went on. It wasn’t quite correct, but it wasn’t exactly a lie, either.

    “And he was planning to poison everyone?”

    “Possibly. We foiled one attempt already,” Chuck said, “and he wasn’t known for caring too much about collateral damage.”

    “If multiple people had died, it would have made it harder for the police to pin down the actual target,” Sarah added.

    “But you already knew he was an assassin, didn’t you? Why didn’t you stop him before the whole...” She waved her hand with a frown, obviously searching the right word. “...thing.”

    “Well… yes. But we thought he was still in his room,” Chuck replied. “We were planning to arrest him later. So it wouldn’t cause an incident and make people panic.”

    Ellie narrowed her eyes at him again, but he met them with his without flinching. Much. He was telling the truth, after all. “And why did you have to do this, and not someone else? Sarah, Casey?”

    Chuck blinked. How could he answer that without revealing classified information and without making his whole team look reckless?

    “We had to deal with the assassin and his accomplice,” Sarah told Ellie. “That left Chuck for the distraction.”

    Ellie wasn’t happy, but she seemed to accept that. Telling her that he had dealt with the ‘accomplice’ wouldn’t go over well, Chuck was sure. And neither would pointing out that she hadn’t wanted to cancel the trip. Ellie was a great sister, but she didn’t like admitting a mistake.

    “So… apart from that, how did you like the weekend?” Chuck asked, smiling brightly at her.

    “Apart from the fire, and the fact that the restaurant was out of commission for the rest of the weekend?”

    “Yes?” Chuck kept smiling.

    Ellie gave him another look - she didn’t like his way of dealing with her sarcasm. “It was surprisingly enjoyable. Apart from worrying about my brother becoming an arsonist. But I don’t think I want to spend my honeymoon there.”

    He nodded, more than a little relieved. “I understand. Sorry.”

    “Devon knows this great hotel on Hawaii, though,” she added with a toothy smile.

    Chuck managed not to wince as he agreed. At least, she hadn’t asked why the CIA hadn’t ordered them to cancel their weekend.

    “That also reminds me: The hotel’s silverware was lovely, but Devon thinks it would clash with the decor at our wedding. What do you think?”

    Now Chuck did wince. As did Sarah.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, January 28th, 2008

    “Another day, another Monday.” Chuck blinked. “I think that this didn’t come out right.”

    Morgan, leaning against the Nerd Herd desk next to Chuck, yawned, “I think you got the gist right, Garfield.”

    Chuck’s friend looked more tired than usual for a Monday morning, Chuck realised. And they hadn’t stayed up late playing Call of Duty, either. Come to think of, when was the last time that they had played Call of Duty late at night? Or at all? He couldn’t remember. “Did we grow old?” he said.

    “What?”

    “I can’t remember the last time we played games all night long,” Chuck replied.

    “Oh, that’s easy, that was…” Morgan trailed off, then blinked at Chuck. “I can’t remember, either!”

    “Someone must have messed with your minds!” Lester appeared behind them, almost making Chuck jump and shriek. As he turned, the Nerd Herder went on: “Probably a curse. Dark magic.”

    “Yes, a curse called growing up,” Chuck retorted. “Be real: Why would anyone wipe our Call of Duty memories?”

    “So they can sell you the latest Medal of Honour?” Lester pointed out.

    “That came out last year,” Morgan said. “And it’s currently in the discount bin.” Someone had ordered a few too many copies.

    “Exactly,” Jeff said, as if that made sense.

    “I somehow doubt that Electronic Arts would use magic to improve their sales,” Chuck said.

    “Well… it would explain a few things…” Morgan trailed off at Chuck’s glare.

    It was too early for this kind of paranoia. Besides, if Electronic Arts were dabbling in the dark arts, Willow would have found out already. Or Andrew. “Don’t you two have calls to answer?” he pointedly asked the two. “If not then I’ve got a client who wants his home entertainment system integrated with his new computer and console…”

    “Oh, we have this urgent house call! Very urgent!”

    Both vanished with a speed that would have impressed Caridad. Chuck shook his head at the sight. Speaking of Caridad… “Demon trouble?” he asked in a low voice. That would explain why Morgan was so tired.

    “What?” Morgan looked surprised.

    “Are you dealing with a Council problem?” Chuck clarified. “You look like you haven’t had enough sleep.”

    “Oh. No, no.” His friend grinned. “I stayed up a little longer than usual, if you get my drift.”

    Chuck didn’t. Then he did. Bane. “Ah.”

    “Yes.” Morgan shook his head, his grin vanishing. “Looks like Aphrodesia married a cheater.”

    “Yes.” And, apparently, Bane was talking about her missions with Morgan. Although, in this case, it might also have been a way to gather more information about Aphrodesia. It was hard to tell with spies.

    “Well, I’d say it’s karma, but that would seem petty,” Morgan went on. After a moment, he added: “Like her.”

    Chuck had to laugh at that, even though he felt bad about it. “At least she’ll get his money in the divorce.” Unless the CIA decided to meddle. He sighed and changed the subject. “We haven’t really had a game night lately, have we?”

    “No, we haven’t,” his friend agreed. “Do you think Sarah and Kirsten would like one?”

    “Uh…” Even if Sarah liked to play video games - which she didn’t, at least not seriously - the odds that she wanted to spend her free time with Bane were… low. Really low.

    “Right.” Morgan nodded. “You know what we should do?”

    “No?”

    “Game night. Here at the Buy More. Home entertainment display room. Like we used to! We could hold a tourney!”

    “Didn’t we stop that after someone broke a flatscreen when they forgot to secure the Wii controller?” Chuck raised his eyebrows. Big Mike hadn’t been amused. Not at all.

    “Well, I’ve learned that lesson. It won’t happen again. But think about it - we make it an employee event! Team building! Attendance is strictly voluntarily, of course.” Morgan’s enthusiasm seemed to grow with each sentence. “I bet you could sell this to Big Mike as a result of your weekend!”

    Right.Their cover story for being absent. “Whoa!” Chuck held up his hands. “You know Big Mike. He’s not big on letting us use the store for such things.”

    “That’s why you need to be the one to bring it up and blame it on Buy More Corporate policies!” Morgan beamed at him.

    Chuck didn’t want to bug Big Mike about this. If anything went wrong - and something would; he knew their staff - Chuck would get the blame. Even though it was actually a good idea. The home entertainment display room was being used by the staff anyway, so making it an official event wouldn’t exactly do any harm. And spending a night playing games… Chuck realised that he had been missing this, now that he was thinking about it. But to bother Big Mike…

    He blinked. He was risking his life as a spy (in training, at least) and preparing to join the Council so he could risk his life fighting demons. As a spy. And he was preparing to fool the CIA so his dad could rejoin his and Ellie’s life. Big Mike was a store manager. Not a spy, assassin or demon. Chuck could handle him.

    He nodded. “I’ll do it.”

    “Yes!”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, January 28th, 2008

    “...and he said that it was OK.” Chuck shook his head. “I thought I’d have to argue a lot more. But, apparently, ‘Buy More Corporate thinks this is a good idea’ are the magic words for Big Mike.” ‘Thank you’ and ‘please’ certainly weren’t magic words for Big Mike. Or words he used.

    “So now you’re going to hold a ‘game night’ and charge it to the store?” Sarah seemed amused as she placed their usual drinks on the table.

    “We’re holding a team building event, thank you very much,” Chuck replied with a grin and in his best ‘assistant manager’ tone.

    Sarah laughed at that. “Well, I guess it’ll be fun.”

    Of course it would be fun! And Sarah would… Oh. “You have to come too!” Chuck blurted out.

    “I’m not a Buy More employee,” Sarah pointed out.

    “It’ll be a family occasion. Including significant others. Like a company picnic!”

    “That’d be a lot of people.”

    “Oh, no. Most of our employees don’t have a family. At least not one they like.” Chuck shook his head. “That’ll add, at most, half a dozen to a dozen people.”

    Sarah frowned for a moment. “How many people do you expect in total?”

    “About half a dozen serious gamers and probably a dozen casual gamers,” Chuck told her.

    “‘Serious gamers’?” She raised her eyebrows.

    “Yes.” He ignored her scepticism. “People who can play competitively.”

    “Ah.” She nodded, but he had the impression that she didn’t quite understand the hardcore online gamer scene. But he also knew that this wasn’t the time to try to educate her about it. “That’s quite a big event.”

    “Oh, yes. But it won’t be as big as say a company picnic, where everyone brings their extended family so they can eat on the company’s dime,” Chuck said, then blinked. “Oh. I think that’s the real reason Big Mike approved this. The event will be much cheaper than a picnic.”

    Sarah chuckled. “It seems the conman got conned.”

    He frowned at her, but that only made her more amused. “Well, it’ll be fun, anyway,” he said. And that was what was important. “We have enough consoles and TVs to have a real match, like an old school LAN party.”

    She opened her mouth, presumably to ask what a LAN party was, but suddenly tensed and narrowed her eyes, looking past him at the door. He glanced over his shoulder. Oh. There was a redhead coming towards the store. And she looked vaguely familiar...

    *****​

    Jeans and top a little too fashionable for the area, shoes a little too sturdy for the ensemble, but, most importantly, the woman moved as if she was stalking someone. Sarah knew the attitude - that was a Slayer coming their way. Or something as dangerous. At least it couldn’t be a vampire.

    “Hi!” the Slayer smiled at them, then looked around, taking in the store and briefly locking eyes with Bane behind the counter before heading towards Sarah and Chuck.

    “Uh, hi… Vi, right?” Chuck said, confirming Sarah’s guess.

    “You remembered!” The Slayer beamed at him. “Rona bet me you wouldn’t.”

    “Rona?” Chuck looked lost.

    “Even better! You remembered me and not her!” Without asking, ‘Vi’ grabbed a chair and sat down at their table.

    “Uh…” Belatedly, Chuck looked at Sarah. “This is Vi, a Slayer. We met during the, uh, Wolfram and Hart apocalypse. Vi, this is Sarah Walker, and she’s Kirsten Bane.”

    “Pleasure,” Sarah lied.

    “Hi” Bane waved with a smile.

    “Hi!” The Slayer sniffed the air. “Oh, that smells delicious. Could I have a couple hot dogs? Xander said you made the best.”

    “Of course,” Sarah replied, mentally counting how much that would set the back as she looked at Bane. The spy should know how much a Slayer ate from Caridad’s visits.

    “On it!” Bane imitated an eager employee perfectly. Too perfectly, Sarah thought - no one was that chipper in the morning.

    “Thanks!” Vi nodded, then leaned forward. “So...”

    “You’ve got our order,” Sarah cut her off, glancing towards Bane for a moment.

    Vi pouted for a moment, then nodded again. “Yes. Should have expected that, huh? You’re spies, after all.” She pulled out a small package. “Here!”

    “Thank you,” Chuck said, smiling. “We’ve been waiting for it.”

    “Yep. That’s why we sent a courier. Well, that and I wanted to visit L.A.,” Vi said as Sarah pocketed the package.

    A few minutes later, the Slayer was stuffing her face with half a dozen hot dogs. Sarah hoped that the IDs would measure up. But even if Bane wasn’t present, she couldn’t check the quality of the fake IDs. As important - or more - than the quality of the forgery would be the electronic data trail. And she couldn’t check those in the store. Nor could she use The Castle’s facilities, not without alerting the CIA on her queries. She’d have to do that at home - and probably ask Orion to check them as well.

    Vi said something that didn’t make it past the two sausages in her mouth, then swallowed. “So, what’s up in Los Angeles?”

    “Technically, we’re in Burbank,” Chuck told her.

    The Slayer snorted at that. “You sound like Andrew when you do that.”

    Chuck looked insulted at that, Sarah noticed. Unsurprisingly - she had heard stories about the man before. “Hey!” he said.

    Vi, though giggled. “Just joking.”

    Yeah, right. Sarah knew about that excuse. But before she could change the subject, she spotted another figure coming towards the store. Grimes. And he looked like he had something to confess.

    “Hi, Kirsten! Hi, Chuck. Hi, Sarah!” Grimes announced as he entered. He couldn’t be more obvious than if he tried, in Sarah’s opinion.

    “Morgan? We were just talking thirty minutes ago.” Even Chuck had noticed it.

    “Ah, yes.” Grimes nodded, then cleared his throat.

    “Morgan?”

    “Well, do you remember the game night event?”

    “We just talked about it.” Chuck narrowed his eyes, Sarah noticed.

    “Yes. It’s going to be a little bigger than first planned.” Grimes’s smile looked fixed on his face.

    “A little bigger?”

    “We’re holding a game tournament for the entire Buy More Southern California Division.”

    “We what?” Chuck got up. “Morgan!”

    “It wasn’t my fault! You know the Buy More Net?”

    “Buy More Net? Do you mean the online chatroom you use?”

    “Err, yes. Anyway, I kind of told the other Buy More employees - employees of other stores, I mean - about our game night.” Grimes winced under Chuck’s glare.

    “You bragged,” Chuck said in a flat tone.

    “A little. So… someone must have tattled, since Big Mike got a call, and, well...”

    Chuck closed his eyes, sighing. “And now we have to hold a tournament for half a dozen stores. Great.”

    Sarah shook her head. Something that would have been a nice diversion for Chuck - doing something he loved - just turned into a huge project. Work, in other words.

    “I’ve got good news, too, though!” Grimes piped up.

    “Yes?” Chuck, understandably, sounded rather sceptically.

    “Wienerlicious will be our caterer!”

    She was supposed to spend the game night making and serving hot dogs?

    “So, you two can officially attend!” Grimes went on, nodding several times.

    They could refuse the contract. Although that would threaten their cover - someone might wonder why a small store would refuse such an opportunity. Damn.

    Sarah would make Grimes pay for this.

    *****​

    Uh-oh. That was Sarah’s ‘I’m going to kill you’ smile. And it was aimed at Morgan! Chuck had to intervene before something happened. “And did we get our budget increased as well?”

    “Oh, yes,” Morgan replied. “Big Mike ensured that. Straight from Corporate.”

    Which meant if the event wasn’t a success, someone would discover that it wasn’t actually a Buy More Corporate idea, as Chuck had insinuated to Big Mike. And that would mean Chuck would end up as the scapegoat. Great.

    Well, it wasn’t as if he needed the job. Not any more. But still… He sighed and focused on the task at hand “Well, we’ll need to find another date with so many attendants. And we’ll have to organise more consoles and screens.” They should be able to find some cheap ones among the returns from the Christmas sales. And there were the ones they hadn’t been able to sell at all, not even with a huge rebate.

    “Ah, don’t worry about that. You don’t have the reschedule - we already agreed to keep the date,” Morgan told him. “This Saturday is fine for everyone.”

    Chuck closed his eyes. They had less than five days to plan and prepare all of this? He should let Sarah kill Morgan.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, January 28th, 2008

    “Alright, guys!” Chuck announced as he entered the store. “Huddle!”

    The staff gathered around him, in some cases leaving customers in the middle of a sale. He usually would correct that, but this was an emergency.

    “You’ve heard about the game night tournament.”

    “Hell yeah!” Lester yelled. “We’re going to crush them!”

    Everyone else joined in with remarkable enthusiasm, whooping and stomping their feet.

    “We’re going to organise this,” Chuck told them.

    He narrowed his eyes. “So… Jeff, Lester. We need about three dozen additional consoles and TV screens.” They nodded, smiling. Until Chuck added: “Don’t break the law.”

    Chuck looked at Morgan. “We need more game copies. Check with the game companies if they want to sponsor this, No pirating!”

    “Yes, sir!” Morgan saluted.

    “Anna, check with the building manager. We need the central food court for that. There isn’t enough room anywhere else in the store.”

    “Aye-aye, sir!”

    “Burt, get us enough tables and chairs from the furniture section. Comfortable gaming chairs. And no sabotage!”

    The heavy-set man nodded rather reluctantly. And Jeff and Lester were ‘subtly’ glancing at him.

    Chuck glared at both of them. “I mean it - no sabotage. We’re going to win this fair and square. Casey!” The NSA agent glared at him. “Keep an eye on them. No shady stuff!” Casey smiled in response, and the rest of the staff shuddered. Chuck felt a little intimidated himself, but continued. He had a task to finish.

    “Carlos! Make sure that parking space is available for the other teams. Enlarge the staff section temporarily. On Saturday evening, not earlier,” he added, to avoid confusion. Some of the staff needed very clear instructions. And very close supervision.

    “Everyone else, back to your posts!”

    They scattered. Chuck nodded. He had probably forgotten a few details, but they could be handled. The big tasks had been distributed. This should work. Hopefully. Now he had to talk to Big Mike about the budget. He turned - and almost walked into Vi. When - and how - had she sneaked up on him?

    “That sounds like a great event!” she said, grinning. “Caridad’s working for Wienerlicious, right? Can’t wait to see her making hot dogs!”

    Chuck blinked. He had forgotten about that particular detail. Caridad might not mind working the hot dog stand - it was free food, as far as the Slayer was concerned - but with another, rival Slayer watching? Probably teasing?

    That could be trouble.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, January 28th, 2008

    “Chuck?”

    Chuck looked up from his half-written memo to Buy More Corporate about how a console tournament would be a great way to strengthen both employee motivation as well as brand identity. “Yes?”

    “The IDs check out” Sarah announced as she closed her laptop.

    “Ah.” Chuck hadn’t expected anything else, but it was good to get confirmation. Even if, all things considered, the IDs had come at a rather inopportune time, what with the blasted tournament about to take place. Provided Chuck didn’t mess up. “So… when do we start that mission?”

    “Tomorrow.”

    “Tomorrow?” That was, like, way too quick. He was busy with work, after all. So busy, he was working at home.

    “We’ll establish a presence there,” Sarah explained. “We can keep working in Burbank - it’ll add to our cover story if we’re seen to commute to work. As long as we’re not tailed.”

    “Ah.” That sounded OK.

    “I do have to organise a huge catering job, after all,” she added with narrowed eyes.

    That sounded bad. “Uh… sorry.”

    Instead of telling him that it wasn’t his fault, she rolled her eyes in response.

    That was even worse. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “I didn’t think it would spiral out of control like this. That was Morgan’s fault.”

    “Yes.”

    Uh-oh. “Please don’t kill him!”

    She snorted, which was a good sign. “I’m not going to.”

    “Good.”

    “But I’ll need a favour from you,” she added.

    “Sure! Anything!” He beamed at her.

    “Make sure that Morgan supervises Vi, so she doesn’t start trouble with Caridad during the event.”

    “Uh…” She was frowning again, he noticed, so he hastily agree. “Sure!”

    Chuck hoped he hadn’t just agreed to get Morgan maimed in a Slayer fight. Perhaps he had to talk to Phil about this. Watchers were supposed to handle such things, right? On the other hand, Morgan was training to become a full-fledged Watcher...

    Damn, this was a mess.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, January 29th, 2008

    “And here we have the kitchen. It’s brand new, hardly used by the previous tenant, and sports the latest generation of kitchen aids and appliances. Check out the stove here, Mrs Black!”

    Chuck kept a bland, polite smile on his face as he followed Mr John ‘Call me Jack’ Barnes into the kitchen. They had to play their role, he was well aware of that, but Barnes had a rather annoying manner. And rather patriarchal views, too.

    “Oh, Charles is the cook in our little family,” Sarah told the man.

    Chuck glared at her behind the man’s back, then smiled.” Oh, yes. Sarah barely manages to boil water for tea.” Smiling at Barnes became easier after seeing her reaction to that.

    “Ah.” Barnes wasn’t fazed in the slightest. “Mr Black, check this out! Electric induction - the latest generation. And both a microwave and a stove!”

    “Great.” Chuck was tempted to demonstrate that being the cook of the family didn’t mean you were a good cook, but he had teased Sarah already, and they were on a mission. “It did receive excellent results in the latest tests.” He had read the Buy More reports, after all.

    “Oh, yes, it did! This apartment is a marvel of progress! And you won’t have to commute far at all, Mr Black!”

    And his phrases were vintage sixties. Well, they were almost done with the tour, and then they could agree to rent it without appearing too eager.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, January 29th, 2008

    “So this is your secret base!” Vi exclaimed as she looked around with obvious interest. “We need something like that back in England!” Sarah was about to subtly ask what the Council had in England - gathering information was always useful - when the Slayer glanced at Caridad and added: “And it even has catering!”

    Caridad, who was still wearing her Wienerlicious uniform, glared at the other Slayer. “What do you mean?”

    “Nothing!” Vi was quick to reply with an altogether too-innocent smile. “I love that there’s enough food at hand without having to cook myself or listen to complaints about my appetite.”

    Caridad frowned but seemed to accept that. “It’s not exactly free,” she said.

    “Buffy said it was free!”

    “That was during a mission to stop an apocalypse,” Caridad replied. “You’re just a tourist.”

    “I’m hunting demons, too!” Vi wasn’t smiling any more, Sarah noticed. “I’ve already got a vampire today.”

    “A tourist, yes. Like on a safari. Or a poacher!” Caridad scoffed.

    Sarah could almost feel the tension in the air as the two Slayers faced each other.

    “Uh…” Chuck spoke up. “So, did you see the armoury yet?”

    “Oh, the armoury!” And in an instant, Vi turned from a superpowered predator about to attack another of her kind into a gushing fangirl. “Faith told me about it! A bit light on blades, though, right?”

    “Casey’s been rectifying that,” Sarah told her. “We’ve got swords and axes in addition to knives now.”

    “Ah, yes. Where’s Casey? I didn’t get to meet him in the store. And I’ve heard so much about him.”

    Chuck paled, Sarah saw. She wasn’t quite as obvious with her reaction, but she shared the feeling. Caridad and Casey still hadn’t sorted things out between the two of them. And that...

    “Oh, really?” Caridad snarled and stepped up to Vi, showing a chair out of the way and into the wall with enough force to dent it. “What did you hear?”

    “That he’s a great guy,” Vi replied with bared teeth.

    If they came to blows in the middle of the base here, with expensive and easily breakable equipment surrounding them...

    “Uh…” Chuck mumbled.

    She had to intervene. Sarah cleared her throat and stepped up. “Have you seen our sparring room?”

    The two Slayers’ eyes lit up.

    *****​

    “Well… at least they got it out of their system?” Chuck said half an hour later as he was looking around in the utterly wrecked room.

    Sarah glared at him. The repair costs, and the need to do the repairs in secret, wouldn’t please the general at all.

    “It was your idea? And you saved the rest of the base?”

    He was blaming her for this? She glared harder at him.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2019
  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 27: The Game Night Part 2
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 27: The Game Night Part 2

    California, Burbank, The Castle, January 29th, 2008

    Chuck cringed at Sarah’s glare but stood his ground. It hadn’t been his idea to send the two Slayers to the training room, after all. Granted, he hadn’t had any idea how to keep them from wrecking the briefing room with all the electronics, either, but still… “We could bill the Council?”

    “NO!” two people yelled out in unison from the infirmary of the base.

    Right, Slayer hearing.

    “We should, yes, “Sarah, somewhat predictably, agreed.

    “No!” A heavily bandaged Caridad, still wearing the tattered remains of her Wienerlicious uniform, appeared in the door to the infirmary. “You sent us there, and you knew this would happen! This is entrapment!”

    A moment later, she was pushed aside by an equally bandaged Vi. “And how would you explain what we did, anyway?” She shook her head, seemingly unconcerned about her black eye and bandaged temple, until Caridad elbowed her away again. “Hey!”

    “Yeah! That’s classified information!”

    “And how do you propose to explain the damage done to the base?” Sarah asked.

    “Uh… shoddy workmanship?”

    “A grenade explosion?”

    “A short-circuit started a fire?”

    “The base was built by a trusted contractor,” Sarah replied. “And the damage doesn’t show any sign of either a blast or a fire.”

    “We can change that!” Vi retorted with a bright smile. “Fire pretty!”

    “Or we can say Chuck or Morgan had a mishap with a flamethrower,” Caridad added.

    “What? Why should I take the blame for this?” Chuck protested. Morgan, maybe - but he hadn’t done anything wrong.

    “Because you’re the crucial intersect, so they can’t punish you?” Caridad beamed at him.

    “No,” Chuck replied in his best flat voice.

    “Did you just suggest setting fire to the base?” Sarah asked with a flabbergasted expression that Chuck had rarely seen on her face.

    “Only to the broken parts,” Caridad replied.

    “We do that all the time if something breaks in a fight so the owners can claim their insurance,” Vi added.

    “We’re talking about the CIA, not some private citizen,” Chuck pointed out. “Part of the US government.”

    “That means they’ll know how to pull off a scam to get money, right?” Vi beamed at him despite her swollen cheek.

    Chuck closed his eyes. “Let’s call Phil.”

    “No!”

    “No!”

    *****​

    “Well… that’s a lot of damage,” Brown-Smythe said, looking around. “I thought this was supposed to be a sparring match.” He glanced at the two Slayers who, Sarah noticed, didn’t meet his eyes.

    “It was an enthusiastic sparring match?” Vi said, cocking her head.

    “We got a little over-enthusiastic?” Caridad added.

    That was an understatement. Watching two Slayers go at each other had been very impressive. Terrifying, if Sarah was honest. They had literally torn up the room with their bare hands and feet. And, in Caridad’s case, at least once with their forehead.

    And they were still - or again - up and moving with hardly any sign of being handicapped by the damage they had suffered. If Sarah had been hurt in a similar way, she’d been unable to fight for a week. Hell, if she had taken one of the blows the two Slayers had exchanged, she’d be dead.

    It really wasn’t fair. Spies risked their lives as well, but without any supernatural advantage. And Sarah would soon be fighting demons more than enemy spies.

    “So, Phil… what do you think we should do?” Chuck asked. “We can’t exactly explain this on a damage report.”

    “Make something up. Perhaps an accident,” the Watcher said. Caridad perked up, and Vi smiled, Sarah noticed. Until he continued: “Caused by Caridad and Miss O’Malley, of course.” Both Slayers gasped.

    “The damage is a bit too specific for that,” Sarah pointed out.

    “That can be solved,” Brown-Smythe retorted. “Water damage, or a small fire with smoke damage - provided you remove the more telling parts before the workers arrive to restore the room.”

    That would be a lot of work. The room had been quite sturdy.

    “I’m sure the two girls will be happy to help move the broken parts. Right?”

    “Yes…”

    “There goes my evening…”

    Brown-Smythe tsked at them. “If you had behaved in a manner befitting responsible adults, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

    “But we’re still hurt!” Caridad exclaimed.

    “Then you’d have to stay at home anyway,” the Watcher replied. “And this is light duty compared to combat.”

    “That’s all your fault!”

    “What? You started it!”

    “Children…”

    Sarah shook her head. All the Slayers she’d seen so far had acted in a rather immature manner. So had the Scoobies, though.

    At least Casey wasn’t around. That would have probably spelt disaster.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, January 30th, 2008

    Sarah was ready for bed - for sleep - when they finally got home. Between setting up a lease for the apartment Downtown and making sure the Slayers didn’t demolish more of the base by tearing out structural support beams while ‘cleaning up’, it was shortly before midnight when Sarah and Chuck managed to leave.

    And supervising grumpy Slayers, even when they were slowed down by their wounds, was surprisingly hard. Those women seemed to have a natural gift for wrecking things. And people, Sarah reminded herself.

    But now they were home, and she could finally rest.

    “Say, Sarah…”

    She closed her eyes - with her back to Chuck - and suppressed a sigh. “Yes?”

    “Do you think Bane will grow suspicious when we start sleeping in the new apartment?”

    She turned and saw that Chuck hadn’t started to change into his pyjamas. He wasn’t idly wondering, but honestly worried, then. She flashed him a smile. “Casey and Morgan will run interference.”

    “Ah.” He slowly nodded, then licked his lips, once. “Uh, do you think that will be enough?”

    “It should.” Casey wouldn’t let them down. Grimes… Chuck’s friend had better come through for them.

    “That’s not really reassuring,” he said.

    She shrugged. “Do you want me to lie to you?”

    “What? No, never!” He smiled at her. “I’m just a little nervous.”

    “Well, we’ve got a good chance to pull this off,” she told him. “But nothing is ever a hundred per cent sure.”

    “Apart from death and taxes?” His smile turned into a grin.

    She nodded, chuckling. Even though she wasn’t sure about death any more. The things she had heard and overheard, but never wanted to ask about… “Let’s head to bed,” she told Chuck. “You’ve got your event preparations tomorrow, and we’ve got a mission starting in two days.”

    The lease would start per on February 1st. A day before the game night. Wonderful timing.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, January 30th, 2008

    There were more customers in the store than usual, Chuck noticed when he arrived in the morning. At this time of the day, on a Thursday, the store was usually almost empty. The store was almost empty, he noticed with narrowed eyes. Empty of staff. Well, almost empty - one register was staffed by a new hiree, Mark, Kim was at the helpdesk, and Casey was occupied trying to help an old lady pick a tv.

    He quickly scanned the rest of the store. Scattered green shirts. No Nerd Herders there either.

    Pressing his lips together, he made a beeline towards the home entertainment display room, ducking behind the ‘games shelves’ to avoid getting dragged off to help with a customer.

    He heard the sounds of heavy gaming before he reached the door. Yelling, cheering, heckling. Shaking his head, he entered and quickly went to stand in front of the main TV screen. “Alright, the party’s over,” he told the assembled staff - the usual suspects, led by Jeff and Lester, no doubt, but missing Morgan it seemed. “Back to work, everyone!”

    “What?” Lester, holding a controller, jumped up. “You want us to work in the middle of the night! It’s true, then - management is full of slave drivers! No more, I say!”

    ‘In the middle of the night’? What the… Chuck blinked as more of the crowd got up and joined what was rapidly shaping up to become an impromptu strike committee. He looked around and saw that everyone was up in arms, brandishing game controllers and junk food packages. “Guys… guys…” No one was listening. “GUYS!” he yelled, channelling Casey, “STOP THIS AT ONCE!”

    To his own surprise, it worked - everyone seemed to freeze for a moment, gaping at him.

    He seized the moment. “It’s nine in the morning, guys!” he snapped. “The store’s already open.”

    “What? That’s impossible!”

    “It was barely midnight last I checked!”

    “Can’t be!”

    “Are you joking?”

    Chuck crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at them. “Do I look like I’m joking? Check your damn phones!”

    “Oh my God! It’s morning!”

    “Damn!”

    “Oh, no!”

    “Does this count as overtime?”

    “No, it doesn’t,” Chuck snarled at Jeff. “How on earth did you manage to game all night without even noticing the time?” The last time Chuck had done that had been in his teenage years. And none of the people facing him was a teenager anymore. So how… He blinked as he saw the stack of energy drink cases in the back, behind a sleeping Anna. Empty cases.

    He turned to stare at Lester, who cringed. “Uh… we’re checking who gets to sponsor the game night. Those were free samples.”

    Chuck closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. His staff had spent the night playing video games and overdosing on caffeine. If he remembered his teenage years, they’d be crashing around noon. Probably - he and Moran usually had drunk cheap soda, not expensive energy drinks. “Get back to work before I send Casey in,” he said.

    The room emptied out in record time, leaving him and Anna, who, apparently, had fallen asleep and hadn’t woken up yet. He suddenly tensed. Had she actually overdosed? Did she need medical attention?

    He quickly went to check, then relaxed when he realised that she was merely asleep with her ears plugged.

    Well, that meant he’d have at least one decent worker in the afternoon. Big Mike would still kill him. Not literally, of course.

    And why hadn’t Morgan been here? Chuck’s friend hadn’t been at the base, either, now that he thought about it…

    *****​

    And Morgan wasn’t in the store, either, Chuck saw once he had herded Anna back to work. He pulled out his phone and texted him.

    Where are you?

    He looked at the message. Perhaps that was a little too direct. Not quite rude, but if Morgan was hurt, it would look rather…

    “Hi, Chuck!”

    There he was! Morgan came towards him, and he seemed fine. Not hurt or stressed. Chuck felt relieved - and a little envious. “Sorry, overslept a little,” his friend said, looking around. “But no harm done.”

    Chuck didn’t quite scowl, but he didn’t smile, either. “I had to break up an early game night,” he told him.

    “Oh?” Morgan blinked. “Wow, they take training very seriously - staying late yesterday, and starting early today just to train is impressive.”

    “They didn’t stop in between. Or went home,” Chuck explained.

    “Oh.”

    “Yes,” Chuck agreed. “And they’re hopped up on energy drinks.”

    Morgan winced. “Enough to play through the night? They’ll crash hard.”

    “Yes. Speaking of playing through the night…” Chuck raised his eyebrows at him. If Morgan hadn’t been at the ‘training session’, and not in the base…

    “Ah.” Morgan’s smile looked a little forced as he glanced around. “I was with Kirsten.”

    “You usually are, aren’t you?” Chuck replied. They weren’t living together, not officially, at least, but Morgan probably spent more time at her apartment than at his home. Well, Chuck would do the same if he were living with his mother and she were dating Big Mike.

    “Well, yes.” His friend grinned widely. “But we had a romantic outing, and then, well…”

    Chuck could connect the dots. He nodded. “I see.”

    “Yeah!” Morgan got enthusiastic. “We first went to that Mexican restaurant Ellie liked before they fired the cook, and then we went clubbing.”

    The way his friend blushed at the clubbing, Chuck really needed any further details. “I see”, he said quickly. “So, I need to check on the preparations for Saturday. You’re in charge of wrangling the greenshirts.”

    His friend gaped at him. “What?”

    “You’re the only one with enough experience currently not hyper from caffeine,” Chuck explained before adding: “Welcome to being the responsible adult in the room.” Delegating was a key part of management, after all, and this was mainly Morgan’s fault, anyway.

    His grin didn’t fade until he opened his mail folder and discovered that the press would be attending the event as well.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, January 30th, 2008

    “So you left Morgan in charge?”

    Sarah’s comment made it sound worse than it was, in Chuck’s opinion. “He’s got the experience,” he replied. “And he’s not drunk on caffeine. Besides, he’s used to handling Caridad.” And even the misfits of the Buy More had nothing on a Slayer when it came to causing trouble.

    She frowned at that. “He wasn’t around when we needed him last night.”

    “Ah, he was, uh, keeping Bane busy,” Chuck said, glancing at the woman in question, who was currently flirting with a regular customer.

    “Ah.”

    Sarah didn’t look like she appreciated that as much as she probably should, given their need for exactly such distractions for their upcoming off-the-book mission. Speaking of the mission... “Uh, there’s bad news as well,” he said.

    “What?”

    He squirmed a little under her sudden, sharp focus. “There’ll be a newspaper and a TV crew at the game night. Local TV,” he clarified.

    “There’s still a not-insignificant chance that someone we’ve met or will meet during the operation will watch the broadcast,” she said.

    “I know.” He had hoped she would tell him differently. “So, what can we do? Sabotage their records?”

    “As a last resort,” she replied. “Try to keep out of sight and away from the press.”

    He grimaced. “That might be a little difficult.” Big Mike wouldn’t mind being praised for the idea, but he would leave all technical questions - and any questions related to actual gaming - to Chuck.

    “Make yourself scarce. Be busy backstage and stay away from the reporters.” Sarah snorted. “I think the contestants will be fascinating enough for a report.”

    Chuck sighed. That was what he feared. Big Mike would be happy to take the praise, but if things didn’t turn out perfectly, Chuck already knew who’d get the blame.

    At least he wasn’t relying on the job any more. Just in case things went really wrong. “Speaking of, how goes the catering?”

    Sarah immediately scowled. “Based on the expected number of participants and visitors, we’ll be busy all night making hot dogs.”

    “Even with Caridad helping?” Chuck asked.

    “Especially with her helping,” she replied.

    What would… Oh. The Slayer would be helping herself to food, first. “Sorry,” he said.

    She nodded in acknowledgement, which didn’t make him feel any better.

    And he still hadn’t solved all logistical problems with the event. Jeff and Lester still had to deliver enough consoles for everyone, for example. Chuck could only hope that they’d manage not to mess up before they crashed from their caffeine high.

    Mess up too much, he amended his thought - he was familiar with the duo, after all. More than he wanted to be.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, January 30th, 2008

    At noon, the staff break room looked like it had been taken over by zombies. Employees were sitting or lying on all suitable and a few unsuitable surfaces, sleeping or mumbling incoherently. Chuck had to pull Kurt’s face out of his lunch before the man accidentally drowned, and the smeared pasta sauce on his skin made him even look like an undead.

    “Uh… Caridad’s not coming over, right?” he asked Morgan. It as unlikely, what with Casey manning the store, but you never knew with Slayers. They were rather impulsive.

    His friend looked up from where he had recovered the microwave from being used as a pillow by Al. “What? Not that I’d know, but I don’t know her plans, you know? Why?”

    “Because she might start slaying the staff here by mistake,” Chuck answered.

    Morgan blinked, then laughed in response. “It might be a mercy killing,” he said. “Poor guys. Can’t handle their caffeine, I guess.”

    “And you could?” Chuck asked. He remembered their teenage years.

    “Oh, sure,” Morgan told him, pushing another employee back from the table. “Working through the night without wrecking yourself is an unofficial Watcher skill. Phil does it with tea, Dawn’s into coffee, but there’s a handbook about picking the right dose.”

    Chuck blinked. The more you knew… “That sounds useful.”

    “Oh, yes! Saved my bacon lots of times,” Morgan agreed, unwrapping his sub.

    Chuck rolled his eyes. “That was polite code for ‘share’.”

    “Oh!” Morgan laughed. “I’m a little slow today, sorry. I’ll get you a copy later.”

    “Thanks.”

    “Aren’t you going to eat your own lunch?” Morgan asked between two bites.

    “Once I found Jeff and Lester,” Chuck replied. “I thought they’d be here. They’re not in the home entertainment display room, either.” They were his employees, so he was responsible for them, so leaving them collapsed somewhere wouldn’t do. And it wouldn’t look good for the store, either. It was bad enough that they were reduced to a skeleton crew for the afternoon - he was still wondering if he should blame the flu or food poisoning.

    “Ah, they went to fetch more consoles,” Morgan told him.

    “What?” Chuck froze for a moment. “They went driving in their state?” Jeff and Lester were dead. Either in traffic or when he got them.

    “Huh? Oh, don’t worry, they took another case of energy drinks. They’ll last until they’re back; I checked the dose.” His friend gave him a thumb’s up.

    Chuck wasn’t so sure about using the Watcher’s caffeine intake guide any more. “And where did they go to get the consoles?” He hadn’t received any requisition forms from them, or requests for a budget.

    “Lester had an idea about saving money,” Morgan said.

    Chuck suddenly wasn’t hungry any more. Not with his stomach sinking to the floor.

    *****​

    Jeff and Lester arrived two hours past noon with a van. A Buy More van, Chuck noticed when he went to meet them, which he didn’t remember signing out. At least it didn’t look damaged.

    “Chuck!” Lester waved at him. “Come, look at that! It’s great!”

    Chuck pasted a weak smile on his face. “What did you do?”

    “Got us the consoles we needed!” Lester declared, nodding like a bobblehead as he opened the back of the van. “See? See? Three dozen consoles!”

    The back was packed with consoles, indeed. And a sleeping Jeff. But… “Where did you get them? And how much did they cost?” And where did they get the money to pay for them?

    “Oh, we had a great idea!” Lester declared, beaming at Chuck. That made him look far more deranged than friendly, Chuck noticed. “Christmas was last month, right?”

    “Yes?”

    “So, we knew that there’s bound to be tons of returns. Grandparents buy the wrong console, kids break stuff or get bored, parents listen to the voice channels and getting worked up over the language… you know it.”

    Chuck nodded. The typical trash-talk during a deathmatch made sailors blush. And parents froth at the mouth. “So, you raided the return bins?”

    “We raided the return bins!” Lester nodded rapidly. “And we didn’t even have to pay anything - officially, we’re repairing and testing the entire stack before we resell them!”

    That was… well, Chuck wouldn’t call it genius. But it was a decent idea. Certainly creative. And in the spirit of the event fostering cooperation. It had just one drawback. “You’re aware that you need to actually repair and test them before the event, right?” He narrowed his eyes. “We wouldn’t want to provide the contestants with broken consoles, would we?”

    Lester blinked at him but didn’t answer.

    “That would be cheating,” Chuck went on. “Anyway - you’ve got two days to do it, so I suggest you get to work…” He trailed off when he realised that Lester was asleep on his feet, slowly sliding down the side of the van against which he had been leaning.

    Chuck closed his eyes and muttered a curse under his breath that Casey was fond of using. Great. Just great.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, January 31st, 2008

    Chuck finished replacing the loose sensor and shook his head. What had the customer done to the controller? Thrown it around the room a few dozen times? Well, Chuck would be lying if he claimed that he’d never done something similar. As a teenager. Young teenager. But he wouldn’t have returned the entire console for a ‘broken’ controller.

    He sighed and checked the time. Uh-oh. His shift was almost over. Sarah wouldn’t be happy if he were to pull overtime. Not when they had to check on their ‘new apartment’ tonight. And it really wasn’t his job to fix all the consoles Jeff and Lester had brought. Even if fixing one or two had been a nice way to keep his skills up.

    He stood and checked on the duo behind the wall formed by stacked boxes. They had fallen asleep again, which he had expected. But they had managed to fix at least two consoles each, which was a pleasant surprise. That didn’t change the fact that they were still sleeping instead of working, though. So he shook their shoulders, waking them up. “Hey! No sleeping on company time!”

    “Huh? What? I wasn’t sleeping! I was merely… Chuck! Don’t scare me!” Lester complained.

    Jeff merely grunted and glared.

    “I mean it, guys. Don’t sleep here. You’ve had the whole last night to catch up on the sleep you missed yesterday.”

    “Err…” Lester looked away.

    “You did go home, as I told you, and rest, didn’t you?” Chuck said, narrowing his eyes.

    “Yes, yes! We went home and rested!” Lester blurted out.

    “Playing games counts as rest, yes?” Jeff said at the same time.

    Chuck closed his eyes and groaned. “Guys… Why did you do this? You were barely able to walk yesterday evening.”

    “We had to train!” Lester replied. “The honour of our store is at stake!”

    “Yes,” Jeff nodded.

    “If we don’t completely destroy the other stores, we’ll be the laughingstock of the whole chain!” Lester shook his head. “We wanted to sleep and take it easy, but sometimes, a man has to do what a man has to do. For the Buy More!”

    “Really.” Chuck shook his head. “Now finish your work here, and then go home. And don’t game. You won’t be saving anyone’s honour if you fall asleep at the event.”

    “Oh, don’t worry, we can sleep on Saturday afternoon!” Lester said with a bright smile.

    Chuck glared at him. “No, you can’t. We need everyone to handle the store and set things up.” To forestall any further discussion, he added: “Casey will be supervising you.”

    Both paled quite noticeably, so Chuck hoped that they’d heed his warning.

    Sighing again, he left the repair room, as Morgan had dubbed the repurposed storage room, and went back to the store - and ran right into an argument at the helpdesk.

    “I want to see the manager! This is outrageous!”

    Chuck winced. Not at the volume of the red-faced customer’s complaint, but at Anna’s scowl. The woman was one of the best employees of the store - not that that was a high bar to clear - but she had a temper and a violent side. Not even close to a Slayer, of course, but still… another assault charge wouldn’t look good for either her or the management. Which meant Chuck.

    So he pasted a smile on his face and quickly approached the desk. “Hi! I’m the manager. What seems to be the problem, sir?” he asked in his best ‘helpful store clerk’ voice.

    “The problem is that this woman won’t give me back my console! She’s trying to foist a new one on me!”

    That was a new complaint. Usually, customers tried to exchange their old and broken consoles for a new one. Chuck cocked his head and looked at Anna.

    “He wants his specific console back. He returned it and got a new one at another store,” she explained.

    “And I’m giving it back! Good as new!” the customer interrupted her.

    “That’s the oldest trick in the book!” Anna retorted with a snarl. “I’ve used it myself as a kid!”

    That wasn’t a surprise to Chuck, but something that shouldn’t be said aloud, in his opinion. He cleared his throat.

    “You can check it! Hell, I’ll pay for it, but I need my original console back!”

    Chuck coughed loudly. “Sir… that seems a little excessive.” And fishy.

    The man glanced from Chuck to Anna and back, then leaned forward. “Please… it’s embarrassing…”

    “Embarrassing?” Chuck blinked, then nodded. “Ah.” He lowered his voice. “Porn?” Well, not porn, but perhaps some embarrassing game saves? Chuck wasn’t up to date about the latest adult import games, but there was a grey market for original Japanese games for a reason.

    The other man nodded.

    “Don’t worry. We wipe the memory of all our consoles before we resell them,” Chuck told him with a smile before glaring at the smirking Anna.

    “But I need my console back.”

    “Sorry, sir, but odds are it has already been memory wiped. We’re very efficient,” Chuck lied.

    The man stared at him as if Chuck had told him that he had mailed the content to the man’s wife. Shaking his head, the customer turned away, muttering something Chuck didn’t catch.

    “Some people!” Anna exclaimed as soon as the man was out of sight. “Why can’t they use a PC, like normal people?”

    Chuck shrugged. “Perhaps because their wife is less likely to snoop around in a console?”

    Anna giggled. “Hey… I’ve got the man’s order number. Wanna see what kind of embarrassing secret he had?” She raised the card she had been filling out.

    “What? No!” Chuck told her. “Gimme the report!” he took the card and pocketed it.

    The last thing he needed was for the repair crew to go porn hunting instead of fixing the consoles.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 1st, 2008

    “...and the bed goes there, opposite the dresser.” Sarah pointed at the two spots in the designated bedroom so the two movers standing in the entrance hall of the apartment wouldn’t mix them up, as had happened before.

    Working with a civilian company was good for their cover, but she would have preferred slightly more competent people to direct. The dresser and bed wouldn’t be housing surveillance gear, so their precise placement wasn’t as critical as the sideboard for the home entertainment system. Still, if she had to live here for a few weeks, in the worst case, then Sarah preferred to have the apartment laid out according to her - and Chuck’s - preferences.

    Speaking of Chuck… She gave the two movers another look, then went back to the living room. Ah. As expected, he was already setting up the TV. “I’d have thought you were sick of doing that stuff,” she said with a teasing smile.

    He chuckled in that slightly embarrassed way of his that she found charming. “Uh…” he looked around to check for witnesses. “It’s not quite the same as dealing with broken electronics.” He pointed at the flatscreen. “That’s a high-end piece, too. Latest technology.”

    “A challenge, then?”

    He snorted. “Not quite a challenge. But it’s a very good TV.”

    Which probably meant he wanted one for their apartment after this mission. Well, they could afford it. Even after Chuck’s gift to Ellie and Devon. “Let’s go and get the devices you really want to install?” she asked.

    He blinked and looked a little confused. “Aren’t we waiting with them until we’re set up?”

    As expected - he knew that they couldn’t exactly install surveillance gear while the movers were still around. “The gaming console and DVD player,” she told him with a smirk. “The things you didn’t want others to touch.”

    He glared at her in return, but it was more of a pout, in her opinion, and she gave him a peck on the cheek before they left the apartment.

    That mollified him. “The apartment is set up great, with regards to the electrical systems, though. Lots of outlets everywhere. Installing things in older houses is a pain - and some people don’t want to accept that their setup can’t handle the new electronics,” he told her once they were inside the lift.

    “It’s expensive enough to easily cover that,” she reminded him. They could afford a new TV, but rebuilding the house was stretching the limits a little. Unless the Council had a generous housing budget.

    “Oh, yes. Still…” He trailed off as the lift arrived on the first floor of the garage.

    “So, console and player… and the speakers in the green box?” Sarah said, to keep up appearances as the door opened. They hadn’t yet surveillance on these areas of the building, after all.

    “Yes, I think that…” Chuck trailed off again, staring at the young woman in a maid’s uniform facing them with two bags of groceries. No, he was flashing, Sarah realised.

    “Ah, hello,” she spoke up to divert the girl’s attention from him to her. A maid’s uniform? Really? At least it wasn’t a French maid’s uniform. On the other hand, you could hide a lot under that. “We’re moving into the apartment on the seventh floor. I’m Sarah Black,” she added with a smile.

    “Uh, hello,” Chuck managed to say. “Charles. Chalres Black.”

    “Juanita Gomez,” the woman replied with a polite smile. “I work for Mr Gonzàlez. Good evening.”

    “Good evening.”

    Gomez kept smiling as she walked past them into the lift. As soon as the lift had left the floor, Sarah turned to look at Chuck.

    “She’s Margarita Lopez. Suspect in a dozen cartel killings in Mexico,” Chuck whispered, looking around.

    Ah. “His bodyguard, then.” Sarah nodded as they walked to their car. The woman might need to be dealt with as well. Perhaps they could frame her for the murder - arrange some domestic drama resulting in a murder-suicide?

    They’d need more information about the woman, though, to successfully set up something like that. And check with Casey.

    *****​

    “Margarita Lopez? I’ve heard of her, yes,“ Casey said a few hours later, inside their new, if temporary, apartment. “Stone-cold killer. Likes to drag it out, too, or so I’ve heard.”

    Definitely a good choice to frame for the killing, Sarah thought.

    “Uh… how does that work together?” Chuck asked. “Stone-cold and sadistic? Aren’t they kind of mutually exclusive?”

    Casey gave her a look as if he expected her to educate Chuck about the finer points of assassins’ psychology before he addressed Chuck. “It means she’s a professional killer who’ll murder you without a qualm if she’s told to, but that she’ll take her time and enjoy it if she can afford it.”

    “Or is told to,” Sarah added. “The cartels like to make examples out of their victims.” Torture them to death, often.

    “Ah.” Chuck winced, and Casey grinned.

    “Don’t let the cute uniform fool you. She’s an assassin. We need to take her out quickly, once we make our move.”

    “Uh, sure.”

    “We’ll handle her,” Sarah told him. “You’re handling the electronics.”

    “Right. Computer guy, that’s me.”

    “Unless your Intersect kicks in,” Casey pointed out with a sneer. He looked around in the apartment. “So, let’s get to work. You can try out the bed once we’re done here. Don’t stay up too late - we’ve got a long day tomorrow thanks to the stupid idea of Bartowski and his idiot friend.”

    “Hey! It’s not my fault!” Chuck protested.

    In vain, of course - Casey was correct about this, Sarah knew.

    There was no time to argue it, anyway. They had to start bugging the place. And hacking the system.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, February 2nd, 2008

    “Alright, everyone, good work - so far. Now check the power lines before you switch the screens and consoles on!”

    Chuck suppressed a yawn as he watched the staff members finish the preparations in the food court. Or start to finish. After reading Jeff and Lester the riot act before, he couldn’t afford to look as if he had spent the whole night playing video games himself. Not that he had, anyway - he had spent half the night placing bugs and hacking the security system of Gonzàlez. Which he hadn’t managed - the drug lord practised excellent computer security. At least they had access to the buildings security system, but that had cost him a few hours of sleep which would really come in handy right now.

    Shaking his head, he wandered over to the Wienerlicious food stand - which was quite a bit bigger than a normal food stand. “Hey!”

    Sarah, of course, didn’t look tired in the least. Well, not from the night spent crawling through air ducts and placing electronic surveillance devices. She looked a little stressed from setting up the stand. Annoyed as well; he could tell.

    But she greeted him with a smile. “Hi, Chuck.” And handed him a coke before he could ask.

    “Thanks.” He smiled, a little embarrassed. “I guess I look like I need some caffeine, huh?” he added in a low voice.

    “A whole case!” Caridad, working five yards away to set up a condiment dispenser, called out. Slayer hearing.

    “Thank you, Caridad.” Chuck put as much sarcasm into his words as possible, but it didn’t even faze the Slayer.

    “No problem!”

    “Speaking of problems…” Sarah spoke up. “Is that Vi with Morgan?”

    “What?” Caridad growled. “He’s my Watcher in training! She can get her own!”

    Chuck checked. Indeed, there were Morgan and Vi, walking towards Big Mike. What was his friend doing? “I’ll be right back,” he muttered.

    “...yes, Big Mike, she’s a professional video player. Competed in Korea, and she’s in Los Angeles to visit a few friends. If we hire her as a temp, she can compete and ensure our victory!”

    Great. Morgan was trying to use Vi as a ringer in the tournament. Chuck pressed his lips together. What were they thinking? Wait, dumb question. Both wanted to win. Slayers were insanely competitive, and Morgan had been bragging to the other Buy More teams.

    He shook his head. He had to stop it. Then he grinned. He knew just how to do that. “Hey, Big Mike! We’re on schedule for the event - everything’s going fine.”

    “Chuck! That’s what I want to hear. This is our chance to shine, after all. Outdo the other stores!” Big Mike told him.

    “Sure thing, boss, “ Chuck said. “Oh, Vi, Caridad is still busy, so she has to delay her break for ten more minutes.”

    “What?” Big Mike snapped. Chuck saw the man’s eyes narrow as he looked around, then even more when he spotted the Slayer at the food stand. “Caridad? What’s she doing here? If she wrecks this event like she wrecked the store…”

    “Oh, she works for Wienerlicious,” Chuck said. “That’s why Vi’s here, too; she visiting her friend.”

    “Her friend?”

    “Uh…” Vi started, followed by organs “Err…”

    Chuck spoke over both of them. “Oh, yeah. Best friends. They met in Sunnydale.”

    Big Mike scowled. “Best friends?” He huffed and walked away.

    “Chuck!” Morgan hissed. “What are you doing?”

    “Why did you do this? I would have wrecked the others!” Vi complained.

    Chuck rolled his eyes. “Think for a moment! Vi, showing off in front of a TV crew?”

    “Oh.” Morgan blinked, then winced. “She can sandbag! Play just good enough to win!”

    “Yeah!”

    Chuck glared at them. He wasn’t a Scoobie, but he knew Slayers. Holding back? Yeah, right. “You want to explain this to Giles? And Phil?”

    “Err… no need.”

    Both made themselves scarce with forced smiles.

    Chuck sighed and headed back to Sarah. Sometimes…

    Caridad was grinning broadly. “Well done!”

    “Someone had to.” Chuck didn’t bother to explain that he hadn’t done this to keep Vi from upstaging Caridad and grabbed his half-empty bottle. He needed more caffeine.

    With another sigh, he leaned against the counter and looked around. The TV screens were up, but the consoles hadn’t yet been brought online, so the big screen which would show the best fights later was still running Day TV. The news, at this moment. A reporter was standing in front of the harbour, talking about an unidentified body they had dragged out of the sea, talking about gang wars.

    Then they showed a picture and Chuck gasped. He knew the man! That was the customer who had been so annoyingly insistent on getting his console back!

    *****​
     
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 28: The Game Night Part 3
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 28: The Game Night Part 3

    California, Burbank Buy More, February 2nd, 2008

    Chuck hadn’t flashed on the man - neither in the store nor now. But this couldn’t be a coincidence. The man had been acting weird, and his story didn’t really check out, now that Chuck thought about it. How many Japanese porn games were even available on that platform? And the man hadn’t looked like an addict or gang member, either, which might’ve explained his behaviour.

    In any case, Chuck couldn’t ignore this. Someone had killed the man - violently, it seemed. And if they had made him talk, they’d come here. Or were already present. Damn

    He looked around. The event wouldn’t start for a few hours yet, which meant the store was still open, and customers were passing the food court. And none of them looked suspicious. Or triggered the Intersect. Which didn’t mean anything, of course. The Intersect wasn’t infallible, and good spies wouldn’t look suspicious.

    In any case, he had to inform the others. He headed back to the Wienerlicious stand. “Sarah?”

    “Yes?” she replied in that tone he knew meant ‘I’m busy, so this better be important’.

    “I think we’ve got a problem,” he told her. “A problem-problem, not something…” He gestured at the rows of screens and consoles Jeff and Lester were setting up.

    Now he had her full attention. “What did you find out?”

    “Uh, it’s not that I had a sudden revelation, you know?” He glanced around, just in case someone might be watching. “But there was this weird customer two days ago who wanted his broken console back. His specific broken console. And today, they found his body in the harbour, murdered.”

    “Which console is it?”

    “Uh… one of those?” He pointed at the tournament area. Then he blinked. “Wait… I got the repair report in my office! I’ll be right back!”

    He turned and headed back to the store. Where had he stashed Anna’s report, again? Not with the regular reports, or someone might have tried to swipe it - people did a lot of stupid things for porn, after all. About a fifth of the Nerd Herd calls were probably the result of someone browsing a porn site and getting a virus.

    Right, he had left it in his shirt. Which had been put into the laundry… Damn.

    Chuck made an about-face, as Casey would say, and returned to Sarah.

    “Did someone steal the report?” she asked in a whisper as soon as he reached her.

    “Uh… not exactly. I think it’s in the laundry. Sorry,” he said.

    “How many consoles are there?”

    “Forty,” he replied. “Six per team, and four in reserve.”

    “How fast can you check them?”

    “Uh…” He looked around. “That’s not the problem.” At worst, he’d have to spend a few minutes per console.”

    “What?”

    “See those guys there?” He nodded towards a group of people occupying the pizza corner. “They are observers from the other stores. They checked the consoles for tampering in the morning. If I suddenly want to check the consoles again…” He winced.

    She narrowed her eyes, and, for a moment, he was afraid she’d propose a Casey solution to the problem of interfering civilians. “Then we have to check them after the tournament and keep our eyes open for anyone who tries to get them.”

    Chuck nodded. “Uh, sure.”

    “Don’t worry,” Caridad commented as she passed them to pick up a can of mustard, “I’m on it!”

    “Oh, no!” Vi butted in - Chuck hadn’t seen her around until she spoke up. “You just keep making hot dogs; I’ll take care of this.”

    “Really? Big Mike will get security to throw you out if he spots you!”

    “Hah! If he could do that, you wouldn’t be here. Besides, he won’t spot me!”

    Chuck winced. “Guys! We’ve got this - you don’t need to do anything, really.” Why were both Slayers interested in messing with a spy mission?

    “Casey can’t be everywhere,” Caridad retorted. “And I know the area like the back of my hand.”

    Oh. Of course. That explained the sudden desire to work as a spy. Chuck looked around. Where was Morgan? Handling Slayers was Watcher work! And Morgan should be here. “Has anyone seen Morgan?”

    “No…” Caridad frowned. “He was keeping an eye on Vi.”

    “What? I don’t need a keeper!”

    “Kirsten?” Chuck called out to Bane. “Have you seen Morgan?”

    “He had to go to the bathroom…” She trailed off, and Chuck could see her growing tense. “But that was ten minutes ago.”

    Damn.

    “Keep an eye on the consoles! I’ll check the bathrooms!” Chuck told Sarah and started moving. He hadn’t taken more than a few steps, though, before Caridad and Vi passed him. The two Slayers weren’t going full speed - impossible in this crowd - but they were still weaving through the people mingling in the food court with supernatural grace. Fortunately, the TV crew wasn’t present yet, but if anyone paid attention…

    Chuck himself had some trouble, almost shoulder-checking a man balancing two supersized menus on a tray and bumping into another overweight passerby as he dodged the first.

    “Hey!” the man complained, but Chuck was already past. “Sorry, emergency!” he yelled over his shoulder.

    Vi and Caridad would already be… Chuck’s eyes widened. They were going to the closest bathrooms - the public ones. Morgan never went there. Not since he had had to clean them when he had started at the Buy More. He always went to the staff bathrooms.

    Chuck pulled out his phone, giving a family with three small kids a wide berth, and started texting while he cleared the food court.

    STAFF BATHROOM

    He bumped into a woman, who spilled her drink on her partner, but he sent the text. And once he had left the food court, he could run more easily. But he was alone - should he wait for the Slayers?

    “Move!”

    That was Bane. She was right behind him.

    Chuck sped up.

    “We informed Casey. He’s on the way,” the spy told him as they ran past Nerd Herd desk.

    But would the two of them be enough to handle whatever was awaiting them? “Are you armed?” he asked, opening the door to the staff area.

    Instead of answering, she drew a compact pistol from under her skirt.

    “Right.” He pulled out his pencil-stake, feeling under-armed. But Morgan was in danger. “It’s this way.”

    “I’ve been here before,” she replied.

    Oh. Of course - Morgan liked to use the home entertainment room for ‘private entertainment’. One of the reasons Chuck didn’t like using the room to play video games.

    Bane took the lead in the hallway, gun pointed ahead.

    “Watch out for friendlies,” Chuck said as they entered the break room, where he grabbed a length of pipe stashed behind the door.

    “Aren’t you armed?” Bane asked as they continued their advance.

    “It wasn’t supposed to be a mission!” he retorted. It was supposed to be a game night!

    “We’re always on a mission,” she replied before she kicked open the door leading to the staff washrooms.

    Now that was a peculiar wording… Chuck jerked back just in time to avoid getting shot. Silenced pistol, he noted as he rolled over his shoulder and came up in a crouch.

    But Bane had done a combat roll and come up shooting. By the time Chuck reached the door, she was already kneeling next to a man holding his bleeding shoulder and thigh. The entrance to the restrooms had been torn open, and Chuck could spot Morgan’s jacket hanging on the hook on the inner side.

    “Where did you take Morgan?” she asked as Chuck picked up the pistol the man had dropped. Glock-17, nine bullets left, silencer.

    The man groaned but didn’t reply.

    Bane kicked his bleeding thigh, making him scream in pain. “Talk!”

    “Uh…” Chuck wasn’t sure about this. But he wasn’t flashing on anything or anyone. So, what else might…

    Caridad arrived, Vi on her heels. “Where’s Morgan?” She sniffed the air. “Blood… his blood.”

    What? Chuck took another look at the toilet stall. Yes, there was a spot of blood on the floor.

    “They hurt him?” Bane kicked the man, harder this time, and he screamed again.

    Chuck was glad the area was pretty much sound-proof, as the impromptu rock karaoke a few months ago had proved. If anyone happened to stumble on them… “Can you track him?”

    “Of course,” Caridad said.

    “What?” Bane looked confused. “He’s got a locator?”

    “Uh… something like it,” Chuck said, staring pointedly at the man on the floor.

    A moment later, she had knocked him out.

    “This way!” Caridad snapped and took off towards the backdoor with Vi.

    “Shouldn’t we secure him?” Chuck asked as Bane followed them. “And, uh… treat his wounds?”

    “Later!”

    Damn. Chuck hesitated a moment, then ran after the others. The man would survive. Probably.

    At least he was armed now.

    He reached the exit to the loading ramps in time to catch Bane turning the corner. That made sense, of course - on that side were dense bushes. Demons had once used it to get close to the store without being detected.

    Halfway to the corner, he heard yelling and screaming, but when he rounded it, leading with his gun, the fight was already over. The Slayers were standing over two knocked out - Chuck saw no blood - men, and Bane was cutting the zip ties with which Morgan had been secured to the fence here.

    They had worked him over, too - Chuck could see a few cuts and growing bruises on Morgan’s face. But he was alive. And he wasn’t bleeding much. And he was conscious.

    “Chuck! They want a console we repaired!” Morgan blurted out. “They were talking to their boss on the phone while they beat me up!”

    “Uh. So there are more of them,” Chuck said.

    “Can you track their phones?” Vi asked.

    “Not with enough precision to find them inside the store,” Chuck said. Same cell. And even if he rigged up a detector, if they mingled with the growing crowd… “We’ll have to guard the consoles.”

    “And treat his wounds,” Bane said.

    Morgan claimed that he was fine, but she wasn’t listening to him.

    How would the bad guys go after the consoles? By now, they were all in the food court, in plain view of dozens of people at all times. So how… “Wait, guys!” Chuck blurted out. “We need to protect Anna! She was the one to talk to the dead guy!” And, he realised with a sinking feeling, so was he… “Ok… Caridad, Vi - tie up and gag those guys, and the one in the staff area, and stash them all in… hell, put them into the cells in The Castle.” They already were privy to the base, anyway, and could transport the prisoners easily. “I’ll go back to the others. We need to protect Anna. And the consoles.”

    “You shouldn’t go alone,” Morgan said.

    “It’s just a short trip,” Chuck retorted, sending a text to Sarah and Casey. And he was armed now - he put the Glock into his waistband in the small of his back and let the shirt cover it.

    But even a short trip - from the break room, where Bane was treating Morgan’s wounds with the first aid kit, to the food court area - could be very long, Chuck discovered quickly. He knew he was in danger, that there were enemies around, but he had no idea who they were - they could be anywhere and anyone.

    The two young men studying the flatscreens in the electronics section? The middle-aged couple arguing over a kitchen aid? Or the lone man studying the crowd?

    Chuck had to fight the urge to keep his hand on the grip of his pistol as he passed through the store. If anyone jumped him…

    The single man’s eyes lit up as Chuck drew closer. Why wasn’t the Intersect kicking in? Chuck prepared to dive behind the blender alley, as Morgan called the kitchen aid section, when the man exclaimed: “Claire! There you are!”

    Chuck glanced over his shoulder. There was a woman walking towards the other man. So, he had been looking for her. False alert.

    Unless this was just a ploy to make him lower his guard. Had he seen the woman before? The Intersect still wasn’t working. And the gun in the small of his back felt as if it might slip into his trousers if he moved too quickly.

    But Chuck reached the food court area without getting into a fight or gunning someone down by mistake. “Sarah!”

    He forced himself to smile as he waved at her. “Morgan is a little banged up, but fine,” he told her. “Bane’s treating him.”

    She nodded sharply, her attention on the row of consoles and screens in the centre of the area. And, he presumed, on Anna, who was supervising the crowd playing on the ‘open’ consoles. “I haven’t spotted anyone suspicious so far,” she whispered.

    “There’s at least one - their boss - around; Morgan overheard the kidnappers talking to them on the phone,” Chuck explained. “Perhaps they’ve given up?” They lost three people so far, after all. On the other hand, they had already killed one man for this… “Forget that.”

    Once more, Sarah nodded.

    “Also, do we have a spare back holster? My gun keeps slipping down my pants.”

    *****​

    A little later, with the gun slipping problem fixed by some spy trick of Sarah’s, Chuck was looking at the tournament tables. Anna had her hands full with the boys and teenagers who had started a small tournament of their own on the spare consoles, Bane and Caridad were busy at the food stand, Vi was… where was the Slayer?

    Chuck looked at Casey, who was standing on the other side of the court, arms crossed, and glaring at everyone in the vicinity. No, no Slayer there. Which was a good thing, of course - Caridad wouldn’t have taken that well.

    But where were the enemy spies? And what was in the console that was important enough to kill people for? Perhaps they should interrogate the prisoners… but that would leave them short at least one trained spy when the enemies struck.

    And they would have to make a move - the tournament was about to start, and then everyone would be watching the consoles like a hawk. Unless the bad guys planned to wait until it was over, and strike during cleanup. Though that would make them stand out since everyone not on cleanup duty would be leaving, with the store closing down.

    Which, Chuck realised with a sinking feeling, would also mean there would be far fewer potential witnesses around. Uh.

    “Oh, the TV crew’s arrived!” Morgan’s comment interrupted Chuck’s increasingly gloomy thoughts - only to introduce a new problem to worry about.

    He couldn’t be seen on TV. Not with Dad’s mission going on.

    *****​

    “And here’s your hot dog! Enjoy your meal!”

    “Finally! I’m starving!”

    Sarah had a lot of experience making and serving hot dogs, so she had no trouble working the grill and keeping a smile on her face as she served the crowd. And was observing the tables, where the competitors were now taking their seats, and wishing that the TV crew had been held up in traffic. The press’s presence only made an already bad situation worse. Chuck had pretty much abandoned the area since the TV crew had been all but hounding him, which left Grimes in charge of the tournament. Fortunately, Chuck’s friend didn’t look too hurt, or people might have questioned his ‘slipped in the bathroom’ story.

    It was still a less than ideal situation, in her opinion. At least the cameraman was actually focusing on the players and the TV screens instead of on the pretty girls in the audience, so Sarah didn’t have to dodge the press herself. Of course, given the cut of the Wienerlicious uniforms, the odds of any shoot showing her face instead of her cleavage and legs were slim to none anyway. Still, she appreciated the lack of attention.

    As, she presumed, did Bane, although the spy was putting up a good show about being worried for Grimes. Sarah could almost believe that she had fallen for Grimes, if not for, well, Bane being Bane and Grimes being Grimes.

    In any case, she had been in worse situations. They had been surprised by events, but now they got a handle on them. Chuck was safe - Casey kept an eye on him. Grimes had been saved. They had eyes on the objective and forces in place to intercept any attempt to grab it. They didn’t know, yet, which console contained whatever the enemy was seeking, but once the game night was over, they’d have all the time needed to sort that out.

    And with two Slayers present watching everyone like hawks, even Jeff and Lester were acting subdued enough to avoid making a scene.

    All in all, things could’ve gone worse.

    “And now, for the start of the event, San Diego versus Burbank! The challengers versus the reigning champions! Two teams enter, one team leaves!” Grimes’s voice came out of every speaker in the building, or so it seemed.

    “Challengers?”

    “We’ll show you!”

    “We’ll kick you back to Mexico!”

    “Get ready to be teabagged!”

    “Damn,” Sarah heard Caridad complain next to her, “those people need some help with the trash talking. No demon would lose their composure over such weak insults.”

    “They aren’t going to fight demons,” Sarah pointed out.

    “Technically, they are,” the Slayer retorted as she filled a bottle from the bucket of mayonnaise under the counter. “Jeff’s got enough slime demon blood to qualify, and the tall one from the other team smells like a Brachen demon.”

    A Brachen demon? Sarah frowned for a moment. “Those are the harmless ones?”

    “Well, as harmless as any other human - they can go bad as well. But they aren’t evil from birth or such, so we’re not killing them on sight,” Caridad explained. With a chuckle, she added: “Not that all of them know that, of course!”

    Ah. That explained where Vi was - Sarah saw that Vi had managed to get close behind the San Diego team as they took their seats, and the supposed Brachen demon was now shaking and had to be reminded by his teammates to enter the game. “Isn’t that cheating?” she said.

    “Nope. Just a happy side effect of doing or duty and reminding the demons that we’ve got an eye on them,” Caridad replied with a wide grin.

    Sarah snorted. Chuck would disagree, of course, but she understood the sentiment. Spies didn’t play fair either.

    “And it’s on!!!!” Grimes yelled, wildly waving his free hand around.

    On the big TV screen mounted behind the players - so they couldn’t cheat by looking at it - a computer picture appeared, showing the game from the point of view of ‘CKillerXXXX’ according to the tag. Who barely managed to take a few steps before getting killed.

    “And the Burbank Sniper takes first blood! That must’ve hurt!” Grimes gloated. “And there’s more where that came from!”

    “Boo! You camper!”

    “Get good you shrub!”

    She shook her head. Chuck’s friend obviously didn’t care to be a neutral commentator. Chuck would’ve done it differently, but the crowd liked it, judging by their reactions. Well, apart from the supporters from San Diego.

    Her view of the demon player was briefly obscured by the cameraman walking between her and the tables, taking a close up of the players’ faces.

    No, she realised once she saw the angle at which he held the camera. Not the players’ faces.

    The consoles.

    *****​

    Chuck’s mobile phone vibrated, interrupting his attempt to use the store’s security cameras, linked to his Nerd Herd desk thanks to a nifty little program he had installed, to find the enemy spies. He checked the display - Sarah. She wouldn’t call unless it was important. And he should get his spy comm gear.

    “The TV crew are fake,” Sarah told him as soon as he accepted the call. “They’re filming the consoles, not the players.”

    He swallowed the joke about product placement that somehow appeared in his mind. Instead, he said: “They’re trying to identify the missing console. They must know the serial number.” That made sense, of course.

    “Yes,” she replied. “But they can’t get it now. Not with so many witnesses.”

    “So we have time until the event ends, then.”

    “Unless they create a diversion.”

    “Diversion? Uh. Like a… fire alert?” That’s what he would do. Had done.

    “Yes, like a fire alert.”

    “Uh…” It was highly illegal. Fire alerts were vital. Tampering with them could endanger lives - hundreds, in the case of a building as large as the Buy More, doubly so during a crowd-packing event. As Ellie had told him in detail after the Malibu mission. But a false alert would endanger all those people anyway. Especially if followed by a firefight between spies. “I’ll disable the alert and put it on a loop.” That way, he could check if there really was a fire before sounding the alert.

    “Good. Casey’s setting up for fire support.”

    Smart. With two Slayers on the ground and Sarah and Bane, they didn’t need anyone else on the floor. “I’ll keep an eye on the security,” he said. “Safely away from the press.”

    “Be careful.”

    “Don’t worry,” he told her, turning around to watch a customer slowly walk towards him. “Careful is my middle…” he trailed off as he flashed.

    Jack O’Riley. Three convictions for blackmail and extortion. Suspected of two counts of murders without any evidence, and a string of cons and blackmail. Last thought to target starter business in the IT field.

    Chuck shook his head, blinking. O’Riley was coming for him. And the man had noticed his reaction - his hand slipped under his leather jacket.

    Chuck was faster, though. His day planner flew through the air like a rectangle-shaped discus and hit the other man in the face as Chuck ducked below the desk and drew his pilfered gun. He came up - but O’Riley had disappeared. Fled? “Enemy here! O’Riley!” he whispered to the phone he had dropped.

    Movement on his left side drew his attention, and he whirled - and almost shot an older woman peering at the rows and rows of games.

    He dropped to the floor before he realised what he was doing, and a fraction of a second later, he heard the sound of a bullet wheezing past. Silenced pistol, he noted. Probably a .45 - smaller calibres didn’t do as well with subsonic munition.

    He was already rolling over his shoulder, coming up pressed against the Nerd Herd desk and aiming… O’Riley had disappeared again. Chuck pulled his laptop down and started to switch the camera feeds around. He needed the ones covering this section, and he needed it yesterday. Before O’Riley found a clear line of fire.

    There! Chuck grinned. There was O’Riley, sneaking…

    Once more, Chuck hit the ground just in time for a bullet to miss him. He returned fire with his own silenced pistol, driving O’Riley to jump into cover behind the printer lane. Chuck’s underpowered bullets wouldn’t go through those machines, but if he caught a glimpse…

    Without taking his eyes off the row of cardboard boxes, he drew the laptop towards him. It would be difficult to set up a shot using the security camera, but… A glance at the laptop killed that plan - the bullet that had missed him hadn’t missed the computer.

    “That was an overpriced business model,” Chuck muttered as he shifted his position. Big Mike would explode if he got the bill.

    Where were the others? Sarah would’ve heard the fight. And it wasn’t that far from the food court to the Nerd Herd desk. So, where were the reinforcements?

    Footsteps! Chuck rose, raising his gun, then froze. Vi stood there, frowning. “Where’s the enemy?”

    “Uh…” Chuck looked around. No sign of O’Riley. “He’s disappeared again.”

    “Yeah, I noticed.”

    “I need another laptop,” Chuck said.

    “Is this the time to think about computers?”

    “To check the security cameras!” he explained, already moving to the computer section.

    But before he reached it, he heard yells and screams from the food court area.

    “Fire! Fire!”

    So much for his plan to block the fire alert diversion.

    *****​

    “Fire! Fire!”

    Sarah jerked when she heard the yelling. So much for Chuck blocking the fire alerts. She looked around as the first people in the crowd started to move. There would be a panic and…

    “That’s pathetic! A fake fire alert? Can you be any more obvious!”

    Sarah blinked. What?

    One of the players from the San Diego Buy More was yelling at Grimes, and the crowd stopped moving.

    “You’re losing and want to break off the match! Pathetic!” the man went on.

    “That’s not us!” Grimes retorted. “That’s one of yours trying to keep us from coming back!”

    “You’re walking into our trap!” Lester added.

    “Hah! Are you delusional? You’re about to get curb stomped!”

    “We’re going to put you out of your misery!”

    “We’ll see about that! Guys! Execute Plan Beta!”

    “Beta as in buggy and improvised?”

    “Certainly not Alpha, hah!”

    And as Sarah, halfway around the food counter, watched, the match continued, with the crowd settling down. Were all the Buy More staffers crazy? She had assumed a particular collection of misfits had accrued in Burbank as sometimes happened, but everyone else from the visiting stores seemed to take games as seriously as the locals. She might owe Chuck an apology.

    After she took care of the missing spy and his accomplices. And ensured that there wasn’t an actual fire. “Do you have eyes on the ones yelling fire?” she whispered into her radio.

    “They’re in the northern section,” Casey answered, “I can see them on the cameras. Two men, armed - it’s the TV team.”

    She could handle two men. “I’m on it,” she said.

    “Bartowski’s grabbing a computer,” Casey told her as she cleared the food counter and moved through the back of the crowd. “But I don’t see the man he fought.”

    That meant the man - O’Riley, was it? - had to be in a spot outside camera coverage, which was useful information by itself. But she had to deal with the two firestarters first.

    “They’re entering the toilets now.”

    Probably to start a real fire. Sarah sped up, drawing her gun as she closed in on the toilets - the silencer wasn’t the best, but this far from the main event, no one should overhear it. She kicked the door open and shot the man serving as a lookout before he could raise his own pistol, then crouched down and turned around. The other had to be in one of the stalls.

    She tilted her head, peering through the gap at the bottom. She couldn’t see any shoes, but there was a mass of toilet paper on the floor in the last stall - ready to be set on fire. She could fire through the stall, but her subsonic bullets might be deflected or stopped if they hit at a poor angle, and if she caught a bullet herself…

    Sarah looked around and grinned. Perfect.

    She grabbed the bucket in the corner and swung it as she rushed forward, then let it go. It sailed over the stall, and Sarah heard a muttered curse right before she kicked the stall open. The man had been standing on the toilet and lost his balance when her bucket hit him, having to use both hands to keep himself from falling.

    “Freeze!” she snapped, aiming at his head.

    He froze. Thirty seconds later, he was unconscious and tied up on the floor, and Sarah was hanging an ‘out of order, do not enter’ sign on the door outside.

    *****​

    “...now let’s reboot and see if I can get a connection working,” mumbled Chuck as he finished installing his program on the laptop he had borrowed from the electronics section. It was a display model, so the battery was already charged.

    “What are you doing?” Vi asked.

    “I’m hooking this up to the security cameras so we can check them here,” he told her.

    “Couldn’t we have gone to the security centre? You have one, right?”

    “Uh… with this, we can move and keep checking.” It was a good excuse for not thinking of the simpler solution, in Chuck’s opinion. “Otherwise, I’d have to stay there and guide you through your phone.”

    “We really need those spy radios you guys have,” Vi replied.

    Chuck nodded. So did he.

    The computer finished rebooting - finally! - and Chuck started the security camera feed grabber. It worked! He smiled as he began to go through the different cameras. O’Riley had to be somewhere.

    “Oh no!” Vi’s exclamation interrupted him.

    “What?”

    “Caridad took down the fake TV crew! Without me!” the Slayer complained.

    Chuck shook his head. Slayers! But with two wanna-be arsonists down, the TV crew down, and the ones who had kidnapped Morgan taken care of, there couldn’t be many enemy spies left in the store.

    And that meant O’Riley would be trying to flee. And the main entrance and exit was in plain view of the food court, which meant...

    “Come on!” Chuck blurted out, “We need to get to the loading area.” The enemy had kidnapped Mogan in the staff area, so they were familiar with the layout, and Chuck didn’t think O’Riley would head out through the same route Morgan had been taken through, so that left the loading ramps in the back.

    Vi took off like a rocket. The Slayer was at the door to the staff area before Chuck had grabbed the laptop, and by the time he reached the break room, the Slayer must have reached the loading area already.

    He quickly checked on the laptop - yes, there she was, searching for O’Riley.

    Who, Chuck realised with a sinking feeling as he saw the next camera feed appear, wasn’t there, but headed to an emergency exit. Close to Chuck’s position.

    Pressing his lips together, he drew his pistol and started running again.

    He had to get into a position where he could ambush or, at least, block O’Riley. That meant reaching the door first. There was a room near it where he could take cover, and once the man walked past… Well, Chuck could shoot him in the leg. Or something.

    But when he reached the emergency doors inside the store, so had O’Riley. Chuck dived into the camping section’s display, taking cover behind the log at the fake camping site as the man opened fire. But the log was thick enough to…

    A bullet blew straight through it an inch in front of his head. The thing was made out of plastic! Big Mike had been cheap again! Chuck scrambled backwards, two more bullets missing him, then rose with his gun drawn. He fired two shots towards where he had seen the spy last then dashed across the display and took cover behind the fortunately oversized and over-engineered portable generator.

    This time, he could hear the underpowered bullets ricochet as they hit the solid metal of the generator. But where was O’Riley? Just from the angles of the shots, he had to be… Chuck peered through a gap between the tank - empty, or at least it should be empty - and the main part of the generator. Folding chair and table section - clear. No one hiding behind the trail ration aisle, either - they still hadn’t moved that to the food section despite regulations. That left… Yes! Something moved behind the tent row. Chuck tracked the movement through the gaps in the aisle, lining up his shot for the moment he had a clear line of fire.

    But what exited the aisle wasn’t O’Riley - it was a shopping cart covered in a tarp the colour of the man’s shirt. Chuck gasped, then whirled and threw himself to the side, behind the Football-team-sized cooler.

    But no one shot at him. Why would the man use a distraction, but didn’t follow up? The emergency exit! He scrambled up and rushed towards the doors again. Though he would be too late to stop the man, he should be able to catch up in the hallway behind the doors that led outside the actual building, or in the parking lot there.

    Unless O’Riley expected that. Which he probably would, Chuck realised as he ran past the outdoor clothing section. With the… Oh!

    He grabbed a mannequin wearing an ugly neon ‘don’t shoot me, I’m no deer’ jacket and dragged it with him to the emergency doors - which had been opened already - then pushed it through first.

    He felt it jerk under his hand as two bullets hit the mannequin and let it drop to the floor as he slid around the door’s frame, leading with his gun. His first shot hit O’Riley’s arm, making him drop his weapon, but his second shot missed as the man jerked and jumped towards Chuck in a combat roll. Despite being wounded, the man managed to complete the roll and execute a roundhouse kick that disarmed Chuck.

    Chuck managed to dodge the follow-up slash with a combat knife that had appeared in the man’s hand, and the next and the next before O’Riley overextended. Chuck kicked the mannequin into the man’s leg, causing him to stumble, then slammed his pencil into the wounded arm, point first.

    O’Riley went down, screaming in pain and clutching his arm, where the pencil was stuck in the wound, but a roundhouse kick to the temple shut him up.

    Chuck closed his eyes for a moment, leaning against the wall and panting.

    That had been close. Very close.

    “Aw.... you got him already.”

    It took Chuck a moment to recover from the near heart-attack Vi suddenly appearing next to him caused, but at least now he didn’t have to lug the man around himself.

    *****​

    “...and in an unexpected but inevitable reversal, the Burbank Bandits manage to win the match with a last-minute play that utterly destroyed the overconfident San Diego Sharks! A perfect plan executed flawlessly, folks! Game, set and match! Let’s hear it for Burbank! We are the champions! There’s no time for losers!”

    As Morgan shed any pretences about being impartial and shamelessly started to gloat, Chuck leaned against the Wienerlicious’s food stand - or what was left of it - and crossed his arms. “All’s well that ends well, huh?” he commented, looking at Sarah next to him.

    Her smile looked a little tired - but then, she had spent the last two hours mostly serving hot dogs.

    “And you probably made a profit,” he went on in a bright voice, the hurriedly added: “I’m joking!” when her smile turned into a glare. “And it wasn’t funny?”

    She shook her head, but she seemed mollified. Chuck felt relieved. “So… that was game night. Worth it, I think.”

    “Hm?”

    “It was a lot of stress,” he explained as he watched Morgan wave around the trophy, hugging Bane with his free arm, “but it was also fun. Even if I didn’t get to play much myself.” Though he got to catch enemy spies.

    “We still need to recover the console,” she reminded him.

    “Yes, but we know which console.” And all the bad guys were in cells now. Or the morgue.

    “So, did you get the game night out of your system?”

    She was smiling a little mischievously, he noticed. “Uh… let’s say I got the huge tournament for half a dozen store teams out of my system?”

    That made her laugh. “As long as you don’t organise local game nights in our living room.”

    Chuck was glad he hadn’t mentioned his plans for a smaller game night, just a few friends playing together. Perhaps in a few months, when things had settled down...

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 3rd, 2008

    “So… O’Riley had blackmailed a computer programmer from Silicon Valley he had met in the online gaming scene into handing over the source code of the new network application that his firm was developing for the government. And he hid it inside a gaming console’s memory.” Chuck shook his head as he summed up the debriefing’s results while Sarah parked their car. “Do you think he got a little too much into his role?”

    “Perhaps,” she replied. “There would have been better ways to smuggle the data out.”

    “Good for us,” he commented as they exited the car and walked towards the lift which would take them up to their temporary apartment. Not so good for the poor contact O’Riley had killed, though.

    “Yes,” Sarah agreed.

    “So… now we have to maintain our cover, hm? Newlyweds?” Chuck asked.

    Her grin matched his, to his slight relief. The game night had been a little stressful for everyone, after all. But by the time the lift reached their floor, they were in each others’ arms, kissing passionately.

    And they kissed some more in the hallway. And next to the door. Some hands may have wandered as well. Just maintaining their cover, in case someone had the entrance and lift under surveillance.

    They managed to open the door to their new flat, and not fall down as they entered, still embracing. Perhaps the couch instead of the bed, Chuck thought. It was closer.

    “Hi, son.”

    And, he realised with a gasp as Sarah tore away from him and drew a gun, it was occupied. By his dad.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2019
    JamesEye, Prince Charon, RedX and 2 others like this.
  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 29: The French Connection Part 1
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 29: The French Connection Part 1

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 3rd, 2008

    “Dad!” Chuck exclaimed as he quickly took a step away from Sarah and checked himself for a wardrobe malfunction. Embarrassed by his parents while making out with his girlfriend… he hadn’t minded missing out on that part of growing up. Not that he had many occasions to suffer that particular indignity, anyway. “What are you doing here? And how did you get inside?” He blinked. “Ignore the last question.” It was obvious that his father had broken in.

    Dad laughed. “Sorry, I didn’t want to wait outside.”

    “That would have endangered our cover,” Sarah said. She sounded very cool and collected for someone who had to hastily button up her blouse, in Chuck’s opinion.

    “That as well,” Dad agreed. “Nice apartment. Your work?” He looked at Sarah.

    “Thank you, yes,” she told him.

    Chuck wanted to point out that he had helped, but that would have made him sound like a whiner. “So, why did you come to visit us?” Dad better had a good reason for utterly ruining the mood.

    “To discuss the mission, of course.”

    “Right. The mission.” Of course. Chuck sat down on the couch. A moment later, Sarah joined him. “So?”

    Dad laughed again. “I wanted to coordinate with you, now that you installed your surveillance.”

    Chuck didn’t miss how Sarah frowned a little at hearing that. Probably angry at not having noticed Dad’s surveillance.

    “And I wanted to share my backdoor into Gonzàlez’s systems,” Dad went on.

    And now it was Chuck’s time to grow tense. He had tried for hours to hack that system!

    “Don’t feel bad. I’ve had more time to do it,” Dad said as if he had read Chuck’s mind. “And more experience as well.”

    “It’s not that,” Chuck lied. “But if we had known that, we wouldn’t have wasted time trying to hack the system ourselves. Well, myself.”

    “But it was good training,” Dad retorted. “You learned a lot, right?”

    Chuck barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “Missions aren’t the time to train,” he replied, quoting Casey.

    “Point taken,” Dad said. “Although we’ll have to schedule some training sessions, then. Once this is over.”

    And he could come in from the cold. Wait… “Training sessions?” Chuck asked.

    “Hacking into different systems.” Dad grinned. “It’s fun, trust me.”

    Oh. Dad was a hacker. It wasn’t just a job - he liked doing it. Probably did it for kicks, too. Chuck and Sarah really had more things in common when it came to their parents than Chuck had thought before. “Right,” he managed to say without making his thoughts obvious. “So… the backdoor?”

    “Here!” Dad handed him a memory stick.

    “Is that safe?” Chuck eyed it.

    “Yes, but it’s good policy to check yourself, of course - no one’s perfect.”

    Chuck hadn’t minded missing out on such lectures, either, now that he thought about it.

    Sarah came to his rescue. “Do you already have a plan for the mission?”

    “It’s still in the works,” Chuck’s father replied. “I’ve got the incriminating data ready to be planted in his system, and I’ve compromised his security. However, we still need to find a way past his bodyguards, and we need to be able to cover up his death.”

    Not death, murder. But Chuck nodded.

    “His maid is a cartel assassin,” Sarah said. “We can frame her.”

    “Oh. Like a crime of passion.” Chuck nodded. “He accosted her, she shot him in response, but his bodyguards avenged him in a firefight that cost most of them their lives, too. One escaped and vanished.”

    “I think simply killing him and having her vanish would work,” she replied. “The police might think she was paid by a rival to betray him.”

    “Simple and easy, yes,” Dad agreed with her.

    “What about the other bodyguards? What if we get into a firefight with them?” Chuck didn’t want to be that guy, but they had ended up in shootouts a little too often on missions not to plan for them.

    “Then we adapt the story to ‘killed Gonzàlez and his bodyguards’,” Sarah told him.

    “That’s almost my story,” Chuck pointed out.

    “Almost but not quite,” Dad said. “Having her disappear will make it harder for the police to find out what really happened. And not everything lining up perfectly will make it less suspicious, too.”

    “Yes.” Sarah nodded at Chuck’s father. “A mystery motive and a missing murderer looks more convincing than a staged crime scene - spies don’t trust things that look too neat.”

    And they had to convince the CIA, after all. Not just the police.

    *****​

    Sarah was having second thoughts about the whole mission. For very selfish but still valid reasons.

    “And that’s the backdoor? Wow. I thought they patched that exploit,” Chuck gushed in a tone usually reserved for her as he stared at the computer screen.

    “They did. But I hacked the internet provider and intercepted the download for Gonzàlez’s computers,” Orion explained.

    “You did? Is that even possible? It shouldn’t… Wait, Dad! You didn’t hack it - you used a hardware trick, didn’t you?”

    “Guilty as charged,” Orion admitted, chuckling. “Well-spotted. I installed a router through which I could manipulate the data packets sent to Gonzàlez.”

    “Dad! Stop with the tests! We’re not at school, we’re on a mission!” Chuck protested.

    “Sorry, old habits die hard.” The older man chuckled. “Besides, it’s not as if we’re actually doing anything dangerous right now.”

    “It’s the principle of the thing!” Chuck retorted.

    And, Sarah thought, we should have been in bed now, not learning hacking exploits. Or, in her case, watching the lesson.

    She suppressed a sigh and smiled at both Bartowskis. “So, do you want a soda or coffee?”

    “Coffee, please, my dear,” Orion replied.

    “Uh…” Chuck looked torn. “It’s getting a little late. If we drink too much caffeine...”

    “Tomorrow’s Sunday,” Orion told him.

    “And it’s Superbowl Day, Dad,” Chuck countered.

    “Are you interested in the game?” Orion asked.

    “Well, not really, but wouldn’t Gonzàlez make an event out of it?” Chuck shrugged. “We might snag an invitation if he’s feeling good neighbourly.”

    “That’s an excellent idea,” Sarah cut in before Orion could say anything. “I think we can set up an ‘accidental meeting’ with him - or with a guest of him - and get invited to his Superbowl Party.”

    “Let me check if he’s hosting one,” Orion said. He moved towards the keyboard, Chuck giving way, and started typing. Sarah didn’t manage to follow all that he did - she’d have to ask Chuck for details, later - but soon bank data appeared on the screen. Payments. “Ah… ordered catering for a dozen people for tomorrow. And he recently bought a new flatscreen TV.” He looked at Chuck. “I think it’s safe to say that he’s hosting a party, but I’ll check his mail as well.”

    Which, Sarah knew, he probably could have done first. But that might not have looked as impressive as hacking bank data. “Good. But I think we should go to bed now - so we won’t imitate Chuck’s co-workers tomorrow.” The Buy More staff was probably still celebrating their victory. She hoped that that included Bane, so the woman would be busy recovering tomorrow.

    “Right.” Orion nodded. “And I guess you also want to pick up where you left when you entered,” he added with a smile.

    Chuck blushed in response, which looked cute. Sarah narrowed her eyes at Orion anyway, though - she hadn’t appreciated his interruption.

    He laughed again. “I’m sorry again,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “I’ll contact you tomorrow - at a reasonable time.”

    *****​

    Chuck smiled as Dad left their apartment. That had been a very nice, well, he couldn’t call it evening - it had been past midnight already when they had arrived. But it had been a nice visit. Even the testing by Dad, while annoying, hadn’t been really annoying. “I missed out on this, you know?” he said.

    “Hm?” Sarah looked at him.

    “Dad being Dad,” Chuck said.

    “Ah.” She nodded. Of course, she would understand - she had lost her father to prison when she was in high school, after all. “However, I think he made us feel like teenagers sneaking out long enough,” she went on.

    Ah. He couldn’t help grinning in a stupid way. “Yes. I didn’t miss that, by the way. Not that there were many occasions for it to happen in Sunnydale.”

    “I can imagine.”

    “Not because of the demons and the Hellmouth there. Just the usual high school hierarchy stuff,” he went on.

    “Chuck, I’ve been in high school myself. And I’ve met Harmony and Aphrodesia.”

    “Oh, yes, sorry, I…” And he had met Sarah’s old high school nemesis, which he had forgotten. Perhaps he wasn’t as over his time in Sunnydale as he had thought. Or talking to Dad had made him feel nostalgia.

    She walked up to him, smiling. “It’s OK, Chuck. It’s normal that you react like that to having your Dad back.”

    “It is? I mean, yes, it is.” He forced himself to laugh as she began to steer him towards the bedroom.

    At least Sarah wasn’t mad at him or Dad for interrupting their night, so to speak.

    *****​

    The next morning, they got up a little later than planned. Not too late, though - it was still morning, not noon. Or afternoon. An important distinction, in Chuck’s opinion. Well, it had been back when he’d been a teenager and arguing with Ellie. Or after he had been expelled from Stanford… Gosh, he was feeling nostalgic today, and not in a good way, was he? He chuckled as he finished shaving.

    He smelled fresh coffee when he stepped out of the bedroom. And toast. “Mh…” He was about to comment that he could get used to this when he noticed that she was watching the camera feeds on the laptop. Oh. “Anything of note?” he asked, as nonchalantly as he could as he took a seat and poured himself a cup of coffee.

    “No one left or entered the apartment so far,” she replied without taking her eyes off the screen. Her cup was empty already, he also noticed. Had he taken so long in the bathroom?

    “So that means they’ll go out later?” He took a sip from his cup and sighed. Perfectly brewed.

    “Or their guests arrive,” she said. “Your father sent a list and is tracking their cars. We can meet them in the garage when we fetch some groceries you left in the car yesterday.”

    He swallowed most of his toast. “Me?” After swallowing the rest of it, he added: “Does that fit our cover?”

    “Yes,” she told him with a grin. “A little slip like that makes us appear more harmless. Less likely to notice anything odd.”

    “And more likely to be invited to his party. If he actually does it,” he added, frowning. “We’re not exactly business partners.”

    “The people on the guestlist your father compiled aren’t drug smugglers or cartel members, either,” she pointed out. “They’re well-off people, but not independently wealthy. Probably business contacts of his - on the legitimate side of his business.”

    “Ah.” Dad had been busy. Chuck hoped he hadn’t overdone it - he wasn’t getting any younger, and burning the midnight oil got harder as you got older. Chuck knew that very well. “So, did you pick a target?”

    “Jack Chavez,” she said. “Investment banker.”

    “Ah.” Chuck took another sip from his coffee. “And you think he’ll ask Gonzàlez to invite us?”

    “His type is always trying to make more contacts. If not as potential clients, then as potential sources of information - or jobs,” Sarah explained.

    Chuck pulled up the file that Dad had sent on his phone, then nodded. “And he likes women,” he commented. Lots of beautiful women, according to the pictures.

    “That weakness is also a consideration,” she admitted. “

    “Ah.” Chuck grabbed another toast to buy himself some time. That meant Sarah would dress sexy. Well, sexier than usual - she was always sexy. And everyone would be leering at her. Well, at least this Chavez, but Gonzàlez as well - Chuck had read the mark’s files, after all. And he wasn’t entirely certain what to feel about that.

    He wasn’t an immature teenager any more who wanted to show off his girlfriend as if she were a trophy. He hadn’t ever been one of those, of course; that had been mostly a ‘jock thing’ at Sunnydale High. But he also didn’t want to be the sort of insecure, jealous man who couldn’t stand it when his girlfriend attracted attention. Or showed off. He was better than that. Or he should be. “So…” he said, “do you think Chavez or Gonzàlez will, uh, make a move?”

    “I don’t think so,” she told him. “Both have mistresses, and neither would want to risk a scene with a new acquaintance at a party.”

    “Ah.” Chuck felt relieved. It might be unprofessional for a spy in training, but the thought of Sarah sleeping with Chavez or Gonzàlez…

    “It’s not a honeypot mission,” she told him. Of course she would have read him like a book!

    He looked up and saw her knowing smile. “Ah.” He shrugged. This wasn’t the time to discuss his feelings about that. “So, all we have to do now is waiting until the guests arrive?”

    “Yes.”

    *****​

    A few hours later, the first guests began to arrive. Apparently, Gonzàlez and his guests liked to start their Superbowl party early. Chavez wasn’t among them, though.

    “Do you think Chavez wants to be fashionably late?” Chuck asked as he kept an eye on the laptop screen. Perhaps he should use the TV screen for this - it would make it easier to cover more feeds.

    “No. I think he doesn’t want to appear too eager, but not too arrogant, either,” Sarah replied. She was looking good, in Chuck’s opinion. Well, she always looked good whatever she wore, but he liked her current clothes. Capris and a matching top. Casually sexy, but in a girl next door way. And she could act the part as well.

    Now they only needed… “Speak of the devil,” he said as an alert appeared on the screen. “Chavez’s mobile phone is moving. He should be here in ten minutes.”

    Showtime.

    They waited five more minutes, which Sara spent waking up Casey, who was sleeping in the bedroom, and filling him in. Chuck spent the time mostly worrying about the timing. Los Angeles traffic was hard to predict at times, even on a Sunday. Especially on a Superbowl Sunday. Chavez might be speeding. What if they were too late and missed running into him? What if he was late and they had to spend suspiciously long in the garage, alerting Gonzàlez? What if Chavez was late and ignored them?

    Despite his thoughts, Chuck kept up a confident front. Fidgeting and worrying would’ve been unprofessional for a spy.

    “Relax, Chuck. It’s a Superbowl day, and we’re just preparing for the event in our new apartment.”

    And he had to work on his poker face. He still smiled at Sarah. “Sure thing. We got this. Easy-peasy.”

    She snorted at that, and then they were in the hallway, on the way to the lift, and she was frowning at him. “Really… how could you forget the groceries?”

    “You didn’t notice it, either,” he shot back.

    “I carried the perishables,” she said as they reached the lift.

    “So, no harm done! Chips aren’t ruined if they spend a night in the garage.”

    “And what if you had forgotten a bucket of ice cream?”

    “Well… then we’d be out some ice cream. We’re not talking hypotheticals, though.” It was almost like practising for a real disagreement, only Sarah wouldn’t be as illogical when she wasn’t playing a role.

    They stopped bickering when they reached the garage - no one would want to invite a couple having trouble to a party. That tended to ruin the mood.

    And right on schedule, when they reached their car, a Corvette entered the garage and headed for the part reserved for guests.

    “See?” Sarah asked with a smile as they lifted two bags filled with snacks and other unhealthy food out of the trunk. “Perfect timing.”

    “Luck,” he managed to mutter before they turned away to walk back to the lift - and to meet Chavez.

    The man was in the company of his current girlfriend - Bonnie Cale, according to the file Dad had sent. That didn’t stop him from checking out Sarah, though, Chuck noted. And the man didn’t start with her face.

    “Hello!” Sarah greeted him as their paths converged at the lift. “We just moved in. I’m Sarah.”

    “And I’m Charles. Charles Black,” Chuck added.

    “Jack Chavez. This is Bonnie.”

    “Hi!”

    “We’re just visiting.” Chavez went on, then peered at the bags they were carrying. “Superbowl Party?”

    “Party of two,” Sarah said as the lift arrived. “We just moved to Los Angeles and don’t know many people yet.”

    “Oh?”

    “Charles bought our usual amount of snacks out of habit. And then forgot the bags in the car yesterday,” Sarah explained.

    Cale giggled at that, which made it easy for Chuck to stay in his role and roll his eyes before looking at Chavez. “And she won’t let me forget it.”

    “Aw!” Sarah reached over and hugged him. “I’m just teasing.” Everyone laughed at that. “He’s too serious, comes from working with computers instead of people,” she added.

    “Investment banking,” he corrected her for Chavez’ benefit.

    “Oh? I’m working in the same field. Which firm?”

    “Stanford Investments,” Chuck told him, giving the name of their cover. “It’s small, but growing.”

    “Ah.” Chavez’s smile didn’t waver, but he sounded a little more condescending.

    Until Chuck added: “I’m their newest partner.” He could see how he went from ‘guy on the street’ to ‘potentially useful contact’ in the man’s eyes.

    “That’s our floor,” Sarah said. “Have a nice party!”

    “Thank you!” Chavez replied.

    Half a minute later, they were back in their apartment. “Do you think we got it?” Chuck wasn’t sure. Everything had gone according to the script, but…

    “We’ll know in a bit,” Sarah replied. “He’ll have to talk to Gonzaléz first.”

    Great. More waiting and worrying.

    “If it doesn’t work, it’s no catastrophe. We’ll find another way to scout out the apartment. Or we go in without. It’s not ideal,” she admitted, “but we’ve done such missions before. And we know the layout from the floorplans.”

    “Don’t sweat it, Bartowski,” Casey said. “The scumbag will bite. If not today, then later. I know his type.” Chuck blinked. Casey was… supportive? “So, calm the hell down and play your role before you wreck the mission.”

    Ah, there was the gruff, abrasive spy they all knew. Chuck grinned, which made the NSA agent narrow his eyes at him. “What’s so funny?”

    “Nothing! Nothing!” Chuck quickly replied.

    He was feeling better, though.

    Until, a few minutes later, Casey reported that Chavez was headed towards their apartment.

    *****​

    “An invitation? By our neighbour, Mr Gonzàlez? Oh, of course, we’ll accept!”

    “Of course,” Chuck echoed Sarah with, or so he hoped, sufficient enthusiasm without sounding forced. “Thank you, Mr Chavez.”

    “Call me Jack,” Chavez told them with a - in Chuck’s opinion - far too oily smile.

    “We’ll be there in twenty minutes - we need to dress up a little,” Sarah told him. “We want to make a good first impression.”

    “Well, you certainly impressed me,” Jack replied.

    Chuck was sure the man didn’t mean him.

    “Thank you!” Sarah, of course, played her role perfectly. She didn’t even lose her smile after Chavez had left.

    Fifteen minutes later - they had been ready after ten, even with the various concealed weapons that they had to, well, conceal, but that would have looked suspicious - they were ringing Gonzàlez’s doorbell. They had dressed up, of course - a young couple trying to make a good impression would do so. Chuck was wearing his best ‘casual suit’, which was his best business outfit, but without a tie, and Sarah was wearing a black cocktail dress - though one not quite as short as she’d wear for other missions.

    Lopez opened the door with a polite smile. “Ah, Mr and Mrs Black. Please come in - Mr Gonzàlez is in the living room.”

    “Thank you, Ms Gomez,” Chuck replied. He was sure that she was welcoming them, instead of Gonzàlez himself, so she could check them out first. Of course, they weren’t carrying obvious weapons, nor anything that would be detected by a metal scan, so unless Lopez wanted to drop the act and pat them down, it wouldn’t help her. Though the assassin would likely be ready to kill them for the rest of the evening since she would be aware of this weakness.

    The foyer wasn’t as ostentatiously furnished as Chuck had expected, but that was a low bar to clear. It wasn’t very stylish, though, but there was a certain ‘lived in’ feeling. It might even feel like a home if there wasn't a killer maid following them.

    The living room, though, made up for that - Gonzàlez obviously valued his home entertainment. The latest flatscreen on the market dominated one side of the room, and the sound system was even more expensive - all high-end components. Heck, the sound system was probably more expensive than the Buy More’s entire stock of speakers and sub movers.

    “Ah, the Blacks!” Gonzàlez, flanked by Chavez, greeted them with open arms. Literally. “My new neighbours! Welcome to my home! I’m Marco!”

    “I’m Charles,” Chuck replied. “This is my wife, Sarah.” If Chuck hadn’t read Dad’s file on the man, he would have been quite taken with the man’s apparent friendliness.

    “Hi!” Sarah said with a wide smile.

    “And these are my best friends!” Gonzàlez gestured towards the other guests in the room. “You already know Jack and Bonnie. This is my dear friend Julio with his wife Marissa, that’s Esteban with Lily, Karl and Jeanne, and the single man plundering my bar there is Kurt.” Apparently, his mistress wasn’t attending the party - still in Europe, then, shopping.

    Everyone exchanged greetings, and Chuck struggled to keep up appearances - he was flashing on everyone.

    Julio Flores Garcia. Suspected arms smuggler for the Sendero Luminoso in the 80s, before he went freelance and supplied various cartels. Esteban Sanchez. Drug runner, graduated to drug making. Karl Frankhauser. German banker, fired after a money-laundering affair that didn’t result in a conviction thanks to a good lawyer. And Kurt Besson, former member of the French Foreign Legion. And Jeanne Dubois, currently for the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure - the French intelligence service.

    So much for Dad’s claim that the guests weren’t criminals.

    “Kurt’s the bodyguard,” Chuck whispered to Sarah as they followed Gonzàlez towards the buffet. “And the others are all criminals - well, but for the wives and girlfriends. And Jeanne’s a DGSE.”

    She didn’t show a reaction on her face, but he felt her grow tense. This might not be as easy as they had thought if the French were involved. At least they had Casey as backup, but if things went wrong, the NSA agent would take a few minutes to reach them.

    Chuck kept smiling and hoped no one noticed how tense he was. Or that, should anyone notice, they attributed it to meeting new people with obvious money.

    But if they didn’t… then things would get sticky, as the British would say. Chuck took a deep breath as he grabbed some snacks from the buffet and prepared for the worst.

    *****​

    “Nooo!”

    “You thought this would work?”

    “Hah! I knew it!”

    “Don’t! Don’t! Please don’t!”

    “He did!”

    Another play foiled. Well, that was football for you. Chuck did his best, but he had no horse in this game, or something like it, and it was a little hard to get worked up as much as the other guests about it.

    For a party attended by spies and career criminals, Gonzàlez’s Superbowl party was remarkably normal. People ribbed each other in response to some particularly bad or good plays, without their host throwing around his weight as the drug cartel boss too much. It would even be boring if not for the fact that they weren’t here to watch football, but to scout out the place and prepare for a mission but Lopez wasn’t leaving them out of her sight. Playing the attentive maid always ready to help was a great cover for a bodyguard always ready to murder you, Chuck had found out.

    Of course, part of the scouting Gonzàlez had done for them with a quick tour of the apartment, which was more of a penthouse - it was about three to four times the size of the Blacks’ apartment. But, annoyingly, the criminal had skipped his bedroom as well as Lopez’s and Besson’s rooms. Unlike the apartment’s bathrooms, which they had pretty much covered already, it would be hard to find an excuse to enter any of those rooms, at least Chuck couldn’t think of one. Even if seducing any of the three was on the table - and it wasn’t! - he doubted that it would work. Lopez wouldn’t be seduced, and wouldn’t be fooled, in his opinion.

    Yet odds were that they’d enter the apartment at a time when everyone was in bed, which meant having accurate intel about the bedrooms was crucial. And that, in turn, meant that they would have to sneak into the rooms without being noticed. Difficult, but not impossible.

    Dangerous, though. Between Lopez and Besson, Chuck and Sarah were always under observation. Perhaps Chuck could fake getting a call, leave the living room to take it and then get distracted and enter the wrong room? Would either of the two guards fall for it? And if they didn’t, what would they do? Throw him out? Or prepare a trap for later? Or shoot them out of hand? Cover it up with an accident?

    And what was Dubois doing? Was this a long-term undercover mission, or something that would affect their own mission? Was Gonzàlez her target or Fankhauser?

    If they had a distraction… Oh! Gonzàlez had gone all out on electronics. And Dad had completely hacked the man’s system. That might work.

    But he had to be sneaky. For what he was to do, they might kill him if they suspected him, even if they didn’t think he was a spy.

    Chuck leaned back on the very comfortable leather armchair - or mini-couch, depending on one’s view; it was large enough for two people if they weren’t built like linebackers and didn’t mind touching each other. Which Chuck and Sarah didn’t. He stretched, then let his arm slide down Sarah’s back. Just an innocent, or not so innocent gesture of affection.

    Until he, his arm still hidden from view by Sarah’s body, pulled out his phone. Sarah stiffened, but that only added to the deception - they might think he had copped a feel. Chuck leaned over and whispered: “Starting a distraction” into her ear. At the same time, he glanced down her back, on the screen of his phone, and started using Dad’s backdoor.

    With a laptop and a decent keyboard, he would have finished within a minute. With a phone, and his awkward position, it took over two minutes hanging over Sarah. Not too suspicious for a young couple, or so he hoped.

    And done. “Two minutes,” he whispered into Sarah’s ear, then pulled away.

    She glanced at him as if she expected him to start a fire. He had dismissed that early on - the stove wasn’t computer-controlled.

    He gave her a reassuring smile, then focused on the TV screen again. And waited.

    Exactly two minutes later, the game suddenly was replaced, in mid-play, even, by a music video featuring two German singers. With the volume turned up to eleven.

    “An der Nordseeküste!”

    “Am plattdeutschen Strand!”

    “Sind die Fischeeeee im Wasser!”

    “Und selten an Land!”

    Chuck winced. Perhaps he should have started a fire instead.

    *****​

    Sarah quickly clapped her hands over her ears as the two German singers blasted everyone with some incomprehensible song and jumped up. Gonzàlez was cursing and pushing every button on his remote, but the TV screen didn’t change. And everyone was trying to get out of the living room before their ears started bleeding.

    “An der Nordseeküste!”

    “Am plattdeutschen Strand!”

    “Sind die Fischeeeee im Wasser!”

    “Und selten an Land!”

    It was a good thing Casey wasn’t present. He would probably kill Chuck for this.

    But then she was in the hallway, and with everyone running around, it was easy to push open the door to Gonzàlez’s bedroom and use the camera hidden in her bracer to take pictures before she left, ‘looking for the door’.

    “Nach Flut kommt die Ebbe!”

    “Nach Ebbe die Flut!”

    Chuck had stumbled into Bessons’s room, with his phone out. That left Lopez’s room to her.

    “Die Deiche!”

    “Sie halten mal schlecht und mal gut!”

    Sarah tried to open Lopez’s door, but it was locked. Damn. Still, two out of three wasn’t bad.

    “Die Dänen!”

    “Sie wandern am Strand hin und her!”

    “Von Grönland nach Flan…”

    Then the song was finally cut off, and everyone took a deep breath.

    “What happened?”

    “Did you sit on the remote?”

    “What was that?”

    “I didn’t even know we had that channel.”

    “Forget about it, get the game back up!”

    “But check the sound first; my ears are still bleeding.”

    “What?”

    Come to think of, Sarah’s ears were also hurting. Chuck really had to work on his improvised distractions.

    *****​

    “It must have been the fault of the cable company,” Chavez said. “I can’t find anything wrong with the system here.”

    Chuck doubted that, as Casey would put it, the man could find his own butt with a map and a compass, and he was sure that Chavez had no idea about computers other than where to order the latest most expensive model every year. Still, he nodded in apparent agreement - Charles Black wasn’t an IT specialist, after all.

    “They’ll get a complaint, I’ll assure you. I’m not paying for premium service to suffer such an…” Gonzàlez trailed off, huffing.

    “...an assault on our years and taste?” Chuck offered before he could help himself.

    The drug lord blinked at him as if noticing him for the first time, then broke out in a wide smile. “Exactly, Charles!” Then the man clapped Chuck on the back. “But enough of that! Let’s enjoy the game!”

    Chuck agreed, rubbing his shoulder surreptitiously, and retook his seat with the others. As did Sarah. A few minutes later, she leaned in and whispered into his ear: “Lopez’s room was locked.”

    Chuck nodded and smiled as if he had just heard something naughty. Locking her own room? That sounded paranoid to him. Unless you were inside and really couldn’t afford to be disturbed.

    But what could they do now? The bad guys might’ve accepted a mistake on the part of their cable provider - such things happened, as anyone working at Nerd Herd would be able to testify - but another such event wouldn’t have the same effect, and might make them suspect something else. At least Lopez and Besson might. And Dubois remained a wild card.

    What did the French spy know? If she had been investigating Gonzàlez for some time, she might be able to unravel their planned frame job. That would be bad for Chuck’s dad. It would be bad for everyone else involved as well, of course.

    So, another channel switching was out. But Chuck couldn’t think of another distraction. None that wouldn’t do more harm than good by attracting attention to himself or the apartment.

    By the time the game finished, he still hadn’t found a solution, or a way into the locked room. And, a quick check concealed as a public display of affection revealed, neither had Sarah.

    *****​

    Back in their temporary apartment, things weren’t looking any better. “You got lucky,” Casey commented after Sarah had finished telling him what they had done. “If they were any better at computers, they would have noticed your hack.” He took a bite out of a big sandwich.

    “They would have to be better than Dad to notice what I’ve done,” Chuck protested. “And if they were, he wouldn’t have been able to hack their systems.” He didn’t like to rely on Dad like this, but it was a fact that his father was the better hacker. Chuck still had a lot to learn.

    Casey scoffed. “Let’s hope they weren’t just fooling you and are now checking their systems.”

    Chuck pressed his lips together and swallowed his reply - he didn’t want to sound like a kid boasting about his dad.

    “Their reactions looked genuine to me,” Sarah said.

    “Apart from Dubois,” Casey retorted. “She’s a threat.”

    “A potential threat,” Sarah corrected him.”

    “Uh…” Chuck knew what Casey meant. But they wouldn’t kill a nominal ally - sort of; the French and the US were both NATO members, weren’t they? - just to be on the safe side, would they? Stupid question; Casey totally would. But Sarah wouldn’t, and Dad wouldn’t allow this, either. Chuck hoped so, at least.

    “Relax. We’re not eliminating her before we know her mission, and who else is involved,” Casey said.

    That didn’t make Chuck relax at all. And not just because he didn’t know how they’d do it. “Can we do that without tipping our hand?” Dad wouldn’t have backdoors into the DGSE’s computers, would he?

    Casey grumbled something and glared at him, so the answer was probably ‘No’.

    “So... what do we do?”

    The answer was, Chuck found out quickly, ‘analyse the pictures we took and prepare the mission’.

    "Alright. So we got the route planned out," Casey said, half an hour later, as he tapped the floorplans on the kitchen table.

    “We still don’t know what Lopez has in her room,” Chuck pointed out.

    “Unless she’s hiding a tank in there, we can deal with it,” the NSA Agent replied.

    Chuck was wondering what the point of sneaking into their rooms had been, then. He didn’t wonder that out loud, though.

    “If all goes according to plan, she won’t even notice our presence until it’s too late,” Sarah said.

    “Unless she’s in his bedroom, screwing him,” Casey said with a sneer. “Men like Gonzàlez always have a woman around to show how macho they are, and he didn’t have one today.”

    That was a good, if crudely put, point. “He could be having an affair with Besson,” Chuck replied.

    “I doubt that he’d invite Fankhauser over,” Casey retorted. “If he were that stupid, he’d have been killed by a jealous husband long ago. I know his kind of people.”

    Probably a little too well, Chuck thought. “So… now we wait for more information about Dubois?”

    “Yes,” Sarah said. “We’ll get you more files to analyse.”

    To see if he’d flash, in other words. Chuck nodded. At least he was better at that than Dad. Even without the Intersect kicking in.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 4th, 2008

    Dubois must have been very active, a real go-getter, if the CIA had this much intel on her past missions, Chuck thought as he started going through the files he had on his private laptop courtesy of Sarah and Dad. On the other hand, how good could she be as a spy if so much about her work was known?

    Apparently, quite good, he thought with a wince after he had read the first file in the queue. He would have thought taking out a rebel leader by herself inside the man’s compound and escaping from the middle of a jungle would have been a suicide mission, but Dubois apparently had pulled it off with flying colours.

    He took a sip from his coffee - the new apartment also had a better coffee maker than they had at home, another item for the list - and opened the next file. It covered the assassination of a businessman financing terrorists. In the man’s private island.

    There seemed to be a theme here...

    After the fourth file, Chuck was sure of it. “She’s an assassin. Four missions so far, four assassinations.”

    She nodded, but said: “Check all of them, though.”

    “Of course.” He still hadn’t flashed, after all.

    But as soon as he opened the next file, he did.

    *****​
     
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 30: The French Connection Part 2
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 30: The French Connection Part 2

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 4th, 2008

    Chuck saw a body - another government assassination. No, a murder! That was Dubois’s superior. File after file went past his field of vision. An internal investigation. Suspicion of corruption. Of Dubois. Another body - the investigator of the case. Both killed with a bullet to the head. Dubois’s style. Who was listed as “missing in action” in the French files. As was...

    He shook his head, blinking. “Dubois’s gone rogue,” he blurted out. “And she’s working with Besson.”

    Sarah calmly nodded, but Chuck noticed how her lips had thinned - she wasn’t happy.

    “So the question is: Who are they working for?” Chuck went on. “The Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure was suspecting drug cartel interference with some of their Caribbean operations, but that doesn’t tell us much, does it?”

    “She could be working for Gonzàlez, investigating a business partner - or prospective business partner - of his. If Fankhauser is laundering Gonzàlez’s money, then that would be a good reason to keep an assassin near the banker,” she said.

    “Unless she was framed and trying to bring him down,” Chuck said.

    Sarah didn’t look convinced. “If she’s working with Besson, then they could have killed Gonzalez easily.”

    “Unless they want proof to bring him down.”

    Well, she didn’t laugh out loud, but she looked even more sceptical. “She’s an assassin. Why would she bother with that?”

    “To clear her name?” Chuck shrugged a little.

    “You’ve seen the files. Do you think she’s innocent and was framed?” Sarah asked.

    “Well…” If she had been, then someone had made a lot of effort to frame her. The files did look very convincing.

    “It probably would’ve been easier to kill her, instead of framing her and letting her live to get revenge if that were the case,” she commented. “And people like Gonzàlez aren’t in the habit of letting enemies live - or witnesses.”

    Chuck winced a little at the reminder that their jovial neighbour was a cold-blooded killer and drug lord. “So, it’s more likely that she’s working for Gonzàlez?”

    “Yes. And that is a problem,” Sarah told him. “If he’s taken her into confidence, then she’ll be aware that he wasn’t interested in you. And that will point directly at you.”

    That would be a very bad thing. “But would she know about our cover story?” he asked. “The CIA would squash the story, wouldn’t it?” The agency wouldn’t want anyone to take a closer look at their Intersect, including the police.

    “It should,” Sarah admitted. “But the CIA isn’t perfect. And we will have to leave enough evidence to fool the agency - which means that if Dubois investigates herself, she might get ahold of some clues. At least, if she’s quick enough.”

    “Ah.” He winced again as he understood what she was talking about. “That kind of problem.” The sort of problem Casey liked to solve with violence. He took a deep breath. “But if she’s a framed spy herself…”

    “We don’t know that. As I said, it’s unlikely if she’s working with Besson,” Sarah replied.

    “But what if she is, and being a double-agent for herself? Using Besson to get close to Gonzàlez?” Chuck pointed out. They couldn’t kill someone who might be innocent just to be safe, could they? Well, relatively innocent - Dubois had killed a number of people for the DGSE, after all.

    Sarah hesitated a moment, and Chuck held his breath. Was she about to suggest...

    “I think we need to discuss it with your father,” she said.

    “Oh.” He blinked. “Uh, sure.”

    *****​

    The smart thing - the spy thing - would be to simply get rid of Dubois. And Besson, of course. Either would make a good scapegoat - whether they were spies, double-agents or criminals, a shootout that left Gonzàlez dead and them missing would fit almost every possibility. Undercover missions, especially long-term ones, did carry the risk of a spy turning coat. Sarah was glad she had never undertaken such a mission. Which was probably because of her background - she knew some people, likely including the general, were suspicious of her loyalty due to her past.

    That, ironically, hadn’t influenced her plans to quit the agency and join the Council at all, though no one would believe that.

    She shook her head as she set a pot of water on the stove. They’d have pasta for dinner, with a nice cheese sauce. Parmigiano e mascarpone.

    She sighed. Yes, the spy thing would be to kill Dubois. But it wouldn’t be the Chuck thing. Or the Council thing. They would have to investigate the French woman and find out what she was doing in Los Angeles, and for whom.

    At least the mess would force Orion to show his true colours - how far was he willing to go to return to his family?

    Sarah was curious to find out. And dreaded the effect on Chuck if the answer to her question would be ‘too far’.

    But they, especially Chuck, had to know.

    *****​

    Dad arrived shortly before midnight. He must be staying in the city, then, Chuck concluded. Or at least in the suburbs. Traffic wouldn’t have been bad at this time, so that widened the potential distance he could have covered, but if he delayed his arrival deliberately… Chuck blinked. Was he actually expecting his Dad to take such steps to fool them? Well, Dad hadn’t told them where he was staying so they couldn’t be forced to reveal his location, and he was hunted by the CIA and NSA, but still… Chuck shook his head as the doorbell rang.

    “Having second thoughts about asking Daddy?” Casey, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, asked.

    Chuck rolled his eyes. The NSA agent had made his opinion of how this problem should be dealt with clear. Very clear. “Just a thought,” he said as he went to open the door.

    Casey grunted something Chuck didn’t manage to understand. Not that he cared. Not really.

    He checked the cameras covering the door - both the one that had come with the apartment and the one they had installed afterwards. That was Dad, and he was alone.

    “Chuck. We need to stop meeting like this.” Dad flashed him a wry smile.

    “Like this?” Chuck cocked his head.

    “In the middle of the night. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do.”

    “Uh, yes,” Chuck managed to say. “We’re in the living room,” he added - pointlessly since it was obvious.

    “Good evening, everyone.”

    “Hello.”

    “Evening.”

    Chuck followed his Dad in and took his seat on the couch, next to Sarah.

    “So… I ran a few searches on the way here,” Dad began as soon as he had taken a seat as well. “Unfortunately, they were inconclusive. My available sources didn’t know anything about Dubois or Besson that Chuck didn’t cover already. That leaves us with a problem.”

    “And an easy solution,” Casey spat from his spot at the wall.

    Dad winced at that. “I would rather not have an innocent life on my conscience.”

    “She’s a spy - she’s hardly innocent,” Casey retorted. “She’s murdered people before.”

    “Everyone here did, I think,” Chuck pointed out. “She is, or was, a government spy.”

    “A French spy,” Casey said with a sneer. “Running an operation on American soil. If she’s still working for the DGSE, she would’ve known the risk.” He nodded at Sarah. “Walker’s killed a few of their spies before.”

    Chuck winced even as Sarah cooly replied: “That was part of my mission.”

    “And this is our mission. Sucks to be a Frenchie.”

    Chuck wondered - not out loud, of course - if Casey had issues with the French. “But that doesn’t mean we have to kill them.”

    “Exactly,” Dad agreed - although, perhaps, a little late. “But it does mean we need to find out what they are doing in Los Angeles.”

    “Even if they’re here because they’re also after Gonzàlez, they are a threat to our mission. We don’t know what they know, and so we can’t anticipate their reaction to our plan.” Casey scoffed. “And if we make them tell us, they’ll know too much. Better just neutralise them.”

    “That would have to happen at the same time as our mission, though,” Sarah pointed out, “or either Dubois or Gonzàlez will be alerted.”

    “A small challenge with the right preparations,” Casey replied.

    “Uh, guys,” Chuck spoke up. “Can we take, like, a step back and go over whether or not we have to kill them again before we start sorting out the logistics? Because I don’t think we agreed on killing them.” He didn’t wince at Casey’s glare and didn’t look at Sarah as he spoke.

    “Well, even if we manage to hack into the French servers,” Dad said, “there might not be any information if this is a black op.”

    “If this is a black op, then we’ve got grounds to kill them for running a hostile operation on our soil,” Casey replied.

    “Whoa, whoa!” Chuck shook his head. “We’ve been pulling stuff like that.”

    “And if we get caught, we can expect a bullet to the back,” Casey said, baring his teeth. “Afraid, Bartowski?”

    “No,” Chuck replied out of reflex. It wasn’t a lie - he hadn’t considered this before, so he hadn’t known to be afraid. And once they were working for the Council, it would be different anyway. “Just mentioning that, well…” He shrugged. “It doesn’t feel right killing what might be people planning to do the same we do.”

    “So we need to find out what they are planning,” Dad said. “Preferably without asking our prospective employers for help, I think.”

    “Won’t impress them if we can’t handle a simple problem,” Casey said.

    “It won’t impress the Council if we kill innocents, either,” Chuck retorted.

    “They’re not innocents,” the NSA agent repeated.

    “It seems we’re stuck, then,” Dad commented.

    Chuck wet his lips. They couldn’t just kill the French. But they couldn’t just call Willow for help, either. That would… well, they were supposed to solve spy problems for the Council, weren’t they? Not create more spy problems. He blinked, “Guys! I have an idea!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, February 5th, 2008

    Chuck adjusted the baseball cap proclaiming him to be an employee of Comcast so it would hide his face from the security camera and approached the desk. The fake moustache itched almost as badly as the slightly too much starched overall he was wearing, but both served to disguise him further, so he had to bear it. I had been his idea, anyway, and he was the one with the skills to pull this off. Well, apart from Dad, who was a little too old to play a cable guy.

    Although, in hindsight, Chuck had to admit, his idea wasn’t anything special. But, at least, ‘let’s put Dubois under surveillance and find out what she’s planning’ had been acceptable enough as a solution for everyone. The least common denominator. Or, perhaps more accurate, the least evil from everyone’s point of view.

    “Hello,” he greeted the clerk at the desk, banishing the idle thoughts. He was on a mission now. “I was told you had trouble with your Internet connection?”

    “Oh, yes!” The woman nodded, seemingly relieved. “An entire floor has technical troubles.”

    She must have been swamped with complaints - the kind of people leasing high-end condos such as these weren’t the kind of people to take any outages lightly or to understand that it wasn’t the fault of the person manning the desk in the lobby. Chuck felt a little guilty; Dad had hacked Comcast to arrange this.

    “Ah, yes. Looks like a local problem. Probably a faulty wire. You don’t have a rat or mouse problem, do you? The little critters love to chew on wires.” Chuck did his best to sound almost-bored.

    “What? No!” She shook her head rather emphatically.

    “Well, we’ll see.” He shrugged. “Can you show me to the routers?”

    “Yes. Please follow me. They’re in the basement.”

    “Where else would they be?” He chuckled at his not-joke as he followed the woman to the staircase. A little later, he was wondering why the building wasn’t suffering service outages far more often - the electronics were in an appalling state!

    He gladly told the woman so, and she quickly claimed that she had to return to the desk, leaving him alone. And without a camera covering him, as he confirmed. Perfect.

    He ignored the ‘faulty box’ handling the affected floor - it was working perfectly fine after all; Dad had cut the service at the main hub and could easily restore it once Chuck gave the word. Instead, Chuck focused on the box handling the intercom.

    Dubois was an experienced spy, but he doubted that she was regularly checking the building’s electronic hubs to avoid her intercom’s microphone being turned into a surveillance device. Without even being near her apartment, too. It seemed that sometimes, the penny-pinching of various firms by using substandard and not perfectly safe components and systems came in very handy for a spy,

    Between Dad’s hacking of the lines at Comcast and this little trick, they should soon know what Dubois was planning.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 6th, 2008

    Another mission during a mission. And barely two days after the game night incident, which should count as a separate mission by itself, in Sarah’s opinion. Chuck had managed to settle the dispute about how to deal with Dubois - and mostly in his favour - but it certainly made for more work.

    At least her own part was rather simple - she’d done that kind of job before. And as usual, the waiting was the hard part. And the most dangerous - she couldn’t just wait in the car. That would look suspicious to even the most cursory investigation. Which meant she needed an early warning system, as Chuck would have called it, so she could get the timing right.

    Of course, Orion had been happy to help, handling the electronic surveillance of Fankhauser’s office. So she could sit in the latest Starbucks and fake texting as a cover for checking the alert from Orion while she waited. And trying to ignore the inserts inside her mouth that made her face look rounder while she drank her overpriced latte macchiato. Just another tourist, slightly pudgy, going for the familiar brand rather than trying something local.

    Just how much overtime was Fankhauser planning to pull today? How much more than usual, to be exact - thanks to Orion, they knew his working hours for the last six months.

    Finally, the expected alert appeared on her phone. Fankhauser had logged out and was on the move. She put a smile on her face, quickly finished her coffee, and left the café.

    Sarah reached the rented car before Fankhauser appeared in the parking lot. Just as planned. By the time he was walking towards his sports car, she was already moving in her SUV. Now to sell the act… She pulled her phone out as she took the corner and came up behind the walking banker and lined up her car.

    Then she ‘slipped’ and pushed the gas. Fankhauser had time to turn so she saw his shocked face the moment before she hit him, sending him to the ground with at least a broken leg.

    She stopped, stared at him with a fake gasp, phone still pressed against her ear, then drove away.

    Just a tourist using a phone while driving, hitting a pedestrian and panicking. She doubted that the LAPD would even bother trying to track her fake ID in Brazil. Dubois would, probably - but they were prepared for that.

    As Casey and Orion were prepared to track Fankhauser to the hospital.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 6th, 2008

    “Any change?”

    Chuck looked up from his laptop and bit back the ‘I’d have told you already’ remark. Casey wasn’t the most easy-going guy on a good day, and during a mission, he was worse. “No. Dubois hasn’t contacted anyone yet.” As far as Chuck could tell. “But she was informed about Fankhauser’s accident.”

    “No checks, either?” Sarah had finished her shower and returned to the living room as well.

    “None,” Chuck replied.

    “She’s probably waiting until she knows how bad his wounds are.” Sarah disappeared into the bedroom.

    “Should’ve just killed the crook,” Casey grumbled. “That’d either push her to action or make her pull out, depending on what her goal was.”

    Chuck had to refrain from commenting once more. Casey was as bloodthirsty as a Slayer, sometimes. Often, actually - no wonder Caridad was still carrying a torch for him. Or something. “Uh, so… its phase two,” he said instead. Which was a nice, clean way for saying ‘let’s put the guy into a coma’.

    “Should’ve just kidnapped him. He should know a lot about various groups thanks to his money laundering business,” Casey said.

    He really seemed to have some issues with Chuck’s ‘don’t just kill or vanish people to be safe’ plan. “Him slipping into a coma that appears to be long term should be enough to get a reaction out of Dubois,” Chuck defended his plan. Even though that part hadn’t been his idea, actually, nor the whole ‘hurt Fankhauser to force a reaction’ - but everyone else had agreed that they couldn’t just wait for Dubois to slip up.

    “Let’s hope so,” Casey told him with a sneer. “And let’s hope there’s a mistake, and the coma really becomes irreversible.”

    “Uh… I can’t help noticing a certain amount of hostility here,” Chuck said.

    “No shit, Sherlock.” The man sneered at him. “Without scum like him laundering money, criminals, terrorists and corrupt officials would have a much harder time with finances.”

    “Ah.” That made sense. Some. Casey still appeared rather bloodthirsty, to Chuck at least.

    “So, let’s go. Fankhauser won’t be putting himself into a coma.” The agent stood up.

    “Well, he made a good effort at the Superbowl party,” Chuck pointed out, “he must have drunk an entire bottle of Gonzàlez’s finest himself.”

    “Not everyone’s a lightweight, Bartowski. Some people can hold their liquor.”

    Chuck’s comeback - which he would have thought of any second - was interrupted by Sarah returning to the living room. “Let’s go. We need to have this done before Fankhauser wakes up after surgery.”

    “Alright. I’ll be here, checking Dubois’s communications,” Chuck told the two spies as they left.

    “You do that, Bartowski.”

    *****​

    “I’m headed to the nurse station.”

    That was Sarah disguised as a nurse. A real nurse, not a sexy Halloween costume. She still looked sexy, of course.

    “I’ve got eyes on Dubois. She’s still in the waiting room.”

    And Casey. So, Fankhauser was still recovering from his surgery, and a mere girlfriend wasn’t allowed to visit yet. Things were proceeding according to plan, then, judging by what Chuck heard over the radio.

    Chuck checked the feeds from the cameras covering Gonzàlez’s apartment - no change there - and Dubois’s communication before he leaned back and sighed. He didn’t like to be mission control, overwatch or whatever you called the guys who stayed safely at home while other spies risked their lives. Especially if it was his plan, so his responsibility. Or something.

    But someone had to do it, apparently. And Chuck had drawn the short straw. Or been picked by Casey and Sarah.

    He closed his eyes and sighed again - after checking that the microphone was off. Wouldn’t do to repeat that mistake; it had been embarrassing enough when he had done it in that HALO match...

    A beep interrupted his thoughts. A Skype call? On this computer? Who would… Oh. No identity. Of course. He accepted the call, without using the camera, of course. “Hi.”

    “Hi.” It was his Dad, as expected. At least Chuck’s father hadn’t just turned the camera on made him accept the call - Chuck really needed to step up his IT game. So to speak. “Are you busy?”

    Dad knew what they were doing, so why would he ask? Ah. “Just staring at a screen,” Chuck said. And being bored, he didn’t say.

    “Mind a visit?”

    Chuck sat straighter. Something had to come up, then. Dad hadn’t used any code words to indicate he was under duress, but that didn’t have to mean everything was fine. “Sure, if you’re in the area.”

    “Alright.”

    The call ended, and a minute later, the doorbell rang.

    Chuck went through the usual checks before opening the door, of course, but it was Dad.

    “What’s up, Dad?” he asked once they were back in the living room.

    “I thought I’d visit,” his father answered. “I know it’s not easy watching a computer while others risk their lives on your orders.”

    “Oh?” Chuck blinked.

    His father chuckled in response. “I’ve needed help on occasion, to keep ahead of the CIA. Hired help, and I’ve never met them face to face, but I know the feeling.”

    “Ah.” Chuck nodded. That made sense. “And so you came to give me a pep talk?” That was both nice and kind of annoying.

    “I can give you one if you want one.” Dad took a deep breath. “But I came to talk about something else. Us.”

    Oh. “Us.” Chuck sat down again - he had to keep an eye on the computer, and the radio, didn’t he? They were on a mission. Anything could go wrong.

    “Yes, us,” Dad said, taking a seat on the couch. “You, me, Ellie. My future son-in-law, probably too.”

    “Captain Awesome.”

    Dad had a brief chuckle at that. “He seems to be an impressive young man.”

    Chuck didn’t frown. He wasn’t jealous. He might not be a surgeon, top athlete and perfect boyfriend, but he was a high-level CIA asset. Currently running a mission to fool the CIA, but that was a technicality. And he had helped save the world, or at least a city, on several occasions. Really.

    “You’re an impressive young man as well, Son,” Dad went on.

    “Thanks,” Chuck replied in a flat voice, checking the feeds on his laptop. Everything seemed to be going well, though - Sarah was on the way to Fankhauser’s room, and Dubois hadn’t moved from the lobby, yet.

    “I mean it, Chuck.”

    “I know.” But the way Dad said it… it grated. He kept his eyes on the screen. That was what a professional spy would do, right?

    “I’m sorry about leaving you and Ellie.”

    Chuck almost said ‘I know’ again. “You had your reasons.”

    “I might have found another way to protect you, instead of leaving you on a Hellmouth.”

    “You didn’t know about that.” Chuck held up a hand before Dad could reply, grabbing the headphones with the other.

    “I’m on the stairs,” Sarah reported.

    “Dubois is still not moving,” Casey added.

    Chuck hit a few keys, switching the cameras covering Fankhauser’s room and the hallway leading to it to pre-recorded loops so Sarah wouldn’t appear on them. Just in case there would be an investigation. A click had the real feed appear in separate windows on his screen. He really needed a bigger laptop for such missions.

    There was Sarah, walking at a brisk but not overly hurried pace towards the target’s room. Dubois was still staying put.

    “She knows what she is doing,” Dad said,

    Chuck ignored him. Sarah was a veteran spy, but something could still go wrong. He wet his lips as she entered the room, closed the door and approached the still unconscious banker in the bed. He checked the other cameras when she pulled the syringe out - just in case trouble was brewing.

    “Done,” Sarah reported.

    As soon as she had left the room, Chuck switched the loop off. Same for the hallway once she was on the stairs. A few minutes later, she was at the backdoor, her nurse clothes hidden under a long coat - just when Fankhauser’s medical monitors were going off.

    “I’ve left the building,” she reported.

    Chuck sighed. Mission accomplished.

    “She’s good,” Dad said.

    Chuck looked at him. “You don’t have to praise us to talk to me.”

    Dad chuckled again, but it sounded a little forced. Well, Chuck had let some of his anger at having been left seep into his tone. “I’ve got over a decade to make up for.”

    “Don’t try too hard,” Chuck replied, turning to face him after Casey had withdrawn. “I’m not a teenager any more. And neither is Ellie.”

    Dad sighed again. “Ellie…”

    So that was what this was about. “She won’t be happy with you.”

    His father winced. “I know that. She was always a rather headstrong girl.”

    “Yes. And having to raise me didn’t help,” Chuck pointed out. He felt satisfaction at seeing his father wincing again, followed by shame. He should be better than that. “She didn’t like that I kept my CIA career a secret from her.”

    “But did she understand?”

    Chuck sighed. “She accepted it. But she doesn’t like our plans to work for the Council. She wants to keep me safe.”

    “I can understand that.” Dad smiled, though more wistfully.

    “Well, I’m not a kid any more,” Chuck retorted before realising that that made him sound like a teenager. “I like to keep her safe, and that means stepping up when a demon wants to destroy the world or the city.”

    Dad nodded. “She’s like her mother.”

    Now it was Chuck’s turn to wince. “Mom…” He sighed. “She didn’t go underground like you.”

    “No, she didn’t. I would have known.”

    Chuck sighed again.

    “Do you think Ellie will forgive me?”

    “Yes. Eventually.”

    “Before or after the wedding?”

    “Probably before the wedding. You’ll be expected to do your part,” Chuck told him. Like with her Christmas party, Ellie liked for things to go according to plan.

    “I haven’t even met her fiancé yet.”

    “You will,” Chuck told him. Although whether that would be after or while Ellie spent a few hours telling Dad off, Chuck couldn’t say.

    “Can you… sound her out?”

    “You mean putting in a good word for you?” Chuck asked, raising his eyebrows.

    “Yes.”

    His Dad had no shame. Chuck sighed. “I’ll do my best.”

    He could hardly do less for his family. Even if this was, mostly, Dad’s own fault.

    Mostly.

    *****​

    Sarah was smiling when she approached their temporary home. Her nurse uniform wasn’t a ‘sexy costume’ but it certainly did look well enough for some sexy roleplay, or at least heavy flirting. Chuck’s imagination would do the rest, and he would likely be charmingly flustered… With Casey on the way back to Echo Park, they would have ample time, too.

    Then she opened the door, and her fantasy died.

    “Hello, Sarah.”

    “Uh, hi!”

    She was getting really tired of unexpectedly meeting Chuck’s father. “Hello,” she greeted them with a nod, then narrowed her eyes at Chuck when she walked past him to the bedroom. He cringed, and with good reason. He should have warned her.

    Once in the bedroom, she quickly changed out of her nurse uniform and slipped into a shirt and jeans, then rejoined the Bartowskis in the living room. “Any reaction by Dubois?” she asked, not expecting a positive answer - it was too soon.

    “Nothing yet,” Chuck told her. “But she’s still at the hospital.”

    “Playing her role,” Sarah said, nodding. “And Besson will be informed through Gonzàlez.” The drug lord was a friend of Fankhauser, after all.

    “And we’ll observe his reaction - if there’s any,” Orion agreed.

    But they’d have to tail the man for that if he used a dead drop or otherwise avoided electronic communication. And with Casey running interference at home, that left Sarah - neither Orion nor Chuck were experienced enough to tail a trained spy. Not without getting spotted.

    She looked over Chuck’s shoulder at the laptop’s screen. No change so far - Dubois had left the lounge and was now in some sort of waiting area.

    “The computers won’t report the substance you injected him with,” Orion told her, unnecessarily - she was well aware of that. Otherwise, the whole mission wouldn’t have made any sense.

    She leaned forward a little, pointing at the screen while putting her free hand on Chuck’s shoulder, and could feel him take a surprised, deeper breath. “Can you switch to Fankhauser’s room?”

    “Uh, sure.”

    “Thank you.” The doctors inside the room didn’t look too concerned. They were merely watching the readouts and files, or so it seemed. Waiting for the blood analysis, Sarah thought. Dubois wouldn’t do anything until she knew the diagnosis. “I’ll take a nap so I can relieve you later,” she told Chuck, nodded at Orion, and went back to the bedroom.

    *****​

    Chuck watched Sarah disappear in the bedroom and winced again. She wasn’t happy about Dad’s presence. Well, that wasn’t his fault - he couldn’t very well kick his father out, could he? Especially not on a mission run by him.

    But he probably should’ve notified her in advance. Sighing, he looked back at the screen. No change so far with either Dubois or Besson.

    “It’ll take a while for the doctors to diagnose what we did,” Dad told him.

    “I know.” That didn’t make it any easier to wait, though. It was getting late, too.

    “Also, I’m sorry for, ah, interrupting your private time once more,” Dad added.

    Oh. “We’re on a mission,” Chuck told him. And hoped that he wasn’t blushing too much.

    “Of course.”

    Nope, he hadn’t managed it. Chuck pressed his lips together. He was very glad that Dad was back - and working on staying with them for good - but Chuck could do without feeling like a flustered teenager. Time to change the subject. “So, what exploit did you use to hack the hospital’s analysis machines?” Those were generally very well protected to prevent the exact thing they had just done.

    “Oh, I have a backdoor into the firm that produces and maintains them,” Dad replied. “I installed it years ago. It’s very helpful to arrange some MRI time, too.”

    That made sense. “And how did you get that?”

    “I used a CIA virus to hack their remote-update system. It was quite simple, actually, once you did...”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 7th, 2008

    “...and that’s how I bypassed the phone’s password,” Chuck finished.

    “I see.” Dad sounded impressed. “I wouldn’t have thought of that.”

    “Well, you don’t deal every day with people locking themselves out of their phones or breaking them,” Chuck replied. He was very familiar with the hardware in any phone, as a result. Hm. Could he bill his Nerd Herd time as training to the CIA? That would…

    An alert on his laptop interrupted his thoughts. Besson was awake and looking at his phone. Not his regular phone, either. And he was texting back.

    “Burner phone,” Dad told him. “I’m checking the cell tower.”

    A few minutes later, they had the messages. Two burner phones, ‘63’ and ‘304’.

    “It’s a code,” Dad said. “Hard to crack. Probably…”

    But Chuck was flashing. Besson. In uniform. The French Foreign Legion. A ceremony. A wooden hand. And a date.

    He gasped. “63 and 304. April 30th, 1863. The Battle of Camerone. The most famous battle of the French Foreign Legion.” Against the Mexicans, too. He looked at Dad. “She told him to continue with the mission no matter what.”

    *****​

    “...and she still hasn’t called Gonzàlez, which she would’ve done if she were working for him to keep an eye on Fankhauser. So we know Dubois is calling the shots, but we still don’t know if they’re working for the French government, sanctioned or not, or if this is a private, uh, mission,” Chuck finished explaining what they had found out to Sarah. “Or what their mission actually is.”

    “If this were DGSE mission, I doubt that they would use such obvious codes, she replied. “Dubois would know better - but if Besson isn’t a trained spy, but a mercenary, it might’ve been the best that she could trust him to remember.”

    That wasn’t a very favourable view of the former legionnaire, in Chuck’s opinion. He had never had trouble remembering codes or code names - without any help from the Intersect.

    “There’s also the fact that Dubois’s an assassin,” Dad pointed out. “And this doesn’t look like an assassination mission.” Left unsaid was that Gonzàlez was the obvious target, and Dubois and Besson would’ve had ample opportunities to get him. “While I don’t doubt that she can do other missions, I don’t think she was the only spy available to the French. And if she was framed, they could have cleared her without sending her on this mission.”

    Sarah nodded. “It looks like she’s on her own. And it’s not just some revenge for getting framed.”

    “She could still be trying to find proof of her innocence, couldn’t she?” Chuck asked. “Relative innocence, I mean.” The woman was an assassin, after all.

    Both Sarah and Dad looked at him as if he had said something stupid.

    “If she went through Fankhauser, she probably wants the money,” Dad said.

    Sarah nodded in apparent agreement.

    “So we’re going to kill them on a suspicion?” Chuck asked.

    After a way too long moment, Dad said: “We’ll investigate further.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 7th, 2008

    Chuck suppressed a yawn as he clicked his way through more financial records. He had stayed up far too late last night. If Big Mike decided to check if Chuck actually was sick, he would be convinced without trouble. Of course, Big Mike didn’t do home visits, and if he did, he’d visit Chuck’s currently empty apartment in Echo Park. Which would be all kinds of bad.

    He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. With Sarah at the Wienerlicious - they couldn’t let Bane grow suspicious - and Casey at the Buy More for the same reason, holding down the fort fell to Chuck and Dad, and Dad was currently sleeping. On the couch, of course - Chuck didn’t want to make Sarah madder than she already was by having Dad sleep in their bed. She’d been annoyed enough at Dad’s presence in the first place.

    But that couldn’t be helped. They needed more information, and Dad was - Chuck had to admit - the best hacker they knew. And needed - they couldn’t just kill two spies without knowing whether or not they were enemies. Well, they could, but they shouldn’t.

    Chuck had been telling himself that a lot lately. But it was true, no matter how tiring - exhausting - it turned out to be to do the right thing. Or boring - sifting through financial records was mind-numbing. How could accountants stand this? If he had to read through another column of micro-transactions - did Fankhauser ever pay anything in cash? - he’d…

    Oh. That was Dubois’s car that had just entered the garage. She was visiting Gonzàlez? Chuck blinked. That was… “Dad! Get up!” he yelled.

    “Huh? What?”

    “Dad! Dubois’s here. In the building, I mean - not in the apartment. She must be visiting Gonzàlez!”

    That finally made his father get up from the couch and join him at the table, just in time to catch her on the cameras covering the garage as she left her car and walked towards the lift.

    “You’re right. She probably feels now is a good time to tell Gonzàlez about Fankhauser’s accident,” he said after a moment. “If she had called him right away, it would have looked suspicious, but now… perhaps she’ll attempt to play the near-widow for sympathy.”

    “Ah.” Chuck should’ve thought of that himself. After all, if Fankhauser was her link to Gonzàlez, she wouldn’t be able to easily visit the drug lord with the banker in a coma. Playing the distressed girlfriend in need of some support might get her an in, here. Although she’d have to work hard to keep that going - unless Gonzàlez counted her as family of a friend. Didn’t drug lords have some social obligations for their minions’ families? Like the mob? That was how the cartels kept the loyalty of their members.

    He nodded. That made sense - Dubois was continuing the mission, as she had announced to Besson.

    “That’s not Gonzàlez’s floor,” Dad interrupted his thoughts. “That’s our floor.”

    Chuck gasped. Dad was correct - the French assassin stepping out of the lift wasn’t headed towards Gonzàlez.

    She was headed towards their apartment.

    *****​
     
    James Wilt, Osserumb, RedX and 2 others like this.
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 31: The French Connection Part 3
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 31: The French Connection Part 3

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 7th, 2008

    Chuck glanced at his father. “Hide in the bedroom!”

    “Under the bed or in the armoire?” Dad replied.

    Was he joking? At this moment? “Wherever you want!” Chuck hissed. “Just hide!” If Dubois saw his dad, their whole mission would be ruined!

    “Chuck, just don’t answer the door - she’ll assume you’re at work.”

    He blinked. “Uh.” Dad was right - he didn’t have to answer the door. No one knew he was in the apartment - he was supposed to be at work, after all. “Right.”

    He still wet his lips with his tongue while the assassin reached the door, and the sound of the doorbell almost made him jerk. He shook his head at his own folly - an experienced spy wouldn’t have panicked like this.

    On the screen, he saw Dubois staring at the door, then ringing the bell again. Chuck held his breath. She had no way to know that he was in the apartment. Neither the TV nor the radio were running. And the curtains prevented anyone outside from looking in. He was safe. They were safe.

    In front of the door, Dubois nodded. She must have come to the desired conclusion. Perhaps she would return in the evening - Chuck would have to inform Sarah and Casey. They would have ample time to prepare.

    Or, Chuck corrected himself with a sinking feeling as he saw her pulling familiar tools out of her purse, perhaps she would decide to break into the apartment.

    Once more, he had the urge to hide - perhaps in the armoire. Dad and him would… No. If Dubois was willing to break into their apartment, she would also search it. “Dad, come with me!” he whispered as he hurried into the bedroom. He dropped on the floor and pulled out the suitcase stashed there. He quickly opened it, then removed the fake bottom, revealing the guns hidden there.

    He grabbed the SMG - a MAC-10 with suppressor - and a magazine, taking a few deep breaths. He wouldn’t have to rush this. The door would take Dubois at least…

    The sound of the door opening made him curse. So much for their security! He jumped up and rushed to the bedroom door, inserting the magazine on the way. Pressed against the wall - the side with the heavy shelf in the living room that would stop at least 9mm bullets - he waited and listened. Dubois was good, but he still heard her footsteps. Hallway. Living room. Now!

    He slid around the corner, leading with the gun. “Freeze!”

    But Dubois wasn’t where he had expected. He dropped down before he had completed his move, rolled - and froze when he felt a muzzle on the back of his head. “Don’t move, Mr Black. And drop your gun.”

    This wasn’t the time to be cute and ask if he shouldn’t move, or drop the gun. He dropped it and drew hissing breath through clenched teeth. “Does your boyfriend know that you’re a burglar, Jeanne?”

    “My ‘boyfriend’ is in a coma,” she replied. “Which is why I decided to visit you. I’m in need of an investment banker, you know. However, most investment bankers I know don’t own submachine guns for home defence.”

    Shit. He tried to play it off. “This is Los Angeles - pistols don’t cut it, you know.”

    “Really.” She sounded amused. “Now why don’t I believe…”

    “Drop your weapon!”

    Dad! He had gotten the drop on her! Perfect!

    Or not - Chuck felt the muzzle press even harder against his head. “I think not,” she said. Of course, Dubois wouldn’t drop her weapon. “Drop your weapon, or he dies.”

    “Uh…” Chuck bit his lower lip - what could he say in this situation? That wouldn’t get him shot? “Can we talk about this before anyone gets shot? Like me?”

    “There’s nothing to talk about. I know who you are.”

    Chuck gasped and almost turned around out of reflex - which probably would have gotten him shot. What? How had she seen through their cover? And if she knew, who else did?

    “You’re killers sent by Espinosa.”

    “Uh… no, we aren’t.” Chuck protested.

    “You’re not the DEA or the FBI. You would have tried to arrest me if that were the case.”

    “And you’re not Fankhauser’s trophy girlfriend,” Dad told her. “Who are you and what do you want?”

    “We’re not working for any cartel,” Chuck added.

    “Then who are you working for?” Dubois emphasised her question by pushing her gun’s barrel against Chuck’s head again.

    “We’re working for the CIA,” Chuck blurted out.

    “What?”

    “Gonzalez is meddling with an operation crucial for national security,” Chuck went on. “We were sent to stop him.”

    “The CIA has no permission to operate on US soil,” Dubois retorted.

    Chuck forced himself to snort. “Yeah, ‘officially’.” He had to sell this, or he’d be shot to death.

    “That means that I’m also meddling with a CIA operation.”

    Uh. Chuck grimaced - he hadn’t thought about that.

    “And who are you?” his father asked.

    “You don’t expect me to tell you my real name, do you?” She almost giggled, or so it sounded.

    “Worth a try,” Dad replied.

    “Can we go back to talking about not killing each other?” Chuck asked. He was lying on his stomach on the floor. Not the best position. But not the worst, either. Dubois was crouching to his right - in reach of both his right arm and, should he manage to twist his body enough, his legs. A capoeira technique would fit best - provided he could get Dubois distracted for just a moment. “No one needs to die,” he added.

    “Standard CIA operating procedure would disagree,” she retorted.

    “And how would you know that?” Dad asked.

    “Everyone knows that,” the assassin replied.

    But had there been a slight annoyance audible? At her slip? Chuck licked his lips. “So… who are you working for? You’re not American. Not Mexican either. That leaves Europe. British or French?”

    “Who said I’m working for someone?”

    Yes, she sounded defensive. But that could be an act - she would want them to think that she was working for someone who’d investigate her disappearance. “You don’t seem to be the kind of woman who’d do such a mission on her own.”

    She laughed at that. “You have no idea.”

    “French, then,” he told her.

    He felt the muzzle press even harder against his skull, if only for a moment. “Why do you think so?”

    “Your arrogance,” he replied. “That’s French.”

    She laughed again, but it sounded a little forced. He was getting to her - but that wouldn’t do anything to save him. He needed a distraction. Just for a moment. But on the floor, his hands in her sight, he couldn’t do anything - if only he were able to activate his phone with a verbal command! Wait… Perhaps… He took a deep breath. “In any case, we can’t stay forever like this. We’ll have to sleep one day. I don’t think you’d agree to take a break for a rest, and continue once the alarm clock goes off?”

    “Are you sure you’re a CIA operative? You sound more like a comedian. A bad comedian.”

    “It’s hard to be funny with a gun to your head,” he retorted. Had Dad understood his request? “Anyway, if you can’t tell us who’re you’re working for, what about telling us what your goals are? We might come to an arrangement.”

    “That would require a lot of trust. It’s hard to trust someone if they’re holding a gun to your head, isn’t it?”

    “Well, we told you who we are and what we’re planning.”

    “You told me a cover story. No CIA operative would actually reveal their illegal operation like this.”

    So, it seemed refuge in audacity was working. “Worth a try,” he said. “In any case…”

    “...and in other news…”

    In the corner of his eye, Chuck caught Dubois reacting to the TV apparently turning itself on. That was the opportunity he needed.

    He flipped on his side, throwing his head back and making Dubois miss with her first shot. Before she could correct her aim, he folded himself like a jackknife, using the momentum to hit her with both his feet.

    The impact spoiled her next shot and sent her tumbling head over heels away from Chuck, towards the couch. He used the momentum to push himself into the other direction, behind the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room.

    He wished they had hidden a gun there - his submachine gun was still on the floor. He’d have to do without. He crawled forward, then reached up and pulled the cutlery drawer out. The steak knives - brand new, and sharp as hell - were on the left side.

    He quickly reached up, grabbed one, and pulled his hand back down - just in time for another bullet to miss it, striking the fridge behind him instead. Damn, Dubois was fast!

    And Dad wasn’t as fast with a gun as Chuck had hoped.

    But with Dad in the door to the bedroom and Dubois behind the couch, Chuck could flank her if he made it to the hallway, where he could take cover behind the corner. Yes, that would work - with a little distraction.

    He moved forward a little, still crouched, and pulled the barstool towards him. It wasn’t ideal, but it would do. He threw it so it rolled out of cover behind them, then dashed forward, towards the hallway.

    Dubois was even faster than he had expected - he saw her whirl, her gun swinging back to point at him, and dived forward into a combat roll. Two shots missed him - one he felt tugging at his shirt - but then he was in the hallway, behind cover.

    Even more important, Dad could see him, and they had Dubois cornered now! She couldn’t cover both of them. Granted, Chuck had only a knife, but Dubois might not know that. And he could throw it, anyway.

    He’d prefer to get his submachine gun back, though. But it was out of reach. If he had grabbed it when he’d struck at Dubois… well, he’d have been shot in that case.

    He looked at Dad, raising his knife. Dad raised his eyebrows in response. Well, so much for coordination. Chuck pulled his phone out and texted him. I START DISTRACTION. THEN U COVER FIRE.

    But before he could put his plan into action, he heard shots - and saw the bullets strike the wall near Dad. Covering fire. He slid around the corner, knife ready to throw, but Dubois was already at the door to the balcony, and he had to jump back behind the corner before she shot him.

    Dad left cover to shoot at her but wasn’t fast enough - as Chuck saw when he slid around the corner again, the French spy had already gone through the door and was now on the balcony, behind the wall.

    “Which side?” Chuck asked as she dashed across the room to grab his submachine gun.

    “Left,” Dad told him, covering the balcony’s door. “We’re on the seventh floor.”

    That wouldn’t stop a good spy, though. And Dubois was an excellent spy. But would she expect them to think she was climbing down, and wait in ambush instead? “Wait!” he whispered when Dad was moving forward. “I’m checking the…” He cursed again when he noticed that someone had shot his laptop during the fight.

    “Wait!” he repeated himself and pulled his phone out. He could connect to the cameras covering the balcony with it. “Come on, come on!” he mumbled as his phone struggled to connect - Comcast was obviously a hostile organisation.

    Finally! He flipped through the feeds until he saw the balcony - empty. Chuck rushed out at once, followed by his father. “I’ll cover up, you cover down,” he whispered.

    Dad nodded, and Chuck took a deep breath. Then he leaned out, gun raised. But he saw no sign of Dubois. “Nothing.”

    “Nothing,” Dad replied.

    How had she… “She must have climbed onto a balcony and broken into the apartment.”

    Chuck flipped through the feeds on his phone. Would Dubois try to hide in the apartment? Call Besson to help her? Or would she book it?

    “Blood,” Dad said, interrupting his thoughts. Chuck saw him point at the ground. “I must have hit her. But probably just a grazing shot.”

    But that still meant that Dubois was wounded. Bleeding. Would she try to bandage herself before escaping? He couldn’t see her on the camera feeds covering the hallways.

    Where was she? And what was she planning? Even if the wound wasn’t severe enough to require immediate treatment, a bleeding woman would attract attention. That would make escaping harder. So, she would be treating her wound first. And change her clothes. More than enough time to call Besson for help - or as a distraction. “What did she tell Besson?” he asked without taking his eyes off the switching camera feeds.

    “She sent more codes,” Dad replied after a check on his - still working - laptop. “26540”

    26540? What could that mean? If it as another date… 26th May? 1840? Or 1940? Chuck quickly ran the date through a search.

    Dunkirk. The evacuation started on that date.

    “They’re pulling out,” he said. “Or she’s pulling out - is Besson staying put?” He checked. The bodyguard hadn’t left Gonzàlez’s apartment. And there was still no sign of Dubois. How did she plan to evacuate? Wait… Evacuate. She wouldn’t… He remembered her missions. Of course she would. “She’s going to force an evacuation of the whole building so she can get away in the confusion.”

    “Are you sure?”

    No, he wasn’t. It wasn’t the Intersect coming to this conclusion. But he nodded. “Yes. And she’s probably counting on Besson to use the confusion to get what they want, too.”

    And the only thing that would force the evacuation of the entire building would be a fire. A huge fire. Well, a terrorist attack or mass shooting would do the same, but that would result in the police surrounding the building. Dubois wouldn’t want that. “It’ll be a fire,” he said.

    Dad nodded. “I’ll inform Sarah and Casey.”

    Right. Chuck should have done that long ago - but there hadn’t been any time. And the two spies would arrive too late anyway. It was up to Chuck and his father to stop Dubois and Besson. Great.

    Should he block the alarm? No. Dubois would set the building on fire. She wouldn’t try to fake it. Chuck couldn’t suppress the alert - innocents would be endangered.

    Should he call the police and report, anonymously, that an armed, possibly wounded female burglar had been spotted? No. The cops arriving loaded for bear and hunting for an armed criminal would make the whole mission much harder for Chuck, too. “As soon as the fire alarms are going off, we’ll know on which floor she’s hiding,” he said.

    “Unless she’s setting fires on a delayed timer,” Dad pointed out.

    Chuck shook his head, keeping his eyes focused on his phone’s screen. “That wouldn’t change anything - she can’t leave her current floor without us noticing. We’ve got eyes on the facade and the hallways. And there are no garbage chutes inside the apartments.”

    “She could improvise a rope and rappel down the facade while we move to the affected floor.”

    That was a crazy plan - but Dubois had done crazier things according to the files Chuck had read. He nodded. “In that case, we’ll follow her - get a rope and the harnesses from the bag. Just in case.”

    Dad didn’t protest his plan, so Chuck concluded that the Intersect should be able to handle rappelling. That was standard spy stuff, anyway.

    “Should we put them on already?” Dad asked, dropping the gear on the table.

    “Uh…” Chuck blinked. “No, not yet. If we need to play the part of scared residents fleeing the fire, wearing harnesses would look strange.”

    “Unless we flee through the window,” Dad pointed out with a grin.

    Chuck rolled his eyes. His father knew what he had meant. “She still hasn’t moved. And neither has Besson. Of course, he has to act surprised when the fire alarm goes off...” He trailed off. “Oh my God! If Gonzàlez gets evacuated, Besson might be able to persuade him to skip town to avoid the investigation!” He looked at Dad. “That’s probably her plan. Forcing us to go after Gonzàlez so she can escape.”

    “Are you sure?”

    No, he wasn’t. But it fit. In the chaos of an evacuation, anything could happen - and a lot could be covered up. A CIA strike team would use the opportunity rather than having to abort the mission and to launch another later. “Either way, we can’t let Gonzàlez escape.” If the drug lord escaped and moved away, they’d have to find another suitable target. And had to erase all the planted evidence. And with Besson and Lopez with him, they couldn’t split and stop Dubois.

    And, Chuck realised with a sinking feeling, it also meant that he would have to perform an assassination. Dad couldn’t do it alone. He shook his head. He had already been performing an assassination by performing his role on this mission. Whether he was personally shooting anyone didn’t make a difference. Nor morally. And not legally.

    But it made a difference for him. Gonzàlez was a drug lord who had had dozens of people murdered - and killed at least a few personally. But he hadn’t done anything to Chuck or his family. He wasn’t a threat - he was a mark.

    Could Chuck kill him? If the Intersect kicked in, easily, of course. But like this? Could he?

    “Chuck?”

    “What?” He jerked. “What?”

    “Are you alright?”

    “Yeah, sure.” Chuck nodded. “Just thinking of how we can get Gonzàlez,” he lied. “They’ll have to take the stairs.” If they had enough time to prepare, they could have rigged a gas trap - carbon monoxide filling the staircase, suffocating the entire group. But they would have had to isolate Gonzàlez’s group from everyone else. “We need to ambush them there.”

    And that would be difficult. And dangerous.

    Good. If the Intersect kicked in, Chuck wouldn’t feel too bad about the thing.

    “Let’s come at them from above,” he said. They might not expect that.

    “Lopez might stall us, letting Gonzàlez escape,” Dad pointed out.

    “Not if we stop them from going down further,” Chuck said.

    “How? Do you want to split up?”

    “No.” Chuck shook his head as he got up. “But we’ll have to. I’ll take the top.”

    The fire alarm went off before he had reached the door.

    Damn. So much for the plan. They’d have to improvise. He checked the video feeds again. Thick smoke was starting to fill the floor below them. Dubois had gone all-out - that kind of fire could threaten the entire building. “Uh…”

    “Chuck?”

    “I just realised,” he said, wincing, “this might not be a distraction to let her escape us, but a way to flush us out so she can kill us.”

    “Right. Should we abort the mission?”

    Chuck shook his head. “That would play into her hand if she’s expecting us to flee.” The cameras on the floor below them were quickly becoming useless as the smoke spread, but Chuck saw the first people appearing in the hallways - panicking. And obscured by the smoke.

    “Take the left stairway. I’ll take the right one,” he snapped, fitting the headset on and grabbing his bathrobe. It would hide his weapons and people might think that the fire had surprised him in bed - Morgan had used that plan in a D&D session, once.

    Chuck was the first out of the door and almost ran into a neighbour he hadn’t yet met. “Sorry!” he yelled. “But there’s a fire!”

    “Where? Where?” the old man shouted.

    “Run down the stairs!” Chuck yelled back. “Don’t use the elevator!” He blinked as the old man ran past him. The elevator. The fire alarm would have sent it down so panicked residents wouldn’t get trapped in it. And the stairs would be - were, he caught a glimpse before the door fell closed behind the fleeing man - filling with fleeing people.

    But the elevator shaft would be empty. And accessible. If you were crazy enough to climb up while the building was burning. And Dubois was the kind of spy crazy enough to do exactly that. The smart thing would be to use the confusion and panic to escape through the stairs, using the other residents as human shields. That would be smart - and expected.

    But Chuck was sure that Dubois hadn’t survived her suicidal missions by being predictable. And while it was hard to make out individuals, someone going up through the stairs while everyone else was rushing down would stand out.

    “She’s coming up through the elevator shaft!” he told Dad through the radio as he approached the elevator doors.

    “Gonzàlez hasn’t shown up yet,” Dad replied. “But Besson is in the hallway.”

    Stalling? Perhaps. But Dubois was a bigger problem - she might be coming after Chuck and his father. She was, after all, an assassin trained for this. And they were interfering in her plans.

    He reached the elevator and checked the small gap in the centre. Smoke was coming through it. More than expected - Dubois must have forced the door open on the floor below. That meant she was climbing up - but she had to hurry. “Has Dubois texted Besson again?”

    “No.” Dad arrived behind him. He was pulling on one of their gas masks. Chuck followed his example - it would help with the smoke, at least.

    Was Dubois sacrificing Besson? Or did she have plans laid out in advance covering this? Chuck didn’t know. And time was running out. “Let’s get this open!” he said.

    “But all the smoke will fill this floor!” Dad protested.

    “We can’t stay any longer anyway.” Chuck pulled out the tool Casey had given him and inserted it into the concealed opening in the doors, then pulled, hard - and almost fell on his back as the doors put up no resistance.

    It saved his life, though, as two bullets missed him by inches as he stumbled back - Dubois had been waiting for them!

    Smoke billowed out of the shaft - less than what Chuck had expected - and Dad returned fire - but as he was moving to cover, Chuck didn’t think he’d hit Dubois.

    “Missed her,” Dad confirmed Chuck’s guess a moment later. “She’s above us.”

    Damn. How could they get her without exposing themselves to fire?

    “Gonzàlez is moving! Left stairs.”

    Double-damn. And the smoke was getting worse. How much longer until the fire brigade would arrive? Wait… He had an idea. He could…

    Something flew through the open doors. Small, round… “Grenade!” Chuck yelled, gasping - they were dead. It was too close and the hallway too narrow. Gritting his teeth, he jumped towards it. At least Dad would survive.

    He collided with another body on the way - from the side - and they went down in a tangle of limbs. Dubois! His gun went flying - knocked out of his hand. And she still had hers.

    Chuck managed to grab her arm, forcing the muzzle of her gun away from him as she fired several shots before she dropped it. He tried to follow up with an arm lock, but she ripped his mask off, and the sudden inhalation of smoke made him cough so hard, he lost his grip on her.

    She twisted away, and a kick landed on his shoulder instead of his face as he lunged forward to grapple her. She was on her back but countered with a capoeira move that barely failed to crush his throat. In return, he grabbed her leg, then had to drop it to avoid her next kick.

    He rolled and twisted his body, turning the movement into a leg sweep that caught her right when she moved towards him. She lost her balance but recovered enough to avoid his chop to her throat, crashing into his chest and trapping one of his arms beneath her body.

    Chuck lashed out with his free arm against her head, making her jerk back and to the side. That dislodged her enough to let him roll - and fling her away. Towards the open elevator doors. He saw her eyes widen and her arms flailing - and her hand latching onto the mask still dangling from his neck at the moment she went through the opening.

    Chuck almost followed her but managed to brace himself against the door with both arms. That left Dubois hanging from his gas mask. For a moment, their eyes met. Braced like this, he couldn’t defend himself - and the straps were already cutting into his neck. But if she took him out, she’d fall down.

    Then a hand pushed his shoulder down, and a pistol appeared next to his head, pointing at Dubois. Dad!

    And Dubois, still staring into his eyes, let go and fell, disappearing in the smoke below.

    Chuck stared down the shaft, but couldn’t see through the smoke. She hadn’t been wearing a line or even a harness. From this height… He hadn’t killed her, but he might as well have - he certainly had tried his best. But to suicide...

    “Come on! We need to catch Gonzàlez!” Dad pulled him back.

    Right. He stood, shaking his head and pulling his mask back on.

    “They’re a floor below us, now,” Dad told him.

    Chuck glanced at the shaft. If they ran after them on the stairs, they wouldn’t be quick enough to stop them. “You take the stairs, I’ll rappel down here.”

    After a moment’s hesitation, his father nodded. “Be careful.”

    “You too.” Chuck did his best to smile confidently even though the mask hid his face. Then he picked up the submachine gun - and Dubois’s pistol - before pulling out the rope. “Third floor,” he told Dad. “I’ll stop them there.”

    “I’ll be right behind them.” Dad vanished around the corner.

    Chuck quickly tied the rope to pipe inside the shaft - the smoke was getting really bad - then jumped off, rappelling down as quickly as he safely could manage. Which was a good thing, since he saw and felt flames through the open door of the floor below. Dubois obviously knew how to set fire to a building and make it spread. Even going past the door in close to a free fall, Chuck felt uncomfortably hot.

    That also meant that his line wouldn’t last too long - not with that heat. He clenched his teeth and sped up his descent even more until his shoulders and thighs hurt from the way the harness cut into them.

    At least the smoke wasn’t too bad once he was past the burning floor, and he reached the third floor easily. Now he just had to open the door… His hand found an empty pocket where the tool to open it should have been. He must have lost it during the fight without noticing!

    And the flames would soon reach his rope… He sucked in a breath through clenched teeth and pulled his knife. Sometimes, violence was the answer. He wedged it into the gap, then started to force the doors open.

    It was much harder than he had expected - he had to brace himself against the corner and kick with all his strength to force the doors open. But he did it - and in time to catch Gonzàlez, if he sprinted. He moved to climb out when he felt a tug on his harness that almost made him lose his balance. A quick glance confirmed it - the rope had fallen - it must have burned through. Damn, that had been close. If he had been a little slower...

    He climbed into the hallway and started to run towards the stairs. The whole building would be doomed if the fire brigade didn’t arrive soon. How had Dubois managed that? No time to dwell on that. At least there were no panicking residents left here, or so it seemed.

    He ran around the corner - and saw Besson standing in the open door to the stairs there, with his pistol aimed at him. Chuck dropped and slid along the floor, Bessons’ shot passing over his head as his own burst hit the bodyguard in the shoulder right before he ducked behind the wall.

    “Ambush!” he heard the man yell - so he wasn’t seriously hurt, if at all, Chuck assumed as he slid forward, then rolled to the side and came up in a crouch, submachine gun still pointed at the door. He had stopped them from descending further - for now.

    “Dad?”

    “I’m a floor above. We’ve got them!” Dad replied.

    Chuck heard several shots, and Dad cursed. “Dad?”

    “I’m unhurt - but I had to retreat a little.”

    That was bad. The fire brigade and the cops would arrive any minute. And that would bust the mission. Think, Chuck, think. Fake grenade? Copy Dubois? But he didn’t have a fake grenade. Perhaps he could… He saw the red metal door to his side. Oh.

    He ripped it open and pulled the hose out. Perfect. “I’m going to flush them out, Dad.”

    “Flush them out?”

    More shots. They must be trying to break through to the fourth floor instead of going past Chuck.

    “Literally,” Chuck whispered, turning the water on. He could feel the hose grow heavy and buck as the water filled it, the end still closed. He moved forward, hugging the wall, one hand keeping his gun pointed at the door, the other holding the hose. Time was running out.

    Something moved in the door, and he fired before he recognised it - a gun. Besson’s gun. But the bodyguard only squeezed off two shots, firing blind, before he retreated again. And Chuck was at the corner.

    He took a deep breath and regretted it at once - the air was getting steadily worse, too - and opened the valve at the end. Water shot out at high pressure, and Chuck struggled to keep it under control as he pointed it around the corner with both hands.

    Someone yelled, and Chuck heard more shots. He flinched, but he was committed. Besson was on the ground, knocked back by the water, Gonzàlez cowered on the stairs, but behind the man, Lopez was turning around. Chuck hit her with the water, driving her back and spoiling her aim, then had to spray Besson again before the bodyguard could shoot him. What was Dad doing? He couldn’t keep this up forever - and he couldn’t get his gun while he was holding on to the hose with all his strength!

    He ducked as Lopez started firing and gave her another faceful of water, pushing forward. Besson was getting up, but Chuck was close enough to kick him, before hosing him down again. And Gonzàlez…

    Chuck dropped to the wet floor as the drug lord shot at him. The bullet missed him, but he lost his grip on the hose. It promptly started to dance around in the staircase, spraying water everywhere. At least it made Gonzàlez back up and Lopez duck, saving Chuck’s life once more.

    But before he could get up, Besson kicked him in the side. Chuck yelled at the pain - his ribs were broken - but managed to grab the bodyguard’s leg before he could recover, and twist the foot. The mercenary wasn’t quick enough to compensate, and his scream drowned out the crack his ankle made when Chuck broke it.

    The hose flew over his head as he rushed forward, lashing out at Besson’s head. The bodyguard twisted away, but not enough, and a glancing blow knocked his head back, into the stairs, stunning him.

    Chuck got up himself - two enemies left, and Gonmzàlez was popping up from where he had ducked under the spinning hose. Chuck lunged, but the pain that move caused in his ribs made him stumble, and the drug lord brought his pistol to bear at a distance he couldn’t…

    Something smashed into Gonzàlez and threw him against the wall. Dad had managed to tackle Lopez! Chuck moved, clenching his teeth at the pain, and kicked Gonzàlez in the face. The drug lord dropped with a groan. That left Lopez, who was grappling with Dad.

    Chuck steadied himself with a hand on the railing and kicked out. His first strike missed, his second glanced off the woman’s shoulder, but his third hit the back of her head, knocking her out.

    Panting - and coughing; he had lost his mask again in the fight - he managed to ask: “Dad? Are you alright?”

    Groaning, his father rolled off Lopez. “She got me in the side, but I’ll live - I think.”

    “Dad!” Chuck knelt down, hissing at his own pain, and reached for his father. He had to treat his wounds!

    “No! We have to finish the job, Chuck,” Dad spat. “The cops are arriving.”

    Finish the job? Oh. He meant, killing Gonzàlez. And the others. Who were all knocked out and helpless on the ground. Uh.

    “Just help me up,” Dad said.

    “Sure,” Chuck replied, grabbing his arm. No! Dad’s entire side was bloody!

    “It’s OK,” his father mumbled. He was swaying on his feet, too - blood loss must be bad!

    “Dad!”

    “I’ll be alright. It’s not a deep wound.” Dad took a few steps, almost stumbling if not for Chuck’s help, then aimed at the groaning Gonzàlez. With Lopez’s gun, Chuck realised.

    Dad fired a single bullet into the drug lord’s head. Lopez’s style. Chuck gasped. He should have expected that - he had been expecting it - but to see his father killing a man in cold blood…

    Another shot. Two men, Chuck corrected himself.

    “Can you carry her?” his father asked, nodding at Lopez. “Need to tie her up, though.”

    “I can’t carry her and you at the same time,” Chuck replied. And how were they going to get the woman out of the building, with the police and firemen outside?

    “Right.”

    Another shot rang out and that problem became moot.

    Chuck shook his head. He had to focus on the mission - on their escape. “Let’s go. We’ll need to reach the garage - we can get the car.”

    “Yes.”

    Chuck still checked Dad’s wound first. It really wasn’t deep, but it had to hurt a lot and needed to be bandaged. And his own ribs were hurting like hell, but probably bruised rather than broken. Probably. He couldn’t have fought like he did with broken ribs, could he?

    He laughed, then winced at the pain it caused, as he helped Dad down the stairs. They had to go down four floors before the firemen entered. And before the fire caught up to them from above. And he didn’t know how long either would take. It all came down to luck.

    “Chuck? Where are you?”

    That was Sarah! “Sarah?”

    “Where are you? You didn’t answer your phone!”

    “Oh.” He looked down. He must have lost the phone as well without noticing.

    “Northern staircase, second floor - we need help. Took out the mark,” he said. “But we’re wounded.” Did he qualify? Bruises didn’t count, did they?

    “We’re coming. Stay inside; don’t get out.”

    “No danger of that,” he replied, chuckling, then wincing. He really should remember not to laugh with broken or bruised ribs.

    Sarah and Casey - in disguise - met them on the first floor. The NSA agent all but ripped Dad out of Chuck’s arms and dragged him away at a speed Chuck had trouble matching.

    “Chuck!”

    He smiled at Sarah. “Just bruises. I think.” He pointed at his ribs. “But Dad was shot.”

    “Nothing serious.”

    “His wound needs bandaging,” Chuck insisted.

    “We’ve brought an ambulance.”

    Chuck blinked. “An ambulance.” Oh, a fake, of course. The ideal getaway vehicle for the situation. Or for a kidnapping - they had used it before. He nodded.

    “Chuck? Where were you hurt?”

    He blinked. Just the side.

    “Are you sure? You weren’t hit in the head?”

    He blinked again. Had he been hit in the head? Not that he’d have noticed. But he did feel a little… Had he a concussion?

    By the time they reached the ambulance and Chuck climbed inside, Casey had secured Dad on the gurney and was throwing on a paramedic jacket. “Get a move on!”

    They sped out of the garage. Casey yelled at a cop stopping them that this was an emergency - heart attack - and then they were driving away, and Sarah was treating Dad’s wound.

    Chuck looked out of the window at the brightly burning building. From the sixth floor up, everything was in flames, or so it seemed. Chuck didn’t think the firemen would be able to save it.

    “Just for the record,” he said, then blinked. There wouldn’t be any records, anyway. “Just for the record,” he repeated, “I didn’t start the fire.”

    But he wished he knew how Dubois had managed that kind of blaze. That could be very useful when dealing with demons. But the woman was dead. As were Gonzélez, Lopez and Besson.

    He closed his eyes and tried not to think about it all.

    *****​
     
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 32: The Fallout Part 1
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 32: The Fallout Part 1

    California, Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, February 7th, 2008

    “Ow!” Chuck hissed - that hurt. A lot. He shifted a little on the couch - it wasn’t the most comfortable, but when it came to safe houses, like this one that the others had prepared, beggars couldn’t be choosers.

    “They’re not broken, as far as I can tell without an X-ray,” Sarah said.

    An X-ray would have hurt much less than her poking and prodding his ribs. “Perhaps we should get an X-Ray. Just in case.”

    “Oh, we will,” she told him. “It’s needed for your cover story.”

    “Cover story?” He blinked.

    “To explain your injury,” she said. “You won’t be able to hide it at work.”

    “Ah.” That made sense. To imagine working with bruised or broken ribs… He shuddered, then winced at the pain that caused. “Uh, what is the cover story?”

    “You slipped in the bath after taking your medication.”

    “Uh…” That made him look like a klutz. Or an idiot.

    She shook her head, though she was smiling. “It’s a simple and very plausible explanation.”

    “Very plausible?” He wasn’t a klutz - and he had never injured himself like this.

    “It happens to a lot of people,” she replied. “And it won’t draw attention like a more heroic cover story would.”

    “What about a sports accident?” That was less humiliating.

    “That’s harder to set up, and people might expect witnesses. An accident at home is private.”

    He sighed. It really made sense, but he still didn’t like it. Before he could say anything else, though, he felt her hand on his cheek.

    “Chuck. You were very lucky to only suffer bruised ribs today.”

    Uh-oh. He drew a hissing breath through suddenly clenched teeth and grimaced. “I’m sorry. But you and Casey were in Burbank, and Dubois broke into our apartment, and, well… things kind of went out of control afterwards.”

    “You and your father went after a drug lord, a mercenary, a cartel hitwoman, and an assassin.”

    The way she said it made it sound worse than it had been. “Uh… we couldn’t let the mission fail.”

    “Why not?”

    He blinked. “What?”

    Sarah was staring at him with a serious expression. “Why didn’t you abort the mission? You could have retreated after Dubois fled.”

    “Uh… we thought she might be waiting to ambush us in the confusion of the evacuation.” He knew it was a weak argument and, seeing her frown, he sighed again. “I thought about aborting, but… It never really was an option before. At the graduation in Sunnydale, we knew we’d all die if we failed. And in Los Angeles, with Wolfram and Hart, we knew we had to beat them to save the city. And the world.” Chuck shrugged. “The mission takes priority, or something?”

    “There are missions like that, but this wasn’t one of them. We could have restarted it. Picked another target.”

    That would have meant months wasted, though. But she was correct. “Sorry,” he said in a low voice. “I didn’t really think. I just…” He shrugged again as he trailed off. “I didn’t think.”

    “You were focused on the mission,” she said.

    He nodded. “Yes.” Like a real spy.

    “Not all missions are important enough to take such risks.”

    “Yes.” He knew that. He just hadn’t thought of it.

    “You were hurt, and your father was shot.”

    And both of them could’ve been killed. Several times. “Yes, I know. Believe me, every breath I take reminds me of it,” he replied. He turned his head, pulling away from her hand, and looked at the door to the bathroom to emphasise his point. There, Dad was getting treated by Casey.

    Sarah flinched and leaned back. “Good.”

    It wasn’t. But Chuck couldn’t stand getting his mistakes thrown into his face right now. Not when his side was hurting, and his father was bleeding.

    His father, who had shot three people in cold blood. Three helpless people. Damn. Chuck hadn’t expected that. He should have, of course - they had planned for it. But to see it happen. See Dad calmly execute them… It could’ve been the Intersect, of course. Chuck knew how few qualms he had when he was fighting under its influence - he had tried to throw Dubois down the elevator shaft, after all. And Dad’s early-version of the Intersect might not fade as quickly as Chuck’s if the danger was gone.

    But he didn’t really believe it. No matter how much he tried.

    Dad had killed three people. Four, if you count Dubois suiciding before he could shoot her. And Chuck had helped him.

    And he didn’t know how he felt about that.

    He still felt relief when Casey entered the bedroom and growled something about Dad being fine. “Thank God,” he mumbled.

    Casey snorted. “Yeah, you two were lucky as hell.”

    That didn’t quite make sense, but this wasn’t the time to try to improve Casey’s speech.

    “It was a calculated risk,” Dad said, following Casey. He was moving a little gingerly, Chuck noticed, and he was pale, but otherwise, he looked OK.

    The NSA agent scoffed and shook his head. “Intersect or not, you had no business attacking Gonzàlez.”

    Dad half-shrugged, flinching a little. “It worked out.”

    “That remains to be seen,” Sarah said. She turned, picked up the remote and unmuted the television running in the background.

    Chuck sighed and closed his eyes for a moment when he saw the pictures of a burning building behind the newscaster.

    “...and the fire department has stopped attempting to save the building and are now focusing on ensuring that the fire isn’t spreading to neighbouring buildings. According to their speaker, the residents have been evacuated, although several of them are still not accounted for. However, many of them were at work when the fire started this afternoon.”

    “That wasn’t our fault,” Chuck pointed out. “We didn’t suppress the alarm or hindered the fire department’s response.” At least it didn’t look like civilians had died in the fire.

    “Shhh,” Casey hissed as the newscaster switched to a reporter on-site and a pretty woman appeared in front of the burning building.

    “This is Jenny Kruger on location. As you can see, a crowd has gathered to watch as the firefighters have given up saving the building. The police are in the process of pushing the crowd back so the imminent collapse of the building won’t claim more lives.” She took a deep breath. “The police haven’t released a statement yet, but there are reports that not only is the fire suspected of having been deliberately started, but that several bodies have been found and recovered that were not killed by the fire, but with guns.”

    “Thank you, Jenny,” the newscaster said, nodding at her before turning to address the audience again. “A spokesman of the LAPD declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation. However, it’s not quite clear how they plan to investigate while the fire is still raging. In other news…”

    Sarah muted the TV again.

    “They found and recovered Gonzàlez and the others,” Chuck said.

    “Of course they did - they were left practically at the entrance,” Casey said, scoffing again. “Let’s hope the fire at least messed up the site so much, they can’t reconstruct what happened.”

    “We used Dubois’s gun on them. Once they find her body and the gun at the bottom of the shaft, it should be easy to draw the conclusion that she killed them, then fell to her death trying to escape,” Dad said.

    “Provided the fire leaves enough to be identified,” Sarah pointed out. “If the entire building collapses, that might be difficult. And the records for the cameras will be destroyed by the fire as well.”

    “They’ll still have her car,” Chuck said. “And once Fankhauser wakes up, he’ll report her missing.”

    He didn’t like the slight pause before Casey replied: “That’ll take a while. But the real question isn’t what the LAPD will find, but what the CIA and the French will think.”

    Right. “And what will they think?”

    “That depends on whether or not they talk to each other and compare notes,” Casey said. “If we had been able to frame Lopez, this wouldn’t be an issue.”

    “The French will claim Dubois had gone rogue - as their files already claim. But the CIA might not believe them,” Sarah said.

    “Classic cover story,” Casey growled.

    “So, if the CIA suspects that the French were after Chuck and using Gonzàlez as a middleman and fall guy…” Sarah trailed off.

    Chuck winced. Had they just inadvertently created an international incident? “That would be bad.”

    “It’d help our cover-up by confusing the entire issue,” Dad said. “With all the witnesses dead, there aren’t any leads to us.”

    Casey grunted. “They’ll look for the Blacks.”

    “And they’ll find the backstory I created - leading to Mexico,” Dad retorted. “The disguises will hold.”

    He sounded confident. Chuck wanted to believe him. But he couldn’t help thinking that they were a little too optimistic.

    “Like they fooled Dubois?” Casey asked.

    Oh. Chuck shook his head. “She actually didn’t see through our cover,” he told the NSA agent. “If she had suspected us of being spies, she wouldn’t have broken into our apartment like she did.”

    “Yes,” Dad agreed. “She was surprised. I think that, with Fankhauser in a coma, she needed another investment banker, and probably planned to make Chuck do it since he was already acquainted with Gonzàlez.”

    Chuck blinked, then stared at the muted TV screen, where the apartment building collapsed in a cloud of smoke and ash.

    Did that mean that his plan to find out what Dubois had been planning had, ultimately, started all of this? He had meant to avoid killing innocents!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, February 7th, 2008

    Sarah glanced at Chuck as she took the last turn to enter their street. He hadn’t said anything on the drive back to their home. “You’re unusually quiet,” she commented as she parked the car.

    He looked startled. “I am? Really?” He grimaced. “I’m a little tired, I guess. And my ribs are hurting.”

    Both were true, but she knew him. “It’s more than that, though,” she said, cutting the engine.

    “Uh…” He unbuckled but didn’t make a move to leave the car.

    “Chuck.” She took a deep breath and put her hand on his tight. He was even tenser than she had expected. “What happened?”

    “Uh… you know what happened. We messed up and were almost killed.” He shifted in his seat. “I’m sorry.”

    He hadn’t been like that after other missions where it had been close. “What’s really eating you?”

    He held her gaze for a moment, his expression growing more and more forced, before he closed his eyes and sighed, slumping in his seat. “Dad.”

    She blinked. What did he…? Ah. “You saw him kill three people in cold blood.”

    “Uh… yes.”

    And he didn’t know how to handle ‘Dad’ being a murderer. She’d have to tread carefully here. “The plan included killing Gonzàlez from the start.” He couldn’t have been left alive if he was to be framed for Orion’s hacking and money transfer.

    “Yes.” Chuck drew a hissing breath through clenched teeth, she noticed. “I know that!” He shook his head. “It’s just…” He wet his lips. “It was…” He shook his head again.

    “You didn’t expect to see it happen. And you didn’t expect your father to do it.”

    Once more, he slumped over. “No, I didn’t. I know it’s stupid, but… I thought Casey would do the deed, so to speak.”

    “Or it would happen in a firefight,” she stated.

    “Yes. It’s different when they are trying to kill you.” He nodded emphatically with a weak grin.

    “Like Dubois.”

    “That was a suicide,” he replied. “But, yes, if I had managed to throw her down the shaft before she ended up dangling from my gas mask’s straps, it would’ve been… well, OK?”

    “Not all the people I killed on missions were trying to kill me,” she said, looking straight at him - the light from the house was just bright enough to let her see his face.

    He stiffened for a moment before he nodded. “I know. That’s my other problem.”

    It was? She felt as if her stomach dropped. Had he found that he couldn’t handle her past? “Chuck…”

    He shook his head. “I’m not sure if I can handle doing it, you know.”

    “The killing?” He hadn’t had a problem so far. And he had seen her file, hadn’t he? He knew what she had done - well, part of what she had done.

    “I know spies have to kill people in the line of duty. And I want to be a real spy. But I’m not sure I can handle killing... helpless prisoners. I mean, I hoped the Intersect would take over, but it didn’t.”

    She almost smiled widely, relief filling her. He didn’t have a problem with her past. But she couldn’t show that. Instead, she slowly nodded. “Chuck - no one’s expecting you to execute people.”

    “But I want to be a real spy, not just… the guy with the Intersect! I want to be a full member of our team!” he blurted out.

    Ah. “Chuck, you are a full member of the team.” Actually, it was more his team than hers - or Casey’s. Or would be, once they joined the Council. “Not every spy is an assassin. Or expected to execute prisoners.”

    “But you and Casey…” He trailed off, and she noticed he was biting his lower lip.

    “Casey’s a sniper. Killing people in cold blood is what he does,” she replied. “I’ve killed people, but I wasn’t sent out as an assassin.” Not that the difference in some missions she had done would have been significant.

    “Oh.” He slowly nodded and started to smile. “I see.”

    She squeezed his thigh. “You’re already a good spy, Chuck. And it’s a good thing that you don’t like killing people in cold blood. People who do are usually...”

    “Like Casey?”

    She nodded. But right when she was about to leave the car and enter their home, he sighed again. “But what about Dad?”

    That was a good question. Sarah would love to know the answer. Just how far was Orion willing to go? And what kind of man was he? Or had become during his time in hiding? “I think you need to talk to him about this. Find out how he’s handling the whole thing. He might have trouble with it, too.” She doubted it, though.

    “Oh. I didn’t even think about that.” He smiled at her. “Thank you. I almost…” He shook his head.

    She nodded. “Let’s go to bed now.”

    “Right.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, February 8th, 2008

    Chuck felt better when he woke up. Not physically - his ribs hurt something fierce; worse than after Larry had tackled him during P.E. in seventh grade. But Sarah had told him he was a good spy. Even though he had trouble with assassinations.

    Although… he knew Watchers sometimes had to execute people. Evil mages and other practitioners of magic. People who willingly worked with or for demons. Evil demons, of course. Morgan had told him about it - Slayers shouldn’t kill humans if it could be helped. Or something like it. So, it fell to their Watchers to… do the deed.

    Chuck closed his eyes. Damn, he couldn’t even call a murder a murder in his thoughts! Was that pathetic, or not?

    Casey would say yes, it was. While sneering at him. But Casey was Casey. Chuck wasn’t Casey. And he didn’t want to be Casey. Didn’t want to be like Casey. The man wasn’t happy, anyone could see that. And Casey would probably want to do any executions anyway.

    Chuck sighed. That was a petty thought. And wrong, too - or so he hoped.

    He still didn’t want to be like Casey.

    “Morning.”

    Oh. He turned his head so he wasn’t watching the ceiling any more and looked at Sarah. She was lying on her side, head propped up by one hand. And smiling at him. “Morning!” he said, as brightly as he managed.

    “You seemed… a little down. Your ribs giving you trouble?”

    “Uh… A little.” He didn’t want to lie. But he also didn’t want to tell her that he still was trying to deal with yesterday’s mission. “I just remembered that we never found out what Dubois and Besson were after.”

    “Ah.” She nodded, in apparent understanding. “Yes, that is annoying.” He couldn’t tell if he had fooled her, but she wouldn’t push the issue. “But it’s something every spy has to deal with,” she continued. “We rarely get the full picture.”

    “Isn’t that kind of a paradox?” His neck was starting to strain. He wanted to lie on his side and face her, but his ribs wouldn’t allow that. “I mean, you train spies to ferret as much intel as they can - and at the same time, you keep them in the dark as much as you can, right?”

    She laughed at that. “It’s one way to see it, I guess. But it’s mostly a good policy - field agents are at risk of being captured on every mission, so everything they know is at significant risk of being discovered.”

    “Ah.” He nodded. “That makes sense - in a warped way, mind you. Aren’t the best spies those who want to find out every secret?”

    “Only until they are caught. Then they turn into the worst spies,” Sarah told him.

    “Ah.” Chuck wasn’t sure how the Scoobies operated, but he didn’t think that Willow was a fan of ‘need to know’. Unless one accepted that she needed to know everything. Then again, Willow wasn’t a spy - or easy to capture. “Isn’t that what suicide pills are for?”

    “Those are extreme cases,” she replied.

    If he had to choose between getting captured by demons or killing himself… He shook his head. “It’s quite a morbid way to start a day.”

    “You started it,” she retorted with a grin.

    “Hey! You asked for it!” he told her, forcing himself to grin as well. It wasn’t really funny - it was dead serious, literally - but he didn’t like dwelling on the subject, so he went along with her attempt to lighten the mood. “So… I guess I should get ready to be ribbed?”

    She tilted her head. “I think so. Unless you want to be late for work.”

    “You know, they’ll start a rumour that we did something kinky in bed that went wrong,” he told her.

    Her grin didn’t waver. “That’s a good cover story and explains why we don’t want to go into details.”

    He didn’t have a comeback for that. Not so early in the morning.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, February 8th, 2008

    “Hey, Chuck! How’re your ribs?”

    “Hey, Chuck! Heard you had an accident. What happened?”

    “Chuck! Should you be working?”

    The Buy More rumour mill was working as efficiently as usual, Chuck noticed when he entered the store and was immediately accosted by various staff members barely managing to hide their curiosity behind mostly-faked concern. “I’m fine, guys,” he told them, forcing himself to smile instead of glaring, “I just slipped in the kitchen and fell on a chair. It only hurts when I laugh.”

    “Oh, slipped? In the kitchen?” The tone and grin of Lester told Chuck just what the man was thinking. As did Jeff’s wide grin.

    And there was the source of all of this.

    “Hi, Chuck!”

    “Hi, Morgan.” Chuck didn’t bother to hide his annoyance and glanced at Jeff and Lester to make his point even more apparent.

    They quickly found somewhere else to be. Morgan, though, leaned closer and lowered his voice. “So I heard you ran into some trouble. Are you alright?”

    “Just bruised ribs,” Chuck replied. “And everyone thinks I got the injury during sex.” He glared at Morgan, who, unfortunately, remained unfazed.

    “Oh, yeah,” Morgan replied. “That’s probably my fault.”

    “Really.” Chuck raised his eyebrows.

    “Yeah, I mean… People were asking about your malady when you didn’t come to work, and we started speculating. You know, talking shit. So, I joked that you were worn out by Sarah.” Morgan’s smile turned more than a little forced. “And they, kind of, well… ran with it.”

    “Ran a marathon, it seems,” Chuck said in a flat voice. His friend should have expected that.

    “Well, you getting hurt kind of… fueled the fires?”

    He was acting a little too apologetic for such a mistake. “And what did you do?”

    “Well… I only mentioned that certain positions were dangerous - but that was related to Kirsten and my relationship. But they…”

    “...ran with that as well.” Well, he had expected that when he had first heard of the cover story. But to be proven right like this… Chuck would’ve liked to be wrong in this case. He sighed. “Speaking of her, what does she think happened?”

    “Uh… I don’t know. I told her you had an accident, and then told her a few tales from high school to show it wasn’t really implausible,” Morgan said. “Like the time Larry broke your ribs in that tackle. Or the time you got the soccer ball to the face. Or when you fell down the stairs in the panic after the cop shot at Buffy.”

    “Right.” Chuck could’ve done without the reminder just how dangerous his high school life had been. Or how unlucky he had been. “And did she believe it?”

    “Well, it’s the truth.” Morgan shrugged. “But I don’t know what she suspects. We kind of… avoid the topic, usually, when we’re together.”

    Was that a good sign, or a bad sign? Was Bane trying to avoid bringing in spy business into their relationship, or was she being subtle and luring Morgan into a false sense of trust? Or something else?

    And what would Dad do if he thought that Bane suspected the truth? Chuck pressed his lips together. They already knew that Bane was sent here as much to spy on them as to support them. But had the woman changed? Or was she just putting up an act?

    “Chuck? Are you alright?”

    Morgan was staring at him, concern written over his face. Chuck slowly nodded. “I’ll heal.” He looked around. Casey was refilling shelves and glaring at a customer trying to ask for assistance. He didn’t want to talk about this where Casey could overhear. The agent was too prone to solve all problems with violence.

    “Ah.” Morgan followed his glance. “Gotcha.” In a lower voice, he added: “Well, at least Caridad and Vi are busy tracking down some demon cabal. Otherwise, they’d tease you. Probably.”

    Chuck simply nodded. He had already too much to worry about to get involved in demon hunting.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, February 8th, 2008

    He had checked if her car was in the driveway before going over to Ellie and Devon’s apartment. He knew her schedule, but sometimes, she was called to work if there was an emergency. Or someone got sick, and she had to fill in at the hospital. But she was at home, Devon wasn’t, and Sarah was busy at The Castle. It was the perfect time to talk to Ellie.

    “Hi, Sis!” Chuck greeted her with a smile and a wave and barely winced when that resulted in some pain in his side.

    “Hi, Chuck!” Ellie smiled at him, but then added: “What’s that I hear about an accident in the kitchen?”

    “Ah…” He cleared his throat, then grimaced. Bruised ribs were really a pain in the… well, ribs. “It’s a cover story.”

    “Like your claim of being sick?” She put the plate she had taken out of the dishwasher down and turned to fully face him, head slightly cocked.

    “Well… yes. Only,” he added when he saw her beginning to frown, “I did hurt my ribs. Just bruises.”

    Her frown became more pronounced at hearing that, and she looked at his side. “Let me see that.”

    “It’s been checked,” he said, but she was already walking towards him. Sighing, he pulled his shirt up.

    She prodded and poked his side, ignoring his groans, grunts and hisses, for a while before she finally withdrew and nodded. “Bruises.”

    “I told you that.” He wasn’t pouting. Not really. But he was reminded of their childhood - Ellie had never been shy of using a lot of stinging disinfectants to treat his scrapes, no matter how much it hurt. Something about learning a lesson.

    “You told me you were fine before even though you weren’t.”

    “That was in school!” he protested. “Ten years ago!”

    She ignored that. “How did it happen?”

    “Well… I was in a fight.” He shrugged. “I got kicked.”

    “Chuck…” And her lips opened a little, showing her teeth.

    “Ellie, I didn’t come over to tell you a blow-by-blow account of how I fought a spy,” he told her. “I came over to talk to you about Dad.”

    “Ah.” She straightened, took a step back and leaned against the counter with her arms crossed.

    “He got shot - just a flesh wound,” Chuck added when he saw her eyes widening. “He’ll be OK. perfectly fine.”

    “Ah.” And the concern vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

    “But, you know, he might be able to come back in from the cold, soon-ish,” he went on.

    “And you got hurt arranging this?”

    He grimaced, then nodded. Of course, she’d connect the dots.

    “And he sent you to sound me out.”

    “Yes? It’s not as if he can visit us in person until things have been settled.” They still had to link the money sent to Ellie to Gonzàlez, after all, to fool the CIA.

    “But he can get shot on secret missions.” She shook her head. “With you.”

    “All so he can return to us,” Chuck pointed out.

    “Over a decade late.”

    “That wasn’t his fault,” Chuck said. “Not entirely, at least.” He held up his hand when Ellie opened her mouth. “Look, he has made mistakes - and big ones. But he had reasons for it - he wanted to protect us.”

    “By abandoning us on a Hellmouth.”

    “He didn’t know that!” Chuck shook his head. “Look, he is really sorry.”

    “So sorry, he’s sending you to apologise for him?” she said with a snort.

    “Well, he can’t really show up here, what with the CIA hunting him,” Chuck repeated himself.

    “But he can meet with you and go on missions. Spy missions.”

    “Uh…” That was a good point, actually. “I can arrange a secret meeting, I think,” he said. “I’ll need to run that past the others.”

    “You do that. I want to talk to him in person.” She dismissed him with a nod that reminded him strongly of the general’s.

    *****​

    “I’m back,” Sarah announced as she closed the door behind her. “Everything’s alright at The Castle. How did your talk with Ellie go?” she asked, though as soon as she saw him on the couch in the living room, staring at a paused video game on the TV screen, she had her answer. “She’s not happy.”

    “No, she isn’t,” he confirmed, shaking his head with a sigh. “And she wants to personally meet him. Soon. So… Can that be arranged without endangering our mission? Or missions?”

    “It shouldn’t be a problem,” she replied as she sat down next to him. Arranging a secret meeting in a city like Los Angeles? With their resources? Child’s play.

    “Thought so. The meeting will be a problem, though.”

    She inclined her head in agreement. A problem for which Orion was responsible, in her opinion. “Is there anything we can do about that?” She hoped he wouldn’t say yes - nothing good come of getting involved in that family row.

    “Well…” He shook his head. “I don’t think so. She was pretty clear that she wanted to talk to Dad. Probably more like yell at him.”

    Sarah nodded. That would have to be taken into account when picking the site for the meeting. “What about your talk with him?”

    “Uh…” He smiled in a rather forced and very unconvincing way at her.

    It was her turn to sigh. Chuck couldn’t let that problem fester. “You have to talk this out.”

    “But… before or after Ellie rips into him?”

    “Before,” she told him. If Chuck couldn’t live with his father being a killer, then waiting for Ellie to forgive Orion would become somewhat moot.

    He gritted his teeth - she could tell. “Yes, yes. I’ll try to meet up with him soon.”

    “Please do,” she replied with a nod. Chuck had a chance to work this out - unlike herself - and he deserved it.

    And Sarah really needed to know if they had another crook in the family that couldn’t be trusted.

    She blinked. When had she started to think of the Bartowskis as family?

    An hour later, when she was laying in their bed, on her back and looking at the ceiling, she still hadn’t found an answer. It had happened before she had realised it. Not that that mattered much, anyway. What mattered was that it had happened.

    She thought of Chuck’s family as family. As her in-laws. And wasn’t that a little unsettling? In-laws meant marriage, and until Ellie’s wedding preparations had started to involve her, Sarah hadn’t seriously contemplated marriage very often. Not since she had realised what her father did for a living, and what that meant for her life.

    She sighed. She hadn’t really minded, back then. Sarah had been too young, too stupid and trusting, to realise that Dad’s life wasn’t all thrilling cons with fat payouts. And by the time she had realised in what kind of dead-end life she had been steered, it had been too late. If the director hadn’t been there…

    She closed her eyes and suppressed the pang of pain she felt. He was dead. Killed in the line of duty. And she was about to leave the Agency he had led - after all he had done for her. Of course, it hadn’t been altruism that had made him make his offer. She liked to think that the director had wanted to help her, but she wasn’t naive - if he had merely cared about her, he could have sent her to a good foster family and probation officer. But he had seen her talent, her potential, and had recruited her. Turned her into a good spy personally loyal to him.

    It had taken her some time to realise that. For all he had done for her, given her life meaning, as cliche as it sounded, he had also used her. Ruthlessly, at times, no matter whether or not he trusted her to come through.

    More than a little like her father, in that way.

    And Chuck’s father struck a number of the same chords. She couldn’t yet tell if he was cut from the same cloth as her own father and the director, or if he was truly just caught in circumstances beyond his control, trapped by honest mistakes.

    She hoped that once she found the answer to this question, it wouldn’t hurt Chuck.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, February 9th, 2008

    Having a clandestine meeting in Hollywood of all places still seemed a little weird to Chuck, even though the sheer number of tourists on the streets was an excellent way to hide in a crowd. It was just that with all the paparazzi around, and the security cameras, it felt as if privacy was in rather short supply in the area.

    The benches offering places to sit and rest, or eat your lunch, were too exposed for his taste. Two spies sitting down on the same bench, apparent strangers, to exchange information, might be a staple of spy movies, but this wouldn’t be a quick meeting or handover. And Chuck really didn’t want to risk anyone with a parabolic mic overhearing them. He hadn’t heard of paparazzi using them, but while publishing such records might be illegal, who could say if the yellow press wasn’t using such means to track and investigate celebrities?

    So, they had to meet in a private space. Without anyone else being able to listen in.

    Which was why Chuck was currently posing as a taxi driver picking up a client. Once he found… There! Dad’s disguise was god, Chuck had to admit - he wouldn’t have recognised him if he hadn’t known to look for that particular hat. Dad looked like just another tourist with no taste.

    As soon as they were rolling, Chuck spoke up. “Hi, Dad.”

    “Hi, Chuck.”

    “How’s your wound?” A safe topic to start.

    “Healing fine, as far as I can tell.”

    Oh. “Do you have a doctor’s skillset in your Intersect?” And if so, why didn’t Chuck had one?

    “Oh, no! But I have had to deal with the odd wound from time to time, without having access to a doctor,” Dad told him, a little too nonchalantly. Having to treat your own wounds? Sew yourself up? Chuck shuddered at the thought.

    “So…” Dad said after they reached the next highway. “Did you talk to Ellie?”

    “Yes.” Chuck nodded. “She wants to talk to you in person, so we’ll have to arrange something. Preferably something sound-proof with room to pace.”

    That made his dad wince. “That bad?”

    “She’s not happy about some of your choices, and she will want to vent properly,” Chuck explained. And trying to drive while listening to that conversation - or taking part in it - seemed to be asking for an accident.

    “I deserve that, I guess.” Dad sighed.

    His father had a wry, sad grin on his face, Chuck checked with a glance in the rear mirror. They were on the highway, but Chuck still had to focus on the traffic. Not being able to see his father’s face apart from quick glances like this kind of made meeting in person pointless, Chuck realised. Not quite like talking on the phone, but not much better. Until they hit a traffic jam, at least.

    “So, you wanted to talk,” Dad said after a few seconds spent in silence.

    “Uh, yes.” Chuck took a deep breath. This was it. No more stalling. Time to talk.

    “About?”

    “Uh… killing,” Chuck said.

    “Oh.”

    Oh? What did he mean with ‘oh’. “I mean, I’ve killed myself - I’ve killed as well, I mean, not that I killed myself. Mostly demons, which are different, but people as well.” When the Intersect had kicked in. “But…” How to say this? He had planned this speech, but he seemed to have forgotten his preparations!

    “You’re upset about me killing Gonzàlez and the others.”

    “Yes.” Chuck glanced at him again, briefly. His father looked serious, not shocked.

    “I’d say that it was necessary, and they were killers.”

    He gritted his teeth. “We’re killers, too, Dad.”

    “Do you work for a drug cartel? Or have you killed your fellow agents?” his father retorted.

    “No.” Unless Fulcrum’s agents counted.

    “I didn’t like doing it, Chuck. But it was necessary.”

    “‘Necessary’?” Dad sounded like Casey.

    “Killing Gonzàlez and Lopez was the plan from the start. Besson and Dubois… well, she tried to kill us, and Besson defended Gonzàlez.”

    “Yes, it was the plan, but…” Chuck bit down on his lip. His reasoning sounded stupid, but he couldn’t help it.

    “You don’t like that it was me doing the killing.”

    “Yes!” Chuck spat.

    “I would be a hypocrite if I expected others to kill for me, but wouldn’t do it myself.”

    He didn’t have an answer to that that wouldn’t make him look like a hypocrite. But he had another question - the main question. “And how far are you willing to go?” How many was he willing to kill?

    “As far as necessary to keep you and Ellie safe.”

    Damn.

    He glanced over his shoulder. Dad was watching him with a serious and sad expression.

    “How far would you go to keep Ellie safe?”

    That was an unfair question - Chuck wasn’t the one whose mistake had endangered Ellie by linking her with the CIA’s most wanted. On the other hand, Chuck had endangered her by becoming the Intersect, though that hadn’t been his choice.

    “Would you rather leave her forever than kill a murderer so you could be staying with her?”

    That was a really unfair question. “And what if you don’t know if they’re a murderer?”

    “If they were trying to kill you or me, that’d be enough for me to make a call.”

    That was rubbing it on. Somewhat. Chuck sighed. “I don’t like it,” he spat.

    “I know. And that’s a good thing.”

    *****​
     
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 33: The Fallout part 2
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 33: The Fallout part 2

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, February 9th, 2008

    Chuck wasn’t staring morosely at a paused game when she came home, Sarah noticed, but he wasn’t looking happy either, watching the news on the TV. So, the talk with his father hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped. But how bad had it been? She’d find out. “Hi, Chuck.”

    “Hi, Sarah,” he replied, smiling rather tiredly at her.

    She sat down next to him on the couch. “Nothing new at The Castle.”

    “You haven’t started the investigation into Gonzàlez yet?”

    “No,” she replied, shaking her head. “It seems that this will be left to the police until we ‘discover’ the electronic trail to his accounts.”

    “Ah.” He sighed. “You’re not asking after my meeting with Dad?”

    “I’m sure you’ll tell me when you’re ready,” she lied.

    “Uh.” Another sigh. “He would do it again, and worse, to keep me and Ellie safe.”

    “He said that?”

    “Yes.”

    She looked into his eyes. “So would I.”

    He didn’t reply for a moment that felt far, far too long. Then he nodded. “I know. But you’re a spy. Dad’s…” He shrugged.

    “He’s a spy as well,” she told him.

    “I guess so.”

    “And he’s your father.” Which was the problem.

    “Yes. But that’s not the problem. Not the real problem - I mean, I don’t like what he did, but, well… I understand why he did it.”

    She nodded. That was good. “And what’s the real problem?”

    “Well, I’m planning to become a spy myself, right?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. “I know, we talked about this already - I know that I don’t have to do… don’t have to kill people. Not like an assassin, at least, you know what I mean, don’t you? Right. But… what if I start killing like… well, Dad?”

    Or like me, Sarah thought. “You won’t,” she told him, hoping she wasn’t lying. “That you’re so concerned about it is proof of that.”

    He didn’t seem to believe her. “Aren’t converts usually the most fanatical?”

    “Chuck, you’ve killed before, and you didn’t like it. And even now, when you understand your father’s reasons, you don’t like it.” She slowly shook her head. “You won’t turn into a killer. Trust me.”

    She could see him struggle.

    “Trust me,” she repeated herself.

    He finally smiled and nodded, but she knew he still worried. It was a good first step, though.

    *****​

    Chuck sighed - silently; he didn’t want to wake up Sarah - and stared at the ceiling in their bedroom. She was convinced that he wouldn’t become a killer. And she was an experienced spy - she knew assassins. And she had been there, as you’d say. Well, as some people said on the Internet. Or wrote.

    He blinked. His thoughts were wandering. But he had to focus on this. This was important. Crucial. He sighed again. He had been thinking about this all day and he wasn’t any closer to a resolution than before. Talking with Sarah had helped, but… without being arrogant about it, as his girlfriend, she was a little biased. He needed a more objective opinion.

    Morgan was his best friend. He nodded. He’d talk to Morgan tomorrow.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, February 10th, 2008

    “Morgan!” First thing after entering the Buy More, Chuck made a beeline to his friend.

    “What did I do?” Morgan asked, wincing a little. “Or what didn’t I do?”

    Chuck blinked. “What? No, no. I just need to talk to you.”

    “Yes?” Morgan nodded and stood a little straighter.

    “Not here. In private.”

    “Oh. One of those talks?” Morgan asked.

    “Yes.” Chuck nodded, then reconsidered. “Wait! What kind of talk are you thinking about?”

    “The kind that involves Caridad or Sarah?”

    “No, no. Not that kind of talk. Well, in a way. Look, I need some advice. And not about my love life.”

    “Ah.” Morgan smiled at him, then reached up and patted Chuck’s shoulder. “Of course I’ll help any way I can. You’re my best friend!”

    “Thanks, Morgan.” Chuck smiled at his friend, though he felt a little guilty - he hadn’t been spending as much time as he used to with Morgan.

    Then he remembered the game night mess and didn’t feel guilty any more.

    *****​

    “So, what kind of advice do you need?” Morgan asked an hour and a half later as they entered the home entertainment display room. “If it’s about beating that sniper nest in the expansion…”

    “No, no,” Chuck shook his head.

    “Ah.” Morgan nodded. “Well, it was a long shot anyway - you wouldn’t ditch your break with Sarah for gaming tips, would you?”

    “Of course not!” Chuck exclaimed. As if anyone would. Well, Morgan perhaps. “No,” he continued before Morgan could speculate some more. “I need some advice about killing.”

    “What?” Morgan was staring at him with wide eyes, obviously surprised.

    Chuck closed his eyes and sighed. “That came out wrong. I don’t need advice about how to kill. I need advice about how to handle killing.”

    “Oh.” Morgan reached for the armrest of the couch next to him, then leaned against it. “Is this about the Caribbean?”

    “No.” Chuck shook his head. “It’s…” He took a deep breath. “Have you ever executed someone?”

    “Oh,” Morgan repeated himself. “No, Phil was always the one to do that, when it was necessary. Did you have to, uh, execute a spy?”

    “No.” After a moment, Chuck added: “But I saw it happen.”

    “And now you’re not sure how you feel about your love killing someone in cold blood? Well, I do have some experience with that, indeed.” Morgan nodded.

    “What? No, it wasn’t Sarah,” Chuck told him.

    “You saw Casey killing someone, and now you’re worried that he’ll flip and kill everyone in the store?”

    “No, no. I’m not worried about that!” Although… perhaps he should be worried about it, Chuck realised. Working in retail was stressful, everyone knew that, and the Buy More staff was a little more colourful than most. Even Chuck had fantasised a few times about hurting Jeff and Lester, after all. “Anyway, it’s not about Casey’s possible serial killer tendencies.” He blinked. “Or, in a way, it might be.”

    Morgan gasped. “You think he’s going to come after us? First Jeff and Lester, then me?”

    “No, no!” Chuck held up his hand. “Let’s forget about the risk of Casey going postal for a moment, alright?”

    “Alright. But I am now worried, Chuck.”

    Chuck sighed again. “I’m worried that I’ll become like Casey.” There, he’d said it.

    Morgan was staring at him with a rather dumbfounded expression. “What?”

    “I’m afraid that I might end up like Casey - always ready to kill someone. You know, slippery slope, coverts being fanatics?” Chuck smiled encouragingly at Morgan.

    Although his friend seemed to be more afraid and disturbed than encouraged. “Chuck… are you getting enough sleep?”

    Was that a dig at his relationship with Sarah? It counted as rest, anyway. “Yes, my sleep schedule is perfectly alright,” Chuck replied. This wasn’t like when they had started Everquest together.

    “So, why would you come up with such an absurd fear?” Morgan shook his head, chuckling. “You’re the last person who’d become like Casey. Hey, the fact that you’re worried about it is proof that you won’t become like him.”

    “Sarah said the same thing.” Chuck sighed and leaned back, resting his head on the couch’s back.

    “You talked to her about it?”

    Morgan sounded a little hurt, he noticed. “Well, it came up at home.”

    “Ah.” His friend nodded. “And you didn’t trust her. I mean, her judgement.”

    “No!” Of course he did trust Sarah. “I mean, yes… I needed a second opinion by someone who knows me well and isn’t biased.” And wasn’t a spy.

    “Ah.” Morgan smiled. “Well, in my expert opinion, you’re not in danger of becoming a stone-cold killer like Casey.”

    “Thank you, Morgan.” Chuck was surprised to realise that he meant it. Two people close to him - closest, though in different ways - believed in him.

    If only he believed in himself as much. But it certainly helped.

    Although it was worrying - more than a little worrying, if he was honest - that both Morgan and himself had been using Casey as an example of the worst case. The NSA agent was their - well, Chuck’s - teammate, after all.

    Well, every team had their dark horse. Or something like that. “Let’s get back to work,” Chuck said.

    But when he opened the door, he was almost bowled over by Jeff and Lester.

    “Hide us!”

    “Help us!”

    “He’ll kill us!”

    “What?” Chuck managed to say as the two troublemakers rushed past him and hid behind the couch.

    “What did you do?” Morgan asked.

    And there came Casey, glaring.

    Chuck swallowed and stepped in the agent’s way. “Whoa, whoa, whoa… let’s calm down before we do something everyone will regret.”

    Casey snarled, but Chuck stood his ground. “What happened?”

    “They wrecked my lunch,” Casey spat.

    “It was an accident!” Lester piped up from behind the couch.

    Chuck saw Casey’s eyes widen and spread his arms to hold him off. “Hold on!”

    “They’re about to have an accident,” Casey growled.

    “What about they’re about to pay you another lunch?” Chuck smiled as widely as he could. “Two lunches?”

    Casey stared at him, then sneered again, but nodded. Well, he jerked his head up and down, but that was Casey for you.

    Crisis averted.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, February 10th, 2008

    “...and I really wonder if those two are bent on suicide by Casey.” He shook his head as he opened the carton with the curry.

    “If he really wanted to kill them, he wouldn’t go after them like this,” Sarah told him, blowing on her Peking duck. “Thank you for buying lunch, by the way.”

    “It’s the least I could do for missing our break,” he replied. “And I know that, but Jeff and Lester are… you need to get used to them. Build up a tolerance.” And Jeff was a demon.

    “Casey’s been through worse. He was a marine before he joined the NSA - if he’s still sane after a decade in that business, then a pair of store staff won’t break his mind.” She took a bite and smiled. “Mhh. That’s good. Did you find a new take-out?”

    “Not new, but it’s a bit further from here than our usual selection, so I rarely head there for lunch,” he replied. “But I’m not sure if he’s actually sane.”

    She didn’t roll her eyes, but the look she gave him conveyed the message anyway. “Chuck, Casey’s a sniper. If that made you insane, we’d have hundreds of serial killers in the country.”

    That was a terrifying thought.

    “Although,” she went on with a frown, “speaking of serial killers, without the FBI suppressing the evidence, most vampire killings would trigger a serial killer flag just from the number of missing persons in a given location.”

    Chuck nodded. “Yes, the FBI does that. And that’s also how the Council finds a lot of the established vampires and demons. And the odd human serial killer, I guess.”

    “And how do they handle them?”

    “They usually pass them to the authorities - if they manage to catch them alive. Not everyone cooperates.”

    “Ah.” She took another forkful, closing her eyes for a moment and moaning softly. “That’s really good.”

    She looked like… He blushed a little. And licked his lips for a reason that had nothing to do with his own meal. Then he blinked. “Are you trying to distract me?”

    Her grin was answer enough, but she quickly grew serious. “Chuck, you shouldn’t dwell on this like that. That’s not good for you.”

    Hadn’t she told him that worrying about starting to enjoy killing was a good sign? He didn’t ask, though - that would have been petty. “Alright,” he lied.

    “Good.”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, February 10th, 2008

    “Agents, Mr Bartowski, you’ve got a new mission,” General Beckman said, frowning at them through the screen, before her image shrunk and a few files and pictures appeared next to her. “Yesterday, Agent Aaron Cooper didn’t show up to work. He was one of a number of suspects for having ties to Fulcrum, so a team was sent to his apartment. They found it deserted.

    “Scumbag ran. Someone must have leaked that he was being investigated,” Casey muttered.

    “That is being looked into, yes. But more importantly, when the logs of his computer access were analysed, it was discovered that he had been trying to access the database of some of our contractors.”

    Chuck gasped. “Like the one who prepare the safe houses - or this base?”

    She nodded with a grim expression. “Exactly, Mr Bartowski. While it has been confirmed that he was unable to penetrate the database with the most sensitive information, we discovered that he managed to access secondary and tertiary files - including travelling plans which will have allowed him to deduce that there was a secret construction in Los Angeles.”

    Chuck felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. If Fulcrum knew… but Los Angeles was big, and they already knew that the Intersect was in the rough area, didn’t they?

    The general wasn’t done talking, of course. “This happened a month ago. Fulcrum must have been investigating Los Angeles for at least a few weeks, without us noticing,” she told them as her frown deepened.

    Hey! That wasn’t their fault.

    “This throws a new light on the assassination of Gonzàlez.”

    “Oh?” What did she mean? Chuck grew tense, as, he noticed, did the others - even Bane.

    Beckman glanced at him for a moment, and he forced himself to smile, “Sorry.”

    “We’ve been keeping tabs on this and similar incidents in your area of operations. The police investigation blames a rival cartel, but according to our analysis, the assassination would also fit the modus operandi of a foreign intelligence agency - or a rogue CIA operation.”

    “Fulcrum.” Sarah nodded with a serious expression, and if Chuck hadn’t known better, he would have believed that she had no idea what had really happened.

    “Correct. It’s conjecture, but it’s the best lead we have. Investigate the incident and find out if Fulcrum was involved in it. And if what’s case, what their goal was.” The general nodded at them.

    “Yes, ma’am,” Casey snapped as everyone straightened.

    “Dismissed, agents, Mr Bartowski.”

    Chuck glanced at Bane. They would have to investigate their own mission and ‘discover’ the planted evidence without revealing themselves to the general or Bane. And all that while the real Fulcrum mission, whatever it was, continued undeterred.

    Great.

    “A Fulcrum operation in Los Angeles,” Bane commented, shaking her head. “At least we have a lead. We’ll need to get the most up to date files from the police investigation.”

    Casey snorted. “Won’t help much, what with the rubble still smoking. They haven’t even finished tallying the dead, much less identifying everyone.”

    Which, to be fair, was a little difficult, what with the entire building having collapsed, Chuck knew. Dubois’s body was buried under ten stories worth of debris and rubble.

    “It’s a first step. If Fulcrum went after Gonzàlez, then they had a reason. We’ll have to investigate him to find out what it was,” Bane insisted.

    Chuck nodded in agreement. “Exactly. I’ll see about getting the records from their database.”

    Bane looked surprised for a moment before she nodded. Chuck couldn’t tell if it was about his support for her or his hacking, but he certainly hoped that he wouldn’t have to ask Dad for help for this. Which, he realised, he would have to do anyway so the data could be suitably altered and sanitised, if needed. But at least things were progressing somewhat according to plan in this area. With regards to Fulcrum, though… “So. What do we do about security? There is a Fulcrum operation out there. Probably not as out as we’d like. Especially me.”

    “We continue as we were,” Sarah said. “Our cover was set up with such scrutiny in mind.”

    “Uh…” Chuck knew this, but that had been in the abstract, or something. Knowing that there were enemy spies in the area searching for him changed things. Or should change things. “What about decoys, or something?”

    “Those would only confirm that we’re in the area,” Sarah pointed out. “If we don’t do anything, they might give up and assume that was a decoy.”

    “Ah.” Chuck nodded - that made sense. Although in a warped way. Which, he realised, he could easily follow. “So, I’ll get started on the police files,” he said, making a point of flexing his fingers as he sat down at the base’s main computer terminal.

    “You do that. We’ll recon the actual area,” Casey said.

    “Careful,” Bane told them. “This might be Fulcrum’s way to lure us out of cover.”

    Casey scoffed. “We know what we’re doing.”

    Uh. Chuck drew a slow, deep breath as he had a thought. Bane had a good point actually, even though she didn’t know it - Fulcrum might suspect that the CIA was behind the Gonzàlez killing. That kind of assassination certainly would fit what they knew about the CIA’s effort in Los Angeles.

    He blinked. Both Bane and Fulcrum might be correct despite working with entirely incorrect assumptions. He glanced at Sarah and Casey. Had they thought of this as well? They would have, being experienced spies, of course. Still, what if they hadn’t? They might underestimate the danger. And Chuck couldn’t really warn them without Bane getting suspicious… “Be careful anyway,” he said. “Please.”

    Casey rolled his eyes, but Sarah nodded. “We will.”

    Then they were gone, leaving Chuck with Bane in the base. Well, he had a task to do himself. He grabbed a coke from the fridge and started working.

    But he had barely begun his first attempts to poke the police’s firewall when Bane joined him and looked over his shoulder. “How is it going?” she asked - uncomfortably close to his ear.

    He shifted in his seat a little, turning his head to face her, but she didn’t back off. “Uh. I’m just starting on the LAPD firewall. It’s not the best-maintained setup, and their IT security isn’t that good, but it’ll take some time to find an exploit to let me in.”

    “How long will it take? I could do social hacking to get you a password.”

    “Uh… shouldn’t be longer than a day,” Chuck said. “I’ve done this before.” For Morgan and Caridad, when they needed some information from the police and didn’t want to ask the Council for help, but it counted.

    “Ah.” She nodded as she straightened, giving him more space, but kept her hand on the backrest of his chair. “Good. It would take about as long to arrange a social hack.”

    By which she meant seducing some IT support guy, Chuck knew. “Yes,” he said. “There’s also the option to physically break in - there’s always a desk with the password on a post-it note next to the screen.”

    “You’ve done that as well?” she asked.

    He shrugged in response. “Once or twice.” With Sarah and Casey.

    “You’ve got experience.” The way she said it seemed to hint at something else. Or was Chuck misreading this? She might just be friendly after he supported her plan. On the other hand…

    “A little,” he said. “But I should get on with it.”

    She patted his shoulder as he turned back to the screen. A friendly gesture of support. Or so he hoped.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, February 10th, 2008

    The police had cordoned off the still smoking ruins, but that hadn’t stopped the press and spectators from gathering. Even now, three days later, there was a decent crowd. Not enough, though, to hide Sarah and Casey from an observant spy.

    But there were other means. Quite convenient ones, even. Sarah suppressed a smile as she approached the police officer apparently in charge. “Officer? We’re from the Department of Public Health. We’re here to take soil and air samples.”

    “What?”

    She repeated her spiel while Casey, standing behind her, grunted something about this being a waste of time.

    “I wasn’t informed of that,” the police officer told her.

    “Oh, great!” Casey exclaimed. “Another screwup!”

    “Please check with your superior, then,” she told him. “We transmitted the forms yesterday.” At least that was what the backdated entries would claim.

    “But forensics isn’t yet done here,” the man protested.

    “Should give them a kick in the ass, then,” Casey grumbled.

    Sarah smiled sweetly. “Please excuse my colleague; it has been a rough few days.”

    “Here too, damn,” the cop replied.

    “But we really need to take samples. What if the building’s remains are releasing toxic substances? Can you imagine the consequences?”

    “Hell of a lot of lawsuits,” Casey added.

    Sighing, the cop pulled out his radio and called headquarters. It still took ten more minutes until they got permission to enter, and they were restricted to the outskirts - but that was, again, a good thing.

    They walked the perimeter, stopping to take pictures and ‘take samples’ every few yards - a cover to observe their surroundings.

    “We should’ve taken Bartowski with us,” Casey grumbled after a few minutes. “The Intersect was made for this.”

    “It’s too dangerous for him,” Sarah replied. They had been in disguise during the mission, but Chuck wasn’t a very experienced actor yet. And what if he had a flashback in the middle of the ruins? This had been probably the most stressful mission to date for him. “And he can check our pictures.”

    “You can’t keep protecting him, Walker,” Casey replied in a low voice. “If he’s to be a spy, he needs to be able to face this.”

    Did he know what Sarah feared? Or was this just a dig at Chuck’s relative inexperience? “Someone also has to hack the police system,” she replied. “And he’s the best hacker we have available.” Apart from Orion, but they couldn’t risk bringing in Chuck’s dad with Bane on the mission.

    Casey grumbled something she didn’t catch.

    She glanced at him. “Hm?”

    “It’ll be a bitch and a half to dig out all of this. They might just bulldoze it over.”

    “Without finding Dubois,” Sarah said. That would be an ideal outcome - a perfect scapegoat for the CIA. Then she blinked. “Take a look at the forensic team there,” she whispered.

    “Full masks and suits?” Casey snorted. “With firemen and cops having walked all over the rubble already? A very good way to hide their faces. Let’s see if they take a break and keep the masks on.”

    They didn’t. During the time Casey and Sarah walked the perimeter, the forensic team she had spotted didn’t take a break, nor did any of the three people pull up their breathing mask. Unlike others working in the area.

    “A buck says they’re spies,” Casey said.

    Sarah didn’t take the bet. “Let’s see if we can find out more about them.”

    A few chats with cops later, they knew that the suspicious people were supposedly an FBI team. But if they were from the FBI, the agency would know - such things went through Homeland Security these days. Someone in the FBI could be playing games, of course - this was a high-profile case. But Sarah didn’t think that that was the case. “Let’s Chuck run this through the system.”

    “Yes. Let him be useful,” Casey said.

    She glared at him, but didn’t say anything - it wouldn’t be worth it.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, February 10th, 2008

    An order requisitioning a van. Followed by a face, followed by case files. Murder. Assassination. Kidnapping. Sabotage. More murder and sabotage. And theft.

    “Uh oh.” Chuck drew a sharp breath - he didn’t gasp. “Guys? I’ve flashed.”

    “You did?” Bane, who had been looking through the data Sarah had brought herself, turned to face him. “What did you find out?”

    Sarah echoed her question as she came over to look at Chuck’s screen. Even Casey put the gun he was maintaining down.

    “That masked guy leading the suspicious team?” Chuck asked. “Bert Vandermas. CIA spy. Nicknamed ‘The Chameleon’ since he’s an expert in disguises. Sabotage, assassinations, infiltration - he’s done a lot of that. And according to the CIA files, he’s currently on medical leave…”

    “It seems Fulcrum still has their hooks in the Agency’s medical branch,” Bane commented. “Their agents should have been rooted out after they faked Larkin’s death!”

    Chuck suppressed the familiar mix of guilt and pain at the reminder of Bryce’s death. “Well, they can go over the doctors again. But more importantly… what do we do now? The Chameleon could pass as anyone - according to his files, he even disguised himself as a general’s mistress once, to assassinate the man!” He pointed at that file on the screen.

    “Those were special circumstances,” Sarah told him after skimming the report. “The general apparently had his mistress wear a veil on certain meetings so she wouldn’t be recognised.”

    “So women with veils are a danger,” Chuck said.

    “Yes, Bartowski. Stay away from veiled women,” Casey agreed in a mocking tone.

    “This is serious,” Bane cut in. “Vandermas will be able to recon a lot of places without us noticing.”

    “Yes!” Chuck nodded. “I didn’t flash on his disguises - I flashed on the van’s requisitioning forms.”

    “They still have to recognise you. No one but us and the general knows you’re the Intersect,” Sarah said, putting her hand on his shoulder.

    “That’s true,” Bane said. “Los Angeles is a big city - the odds of him walking into the Buy More are very, very low.”

    Chuck nodded, though he disagreed - Vandermas is an expert on disguises. He might recognise Chuck as the missing banker from the Gonzàlez case. After all, the police were already aware that it had been a cover identity since they hadn’t actually been able to fake actual employment at an investment bank. Worse, the traces Dad had planted to frame Gonzàlez for the payments to Ellie might lead Fulcrum straight to Chuck...

    He had to inform the others, as soon as they were away from Bane!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, February 10th, 2008

    “...and if they follow up the money trail Dad has prepared, they’ll come to Ellie and me,” Chuck finished as they reached their street. “What can we do?”

    Sarah looked grim, he noticed. “It’s too late to remove all the traces,” she said. “We’ll have to fake a cover story for a possible CIA involvement in the assassination that doesn’t involve you and Ellie.”

    “That still leaves us - me and her - linked to Gonzàlez,” Chuck pointed out.

    “A dead end,” Sarah said, before wincing, “Sorry.”

    “It’s OK,” Chuck replied. “But how do we do it?”

    “We’ll have to fake a CIA operation involving drug smuggling and money laundering,” Sarah said. “And you’ll have to play the harmless overqualified computer technician convincingly so that Vandermas will assume you were simply a potential recruit for Gonzàlez when he investigates you and Ellie.”

    Chuck slowly nodded. “Alright.” He could do it. He had to do it. For Ellie. “I’ve been a harmless IT support guy for years,” he said, forcing himself to laugh. “It’ll be easy.”

    “But you’ll still have to work on the case so Bane won’t grow suspicious,” Sarah pointed out.

    “Uh.”

    That would complicate things.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, February 12th, 2008

    There was a suspicious man. Wearing a trenchcoat? It wasn’t that cold outside. And he had been staring at the laptop shelf for half an hour as if he couldn’t decide which model he wanted. Despite Jeff’s help. But would The Chameleon be as obvious? Or would he assume that such a disguise was too obvious to be considered suspicious by other spies?

    Chuck didn’t know. But he kept an eye on the man. And on the man in the far too expensive suit studying the microwave ovens. People who wore such suits didn’t generally shop in the Buy More - they had people for that. And usually wanted more expensive appliances and gadgets anyway.

    One day into mission ‘playing innocent’, and Chuck could already feel his stress levels rising steadily with every hour in the store. At least Bane seemed to have accepted that Chuck ‘would have to play it safe just in case Fulcrum has more information than we thought’, so she didn’t question him being far more cautious when visiting The Castle instead of checking up on the base during breaks and lunch.

    Still…

    “Hi, Chuck!”

    He jumped at the sudden greeting about an inch from his ear, whirling around… to face a giggling Slayer. “Caridad!”

    She nodded. “What’s wrong? You usually aren’t that tense.”

    “Nothing,” he said. “Just, you know…” He shrugged.

    “Ah.” She nodded.

    Chuck wasn’t quite sure what she was thinking. “How do you do?”

    “Oh, I’m doing well. We finished tracking down that demon nest, and I totally showed up Vi!”

    “Really?” He hadn’t kept track of that, not with everything else going on. Two Slayers usually could handle almost everything.

    “Oh, yes!” She beamed at him. “I killed far more…” She trailed off and cocked her head, staring with narrowed eyes at a young man browsing the game section for a few seconds before turning back to Chuck. “Sorry, just thought I’d felt a demon. Anyway, we were tracking them for days, you know? Through the sewers, as usual, but when we found them, it was great!”

    Chuck nodded as she started to detail a gory, bloody fight that apparently counted as a great time. Slayers.

    Then he noticed that the young man she had been staring at had vanished.

    He turned to Caridad. “Was that a demon?”

    “What?” She looked around. “The weird guy? No. Nothing hinky. Just… weird.”

    “‘Weird’.”

    “Yes, weird.” She nodded emphatically, then made a point of looking at Lester.

    “Uh, right,” Chuck said. Weird indeed.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, February 12th, 2008

    “...and Jeff and Lester managed to wreck another PC in an attempt to convince me that they are Mac-exclusive tech support.” Chuck sighed as he started setting the table.

    “And what did you do?” Sarah asked from the stove.

    “Told them to fix the PC or it’d come out of their salary.” He wouldn’t fall for their antics. And Nerd Herd needed more PC guys once Chuck was working for the Council.

    “Good. Did you see any suspicious people spying on you?”

    “Only a weird one Caridad noticed,” Chuck replied.

    “‘Weird’?” She raised her eyebrows.

    “Her words. Not a demon, though, according to her.” Chuck shrugged. “He disappeared very quickly, though. Could have been a mage. Most of them get nervous when a Slayer pays attention to them.” They had a reason for that, of course - many witches and warlocks weren’t exactly using magic for good.

    “Ah.” She removed the pot and poured the water through the sieve in the sink. “The spaghetti are done.”

    “It’s a good last meal,” he commented five minutes later.

    She rolled her eyes at him, but she was smiling, a little. “Chuck - we’re just going over a few more details with Ellie and Devon. It’s not the end of the world.”

    “It’s never just a few details with Ellie,” he retorted. “First the seating arrangement…”

    “We did that already.”

    “...then the dessert…” he went on.

    “Also already ordered.”

    “...and then the last minute alterations to the decorations.” He knew his sister.

    “The wedding is still two months away,” she told him. “That’s not exactly last minute.”

    “That’s even more of a reason for her to change things.” He shook his head. “We should have hired a wedding planner. One of those who don’t take no for an answer and don’t listen to the bride and groom.”

    “I don’t think that a wedding planner who doesn’t listen to their clients’ wishes would have much success,” she pointed out.

    “They would only have to handle Ellie’s wedding, and I’d be happy.”

    She laughed at that. “Although there’s one thing we need to discuss with them.”

    She was smiling in that ‘I’ve got bad news’ way, he noticed. “Uh… what?”

    “Security.”

    Oh. He closed his eyes and sighed. “Ugh.” That wouldn’t be pretty.

    *****​

    It wasn’t.

    “Security?” Ellie had skipped the ‘what do you mean’ part and gone straight to ‘explain!’. With narrowed eyes and a deep frown.

    “Well, between the spies and the Slayers attending, there might be trouble,” Chuck pointed out. “More trouble than just a few unruly drunks. I don’t mean between the guests,” he quickly explained. “But there might be an attack or something.”

    “An attack. On our wedding,” Ellie said in a flat voice.

    “It’s just a possibility,” Sarah said. “Unlikely, but we still should take a few precautions.”

    “Yes,” Chuck agreed, nodding. “Perhaps a Slayer or two on guard. A sniper on overwatch, maybe a rifle team on standby…” He trailed off when he saw Ellie’s expression darkening.

    “You want to turn our wedding into an armed camp?” She stood, placing both palms on the table. “Devon! Say something!”

    “Well…” Captain Awesome looked uncomfortable. “If there’s a risk of an attack, by demons or, uh, spies…”

    Ellie glared at him for a moment, mouth opening, but she closed it again without saying anything and sat down. “An attack on our wedding.”

    “It’s not likely,” Sarah repeated herself.

    “Yes. With Council members attending, most demons should know better than to attempt anything,” Chuck said. No one liked death by Willow. Or death by Slayer. Unless there were suicidal demons.

    “That’s not really reassuring, Chuck,” Ellie retorted. “Can you imagine trying to explain to our guests how - and why - a couple of demons were hacked to pieces in front of the church?”

    “Because they couldn’t enter hallowed ground?” Chuck’s encouraging smile died quickly in the face of Ellie’s expression.”Sorry. Bad joke. Anyway, we could claim it was a badly-thought-out performance? Live-action roleplay with Hollywood special effects?”

    “At our wedding.”

    “Well…” Chuck shrugged. “It’s something the staff at the Buy More could come up with, actually,” he pointed out.

    That didn’t calm down Ellie, though. It made her more apprehensive about inviting anyone connected to the store.

    Which, Chuck had to admit, was not an altogether unreasonable stance. Jeff and Lester’s latest attempt to convince Ellie and Devon to let them play at the wedding by serenading them was just one of the more obvious reasons for that.

    “Uh. Speaking of unlikely…” he said, clearing his throat. “Did you notice anyone, uh, stalking you lately?”

    “‘Stalking’?” And the frown was back, with friends

    He smiled weakly. “Well, you see, there’s this enemy spy…”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, February 14th, 2008

    Still no sign of the Chameleon. Of course that didn’t mean that the spy wasn’t around - just that Chuck hadn’t spotted him. But that only made the whole situation worse. What if the enemy spy was observing Chuck at this very moment? Disguised as a harmless customer?

    There were a number of possible disguises, Chuck noticed as he looked around the store. The housewife there - that floor-length new-age skirt could hide both a man’s legs as well as many weapons, and the knitted top was shapeless enough to be unisex. The hair could be a wig.

    Or the man pushing a stroller. Who would suspect a spy using a baby? It was the perfect disguise.

    Or the delivery guy. They could enter almost every building - and bring packages with them that could contain anything. Weapons, bombs, poison… Someone had to have thought of this before.

    He sighed and pushed the crooked paper-maché heart away so he could check his screen for appointments. This year’s Valentine’s Day decor was particularly hideous. Pink and red hearts were everywhere in the store, at the most unsuitable places. And so many of them - the Buy More staff had picked the worst possible way to display enthusiasm for their job and placed the stupid things, both paper-maché as well as balloons, on every surface. Including the cash registers, in some cases.

    He shook his head. At least it would be over by tomorrow. If they had done this with Christmas decorations...

    “Hi, Chuck!”

    He jerked, then rolled his eyes as he turned around, “Caridad! Don’t sneak up on me!”

    “Sure,” she lied. “How are you doing?”

    He shrugged, then nodded at the closest heart-shaped balloon.

    “Ah.” She nodded, though she kept grinning. “So, speaking of Valentine’s day…”

    “Yes?”

    Instead of answering, she frowned and sniffed the air. “I’ve smelled that before, last night.”

    “Oh?”

    “On a patrol. Didn’t catch whoever it was, though.” She was looking around.

    Someone had escaped a Slayer’s notice? And was stalking her? They had to be very good at shadowing...

    Chuck’s eyes widened. Oh no!

    *****​
     
    Prince Charon, Osserumb, RedX and 2 others like this.
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