Chuck stepped forward and put his arm around Sarah. He leaned down to kiss her on the cheek and said, "Get upset with me," in her ear. It was hot and humid in Columbia, a combination that always made Chuck feel sticky and wilted, but Sarah seemed to glow with a sun-warmed rosiness. She smiled up at him — not the "I'm happy to see you smile' the "What's going on?" smile — but there wasn't a whole lot she could say with the, uh, escort their host had provided to the local market.
Sarah turned away from him, tucked under the curve of his arm like she was made for it, and spent long enough looking through the jewelry on the cart that Chuck wasn't sure she'd heard him. Just when he'd started getting nervous her head had whipped around hard, and Chuck turned to follow her gaze. He didn't see anything weird — the two guards with them, and a woman who'd just passed them walking down the dusty lane of the market — and then Sarah pulled away.
"You couldn't at least be subtle about it?" she snapped, and Chuck's brain was still processing the Sarah-shaped hole under his arm to follow the conversation. "She's not even that pretty." Chuck fought the impulse to freak out at Sarah's tone, reminded himself it was an act for now, though that might change in a minute. "You do this every time we go somewhere nice, and I am tired of it."
"Honey, please calm down," Chuck said. "Sorry, fellas," he told their overly muscled shadows, "we're having a little domestic issue. If you'll exuse us." He shepherded Sarah off the main path, between a market stall and a cart of goats: loud surroundings, no direct line of sight from the guards.
"So why do I hate you?"
"Because I wanted to tell you what happened, and it fits with the cover I just had to make up," Chuck said, there was no way to say it but to say it, and the clock was running. "So you know all of that stuff in your luggage?" he said, sparing a quick glance out the corner of his eye to the guards, "Since I couldn't tell them it was for work, I told them it was for play."
Sarah's mouth tightened, and she went still. "You told them I'm a dominatrix?"
"No," Chuck said quickly, tension knotting in his stomach as the fake annoyance got a little too real for comfort. It wasn't worth picking a fight over her assumption that she would've been the top. "There were no implications that it was a profession as such, more of a — a hobby."
"Not the point, Chuck."
"I'm sorry. It wasn't ideal, I know that, but I didn't know what else to say!" He put his hand on her arm and she shrugged it off. It would've been nice to believe it was part of the act. "How else was I supposed to explain a catsuit and rappelling gear?" he pleaded. "I'm just glad I don't have my tranq guns because I don't even want to know what I would've said."
"So when you explained all of this did you think about the fact that Villarosa's an arms dealer paranoid enough to search our luggage, who's invited thirty of the most dangerous people in the world to stay in his hacienda?"
Chuck frowned. "Sorry, what?"
"If he's smart," Sarah said, he will have cameras in every room of that house. So if we don't want them to get suspicious, we should probably use it."
"Oh god," Chuck said. His mind was spinning suddenly, rolling through item after item of their luggage. The rope, the cuffs, the knives. "I'm sorry." Chuck took her face in both hands and kissed her. "I'll make it up to you, I promise."
"Yeah, you will." She pulled his hand down and twined it with hers, and led them back to the center of the market.
Chuck hadn't brought up the assumption that Sarah would be the top because it wasn't worth picking a fight. Also, well, she wasn't wrong.
He was not looking forward to their check-in with Casey and Bryce, but hey, what was a little humiliation between friends. Okay, friends and Bryce, because calling him a friend when he'd gone to bed with Chuck and Sarah more nights in the past three weeks than he hadn't seemed a little disingenuous.
"Are we in place to make our move on Gruber tonight?" Bryce said over the comms.
"It'll have to wait," Sarah said as she glanced over at Chuck. She took a sip from her cocktail. "We had an issue and need to do some damage control to maintain our cover."
Casey's lip curled. "Nice going, Bartowski."
"You told him?" Chuck asked Sarah, wilting. "I was hoping you wouldn't tell him!"
"She didn't need to," Casey said. "When has Walker ever done something to compromise her cover?" A question Chuck couldn't have answered with all the time in the world, let alone before Casey raised an eyebrow and asked, "So what is there to tell?" More for mocking potential than any prurient interest, Chuck hoped.
"It wasn't Chuck's fault," Sarah said, "It's not a big deal. Casey and Chuck and I will go to the party tonight, and we'll wait until tomorrow."
"Maybe if we're lucky he'll be hungover."
Sometimes Chuck thought Bryce liked being the voice in their ears just so he could make sure everyone heard his jokes, especially since he did the same thing when they had Halo LAN parties in college. It was obnoxious and endearing at the same time.
"Gruber isn't supposed to leave before Monday," Sarah said. "So we should have plenty of time to complete the mission." She always made things simple, which Chuck usually loved, but completing the mission was more daunting when you knew it involved taking a German megolomaniac with a taste for chemical weapons into custody. Double-trouble when he was most vulnerable surrounded by more than two dozen other internationally wanted criminals. Even if they were on a fabulous poolside veranda.
"So I should…rest now, right?" she said, hesitant.
"Stand, honey," Chuck said, not looking down, "but yeah." It's not like Sarah was asking because she actually needed help playing blackjack, but her playing garnered more attention than Chuck playing would've, which gave Chuck a better opportunity to keep an eye on the room. Villarosa's mansion had been turned into a floating casino for the night, full professional tables and uniformed dealers.
"Oh," she said, and giggled, a sound Chuck only heard on missions. "I'll stand then," she told the dealer, who gave a little chuckle.
The dealer flipped his cards. "And the lady wins. Another deal?"
It was pretty clear that as far as these people were concerned, Sarah was arm candy. Sometimes when they were on missions Chuck wanted to smack people upside the head, to show them the Sarah they were overlooking — the Sarah that, admittedly, they were meant to overlook — but he didn't understand how someone could look at her and not realize there was something special. He'd known it from the first moment he saw her, even if he hadn't known what it was. But a mission was a mission: making people dismiss and underestimate her was part of what Sarah did.
"If it's all the same to you gentlemen," Chuck said, "I think we'll make an early night of it."
Sarah slipped off of her stool and headed toward the wide marble staircase, ignoring the elevator that went to the second and third floors of the mansion. The stairs were still noisy with the din from the main floor if they were bugged, but far enough way that the partygoers couldn't hear them. Sarah activated her earpiece with a tap as she brushed a strand of her from her face. "Bryce, do you know what the weather's going to be like tomorrow?" There was a pause, which Chuck thought was weird, because Bryce's response should've come through his too, and then Sarah said, "I need you to stop recording for the next hour or two. I know, just trust me, please. And open the channel to Chuck."
"Weather?" Chuck said.
"Code," she said. "To put us on a private channel." She saw something on his face she didn't like, and she went all guilty and determined. "I'm not trying to hide things from Casey, but he does not need to hear this."
Which was a point Chuck couldn't really argue, not if he wanted to be able to look Casey in the eye in the morning. "What about Bryce?"
"I'm here." Right. Stop recording, not stop listening. A shiver went up Chuck's spine, goosebumps prickling down his legs, a feeling of anticipation he associated with impending danger. "Do you want me to mute?" Bryce asked.
Chuck never been so thankful that Casey spent so many months complaining about Bryce being an active part of the team, because it meant that for months he'd been relegated to comms, where, in Casey's words, he could be useful without being in a position to shoot someone in the back. Even now that Casey had warmed to him a bit — he'd been a lot more willing to believe it was Bryce after they'd tracked down the trail of cryogenic facilities he'd been held in for four years — the habit had held and Bryce, as often as not, was the one keeping tabs on communications.
The danger-feeling fizzled when Sarah squeezed Chuck's hand. "No."
Their room was closer to the elevator than the stairs, so Chuck had a nice long hallway to have an internal freakout in. Chuck would be the first to admit that he was not what you would call the most avant garde of lovers. He'd done okay with the ongoing threesome, but apparently knowing that the three part of that some would be listening in was a whole 'nother ballgame to his delicate sensibilities.
Sarah unlocked the door and opened it without looking back.
"I've been thinking about you all night." Sarah could talk dirty with the best of them and he'd been the victim of her feminine wiles often enough to prove it, but that was porn-star dialogue right there, not Sarah's style at all. Neither was her pulling him in by the hand and pushing him down onto the end of the four poster bed. That was making an entrance.
"Have a seat," she said, then turned away. "Unzip me?" The dress peeled off and fell away in a puddle at her feet and she strolled away in her bra and garter and Cuban-heeled stockings. If there was one thing Sarah didn't get enough credit for (and Chuck felt there were several) it was knowing how to work a camera. She was picture perfect from every angle; even the black seams on her stockings were straight. She emerged from the closet with her valise — a bag too classy to be just a duffel, Chuck thought, especially when it was being carried to the bed by a Vargas girl come to life. She made an artfully disdainful face at the bag's contents when she opened it. "You were supposed to bring me things I can use." She left the bag behind to close the curtains on the French doors to the balcony, which Chuck appreciated. "Take your jacket off." She said it casually, almost as an afterthought. Then she slipped the braided cord sashes out of their loops.
"Sarah?" Chuck asked, tossing his suitcoat on the bed behind him. "Honey? Whatcha doing?" That kind of thing never sounded as casual as he would've liked.
"Getting something to tie you up with," Sarah said. "You're a little delicate for handcuffs, sweetie." There was a patronizing twist to her mouth, the kind of look Chuck had nightmares about for years, back when Sarah was the gorgeous spy pretending to be his girlfriend instead of his gorgeous spy wife. "The knives are nice though."
Gorgeous spy wife or not, she'd made it pretty clear she wasn't happy with the situation. So was she just being toppy because she was annoyed? Or was she pretending to be toppy and it was annoying her? Either way, Sarah pissed off at him was a dead ringer for Sarah as a dominatrix and his brain felt like he was stuck in a bad programming recursion, the dreaded fatal loop error. He seemed to be having a little trouble with his shirt buttons.
"Yeah," he said, "I, uh," he stuttered, "I uh, I thought you'd like them?"
"Relax, Porky Pig," Bryce said, and Chuck jumped. He'd forgotten all about their earpieces. "The best way to sell it is to believe it yourself, so don't worry about putting on an act." Chuck almost answered — it was easy for Bryce to say relax when he was sitting in a van alone and not having kinky sex on camera — but realized hey, on camera, and Bryce wasn't actually there. "It's okay to get into it," Bryce said, "I promise," which didn't sound like the only thing Bryce was promising.
It was easy advice to take when Sarah dropped to her knees in front of Chuck, which sent him on a whole new spin of confusion.
Sarah carefully, lovingly almost, unlaced his dress shoes and took off his shoes and socks. It wasn't until she kissed the palm of his hand that Bryce said, "Don't you love how she's still completely in control even when she's kneeling at your feet?" The thought hit him like a punch in the gut and Chuck blew out a breath against his will. Sarah's smile when she looked up was the uppercut that follows after you've got your opponent doubled-over. Her smile was small and secret when she undid his cufflinks.
"The sashes are too short." Bryce said. "I hacked their security feeds," he added casually. "Did I mention?"
Chuck didn't get a chance to process that, Bryce watching them, before Sarah leaned in to kiss Chuck's neck as she pushed his shirt off his shoulders, which was practically his Sarah kryptonite. "Where are you watching from?" she asked in his ear. Correction: Sarah flirting with Bryce via kissing Chuck's neck was definitely better.
"On your 10," Bryce said. "Camera's in the vanity above the dressing table, I think. Do you have any sentimental attachment to that shirt, Sarah?" Sarah's poker face was way better than Chuck's, because Chuck was holding himself back from defending his shirt's honor, and he would never know she'd heard Bryce if she hadn't said,
"They're a little shorter than I'd like," as she was deftly tying one of the cords around his wrist, "but that's fine. They're not really there to hold you. They're just here as a reminder." She traced his arms up to where she'd tied them to the bedposts. Because you're going to stay where I put you, aren't you?"
"Ooh, A+ for dialogue though," Bryce said.
Chuck wanted to respond, but talking to his imaginary friends? Not a good look. When he gave an experimental tug it was easy to see what they meant about being too short: a little wriggling and the tail would pop out of the tie.
While he was tugging Sarah had crawled up behind him on the bed, which he somehow didn't notice until she started scratched her fingers back and forth across his back. Chuck laughed a little. Sarah did this a lot, on the couch watching TV or standing at the kitchen counter, and it was nice to roll his shoulders forward and curve his back into it, comforting in its familiarity, even if he couldn't move as far as normal with his wrists tied. He dug his toes into the lush carpet, grabbing on with every part of his body he could while Sarah's fingernails scratched into his back.
With her behind him it was hard to tell when part of the scratching became a knife blade, but somewhere in there the fingers dropped away and the only sensation left was like a scratch but stronger. She dragged it across his back and over his shoulders a few time, like a harder, thinner fingernail. She walked around the bed again to face him, concentrating intently on the blade. Chuck watched her fingers, the way they played over each other as the flipped and twisted the knife. Always keeping the blade in contact but never cutting, never letting the point snag. Until she dragged it straight down across his stomach to slit the hem of his shirt and, with the kind of shockingly fast flick of her wrist that reminded Chuck that she did this for a living, split it to the neck.
The ripping sound was loud enough in the quiet room that Chuck winced. "Oh jeez," he gasped, because yeah, he knew she was good with knives and all but still, "Warn a guy, will you?"
"Breathe," Bryce told him. "She's got you."
Sarah tapped the flat of the knife on his chest. "Something wrong, sweetie?" It was more intense on bare skin, the cold metal its own kind of sharpness, and Chuck watched his skin indent with the pressure of the blade.
He swallowed hard. "Nope. I'm good, thanks." Strange but true. He wasn't as nervous as it seemed like he should be. She kissed him, and Chuck tried to lean forward when she moved away. She tipped the knife up just enough for him to feel the point when he tried to follow her. It was a terrible thing to do, not because he could cut himself — Sarah wouldn't let that happen accidentally — but because he couldn't kiss her anymore. He huffed a breath.
"It's weird how good it feels, isn't it?" Bryce said, and it surprised Chuck that, yeah, that was it exactly. It didn't take a government supercomputer in his brain to realize Bryce knew from experience. Had Sarah done it to Bryce? Had Bryce tried it on Sarah, did she know what it was like too? How had Bryce known the window sashes would be too short unless he knew what Sarah had wanted to do with them? How did he ask to have it happen when Bryce was here for real and not just a voice in his ear?
"Chuck?" Sarah said, "You went away. Are you okay?" And she put her hand on his face to lift his head and look him in the eye. Because she was good at this, Chuck thought. She knew what she was doing and she took care of him. He had to remember how to talk.
"I'm fine. Just — thinking."
"If you're still thinking, then I'm not doing my job."
"You should leave a few marks so I can see them up close."
Chuck didn't know if Bryce meant it. Didn't care. It's okay to get into it, Bryce had said. Chuck didn't think this was what he meant. Still didn't care. "Do it."
Bryce and Sarah said his name at the same time, which had exactly the opposite effect of warning him off.
"It doesn't have to be much." He knew it might hurt. He wasn't even sure he would like it. But it seemed worth it when it was Bryce asking and Sarah, who could hold Chuck in the palm of her hand and had since he'd met her, holding the knife. "Sarah, please."
Sarah put her hand on his face and kissed him. "If you're sure," she said. "I'll do a little."
He leaned his face into her hand and closed his eyes. When the knife touched him next it didn't feel any harder than before. Here and there, though, it left behind a stinging trail where it travelled. A line down his side, one across his chest and shoulder, one from under his arm around to his back. Sarah couldn't have kept going for more than a minute or two before she pulled her hand away. The hand with the knife. The one on his cheek must have eventually, because when he realized it wasn't there he was laying on the bed and his pants were gone.
"Sarah?" His voice felt rusty.
"Chuck?" "Are you okay?" The bed dipped as she sat next to him.
"I'm fantastic," he said. "High as a kite," he added, which he had no problem with. "Endorphins are a hell of a drug." He laughed, though he had a feeling it came out as a giggle. "Where's — "
Sarah kissed him before he could say Bryce's name. He murmured against her mouth, "Right. Imaginary friend." Which of course was not exactly what he meant, but he fell asleep before he could explain.
Chuck had never been so happy to see a mission come to a speedy and successful conclusion as when they took (okay, kidnapped) Gruber into custody the following night. They were Burbank-bound on a private plane by midnight, a long enough flight that they took shifts watching the target. Casey gave Chuck an "I smell something funny" look when he volunteered to take the shift with Casey (and by extension, as far as Casey knew, leave his wife with her ex-boyfriend), but Chuck was undeterred. The alternative was, possibly, to die by sexual deprivation if he were shut in small cabin with either said wife or said boyfriend. Let them stew in sexual tension together. He was happier, in the time-honored tradition of Bartowskis, of completely ignoring the situation and reading Star Wars: New Jedi Order novels on his Kindle.
"So I'm your imaginary friend, huh?" Bryce asked. It was, literally, the first moment the three of them had been alone together.
"I was on a serious endorphin high at the time!" Chuck said.
"Let me see?"
"They're really not that bad," Chuck said, and pulled up his shirt with one hand, a little embarrassed. He'd been weirdly disappointed when he looked at the marks in the mirror the next morning, like there should've been a little neon sign saying, 'Important stuff here!'
"That's not the point," Bryce said, he slid his hand around Chuck's side and pushed his shirt to the armpit, awkward enough that Chuck gave in and peeled it off. He grinned, a little too giddy to be model-perfect. "Thank you.
And Chuck said, "That's not the point," " He looked over at Sarah — still by the front door, though she'd finally dropped her luggage. "I didn't expect you to really do it," Bryce said. He looked back at Chuck. "How do they feel?"
"Like scratches," Chuck said, feeling dumb standing there with his shirt in his hand. He'd had worse from cats, thorns, his own clumsiness, not to mention on missions. Hell, Sarah's fingernails had done more damage than that once or twice. Bryce didn't seem to care. He traced every line on Chuck's torso with hesitant fingers and avid eyes. If standing there with his shirt half over his head was awkward, it was even worse for Chuck to just stand there and let Bryce touch him. "I know they're yours and all," he said. "But can we go somewhere warmer? Or at least not in front of the windows?"
"What?" Bryce's eyes were wide and very, very blue.
"I…don't want to stand half naked in front of the open windows?" Chuck said.
"He means the scratches," Sarah said, and she put her hand over Bryce's where it still rested on Chuck's side, let her chin sit on Bryce's shoulder.
He'd meant it as a joke at first, but it's not, not really. There's not much to the scratches, but they're there, and they're Bryce's and Sarah's.