slybrunette: (CHUCK. Chuck; soldier who lost composure)
[personal profile] slybrunette
title: chuck vs. la dolce vita
fandom: chuck
character/pairings: ensemble. bryce/carina, bryce/chuck, for this part; various others implied.
rating: r
word count: 16,629
author's note: fair warning: i had a very hard time with this. i also wrote the last several sections with people on top of my roof, so i will own any and all spelling errors that occured, though i think i've gotten rid of the bulk of them. i'm sorry this took so long.
summary: part three of an au series. sarah tries to juggle an accidental date and a tempermental partner, as they fight to keep their jobs in light of the incident in vail. carina's presence puts an added strain on chuck and bryce's relationship, both professional and personal.




ep: the oven of romance // do me a favour // will do // nightcall (beaumont remix) // come on youth

previously on: part one // part two






The bodice of her dress is already pushed down around her waist by the time the elevator dings and, were it not for the black lace camisole underneath, this would almost certainly be verging on the obscene.

Carina pulls him inside and slicks her mouth against his, drawing him closer with hands that don’t ever stop moving. He’d call it frantic, the way her body vibrates and her hands flit and her mouth moves. Bryce knows better than to confuse her usual lack of restraint, calculated as it is, with this, this wild and slightly unhinged creature who nips at his jawline and teeters in her four-inch heels.

He expects alcohol, too many shots of tequila even if he knows better, but when she opens her mouth to his he doesn’t taste anything but spit and wet, pink tongue. Her pupils are blown. Her pulse is too quick under his fingertips, the skin of her wrist, of her cheek when it presses against his, a few degrees too warm. Someone drugged her drink. Ecstasy, maybe, but that’s a guess, a hastily drawn conclusion.

The irony of the DEA agent on drugs is not lost on him.

“I’m not getting in the middle of anything, am I?”

Bryce doesn’t understand the question. He’s too busy trying to figure out if they’re making out in an elevator because she’s high or because she’s Carina and they have a history of falling back on the same bad habits to try and follow her train of thought all that closely. “What would make you think that?”

“He thinks I am,” she says. There’s no question which ‘he’ she means. Chuck. It’s always Chuck. “Wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“You’re not,” he promises, and –

-- and his fingers slip on the snaps of her camisole. And it throws him, the way something in his gut knots at the confidence in his own voice.

The doors slide open.











24 HOURS EARLIER












The alcohol wears off far too quickly.

Chuck can barely wrap his head around the dead body he left inside that abandoned store much less the six-foot-in-heels curveball that’s sprawled across the couch in their upgrade – courtesy of Gio, once again, and he gets that this is both a monetary pat on the back and an invitation to stay a while, maybe take on a few side jobs to go with their sightseeing. Every time she leans back against the couch her dress slips another few centimeters from mid-thigh and it’s drawing Bryce’s eye far more than Chuck can convince himself he’s content with. There’s that knot forming in his stomach again, like this is all about to go horribly wrong before it ever has a chance to go right.

Capri. He was really hoping for Capri.

“You don’t have to be so standoffish,” she says, and it shakes Chuck out of his own head only to have him realize that she’s talking to Bryce. One slender leg reaches out and her bare foot slides up his pants leg. It’s halfway sensual and halfway absentminded and Bryce folds his hands in his lap and smiles like he’s onto her.

“What do you know about the Intersect?”

She pulls back and her demeanor changes. Her eyes spark. Cat and mouse, and once again Chuck is the spectator. “I’m not a hostage, Larkin. I’m free to leave at any time.”

“Why did you follow us?”

“Maybe I’m here on business.”

“Show me someone who isn’t.”

He really doesn’t like being the spectator. His eyes find the clock above her head as it ticks just past two. That explains the heaviness of his eyelids, of his limbs. He’s felt tired since he spilled out of the Lamborghini and there’s a bed in here with his name on it, he just doesn’t know which one it is yet. There are two. The awkward couch bed had oversimplified things for them, made sharing the king bed into the obvious solution. This is a little different. This requires actual conversation and sentences Chuck just knows he’ll stumble over when all he wants to do is collapse into something. Really, anything at this point.

If he disappeared into the main bedroom now they might not notice. Carina wouldn’t anyway. She’s hyper focused and, in a way, Chuck’s exceedingly glad he’s not the one who’s got her attention. She has a predator-prey relationship with anyone who doesn’t immediately assert themselves as a worthy opponent, which works when it turns into two lions circling each other like it does with Bryce but Chuck has a feeling he’d be less lion and more wounded gazelle in her eyes.

Yet another reason he’d really like to be away right now.

“Hey, guys,” and he realizes he must have missed a good portion of their back and forth because Carina is back to looking at Bryce like he’s a particularly fascinating toy she wants to play with and Bryce’s smile is faltering like he knows he’s losing grasp of the upper hand but is too obstinate to concede it altogether. “As much fun as this little after-dinner interrogation is, we have somewhere to be in seven hours and I’d really rather be awake for it.”

Bryce gets it at roughly the same time Carina gets that she’s out of the loop – about .002 seconds after it’s out of his mouth – and he’s expecting a whole new round of questions to get between him and a decent night’s sleep. Only what he gets is the twist of her lips as she says, “And here I was wondering how you’d play the good cop.”

Now she’s looking at him.

He swallows.

Yeah, he’s totally the gazelle.












Somewhere in between the first wail of her alarm clock and the burst of cold air that greets her as she exits her apartment building for her morning run, the events of the past forty-eight hours start to come into focus.

Namely, Sarah becomes fully and painfully aware of the numerous bad decisions she’s made in the past forty-eight hours. Like ever trying to knock on Shaw’s door, when she doesn’t even know what she’s looking for or if he’d even know anything about it, much less whether or not she trusts him enough to ask. Like not telling Casey immediately because now that two days’ time has passed if she says anything she looks like she was hiding something, and if she doesn’t and he finds out then it really looks like she was hiding something; either way she undermines any and all trust they’ve built up, not to mention completely destroys whatever bond they’ve developed.

Like listening to Carina at all, when she could’ve just gone on her merry way and been none the wiser and, probably, the safer for it. Certainly the saner.

She’s pissed at herself and that carries her through the first mile and a half, rounding the Tidal Basin as the sun rises above the Jefferson Memorial and begins to turn the early morning sky to burnt orange. It does nothing to warm her, a thin sheen of cold sweat turning her skin sticky, and it does nothing to warm the ground either, which is how her sneakers end up skidding on a patch of black ice. Her right ankle throbs momentarily and that brief stretch of recovery time she allows herself kills her momentum just enough that by the time her phone rings not two minutes later, she’s ready to throw in the towel.

That it’s Shaw on the phone comes as a surprise to absolutely no one. That he wants to know why she stopped by during business hours, out of the blue, after having only spoken to him a handful of times since they broke up a year ago is also far from earth-shattering.

Bad decisions, like she said.

“I was in the neighborhood and I thought we could catch up,” she says, cringing internally all the while, because it’s really her only viable option here, regardless of how cliché and out of character it is, but that doesn’t mean that she has to like it. She can’t pass it off as a mistake and she can’t claim work when the NSA’s been her home base for over a month now and driving an hour out to Langley in order to talk to him personally is indicative of a far too serious and urgent matter for her purposes. He’s the freaking Deputy Chief of Counterintelligence and there’s no reason in the world someone in her position would need to go that high. So she’s screwed. So she has to bite the bullet.

“I have dinner reservations for Plume at seven.” She winces. Fancy restaurant, date atmosphere, and awkward, feigned conversation. Sounds like a great night. “Care to join me?”

The only thing left to do is say yes; no use fighting it.

She gives up. She throws in the towel. She goes home and stands under the spray of the shower until she’s running twenty minutes late for work.












Carina’s still there in the morning and Chuck knows this because, when he rolls over to face what was previously unoccupied space, he finds her. Well, he finds the back of her, and for a moment it’s all just some strange dream he’s having where he’s just a normal guy and she’s just the slightly-crazed girl he picked up in a bar somewhere and they’re about to have a normal completely awkward but still sort of okay morning-after where he internally laments his judgment but still offers to make pancakes before she leaves.

And then that moment is over and she becomes Carina and he recoils. Like almost recoils his way out of the bed and onto the floor.

He makes every effort not to disturb the sleeping dragon in his bed as he grabs his jeans and an undershirt that might be his but might also be Bryce’s, and then flees to the living room.

Bryce has the television tuned to some Italian news channel with the sound on low, the newspaper in front of him taking precedence as he sips his cappuccino. There are times when Bryce’s adaptability is charming and then there are times where it’s downright scary how easily he can acclimate himself. He looks comfortable here, maybe even at home.

Home for Chuck is an apartment complex in Echo Park, sunny Southern California, and his sister’s brilliant smile. Home for Chuck is a half-remembered daydream, faded at the edges with time and distance. They haven’t been holed up in the same place for more than two weeks at a time in well over a year and Chuck either puts down roots or he doesn’t; there’s no middle ground. He isn’t like Bryce and he thinks, maybe knows, that has a lot to do with their individual upbringings, with the way Chuck clung to his sister in the aftermath of his parents’ desertion and how Bryce grew up an only child with upper middle class parents he never really mentions but Chuck pictures as lawyers or Ivy League professors, charismatic like their son but married to their work.

It’s different, for him.

“Morning,” Bryce says, making motions towards room service’s newest delivery. His eyes catch the clock instead, realizing he must have slept through their wake up call because it’s an hour later than it should be. The corners of Bryce’s mouth tease upwards as he asks, “Sleep well?”

“Uh, I don’t know, you’d have to ask the government agent in my bed.” He gets that Bryce already knows but he’s still stuck on the why and, frankly, the how. Chuck’s a light sleeper, he’s the one that wakes up at every creak, click, and groan, so unless she plied him with alcohol he isn’t quite sure how she managed to sneak in undetected in the middle of the night.

Oh. Right. There was alcohol.

That still leaves him with the why.

Bryce shrugs. “She said she’d let herself out.”

“Well, she lied.”

“She does tend to do that.”

He’s not exactly garnering the sympathy he was hoping for. Bryce is relatively indifferent to his cause, picking at his half-eaten croissant and taking the time to read about Iceland’s banking crisis, like he’s considering curling up with the crossword next. Just another lazy Sunday, except it’s Monday morning and they really aren’t those people. Contrary to appearances. Chuck realizes he’s still holding the jeans he forgot to put on, standing there in bare feet and boxers, a loose thread on the collar of his shirt tickling the back of his neck. It’s odd and then it’s not.

It’s odd because Carina’s in the next room and Bryce is calm and Chuck isn’t. They aren’t on the same wavelength.

“I wouldn’t be taking this so lightly if I were you,” he says, trying for humor in light of…whatever it is he’s feeling. Not quite disappointment but also not quite confusion. He settles on the other side of the couch and keeps the same careful inch of space between his feet and Bryce’s thigh, a meaningless barrier that only serves to keep them from having to actually talk about this.

The airport, back in Denver, was a successful attempt at skirting the issue, they both knew it, but Chuck had let it slide in favor of focusing on their next mission, their next op, push, push, push until they arrive at a break, one of those week long pauses where no one wants anything from them and they’re safe as houses until the wrong person sees the wrong thing. They can deal with it then. They can deal with it when Carina’s skipped town again and it’s just them. For right now, Chuck’s watches that barrier like a hawk.

“There’s a gun on the nightstand,” he continues. “She could’ve killed me in my sleep.”

“No.”

“No?”

“Guns are too loud.”

Chuck balks. “Really? That was the most reassuring thing you could think of to say right now? Guns are too loud, so she’ll probably just get you with a kitchen knife or, better yet, one of her stiletto heels – and there goes any chance I had of sleeping in the same building as her.”

Bryce shakes his head, quietly amused. Something stirs inside the bedroom and he decides what he really needs right now is a shower and a door that locks from the inside.












Morgan’s waiting for her in the lobby, just past security, which is being manned by Earl, the friendliest of the daytime shift’s roster. She gets that those two things are related shortly after she flashes her badge and he nods in Morgan’s direction, not even sending a cursory glance towards her ID, which could be a piece of toast for all he notices. It’s very much a take care of him nod, and she doesn’t know what that means but she can already tell Casey has something to do with it before Morgan’s even handed her the cup of coffee he evidently brought for her and gave her his best look how helpful I am, now please save me smile.

It says a lot that she’s already become intimately familiar with that smile in the short time that they’ve worked together. Such is the cost of dating Casey’s daughter, not that it ever really seems to deter him.

“What did Casey do to you now?”

“What? Why would you think – okay, so there might be a little unresolved tension there, yes.” He’s on her heels as she heads towards the elevator, not pausing his diatribe for a single second. “We have a tumultuous relationship, John and I. He ribs on me, I rib on him, and, sure, there was that time I tried to sneak up on him, but the coffee table broke my fall.”

She calls for the elevator and turns to face him. “Morgan, is there a point here or are you writing a book about your undying love for Casey?”

He remains relatively unfazed by her word choice. “Last night, we didn’t know you two were going to be back so soon, and he doesn’t like to knock, so while you were putting your stuff in your car – “

“He walked in on you going at it with his daughter,” she finishes.

“And now he’s locked me out.”

“He took your ID?”

“No, he revoked my clearance.”

That’s a new one. Not a surprising one, granted, because when Casey gets like this his usual aim is to get Morgan away and, therefore, out of the building. Last time, Morgan spent the better part of an afternoon driving to and from Langley during rush hour traffic in a torrential downpour, because he’d accidentally killed Casey’s keyboard by spilling coffee on it. She’s willing to bet that Morgan’s ID is about as useful as your average visitor’s pass right now; just enough to not give him any trouble on his way out of the building.

She’d ask why he couldn’t find anyone to fix his problem for him given that he’s been working here for something like six months, but she already knows the answer to that. At least half of the building is actively terrified of Casey, while the other half is aware that Morgan isn’t the first person he’s hazed, nor will he be the last. These things have a tendency to work themselves out and she knows that if she just lets Morgan go home today then his badge will be working tomorrow morning, without fail.
Or she could change it back herself, take the brunt of Casey’s irritation, and have Morgan feeling more or less indebted to her for at least the rest of the day. In a work environment where she is surrounded by interns and underlings who all wear NSA badges around their neck – not CIA, not her side, and there is something to say for loyalty to your agency in this business – she could use that. She could use him.

Sarah knows Beckman will be keeping tabs on her, post the clusterfuck that was Vail, until they pull out a win a little more significant than nabbing a small-time arms dealer, thanks to information that mostly just fell into their laps. Anything she tries to access will be scrutinized, whether it’s old case files or cell phone records. She needs to go through someone no one will look twice at, someone who Casey won’t be anywhere near, and today that person is Morgan.

If he can keep a secret.

She herds him into the elevator the first chance she gets, a hand in the center of his back, and makes damn sure that the guy practically racing to get on in time doesn’t. Then she pushes the emergency stop button, much to his initial confusion.

“I’ll do you a favor if you’ll do me one.” He opens his mouth in immediate agreement and she cuts him off. “On one condition, and that’s that you can’t tell Casey anything I’m about to tell you. Nothing. Can you handle that?”

The problem here, and the thing that should give him pause, isn’t that she’s asking him to potentially lie to his boss. It’s that she’s asking him to potentially lie to his girlfriend’s father, who he sees outside of work all the time. He probably spends more of his waking hours around Casey than he does around anyone else and that’s what makes this whole idea extremely risky.

But she wouldn’t ask if there were anyone else.

“Yeah,” he says, without a single note of hesitation. “Yeah, I can do that.”












Their meeting with Frank goes a little differently than planned, on account of the fact that he isn’t actually in attendance. Instead, Chuck and Bryce are made to wait in a conference room that’s more windows than walls, bulletproof glass most likely, if the two armed guards flanking the doors are something to go off of. It’s tedious and the guards are visibly bored but silent, unmoved by any idle chit chat Chuck compulsively tries to send their way in an effort to cut some of the tension.

Giovanni’s appearance does nothing to lift it. He dismisses the guards and tells some long-winded tale about his boss’ last-minute family emergency, but it’s lacking in all the wrong places. He is unenthused, edging on bitter, and for a normally relaxed and well-spoken man, the departure from the norm is striking. Enough so that it only takes Bryce a minute or two to deduce that Frank played their friend’s own ego against him, promising to make an appearance and then reneging at the very last minute. Frank’s presence would’ve emphasized both Gio’s importance and influence; without him, he’s just another henchman in a seven-hundred dollar suit.

Without him, he’s just the mouthpiece they use to hand out assignments, middle management if you will. And there is an assignment. One more favor they have to ask, one more hit they want to put out. Gio hands them a file that’s not even a quarter as thick as the last one and Chuck shuts down, quietly retreating into his own head while Bryce deals with the specifics. He’s still sore over yesterday. They both are; the only difference is that Bryce didn’t pull the trigger. The weight on your shoulders settles differently when you’re just the getaway driver.

Today, it’s just a man in a club. Bryce doesn’t ask for more and Gio doesn’t offer it. He thumbs through a handful of pictures of a guy who will end up with a bullet between his eyes or two in the chest before the sun rises over tomorrow, and then he shakes on it. Promises results. Promises loyalty in return for hospitality, the same as they have for two years now, and then they go on their merry way.

It’s a reflex to ask if he’s alright, once they get into the elevator. Straight-backed and silent, with his palms pressed flat against cold steel, Chuck is far from alright. But, then, he’s been putting distance between the two of them since Carina showed up, almost cautious towards him, and Bryce isn’t sure if he doesn’t trust Carina around him or if it’s the other way around, but he is sure that his ability to understand where Chuck is coming from has vastly improved in the last twenty minutes thanks to awful circumstances. He gets that Chuck is going to beat himself up for this one for a while, job or no job, and he also gets that the only way to snap him out of it is to step back. To drop off of the radar for a while.

Vail wasn’t a vacation. Vail was a misfire and a dead eleven year old three weeks before. They don’t talk about that. They don’t talk about all the reasons why it wasn’t his fault because Chuck didn’t shoot the kid, some overzealous cop with an itchy trigger finger did, but it doesn’t change the fact that Vail wasn’t some place for them to reward themselves. It was a retreat in every sense of the word. And now, not a week later, and they might be headed for more of the same.

It didn’t used to be like this. It used to be easier. They used to be luckier.

“I’m fine,” Chuck says.

Lies.












Orders in hand, Morgan only tags along with her for long enough to bypass security and get back inside the bullpen. Once confronted with the locked door to her and Casey’s office he scrambles, running off to talk shop (read: video games) with Roy The Intern (or possibly, Ryan The Temp) while she does the dirty work.

Joint Task Force 151 HQ gives the impression of some grand scale hyper-focused operation, when in fact it takes up all of two rooms in the back of the sixth floor. The bullpen is a collection of intelligence analysts and IT guys with overly complicated job descriptions that she doesn’t like to think about, all housed in cubicles full of electronics that never seem to stop humming. Towards the back, there’s a wooden door and, beyond that, her and Casey’s office, a decent-sized room that they split down the middle the first day they got it and whose boundaries they then decided to ignore the day after that. It’s also worth noting that, for a task force originally set up to bring down two particular men, seventy-five percent of the work they’re tasked with has nothing to do with Larkin or Bartowski; there are too many fish to fry to waste that much manpower on one case.

Nevertheless, Casey’s got a copy of the Denver Post spread across his desk, sections below the fold marked up and underlined in red pen. The location strikes her as significant but he doesn’t say anything, just keeps typing away at his computer without even a hello as she walks in.

“Hi, honey, I’m home,” she says, dryly. Not one single ounce of shame crosses his face when he sees her holding Morgan’s ID. “It’s not nice to lock the kids out of the house. Someone might get the wrong idea.”

“Where is the little informer?”

“Contemplating joining Witness Protection.” She boots her own computer up, moving the pile of paperwork that she’s magically acquired overnight into the corner, for lack of anything else to do with it at the moment. “If you hadn’t already figured out that he was sleeping with Alex, then you should really consider early retirement because your observational skills are lacking.”

He doesn’t take the bait; she can’t help but frown.

“What’s happening in Denver?”

“Two unidentified males, shot execution style at close range,” he says, gesturing towards the paper on his desk with the hand that he isn’t currently using to type. Rather than grabbing it, she perches herself on the edge of his desk. It serves the dual purpose of letting her skim over the underlined sections and allowing her to get a good look at his computer screen. His email is open, something from the higher-ups that’s too long winded for her to willingly absorb, the twin of which is probably sitting in her inbox right now.

She can hardly wait.

Casey’s summary turns out to be a good one, but he leaves out the part about how the men were last seen leaving Royal Cup Coffee in Park Hill on Friday morning. The same coffee shop they were just in. On Friday morning. It’s funny how things line up like that.

“You think they left us a parting gift?”

“I think we should pull security camera footage from Friday morning and see who shows up,” he replies.

It’s not a bad idea on paper, but it’ll be her who will have to make the call, and it will be her who will be laughed at, shortly before she’s yelled at, by the owner who will inevitably assume that this is some sort of prank call. But it won’t be her who will have to fill out paperwork after they go through official channels – that’s what they have interns for. “Did this just fall into our laps or did you go looking?”

He abandons his email in favor of swiveling in her direction, his bent knees bumping her legs as he does. “Tom from HR stopped me on my way in to let me know he’s sorry to hear that they’re thinking of ‘going a different route’."

What’s implied is that Tom’s actually not very sorry at all and they’re about to be taken off of this case and thrown back into the pool of agents who also have previously failed projects on their resumes. Those are the kind of agents who end up on long-term deep undercover assignments with little to no aid from their agency, that is if they don’t end up as desk jockeys.

Neither fate is particularly preferable.

“Didn’t you almost get him fired once?”

“It was warranted.”

The story goes that, before Sarah’s stint working with the NSA, Tom’s girlfriend Amy was an intelligence analyst who wasn’t actually terribly intelligent and, as a result, Casey ended up busting up what he thought was a meeting of a terrorist cell with strong anti-U.S. sentiments but was, in fact, a reunion of the male members of the Mueller family in a small cabin in Bindlach, Germany. Two people were injured. Amy lost her job; Tom, who circumvented the standard hiring process and gave her the job outright, kept his.

It wasn’t exactly unwarranted.

“So you went looking,” she concludes.

“We’ve still got some fight left in us.”

Yeah. Yeah, she really does. “Speaking of, my run got interrupted this morning and I could really use a moving target if you’re up for it later.”

“They want us to sit in on a meeting with finance at fourteen-hundred.”

“Oh, good, so we’re going to want to hit things anyway.”

Casey grunts in amusement, apparently resigned to it, even if he knows as well as she does that Beckman pawning administrative shit off on them already doesn’t bode well for their individual futures here. Individual because not only will Sarah lose the project and the position, but her partner as well. And they were finally starting to get along.

“I’ll make a phone call when I get done with Morgan. We might need him today.” She says, hopping off of his desk.

He doesn’t argue.












The rest of Chuck’s afternoon leaves a lot to be desired.

Carina magically appears at the outdoor café across the street from the office building Frank and his associates call home, with a table for three already staked out. That neither of them ever told her where they were going just gets skimmed over. No big deal. Not stalkerish at all. Bryce doesn’t seem to think so, anyways, which is how they get roped into lunch and with lunch comes wine. Carina’s liberal with it, downs a glass of red like she’s trying to prove a point – like they’re all friends here and never in a million years could there possibly be any ulterior movies – and it just makes Chuck champion water that much more.

And then comes the part where Bryce opts to share the details of tonight’s mission with her. It isn’t that he’s especially against it, because, if he’s being honest here, it’s not Carina’s information gathering that bothers him – whether or not that’s what she’s up to – it’s her influence. The effect she has on Bryce and the person he subsequently turns into around her.

Chuck put all of his eggs in Bryce’s basket when he joined up with him and went rogue and, roughly ninety-eight percent of the time he thinks, knows, that he made the right decision, but it’s the other two percent that gets him. She was the first thing that Bryce ever lied to him about, starting with her identity and continuing with the nature of their relationship, and, sure, that was two years ago now, he should be over it, but it sticks with him regardless. He doesn’t understand the decisions Bryce makes around her, has moments where he doubts him, and it scares him. It scares him that he even finds himself contemplating whether or not he made the right decision.

This isn’t about Carina, at least not in a way that most people can understand. Not in a way that Bryce can understand. What Bryce reads as jealousy is actually fear that he was wrong to make that leap of faith, was wrong to get in the car, to stay in the car. Too much of his life has been marked up with red pen, underlined in all the places he said or did the opposite of what he should’ve done. Shouldn’t have joined up with the CIA, and should’ve been better at it once he did. Shouldn’t have just up and abandoned his sister just like their parents had and should’ve, could’ve, found some way to make them stay in the first place.

He understands that last as irrational. He recognizes the flaws in his own logic, understands this as the kind of self-destructive guilt that sends people to therapy for years, but recognizing something doesn’t automatically lead to action, to alteration. He recognizes that he’s overreacting to this, to Carina’s presence, and to Bryce’s carelessness and perceived apathy, but experience has him inclined to believe the worst in the people around him at the first sign of trouble, at the first flashing red light. Experience doesn’t allow him to just simply let it go.

They return to the hotel and he locks himself in the smaller bedroom and reads. Her suitcase has migrated into the master bedroom, a suggestion of a black dress hanging on the hook outside the closet, and it all feels very territorial and unwelcoming. The small bedroom down the hall is empty. No suitcases, no clothes strewn about, not a single thing touched. Housekeeping came through while they were out and so the bed has been made, the towels in the bathroom changed out. The sheets haven’t been, though, and when he sinks down into the mattress – when he gives up on flipping through the newspaper, the worn copy of War and Peace he finds in a drawer of the bedside table, and a back issue of Wired he’d picked up at the airport back in Denver, anything but that fucking file he purposely left on the table – when he presses his cheek to the pillow, he thinks he can smell Bryce, that lingering scent of aftershave and him.

At eight the shower turns on and Bryce’s knuckles rap on his door. What ensues is twenty minutes of male vanity, uninterrupted by Carina traipsing through in a towel. Chuck can’t decide whether or not pinstripes is a safe move or not – Bryce makes that decision for him, with a very firm shake of his head – and then, when he’s suitably dressed for clubbing-slash-murder, he can’t decide whether or not he wants to say something. Whether or not he wants to start something.

The door is closed. No time like the present.

“You don’t think this might be, I don’t know, a bad idea?”

“She’s not going to screw us over,” Bryce counters, and it’s his confidence, here, that Chuck doesn’t like. Or understand.

“And that’s based on what? A gut feeling? I mean we don’t even know why she’s here.”

And that would be it for him, except.

Except Bryce’s fingers slip, he misses a button on his dress shirt, and some part of Chuck’s brain jolts awake in time to see the movement for what it is: a tiny hairline fracture that strikes right at the foundation. We don’t know anything. It’s Bryce that knows. “Unless you do. Do you?”

“She said she’s on leave.”

Just like that, this becomes a whole other conversation. “From the DEA? In Rome? Where she just happened to randomly end up?”

“I didn’t say she was telling the truth.”

“Really? Because that sounds totally legitimate.” Not dialing back the sarcasm is probably a mistake but it’s not one he’s terribly concerned about. Instead, he’s stuck on the conversation he missed out on last night, the highlights of which he’d falsely assumed Bryce would’ve relayed to him of his own volition. He’s bitter, he’s angry, and he’s a little hurt, and if this is the way those feelings choose to manifest themselves then so be it. “I know I had tons of vacation time when I was with the CIA. I could just up and run off to Aruba for a nice tan, maybe some piña coladas on the beach, whenever I wanted to, no questions asked.”

“I don’t doubt that she’s on leave.”

Seriously?

“I think she threw them off of us in Vail. Whatever her reasons for it, she warned us when she didn’t have to, and now either her friends know and don’t have enough proof or her agency thinks they know and don’t have anyone to corroborate the story they’re running with. She has to know that her best bet is to lay low until she can bring back something substantial as a sign of goodwill.”

“Yeah, like us.”

“Then why would she bother? Why didn’t she just keep the information to herself and let them blindside us?”

“How the hell would I know?” He becomes aware that his voice carries after the fact, and there’s an unpleasant set to Bryce’s jaw that does nothing to dissuade him. “Even if she isn’t trying to throw us to the wolves, who lays low with a pair of hitmen? We’re the reason she’s in this position; we’re the ones that they’re after. It doesn’t make any sense. There has to be something we’re missing here and we’re not even – we’re doing nothing. We’re just going along with it.”

“You’re looking for things that aren’t there, Chuck.”

“Well at least I’m looking.”

“Is your problem with her or is it with me?”

Her. Him. Both. Neither. The distinction is muddled. “I just don’t think letting her tag along while we – while we do our job – is such a good idea.”

“We need her.”

“That’s funny because I’m pretty sure we’ve been doing just fine on our own for a while now.”

Whatever Bryce has to say to that, whatever counterargument he’s crafted, the missing fucking puzzle piece that Chuck needs to make this all better, to turn this into nothing more than a simple misunderstanding, gets swallowed down as soon as the door opens and Carina walks in. As soon as she pushes her way back in.

And then Chuck’s left standing outside.













He fails to dodge.

It’s a simple jab cross kick, one two three, only he isn’t prepared for that last one. It sends him reeling and then it sends him to his knees. She doesn’t finish him off but she does take a few steps back, unable to gauge his intentions with his head bowed like it is and wary of sudden retaliation. It’s all for naught. Casey’s just as winded as she is.

They’ve been at this for a while. Her swiftness and his brute strength cancel each other out and level the playing field, which turns gaining the upper hand into a battle of wills. It’s not about skill, it’s about who wants it bad enough and who is content to sit back and play punching bag. It’s how she first realized that he was coming around to her, when he stopped playing attack dog every single time and started letting her fight him on her worst days.

His gestures might be silent, subtle, but that doesn’t make them mean any less.

Today, with their jobs in jeopardy and nothing but paperwork waiting for them back at the office, they both want it. No one dodges and everyone strikes. It’s a lot like running face first into a brick wall over and over again; it still won’t budge and you just hurt more for the effort.

He’s back on his feet before she’s entirely ready for it.

“Hot date, Walker?”

“What makes you say that?”

“You’re protecting your face,” he says and then, just to prove his point, sends a right hook flying in her direction.

She blocks him easily. “So?”

“So this isn’t a professional boxing match and you don’t hold your fists that high. You’re not taking any chances today.”

The fact that he can read her so well just serves to make her angry. She throws an uppercut aimed at his jaw and he parries, catches her arm and turns it around on her. Turns her around against him, her back to his front, holding her still in a stranglehold that’s just loose enough for her to breathe easy when she doesn’t try to fight it.

That’s never been her specialty.

“Just tell me I’m not going to see that CIA suit hanging around here anytime soon.”

I’m a CIA suit.”

“CIA skirt.” If he’s trying to rile her up, it’s working. Her fingers bite into his bicep and he groans, the sound deep and guttural and too close. “And you don’t get paid the big bucks to sit behind a desk and order people around.”

“Someone’s not feeling very patriotic today.”

She shoves her elbow backwards into his side, freeing herself. The kick that follows doesn’t land anywhere but against his gloves. “Golden boy doesn’t set foot in the field. Hasn’t for years.”

“We all have our lot in life.”

“So it is him.”

And this, this right here, is one of a handful of reasons that her and Shaw never made it past a few poorly planned dinner dates and late-night sex at her apartment, always hers and never his. People liked to talk. People liked to insinuate things about her job and her relationship, and all the ways the two could possibly be interconnected. People liked to call her his mistress, even though his wife had been dead for years, and then they liked to call her a slut when she got promoted within the space of a month.

People is code for government officials, is code for co-workers, is code for those whose backs she’d watched and lives she’d saved. Casey puts about as much stock in gossip and office politics as he does in psychics and the Democratic party, but he still knows. He still knew who she’d fucked before he knew how she liked her coffee or how to best dodge that jab of hers. Before he knew anything about her that he couldn’t glean from the contents of her personnel file and a few chance run-ins. He still knew and others will still know, and that puts her at a disadvantage, that leaves her open and vulnerable to the kind of pre-conceived notions that can ruin careers.

That’s why she decided to cut and run at the first glimpse of trouble, the first time she stood in a room with Shaw and didn’t know where he was coming from. It’s self-preservation. You choose your battles carefully, but you also choose them quickly.

All that to say that when she tells him “it’s not a date” she means it. No amount of prodding could ever lead her back down that road.

“Whatever you say,” he tells her.

“Although if you’re still in the mood to talk about relationships, I’m sure there’s a few things Morgan would love to get off of his chest.”

She just barely ducks in time.












They split up; it’s not a move that warrants discussion.

Testaccio after midnight is a mess of people spilling out of the clubs and into the cobblestone streets, partygoers armed with beer and wine from the roving vendors, and bouncers that lose their patience as well as their interest as the night wears on. They wade through the swarms and bypass security while holding Carina in front of them like a shield in a skintight black dress, and his awareness of the gun at his back heightens with each person that brushes by him once he’s inside.

With two floors and a packed dance floor to sort through, it’s a needle in a haystack type of situation, and one that could’ve been avoided had they come earlier, had they done their homework. As it is, Chuck isn’t sure he could pick the guy out of a line-up of five, much less five hundred, and he isn’t entirely convinced that the people at his back will actually have his back should he need it. So when Bryce heads for the stairs to the second floor without a word, not thirty seconds in, Chuck is neither surprised nor entirely dismayed.

Carina presses the length of her body against his and tells him that he needs to loosen up under the guise of pressing her wet mouth against his neck, setting up their roles for the evening in the process. He finds that after he throws both caution and the moral high ground to the wind, after the first two drinks he shouldn’t have, his hand falls at her hip, her shoulder, wherever, that much more naturally.

They’re all actors here tonight. There’s safety in the knowledge that nothing real will occur between these four walls.

(Save for a murder. Save for that insignificant act.)

A quick perusal of the venue turns up nothing and so they set up shop in the first floor lounge, a generous name for what is essentially just a line of couches and chairs pressed up against walls and pillars. It’s equidistant from the dance floor and the roped-off VIP area and provides the kind of cover they need, drunken couples going at it hot and heavy, too immersed in themselves to try to chat him and Carina up or scrutinize their complete lack of familiarity with each other. It’s in their body language, eased but not eradicated by the alcohol, and he knows it.

She’d have done better with Bryce. So would he.

With nothing else to occupy his mind, that becomes his sticking point. Bryce as the common denominator. Bryce as the leader. Or, rather, himself as the outsider, the follower. The inadequate one who either can’t see what Bryce is trying to do or can and just won’t get it together enough to up and leave him. Because that’s what it comes down to. The unequal balance of power that’s marked their partnership from the beginning, when Chuck was still trying to figure himself out and Bryce was the kind of guiding hand he needed, has now begun to kill it.

Chuck isn’t the guy with four years of screw-ups under his belt and a partner who’s been out to get him for the last three of them. He’s a full-blown hitman for hire with a knack for the details, for seeing what others often miss, and he’s good at his job because of it. He’s proven himself to be a valuable asset. An equal. The old rules don’t apply anymore and yet no one’s bothered to make up any new ones.

Carina’s hand falls to his shoulder, the tips of her outstretched fingers nudging his jaw to the left, and he goes with it. Lets his eyes fall on the girl in the canary yellow dress, a drink in one hand and the other looped through the arm of a man whose bowtie hangs undone around his neck, the remnants of a black tie affair. Her hand on his arm is their only point of contact and, Chuck thinks, he’s never seen two people who wanted away from each other more.

“The daughter of the mayor of Milan,” she tells him, her mouth just below his ear. He can feel her warm breath on his neck, and the sensation fights with her words for his attention. He looks at the girl. He looks at the man. And then he finds her security detail, all six-foot-plus, two hundred pounds of solid muscle encased in leather of him. Of them. There are three, two flanking the doors and one by the bar, weapons visible. The butt of a gun here, the heel of a knife there. The girl isn’t what Carina’s interested in; it’s what her presence indicates. Their potential undoing.

“Good call,” he concedes.

“They’re holding a birthday party for the Minister of Culture at the art museum,” she adds. “Should be getting out now.”

“So where there’s one there’s probably more.”

She hums her agreement, her hands idly playing at the collar of his shirt. He keeps expecting to make accidental eye contact with her, for there to be a moment where their gazes lock and hold and her fingers still but, were it not for her hands on him physically tethering them together, she could be in a whole other room. Her gaze keeps jumping, making the rounds between the bar and the VIP area, the small gathering of people close to the roped-off entrance, but never once does it land on him.

For his part, he refuses to let himself look up to where the ceiling should be, to where there is nothing but a sheet of plexiglass embedded with LED lights that flash and change color, leaving the impression that the people on the second floor are dancing on air. He would hate that, he thinks, the feeling that you could fall through at any moment, that the ground beneath your feet could fail you.

That’s not why he doesn’t look up. One of the many non-distinct pairs of shoes above his head belongs to Bryce and ignoring the instinct to warn him is enough of a challenge without tacking the reminder of his presence, of his nearness, onto it. Instead, he tries to focus on the entrance, on the front doors where the bodyguards lean and the traffic has slowed considerably. He finds it strange but has no means for comparison.

He’s not the only one. The man with the mayor’s daughter keeps looking over there like he’s waiting for someone. The girl keeps trying to talk to him but he doesn’t answer and her face reddens, the glass in her hand empty. She keeps gesturing with it. She keeps tightening her grasp on his arm. The man keeps ignoring her. He keeps looking at the door. A few stragglers move in and another few out. One of the bodyguards makes like he’s checking his watch, his lips are moving. The one at the bar nods to himself.

Chuck can’t shake the feeling that he’s missing something in all of this.

“Do we know who he is?”

Initially, she doesn’t respond. Her fingers tap against the back of the couch, velveteen fabric the color not of wine but of the stain it leaves behind, as she twists her body to get a better view of what’s going on behind them. It’s not at all subtle and she seems to realize that in short order, electing to sling a leg over his hips and finally force him to surrender that last bit of personal space he was clinging to. She straddles him, knees on either side of his hips, and he can’t seem to figure out what to do with his hands then. Leaving them at his sides seems odd, while letting them rest on her body seems like an invitation to lose a finger.

He settles one hand at the crook of her knee and the other along her ribcage, and he’s just about to ask what she sees when she says, “You’re sleeping with Bryce, right?”

The question throws him. One minute she’s climbing all over him like a jungle gym, the next she’s asking – that. Still fixated on the VIP area, still not looking at him, but talking about his sex life like that’s her idea of small talk. Like she can slot that in right next to the fucking weather. “What are you – “

“That’s why you were arguing earlier, wasn’t it?”

“You heard us?”

“I’d say that’s a reasonable assumption. So are you – “ she shifts, and then, perhaps for appearances sake and perhaps not, she grinds her hips against his, once, twice, three times very much not a lady; he inhales sharp through his teeth, “ – or aren’t you?”

And here is the last significant place that they differ, the last place where Bryce retains the edge:

When given a choice, Chuck will always play it safe.

“No, I’m not,” he says.

No but, no except, no modifiers. Just no. End of story.

Three words that erase a sober one night stand in Salt Lake City and the subsequent morning after that began with four heavily armed ex-Marines turned Fulcrum agents at the door of their motel room and ended one state over with all but one hogtied in an abandoned warehouse just south of Grand Junction. They’d stopped at a convenience store a mile away and he’d seen the eleven year old girl popping bubbles with her gum in line at the checkout with her brother just before the first shot rang out. Afterwards, the cop who’d been buying band-aids talked about the chaos on the news, recounted three shooters other than himself when there’d only been two – their missing fourth man and Chuck – and teared up on camera when asked about the little girl who’d gotten caught in the crossfire, the little girl he’d fatally shot.

That he and Bryce never quite found the time to talk about the night before was a foregone conclusion. It took him a week to even remember that it had happened and it took him almost a month to find the nerve to bring it up in conversation. By then Carina was knocking on their door and telling them to run.

So now they’re here. Now they’re this, barely holding it together and barely trying to.

No, he’s not sleeping with Bryce.

“But you want to be.”

“I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t say that, exactly.” Movement over her shoulder catches his eye and he watches the mayor’s daughter stand with hands on hips, glaring at her boyfriend’s retreating back. There’s a hulk of a man with him, easily bigger than the bodyguards by the door, and he has his arm slung over the other man’s shoulders, like they’re old friends, fraternity brothers maybe, and for a moment Chuck entertains the idea that he was wrong all along, that he simply read too much into a situation that didn’t warrant that kind of attention.

You’re looking for things that aren’t there, Chuck.

Carina’s fingers curl, biting into the muscle of his shoulder, and it’s as he’s turning to his head to look at her, to question what feels like a deliberate ploy to capture his attention, that he sees it. The new guy’s got a gun tucked into the waistband of his pants.

Well at least I’m looking.

“Hey,” he grabs for her instinctively, edging on frantic pawing, and she puts up with that for about five seconds before she pins his wrists to the couch cushions. He’s about to protest when she dips low, the curve of her jaw along the crook of his neck and her knees tightening against his thighs.

“You’re going to want to listen to me very carefully, Chuck,” she says, and whatever playful lilt has been threading its way through her words all night disappears in favor of something much colder. “The man who just led the boyfriend away is a CIA agent whose boss is standing roughly fifty feet away from us. Now you are going to pretend that you’re just a guy saying goodbye to his girlfriend before he heads home, walk calmly out the front door, and go back to the hotel.”

“What about Bryce?”

“I’ll take care of him.” She gets to her feet, her hands falling to his as she tugs up on them. He goes without much trouble, standing awkwardly as he mentally calculates the quickest route to the door that keeps him out of the agent’s sightline. He doesn’t know why these guys are here – hell, he doesn’t even know if Carina’s telling the truth – but playing it safe means assuming that they’re looking for him and Bryce. It’s the most probable scenario.

He swallows down whatever panic comes bubbling to the surface with that realization.

“That wasn’t a suggestion.” Her tone is hard but her smile is wide. It sounds a lot like the words are coming out of someone else’s mouth and he’s beginning to resent the way the alcohol has chosen now to start messing with his head.

He forgets to move his mouth against hers when she leans in to kiss him, and it isn’t until he’s inside the taxi that he remembers they were there to do a job in the first place.




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