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the bittersweet between my teeth

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*

There were lines spies didn’t cross; those who did cross them were recruited by the bad guys.

Sarah knew enough of the darkness in her heart and the wickedness of her past that she was vigilant in her efforts to never stick a toe over that line. Her mother had left in her own act of cruelty; her father was a con man with no thoughts for anyone but himself (and sometimes Sarah). Joining up with the CIA and working for her country was her penance for these twin influences on her life. She had nurtured her inner strength and fortitude for years. It led her to become the cold-blooded agent she needed to be.

Every once in a while, she lost her edge, lost the sharpness that defined her adulthood and her career. She slipped, grew reckless; when the personal grew too entangled with the professional, it unleashed the wild weakness that rattled in her bones. But it was never enough to make her slip into that netherworld her parents belonged to.

After those moments (in Greece, in Caracas, in Paris), she would come home and train and train. She would make her body and her mind strong to combat the soft underbelly she didn’t want to own. There was a reason they paired her with Bryce and why they sent her to Chuck; she was the best at whatever they needed.

To Sarah, Burbank had been another stop along the way in her career. It had been a place to train again, to reset her inner barriers after the debacle with Bryce. There had been nothing distinctly threatening about the mark, or the ensuing mission. It would all be easy, and over, and she would be back to her old self and her old international ways in no time.

Then, she’d met Chuck.

*

“How do we get in?”

Keeping her back turned to Casey, Sarah examined the contents of their disguise room (as Morgan had so aptly named it). The air in Castle was thinner to her. She was having a hard time keeping her hands steady.

“Some sort of professional domestic cover would work best,” she said after a moment, flicking through uniform after uniform.

Casey cleared his throat. “You know—“

“I’m not asking you to go with me,” she said, cutting him off sharply. There were cleaning uniforms near the rear of the rack. She wondered if sexy maid would be too suspicious.

“If you’d let me finish, Walker, I’d have said that Morgan rigged up the remote-controlled carpet weeks ago,” he said flatly. “Carpet cleaners is always a go-to. Easy to smuggle him out, if he doesn’t cooperate.”

A horrible thickness lodged itself at the base of her throat. “Perfect. Let’s load up the van,” she said after a moment.

“Already got Grimes on it. At least he’s good for something.”

She didn’t turn around. It was too soon to look him in the eye. Not when she knew where she was going next.

 

*

Chuck was hyper-emotional. Chuck was always open, and warm, and trying so hard to wiggle his way into her heart. She’d tried so hard to keep her usual distance, to keep it professional in the way she’d perfected over the years. But then, she’d told him her middle name, and kissed him in front of a bomb, and promised to rescue him; she knew she was lost then. He would always find her most tender spots, and he would always show her his.

So after Shaw and Paris, after she had taken the leap and let him in completely, the knot in her stomach had grown and grown. Even in the midst of the joy of being with Chuck, of really showing him everything and anything, it festered into a quivering vulnerability she couldn’t combat.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Sarah had known something like this was bound to happen.

That was why she had fake passports prepared, a stash of money on stand-by, and a list of old contacts organized by country ready in a duffle bag in a secret compartment in the back of her closet. It had been the first thing she had moved into their place. There were two sets of everything, including a change of clothes for Chuck. Their life would catch up with them eventually; she’d always known.

Picking the bag up on her way back to Castle, along with the ammonia and syringe and her tools, had been second nature.

*

When Bryce had disappeared and gone off the grid, she’d never done anything like this.

She wouldn’t have thought to kidnap a diplomat. Or to torture him on American soil. Or to shove her fellow agent into a holding cell.

But Bryce had never tapped into her deepest parts, the underbelly she hid so well. He had been a companion, a kindred spirit, but even the veneer of their relationship had been fraught with the lack of insight into one another. Before Chuck, no one had gotten deeper than the surface.

“You know me better than anyone, you know,” she told Chuck once over cold Chinese takeout and a viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was before Shaw’s return, before Chuck’s dad’s death; things were still relatively simple.

He had his head on her thigh, his gangly legs hanging off the edge of the sofa. “Yeah?”

She stroked a hand through his hair, soft and springy from a recent shower. “I mean it.”

Looking up at her then, he frowned slightly. “I didn’t think you didn’t,” he said, something catching in his voice.

“I know. I just—I’m saying this badly,” she said, immediately uncomfortable.

He caught her hand in his, their fingers playing lightly together. “You’re not. I know you, Sarah,” he said very softly.

Except he didn’t, then. If he’d thought she would leave him, just over something like the Intersect, then how well did he really know her?

Or, how well had she let him know her, was the better question.

The Sarah Chuck knew would never have jabbed a syringe filled with ammonia into a diplomat’s throat. It smacked of a weakness she had dreaded ever since realizing how much she loved Chuck. Weakness was one thing she couldn’t tolerate.

So, she turned it into something more useful.

*

Morgan’s words echoed over and over in her mind as her thumb settled over the plunger of the syringe. She held her breath, her mouth near the curve of The Smirker ‘s ear. He was finally starting to sweat.

“Where is the Belgian?” she hissed, right under her breath. Her words stirred the short hairs along the nape of his neck.

Every muscle in the diplomat’s body was tense. “I—I do not have his exact whereabouts.”

Her thumb twitched. “That’s too bad for you.”

“But I know the village where it would be near. They can help you there,” he added hurriedly, his voice increasing in pitch with every word.

Slowly, she smiled. It was cold, calculating; it felt too familiar on her face. “Better.” She tilted his throat. He shuddered. “Where?”

“Northern Thailand. Mae La Noi.” His voice trembled.

Straightening, she swiftly removed the syringe and walked sharply to the table. There, another syringe waited for her. “Time for bed,” she said softly.

Five minutes later, the diplomat was knocked out, and not to remember a thing. She was out the door, passport and supplies in hand. The sound of Casey banging on his door and calling her name echoed through her long after she left Castle.

*

Sarah saw her mother for the last time when she was five.

They had been in Montana, her father working a con involving the rich ski bunnies that flocked in for the winters. Of course Sarah hadn’t known about cons and schemes and rights and wrongs then; she knew her parents as a unit, and sometimes they left their latest homes too quickly to pack everything. When she was four, she had started keeping a bag pre-packed with everything important under her bed.

In the small yellow kitchen of their apartment, she sat at the Formica table too small for three as her mother nabbed packages of peanut butter crackers, the only real food stocked except for soup. Sarah had just watched in complete silence.

“You’ll understand,” her mother said after a long spell of quiet. “One day. You’re like me, honey. “

That was true enough. Sarah inherited the reddish-blonde hair, was very pale, and freckly around her nose, just like her mother. But she wasn’t sure that was what her mom meant.

“You won’t love enough to keep going. It’s just too much. I want something easier, someone easier.”

“Love who?” Sarah asked. The morning was grey and slushy outside. Dad hadn’t been home for hours.

Her mother shrugged. There was something cold and calculating behind her eyes that Sarah hadn’t ever noticed before. “Anyone. You won’t love anyone enough to stay through something like this.”

Then, with a glancing kiss on the top of Sarah’s head, her mother was out the door and gone for good. Her dad never mentioned her again. It was the two of them, through thick and thin, from con to con.

Sarah didn’t remember her mother’s name, but she remembered her last words. They were the motto she refused to live by.

*

She got on the plane in Burbank as Sarah Walker; she stepped off in Bangkok as Nina Paulson, Australian national. Luckily she’d taken cargo planes and puddle-jumpers the whole way, eschewing any true security checks; all her hardware and ammo remained packed and intact.

Thailand was hotter than she remembered.

It took two hitch-hiked rides in the backs of grimy Jeeps, and a brief ride on a donkey to get to the right village. She was the only woman with a gun for miles, and taller than the others by a mile. Everything was thick and heavy with humidity; it weighed on her like the thought of Chuck alone and wounded, sinking into all her pores.

She wondered if he thought she wouldn’t come. Then, she wondered how she let it get that far.

Everything around her was deep green and covered in vines. She passed a lake and could see the steam rising right off of it into the air under the harsh orange sunlight. Wagons and mules passed her, people speaking in a tongue she only knew the basics of; she had practiced the appropriate words on her second flight, however.

It would take more than a language barrier and men with guns to keep her from Chuck.

*

Sarah couldn’t stop crying.

“I’ve unleashed a monster,” Morgan muttered from behind her. He then muffled a groan.

“Shut up, Grimes,” Casey said flatly.

In the sticky darkness, she sat on the edge of Chuck’s chair and hiccupped through one sob after another. His hands stroked through her grimy hair and across her sweat-and-blood-and dirt-soaked back. She felt flayed open and wiped out, all the frustration and helplessness fissuring through her body.

“Sarah?”

He was slow around the vowels, unsure, like a child waking from deep sleep. She wasn’t sure she’d ever heard him so vulnerable, and that made her cry even harder.

God, she was crying in front of Casey.

“I’m fine,” she gritted out through her harsh breaths. She looked at him with a glassy gaze. “I’m really fine. Are you all right?”

Slowly he nodded, still with a vague look of being underwater. “I just—yeah. My head is killing me.”

Her nose was running, snot mixing with sweat and blood at the top of her lip. She swiped a scraped hand across her mouth and stood up on shaky legs. The adrenaline powering her through the pain and exhaustion began to wear off.

“We should get out of here,” Casey said from behind them, almost gently. If Casey had a gentle tone, that is.

Nodding, Chuck levered himself up, and promptly floundered back into his chair. “I’m not sure I can,” he said through a clenched jaw.

Immediately she curled her arm across his waist. Morgan was at his other side in an instant, and together, they half-carried, half-stumbled with him through the campground and to the truck Casey had so helpfully confiscated from some meathead in the last village. The pressure of the last few days (the whole month, really) settled on her as she pressed herself close to Chuck. He was shaking in their grasps.

“Chuck. Chuck, it’s okay,” she whispered against his cheek, uncaring if Morgan was listening. “I’m here. I’m always here.”

His hand tightened on her shoulder imperceptibly. Her heart lifted in her chest, pressing rapidly against her ribs.

*

Before they got onto their plane home, Sarah pulled Casey aside. She wasn’t sure what strings he had pulled, but she knew she owed him a bottle of really good whiskey when they got home.

“We can’t tell him about the diplomat.”

Casey raised his eyebrows, mouth turning down faintly. “Who, Bartowski? Wasn’t planning on it.”

She gripped his forearm tightly. “Talk to Morgan, too. It’s just—“

“It wasn’t you, Walker. We get it,” Casey said evenly.

In the starry humid darkness, she saw a flicker of understanding in his hard gaze. Casey, of all people, knew what it was to hide hard and dirty truths from loved ones. Relief swept through her on one level.

Relaxing her grip on him, she stepped back. “Thank you.”

“Don’t get mushy on me, Walker,” he said curtly before turning on his heel and heading for the plane.

Later, with the quiet hum of the cargo plane enveloping them, Sarah tended to her bruised knuckles and the marks on her ribs and face. Casey was up front with the crew, who were buddies of his from his Special Ops days. Morgan was asleep and snoring against the curve of the plane’s wall. She had set up a makeshift bed on the plane floor for Chuck, and he lay there quietly, hopefully sleeping. His eyes were closed, his breathing even. She watched him constantly, watching for any sign of distress.

The antiseptic burned on her hands, much like the back of her eyes did from sand and the stinging remainders of tears. All the muscles in her body ached with strain and exhaustion. She wanted to be at home with Chuck, with Chinese food and movies. For the first time in months, she wondered what her life would be like outside of the spy game. Not in the toying way they had played with last year, but seriously; she was tired of the games. Seeing Chuck alone and looking that lost and small had shaken her to the core.

His whole family had been wrapped up in this game, she thought achingly. And then he’d gotten trapped in it himself and fallen in love with a spy. It would be such a relief to spare him the rest of this, to settle into a somewhat normal life together.

But she knew Chuck. With his mother still with Volkoff, he wouldn’t stop until she was home.

He groaned softly, opening his eyes. She jumped to attention, crouching near his side. The first aid kit fell to the floor with a clatter, but she paid it no mind. “Hey. You feeling okay?”

Turning his head towards her, he reached over and caught her hand in his. “You meant it?” he asked instead.

“Meant what?” she asked, smoothing a hand through his hair.

His gaze was finally clear and even, the Chuck she’d known for years. “The Intersect doesn’t matter?”

Her heart clenched hard in her chest. Without a second thought, she stretched out next to him, pressed so close they were nearly nose to nose. “You’re not the Intersect. You’re Chuck Bartowski. It doesn’t matter at all,” she said, voice ragged and ripped bare.

Shutting his eyes just for a moment, he finally cracked a small smile. “I wasn’t anything before it came into my life.”

Gingerly she curled her arm around his middle. “You know that isn’t true.”

His hand lay flat on the small of her back, his mouth near hers. “I know it brought me you.”

She couldn’t help the choking sensation in her throat, the tingling up and down her spine. “I’ll always be grateful for that,” she said quietly.

He smiled at her, all bashful softness and a wide mouth that she loved. She kissed him, willing and open, again and again. Her whole body felt too full, too warm. He murmured her name with every breath, his hands soft on her body. When he dropped off to sleep once more, she stayed curled to his side, her face fitting into the crook of his neck.

She knew that she would never be the old Sarah Walker again.

*