He hadn't said anything in a while and it was really starting to worry her. An hour ago he'd been rambling and she'd known he was really worried. Now she kept looking back to make sure he was still following her. Pausing to pull out her GPS and affirm their location, she did just that, turning at the waist and taking in Chuck's hunched figure.
Ice crystals drifted in the air between them, sparkling in the waning sunlight, floating on the sharp breeze that loosed them from the weighted branches of the trees. Chuck had his head down, watching his feet as he walked, pulling one leg from the knee deep snow and placing it in front of the other. It was exhausting work but he was farther behind her than she had expected.
Reaching down, she scooped up a handful of the powdery snow near her hip and lobbed it at him, hitting him square in the chest. He stopped and his head came up sharply. She couldn't see any part of his face, between the balaclava and the goggles he was completely covered, but she could tell by his body language that she'd surprised him.
"Don't you give up on me now," she demanded, raising her voice to be heard through the layers of material covering her face. She watched as his arms relaxed slightly and he pulled his shoulders back. It was almost as if he grew a couple of inches right before her eyes. He yanked a foot from the snow and took several, labored steps to reach her side.
"You're not getting rid of me, Mrs. Bartowski," he said and she knew he was smiling even though she couldn't see it. "I''m sorry I've been lagging behind."
"Don't even start with the apologizing again," she said, holding up a hand. "It's pretty tough going, but we're almost there." She showed him the GPS and he nodded.
He reached down and took her gloved hand in his and the contact was comforting even though she could barely tell it was a hand she was holding though the thick gloves. "Lead the way, Fair Lady."
She smiled at him, despite knowing he couldn't see it, and together they started forward, trudging again through the deep snow.
The cabin was barely visible, buried in snow as it was, but once Chuck laid eyes on it he thought it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen – aside from Sarah, of course. It looked weather beaten and worn, but sturdy and he picked up his pace a little as the thought of reaching shelter settled into his mind.
Though it looked like a regular cabin, perhaps used by hunters or some random recluse looking to get away from society, it was actually a safe house and it took them a few moments to locate the hidden control panel that would allow them inside. He didn't even feel the cold anymore, as he pulled off his glove and pressed his palm against the icy glass of the scanner.
"Let's just hope she remembered to put us in there," he said, looking down at his wife. She had started to shiver and he hoped they could get inside quickly because she needed to get warm.
"Verbanski wouldn't forget," she stuttered through chattering teeth.
He didn't need to respond to her statement of faith because the door did it for him, the sound of the lock disengaging loud in the hushed atmosphere. Chuck grabbed Sarah's hand, yanked open the door and pulled her inside. As he closed the door behind them he leaned against it as relief washed through him.
He scanned the interior quickly, pleasantly surprised at how nice it was inside. Everything had a thin layer of dust but the furniture looked comfortable and there was a full-fledged, though small, kitchen. To his left was a large stone fireplace. A chair, a cozy loveseat had been placed near it and a small table between them which held a kerosene lamp. Beyond that was the kitchen, with its large, antique looking wood cook stove and a small window that looked out over the snow covered landscape. To the right of the kitchen was a small dining nook and then, closer to where they stood, on the right, was a queen sized bed covered in plump pillows and a patchwork quilt.
"I was not expecting that," he muttered.
Sarah was already pulling off her gear. "There's wood, I'm gonna get a fire started. You go see what there is for food, we both need to eat."
She was all business and Chuck hurried to do her bidding. Soon there was a roaring fire and they were huddled near it, eating canned ravioli from simple, white plastic bowls.
Chuck watched the firelight dance over Sarah's face and for a moment he re-lived the last week in his mind. He reminded himself that she was safe now, they both were. It didn't stop the guilty recriminations from renewing themselves in his thoughts.
"I'm sorry, Sarah," he murmured, setting his mouth in a grim line.
She was in the middle of a bite of food, so she merely inhaled deeply through her nose and exhaled sharply as she turned to glower at him. He resisted the urge to lean away from her.
"Now I'm just mad," she growled once she'd swallowed her food. "I swear if I hear you say that one more time I''m going to gag you."
"But Sarah, I am! This was such a bad idea. I never should've taken this mission."
Her eyes narrowed and she poked him in the chest with her fork, hard. "We took this mission. We decided together that it was a good idea. It was supposed to be quick, in and out. We, Chuck, not you, we. We're partners – in this business and in life, and I'm tired of you trying to take it all on yourself."
He did lean back now, his eyes growing wide. "Sarah, I didn't mean... You know I think of you as a partner..."
"Yes, Chuck," she sighed, looking at the fire. "When things go well you happily share the credit with me, sometimes even giving me more than my due, but when things go wrong, you try to take it all on yourself." When she turned back, her eyes were a little sad. "We're a team, you and me, good times and bad, remember?"
He sighed. "But we were supposed to be home three days ago and now..."
"It's Christmas Eve," she said softly. "I know. Doesn't change anything."
"You're right, of course you're right. You're always right."
"No, I'm not, but thank you" she said with a smirk. "Now, no more apologizing. I'm still cold and I bet that boiler is done heating water for the tub." She stood to her feet and held out a hand to him. "Are you coming with me?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said, smiling widely. He stood and followed her, waiting as she pulled several towels from a small nook near the bathroom door. "Do you think we will ever have a regular Christmas?""
She smiled and turned to him, her arms full of dark green towels. "Knowing us, probably not..." she chewed her lip and looked at the floor before returning her gaze to his. "But I really hope so."
It was almost pitch black when Sarah awoke. No city lights or street lamps to hold the darkness at bay, only the very faint, orange glow from the banked fire. She sighed as she sat up, and beside her Chuck mumbled and shifted in his sleep. Smiling in the darkness, she ran a soothing hand over his back.
She slipped out of bed and bit back a hiss as her bare feet hit the cold floor. Using her cell phone for additional light (it wasn't good for much else where they were) she made her way to the fireplace, stoking the embers and adding another small piece of wood. Once she was satisfied with the fire, she went to the kitchen and began silently searching the cupboards for some crackers. The package crinkled in her grasp and she darted her eyes over to her sleeping husband before finally relaxing, leaning her behind against the counter as she quietly nibbled her 'midnight' snack.
It was Christmas. The thought made her sad. Yes, they were safe and they were together and, in the end that, was all that really mattered. But she had wanted this Christmas to be special. She had put so much planning into it, spent so much time thinking over every detail. Now those details were back in Burbank and they were here, on a mountain, in a tiny little cabin, a long way from home.
Her eyes drifted to the form of her husband. In the light from the fire she could just make him out, curled up in the too small bed, with the blanket pulled up beneath his chin. She moved closer, kneeling down to press a kiss against his cheek. He shifted a little and she jutted out her lower lip as her heart melted a little more.
Chuck loved Christmas. He deserved Christmas. And he was going to get Christmas.
Green towels, arranged just so, made a rather pathetic but acceptable Christmas tree. Foil was the star and a few, randomly placed ornaments. All she had left was her gift.
She tapped a finger against her chin thoughtfully, searching her mind for some way to still give him the gift she'd held so dear. The small thing she'd wrapped so carefully and placed under their tree back home. She pulled open several drawers until she found a pad of paper and several pens. One of them was fat and held multiple colors. She smiled as she held it up and an idea came to her.
She had a pile of wadded up pieces of paper next to her on the counter when she finally etched the last line. She looked down at her work of art and smirked. It was terrible. She was definitely not an artist but she was sure the picture she'd drawn would be recognized for what it was, and that was all she needed.
She placed the makeshift card beneath her makeshift tree and climbed back into bed with her husband, curling into his back for warmth and quickly falling back to sleep.
Chuck woke to the crystal white light of a winter's day pouring in through the cabin windows. The first thing he saw, when his vision cleared, was a pile of towels that looked oddly like a Christmas tree. When his sleepy mind finally realized that's exactly what it was supposed to be he smiled widely, taking in the silvery star and all the small foil balls that were balanced carefully on the 'branches.'
He could feel the warmth of Sarah behind him and rolled onto his back shifting so that her head came to rest in the crook of his shoulder. He pressed a kiss against her forehead and pulled her in tight. She sighed softly and her eyes drifted open, looking up at him sleepily before smiling.
"Merry Christmas, Sarah," he whispered. He couldn't dim the wattage on his smile. It was Christmas and he was here with Sarah, alone in this quiet place. It was like they were the only two people in the world. "I think Santa came last night and gave us a tree."
She laughed softly. "A crappy little tree made out of towels?"
"It's the best tree I've ever seen in my entire life."
"Right," she said, digging her fingers into his ribs and tickling him. He jerked away and grabbed her hands, holding them above her head as he rolled over and pinned her beneath him. He opened his mouth to insist but then she shifted against him and the atmosphere changed as his mind and body reminded him that they were both deliciously naked. She looked up at him with wide blue eyes, her gaze hot as it raked his face. "Don't you want to open your present?" she asked huskily.
He gave her a lopsided smile. "Don't need to," he said, letting his gaze drift over her naked form beneath his. "It's already all unwrapped.""
It was a little while later that they hunkered down in front of the sad little towel tree. With the quilt from the bed draped over his shoulders, Chuck pulled Sarah in to sit between his legs. She was warm and soft and smelled amazing. He wrapped his arms around her and pressed his face into her hair.
She leaned forward and plucked her little homemade card from where she'd placed it. She handed it to him, turning in his lap so she could see his face.
The front of the card was decorated with hand drawn holly and ribbon and his name in Sarah's familiar handwriting. "You made this?" he asked, a little stunned by the strength of his emotion. "I can''t believe you did all this."
"I wanted to have Christmas," she murmured, cupping his cheek. "I wanted you to have Christmas." Her hand was warm, and he placed his over the top of it, turning to kiss her wrist.
"I should've done –" she stopped his burgeoning apology by pinching his lips together.
"Shut up and open it."
He mumbled something behind his pinched lips and she cocked an eyebrow at him before slowly releasing her hold. "Yes, dear," he reiterated now that he could be heard. It didn't assuage his guilt at all. He should've been the one to think of this. He sighed, pushing down the apology he wanted to say and flipped open the card, not knowing what to expect. He frowned as his eyes scanned the paper. It was a drawing of some kind. He looked at it very carefully but he couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be.
He could feel Sarah's eyes on him expectantly and his nerves kicked in. He could feel his body grow hot with embarrassment as he turned the paper several different directions in a desperate attempt to decipher what was there. "I'm um... this is great?"" He watched her face fall and his heart went with it, his shoulders slumping. "I'm sorry, Baby, I ... I can't tell what it is..." he finally admitted.
The look on her face made him feel even worse, before it slipped into a glare. She snatched the paper from his hand and climbed to her feet. He followed after her as quickly as he could, getting tangled in the quilt for a moment as she stomped off to the kitchen.
"I'm sorry, Sarah, I'm an idiot. Please, don't be mad!"
She didn't answer. Instead, she yanked out a drawer and withdrew a pen, smacking it down on the counter top. Then she leaned on her hand and sighed. "I'm not mad."
Chuck sidled up to her, looking uncertain. "Are you sure? Because, you look kind of mad."
"I'm mad at the situation, not you. It's not your fault I can't draw." A little smile turned up the corner of her lips and she looked up at him from beneath her lashes. "Now close your eyes."
He did as she asked, grinning as he did so. He listened to the sound of pen scratching on paper and then felt her turn. He opened his eyes when he felt her lift his hand and press the paper into his palm. He looked down at the card and lifted it. Looking at her for assurance, he opened it when he saw the sassy smile that lit up her face. His gaze returned to the paper, this time augmented by words in Sarah's functional but elegant script.
"This is a pregnancy test and it's positive. Congratulations, Daddy."
All the breath rushed from his lungs as he lifted wide eyes to her beaming face.
"Merry Christmas, Chuck."