A/N: For obvious reasons, the SteamVerse has felt like a universe I've not wanted to wade into recently. It felt like what I dreamed up and began writing about ten years ago (yes, I started writing Steampunk Chronicles ten years ago. Nuts, isn't it?) has been starting to manifest itself in the real world slowly but steadily. And the dystopia I created was feeling way too close to home, so I stepped away. Well, just like in the Steampunk Chronicles universe, there's been some recent light injected into the dystopia. I see a path...even if it'll be difficult to get out of this, at least there's a path I can see. So I picked this up again and began to work on it. Sometimes it has to get downright terrible before it gets better again. But we keep moving forward and seeking out the light in the darkness. It's human nature, isn't it?
Disclaimer: I don't own CHUCK or its characters.
Last time: Sarah ended up with many bumps and bruises after saving Ellie and Devon both from the mysterious attack on Ellie's march for women's rights. Having escaped the tumult, and knowing they have no other choice, Chuck and Sarah have told Ellie and Devon everything.
Chuck's shoulders sagged significantly, and he even reeled a bit. For a split second, Sarah feared the toymaker might just collapse altogether. But she was still weak and in pain, her whole body aching from the impact of that explosion. She'd be feeling that for a while. And she couldn't get to him fast enough if he did keel over, so she was grateful that he simply turned to face her instead, his brow furrowed in anguish.
"Well…Will you stay here? Or shall I take you upstairs?"
"Ellie…" She cleared her throat, hearing the quiver in her voice. That wouldn't do at all. "She told me she would help me if I wanted to wait to bathe, but I think I should like to just do it now."
He nodded slowly. "Are you…able to?"
Sarah smirked a little at that. "Yes, I think I'll manage." She ran her good hand down her dirtied, stained blouse. "Though I don't think I can manage the steep staircase to your rooms."
Chuck blinked, looking a bit stricken. And then he shook himself and swallowed thickly. "Oh. Of course not. Yes. I…I will…I can…"
Apparently he decided not to finish that sentence because he cleared his throat, shook his head, and crossed the room to her side in a few long strides. As he stood close to her, she was suddenly aware of the fact that they had yet to discuss what happened at the march. The thing that had nothing to do with the Inquisitor's followers, or the Coalition, or the patrolmen. When she'd all but admitted that kiss hadn't just been for their cover, that she'd kissed him because he'd deserved to be kissed, because she'd simply wanted to kiss him, because, for once, she'd refused to resist him.
Now wasn't the time, however. And she thought maybe there shouldn't be a time. That the kiss should just melt into the shadows and never be brought up again, or even thought of again, except late at night when she was feeling particularly cold and alone and needed comfort, a memory of a moment in her life—one of the only moments in her life—when she'd felt truly safe.
She shifted her weight and winced, immediately finding Chuck's hands on her, a gentle touch at her hip, the other hand cupping her uninjured elbow.
"What hurts?" he asked.
"An easier question would be what doesn't hurt, if I'm being honest."
And just like that, he leaned down just so and swept her up into his arms easily, cradling her body against his chest, careful to make sure her injury wasn't jammed between their bodies as he carefully stepped around the couch and moved to the entryway of the house.
She rolled even further into him, pressing her face in the crook of his neck, smelling the soap he'd used when he bathed earlier, the tang of his workshop still lingering on his shirt collar in spite of this being a clean shirt he'd put on.
It was as he got to the front door that she felt him pause, perhaps trying to figure out how to open the door with his arms full of her. But then she felt him take a deep breath, his chest rising and falling against hers. "Sarah…?"
"What?" she breathed, curling even more into his embrace.
She was. She wasn't cold. And as she pulled her face back from his collar, she realized it was damp. She was crying. No, not now. This was supposed to happen when she was locked in Chuck's washroom, behind closed doors, her head fully submerged under the warm bath water.
Chuck must have realized why she was shivering, too, because he just held on tighter and carried her through the door, around the house, and to the stairs. She spotted Domino still grazing in the yard, munching on hay, her tail flicking at the flies in annoyance, as though those pesky flies were the only thing she was worried about at the moment. Not soulless followers of a religious cult leader blowing up what would have been a peaceful march for the rights of women. Not the death and destruction Sarah had witnessed today. Just bugs and food.
Sarah felt a sob escape and Chuck squeezed tighter, beginning to carefully take her up the stairs. She bit her lip to keep a second one from escaping.
"It's all right," he said, turning his face into her disheveled hair. And he just kept climbing. She could still look down on the horse as he went, and Domino raised her pretty head to glance up at her for a moment, before looking back down again. They'd been standing right there today, when things had seemed so much brighter, as he'd held her in his arms in a different way than he was holding her now.
She'd held him back then.
She didn't have the physical wherewithal to do it now. And she wasn't sure she should, either.
Everything had been derailed today.
When she calmed a bit, Chuck reaching the landing in front of his door, she twisted the fingers of her hand closest to him in his shirt and pulled a little, getting his attention. She waited for him to look down and meet her gaze.
But try as she might, she couldn't seem to find the words. She'd kissed him a few hours ago. It had been mere hours. And he knew she'd meant to, that she had wanted to. He must've felt the way she'd clung to him. He had to know. And she didn't know what to do about it. What to say.
"It's all right, Sarah," he said again, his voice deep and reassuring.
That was that. He wouldn't make her find the words. At least not right now. Not with what they'd just witnessed.
Instead, she wiped the tears from her face, sniffled, and slung her good arm around his shoulders so that he could squirm a bit and move his right hand out from under her to unlock his door, then push inside of the dark, almost stuffy entryway.
He turned on the lamps as he went, carrying her all the way to his washroom, and she saw that the tub was still wet from the bath he'd taken.
Then she looked back up at him and met his brown eyes with her blue ones. They just stared for a moment, and then he cleared his throat and gently set her back on her feet, keeping his arm around her for stability. She couldn't have been the only one who'd felt that same aching that had been there earlier when they'd fed Domino, before the catastrophe.
Her tears gone for the time being, she watched as Chuck went to the tub to fill it again. "The, um, the water isn't hot, unfortunately, but it should be warm enough to be comfortable. If you want warmer, I can put a kettle on and use that to…"
"I'm sure it's fine," she said. "Thank you."
Chuck nodded, standing up. "You'll want to keep your arm elevated, the bandage dry, I mean."
"Yes. Of course."
"Good. Good, good." He seemed to be undecided about whether to dwell on the gravity of the situation they were all in now, or to squirm uncomfortably, embarrassedly at the fact that a woman he had feelings for was about to use his bathtub.
Before she could think on how completely adorable it was, she saw something else come over his features. Fear. Hopelessness. He was lost and scared.
"Uh, I-I'll be sitting just out there. In my room. Standing guard, so to speak. So-So if you need anythi—"
He stopped as she crossed to him and wrapped her arm that hadn't been hurt around his shoulders, going up onto her tiptoes and burying her face under his chin. His arms immediately responded, wrapping her up in a tight but gentle embrace, and he dropped his own face into her hair.
Chuck shivered against her and sighed. "Was I that transparent?" he whispered, probably not trusting his voice.
"Yes. But you always are with me." It was just one of the reasons why she'd found herself caring so much, and so quickly. But she wouldn't voice that.
Sarah finally stepped back and let her arm fall. He smiled a bit wanly at her, then walked to the door, stuttering something about closing the door, but there was no lock, but he promised he wouldn't…As she just stared at him with a small smile, he coughed quietly and cleared his throat, ducking his head and leaving, shutting the door behind him.
She moved to reach behind her and unbutton her blouse, but her arm stung horribly. She'd forgotten about that. He'd made her forget. "Ah!" she exclaimed, holding it just below the wound and wincing.
There was the sound of quick, heavy footsteps and the door burst open, Chuck standing there, wide-eyed. "You all right? I-I heard you…"
"I just..my arm."
"Could-Could you—?" Sarah turned a little and reached back to finger the button at the top of her blouse at the nape of her neck. "I can't seem to do this with the use of only one hand."
"Oh. Did you—Ellie might be…er, better suited." When she just looked at him for a few long moments, he scratched the back of his head and nodded, coming in close. "Or I could…yes."
He shuffled up behind her and she lowered her arm to her side. And then she shut her eyes as she felt his fingers at the nape of her neck. He didn't say anything else as he oh so gently swept the hair that fell out of her updo out of his way, his fingers stroking over the skin revealed over her high collar. She fought back the pleasant shiver and felt him pop the first pearl button, then the second, then the third. And she wondered why on Earth he was doing it so slowly. Was he trying to drive her mad? Trying to make her do something foolish?
And damn him, but he unbuttoned the blouse all the way down to the waistband of her high skirt. She felt his breath against her shoulders, the bare skin of her back above the lace of her shift she'd thankfully worn underneath everything.
"M-My boots…" she said. "I don't know if I can…"
He hastened over to grab the small wooden chair and he lifted it, carrying it closer to her so that she could turn and sit in it. Then he went and turned off the water to the tub before it overflowed, then came back, looking down at her for a long moment before he knelt before her.
He untied her boots meticulously, not looking up at her, but it gave her the time to study him, the way he moved, everything done with such purpose, his brow furrowed as he bent to his task. And his eyelashes seemed so much longer from this angle.
And his sister and his brother-in-law knew everything now. Everything. They were downstairs dealing with all of it. All of them were in danger. Everyone was in danger. And she'd been foolish enough to let herself get comfortable, and think that everything just might be all right, and not just in general, but for her. And for him.
But then Chuck gave her boot a tug and pulled it off of her aching foot. She hoisted her skirt up a little so she could peer down and wiggle her toes, wincing. How did even her toes hurt? But then his hands closed over her foot and just held on.
She looked up at him as his fingers brushed over her ankle, and those brown eyes lifted to meet her gaze through his eyelashes, before he swallowed loudly and moved onto the other boot, diverting his eyes again.
Sarah let out a slow breath as he did the same, moving just as meticulously, determined, his tongue darting out to wet his lips, lips she'd tasted earlier…this very same day.
She needed to just get into the tub now.
"Thank you," she breathed as he stood to his full height and helped her back to her feet. "I can…handle the rest."
He just nodded and backed away. "Take your time."
Chuck was gone just a few moments later and she let out the slowest breath she'd ever let out in her life, painfully taking the rest of her clothes off, peeling out of her shift slowly and carefully, before she stepped into the tub and lowered herself into the water with a sigh.
Even when she sank to dunk her entire head in the water, having dropped the pins and clips down to the floor next to the tub to let her hair fall down her back, she could feel more than the water surrounding her.
She felt the ghost of Chuck's touch, against her neck, her feet, ankles…She felt his presence everywhere.
And she cried.
She cried for the loss of a friendship she'd held dear. She cried for the death of a hope that had been searing in her breast as she put the now torn and bloodied clothes on at her house a few hours earlier. She cried for Chuck, and his own agony at having to tell his sister that he'd lied to her all these months. She cried for Ellie's dreams being dashed, her hard work a pile of ash laying at her feet.
She cried because she had been so stupid, letting her guard down. But she had let her guard down. There was no going back from that. There was no pulling back from it. From him. And she had no idea what to do with the world crashing down around them so violently and suddenly.
She was at a loss.
And that made her more frightened than she'd ever been in her near twenty-eight years of life.
A shiver went through him as he tried to carefully turn the cog with his delicate screwdriver, holding it gently between two fingers, the pocket watch sitting in his other palm steadily. It'd probably be easier to fix this while it sat on his desk top in the clamp and he had proper lighting cast onto his work. But instead, he sat out here on the top landing of his stairs, beside the front door of his home, his long legs dangling down over the steps, shoulder leaning against the railing.
Chuck had promised himself he would keep watch over Sarah as she used his bathtub to wash the remainder of their trials from her body. And so he'd started sketching an old idea at his desk, letting her have peace and solitude in his washroom. The image of her huddled on the ground, dirt and blood on her, not moving, refused to stop haunting him. The startling terror that maybe she was dead… The gaping hole in his chest was still there, rather more of a ghost of a hole now that he knew she was alive and well, sitting in his bathtub.
It kept him alert, getting up and going over to ease the curtains to the side and peek out over the street anytime he heard a horse or carriage passing by. There was no way he was letting anything happen to her. Not like that. Not again. Whoever those people were who'd attacked the march, they could try to find them here. And he wasn't going to be snuck up on.
But then he became acutely aware of another sound. He could hear Sarah moving in the water, the soft swish, a hand or leg sweeping through, lifting out of the tub…maybe she was shifting her weight just so…
He couldn't concentrate on the sketch, he couldn't focus on the idea he'd kept lodged in his brain the past few months. Had he meant for the spring to be here…? Or here? Swish…swoosh…
Telling himself to be a damned adult and not let the stupid caveman that resided in him have this much control finally began to work as he settled back into blueprinting his new invention… and then he heard a barely repressed sob come from the washroom.
A muffled cry, a whimper…
Chuck heard Sarah crying quite clearly, as much as he could also tell she was trying to suppress and muffle it—with her hands, or the water itself, he didn't quite know—it just wasn't working.
The ache in his chest assailed him, made him wish he could wrap her up in his embrace and hold her. He hated this. He understood it but he hated it—this need she had to appear strong, not to show anyone vulnerability. She was human. And in spite of being the strongest person he'd ever met, she had just witnessed something horrific. They all had. She was entitled to feel something about it. She'd received the impact of that explosion she'd saved his sister from. That was terrifying. Traumatic.
And yet she'd waited until she was shut away in his washroom to let it out. And even then, it sounded like she was trying to literally drown it by sliding down into the water.
If he could just find a way to let her know she wasn't alone… That they were all feeling this. That fear was okay…
Sure, she was the person who was supposed to be protecting him from all of this. But that didn't mean that she was above being afraid. And that didn't mean if he knew she was afraid, he'd stop trusting her or lose his faith in her ability to do what she was here to do.
Nothing would ever cause him to lose his faith in her.
He wanted to go in there and reassure her of that, hold her, allow her to let everything out, sob as hard as she needed to—because who knew when the last time was that she'd allowed herself to cry? He didn't know her story. Not even a bit of it.
He just wanted to comfort her.
But she probably didn't know he could hear her so clearly, that the walls in this place were so thin. And there was also the fact that there was no damn way he was going to burst in on her while she was bathing in his washroom. Not for any reason. Perhaps if those people came to their home to try to kill them here, or the Inquisitor himself…itself?…showed up. No, no. Not for any reason.
And because his mind had kept going in that direction, the ache in him mounting as her tears turned into half-suppressed sobs, he couldn't take just sitting there at his desk anymore, so he grabbed a pocket watch he'd been working on fixing, stuffed a few tools in his vest pocket, and went outside, leaving the door propped just in case. And he sat at the top of the stairs working on fixing the pocket watch up where he could still look out onto the street in front of their home and see if anyone was coming.
He also had the peaceful companion of Domino down below, grazing, calmly looking around the yard like some sort of sweet sentinel.
The sun was setting now, and being this far away from the downtown area meant that it was almost like everything that happened today was just some bad dream, some nightmarish thing he'd thought up after reading too many of those periodicals. If he closed his eyes, he could listen to the peaceful quietude of the neighborhood and imagine it had just been a day—like any other day.
But everything had happened.
So much had happened. In just ten hours it was like an entire lifetime of events had occurred.
Sarah had gifted him with something she didn't owe him, a piece of herself, some truth about why she was here. She'd opened herself up to him. And then she'd surprised him to no end, grabbing him and kissing him. No woman had ever kissed him like that, and he'd kissed enough women to know there was something particularly different about the way Sarah had kissed him. He'd felt passion before. He'd tasted it on other women's lips. But something about the way she'd tangled her fists in his shirt, slid her fingers into his hair, held him so close, and the way she'd pressed her lips to his so hard and slow at the same time. As if she wanted to get the most out of it she could. Her strong hands had dug into him as if she was aching, desperate. And he'd had this soul deep feeling that he belonged to her in every way, that she was almost…staking her claim to him. There was this heady sensation of finally in the scant bit of air they'd left between them. And it had been more than he'd ever dreamed of.
No woman had ever made him feel like that. He suspected no other woman ever would again.
And then he'd thought it was for his sister's sake and all of it had crashed down at his feet. But then she'd admitted she hadn't even known Ellie was there. And that was when the stage exploded. He'd seen a patrolmen get a knife jammed into his upper back. Another patrolman sank a bullet into a woman's forehead.
Chuck swallowed thickly and wished the images from the attack out of his brain. He'd seen people die; how many of them were innocent and how many were part of the coup to frame the Coalition, he didn't know.
Sarah saved Ellie's life, and she saved Devon's life. She'd taken the brunt of the injuries. And after Ellie and Devon took care of her wounds, he'd finally told his family about all of it. About the Intersect and about Sarah.
Black clouds were rolling in from the West as the last vestiges of the day began to wear, as if Mother Nature felt it necessary to saturate his mood with something appropriate—an incoming storm.
He hoped to God it wasn't some horrible foreshadowing of what was to come. Or perhaps, considering the attack today, the storm was already here.
What in the hell were they supposed to do now?
He heard a slight creak of the door to his right and looked up to see Sarah slowly peek her head around it. Her hair was wet as it swung down from her shoulders into view. "Oh. I-I didn't know if you'd gone back downstairs," she said quietly. "…When I didn't see you in your bedroom…"
"No, I'm here. I didn't go anywhere."
They met eyes and she nibbled on her lip. "I fear I rather…jumped the gun, so to speak. I perhaps should have waited for Ellie. I got some of my bandages wet and, er, I don't have anything clean to wear."
"Oh!" He stuffed the screwdriver into his pocket and surged to his full height, moving towards her, but she stuck one bare arm out of the door, panic in her face.
"Wait! Wait, please. I…I'm afraid I'm not quite…presentable."
He frowned in confusion, and then it dawned on him and he took a step back. "Oh. …Oh! Yes, of course. You…need clothes." He felt a little lightheaded. Was she only wrapped in one of his towels? He really needed to get that image out of his head as quickly as possible before he blushed or went dazed and she read into it. "I can lend you some of mine if you'd like. A clean shirt and some trousers. Or I could go down and—" She was shaking her head, tight-lipped. "No? No. Not that. Why don't I just go down and see if Ellie's through with her bath and she can help you?"
"Yes, the…bandages, you see."
"Of course. I'd forgotten." Even though she'd just told him that a moment earlier. Something else had flooded his pea-sized man brain after she'd said it though. In his defense. He had no defense, he thought to himself. "Please wait here. I'll get Ellie. At least, if she can't help you with the bandages yet, I can bring you a dress of hers. Don't—Don't go anywhere."
"Where could I go like this?" she asked. And in spite of the dimness in her eyes, the tiredness that made her still stunning features almost seem to sag a little, there was a bit of a teasing look in her face as she smirked weakly.
And for some incredibly stupid reason, he shoved the pocket watch he'd been working on into her hand, feeling her damp fingers slide over his. He blinked at her, she blinked back, and then he thought maybe he should try to explain…explain what, he didn't know…Finally, he just turned on his heel and rushed down the stairs to go back inside of the main house. Away from the woman he loved, damp and wrapped in nothing but a towel.
The world was broken, everything off-kilter and unsettled, crooked.
He didn't spare a moment to acknowledge the strange normalcy of the awkward moment he'd just shared with Sarah Walker. Almost like everything wasn't so dark. The way humanity continued to live and experience things in spite of the avalanche of struggle and shadows bearing down on them.
The con woman smoothed her fingers over the face of the watch as she sat in front of the small mirror in Chuck's washroom, on the edge of the tub. She didn't know why he'd given it to her, almost as if he wasn't thinking, in some sort of awkward panic.
It was bizarre, and so simply Chuck. She'd almost laughed as he'd scurried down the staircase. And instead of going to put it on his desk, she'd taken it with her, back into the washroom, and she studied it now. Was he fixing this for a customer? Or was it his own? Had he built it, or had some watchmaker somewhere in the city?
And then she'd found the small, barely noticeable engraving. Chuck's mark that she saw on everything he made. It was a lovely, swooping, cursive "C". He'd made this himself. And as she turned it over and looked inside of the back of it that he'd left open, she didn't realize a small smile was growing on her lips. He'd inserted every cog, every gear that resided inside of this pocket watch.
It was so easy to forget that part of him considering everything that had happened since she first arrived in Los Angeles. That part of his life. His career. His skills. His trade. The man built beautiful things with his hands, his brain.
And if Bryce hadn't taken the prototype to Chuck Bartowski's doorstep, he would still be just a regular man sitting in his workshop, continuing his trade, fixing pocket watches, clocks, building toys, living a relatively normal life.
Then again, if Bryce hadn't taken the prototype to Chuck Bartowski's doorstep, she wouldn't be sitting in Chuck Bartowski's washroom, on the edge of his bathtub, wrapped in one of his warm, comfortable towels, looking down at one of his inventions as she cradled it in her scratched up palm.
She didn't know why but she wanted to keep this. She already had something of his, something she kept on her vanity in her own home. He'd given it to her before she'd been forced to tell him everything—who she was, why she was here.
She turned it over again and tapped the glass face. The watch wasn't even working, but…Well, she wanted it like this. Not fixed or working, but half-mended, open and vulnerable, the arms stuck where they were in time. That little swooping cursive "C".
Looking up at the sound of the voice outside of the washroom, she felt nerves spill through her, the sense of calm she'd had before shattered. She cleared her throat with a clear, "In the washroom. You may come in."
She smoothed a hand down the towel she'd tied securely to cover herself and wondered if she should've at least put the slip back on even though it was covered in dirt and blood.
The door opened slowly and Ellie walked inside, a few garments draped over her arm, medical bag clutched in her capable hand. Sarah couldn't read the look on the other woman's face, so she cleared her throat and glanced over at her sullied clothing.
"I'm sorry. Perhaps I should've warned you that I'm in…Well, you see, my clothes…And after taking a bath and washing everything off I didn't want to put those back on."
"Pish posh," Ellie murmured, sending her a small but reassuring smile. "We'll burn those along with everything we all wore today. No sense in trying to save it. I've been a practicing nurse for long enough now to know blood is impossible to get out of white cloth." The somewhat more controlled look on her face wavered and she swallowed hard. "Let me set these down and I can help you with—Chuck said your bandages got wet."
"Yes. I'm sorry. I tried not to but…"
"It's all right. Though I did tell you to wait for me," she said with a wry look on her face, setting the clothes over the chair on the other side of the room.
"Yes. You did." What else could she say? She didn't know. So she didn't say anything.
"Stubborn. I'm well-versed in dealing with stubborn patients." She came back over with her medical bag then, dragging a stool with her. "I'll give you fair warning, Sarah. You can fight me, but I always win. Everyone finds that out sooner or later when they try."
Bless her for the lightness in her voice, in spite of how heavy everything felt.
Sarah could only smile a little at her, trying so hard to let it flood into her eyes. But she still felt immeasurable fear in her chest, and she was tired, run down…and there was this unending feeling of panic at knowing there was more coming. Just because they'd survived today, it didn't mean they were out of the woods. There was so much ahead of them, and it put a lump in her throat when she thought about it.
Ellie's gentle hands were on her arm then, and she sat close, resting it across her legs so that she could start to unwind the wet bandage. "This all feels surreal," she said, interrupting the silence that had stretched for a few minutes while she worked.
"It does," Sarah said. "More so for you, I'm sure. I-I had some time to come to terms with it at least."
"Sounds like you've had more time to come to terms with it than anyone. Even my brother."
She nodded slowly. "I…have. Bryce didn't tell me what the Intersect was capable of, though. We're…discovering that together."
The older woman's hands stilled then and she cleared her throat, dabbing the wound that had seemed to stop bleeding thankfully. "What is it? What does my brother have in his head? What is it capable of?"
"I still don't know, Ellie," Sarah said honestly. "The empire's secrets are now in his head. I don't know how…" She shook her head. "…How it's even possible. Our government must be capable of things we couldn't even begin to understand, things they keep hidden from the rest of us out here."
"That concerns me."
She widened her eyes and nodded. "Yes. Me, as well. I especially worry what they might be capable of if they ever find out where the Intersect actually ended up."
Ellie shivered viscerally. "Lord help my brother."
"He has better than that. He has me. Nobody is going to touch even a hair on his head while I'm alive." She clenched her jaw, both in determination and in pain as Ellie tugged at the bandage to tie it.
"I believe you."
Sarah studied the other woman for a moment as she busied herself tying the bandage again. She genuinely believed someone she now knew to be a con artist would protect her brother. She could see it in her. And she didn't understand. She didn't understand either of the Bartowskis.
"Why?" she heard herself ask. Ellie's green eyes swept up to meet her blue ones, question in them. "Why aren't you running in the other direction, telling patrol there's a con woman fronting as a waitress spending time around your brother—a brother you obviously care so much about? Why are you here right now, changing my bandage? You did hear I'm a criminal, didn't you? That I…had to be blackmailed to come here and protect Chuck?"
Ellie just watched her for a moment, not answering, and her lips pursed and became tight all at the same time. "Hm." She watched her some more, and then there was some understanding in the brunette's features, an intelligent sparkle in her eyes. "Kindness confuses you."
Sarah sat back a bit and widened her eyes. "I…don't know how to respond to that."
"And honesty is new for you, too, isn't it?"
She looked away and felt Ellie's cool hand land on her wrist, causing her to look back at her.
"I don't mean to patronize you, Sarah. I'm just trying to figure you out, just like you're apparently trying to figure me out. I'm rather easy, I think. The one thing I haven't stopped thinking about all afternoon is that you saved my life. And you saved my husband's life, more importantly. Whatever your life was before you came here, whatever you might've done, you nearly died today trying to protect me." She shook her head. "I'm not the type to run, Sarah."
"I'm starting to realize that. I still don't understand."
Ellie nodded, letting Sarah have her arm back. Then she scooted closer and started to take the bandage off of Sarah's forehead carefully. "Perhaps I'm a bit tougher to figure out than I thought."
"For someone like me? Yes, I think so. You were right about me. I am confused by kindness. Not that I don't understand it. It-it isn't that. I just…don't know if I'll ever get used to it being…directed at me."
Ellie took up a cloth and began dabbing at her wound gently, making Sarah wince. "Sorry," she breathed, and Sarah gave her a small smile in response. "I imagine living a life of criminality hasn't afforded you much kindness."
"You imagine correctly." She bit her lip. "Though I'm not bitter about it. I don't believe I deserved more than what I got."
Sarah squirmed a bit, still perched on the edge of the tub. "Well, I…didn't show much kindness myself. Manipulation, thievery, fraud…none of those things could be considered kindness, exactly."
"Fair point," the other woman conceded. She set her bag on her lap and started rifling through it, pulling a square cotton bandage out and setting the bag on the floor at her feet again. "But what if I told you I believe everyone deserves kindness?"
"I'd call you Chuck Bartowski's sister." Ellie sniffed in amusement. "But I don't think you believe that as wholly as he does. He tends to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes I worry it's at his own risk."
"Like how he gives you the benefit of the doubt?"
"You're right. I don't believe everyone deserves kindness. There are a good many bad people out there, people who deserve to be treated the way they treat others. And I have a feeling you think you're one of them, but you aren't." She lifted the bandage to Sarah's forehead after cleaning the area a bit more again. "Your background still shocks me. I'll be honest with you. It goes against so much of what I…raised myself to believe in, what I tried to teach Chuck. But the world isn't black and white, and we won't survive here if we try to live like it is. And the fact remains…you've been the one thing keeping my brother safe all these months since Bryce Larkin brought danger to his shop. Blackmail or not, he's safe and alive thanks to you. And so is my husband, and me."
Sarah huffed and looked away, keeping her head still as Ellie continued with the bandage. "I fear we're conversing in circles."
"And both of us are too stubborn to concede our point?"
She heard a soft one syllable giggle come from the brunette's lips. "Yes. Well. We agree on something… The safety of Charles Irving Bartowski is of utmost importance. Not for the sake of the government, or even the well-being of this hard existence we all seem to be living to different degrees. It's for his sake and his sake alone. Perhaps I'm just being selfish because I can't imagine my life without him." She shook her head at herself, finishing with the bandage and sitting up straight in the stool, folding her hands in her lap and looking down.
Sarah noticed that the other woman's chin was quivering, her eyes unsteady. She wanted to rest a comforting hand on the other woman's knee, or drape it over her folded hands in her lap. But she was sure she hadn't earned that sort of a gesture yet. She wasn't sure Chuck's sister would welcome it just yet, in spite of what she'd been saying. So she just folded her own hands in her lap, wincing at the cuts on her palms. Their bandages lie in a pile at the head of the tub where she'd taken them off after belatedly realizing she'd submerged her hands in the water erroneously.
"Ellie, it may be that the world depends on your brother—whether there's something he might be able to do to set things…right, whatever that may be, or maybe just by keeping him and the secrets in his head away from the government or anyone else who might want access to the Intersect—and I think that's important to you, too. Perhaps not as important as your brother being safe." Sarah shrugged. "With what happened today, I'm starting to wonder if the threat isn't growing greater by the day, from..multiple sides. Everything seems to be getting more and more difficult."
Ellie nodded. "Perhaps you think I'm better than I am, Sarah. This world can go to hell for all I care, so long as it leaves my family unharmed." Her movements were a bit jerky then as she gestured to Sarah's hands and pulled them so they were palm-up, propped on Sarah's knees.
Sarah bit her lip and looked down, watching as Ellie meticulously placed a natural salve on the cuts. "I apologize for lying, Ellie," she heard herself saying. And she felt herself break into a cold sweat. "All of the lies I told you. And I'm sorry for forcing Chuck to lie to you. Even once I figured out how much it hurt him to do it."
The brunette looked at her steadily, waited for their eyes to meet. "I wish you'd both been honest from the start. I won't pretend I'm happy about how long I was in the dark about all of this."
"You shouldn't have to pretend," Sarah replied. "I…was wrong. And you have no idea how hard it is for me to admit when I'm wrong."
Ellie raised her eyebrows. "I appreciate your apology."
Sarah wouldn't admit this part, but one of the biggest reasons she'd been so reluctant to have Ellie and Devon know the truth about the Intersect and what brought her to Los Angeles was that she cared deeply about this woman now. She'd never been this close to another woman in her life. And the thought of losing that made her ache. She couldn't admit that to Ellie. It was too much.
"Thank you for not running," she said quietly. "Thank you for…helping me."
Ellie smiled a little, keeping her eyes on the task at hand. "Yes, well, I had little choice in the matter here. Chuck might've had a heart attack in the process of trying to help you himself if I hadn't stepped in."
Biting her cheek, Sarah pointedly diverted her own gaze to her hands. She willed herself not to blush and she felt like she'd most likely succeeded.
"It's…different, knowing you're more than just a waitress from a farm in some rural town, isn't it?" Ellie asked. "I mean, the way he looked at you—knowing now that he knew the truth about your origins all that time. It's somehow just…different. I see it differently."
"Yes, well…It's because we lied about that, too. It was the only plausible reason we could come up with to keep me close to him." She chewed on the inside of her cheek.
Sarah frowned and looked up at the brunette. There was a thoughtful look on her face, one Sarah couldn't exactly figure out. "What?"
"I think perhaps you still have a lot to learn about my brother."
Sarah felt her frown deepen. "What does that mean?"
"I think I should let you figure this out on your own." She finished tying the bandages and tiredly stood from the stool, stretching with her hands on the small of her back. "Let me help you get dressed…if you'd like me to, that is."
"I'm…not sure I have a choice. I need help." She decided to let Ellie's cryptic words go for now.
"Are you able to stand?"
Sarah nodded and did so as Ellie went to delicately lift her slip that looked just about Sarah's size, helping her ease through the process of getting into it, letting the towel fall away from her bare figure. It took some time, but Ellie finally buttoned her into the dress and stepped back to look at her handy work.
"Is it comfortable enough? I can try to let some of the seams out if it's pressing against your bruises."
She shook her head. "It feels fine. Thank you."
"Good." She folded her hands and cleared her throat. "Sarah, I was a lot happier before I knew my brother has government secrets in his head, that he's in danger, and that…you're not who I thought you were; I mean that you're a con artist instead of a waitress who came here from the country." She huffed with a jerky shrug, then crossed her arms, squirming a bit. "But I'd take knowing and being terrified over not knowing and being happier. There's still a lot I don't know here, and I don't know anything about you. But I'm willing to have this be a new starting point. I'm lost and confused, honestly." Her chin quivered again. "I just…want to be informed of what's going on. That's all I ask. I don't want to be locked out again. Please."
Sarah nodded. "Yes. I-I mean, no. You won't be. And thank you. Again."
"For not running? Or for the bandages?"
"Both. But also for…the restart. Perhaps things are…different from what you thought they were between Chuck and I." Whether that disappointed Ellie or not now that she knew she was a criminal, Sarah was sure she didn't want to know. "But the one thing that is the same, that hasn't changed, is that I am going to protect him with my life."
Ellie nodded. "Is there a way to get it out? The Intersect?"
"I don't know. Those are all answers I presume we'd get if Bryce ever showed his face to us again."
"I'm not sure I wouldn't murder him with my bare hands."
"You'd have to get to him before I did."
"Oh, I would."
There was almost a challenge in the way Chuck's sister said it, and even if it made Sarah squirm a bit uncomfortably, it also made her admire the woman even more, if that was possible.
Before either of them could say anything else, there was the sound of the front door opening and heavy footsteps. And then a soft knock on the washroom door.
"Is, uh, everything all right?"
At the sound of Chuck's voice, Sarah's body reacted of its own volition and she reached up with her uninjured arm to try to pull her hair into some semblance of neatness. She missed the knowing, amused look on Ellie's face as she turned to the mirror to try to do something with her hair.
And then she heard Ellie go to the door and open it, pushing her body into the doorway to block him from being able to see in. "Everything is fine."
"She's fine, Chuck."
"Oh." He cleared his throat. "I'll be out here, then."
"Mhm," his sister hummed, and then she shut the door again and appeared behind Sarah's reflection, that kind look on her face again. She stepped in with a questioning look, her hands poised near Sarah's head. The conwoman nodded with a small, grateful smile. And in almost no time, she had her damp hair braided.
They walked out together to find Chuck peering out of his window again, watching the street below, his shoulders tense even as they seemed to sag.
"What are you doing?" Ellie asked.
He turned to look at them, his brown eyes lingering on Sarah in particular, she couldn't help but notice. She fought to keep from squirming uncomfortably. "Watching to see if anyone intends to follow us. The patrol knew you were one of the leaders of the Coalition, one of the women who chaired the committee to start the march."
Ellie shivered beside her. "I was so caught up in everything, and in what you both told us, that I-I didn't think about that."
"Luckily for all o' you, I did."
They all spun to see Casey standing in the doorway, the front door still in his hand. Sarah turned and sent Chuck a look. Some look-out he was. He had the decency to look sheepish.
"W-What? I-I don't know what you're—" Ellie tried, and bless her for it.
"Ellie, it's all right. Casey knows everything."
She spun to face her brother, eyes wide. "You told your damn assistant all of this before you told your sister?!"
Casey shut the door and came into the room. "What is she talkin' about, Bartowski?" he asked, ducking his head and narrowing his eyes dangerously.
"We told Ellie and Devon everything," Chuck explained. "It was high time."
"What is going on here?" Ellie asked.
"The government sent Casey to find and capture Bryce."
"Are you a government agent?" Ellie asked, and just like that, she had Chuck's desk chair in her hands, holding it with its legs up, her very own makeshift weapon.
"Ellie! Ellie, Ellie….put it down…" Chuck tried, crossing towards her. Sarah's jaw fell open as a look of supreme amusement and respect came over Casey's features.
"On second thought, maybe bringin' 'er in on this was a good idea. Could use a soldier with a spine like hers," he said with a grunt, smirking.
Chuck got the chair out of his sisters hands, and set it safely out of reach. "Ellie," he said, holding up a placating hand. "He's more on…er, contract."
"I'm a bounty hunter, ma'am."
Ellie huffed and shook her head, pressing her fingers to the bridge of her nose. Then she sighed and shrugged. "No, this one makes sense actually."
Sarah, Chuck, and Casey all looked back and forth from one another and shrugged.
"Your brother has a way of bringin' people onto 'is side. Let's jes' put it that way."
"No wonder you knew to warn me before the march," Ellie worked out. "What sort of connection do you have to the patrols?"
"Not so much that I'm connected to the patrols as I have a few trusted…" He grunted, not seeming to want to finish that.
She nodded, looking extra fatigued again. "Well, thank you for trying, I suppose."
"Didn't do no good. Look, I came because we don' know if patrols or…er…well, someone else might come searchin' for Mrs. Woodcomb. Yer address is all over the place so I booked us some rooms in a place that don't ask questions. On the outskirts of town. We need to go there an' regroup."
Ellie blanched. "Devon isn't here."
Casey frowned as Sarah spun to look at her. "Where is he?" she asked the nurse.
"I told him to stay with me, not to go. But he felt like he'd be needed at the hospital after the attack today. It's his duty, as a doctor." Ellie shook her head. "What do we do? Should I find him? Bring him back? I don't know if he'll leave patients in need."
"F'course I get saddled with a family of altruistic…" Casey wisely didn't finish that sentence at the look Ellie sent him. "I'll find the doc. I'll make him come." Then he looked at Chuck. "Kid, you ever hear o' Gregson Lodgin's?"
"Yes," he said, nodding.
"Go there, take the ladies with ya, and give 'em the name Garfield. Harris Garfield." Then he turned on his heel and headed for the door.
"Wait, let me come with you," Ellie rushed out, following him. "Just let me get my hat downstairs and I can help you—"
Casey turned on his heel and towered over her, putting a hand up. She stalled halfway through her sentence. "I'll find 'im jes' fine on my own. You don't know if they'll be lookin' fer ya. Go wit' yer brother and stay in the rooms I rented."
Ellie clenched her jaw. "That's my husband. And for the record, I don't even take orders from him. Let alone some bounty hunter posing as a toymaker's assistant. No offense, Chuck," she tossed over her shoulder.
Chuck blinked. "Uh, none…taken."
Casey smirked. "It ain't an order. But I don' think the patrol force'll be takin' the attack today as any legitimately professional organization might. I imagine vengeance is wut's on their minds. An' yer name was tied to the Coalition pretty intimately." He shrugged.
"Ellie, please come with Sarah and I. Let Casey find Devon." Ellie sent her brother a stormy look. "For me, El. Please. It isn't safe for you out there. You can trust Casey. And Devon will be safe with him. I promise."
She finally nodded, relenting. "All right. As you say."
Casey was gone, leaving them alone. Sarah felt a deep and unyielding exhaustion plaguing her down to her very bones suddenly, but she stayed on her feet. "I need my trunk," she said. "We'll get my trunk first and then go to Gregson Lodgings from there."
"Don't take this the wrong way, Sarah, but you look fit to fall over from exhaustion," Ellie said, her voice still brittle.
"That may be, but I'm not so sure staying here and sleeping is an option. When we get to the rooms, I can lie down. But for now, we all need to leave." She pushed a hand through her hair, suddenly aware of just how awful she must look, shifting her weight and trying to fight off the pain that shot through her body. "We'll wait for this to pass and then you can come back here."
"If it doesn't pass?" Ellie asked.
But she didn't feel nearly as sure as she sounded. And she feared she didn't sound all that sure.
A.N: "It will pass." Words I wrote well before Saturday. Feeling very good about them, now.
Please review. They make my day. Truly.