Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!
This Means War
She broke off mid-sentence and struck, twisting at the waist, grabbing the front of the unsuspecting Chuck’s parka, and yanking. She had just a glimpse of Chuck’s face—switching from sly to startled—before he hit the ground, back first thanks to a Hand-to-Hand Combat 101 takedown. Sarah pounced. “Quick, Vi, get him!”
“Oh no!” Chuck said. He tried to squirm away, but Sarah had him pinned. Violet needed no further prompting to grab a double fistful of snow and shove it down the neck of Chuck’s parka.
He groaned and tried to scramble away from Sarah. “Cold! So very, very cold!”
“Say uncle,” Violet said, dancing out of the way on her pink snow boots.
Chuck struggled harder. By now, Sarah was laughing almost too hard to hold him down, especially when Violet dove in a second time, dropping snow on Chuck’s hat and darting away.
“Say uncle, Daddy!”
“Never. I’ll never surrender to the likes of you, snow pirate!” Chuck flung his hands up dramatically before going still. It surprised Sarah so much that she didn’t have time to stop the faceful of snow he shoved at her, or the tackle. At least the ground had been softened by several feet of precipitation, or she’d have been out of breath from more than laughing too hard.
Chuck caught her around the waist, holding her down. “We’ve got her now, Vi!”
Violet’s grin widened and she bent at the waist to scoop up more snow. Which, Sarah knew, would be very, very cold down the back of her jacket. She lay still, though she knew twelve different ways to break free, until Violet came at her, evil grin in place. Out of the child’s gaze, Sarah’s right hand tightened around a clump of snow.
Just as Violet nearly came into reach, Chuck said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this, kid.”
“Trap!” Violet shrieked and jumped back. “It’s a trap!”
Sarah laughed, twisted out of Chuck’s reach, and chased Violet across the lawn. Violet ran in a zigzag pattern, howling and shrieking, and making other animal noises from her arsenal. She wasn’t too fast on the snow. Sarah could have caught her easily, but she let the girl have her fun. When she spotted Chuck cutting across the side of the yard, she met Chuck’s glance, caught the message, and nodded. They shared a secret smile before Sarah took off after Violet, herding her toward the other half of the yard—where Chuck popped out from behind a pine tree and snatched the girl up as she shouted. “Victory is mine!”
“Rematch! Rematch!” Violet wriggled so hard that Sarah saw Chuck wince and set her down before he could drop her. “Rematch!”
“We’re not going to finish the snowman?” Sarah asked.
Violet’s eyes lit up and her mouth dropped open in a comical exaggeration of shock. “Oh, right! I forgot. Can we name him Squidward?”
“Squidward the Snowman?”
That was apparently the funniest thing Violet had ever heard, since she fell to the ground, overcome with giggles. Sarah opened her mouth to say something, but a streak of white cut across her vision and smacked Chuck in the chest.
Sarah whipped around to see Morgan grinning at them from the deck, and holding more ammunition. “Take cover,” Chuck shouted, snatching up Violet and ducking behind a tree. Sarah dove behind a tree a few feet away from them.
Just in time, too: Morgan’s next snowball caught the tree truck where her stomach had been, smashing into a white cloud and raining snow down on Sarah.
Chuck packed a snowball and heaved it, but Morgan had already taken cover on the other side of the yard. Only his footprints were visible to show that he’d even been there in the first place. “All right, gang,” Chuck said in a loud whisper that carried to Sarah’s hiding spot, “here’s the situation. We’ve got a bogey in our territory.”
“What’s a bogey?”
“Your Uncle Morgan. And he needs to be dealt with. Megabyte, you’re in charge of supplies. Pack as many snowballs as you can, but make ‘em good and tight, we want Grimes on the ground pleading for mercy when we’re done.”
“Walker, you’re in charge of reconnaissance.”
“Why do I have to do recon? I have better aim.”
“Oh yeah?” Chuck’s lips quirked up. “And just how many snowball fights have you been in young lady?”
Sarah’s missile caught him right in the chest. She gave herself time enough for only one giggle at the shocked look Chuck gave her before she took off, racing for the trees and for safety. “Traitor!” Chuck called after her. “Dirty, rotten traitor!”
Sarah slowed, spun in place, and stuck her tongue out at him. She had to dodge a snowball, but it was worth it. She circled all the way around the cabin, going the opposite way Morgan’s footsteps indicated he’d gone. It felt unfair to use her spy skills to get ahead in a backyard snowball fight, but she didn’t care; she tracked Morgan to his hiding spot, set herself up two feet away, and waited until he’d turned.
He jumped about three feet in the air. “Gah!”
“Shh, you’ll give us away.” Sarah smirked.
“What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be on Chuck’s side.”
“He’s got Vi with him. This way, we’re evenly matched.”
Morgan’s brow furrowed underneath his Oscar the Grouch hat as he thought this over. “Oh, man, you’re saying I have all of the tactical advantage in a snowball fight as a five-year-old, aren’t you?”
“If that five-year-old is Violet, yes,” Sarah said, amused.
Morgan thought that over. “Only fair,” he said. “What’s the game plan?”
“Hit Chuck. Don’t get hit. Spare Violet if you feel you must.”
“You’re kind of ruthless.”
“And I like it. Let’s do this.”
They sneaked around the side of the cabin, Sarah leading the way. She would have preferred better camouflage than the bright blue parka and blue jeans, but she wasn’t going to cover herself to look like a yeti just for a backyard brawl. Morgan walked along behind her, unnaturally loud—did he not realize the point of sneaking?
They made it successfully to the tree line with nary a projectile hurled their way.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Morgan whispered as they took cover behind a boulder.
“You think it’s a trap?”
“I think it’s—”
Sarah turned and fired off a snowball. It hit a tree—she’d missed deliberately—about eight or so feet from Violet, but she saw the girl’s eyes widen in shock, and then her shoulders shake with laughter. “Missed me!” she called.
“Oh, is that right?” Morgan surged to his feet to chase her, but Sarah grabbed his arm. “What?”
“Decoy,” Sarah said, and threw a snowball at a tree in a completely different direction. She heard the “hey!” as it connected, and smirked. “See?”
“Damn,” Morgan breathed. “How do you do that?”
Sarah shrugged. “You take Violet. I’ll get Chuck.”
“Yeah, I just bet you will.” Morgan wiggled his eyebrows and took off before Sarah could think about throwing a snowball at him. He raced across the snow, taking a couple of hits from Chuck along the way, his arms up to protect his head as he ran. “I’m coming for you, Monster Megabyte!”
“Ooh, scary,” Violet said, but she was already running away. Sarah counted to ten in her head and headed around the opposite side of the boulder. She ran at a half-crouch, moving from one tree to the next. She could feel snow melt against the back of her parka, soaking her turtleneck. It would be uncomfortable given time, but right now it didn’t bother her.
This time, he surprised her, which she would have to give him credit for later. She’d figured Chuck to be hiding behind a tree about ten yards off, but either he was faster than she thought or simply sneakier. As Sarah ran past a tree, she caught movement to her left, but not quickly enough. Again, Chuck tackled her, catching her around the midsection and dragging her to the ground with him. The following wrestling match was short, furious, and very snowy.
Sarah eventually broke off only because she was laughing too hard, allowing Chuck to roll and pin her to the ground. “You—you—”
“What? What is it?”
Giggles escaped even though she had both hands over her mouth. Finally, she blurted out, “Snow beast!”
“What?” Chuck looked affronted, which somehow made the fact that both his eyebrows and his stubble were covered with snow look even more ridiculous. “What are you talking about?”
Sarah just laughed harder.
Violet streaked around the corner, still running from Morgan, and all but skidded to a stop. She took one look at Chuck and cried, “Santa!”
Tears were now streaming as Sarah kept giggling. Chuck did indeed resemble the toymaker from the north, as snow had stuck to his chin and the hair sticking out from under his cap, turning it frosty white. He was ruddy-cheeked from the cold, too, his eyes bright from exertion. Though, and she knew this because he was mostly on top of her, keeping her down, in no way did he have anything close to a belly that jiggled like a bowl full of jelly.
He grinned. “So I look like Santa Claus, huh. Well, c’mere, elf.”
“No way,” Violet said, and took off again. A second later, Morgan appeared around the same corner.
“Whoa,” he said. “Get a room, you two.”
Chuck threw a snowball at him, and Morgan laughed as he escaped to go hunt down Violet. Chuck cast a glance after them, looked down at her, and wordlessly rolled off. Immediately, cold air rushed in over her, and Sarah realized that snow had gone up the back of her jacket, no doubt because she’d rucked it up during her wrestling match with Chuck. She sat up and wriggled a bit to get most of the cold and wet out, breathing hard thanks to her laughter and the elevation. Still not speaking, she leaned against the boulder. Chuck joined her, and they watched Morgan and Violet chase each other and throw bits of snow at each other.
Sarah glanced at Chuck and giggled. “Hold still,” she said, and tried to brush most of the snow off of his hair and face. It took some doing, as the snow was even clinging to his eyelashes. “You really did look exactly like Santa Claus.”
“Ho, ho, ho,” Chuck said.
Sarah grinned. “Are you calling me a ho?”
“Three times, apparently,” Chuck said without missing a beat. “So that makes you three times the ho that you think.”
“Careful,” Sarah said, though she was smiling. “I’m still armed.”
Chuck made a point of looking her down head to toe, so lasciviously that Sarah felt heat begin to spread through her belly. As always, she was surprised by the intensity of her reaction, and almost vaguely embarrassed. There was a five-year-old running around, and no matter how many times Chuck reassured her it wasn’t the case, it sometimes felt like Violet Bartowski could indeed read minds. “I don’t see any weaponry,” Chuck said, his voice dropping into the lower register. He leaned toward her.
And damn it, she should have leaned away, but she didn’t. She didn’t because Chuck was right, this was vacation and this was more than a cover, and fighting it forever was only wasting her time, time that they might not have, given how fast Chuck was compiling code and fitting together the pieces. So Sarah shifted her head so that her lips were right beside Chuck’s ear, making him shiver. “I’m afraid I’m wearing far too many clothes for you to see it.”
“Maybe we should sneak away, take care of that little—gah!”
Snow rained on them from overhead, a miniature cold avalanche that poured over their heads and down their jackets.
Sarah shrieked and leaped to her feet, already chasing after the culprits. Violet dropped the jacket they’d been using to transport the snow, easily abandoning her comrade in arms for safer pastures. Behind her, Sarah heard Chuck’s aggravated “Morgan!” and hoped he wouldn’t be too merciful when he caught their bearded foe.
“Hooligans!” Ellie’s shout cut across the yard and had all four combatants stopping and turning, even Sarah. “It’s getting late and you’re all soaked. Hot chocolate’s ready!”
At the mention of cocoa, a reluctant truce was called and the warring parties headed in together, shedding gloves, scarves, and hats. In the mudroom off of the kitchen, Sarah peeled out of her jacket while Chuck helped Violet out of hers. “And I thought,” Chuck said as he opened the zipper, “they smelled bad on the outside!”
“First Hoth joke of the day for the win,” Morgan said from the bench where he was struggling out of his snow boots.
Sarah didn’t think any of that was English, though Violet was giggling.
“C’mon, wampa, let’s get some hot chocolate before Aunt Ellie drinks it all.”
They left a pile of dripping shoes and accessories on the floor to be dealt with later and trooped into the kitchen together. Sarah brought up the rear and stopped just inside the mudroom, absurdly reluctant to follow the others. She told herself she just needed a minute, though she knew better. A year before, a trip to Tahoe would have been a couple of days of snowboarding, possibly from helicopter, in the roughest terrain, and nights at the casinos as whatever cover she and Bryce were playing at the time. There would have been the finest champagne, always perfectly chilled. The staff would have known their names, would have waited on them politely, discreetly, with a smile and an open hand.
Now Tahoe meant a prolonged snow war, crammed into a cabin with far too many people, with hot chocolate and science-fiction references.
Why didn’t she miss her old life more?
“Sarah?” Chuck poked his head around the edge of the door. “Something the matter?”
“No, no, not all. Just, ah, daydreaming.”
“I’m going to pretend it’s about how impressive I am in a snowball fight,” Chuck said, grinning.
The devil inside Sarah made her grin back as she patted his cheek. “You made the most adorable little squeal when I hit you.”
Most men would have coughed or taken affront at being emasculated; Chuck just smirked and grabbed her wrist when she would have lowered her hand. “See? An impressively adorable little squeal. Still means impressive.”
“C’mon, hot chocolate’s getting cold, and Ellie always makes the best. You want whipped cream on yours?”
“Sure,” Sarah said again, and let him pull her inside.
Morgan and Violet had already found seats at the table, and Ellie was standing by the counter, idly flicking through a magazine. She didn’t look up at her brother or Sarah. “You two, being late, get to doctor yours yourselves.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Chuck said with a mock salute. He dropped Sarah’s hand to go fix the hot chocolate up from a pot at the stove, waving that Sarah should take a seat at the table. “Where’s the hellion?”
“In the garage. Casey and Devon are out trying to fix up the old snowmobile.”
Chuck snorted. “Good luck with that.”
“You say that only because you and Morgan couldn’t get it working last year. Sounds like jealousy, brother mine.”
“It’s a demonic beast,” Morgan said as Sarah sat down. She didn’t bother to push her chair in; the second she sat, Violet scrambled over to sit in her lap, nearly slopping hot chocolate over both of them. Thankfully, Sarah saved the mug before she could get drenched, though Violet was plenty damp from their snow battle. “It works for no man.”
“That, and we’re not really mechanics,” Chuck said.
“That’s besides the point. Demonic. Demonic, I tell you.”
“Uh-huh,” Sarah said when Morgan looked at her for confirmation. “Clearly, possessed by...evil things.”
Morgan nodded in approval. Sarah hid her smile with the mug of cocoa Chuck passed over to her as he sat down.
Violet took a long slurp from her mug. “What’s demonic mean?”
“Evil,” Morgan said. “Vicious.”
“Yeah,” Chuck said as Sarah nearly choked on the cocoa, trying to hide her surprised laughter. “Just like Sir.”
“I’m gonna go tell him!” Violet sprang off of Sarah’s lap so quickly that the spy winced; Chuck’s daughter really was all one sharp angle.
“Did she mean Sir or....”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Chuck said, and Sarah noticed that all three of them were tensed now, ready to run for the hills if need be. “Ellie, you willing to hold him off so we can get away?”
The brunette looked up from her magazine and laughed. “You got yourself into this mess on your own, Chuck.”
“God have mercy on my soul,” Chuck said solemnly, and this time there was a twinkle in his eyes that did make Sarah laugh. They sipped their hot chocolate, falling quiet, waiting. “You know, I think we may be in the—”
“Clear. Run,” Chuck said, and he, Sarah, and Morgan wasted no time abandoning the kitchen and racing away to safer parts of the house.