*Insert witty and clever intro here*
Later he’d blame it on residual adrenaline or exhaustion or perhaps just insanity, but Chuck’s first reaction wasn’t his usual deference. He didn’t hold his tongue. He didn’t even keep quiet. Instead, he blurted out the only thing that he was really thinking at that moment: “I don’t need a replacement.”
Kellerman stopped mid-sip. “What was that, Analyst Bartowski?”
“I said that I don’t want to be replaced. Things are fine here, it’s handled.” Realizing that he was still half in and half out of the trailer, Chuck straightened and stepped inside, pulling the door closed behind him.
“Not really your call.”
Again, deference was nowhere to be found. “Even so, I’d like a chance to talk to Bullworth. Things have...changed.”
Kellerman set his latte down on Sarah’s coffee table, ignoring the coasters, and reached into his suit jacket.
Chuck managed to catch the folder that flew his way a second later, though not as smoothly as any of the field agents in the office would have. He fumbled to open it, all thumbs. “What’s this?”
Indeed, the file contained a condensed rap sheet for one Joey “Shiny Toes” Dettweiler. There was a picture that matched Sarah’s description fairly accurately, though the mug shot had a sneering quality she’d neglected to mention. Still, the scar she’d described was there, even if the gladiator haircut wasn’t. Dettweiler also had a long list of priors, from aggravated assault to armed robbery.
“Excellent,” Chuck said, ignoring the dread in his stomach in favor of sheer relief. Finding at least one of Sarah’s attackers meant there were fewer people after her, which automatically meant she was safer. “Now we can find out why he attacked Sarah.”
“Or not. Keep reading.”
Chuck thumbed ahead and almost dropped the file when he spotted it. Page twelve contained a picture of Dettweiler—or at least, Chuck had to assume it was Dettweiler. It was hard to tell with most of the face missing and the—he counted—three broken fingers. And from the looks of the picture, the fingers were the least of it.
He tore his gaze away from the photo, had a brief and disturbing vision where he relived the very nice dinner Sarah had bought for the two of them. Shiny Toes Dettweiler’s last hours on earth had been far from pleasant.
And now that she wasn’t around to muddle his thoughts, Chuck could see Sarah’s trailer really was rather homey.
“Still squeamish, I see,” Kellerman said, brushing a bit of lint off of his suit jacket.
Chuck ignored the barb and set the file down. “What happened to him? Apart from the obvious?”
“He was found at the bottom of the L.A. River about four hours ago. With his face all…” Kellerman waved his hand at the folder. “Well, let’s just say not pretty and leave it at that. You can imagine how anxious Bullworth was that I get here as soon as possible.”
Chuck sighed and ran a hand through his hair, wincing when it came away greasy. On top of everything, he needed a shower. It figured. “So you got here as soon as possible, I’m gathering.”
“With news of this second attack, Bullworth was even more convinced that Walker would need somebody with a little more experience watching over her.” Kellerman smirked and added, “Definitely one assignment I won’t mind taking very seriously.”
Chuck’s hand clenched into a fist, thankfully out of Kellerman’s line of sight. He was standing like some damned rookie trainee, he realized, practically at parade rest in front of a superior. With deliberate casualness, he took a seat on the only other chair in the room apart from the couch. “Sarah’s not going to like that, I can tell you up front.”
“Well, my job is not to be concerned with Walker’s feelings, Bartowski, it’s to keep her alive.” Kellerman leaned forward and Chuck could hear the lecturing tone enter the other man’s voice. It was the same tone that Kellerman had used back at the Farm when they were going through training together. It rankled even more now than it had then. “And for the record, this is exactly why you’ve always been consistently turned down for field agent.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Hey, I’m just trying to help you out.”
“With what?” Chuck asked, exasperation bleeding into his tone.
“See, that. Exactly that. You’re too personal, Bartowski, and it shows. Your asset is your asset, and nothing more. Talking about what she likes and doesn’t like, worrying about her feelings—you can’t do that, not in the line of duty.”
“Okay, thanks for the career advice, Kellerman, but—”
“And that’s,” Kellerman went on, as though Chuck hadn’t spoken at all, “why I’ve always recommended you stay in the lab where you belong.”
Chuck’s fist clenched again. They’d been at Camp Peary at the same time, Kellerman and him, though Kellerman was a year or two older. Politicking and sheer luck had allowed Kellerman to move up the ranks in Department Fourteen, while Chuck did the same—as an analyst. Now, Kellerman was the only thing standing between Chuck and field agent status. Chuck needed Kellerman’s endorsement for field work, and he’d never gotten it. No matter how many times he petitioned, no matter how his scores were or how clearly he wanted it, Kellerman never said yes. The other man always claimed it was for his own good.
Now, when it was just the two of them in some tiny trailer on a Hollywood lot, with none of the bosses and other agents around, Chuck wanted nothing more than to deck the other man. Given the fact that he wasn’t at all prone to violence, it was as disarming as it was empowering. Still, Chuck forced himself to speak evenly. “I can do the job, sir. I’m qualified.”
“You think Bullworth is going to entrust the care of somebody with as high a public profile as your little actress friend to a rookie field agent with no practical field experience?” Kellerman stood up and straightened his suit. “You did your best, and the Agency appreciates you stepping up in the meantime, but you’re relieved. Go back to your vacation, Chuck.”
Kellerman stopped on his way out of Sarah’s trailer and turned, very slowly. “Excuse me? That was not a request.”
Oh, frak. He’d never heard Kellerman’s voice go so cold before, even though other agents had talked about the Iceman a time or two—when Kellerman couldn’t hear, of course. “What I meant was that I can help you, sir. You’ll need a team, and you could use my,” Chuck swallowed back the distaste at his next word, “expertise.”
Kellerman never got a chance to reply, since at that moment, the door burst open. Kellerman twitched for his gun, Chuck’s hands went up in a very loose kung fu defensive stance.
It was only Sarah.
“Chuck!” Her eyes were wide; the makeup somehow making her look both wholly like Chuck was used to seeing her and completely unlike herself. “There’s a...” Her eyes tracked to Kellerman, and narrowed. It wasn’t hard to see her taking in Kellerman’s G-man appearance and instantly cataloguing him as such. “Problem. Who’s this? What are you doing in my trailer?”
“That’s Kellerman,” Chuck said glumly.
“I’m Brad Kellerman,” Kellerman said with a gleaming smile. He walked over to Sarah and stuck out his hand. Sarah shook it, but she was looking at Chuck the whole time. “I’m your bodyguard.”
It was almost comical how fast Sarah’s head spun back toward Kellerman. “Excuse me?”
Kellerman’s smile faded just a bit. “The agency sent me as a replacement for Mr. Bartowski. He was always supposed to be a temporary solution, as he isn’t qualified for this type of work.”
Temporary. That was all it took to make Chuck remember everything that had happened. As much as he wanted to object solely on the grounds of disliking Kellerman, the other man was right. Chuck wasn’t a bodyguard, not really. What happened at Heidelman’s had been pure chance. Put in the same situation seven different times, Sarah would probably be kidnapped and Chuck would be a Chuck-kabob.
Sarah stepped fully into the trailer, a wary look on her face. “Wait a second. Your agency sent me a temporary bodyguard?”
“I tried to tell you that,” Chuck started to say, but Sarah held up a hand to stop him.
“Well, yes, Mr. Bartowski’s services were supposed to serve as sort of a stopgap, if you will, until a more experienced agent could take his place.” Kellerman paused, thought about it for a second, and added, “Ma’am.”
“So you sent a stopgap to protect me after I’d been attacked? I can see your ‘agency’ takes my safety very seriously.”
“We do, ma’am.”
Chuck’s eyes narrowed. Why did he get the feeling that there was some sort of...trap coming? Chewie was about two seconds away from grabbing for the Ewok meat, though Sarah’s face was perfectly devoid of any emotion.
“It doesn’t seem that way to me. It sounds to me like you’re saying that your agency sent an under qualified temporary agent to protect me after I was point-blank attacked by somebody who sounds like a lot more than a crazy fan.”
Chuck’s head snapped up. Sarah had been positive that Shiny Toes Dettweiler was nothing more than an obsessed fanboy. Why the change now?
“That’s not inspiring a whole lot of confidence, as you can see,” Sarah continued, staring at Kellerman.
It was the closest to squirming Chuck had ever seen the agent. “That’s not exactly what I meant—”
“What did you mean?”
“You’ve been perfectly safe this whole time, I promise,” Kellerman said, putting on the reassuring smile he had once used to woo the entire female half of a training class at Camp Peary.
“You just insinuated that Mr. Bartowski is under qualified.”
“I assure you,” Kellerman said, sounding a bit like he was chewing on glass, “Mr. Bartowski is perfectly fine where it counts.”
“Excellent.” A breathtaking smile broke over Sarah’s face, making both men blink. “I’ll keep him as my bodyguard, then.”
“Wait, what?” Kellerman asked.
A second later, Chuck’s brain caught up with him. “Wait, what?” he echoed.
“I’ve just gotten used to the idea of having one bodyguard follow me around all the time. I’m not introducing another stranger into my life, Mr. Kellerman. Chuck stays, and you can thank your agency all the same for me.”
Kellerman, possibly sensing that his control of the situation had derailed the minute Sarah had entered, held up both hands for peace. “Now, Miss Walker, I understand your private life is important to you. And I’m sure Bartowski did an adequate job standing in for me, but I’m who Bullworth intended to send in the first place. You can trust me; I’m very good at my job.”
“If that’s true, then why weren’t you—no, you know what? Chuck did better than an ‘adequate’ job. He saved me.”
“I understand you feel some gratitude for Mr. Bartowski’s, er, rescue this evening, but I assure you, he has other strengths. And with your contract with the studio, you don’t have much of a choice in the—what are you doing?”
“Calling Neil and seeing what he has to say about this.” Sarah pressed a few buttons and held her phone to her ear. “Hi, Amber, it’s Sarah Walker. I need to speak to Neil. Sure I’ll hold.”
To Chuck’s surprise, Kellerman actually paled. “Hold on there, that’s not really necessary, I’m sure we can…”
“Besides, haven’t you heard? Chuck’s my new boyfriend.”
Chuck shook his head vigorously, trying to stop everything from spinning and being confusing. The world needed to make sense. “I’m sorry,” he said to no one in particular, “I thought I was finally done hallucinating crazy things.”
“Not a hallucination.”
“Is he okay?” Kellerman asked Sarah. Or at least Chuck thought he had. It was hard to tell what was real and what was only happening in his head. He was pretty sure he had imagined Sarah saying he was her boyfriend. And now it felt strangely as though he were watching the world from inside a fish-bowl, where his vision was distorted and his hearing was underwater and—had Sarah really said Chuck’s my new boyfriend? Sure, he’d daydreamed, once or twice, maybe a few times, but...had she really said that?
He pinched himself. And now his arm hurt.
“Oh, he’s fine. He does this every once in a while. You get used to it after the third or fourth time.”
“I think I need—wait, no, something’s not right.” Chuck shook the fog away to find Kellerman staring at him as though he’d sprouted a third arm. Sarah simply looked tolerantly amused. “You said I wasn’t hallucinating.”
“But you said I’m your new boyfriend.”
“How the hell is that not a hallucination?”
Sarah waved at him. After a second, he realized she was gesturing for him to pull his phone out, so he did so. “It may be a long story, but apparently my new ‘mystery beau’ is breaking news at TMZ. Bridget says it’s all over the other gossip sites now, too.”
Bridget did Sarah’s make-up, Chuck knew. She had two kids and a Boston Terrier named Max, all of which were kept in snapshots at the edges of her makeup mirror. And he had no idea why he was thinking of Bridget at a time like this.
“You’re an actress, I’m sure you’re seen with different men all the time,” Kellerman said. “I don’t think that will be a problem for us.”
Chuck actually winced at the ferocity of Sarah’s glare and it wasn’t even directed at him.
“Just who the hell do you think I—Oh, hi, Neil!” Sarah’s voice transformed from outrage to calm and pleasant, but Chuck could see she was still glaring out of the corner of his eye.
“Miss Walker, please, I didn’t mean anything with my comment,” Kellerman tried to save, but Chuck could tell Sarah wasn’t even listening.
From that point on, it went all downhill for Agent Brad Kellerman.
The trailer was silent as the door closed behind Kellerman. Chuck didn’t know what to say. He was still a little bewildered. He knew Sarah was a formidable woman, but the way she had argued with Neil earlier…well, truthfully, he was a little scared of her at the moment.
“What’s this nonsense about you not being a real bodyguard?”
Chuck jumped a bit as Sarah’s voice broke the silence. He wasn’t sure if he was authorized to tell Sarah he was CIA, but even so, the only reason he hadn’t confessed the truth already was because he feared her reaction. After everything that had happened, after she had just fought to keep him on as her bodyguard, it felt like a betrayal to tell her he was nothing but an analyst who spent all his time in computer labs.
“You seemed like a real bodyguard back at Heidelman’s. And God, how smarmy could that guy be?”
Chuck opened his mouth to say something in response, but Sarah steamrolled on.
“I’ll have you know that I haven’t been on a date in months. For one thing, who has the time? I’ve been in Europe for most of the year, working eighteen-hour days. The least people could do is cut me a break. And I’m not one of those actresses who seemingly have a new boyfriend every other week.” She was glaring at him now, almost as fiercely as she had glared at Kellerman, like this was his fault. He stared helplessly back at her. At that moment, he wanted to be just about anywhere else. “I have a reputation, damn it! I liked my life just the way it was.”
“I mean, yeah, sure. I’m friends with Carina Miller and I guess the ‘tramp’ smell rubs off according to some of the tabloids, but I didn’t ask for this. No offense, but I don’t want a bodyguard at all. I especially don’t want a fake boyfriend. And why is this happening? I just don’t understand why these people are after me,” Sarah said.
Even though part of him was marveling that she hadn’t taken a single breath during her whole soliloquy, Chuck scrambled out of his seat and onto the couch. He had none of Kellerman’s grace (he tripped over his own shoelace), but Sarah didn’t seem to mind when he tentatively put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. She simply went still and turned to face him. “I promise I will do everything I can to keep you safe, Sarah.”
Sarah nodded her head jerkily and took a deep breath. She rose from the couch, out of his reach, and visibly composed herself. “They’re going to need me on set soon, so I need to go. I’ll get one of the guards to walk me there. Try and take a nap or something, it’s going to be a long night.”
He must have looked really bad for her to say something, but Chuck just nodded. “Okay. I’ll take a power nap and come join you on set.”
“Deal.” At the doorway, Sarah paused. “You mean that, don’t you? That you’ll do everything you can.”
“Of course.” Chuck couldn’t stop the full Bartowski grin, though he’d always suspected it made him look like more of a nerd than ever. “Everything I can. Scout’s honor.”
“Thank you, Chuck,” Sarah said and then she was gone, disappearing into the evening beyond the trailer.
For a moment, he didn’t move. Sarah’s presence had a way of filling the room so much—maybe it was just him—that whenever she left, it felt like it always took the very air a moment to reacquire equilibrium. Belatedly, Chuck realized he was still holding his phone, which Sarah had told him to get out. She’d wanted him to see something, he remembered. But what? Oh, right. He pulled up TMZ on his phone and thumbed through it—and was suddenly very, very glad he was already sitting down.
Man, the paparazzi could work fast. There was a picture of Sarah holding his hand as they left Heidelman’s, and the damning evidence in her other hand: a small white teddy bear.
Bullworth was going to burst a blood vessel over this. Now Sarah was expecting him to protect her, and Bullworth would be forced to accept that as well. He’d made a promise he would do everything he could to keep Sarah safe, especially now that he really was her real bodyguard. But he knew he couldn’t do this on his own. He could modify Sarah’s security system all he wanted, he could scour hours of security footage, and turn Emerson’s phone inside and out, but the Farm had never really prepared him for a job like this. He was going to need help, and he wasn’t turning to Kellerman this time.
“Think, Chuck, think.” Who could help him out that wasn’t part of Department Fourteen? He didn’t want to deal with more condescending ridicule, but he needed help.
When the answer hit, he nearly groaned. But he didn’t have much of a choice, so he grabbed his wallet from his back pocket, fished around inside of it, and pulled out a simple white business card. When he dialed the hand-written number, it rang twice before somebody answered with a “What do you want?”
“Hi, I’m, uh, looking for Major John Casey.”
“Who is this? How did you get my private number?”
Chuck readjusted his grip on his phone, his hand suddenly sweaty. “Um, it’s Chuck Bartowski, sir. You said I should call you whenever I wanted to call in my favor. Well, this is me. Calling it in. I need your help.”