Immovable Objects and Irresistible Forces
"Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness."
Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
A/N: Don't call it a come back! ... I know it's been a while but let this be the evidence that I do continue to peck at this story and finally have something which comes next in the chronology to share.
However, I regret that I do not yet have the hoped-for amount of new content to share with many (frankly and simply far-more-important) interests and commitments limiting the progress I had hoped to make. As German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke famously said, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy" and I just haven't had much time to devote to it. And make no mistake: time is the enemy in all things.
Still, it is continually churning in my mind. This transitional approach has been noodling around in my brain for a while and took some time to find a structure that worked for me. Thanks for sticking with me (if you choose to do so) and I'll just go back to posting what I can when I can. And with that in mind, we begin the second phase of this story.
Part XLV - Caution In Love (Part 1)
...in which our protagonist reflects on how, why, and whether she should remain as the protector of a unique young man...
Canon Timeline Reference: Occurs directly after the final events of 'Chuck vs. the First Date' (episode 2.01; i.e., the narrowly averted execution of Charles Irving Bartowski to eliminate the security risk he has become).
Also operates under the assumption that - unlike canon - some non-trivial amount of time passes between that near-execution and the events of episode 2.02 ('Chuck vs. the Seduction') rather than leading directly into that episode. This is the same vague amount of time allowed to elapse within the epilogue chapters of Book One. Otherwise everything just starts getting all jammed together... like you may have noticed it was upon first viewing when we jumped into the 'Roan' mission seemingly the next day and then run up quickly to (American) Thanksgiving.
Contents: Three chapters (actually, more like 1a and 1b interrupted by a slight flashback)
Disclaimers / Easter Eggs: The author has made no profit or derived any other material benefit from this work. Lyrics are property and copyright of their owners. No ownership of, or claim to the television show CHUCK or the movie Tron is asserted or implied. Additionally, in this part, no ownership of, or claim to James Bond (again) or Live and Let Die (song or movie/book title; is just that phrase protected in any way?), or any songs by Florence + the Machine, Suzanne Vega, or Gregory and the Hawk is asserted or implied.
104: Damage Assessment
Orange Orange Frozen Yogurt, Burbank, CA; Friday May 29, 2008, 9:25 am PT
Sarah Walker was pointedly ignoring the door.
Not the front door, which would remain locked until 10 am when she opened the shop which all but a few people believed she owned. She had over half an hour before she had to concern herself with maintaining that cover as the proprietor of what appeared to any outsider to be the new 'healthy treat' frozen yogurt shop in the Buy More plaza.
The shop, like its previous incarnation, was conveniently placed in the same plaza as the Buy More electronics superstore. The Buy More was the workplace of the man she was - for the time being - still assigned to protect.
The man who had shown over the past year that he had far more to offer than the retail job at which he admittedly excelled - and exceeded its scope and authority - but had used to hide from the world after some demoralizing events many years ago. The man she had planned to show rather than tell just how much he had come to mean to her last night, when she believed her assignment as his protector was coming to an end but before they were thwarted by news that prevented her from doing so.
It had been an unexpected obstacle. An immense irritation. A rug pulled out from beneath both of them... but also - to her embarrassment - more than a tiny relief. Chiefly because, even on her most articulate day, she didn't think she could adequately articulate how remarkable she thought Chuck Bartowski to be. Or how much he had come to mean to her. Not with words or actions. Not even to herself.
The irritation continued this morning as she was still struggling to articulate those feelings to herself within her own mind after a restless sleep. Not to mention her NSA agent partner's behavior slightly later this morning. So she had far greater concerns than opening the doors of the shop at the posted time to maintain her cover.
At the moment it was the door to the walk-in freezer which was irritating her the most by stubbornly refusing to open. The door which led - first to the shop's freezer - then to the secret spy base beneath the shop and most of the plaza.
A secret spy base currently physically occupied only by her partner. John Casey. The man who had further derailed her intended admission by nearly executing orders to kill the far-cuter man to whom she was irresistibly drawn, even as she came to deliver the unwelcome news that Chuck would remain the sole human Intersect for the foreseeable future. Even as she breathed a small sigh of relief that the status quo would remain unchanged, neither requiring her to confront her own feelings or the reasons why Chuck would be a fool to reciprocate them.
John Casey. The incredibly dangerous man who was endangering that status quo in a different way and he was undoubtedly currently discussing Sarah's fate with their lone surviving superior.
Sarah continued to focus on cleaning every gleaming glass or metal surface of the shop. As for the Fro-Yo shop itself, her new cover job was the result of the constraints of her previous cover job at a disgusting grease pit named 'Weinerlicious'.
The demands of single-handedly maintaining a moderately convincing fast-food restaurant schedule were surprisingly more demanding than the Buy More. The Buy More was a three-ring circus where Chuck and Casey could take advantage of the chaos to easily slip away when needed. Sometimes under cover of flimsy excuses but usually completely unnoticed.
The long reach of the CIA had first positioned her former manager, Scooter, for a promotion to another location months ago, and then replaced him with a designee who was as real on paper as Sarah Walker herself. That wasn't saying much, but this new manager was even less real in the real world. She had still been expected to maintain the so-called 'quality reputation' and sales footprint of the Weinerlicious location for what was originally a short-term assignment.
Given how often she left the place unmanned, the CIA had subsidized the location's profits posing as a different agency entirely and under a vague story of a federal investigation into suspicious activity at the Large Mart. But as the team racked up more and more successes, the CIA had bought out the property which leased to the old Weinerlicious and then that faceless shell company simply refused to renew that lease.
The new cover story was that the new Fro-Yo shop was financed by Sarah Walker's inheritance from an obscure relative. It not only gave her much more freedom to maintain erratic hours but they used the renovation to surreptitiously create a subterranean west coast command post.
It was one of several improperly authorized domestic CIA 'support' facilities that would surely be brought under increased scrutiny now that Director Graham was dead. Killed in the same explosion which had both stolen Chuck's chance to return to his real life and restored his unique value to the national intelligence machine. It stole his future a second time and - bittersweetly - allowed her to remain in a place which had begun to feel more and more like the place she belonged.
It was fairly obvious that, since one of her own operatives was already stationed here, General Beckman would use her broader domestic mandate via the NSA to take control of the facility.
That wasn't Agent Walker's chief concern at the moment.
She was more interested in why the General had insisted on Casey staying behind after the briefing. Or, she supposed, it was more accurate to wonder why the General had dismissed her from the briefing before it was over.
Sarah wondered whether an assessment of her own fitness for continued participation was under further review. Especially now that the emergency transition of CIA leadership was in motion. The most likely candidates were Graham's people but - with his penchant for compartmentalizing information - she suspected the full extent of her true service record would likely be unknown even to Graham's successor.
So Beckman excluding her from parts of her decision-making process made some sense. Sarah had been the co-leader of the operation since the beginning but she was the outsider now.
Casey and Beckman were both NSA and Casey's role under her command had been similar to Sarah's own with Graham. Beckman's 'fixer' sounded slightly more civilized than Graham's 'enforcer' but neither of them really colored inside the lines.
And although Sarah was CIA she was not exactly a properly documented government employee. Sarah found it doubtful that Graham had entrusted all, if any, of the secrets of his rise to power to anyone, much less shared any information about her not really being an 'Internal Consultant: Efficiency' but rather his own favorite problem-solver of a very different kind.
Beckman had mentioned earlier in the briefing that she was considering many options. Among them, officially transferring Sarah to her command - at least temporarily. Sarah quickly assessed that would mean a much greater likelihood of remaining assigned here in Burbank and had almost as quickly masked her unexpected excitement at that idea, trying her best to show no preference whatsoever.
It required a split-second, completely practical assessment of her value to the team: her effectiveness working with Casey, the effectiveness of her cover as Chuck's girlfriend, and the advisability of keeping the number of people read in on the Intersect to a minimum. And that was just off the top of her head, without knowing any political games Beckman might be playing other than re-establishing her control over the Intersect program.
She was as cold and calculating as her I.C.E. designation implied and looking at herself from the outside she hadn't liked what she had seen.
Her entire time here in Burbank, she had been increasingly reluctant to admit to herself that she felt something for the man she was protecting. Increasingly terrified to admit it to him. Partly because he proved more and more each day that he was exactly what he appeared to be. A kind, charming, sweet, and loyal man with a smile and sense of humor that often cracked her facade of professional detachment and an annoying insistence of seeing something redeemable in her.
But she was mostly terrified because she was exactly what she had managed to keep mostly hidden from him.
First of all, he was no fool. And since he was no fool, he would always have some doubts about her sincerity. She wouldn't be as enamored by him if he was stupid enough or foolish enough not to.
Every time she found herself becoming more intimate with him. A touch... a kiss... what she had intended to do last night... he would wonder. And as long as he wondered, every time she allowed her urges to run freer and farther, it wouldn't just be a welcome escalation of whatever this chemistry was between them. There would always be some suspicion that she was at least partially manipulating him in some way.
And she couldn't lie to herself and claim - whether to protect him or to more effectively complete a mission - that would ever be entirely untrue.
For a narrow window of time, she had ignored all that because she thought last night would be her last chance. Their last chance.
She had been intrigued enough by him upon their first meeting to consider taking him to bed on their first 'date' once she decided he was not the threat Graham originally portrayed him as. It wouldn't have been the first time she'd done such a thing, either out of physical need, alcohol-fueled desire, affirmation of life, trying to capture a moment of humanity, or simple boredom.
But unlike those infinitely forgettable men, her interest had not waned the more time she spent in his company. He was just as intriguing to her now as he had been then.
Perhaps more so because she now knew for certain that her eventual assessment of his pure heart was 100 percent accurate. And that he was just as charming, funny, kind, and loyal as her suspicious mind admittedly could not at first admit that anyone could possibly so completely pure and wonderful. Her first thought had been that it simply had to be a put-on as part of some kind of cover.
He wasn't perfect. She wasn't foolish enough to believe that. But even his flaws were virtues. He occasionally glommed onto others who offered a piece of the normal life he so craved, but then determined their involvement in his two-sides world wasn'tin their best interests. He feared more for the safety of others than himself, and that turned his fears into the very definition of courage. He doubted himself - less so over time - but still, his humility was the opposite of the arrogance she was more accustomed to encountering in men. These virtues and fears-turned-to-strengths made him increasingly interesting to her.
Even as her interest grew, so did her fear. Fear that he would see through her own facade. See the loathsome creature under her carefully-fabricated attractive exterior. The more she wanted him, the more she wanted to distance herself from the lying and violence of her past. Something the terabytes of digitized intel embedded in his mind could reveal to him at any time, as it had in small doses at inopportune times.
But to her surprise - when she did slip or the Intersect allowed a glimpse through her outer armor - he seemed to find something beyond the shell of her outer beauty that increasingly intrigued him.
That was why she finally agreed to that 'official' date last night. Why she fully intended to take advantage of whatever time they had remaining before Sarah Walker ceased to exist and she became someone else, somewhere else. But now that she might be permitted to stay? And if she allowed their cover as lovers to creep into reality?
He would analyze every action the same way he analyzed any puzzle he was trying to solve.
Every escalation in their intimacy would have to be scrutinized through the filter of that uncertainty. Any physical affection she showed to him would imply that it was at least possible that the version of her under a 'manipulator' scenario was willing to use her body to achieve her goals to a larger degree than he may have considered before.
If they ever actually slept together, she could completely forgive him if he leapt to the logical assumption that - if there was a chance she was doing so, partially or solely, to control him in any way - she had likely done the same thing to some other man at some point. Or worse, many times. Or worst, did it routinely as part of a cold and calculated approach to mission objectives, without an ounce of empathy or true affection.
Why not? There were such women in the world. She was one of them, in her own way. Killing without hesitation rather than the approach a less deadly woman might take to achieve her objectives.
She may find their tactics utterly distasteful but they had their reasons and their own stories. She had actually met far more of them through their association with her father than in the world of espionage. He had never trusted any of them even though he occasionally spent extended periods of time with some of them, leaving notes for her to let her know not to expect him home until the next day.
Both the grizzled con-man and his equally jaded young daughter knew exactly what those women were. And though he marveled at his daughter's combination of improvisational skill, intellect and instinct - and thought she might be able to make her way without going that route - he did not want that life for her.
A female con artist sometimes had to make such cold, calculated moves with the assets she had at her disposal to achieve a longer-term objective than most espionage missions required. A few women were truly gifted enough (both with the requisite physical beauty and the talent for deception) that they could get what they wanted without completely 'giving up the goods' and even those - faced with a series of bad breaks - were sometimes forced to play by different rules. Most just played the game the easiest way they knew in an attempt to stack enough small wins to get out sooner rather than later.
Where the nature of the espionage world changed the balance was that many marks among 'regular guys' could be more easily strung along whereas in her world, if you wanted access to the type of men who held positions of power, they had certain expectations. And - no matter how desirable you could portray yourself to be - if you didn't make some sort of concession to those expectations, they would find someone who did. Perhaps not quite as desirable as you but good enough for their purposes.
Sarah didn't know whether it was a good or a bad thing that she had been desensitized to killing more quickly and thoroughly than the 'other' approach. She had certainly discovered early on that she would rather kill a man than let him assault her under the mask of a cover identity who portrayed herself as interested in his advances. But even so, she herself had made more than a few 'concessions' to gain access where she needed.
Nothing was black and white and she still didn't know which sickened her more: the first time she slit a guard's throat because it was more expedient and reliable than a non-lethal approach and later realized he was merely doing his job... or the first time she let a man she barely knew slip his tongue in her mouth and his hand up her skirt just to keep him in the right place for the right amount of time.
Just because she had never gone the route of fully becoming a target's 'girlfriend' to get what she was after from them, didn't mean she hadn't dipped her toe in that pool.
But last night had been about what SHE wanted. With the probability increasing that she would soon lose her opportunity to show him some measure of what he meant to her, for once she hadn't given much thought to what he might think of her motivations for that once she was gone.
Or how hurt he would be if they shared that moment and she had then disappeared.
Now she was smothering under the weight of both ideas.
Wasn't it bad enough that some men would consider a normal woman who went after what she wanted to be some kind of slut? She had unashamedly been exactly that type of woman at one time. Believing any day could be her last, she took what she wanted. If any man objected to that, he kept it to himself for the duration of their 'relationship'... which was rarely more than 24 hours and never trusting anyone to share a bed with her while she actually slept.
Sometimes she just wanted to be the one in control. To not only be able to say 'no' without derailing a mission but to be the one who initiated something that made her briefly feel a little more human and to forget the part she had to play in whatever mission she had just completed.
If any of those men thought she was a slut, they were smart enough not to say it to her and not say it to anyone else until after she had disappeared from their lives. It had never bothered her very much - she had made far worse, far more bloody concessions about the type of person she was than that - and it meant far less to the tall, red-haired woman who was the closest thing she had to a friend.
When the woman now known as Sarah had confided in the woman she now knew as Carina that she didn't care what men - or the other hens competing for their attention - thought of her, her ginger confidant had literally laughed in her face. And further mocked her by saying, "God help you if you ever actually fall for a guy."
Apparently she hadn't been very convincing.
It just reinforced her conscious avoidance of any attachments. She didn't want to ever have to explain to a man she actually cared about - or justify to herself - what she had been up to while she was away. Bryce had been the one exception but only because they came from the same world. There had been a couple of other spies she had worked with but Bryce had the benefit of repetition.
After their first post-mission adrenaline-fueled encounter in the two hours until they parted ways for separate assignments, they simply orbited each other and repeated the same dance where they allowed their false identities to become true for a short time before parting until they repeated the dance again.
They understood each other and acted with the same purpose but never challenged each other. They wore the skin of their false identities and pretended to be real people for a fleeting moment before retreating to their own space where they could each consider the near insignificance of the difference between the false reality of those false identities and the falseness of their true selves.
It took the mask of a non-existent person for them to pretend to be real. As much as she considered the difference between her real self and her many false selves, it was not something they ever discussed.
Those midnight ponderings were for her and her alone; conversations with herself about whether she was any more real than those false identities taking place only within her mind. Maybe that was how she knew she was never anything even approximating 'in love' with Bryce: in all her late-night soul-searching she never cared what he thought of her.
She now considered herself foolish to have thought an arrangement similar to that might have worked with Charles Bartowski. With someone as smart as Chuck, she had the additional burden of wondering - with every tentative escalation in their affection - whether and how much he thought she was doing showing that affection for professional reasons. As he began to more fully understand how her world worked and the consequences of failure - she wondered if he had already formed an opinion of her.
She had a fleeting thought that he was just being careful not to say what he really thought of her if there was a chance that she would continue to escalate her 'tactics' and reap the physical benefits... and she hated herself for it. She didn't really think he was capable of such a thing but if she had considered the possibility, then he must have at least considered equally ugly possibilities about her.
And the worst part wasn't wondering whether he had landed on that very logical conclusion about her; the worst part was that she cared whether he did.
That was why she hated downtime like this. It gave her the unwanted luxury of dwelling on such things while pretending to be a somewhat normal woman, which was another reason she was so anxious for that damn door to open.
Because in the earlier briefing, being practical to a fault, Sarah had glossed over this 'I know that you know' over-analysis of her interactions with Chuck when she had also felt compelled to cautiously suggest to General Beckman that a formal transfer request might actually cause more problems than it solved.
Putting herself in Beckman's sensible shoes, she had to admit that if she was the one taking over full control of such a high value project, the potential red tape associated with transferring an asset with the background file of 'Agent "Sarah Walker": personnel file almost-entirely-redacted', might seem like far more trouble than it was worth to keep even an agent as talented as Sarah on the project.
Sarah had long wondered just how official her existence within the CIA was. It wasn't as though she hadn't done her own thorough investigation of herself; that was practically expected of top operatives.
At the time, it had been a good thing that she was practically a ghost. If Sarah's investigation of herself had uncovered all there was of her in the CIA's records there wasn't much there. And if there wasn't enough of an official record to properly initiate such a transfer, whoever took over for Graham on the CIA side of things - temporarily or permanently - would either think she had never been paid or begin to investigate why she had an effectively unlimited expense account and why her salary was provided in a series of cash drops each quarter, scattered across Europe and the Americas and never in the same place.
She should have kept her mouth shut. Now that there was no light at the end of the tunnel - no replacement Intersect to allow a slightly more self-assured Chuck to pursue the more fulfilling, happier, far less dangerous life he deserved - she needed to be here. Since she couldn't be beside him she needed to be between him and whatever was coming for him next.
Sarah suddenly realized how desperate she was to be there for him if and when he needed her. And that he still needed her in that capacity.
It had been a fleeting thought last night but as she waited to hear Beckman's decision she finally had a moment to fully consider Chuck's position in all this. She had wanted them to have one brief, beautiful moment before she had to leave him behind and had been so caught up in losing that moment - and in nearly losing him - that she hadn't put herself in his shoes.
He had been so careful to still give her a beautiful evening, even if it had not ended the way she intended or dared to hope he had also wanted. He was still stuck with the label of 'Government Intelligence Asset', still had a computerized intel library and comparison algorithm inextricably embedded in his mind, and had no way to leverage his newly re-emerging self-assurance to branch out beyond his 'safe' job at an electronics superstore.
And they still couldn't be together in any true or meaningful way or she risked not being there for him when he needed her.
God, she was such a selfish bitch. Now that she fully considered it, she wanted to run to him for entirely different reasons than last night. To make sure he was OK even though he had proven far more resilient than anyone - including her - had given him credit for. But, as the freezer door continued to not open, her doubts about her strategic honesty only intensified.
Graham and Beckman had never pushed the issue of fully vetting each others' agents because Casey's past was nearly as checkered as her own. But if some halfway competent forensic accountant started digging... or some other paper pusher stumbled onto the inconsistencies...
Now - after the fact, wiping down the same spot on the display case for at least the fifth time - Sarah kept trying to convince herself that it was better that she brought it up herself now and avoid any accusations of bias later.
But the freezer door continued to taunt her. Stubbornly refusing to open while the stainless steel and glass of the Fro Yo shop couldn't possibly be any cleaner.
The longer Casey remained downstairs in their new operational base dubbed 'Castle', she grew more and more afraid that Beckman might agree with her. That the General would decide that she wasn't worth the trouble and send her back to the temporarily leaderless agency which had been her haven and prison for a decade.
And Sarah worried that this morning's rush of fear, anger - while waiting desperately for another door to open - and utter relief when it had - may have been the last time she saw the man she was here to protect...
105: In the Thickening of Fear
Casa Bartowski / Woodcomb / Bartowski, Echo Lake, CA; Friday May 29, 2008, 6:15 am PT
Walking through the stucco archway which leads to the courtyard of Chuck's apartment complex, all she can think of is blood.
The noise it makes.
She always feels a certain anticipation in seeing him. Feels her blood come alive at the thought of it, a woman as physically fit as herself unable to delude herself into thinking it's just the exertion of the short walk from her car.
But today is different. Her blood is louder today. And she understands the noise blood makes in ways other people cannot.
Everyone knows it's color. Most know its taste. Some even know its smell. But few have seen, tasted, and smelled enough of it - spilled enough of it - to truly know its varied sounds.
Gurgling in throats as it drowns dying breaths or hissing forth from an arterial wound.
The different tones as it surges from wounds ranging from gaping to razor-thin with the frantic beating of a vanquished foe's heart as he futilely attempts to continue fighting an already-lost battle.
The gentle sounds of miniature waves spreading across the floor, creeping outward to form a small pond, something she had seen enough times she knew exactly where to stand so the expanding pool of blood stopped just short of reaching her toes.
Or the sound of the last drops plinking to the ground from a broken body with either the final spasms of a dying heart or simply following gravity and pressure to flow as any other liquid flows.
She knows the sound her own blood makes too.
She has heard it in the heat of battle, all else silent as it courses through her veins, propelling her onward.
It has a rhythm. Especially when she hits her stride in the zen state of extreme violence. A steady war-drum beat she knew only she could hear but filling her head up with its relentless beat to the point that she half-expected someone else to hear it. It's steady pounding became a metronome to which every hard-trained element of every deadly move had eventually been choreographed. The rhythm of her dance of death.
As she slowly became what she is now - became the machine that she is now - the beat that drove her to that level of effectiveness in her killing had faded into the background. It had pushed her through any concerns she may have had about any particularly harrowing mission. It kept her from second guessing. It kept her alive.
The doubts could come later but they rarely did because the beat was always present. The war drum of her heart rejoicing at surviving the last battle and faintly marking time until the next.
She had surrendered herself to its beat completely after that brutally 'successful' operation in Nijmegen overlooking the Waal at dusk. When she sat watching darkness turn to light - finally knowing rather than wondering whether she had any place in the sunlight - she had surrendered to the truth.
She knew in that moment that those first few years of dealing out death and destruction may have sometimes contained the righteousness or justness she always told herself justified her actions but also that some part of her had always known it was also a bloody path that had lead her to a place far beyond redemption.
Because, although it was usually true that her adversaries deserved what she brought to their doors, there were sure to be a few like that night.
But she had decided somewhere along the way that second-guessing was just going to get her killed. That, certainly, some target of hers might have a legitimately tragic story - true or not - which might make her hesitate. But they may not hesitate and that would be the end of her.
It wasn't that she didn't care, it was that she had deliberately decided not to care. That she had chosen maximizing her own chances of survival over the slim chance that someone on her list wasn't the devil Graham had portrayed them to be. It had always been this way.
From her father's 'live to fight another day' approach and his ability to know just when to cut bait... no matter who was left dangling in shark-infested waters. To her own training where she was encouraged - officially and unofficially - to simply stay alive. To see it through, no matter the cost to others. Mission success depends upon mission continuance. Mission continuance requires survival. And a body or two hidden under a staircase or in the bushes to assure the alarm was not raised was often unavoidable.
Live and let die.
It was just that somewhere along the way, one or two bodies became thirty or forty.
She sat and watched the sun rise, feeling none of its warmth, still doused in the blood of six 'primary' targets and another handful who had simply been in the way. That was why Graham had allowed her to be tasked to that mission - a meeting between a terrorist cell and arms dealers identified by one of his most aggressive analysts - when she had been available and conveniently positioned nearby. Close quarters wet work against the worst of the worst. That was what she was best at and they never stood a chance.
She had been the Tasmanian Devil covered in razor blades which her trainers had marveled at. She was elegant in her brutality and could still feel the smug satisfaction of ending the operation decisively with a casual toss of a grenade into that room two of the arms dealers had been protecting as they tried to flee inside. Watching the metal door bow outward with the force of the explosion and knowing no one inside could have survived such a blast within a confined space like that.
Soon afterward - after the clean up teams inspected their remains and she watched the body bags paraded out from her perch a thousand yards away - the tragic story of what was bound to happen one day began to be revealed. Smugness turned to disgust. That mission was why the garden of her nightmares would always have at least two daisies in it and it was at that moment she ceased to consciously hear the pounding of the war drum in her head.
It was still there - beating within her with every pump of her heart - but she accepted it for what it was now. It had always been - and continued to be - a reliable cadence. A given. A physical constant. The unseen undercurrent of the river of blood she spilled.
Before, she had convinced herself that it was just a part of how she operated in the field. Now that she had stopped fighting it, it had simply become what it always was.
She finally fully accepted that her place was and would always be among the shadows and, ironically, just as she had accepted it, the war drum began to fade. No less intense. Just no longer disrupting her senses. Its thunderous beat had just pounded out all misgivings and apprehension - drowned them in its fury - until she was as empty as any drum.
A week later she was assigned another mission and - as it drew to its conclusion over it's final days - Graham left it to her to decide the fate of the primary targets. If he was pleased by her cold, clinical assessment that eliminating them would be cleaner than other options, she didn't notice. She just made them disappear.
The war drum still pounded but nothing about it bothered her any longer. Its pounding rhythm faded to the point where she barely realized that it still kept the time of every deadly movement she made. It was no longer a device she used to see herself through the worst parts of her missions. It no longer drove her. It was now - finally - a part of her.
As natural as breathing.
But more and more lately that drum inside her head had returned with its original deafening pounding at inopportune times. At first it was surprisingly erratic and frantic in its tempo, and even more urgent than she remembered in its intensity.
Then she realized it had become more steady - more familiar - but it was simply out of phase with the beat that came before. The relentless meter of the dance of death she had perfected through constant, painful repetition still pulsed through her but something else - something different - was now also trying to drive her.
Her highly trained body knew the war drum's rhythm of breath and blood, even when - especially when - operating with maximum violence. But it had been sometime after her arrival in Burbank when the rush of blood through her ears - this new urgent beat - sometimes pounded with a new rhythm which overpowered the old, familiar one she once relied upon to ensure her survival.
She initially thought they were one and the same but only recently had realized that the war drum was no louder than it had been for years. It still pounded in the back of her mind. Only to sometimes be drowned out entirely by this new, even stronger beat.
Usually when she returned to find a car that should have contained a lanky, foolishly-brave, delightfully charming and funny nerd who had found a new way to put himself in harm's way... unlike her, usually to help someone far less valuable than himself.
Again - like the war drum once had - it filled her head with such a an intensity she could be forgiven for thinking it could be heard by others. That her heart was beating so hard that it would be as deafening to bystanders as it was to her.
And, as she approached the courtyard of Chuck's apartment complex and the beat surged forth with every cautious step, she knew the sound for what it was.
Desperation. Panic. Fear.
The reasons why her own war drum had once beat so loudly until she had accepted the truth of what she was; a sound she thought she had deafened herself to.
The sound she supposed her victims heard their own blood make in their own heads when she came for them. The sound of someone about to lose that dearest to them.
All her life, she had assumed the dearest thing one could have was one's own life.
That was how it began for her - from the first time she had seen a life ripped to pieces in front of her - to the first time she realized how quickly a good con could go bad - to that constant early fear that each mission would be her last - until her blood found its rhythm.
Kept her alive.
Made her one of the things that goes bump in the night rather than someone who feared those things. Those things like her, lurking in the darkness.
Made her a survivor.
But as she rounded the corner into the courtyard of Chuck's apartment complex, when she heard the pounding sound of her own blood, she suddenly knew it wasn't fear for her own survival...
It took until that moment to fully understand that what some people fear losing the most isn't their own life. To understand why those two arms dealers - who it turned out were in way over their heads rather than any kind of criminal masterminds - had tried to duck into that room trying to evade the devil herself. They couldn't have realized she could perfectly bank that grenade through the crack before they closed it behind them or even fathom that a person existed who could so cruelly do that and take what mattered most to them from them.
She had pushed down such thoughts for years but in that moment she finally understood exactly how those two must have felt in their final seconds when they realized what had been tossed into that room with them. She only hoped they didn't see it at all and didn't appreciate what was about to happen because she had her own such moment last night.
And had just walked into another one.
That moment when she came to the courtyard of Chuck's apartment complex to find John Casey standing in front of his apartment door waiting for her.
He stood at parade rest in khakis and Buy More green, eyes fixed on hers as she rounded the corner and slowed her brisk walk to a more careful approach.
She let her bag fall from her shoulder. She needed the compartment at its bottom to be accessible as she realized parade rest kept Casey's hands behind his back and out of her view.
When she left last night, she thought Casey had made the right choice. She thought she had read him correctly. That they had been on the same page. Or at least that he understood the consequences. To kill Chuck was to kill himself. She left Chuck under his protection last night thinking the situation had drastically changed.
Now she felt like an idiot.
Now she had a sickening suspicion that Casey had followed his orders after all. And afterward he had decided to face the retribution she had warned him she would rain down on him rather than making her hunt him down. Rather than looking over his shoulder for the rest of his sure-to-be-short life.
Such a concession from such a formidable adversary would have once made her feel quite self-satisfied. But the blood began to surge more loudly. Her ears filled with the increasing intensity of the pounding in her head. She couldn't help but glance toward Chuck's door, every fiber of her being screaming for him to come out.
To show her that he was OK.
It was just a glance but she saw the corners of Casey's mouth twitch into a smirk... then she feels it.
The red hot anger she mastered to survive. The war drum filling her head even as the other beat surges forth at what she was now almost certain she had lost. For once, the two drums were beating in time with one another and a terrible sense of the devastating power she wields washed over her. Another thing she once found pride in...
Now she just wanted Chuck to open his damn door.
But the beast uncoiling in her chest won't allow her to succumb to that fear, even as overwhelming as it is. In her life, she didn't just learn to control justifiable rage, she harnessed its power. Learned to conjure it. From nothing. To turn all her killings - no matter how justified they truly were or were not - into righteous acts of supreme violence.
She had learned that from her father too. As much of a master schemer most rightly saw him as when he was on his game, he had lasted as long as he had for a reason. If you're going to do something, do it right.
For the first time in ages she didn't have to dig deep to conjure that rage.
As her fingertips found the hilt of a throwing knife, and her eye extrapolated a target in the shoulder of Casey's gun arm - a good chance of hitting the brachial plexus or affecting the mechanics of his preferred shooting hand in the joint itself - to soften him up before finding out exactly what he has done, Casey had the good sense to snap her out of it by asking a simple question that left her momentarily dumbfounded.
"Were you thinking of staying?" he growled contemptuously.
After a less than insightful response resembling a "Hurnk?" he repeated the question.
Sarah flicked an eye to where she knew the courtyard cameras were positioned before answering, "Its irrelevant. He's still our responsibility and-"
"How much service time do you have left?" Casey interrupted.
Sarah actually did not know the answer to that question. She had assumed Casey was as off-books as she was but maybe he actually had a formal service agreement with Beckman. Actually, both of them being military, he probably did. Sarah's own situation was less clear, especially with Graham dead.
More importantly, she hadn't answered the first question. To Casey or herself. Had she considered staying? She had always been a wanderer. What had she intended to do after last night - even if it had gone as she originally intended?
Stay? Visit from time to time? Leave just a memory of her and him together behind - a bit of stardust like that song he had given her suggested might be all he even expected to be left in his sky - and let him eventually find someone who could care for him anywhere close to the way he was capable of caring?
Far more than she could manage.
The reason she had always been a wanderer was that it simply hurt too much to become attached to any place, anything, or anyone. She learned that lesson at a very young age. Her stupidity had torn their family apart. Leaving her mother behind was easier than facing what she had done to her. Her father had offered adventures and a chance to leave the past behind and she took it, joining him in avoiding their pain. Did she really want to open herself up to that kind of hurt ever again?
Before more seconds could incriminatingly tick by, and without any clarity of her own, she answered vaguely.
"It's not like I signed a contract or anything, Casey. I do what I do. And we're effectively at war with more global terror organizations than just Fulcrum so it wouldn't matter if I did have a piece of paper... why?"
"Cuz if yer gunna start something up with the dweeb you might want to factor in the fact that you don't get to decide if you stay or if you go. Or if you ever get to come back at all. D'ya think of that before your little date last night?"
She had vaguely considered that. That it wouldn't be her choice. She had put that out of her mind until she figured out what she wanted. She hadn't considered that someone might not WANT her to stay. She felt a flash of panic but thought she managed to keep it from showing on her face.
This time she did glance at the cameras. And if they had been on they would have seen something resembling a cornered animal.
"Don't worry. They're off. When we need to get something on the record, I'll let you know. For now, I thought we'd have a little chat about where your head is at," Casey said relatively quietly as she slyly closed the distance between them and it was her turn to smirk. He was close enough now for her to completely close the distance and intercept his gun arm before he could raise his weapon if she needed to.
After that tactical decision, a strategic decision was needed. An honest answer wasn't her best bet here. Where her head was at was to kill or disable John Casey as quickly as possible before she burst through the Morgan door - and she just then realized that Casey was keeping his voice down because the curtains were billowing out through Chuck's infuriatingly constantly-open bedroom window - to see for herself if he was OK.
Something Casey still hadn't clarified.
"I figured if I wanted out - when I wanted out - I'd figure a way out." Sarah said vaguely. If Casey wasn't going to be forthcoming neither would she.
"And someone like you would settle down with a civvy in his nice, normal, non-life-threatening-on-a-regular-basis life?" Casey scoffed. "You need to do more figuring."
Sarah wasn't sure what Casey meant by that but just then Chuck's door opened and she forgot everything else. Forgot that she was inches from facing off with one of the world's deadliest men. Forgot her righteous anger and forgot that the war drum in her head had receded into the background and let the newer drum overpower it.
And the new beat was overpowering. Driving her toward the man who had just set her world back on its axis by simply opening his door. She would have run to him if she wasn't rooted to the spot, overwhelmed by relief.
Because the sense of dread she had been ignoring all night and which had overpowered her reason on the way toward his door, washed away when she saw him standing in front of his door slouchy, and alive, and beautiful, and perfect.
With his curly hair still a bit damp and the strap of a sling bag crossing his chest, a crisply pressed white short-sleeve shirt sloppily half-tucked and smiling at her around a half bagel clamped loosely in his teeth as though he hadn't nearly been murdered by someone meant to protect him just hours before.
She watched him turn to lock the front door - with his window ridiculously still wide open - and even forgot being upset about that.
Casey humphed and Sarah turned to see him inspecting the fingernails of his right hand. His gun hand - thankfully gun-free.
She had a vague realization that she had turned her back on someone she suspected might be itching to fight her to the death. Been distracted by simply seeing Chuck alive and well. It was a realization that would have to wait for her to fully process as Chuck had walked up to join them, offering her a bite of his bagel so he could tuck in his shirt. She automatically accepted as she realized she was famished and as he finished tucking his shirt with a "Hey Team, what's up?"
Casey huffed at that too. Even though he appreciated Bartowski's obvious ploy to reestablish their dynamic. That was something Casey himself felt he still had to prove himself worthy of so he replied, "Walker's gonna escort you in for a while. Until she is convinced that I'm not gonna be a problem. See you at work, geek" Casey almost playfully said and then far-less-playfully slammed Chuck in the shoulder with his own as he passed before walking away.
"Nerd. Its-" Chuck sputtered at Casey's back while rubbing his now-bruised shoulder before turning to Sarah. "It's 'nerd'. He knows that, right?"
Sarah smiled up brilliantly at Chuck before glancing down at his slightly askew tie.
"He knows," she almost whispered as she reached out to adjust it. "He just likes tweaking you. Me too."
She let that last comment hang - letting Chuck mull whether she meant Casey also liked tweaking her or she liked tweaking Chuck - a sultry half-lidded look up at the string-bean of a nerd in front of her strongly implying the latter as she let her hand fall from his tie-knot to his chest. Flattening her palm against the heat of him and breathing him in deeply through her nose as she felt the strong, steady beat of his heart through his shirt.
"But he was right about me escorting you in," she continued. Realizing that Casey had signed her up for that despite her not having any good answers about 'where her head was at' but also pleased that they could revert to playful banter and innuendo rather than delving into the deeper issues. Issues which prevented her from knowing those answers and which Chuck was learning to graciously fight against his need to fix things and let her work out for herself.
For now, she just took Chuck's arm and turned him toward her car, him being without the 'Herder as he was not on call last night. Something of which she had intended to take full advantage until fate had intervened. Sarah involuntarily laid her head against Chuck's shoulder and hoped he hadn't considered whether she was doing it for show or doing it because she wanted to feel him against her. She didn't know which question - if it rooted in his mind - would terrify her more.
She would have to settle for feeling his warmth against her side as the beast in her chest coiled back to its resting state, contented with something other than blood and death for once. The war drum had receded until it was needed again and the newer beat pounded steady and strong as she grasped his wrist loosely, found a pulse point, and felt his heat - his blood - flowing through his arm.
His heart beating next to hers.
If she had been given to being contemplative rather than simply relieved, she might have begun to understand this new rhythm she was sensing within herself as they walked in step with one another toward her car.
That it wasn't fear, panic, or desperation at all. And that her heart wasn't meant to beat in time with the war drum in her mind.
Her heart was meant to beat in time with his.
106: Fro Yo with Sarah: Barley - Carrot - Rhubarb
Orange Orange Frozen Yogurt, Burbank, CA; Friday May 29, 2008, 9:40 am PT
Sarah had become lost in thought - not yet reaching any revelations about what these changes meant or what she was willing to allow them to mean - to the point that the door which had been her sole focus for the past half an hour nearly startled her when she heard the internal seal of the inner door beyond release.
She had been reflecting on what she had nearly lost this morning and last night for just a few minutes before the more conventional outer door opened. Casey emerged from the freezer and deposited the coffee Sarah had left behind on the conference table in front of her in her hasty, confused exit when she had been dismissed.
The base had felt like a tomb with only two people manning it and the conversation itself had made her feel more and more claustrophobic - more and more trapped - as she increasingly realized the many, many ways someone as savvy and risk-averse as General Beckman might see her as more liability than asset.
"Nuked it," Casey said as he moved to the benches along the far wall that gave him more leg room... and put him squarely in the frame of the security cameras which were placed similarly to the old Weinerlicious layout. "Don't know how that metallic sugar-free crap you like reheats but... there you go."
Sarah didn't want to immediately assail him about the verdict reached during the remainder of the briefing and Casey also wasn't inclined to lead off with it, internally debating just how much advice for his partner he would offer or keep to himself. Especially considering she had been on the verge of executing him on principle last night. And again when he tried to gain a little insight into how far gone she truly was with his trick in the courtyard earlier this morning.
"Thanks," Sarah replied as she moved just into the corner of the frame and took a sip of the remainder of her latte, "Want a little frozen yogurt before I open? I didn't have time for breakfast."
Casey considered that. Sarah was a well-oiled machine. That included what she chose for fuel. He had seen her take a few bites of Bartowski's bagel this morning, slathered with an amount of cream cheese she wouldn't ordinarily have touched. She must have been a wreck if she didn't eat anything more than that. Even that grainy European crap she usually had. Or in too much of a hurry to check on Chuck again this morning. Or both. But one of the many bizarre-sounding flavors of the 'heath conscious' frozen treats spinning in their dispensers certainly didn't sound like much of a breakfast to him.
"No, thanks. Makes a good ice pack but otherwise that stuff is disgusting," he said as he processed the ramifications.
"Most of the flavors are designed to be disgusting," Sarah explained as she angled and rotated a cup to fill it halfway with vanilla yogurt then fill the remaining space with fruit toppings then filled a second cup with a neon orange option for Casey. "The plan is for me to choose customers carefully to make sure the place doesn't become too popular. Choose who gets the good stuff and who gets the nasty stuff. Have some creamsicle."
Casey eyed the orange concoction spinning inside the dispenser Sarah had pulled his cup from warily, "I loaded some of those from the back when we were setting up and remember an orange one that said: Barley-Carrot-Rhubarb."
"And if it's a bad customer to have - someone I think will be too frequent or too observant - that's what they get. Good customer? Infrequent and harmless? Your high school after-movie dates or basic family of four every-so-often treat that gives the place the right atmosphere? Organic Creamsicle; just like the label says. Enough word of mouth to overcome the negative comments and maintain some foot traffic. I just pull it from this dispenser between the machines that they can't see."
"A little sleight of hand there Walker?" Casey said as he accepted the cup of radioactive-orange Fro-Yo.
"You have no idea. It's amazing how many flavors come out as something like Barley-Carrot-Rhubarb. There are some skills I prefer not to use but I can probably get a male customer to watch me instead of my hands. Pretty good bet their dates will watch them. Hijinks ensue. Keeps those customers from coming back."
...and saves those women from wasting their time with those guys, she thought to herself.
"Then there's those four from the opening who look like they'd like Barley-Carrot-Rhubarb..." Casey grumbled and Sarah rolled her eyes at the thinly veiled disparaging remark about the four women who came in after their spin class on opening day to check out the new fro yo shop and who were clearly two couples as much as four people.
"Works on couples like that too," Casey snorted at the word 'couple'. "But they know I have it as a healthy option if they want it. They haven't noticed my hands pulling it from 'Creamsicle' yet either," Sarah practically bragged.
"Shame," Casey scoffed at the idea of the women checking out Walker as much as any male customer might. "The youngest one is hot."
"They're all attractive, Casey. And you're just mad about getting shot down like that. I thought she was nice enough about it. Just more into me than they would be into you."
Casey cringed and changed the subject to the cup of yogurt Sarah had given him, "The creamsicle is alright." He said it even though Sarah had seen him cringe at the taste.
"So..." Sarah said, putting her hip against the counter and striking a seductive profile, "...you didn't notice what my hands were doing either, huh Casey?"
"I was listening to what... I wasn't look- Never mind. I've eaten worse."
They both swirled their spoons within their cups and moved them to their mouths and back again a few times before she asked, without looking up from her late breakfast-in-a-cup, "You gonna make me ask you?"
Casey paused and watched Sarah chase a blueberry around the bottom of her cup until she looked up at him.
"No. I'll tell you everything we talked about... if you like. But the upshot is, you are an exceptionally proficient agent, a reliable partner, and already imbedded in a cover that has stood up to scrutiny from the people closest to the asset."
Casey sighed and placed his empty cup on the table in front of him before continuing.
"But Beckman has those same concerns about whether that cover is reaching the end of its credibility without an escalation she is not comfortable with."
"Ha! She initiates a burn order on a civilian asset but has a problem with how 'genuine' my cover appears?"
"Yes. What can I say, she's always had a problem with seduction missions. I don't know why. I think it's personal. Hard to know in what way. Maybe she sent a female agent into a nasty situation or two. Maybe got a girl killed. Maybe she had to do it herself and has first hand knowledge. Maybe someone sent her into a nasty situation. Don't know, don't care. Neither does she. She cares about what you can do for the team. Apparently Graham always told her you were good at remaining detached, too professional for that kind of entanglement, and weren't likely to subject yourself to running an actual honey pot on the asset... just create the illusion. I also gave Bartowski high marks for playing along. Because its true. Mostly because he would do anything you asked of him, regardless of whether you're deliberately working him."
"So he's a puppy dog with a crush and I'm the Ice Queen?" Sarah sighed. Exactly the impression she needed to maintain with General Beckman was also the impression she did not want Chuck to one day decide was truly the nature of their relationship. She still wasn't comfortable with malong it any clearer how she did feel about him but didn't want him to leap to that conclusion.
"Pretty much. She wants a solid cover but she wonders whether you're a little too convincing."
"I do care about him. But not to the detriment of the mission. I can be detached enough to appreciate that he doesn't deserve what has happened to him - or what almost happened to him - without failing to do my job."
"Do I need to ask whether you're compromised?" Casey asked her without asking.
"Do we need to discuss whether your crisis of conscience was a momentary lapse or a fundamental philosophical shift?" Sarah retorted. It was important to highlight that being 'compromised' to the point of not wanting to murder Chuck as a convenient risk-aversion strategy was not synonymous with a romantic entanglement.
"Didn't we cover that in the briefing?" Casey challenged her back. "There may be a doomsday scenario where one of us has to eliminate the mother of all security risks but neither of us will do it out of convenience, and we're not being replaced - yet - so I'm guessing that answer is acceptable. She seemed to be wrestling with it herself but I think we're all on the same sheet of music. What about you?"
"I like him. I care about him. We've spent almost a year together so its hard not to form an opinion of the man but it's almost completely irrelevant to the mission."
"Yeah, Casey. Almost. If he were a complete scum bag it would be completely irrelevant and you would have already taken him out. No different. Sure, it would be nice for him to come out of this safely on the other side and live a happy, productive life when its all over if at all possible. But - doomsday scenario - his physical safety might not always be aligned with the mission. Regrettable, but very possible. You're closer to him during the day and overnight - we have our occassional overnights to keep the cover plausible but he's a complete gentleman about it - and I'm closer to him in the evenings and social engagements. One of us is close to him at all times and I'd make the same assessment you would. That doesn't mean it should be our go-to move, but I'd do my job if I have to."
"See? Ice Queen." Casey tapped his first two fingers on his knee so casually that even Sarah almost missed it and she had been watching throughout the conversation.
It was their signal for 'got it' when they needed information or a confession on tape. Normally it was a signal for a takedown, but this entire scene was for General Beckman's benefit.
It also did wonders for mending the partnership between the two agents. For Casey to lead the conversation, knowing and subtly signaling exactly what needed to be said for Beckman's benefit, and letting her improvise responses that checked the boxes, it just proved that they were still aligned as partners. Even if the General suspected she was being played, she might even let it slide based on that effectiveness as a team... but Sarah doubted it.
There had been enough signals from Beckman that they both knew what needed to be said and what would be unconvincing if left unsaid. It was a tightrope over an alligator pit and she couldn't afford to overbalance in one direction or the other. What else was new?
"Well, I do own and operate a frozen yogurt shop so Ice Queen... its fitting."
Casey took another spoonful of his punishment for at least considering following his orders last night - and for his choice of tactics this morning, though Sarah guessed he was just trying to figure out where he stood. Like her, trying to figure out if the assassin he had been all these years was in any way redeemable.
"Gimme that. You've been punished to my satisfaction and taken your medicine. The Ice Queen will get you some creamsicle."
She couldn't believe Casey actually ate the Barley - Carrot - Rhubarb. Hadn't even flinched. But she was pleased that he had her back with the General. And that she would apparently get to stay in Burbank for the foreseeable future. The little trick she had played on Casey wasn't nearly retribution enough for what he had almost done, but Chuck had pleaded with her on the way in to let it go.
Casey made his excuses and assured her he'd let Chuck know that she would stop by on his lunch break... and all that implied. Casey would surely do it in some snarky way but Sarah didn't worry about the way the two fought like children - like brothers - as she watched the hulk of a man turn the 'Open' sign on the door to face outward before he let it close behind him.
Because Chuck had been right about Casey on the way in. Chuck said that he was a good person and just had to find his way. That he trusted him. She wished she hadn't been driving so she could have watched Chuck's face more closely as he had said it. She was sure he was doing that thing where he was making an observation and a point about her at the same time. And not just reminding her that he had once accepted an offer to blindly trust her when all the evidence had pointed to that being a horrible decision. He was so good at that. Just the right subtext to say what he meant without really saying it. No spy training required.
She started to feel like everything was going to work out. Maybe not well in the end and maybe not in some Pollyanna, happily-ever-after way, but they would live to fight another day. Because she and Casey had not ended up killing one another and still worked seamlessly as a team. And because when Chuck had called them a team in the courtyard he had been exactly right.
He wasn't just their 'asset'. He was important to both of them. Reminded them why they chose to fight, even if they hadn't always been on the side of the angels. Convinced them more and more each day that they could find that purpose they had once aspired to again. Made them their best selves. She and Casey were partners; Chuck made them a team.
As she thought of him she felt the heat and rhythm of her blood rushing through her - more alive than she had felt in years - and the heard the pounding sound becoming a pleasant accompaniment to that feeling of contentment. She would work on her answers to harder questions later. For now, she was just looking forward to having lunch with him later.
And even though she was fairly certain she was out of the frame of any security cameras, Sarah still fought back the grin attempting to overtake her face.
END OF LINE
AN2: Back when you had to get your tv listings from the physical copy of TV Guide magazine or the "green sheet " in the Saturday newspaper, one of my favorite synopses was "hijinks ensue". It could be tacked on to anything. I wouldn't have been surprised to read: "A penguin, a plumber, and a hot tub salesman become room mates. Hijinks ensue." The words "zany" and "madcap" we're also used very liberally.
Ch 105 is inspired by two songs: 'Drumming Song' by Florence + the Machine (I already know this one will be revisited in a future chapter) and 'Blood Makes Noise' by Suzanne Vega. The title "In the Thickening of Fear" is from the chorus of 'Blood Makes Noise'. Boats and Birds also made another appearance.
So I've been writing this version of Sarah for a while and mulling her over for longer than that and only recently had the realization that she has a legit social anxiety disorder. She's gone to great lengths to convince some people (and herself) that she doesn't care what anyone thinks of her but, deep down, cares very much what everyone thinks of her. To the point of using what they may think of her as a rationale for never letting anyone close enough to form those opinions. She cares what Casey thinks of her. Is terrified of what Chuck might think of her if the full picture were laid out before him. And practically idolizes Ellie and desperately wants Ellie to like her.
Most importantly for the character, its an anxiety which I believe is one of a few dynamics which hinder the 'secret relationship' idea (at least within the confines of this story). The secret relationship approach requires Chuck and Sarah to be 100 percent on the same page. But here she is afraid that what he sees in her is an image he has conjured of her, and that he will eventually learn enough about her to admit that she is the horrible person she sees herself as.
Meanwhile, he's equal parts scared that he's reading her wrong and that he'll spook her into retreating back into her shell completely. I mean, its not like she hasn't done exactly that when she has put herself out there a little too uncomfortably. Its going to take a while for both of them to work through that and be their true selves with each other. Hopefully you find that process as fascinating as I do.
The next chapter is another one-shot before we get back to the events of actual episodes. I hope you like superhero movies. Just sayin'.