My stomach muscles and my face hurt from laughing so much. I'm not sure if my tears are from laughter or sadness, or both. It's hard to believe I lost all that. He said he doesn't want anything from me, but that's not true. Maybe he believes it, but I don't. Everybody wants something. He wants that other Me back, I know it. Maybe part of me wants to be Her, too, because when he tells me the crazy idea that one kiss would bring all my memories back, I say, "Chuck, kiss me."
His lips taste salty – we have been sitting here in the spray of the waves for a while now. He softly touches my cheek, and I feel a few grains of sand on his fingers from where his hand was resting on the beach. It isn't magic, not like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. The memories and the love don't come back in a flood like he hopes they will. But a different wave crashes over me, and I start to kiss him back – desire is apparently harder to erase than memory. I grab the collar of his shirt to pull him closer. I want to lose myself, but I want just as much to hold onto my carefully cultivated control.
This is not fair to him – he thinks he loves me, and I don't, I can't. There's this enormous emptiness inside me, and he has no idea. Stop, I tell myself. Stop now. His hand is still on my cheek, and his eyes are searching mine. He wants to ask if it worked; it must have been obvious that something happened. His face is golden in the light of the sun, almost below the horizon now. His eyes suddenly look sad; he realizes the kiss didn't bring everything back. I look away, shiver, and pull my sweater closer around me. My stomach growls.
"Hungry?" he asks.
"Starving," I admit.
"Have dinner with me," he says.
"Come on. You're hungry. I'm hungry. We both have to eat."
"Fine. But then…"
"I know, you have to go."
We get in my car. I tell him I feel like Chinese food.
"Okay, there's this place – " he starts to say.
"I think I know where to go."
He lifts his eyebrows and tilts his head, but doesn't say anything. I drive down PCH and then over on 10 toward Chinatown. Traffic is bad at this hour, of course, so it takes an awkwardly long time to get there. He tries starting a conversation, tries a few times, but I really don't want to talk. I don't know what to say to him, so I ask him to put on some music. He rummages through the glove box and finds a CD, and when he puts it on, he keeps glancing at me to see if I remember anything. None of the songs are familiar, but it's hard not to smile as he sings along. I can see why She liked him, that other Me.
I find decent street parking near the restaurant that I remember. It's weird – I have no memory of coming here before, but when I thought of Chinese food I knew exactly where to go. It smells amazing in here, and my stomach growls again, reminding me that I haven't eaten much today. There are few other couples and families at tables, but it isn't too busy. The hostess seats us at a table in the center of the restaurant, and we avoid talking by looking at the menu. We give the waiter our order.
"So, I assume we've been here before."
He nods. "It was supposed to be our first real date, or our second first date, only it didn't turn out like we hoped. Morgan told me about this place. Any Morgan recommendation for food less than $10 can't be ignored."
"There was something about a Chinese restaurant in the mission logs that Casey gave me. Will you tell me the story, Chuck?"
"Well, we thought the Intersect wasn't needed anymore, and I was free, and we didn't need to be handler and asset anymore, and that you would be reassigned soon, anyway. We were sitting here…actually, it was this same table."
"Seriously?" I ask. "Did you slip the hostess a tip to seat us here?"
He holds his hands up, palms open. "No, I swear! I did no such thing. It just happened."
"Okay, keep going, then," I say.
"I mentioned how our cover relationship had never been very plausible, a guy like me and a, well, you know…" his voice fades out.
"What?" I can't stop myself from asking.
"Uh, well, you know…you."
"What about me?" I can't help it.
"That's what you asked me then," he says. "You're going to make me say it yet again aren't you? Okay, well, a girl like you… a woman like you. You could probably kick the ass of everyone here, and you're smart, and cool, and…extremely beautiful…and you can stop me anytime…" I smile despite myself, shaking my head.
He goes on to tell me how, right when he was about to kiss Her, he started flashing on everyone in the restaurant, and how it turned out that all of the other customers and restaurant staff were enemy agents. She hadn't brought her gun, because it was a date, but Casey crashed his car through the window and made a dramatic rescue.
The food arrives. I look through the unbroken window at a clear view of nighttime Chinatown. The other customers, the people on the street, they don't remember that night either. His hand is too close to mine on the table. I'm starting to imagine what it would feel like to weave my fingers with his… so I grab my chopsticks and start eating.
We don't talk as I drive him back to the beach to get his car. I pull in next to it and turn off the engine. It's too dark to see the water, but I can hear the waves breaking on the beach.
"You have to go," he interrupts.
"Yeah." I put my hand on his cheek, a little rough with stubble at this late hour. He puts his hand over mine.
"You know how to find me," he says, lifting my hand off his cheek and gently kissing my palm. It's like an electric shock, and I almost pull him closer.
"I do," I say.
Later that night, back in the same old hotel, I lie awake. This place is familiar, that's something. The colors in this room were calming, and my head usually felt clear here. But now my head is swirling and I am anything but calm and clear. What if I had let that wave of desire take me? Would I have kept kissing him, pushed him back on the sand? How far would I have gone? If I hadn't pulled back when I did, it would have been hard to stop myself. Would he have stopped? And what would it have meant to him, that it didn't mean to me?
Hot and sweaty, I kick off the covers and get out of bed. I crack open the window, get out my knives. They're already clean of course, but I clean them anyway. I check for any nicks or burrs and put them away carefully. Still wide-awake, I think how nice it would be if this room had a punching bag. Didn't it used to? I pick up my phone.
"Sarah?" He sounds sleepy, and slightly worried.
"I can't sleep. Tell me another story, Chuck."
And he does. When he's done, he says, "Are you still there?"
"Good night, Chuck."
"Good night, Sarah."
We're on a train, speeding through the night, only our bed is on an open car, with the night sky above us and the wind roaring past. He kisses my neck, my collarbone, and then a sudden gust of wind blows him off the bed. He's hanging onto a bedpost, shouting, "Sarah, help me!" I grab his hand and try to pull him to safety, but we lose our grip on each other, and he is blown off into the night.
I can look out my hotel window and see the house where I found the baby. The building is boarded up now, with scaffolding and fences to keep pedestrians safe from whatever remodeling is going on inside. The nighttime noises of the city make their way up to me, cars, sirens, people.
"Sarah?" I can hear the sounds of the Buy More in the background.
"I can't sleep. Tell me a story, Chuck."
And he does.
"Thank you, Chuck."
I am lost in a desert sandstorm, the howling of the wind in my ears, my eyes only able to make out vague shapes in the relentless onslaught of sand. I am trying to get to him, if only I could figure out which way to go. Sand in my eyes, my nose, my mouth, my ears. "Chuck!" I call out, and then he is there, but he is also the storm, the sand scraping my skin raw, running over my body, through me, leaving me ravaged.
Carina and Zondra have just left for a mission, but we spent the day at the beach, swimming in the clear Mediterranean. That is, after Carina stopped me from trying to arrest Zondra and tie her up with a string bikini. She made me read the files that cleared Zondra, and after that it was a really nice day at the beach. Then dinner, and of course, because it was them, drinking and dancing.
"Sarah?" He's in his car, in traffic; I can hear music playing low, but also the engine and the noise of the road
"I can't sleep. Will you tell me a story, Chuck?"
"Drive safe, Chuck."
"Sleep well, Sarah."
I am fighting my way across a swamp. None of my weapons work – knives stick in their sheathes, I can't get a grip on my gun. My fists crunch bone; my opponents punch, kick, bite, scratch, and still I move forward. As soon as one opponent goes down, another appears. I just need to get to the other side, and then we will all be safe. I see him standing there on the edge in tennis whites, clapping his hands and grinning broadly, speaking in a bad British accent, "Bravo, my dear. Good show!"
The monks are chanting in the darkened temple, and I slip away for a few minutes. They let me go; despite the fact that I have been on my best behavior, I've been told they're still intimidated by a reputation I developed a few years ago.
"Sarah?" That must be the sound of breakfast cereal hitting the bowl. He crunches in my ear. "Sorry," he says.
"I can't sleep. Tell me a story, Chuck."
And he does.
"Have a good day, Chuck."
"Good night, Sarah."
We're crawling through the ventilation system of Castle, escaping something or looking for someone. He grabs my ankle and says, "Shhh, listen. We're finally alone." And then he crawls up next to me, the duct somehow accommodating both of us. He runs his hand down my back, pulls me to him, and then the world tilts as our combined weight and movement bring down the duct, and the whole building comes tumbling down around us.
Now that I'm back in Burbank, it seems like it should have been obvious: if I was trying to find myself, or trying to find the person that I have become over the past five years, I might have skipped the trip around the world.
The Buy More looks the same, except that the whole place smells like Subway now. Apparently he…we, I guess, technically…own the store – I wonder if that includes the Subway. I also wonder why he's still here, keeping his Nerd Herd cover, but I'm glad that it was easy to find him. Not that it would have been hard for me to find him, anyway.
He's on the phone at the desk; he suddenly stops talking when he sees me, but manages to stumble through the rest of the call. I find myself smiling at his reaction, and then wondering what it means that I'm smiling at his reaction.
Before it gets even more awkward, I say what I've been rehearsing. "I was wondering if you still have access to all the mission files from Castle. I thought it might help if I could look at them, maybe…"
His eyes widen, and he practically jumps over the desk to grab my arm and lead me back to one of the secret entrances. "Important IT call, I'll be back in a while, buddy," he yells out as we rush past Morgan, who is wearing his manager's blazer. "Hey, Sarah, good to see you," Morgan calls out.
Within a few minutes, he has me set up at one of the computer terminals. He closes the glass door to the conference room to contact General Beckman about getting my security clearance back and obtaining access to the mission files, whatever hasn't been permanently buried under Langley. I can't hear what they're saying, but I can see from his body language that she's not on board. But he must be pretty convincing, because he comes back after five minutes and pulls the list of files up on my screen.
"Casey's still off with Verbanski, so you'll have the place to yourself."
It's strange…when I was here a month ago, when I thought it was the last time I would ever be here, it seemed like everything was coming to an end. But Castle, while empty, doesn't seem neglected or abandoned, nor does it seem like he's been hiding out here in his pajamas, eating cheese balls and playing Missile Command in his bathrobe. Cheese balls and Missile Command? Where did that come from? All the equipment is neatly stored, but not dusty. The chairs at the conference table are pushed in, but not like someone went around the table putting the chairs just so – more like if a briefing had just ended. No one else is here, but this place feels…efficient. Like things have been happening.
But I've got my own work to do. I want to get started right away once I have access, but he's still standing behind me, looking over my shoulder at the list of files. I feel the warmth of his hands as he almost touches my shoulders. Without meaning to, I tense up, and the warmth goes away.
"Okay, well…good luck. Let me know how it goes." I listen to the metallic sound his slow footfalls make on the stairs, and I wait for the whoosh of the door closing. Whatever else has been happening here while I've been gone, I'm alone now.
I have different kinds of "memories": There are facts that I know only from the mission logs. This feels like something I learned in school, something I read in a book. Of course, there are also are memories of everything that has happened since I woke up in my hotel room and Quinn lied that he was my handler – new memories, I guess.
Then there are things that I find myself doing or knowing without thinking about it: they're just there in my head. The order of the cups in the Wienerlicious. The beach in Malibu, the Chinese restaurant. That must be remembering, but it feels different than the things I'm sure I remember, which is everything that happened before I came to Burbank five years ago. Memories of running cons with my Dad, the hard times in high school, getting recruited young, and then my double life as a college student and agency trainee. The CATs. The missions with Bryce. Budapest and the last time I saw my mother.
Then there are the stories he has told me, which I know would be his version, not mine, even if I did remember what happened. But I love hearing the stories, the idea of being so cherished. It's obvious what he felt…feels, but what She felt is harder to find. I don't even want to think about what I feel now. The mission logs Casey gave me are the closest I have to Her story, but She hadn't done them for a couple of years, since the handler job officially ended. I try to put together my own version, placing his stories like puzzle pieces alongside the mission data and the things that I "remember," trying to fit them all together into something coherent.
And the dreams! I don't know what they are – not memories, surely, but maybe my brain playing around with all the information I've gathered during the day, trying to figure out what to do with it all. They're confusing and intense, and I always wake up with the sheets twisted around my body, pulse thundering in my ears, nerves singing, breathless.
As the weeks pass, I fall into a regular rhythm. I run for a few miles in the morning, shower, change, and head to Castle, always checking in with him at the Buy More so he can let me in. I go through the old mission files chronologically, mostly, starting with when I arrived in Burbank in 2007. I try to reconstruct what happened over the past five years, tagging each event depending on what kind of memory I can attach to it. There's a lot of data, and I can tell it's going to take me a while to get through it all. But I have time – nothing else to do. Apparently She convinced him that we should quit the Agency; I can't imagine what must have been going through Her head. Maybe Beckman will take me back when I'm done with all this.
I notice the kitchen down here is well stocked with drinks and snacks that I like; I'm sure this is no accident. It occurs to me that he could be monitoring everything I'm doing. There are cameras everywhere for security, and I've read and seen enough of him hacking into government databases to know he could easily access my work. I imagine him thinking about it, almost doing it, and then deciding not to.
One day he texts me: Can I bring you lunch? I text back: Okay. A few minutes later I hear his feet coming down the stairs. He must have ordered before he sent his text. Confident? Maybe hopeful.
"How's it going?" He's carrying a foot long sandwich, which he splits onto two paper plates and sets them on the conference table. I'm still at my computer, but I go over and sit down.
"Thanks," I say, taking a bite. He remembered those spicy, salty banana peppers that I really like, and no olives.
"I get worried about you not eating down here." He takes a bite of his sandwich.
"I eat. I've noticed there are plenty of snacks."
He smiles and looks down at his plate. "Sarah, I could help you – "
"I need to do this on my own."
"You don't, though, is the thing. You're not alone. I could help you…we could all help you…" He leans forward, takes my hand.
"I need to do this on my own," I repeat, and I pull my hand away. We finish eating in silence. I wish I could be the person who lets him help, but I'm not Her. This is my mission, not his.
Despite this, now that we're on the same time zone, I find myself calling him every couple of days, when I can't sleep. Tell me a story, Chuck.
What must he think? What am I thinking, making him tell me bedtime stories? I tell myself all the time that I don't want to give him false hope, but then I call him again. It's my one concession, the chink in my armor. We never talk about those late night calls when we actually see each other – he would want to, but I'm sure he can tell I don't.
Not that the stories help me sleep. I usually spend the next several hours awake, sharpening my knives, cleaning my gun, tossing in bed, kicking off the covers because I'm too hot, getting cold, thinking myself to exhaustion. My dreams, when I finally do sleep, are wild and confusing, and he's almost always there.
Someone – Chuck? Beckman? Morgan? – has gone to the effort of flagging certain mission logs as high priority, and after I read a few of them, I realize that these are not "high priority" missions – the priority is especially for me. Once I read how I had really finished things off with my old handler, I know it's safe to get in touch with my mom. I call late one Wednesday morning, when I figure Molly will be at school.
"Sweetie? It's really you? Oh my goodness, I've been so worried about you!"
It turns out she's been informed about what she calls my "accident," a sanitized version of what really happened, but she knows I lost a lot of memories. I tell her what I can about my memory project, and she tells me about her and Molly. Before I know it, we've been on the phone for an hour.
"I should go, Mom. You've probably got other things to do."
"No, I can't think of anything I'd rather do right now." She pauses. "Honey, it would be so nice to see you, and I know Molly would be so excited. Do you think you're…would you want to…?" Her voice fades out. We've never had a chance to be close. We're not used to navigating these things.
I take a deep breath. "Mom, I would love to see you and Molly."
She laughs, almost a giggle. "Oh, good! I'll fix you dinner! When can you come? Can you come tonight?" We make plans for dinner around 6 o'clock so Molly can get to bed at a reasonable time, and then we hang up. It's hard to get focused on my work after that. I catch myself smiling, thinking of how it will feel to see them. I feel like a helium balloon, light and buoyant.
I pull into the driveway, and Molly runs out to meet me, yelling, "Sarah!" I know from the files I've met this little girl before, but with no memory of that, for me it's the first time I've seen her since she was a baby. I pick her up in a tight hug, pressing my face to her neck, knowing that sweet baby smell is long gone, but wishing for it anyway. I've missed so much of her life already. I'm confused about a lot of things, but I know I don't want to miss her any more.
Mom is waiting on the porch. I put Molly down and she grabs my hand to walk me to the house. Mom opens her arms, and I step into them. She holds me for a long time, till Molly's energetic dancing around us nearly knocks a flowerpot off a table. I wonder if Mom was holding me and wishing for the girl she didn't get to see grow up. We eat dinner, play a game with Molly, and then it's her bedtime.
She wants me to lie on her bed with her and read her a story, one about a little girl pirate whose mother turns out to be a pirate, too. Molly's eyes are droopy, but she's trying hard to stay awake.
"Will you be here when I wake up?"
"No, I have to go back to my…place, but I'll see you soon." I worry for a moment that she will ask about him, but she's too sleepy.
"I don't know. Mom and I will make a date, okay?"
"Okay," she yawns, "Will you sing me a song?" I sing the song Mom sang to me, the one she helped me remember when baby Molly was wailing in my arms in a Budapest hotel. Molly snuggles in next to me, and she's soon asleep. I almost drift off for a second, but then I see Mom standing in the doorway. I smile.
"Can you stay for a bit, or do you need to go?" she asks.
"I'll stay and talk," I say, extricating myself from Molly's bed and following Mom to the living room. She has made some chamomile tea. We sit on the couch next to each other, and she tells me all about Molly, how great she's doing in school, how much she loves her soccer team and ballet lessons. We talk more about my memory project, and she helps fill in some of the gaps in the mission file around the time we got back in touch. Of course, she doesn't know the majority of what's in the mission files, but she tells me what happened from her point of view, and things start to make more sense.
"I was so worried when you stopped calling, when you didn't show up for a dinner we had planned one night. I finally got in touch with Chuck, and he explained what had happened." She pauses, noting the guarded expression on my face when she said his name, I'm sure.
"Have you talked with him, Honey?"
"I see him almost every day for a few minutes. He's letting me use his…office to work on my project."
"But have you really talked with him?"
I look down at my half-empty teacup. "Mom, I…"
"Sweetheart, you two were so busy with work that I didn't get to see you together all that much, but I was so grateful to him for giving you the happy life that you deserve, that no one else seems to have been able to give you. Promise me you'll talk to him, when you're ready. Don't build your walls so high and strong that you forget how to escape."
I'm not willing to make any promises, but I put my head on her shoulder and my arms around her, like a little girl. We decide to have dinner together every Wednesday, and she promises to email me Molly's soccer and dance schedules so I can go to some of her activities. I drive back to my hotel room. It just feels lonely and empty after the warmth and activity of Mom's house.
I'm in a house that I've never been in before, but it is my house. The house is empty and dark, but I feel his presence, like he just left. I go through the rooms, trying to get to the door, to go outside, but there is always another hallway, another room. Some rooms are abandoned, sheets covering the furniture, dust, an old china baby doll in a cradle. There are rooms I have forgotten about, doors I am afraid to open because I realize I haven't thought of them in years, much less what is hiding behind them. There are rooms that I closed off on purpose. I go around turning on lights and, closing all the outside doors and windows, but they never seem to latch or lock. I stumble into living room, which has huge picture windows, all open and curtainless. Heart pounding, I cringe and try to hide myself, suddenly afraid of what or who might be able to see in, see me.
When I want to talk, really talk, I call his sister, instead. "Sarah? Is that really you?" she says.
"Hi, Ellie. I…I needed someone to talk to. Are you too busy?"
"For you? Never. Besides, I just put Clara down for a nap. Wow, it's so good to hear your voice!"
I explain my project in Castle, even though I'm almost sure he has told her about it already, and my theory about the different kinds of memories.
"It makes sense," she says, "and it's not out of line with the research literature. Sarah, forgive me if this is an intrusion, but have you seen a doctor since you left?"
"No, I…" I start to formulate an excuse, because of course she going to tell me I should have seen a doctor.
"Good," she says. "Any doctor even worth seeing would start asking some very difficult questions pretty quickly. But…"
"You think I should see someone who has clearance to know about the Intersect." I stand up and start pacing, prickles of anxiety all over my body. The thought of some spook neurologist, or worse, a shrink!
"It would be good to compare a current scan to a previous one, just to see what's happening. I could…if you…" She trails off.
Relief floods through me. Maybe I wanted that, without knowing. "Ellie, that would be great, but…I don't want to give him false hope. I am not ready, and I don't know if I ever will be."
"Okay, so it's just between us, for now." We make arrangements for me to fly into Chicago in a couple days and stay at a hotel near the hospital. She says her husband won't be on shift, so no one else will have to worry about keeping the secret.
I stop at the Nerd Herd desk to tell him I have to go away for a few days, and he starts to look panicky. He's gotten used to seeing me every day again, even if it's only for a few minutes, even though I hold him at a distance.
"Don't worry," I tell him. "I'll call." The words come out before I realize what I'm saying.
"You'll what?" He takes in a breath and raises his eyebrows, grasping what I just said. "Oh, you'll call. Okay, then." The corners of his mouth turn up a little.
We're strapped in on a cargo jet, flak jackets, helmets, chutes, weapons fully loaded. It's a night mission, and although I thought we had a whole team with us, all the other seats are empty. I want to see if the pilot will let me fly for a while, so I unstrap myself and go up to the cockpit, but it's empty, too. I quickly sit down in the pilot's seat and grab the stick. All the instruments are reading normally; our heading is what it's supposed to be. "Chuck, get up here."
"Ah," he says, "you found my surprise!"
"Surprise? I hate surprises! What the hell, Chuck? Where is everybody?"
He doesn't answer, but he sits down in the co-pilot's seat, straps in, pushes the throttle all the way in, and yanks back the stick, sending us in a steep, uphill climb. I try to push the stick back down, but it slips out of my grasp. I can't see – my helmet keeps falling over my eyes, and I can't keep them open, I'm so tired. I feel the plane start to shake and shudder as we lose speed and lift. Then, the silence of the stall, and we begin falling, spiraling down.
I can actually see Ellie's hospital from my hotel window. Even though it's the middle of the night, it's still brightly lit, of course. I sit down on the bed, take out my phone.
"Sarah?" The sound of a TV sitcom in the background. "Just let me turn this off."
"I can't sleep. Will you tell me a story?"
Afterward, I say, "Good night, Chuck."
"Sweet dreams, Sarah."
Ellie manages to get rid of the technician so she can run the scans herself. She needs some time to analyze and compare the current and previous data, so I head to the Art Institute. I know haven't been here before – my life has not left much time for things quiet afternoons in museums. I go up the Grand Staircase, drift through galleries of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the people in the room as interesting as the art. I wonder about the lives hidden behind the carefully composed images – the little white dog on the lap, the hand just so, the sunglasses pushed up over the forehead, the "afternoon at the museum" outfit. My feet find a slow rhythm, walking from piece to piece, stopping, gazing, reading the title and the artist's name. I move through Impressionism to Modern to Contemporary Art. Monet, Picasso, O'Keefe, Chagall, Mondrian…I sit down on an upholstered bench to rest, wonder how much longer Ellie needs. I pull her number up on my phone, think about calling her, but decide to wait a bit. Looking around the room, my eyes fall on a brightly colored piece, all straight lines and intersections. I stand up and walk closer to read the placard: "Grey Diamond, Ilya Bolotowsky, 1955." I look back at the painting; it's a square canvas, set on the diagonal. Rectangles of various sizes in orange, yellow, red, blue, white, and several shades of grey. The sudden piercing pain in my temples knocks the wind out of me, and a burning white light fills every space except where the lines and colors of the painting are dancing, and then a cool, dark blackness washes in as my head hits the floor.
I hear beeping from a monitor and open my eyes. Ellie has her back to me, doing something on a computer in the corner of the room. I look around. Somehow I'm back at the hospital, in a bed in a regular room. There's an IV hooked up to my arm, and a heart monitor. She hears me as I shift position to get more comfortable, and she turns around.
"You had me worried," she says, the concern showing on her face.
"How did I get back here?"
"The museum security guard found my number on your phone, and I came to get you. What's the last thing you remember?"
I explain about the Bolotowsky painting, and tell her about the pain, the flash of light. She pulls up an image of the painting on the Internet, careful to turn her screen away from me.
"Hmmm, that makes sense. Quinn used some kind of visual triggers, images printed on cards, when he was trying to wipe your memory. We never figured out exactly what happened, and of course you didn't remember, but…" She's talking fast, a scientist exploring a new train of thought. "Maybe something in the painting, a pattern of shape or color, worked the same way." She turns and starts typing on her computer, making notes.
I feel the sting of tears at the corners of my eyes, and I try to take a deep breath. Did what happened with the painting make me lose memories again? I start rehearsing what I know, flipping through memories like photos in an album. But this doesn't help, and I can't breathe, and my heart is pounding, and then the tears really come. I'm trying to keep it all in, but a little sob escapes. Ellie quickly turns around and comes over to the bed, hugs me tightly. One of the leads for the monitor detaches, and the thing starts beeping. She shuts if off and I hide my face in her shoulder.
"Sarah, it's going to be okay. It's okay. You're going to be alright." She holds me while I cry, rubbing my back and smoothing my hair. When I calm down, she hands me a tissue. She tucks my hair behind my ears, holds my chin like a mother would do, looks me right in the eyes. "You're not alone, you know. We're all here with you. Even if you feel alone, even if you want to be, you're not. You have a family, and we're not just going to let you go." I nod. What can I say?
After I wash my face, Ellie runs me through a few tests to see if there's any short-term memory loss. Everything seems normal, or whatever is normal for me, anyway. We pull up my database on her computer, and I explain it all to her, and the fact that it still makes sense to me fills me with relief. Then we spend a long time with the two scans, the one from a few months ago and the one from earlier today. Ellie sees a brain trying to heal itself, making new pathways where old ones were damaged. I ask what I can do to help the healing.
"Well, there are certain activities that are thought to enhance brain plasticity, so that couldn't hurt. Based on what happened with the painting, I'd stay away from geometric patterns for a while, though. No mazes. Stick to Sudoku and crosswords. Puzzles are probably all right. And whatever feels like it's helping – continuing to review and catalogue your memories, spending time with people who care about you…" She gives me a sidelong glance.
"Okay, okay, you made your point!" I say, laughing.
It's a few days after I get back from Chicago that I realize he has left his keys on the conference table when bringing me lunch one day, and I make a copy of the apartment key. It occurs to me that he might have left the keys on purpose, so I bring them to him at the desk later, just to watch his reaction. He just thanks me and pockets the keys, making a jangly sound. It's hard to tell. By his nature, from what I've read, he should be the easy mark. And I should be more difficult, because supposedly I know all the cons. But I trained him, apparently, so that makes it more complicated.
I go there after lunch one day, after using the video monitors in Castle to make sure that he's settled in at the Nerd Herd desk for the next few hours. I park a good distance away for a while, casing it out. No one is in the courtyard – Ellie and Devon's apartment hasn't rented yet, and Alex and Morgan are both at work. It occurs to me that the Company probably owns the whole complex anyway, so maybe it will stay vacant for a while.
I guess I could have picked the lock whenever I wanted, but I didn't really think of coming here until I saw his keys on the table. There is something satisfying in the way the key turns in the lock. I look over my shoulder, towards the apartment that Morgan and Alex now apparently share, but I don't see anything.
Inside, the apartment is orderly, and it smells lemony, very clean. Bartowskis clean when they're upset; this is one of those things I know. A real memory, maybe. The living room has framed pictures everywhere. There is no dust on the pictures, and the couple looks happy. The other Me looks happy – a woman in love. I think about how I could add these pictures to my database, try to fit them into the chronology of the missions, the stories, the flashes of memory. I wonder if I could do it without him knowing.
I make my way past the kitchen, the bathroom, to his bedroom. I take a deep breath. It's been months since I left, and he hasn't changed anything, though how I know this… I open Her drawers, and find everything exactly where I would put it. The closet is about one-third his clothes and two-thirds Hers. I go through the clothes – She had style, that much I'll give Her. I make a mental note that I might borrow some of these clothes, and then I realize what a strange thought that is. I go through his clothes more slowly – holding them to my face, inhaling, running my hands across the fabric.
And suddenly I am exhausted. I can't remember not being tired – it feels like I haven't slept well since more than five years ago, although I know that's not likely. I crawl into bed, on his side, rub my cheek against the pillowcase, and the smell of him washes over me. I am almost asleep before I get under the sheet.
I am swimming in the ocean, above a coral reef. Somehow I have no need to go up for air. The coral and the plants are intense pinks, greens, oranges, and there are fish everywhere of all kinds and sizes. A green sea turtle glides below me, and I suddenly realize how small and alone I am. I see an old shipwreck up ahead, right at the edge of the reef, and swim for it, curious. It looks like something out of a movie, like a pirate ship that sank long ago. Out of the corner of my eye, I see movement, and when I turn to look, I see him vanishing around a corner. I swim after him, call out in my underwater dream voice. I follow him through the ship, and he is always leaving, just around the corner, never waiting for me. I end up on the deep-sea side of the ship, looking down into the abyss where the reef drops off into the depths. The darkness below me transforms, the water all around me shifts, and I hear a deep crooning, feel the wave of sound travel through my body as I realize I am eye-to-eye with a gigantic humpback whale.
I gasp and claw my way back up to the surface, clinging to the gradually growing awareness that I am not in the ocean, but rather in different kind of precarious situation. I take deep breaths to slow my speeding heartbeat, vaguely realizing that the light coming through the window is early evening light, and I should leave soon. The sheets are smooth and cool. The sound of footsteps and a key turning in the door jolts me awake, and I jump out of bed, straighten the covers, and grab my shoes before slipping out the window. I find a place in the shadows of the courtyard to catch my breath, hoping that no one has seen my narrow escape.
I see him come into the bedroom after a few minutes, look around, sigh deeply. He falls into bed, on Her side, closes his eyes and grabs the other pillow to him – the pillow I had been sleeping on just moments before. His eyes start open, and he breathes deeply again, this time not a sigh. His left hand drifts over the bed, testing for warmth. He closes his eyes again and smiles.
Dammit! My cover is blown! But what does that even mean? Is the amnesia a cover? Is holding him at a distance a cover? I need my cover – I am not ready for him to know my secrets. But then I remember that he of all people understands covers, and I cross my fingers that She trained him well enough to play it a little longer, as long as I need.
He invites me over for dinner and board games with Morgan and Alex, looking so hopeful that I can't say no. Of course there is vegetarian pizza, no olives. He has always remembered my taste in pizza, that much I do remember. We eat at the table, and then we play a game that depends on how much you know about the other people. I chose this game, but everyone is reluctant to pick teams. They assume the memory thing will be a liability, and they feel sorry for me. I end up with Morgan, because we all decide that both teams have about the same disadvantage that way. I'm pretty awful, but a few times I surprise them, and even myself. After the game, we sit in the living room drinking wine and talking. I'm sitting next to Chuck, his arm stretched across the back of the couch behind me, but not touching me. Suddenly, I realize Morgan knows a story that Chuck can't tell me.
"Morgan, will you tell me about Thailand? I've read the reports, but I'm sure there's a lot more to it."
He looks surprised for a second, and then he looks at Chuck, who shrugs his shoulders. Morgan explains that Chuck had been captured by the Belgian, who was trying to get him to flash so he could take the Intersect. He captured Chuck in Switzerland, but he could have taken him anywhere in the world. Chuck was having trouble with the Intersect then – he couldn't flash. Everyone was really worried, but there were no leads until She made them capture a Thai diplomatic attaché, but he wouldn't talk.
Morgan goes on. "Casey made you go home to get some sleep, Sarah. I came to check on you, and you were just sitting there on the bed. I asked how you were holding up, and you said, 'Not great,' which was saying a lot, because you and I, we weren't super close then. I'd never seen you like that, like, vulnerable. I felt lousy, too – I had this awful taste in my mouth, ever since Chuck disappeared, like a twin thing, like wherever he was he was eating something yucky."
She had found this paper in Chuck's shirt pocket – his proposal plan, and She made Morgan tell Her what it was, although Morgan also told Her that since Chuck lost the Intersect, the proposal plan had been put on hold.
"Why?" I interrupt. "Did he think I wouldn't want to marry him without the Intersect? Is that how I made him feel?" It's an effort to talk about this in the first person, but they can't know how distant I feel from Her.
Morgan continues, "I told you that Chuck knew that you loved him, Sarah. It's just that, you're kind of a big fish, you know, and to a regular guy with no super computer in his brain, I've got to think that would be kind of intimidating. You said that you wanted to spend the rest of your life with Chuck, with or without the Intersect, and I said, that's fantastic, that's great, right, and he knows that, right because you told him that. Then we both realized that you hadn't told him, and it was like something snapped in you." Morgan pauses, looks at me, asking permission to tell my secrets. Her secrets. I nod for him to go on.
"After that you were unstoppable; even Casey was a little scared of you, and he said you were turning back into the 'wildcard enforcer' Sarah Walker, the one he didn't like, from before Chuck."
She locked Casey in a cell in Castle and took off for Thailand with intel from the Thai attaché about a facility on the Thai-Burmese border. She had already fought Her way across half the country when Casey and Morgan tracked Her to this gambling house out in the jungle. "When we got there, you were in some kind of a fighting pit, complete with a cobra, beating the crap out of this really ripped Thai guy with tattoos on his face, supposedly the best fighter they had there."
The Thai fighter had thrown sand in Her eyes. I can feel this as he tells it, the scratching of the tiny grains, the desperation to get back into the fight. A dream of a sandstorm comes back the way dreams do: one moment you don't remember them at all, and the next moment all the details are there before you. I feel the sand scraping my skin raw, running over my body, through me. I hug my elbows to my chest, hunch over, trying to pretend that I'm just listening to the story.
"Sarah, are you okay?" Morgan asks. "You look a little…"
"I'm fine. Keep going." They all look at me, concerned. The dream fades. I sit up straight, take a sip of wine, let the storm pass. I force a smile. "I'm fine."
She was on the ground when Casey and Morgan arrived. The guy was about to finish her off with a knife, but Casey shot the knife out of his hand. Everyone else in the place drew their weapons, too. It was tense for a few minutes, but then Casey got them to put their guns away, and Morgan got Her a canteen with some water to rinse Her eyes.
"You drank some and poured the rest over your head to cool off. All eyes were on you, and from then on, you were like some kind of vengeful goddess. Everyone was scared of you. They called you the giant blonde she-male, or something like that."
Alex elbows him in the ribs, and I roll my eyes. "Come on, Morgan. You're a great storyteller, but that's laying it on pretty thick," I say, but I wonder about my reputation in Thailand.
"No, seriously. Later I had to pull one of his teeth out of your arm and shoot you up with antibiotics just to be safe. But when you won the fight, we got the intel on where Chuck was, and we planned a nighttime attack. We got to Chuck, but it was almost too late – the bad guy was in the process of wiping all his memories to try to get the Intersect out. But you brought him back, Sarah."
I hear Her voice, my voice, in my head: Chuck, come on! Please wake up. Chuck listen to me, I'm here. Chuck, I'm here. I came to rescue you. I'm right here, Chuck. Chuck, please, come on. Chuck, please. Chuck, I love you. Please wake up. I have so much that I want to tell you. I found your proposal plan. You were going to do it on the beach in Malibu, where we watched the sunrise after our first date… Chuck, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I don't care you have the Intersect or not. Without you, I'm nobody. I'm nothing but a spy. Come back to me, Chuck. I want to marry you. It takes all of my will to conceal what is happening inside of me, but the effort almost makes me black out. I focus on breathing evenly, keeping very still and quiet.
"You kissed him, and he came back. It was truly amazing – better than any movie rescue I've ever seen. Chuck was mad that I blew his proposal plan, but if he could have seen you without him, man, maybe it was a good thing that he lost the Intersect, because after that he knew that you really loved him. I mean, you would have done anything to get him back. No, I mean seriously, anything." Morgan pauses, clears his throat. "That's the story of Thailand, I guess."
I'm suddenly aware that I've shifted closer to Chuck during the telling of the story, and that his fingertips are lightly resting on my shoulder. I stiffen, lean forward to grab my wine glass from the coffee table, and he repositions his arm across the back of the couch.
"Well, we should probably go," said Alex, grabbing Morgan's hand to pull him up. They make a quick exit.
"I should go, too," I murmur, standing up and starting to slip on my shoes. I clutch my purse, looking for my escape.
"You don't have to go, Sarah," he blurts out. He pauses. "What I mean is…please stay."
"Chuck, I don't want to give you false hope. I am not the same girl who fought her way across Thailand to find you."
"It's not false hope. It's just hope. I love you, Sarah."
"You love Her. I'm not your Sarah anymore."
"Sarah, the woman came to rescue me in Thailand was not the same girl I fell in love with." He holds up his hand so I won't interrupt. "And the woman I married was different still, but it was still you. I love you, Sarah. People do change, you're right, but love can change with them. I love you."
"I love you, Sarah."
"I have to go." My heels click as I walk around the fountain and out of the courtyard. He does not stop me.
Later that night, my phone rings. I think about letting it go to voicemail, but that seems too cruel.
"Chuck?" I try to sound like the phone woke me up, even though I have been staring at the ceiling for the past two hours.
"I can't sleep. Can I tell you a story?"
And he does. When he's done, he says, "Are you still there?"
"Sleep well, Chuck."
"Sweet dreams, Sarah."
We're in some kind of dojo, various martial arts weapons neatly hung on the walls. We square off across from each other, fists raised, no gloves. He juts his chin at me, a signal for me to go first. I punch high, aiming for his jaw, but he blocks it easily. I wait for him to counterattack, but when he doesn't, I go in again, this time with a punch to the stomach. He steps to the side, grabbing my forearm and pulling me off balance and sending me stumbling away, but not before I strike him in the back with my elbow. I square off again, punch, and this time he blocks hard enough to leave bruises on both of our forearms. I wait for his attack, but nothing. He's fending me off, but not fighting back. I try kicking him, and it's the same: dodges or blocks, but no counters. I aim for his head again, but instead of blocking, he drops into a crouch and sweeps my leg. Suddenly I'm staring at the ceiling, all the air knocked out of my lungs, and he's standing over me, smirking. He holds out his hand, says, "Do you want to go again?"
I go to his apartment while he's at work. I find myself there a couple of afternoons per week; it pulls me in like a riptide. Nothing changes – the neatness, the pictures, my clothes, the smell of him on his clothes and pillowcase. Exhaustion washes over me, and I crawl into bed, sleep until the sound of his footsteps in the courtyard wakes me from my dreaming. I slip out the window, then watch from the shadows as he lies down, feels the warmth, turns his face to the pillow, breathes deeply.
I keep my Wednesday dates with Mom and Molly, picking Molly up at school and bringing her home to Mom's for dinner. Molly eventually asks me about Chuck, but she seems to accept my lame explanation that he's busy with work. Which he is, I guess. I don't want to lie to her, but the truth is too complicated.
Mom and I are becoming more comfortable with each other – the routine of cooking together, eating at the table, Molly's bedtime, and then sitting on the couch to drink tea and talk. Although I can't tell her everything, we still find plenty to talk about. It's starting to feel more normal to sit close to my mom, put my head on her shoulder, though we've never been much for affection.
I sometimes go to Molly's soccer games or ballet practices, too. I watch her and her friends swooping around the field or the dance floor like a flock of swallows, and I think about what her life might have been if it had gone the way her parents intended. Or if I hadn't been there that night, or if I hadn't made the decisions I did.
I call Ellie often now, just to keep her updated, just to give me someone to talk to, someone who knows most of the secrets, since I'm not talking to him, not really. We talk about my growing memory database, and sometimes she can fill in gaps. She's making her own notes on my case, developing a new theory of memory. She always asks if there have been any other times like the Museum, but thankfully, there haven't.
This time, though, I tell her things I have kept private until now – the phone calls, sneaking into his apartment, the dreams. Well, not the sweaty details of the dreams, but that I'm dreaming a lot. The way that I think of the old me as Her. And that I haven't talked with him about any of it.
"What do you really want, Sarah?" She doesn't sound frustrated, although she has every right to be. She's been spending so much time and energy on me, and I'm just treading water.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, what do you want, for you? Why are you working so hard to re-assemble information about the past five years, getting closer and closer, at the same time using so much energy to keep yourself away from him?"
"I don't know what I want. Or I want too many things that don't fit together. I want my life back, but I want to be in control of the process. And then this uncontrollable wave takes me, and I'm calling him, or sneaking into his apartment, or dreaming... I'm scared – what if I can't be Her again, Ellie?"
She sighs, but patiently. "Your conscious mind wants that control, Sarah. It's what you're trained for, and it's what you're good at. But all the other stuff is important, too, maybe more important. You can't think and organize yourself back into your life. It will only get you so far. Look, I know he's my little brother, so I'm not exactly objective here, but I wonder if you just need to dive in. Some things we just can't control, Sarah."
I wake to the metallic sound of someone moving pots and pans around in the kitchen. He must be home. I sit up with a jolt, heart racing. Crap! I didn't hear him come home like I usually do. How long did I sleep?
Does he know I'm here? The single long-stemmed red rose on the pillow next to mine answers that question. There is also a note. Please stay. I'm making us dinner. There are fresh towels in the bathroom. Take whatever time you need. - C
I sigh, put the rose in the cut glass vase he left on the bedside table, and cover my face with my hands. Dive in, Ellie said. Maybe I'll clean up a bit first. I tiptoe to the bathroom and turn on the shower. Everything here is familiar, too – my shampoo and conditioner, the soap I like, my razor. I turn the water icy cold at the end, trying to clear my head. I wrap my hair in a towel and look at myself in the mirror, trying to see what he sees. Blonde hair, high forehead, dark eyebrows, strong cheekbones. Blue eyes that can fool you into thinking they are green or grey depending on the light and my mood. A body that can turn heads in an evening dress or a bikini, but a moment later turn into a deadly weapon. A long, faint scar on my ribcage from some mission I'm glad I can't remember. I sometimes think of beauty as just another weapon in my arsenal – a tool to be used as needed. Looking in the mirror now, I see a spy who's lost control of the mission, a woman who's fighting against the tide. I don't know what he sees.
I wrap a towel around my body and pad back into the bedroom. I fold up the clothes I was wearing earlier and leave them on a chair – putting them with his laundry is too much of a commitment. I open the drawer and find some underwear; my taste in lingerie apparently hasn't changed. It's warm this evening, so I pick an ivory linen sundress, a halter-top with a low back, and put it on. My hair is almost dry by now, so I just run my fingers through it. I consider makeup, decide he's surely seen me without it before. Now or never, Walker.
He's still making noise in the kitchen, but now I can hear him talking to someone. The phone, hopefully – I don't want to face anyone right now. My heart is beating fast as I stop in the doorway to the kitchen.
There are pots and pans, utensils, and ingredients scattered across the counters. He's standing at the sink, with his back to me, looking up at a computer screen that shows Ellie on videoconference.
"Ellie, gross! You want me to do what to the chicken?"
Ellie sees me on her monitor and smiles. "Um, Chuck, I think you should turn around."
"What? Why?" I clear my throat softly, and he turns. He's got an apron on, and he's holding a whole, raw chicken in his hands.
"Hey Ellie," I say, waving at the camera.
"Hi Sarah," she grins. "You can handle it from here?"
"Yeah, I've got this one," I answer, taking an apron from a hook by the door.
"I'll talk to you guys soon." Ellie closes the connection.
He is just staring at me as I clutch the apron in my hands.
"I didn't hear you walk in. You're not wearing any shoes."
"I'm not planning on going anywhere."
"Good." He pauses. "Sarah, you…wow…you look so…I'm so..."
"Why don't you put the chicken in that roasting pan, Chuck?"
"What, huh? Oh, yeah." He turns and drops the chicken into a stockpot, looking at me for approval.
I laugh and slip the apron over my head, my hands shaking as I tie the strings behind my back. "Okay, I'll tell you what. You can wash your hands and open a bottle of wine. I'll get dinner in the oven, and then we can talk."
At least Ellie had him heat the oven already. While he takes off his apron and washes up, I relocate the chicken to a roasting pan, grateful to attend to the task of preparing dinner. I gather the potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables strewn across the counter. The cutting board is where I expect it to be, and I notice with approval that the knives in the block are sharp. My hands are predictably shaky, and I almost cut my finger. He sets a glass of wine next to me on the counter and uses his phone to put on some music. I take a sip of wine; it tastes good, and it steadies me. I like the music; he probably chose it hoping I would remember the song, but I don't. He hums along as he puts away some of the extra pots and pans that he got out when he was trying to cook.
"You couldn't just flash on how to roast a chicken?" I tease, although I wonder if he could.
"Maybe, I don't know, I'm not sure if the culinary arts are in the Intersect 3.0. I actually wanted to try to cook something for you myself." He grins, turning my insides to jelly. "But it's almost as nice to let you do it."
I smile and look down. I get everything chopped and throw it all in the roasting pan with some olive oil and herbs, then put it into the oven and set the timer. I wipe down the counters and put things in the dishwasher so there won't be a lot of cleanup afterward. Also because I am stalling for time, trying to figure out what my next move is. After I wash my hands, I stand at the counter and take another drink. A gulp, to be honest.
Seeing me struggling with the knots I somehow managed to put into my apron, he comes over behind me and takes over. I reflexively pull my hands away, but stand still for him to work the knots. Another gulp of wine.
"How did you even do this?" he asks, laughing. "It's like you did it on purpose."
"I didn't! I don't know…I was nervous…"
"Sarah Walker? Nervous?" He's still teasing me, still messing around with the apron strings, although I'm starting to suspect that he's already got them untied.
"Chuck, I…" I feel his arms go around my waist, and he buries his face in my hair. I close my eyes and lean back into him, and we stand there for a minute. My pulse is racing, but I try to keep my breathing calm. He lifts the apron over my head, replaces his arms around my waist, kisses my neck once, and takes a step away. I want to turn to look at him, but I'm afraid of what will happen next.
"We have like 45 minutes till the chicken is ready?" he asks. I nod, still not looking at him. He takes my hand. "Let's talk."
We sit down on the couch, and he fills both of our glasses again. He takes off his shoes, so now we're both barefoot. He sees my eyes drawn to a box on the coffee table. "Ellie sent it," he says. It's a 1,000-piece puzzle of a view of the Eiffel Tower from Montparnasse.
I smile. "She's funny, your sister." I open the box and dump the pieces on the table, start sorting them while we talk. Despite the not-so-subtle allusion to my memory project, I'm glad Ellie gave us something to do in this moment. I take a deep breath and start to tell him how I've been thinking of my lost memories as a puzzle, trying to piece together all of information into some kind of a coherent whole.
"The mission files, the bedtime stories…"
"Bedtime stories?" he raises his eyebrows. "I think that piece goes over here."
"That's how I think of it…when we talk on the phone. And things that I dream, and the flashes of memory that come back…"
"Wait, what? You're flashing?"
"No, sorry, wrong word. Like when I knew to go to the beach, that it was special. Or the Chinese restaurant, or the Wienerlicious in Berlin." I hand him the piece he has been looking for. He takes it, turns it over in his hand, and puts it into the right spot.
I tell him I've been seeing Mom and Molly, that I've been going to Ellie for medical advice. I'm not sure how he'll take that, me going to his sister for support, instead of him, but he just says, "Good. I'm glad you haven't been totally alone."
We've got parts of each of the corners assembled by now, and we're working to fill in the perimeter. I start sorting the rest of the pieces by general color group, and he joins in when he sees what I'm doing. We're sitting close on the couch, knees touching. The music switches to a new song. Birds flying high, you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel…
A memory flashes through me. Not an Intersect flash, a normal person flash. "Chuck, this song…"
He looks surprised for a second, and then gently pulls me up to dance with him. I can smell soap, the same soap I just used in the shower, on the soft skin at the base of his neck. Everything is electric: his left hand holding my right, his other hand on the small of my back, the slow caressing movement of his thumb, his warm breath on my neck, waking up all the cells in my body at once. Every touch on my skin is intensified, like when you have a fever, except fevers make your skin hurt, and this feels so good. I lean into him, and he starts kissing my shoulder, working his way up my neck, till he reaches the spot just below my ear.
"Sarah…" he whispers. And then the oven timer goes off.
"We should check on dinner," I murmur, reluctantly. He runs his lips lightly back down my neck to my shoulder, and we release each other.
"Will you tell me more about your memory project?" he asks, once we are sitting at the table. The food tastes great; the onions have caramelized perfectly, and I realize I am really hungry. Maybe he's right about me not eating enough.
"I'm going through all the mission files and my logs that Casey gave me, cataloguing as much as I can according to the type of memory I have about it. Most of them are like stuff you read in a book – I'm learning about them as I work. But sometimes the files trigger a…a real memory. I don't want to say a flash, but it is sudden like that."
"And then if that happens?"
"Then I catalogue that event with both tags. And then when you tell me a story…"
"The stories…" He smiles, as if he has figured something out.
"Yeah, so if a story is a separate event from a mission file, then it gets its own entry, but chronologically, so I can see how everything fits together in time. And if it triggers a memory, it gets a story tag and a memory tag."
"Wait, what? My stories triggered real memories and you didn't tell me?" He looks annoyed.
"Why did you think I was asking you to tell them? Wait, no, I'm sorry…I didn't really understand why I kept calling you, but I couldn't help it. And then when I have a dream…"
"You haven't told me about your dreams."
"No, I haven't. I haven't told you much about anything. I'm sorry."
He holds my gaze, and then lowers his eyes. This has been hurting him. "I'm sorry," I repeat. "I've been dreaming. A lot. About you, us. I don't remember much when I wake up, but it's always…really intense. It's probably just my subconscious mind trying to do the same thing I've been doing during the day – piece things back together."
"Like…what kind of dreams?" His hand is close to mine on the table, only this time I do slide my fingers through his, weaving our hands together. A tango is playing now, but sort of a modern tango, a little electronic.
"Crazy dreams, really wild." I look at him, and his eyes meet mine. And as the wave breaks over me, I realize three things: I want to tell him everything. I want him. And I can swim.
"Dance with me, Chuck," I say, pulling him to his feet. "Show me what you've learned."
He takes my hand and spins me around, and then pulls me close as I lift my left hand to his shoulder. We dance in close, back towards the living room, and when there's enough space he whirls me around to end up perched on his hip, our lips almost touching, teasing. I step away, walking around him with my hand never leaving his shoulders, and then he spins me again into a close embrace. He lunges back, his hand on the small of my back forcing me to lunge forward, almost, but not, touching my lips with his.
The hallway ends up being the best dance floor. I start to lead and dance backward down the hall, holding him to me so he has to follow.
"Hey, who's leading, here?" he says with a grin, as I wrap my leg around him. He slides his hand up the outside of my thigh, pushing my skirt up a bit, surprising me. He smiles again, knows he won that round. He takes over, pulls me even closer, then spins me around and dances me down the hall toward the living room. He's a good dancer, and he can lead. I let him, for a few more minutes, and then I dance us back up the hall, never breaking eye contact. He can lead, but I can lead backwards, and should know by now that I'm not a woman who just lets herself be led.
The music stops with a flourish, and we stand there, bodies pressed against each other, lips so close, catching our breath. I lean in and brush his lips with mine, and then I kiss him, and then everything we have been wanting for so long crashes over us.
"Sarah, are you sure this is what you want?"
I realize that I have never forgotten, could never forget this. "Yes, I couldn't be more sure. Shut up and kiss me."
I am lying with my head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat gradually slow to a resting rate, while he walks his fingers up and down my spine. My feet are nestled between his.
"Sarah, I love you."
I pick up my head and look at him. "Chuck, I…" My voice fades out. Why is it so hard to say?
"It's okay, you don't have to say it. It might take time."
"I'm falling for you again. I wouldn't be here if I weren't."
He kisses me. "I know."
I fall asleep, dreamless – or at least no dreams I remember.
In the morning I get up to make coffee and breakfast. Thankfully, we had mostly cleaned up the kitchen before we ate; he must have gotten up in the night to put away the leftovers and clear the table. I grind some coffee and get it brewing. There are eggs, and some peppers, so I start throwing an omelet together.
"Smells great," he says, leaning against the doorframe, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. "You should stay over more often."
"I plan to," I say, spatula in hand, kissing him on the nose. He wraps his arms around me and pulls me in for a real kiss. I almost forget about the food, until I go to put my arms around him and realize I'm still holding the spatula.
He pours coffee while I get the omelets on plates. We eat in comfortable silence until the doorbell rings. We look at each other, and he sighs. "I'll get it."
"Hey, buddy, you're not ready yet? I thought we could ride in together." It's Morgan, wearing his Buy More uniform. Chuck tries to fill the doorway, blocking me from Morgan's view, but Morgan ducks his head under Chuck's arm and says, "I knew it! Hi, Sarah."
I take a sip of coffee, pull the t-shirt I'm wearing down for just a little more coverage, try to look nonchalant. I guess it's pretty obvious what's going on. "Morning, Morgan."
"Um, yeah, so Morgan, I think I'm not going to be in today. Can you fill out my Buy More sick leave form for me?"
"What? Oh, sure, yeah, Buy More sick leave. You got it, man. Yeah, you look like you didn't get much sleep, maybe you should rest up a bit – " Chuck pushes Morgan out and closes the door. "I'll come check on you later, bring some soup maybe! Or champagne!" He yells through the door.
"Sorry," he says as he comes back to sit next to me, taking my feet into his lap.
"It's okay…Chuck, can I ask you a question?"
"Anything." He starts rubbing my feet.
"Why are you still filling out Buy More sick leave forms? What are you still doing there?"
His hands move up and start massaging my calves. "I guess there's a lot I haven't told you, too."
"Well, I was kind of focused on other things. But I'm listening now." I take his hand.
"Can you wait just one more day? I want to have today with you, have it be just us."
I think about how long I made him wait, the months that I kept my project basically secret from him. I was so focused on myself – I never really thought about what he was doing all that time. I mean, other than the Buy More, which is obviously a cover for something. "Okay, Mr. Bartowski." I shake my finger playfully. "You have one day. You better use it well."
"Very generous, Mrs. Bar–… Agent Wa–…Sarah." He picks me up from my chair and carries me back to the bedroom, which we barely leave for the next 24 hours.
He's up early the next morning; dressed, with pancakes and coffee on the table by the time I get out of the shower. We eat, and then he checks his email while I get dressed. Standing in front of Her clothes – my clothes – I'm not sure what to wear. He's not in his Buy More uniform – he's wearing jeans and a striped dress shirt, untucked, collar open, sleeves rolled up. I decide it's probably safe to take my cue from him. I pull on tight black jeans and a pair of boots that, judging from the wear and the tiny razor blades hidden in the heels, have been a favorite. A charcoal colored knit shirt, a little makeup, a brush through the hair, and I'm ready. Black has always made me feel safe, like the color is a protective armor. I look in the mirror and see Agent Walker. Whatever surprise he has for me, I'm ready for it.
We take my car to Castle, because of course that's where we're going. It's early enough that the Orange Orange is closed, so we enter through there, going through the freezer. I don't know why, but I haven't come in this way in all the months I've been working down in Castle – only through the Buy More. He raises his palm to the scanner and pauses with his hand in the air. He looks at me.
"It's okay. I'm ready." I lean in, kiss him, and put my own hand on the scanner. The door opens.
We walk down the stairs into a Castle completely transformed by activity. I count eleven people, most pretty young, some working at computer terminals, some sitting at the conference table going through paper files. Morgan is there, too, engaged in an intense conversation with another young man. Everyone looks like a nerd, but somehow with a sharper edge. They look like…
"Hackers?" I say.
"We prefer cyber-security specialists," Chuck says as he puts his hand on the small of my back. "The bread and butter of the new Carmichael Industries."
"But how did you keep this going all those months I was here working? How could I have missed it?"
"Well, we shifted work schedules around. You were very focused, and most parts of Castle you never even went to."
"You mean they were hiding in a back room, sneaking around, and working nights so that I could think I had the place to myself? Chuck, I…"
"Don't worry. Everybody's workspaces are flexible here. There was very little inconvenience, and it was nothing compared to what I…we…stood to gain."
I glare at him, speechless. It doesn't seem humanly possible to have kept this a secret, especially from someone like me. Seriously, did I lose my eyes and ears as well as my memories?
One of the…specialists… comes up and hands him a tablet. She is probably younger than she looks, with lovely dark skin, long black hair, and some kind of vines tattooed on her slim wrists like bracelets. "Mr. Bartowski, you should really take a look," she says.
He glances at the screen and gets a familiar, funny expression. He looks back at me and sees how angry I am, "Sarah, I'm sorry, we can talk more later, but I've got to go work on this. We left your computer open if you want to go back to your work. Or…"
The specialist is standing there, waiting for him. He is standing there, waiting for me. I look at him and feel my anger soften. "Anything I can help with?"
Before he can answer, the specialist speaks up eagerly, "Actually, ma'am, there's several cases that we'd like to consult with you on. We're so glad you're finally here with us."
I glance at him again, and he shrugs sheepishly. Apparently he has made certain these people know who I am, even if I'm still not sure.
I take a deep breath. "It's good to be back."