AN: Hey guys! I'm back! Didja miss me? I'm so sorry its taken so long to get this chapter up, but life's been crazy. As you may remember, I was applying to PhD programmes in the UK and US, and I did not gain acceptance to any of them; which as it turns out is probably a good thing, as I've been extremely ill for the past 5 months with little to no energy so my current MA project isn't going to be finished in time anyway. I've had to move house twice, and this chapter was either completely or partially deleted several times, causing me extreme frustration and having to do several re-writes.

As you'll see in this chapter, much of the actual "action" of the mission with Manoosh is mostly illuded to (especially as I changed a lot), mostly due to the fact that I was having trouble fitting specifics in (especially how I strategically changed elements of the plot and Manoosh's character), and I didn't have time or space to fit it in with the rest of the narrative of the chapter. I was originally going to split this chapter into two, with more content relating to the mission itself, but i couldn't figure out a way to do jt that I was happy with. So this is the result.

Note: more ANs at the bottom explaining certain specificities. There is a lot fo mostly-made up techno babble as well as some stuff about international politics and terrorism which is mostly true, but also somewhat made up (you should be able to tell whcih is which, if not and you're curious, feel free to message me and ask), so fair warning that some of that stuff may require a suspension of disbelief of a certain level. Also, I'm not 100% I like the characterisation i gave some of the backup characters (Devon, Ellie, etc) in this chapter, mostly because I think I was out of practice writing them and had a hard time finding their "voice", but I hope its palatable for you anyway. This chapter gets VERY DARK and has A LOT OF DEATH in it. Be ye warned. Also, as always, the chapter is long.

As always, English is not my first language, so please point out mistakes if/where you see them so I can fix them, and I do not own Chuck or any of its characters, affiliates, trademarks, etc. Its all owned by NBC and its affiliates; its their world, I'm just playing in it.

As always, please remember that comments are love, and finally Happy Reading!


Rescue Me – Ch. 8 – Chuck vs. The Confessions

The Next Day

150 miles Northwest of Big Bear Lake

California

14.26 PST

Sarah wasn't sure whether General Beckman's parting "I'm sorry" to her was meant as an apology for the way she'd treated Chuck and herself more or less from the get-go and as a first step towards some sort of reconciliation and an attempt to come to some sort of working agreement, or an apology about the sort of car she had procured for them for their cover as Graduate students at Stanford University, or some combination thereof.

She still didn't trust Beckman as far as she could throw her, and she certainly wasn't ready to trust that the diminutive General would put her money where her mouth was, as far as it came to how she treated her and Chuck from this point forward. So for the time being, Sarah was content to assume that the General's apology was meant as an apology for the car that they were given. And, as far as Sarah Bartowski was concerned, such an apology was well deserved.

When they arrived home after the emergency briefing with the General the previous evening, they found parked in the spot in which Chuck's Nerd Herder usually parked, a gold 1997 Toyota Camry. It was, to use her father's old colloquialism, a "beater". That wasn't to say it was inherently a bad vehicle – those Toyota's had a reputation of lasting more or less forever as long as you took decent care of them – but it wasn't anything particularly special to look at, and she could tell just by giving it a once-over that the CIA hadn't given it any particular "off market" upgrades that she would have otherwise expected.

It wasn't that she was a snob or anything; after all, she had grown up for years on the run with her dad in his late-70s station wagon and whose criteria for choosing a new vehicle was "has four wheels and moves". But the nearly ten years she had spent in service of the CIA had made her grow accustomed to a certain standard of living, as far as things such as cars and the like were concerned, and now having to deal with such a dramatic down-grade from a Porsche 911 that she owned outright to an Agency-owned beater seemed a rather bitter pill to swallow. This was compounded with the fact that, in addition to the fact that yes, she did enjoy driving fast, beautiful, expensive cars like her Porsche, there was also a practical element to it as well. The kind of horsepower and performance that a Porsche or similar vehicle could provide, should they find themselves in a worst-case scenario, would leave whatever the Toyota had "under the hood" in the dust. Which meant that she and Chuck were at a distinct disadvantage, should they ever need to make use of those particular assets.

That being said, Sarah knew that in reality, their situation could have been much, much worse. So she was trying her hardest not to hate the little car they were given to use too much – as it did fit better with their cover as graduate students much better – as they drove north from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Of course, she had a few surprises of her own up her sleeve of which General Dianne Beckman did not – and, if she had anything to say about it, never would – know anything about. Surprises that, should shit completely hit the fan, would form a significant element of the trump card she and Chuck could play and, if absolutely necessary, would inform their first moves if they had to run to ground in the insanely crucial first few hours.

"Sarah, where are we? I thought you said we were going to stop for lunch?"

Chuck's voice, still thick with sleep from his position in the seat next to her where he had dozed off as she drove this leg of their journey, broke her out of her reverie.

"Of course we are, Sweetie," Sarah replied, smiling brightly at her husband. "There's a sandwich shop in town that makes the best steak sandwich between LA and Oakland," she said, not untruthfully.

"I figured since we'd be driving up this general direction anyway, we might make a little detour so I can show you, my wonderful husband who seems to know all the best food spots, something new that I know about that you don't," she said, trying to sound as playfully smug as possible, and playfully sticking her tongue out at him for good measure.

"Is that so?" Chuck teased back. "And where exactly are we?"

"Oak Hills, California"

"And where, exactly, is that?"

"About 150 miles northwest of Big Bear Lake"

"I see," Chuck said. "And just how did my beautiful, sophisticated, globe-trotting, super-spy wife find such a culinary gem in such an out of the way corner of the world?" he continued, his voice light and teasing.

"Well, I was about 15 and my Dad was trying to con some LA real-estate types out of multiple millions of dollars, pretending to be some big-wig real-estate developer," Sarah said, continuing her story as she drove.

"Ah. I gotcha," Chuck said, nodding in understanding, as Sarah continued her story as they drove.

"And…and…and then, my Dad turns to the Sheikh and says," she said, finishing her story some fifteen minutes later, as they drove through town, focusing as best she could on the road whilst she talked and wiped the tears of laughter from the corners of her eyes and face.

"My Dad says to the Sheikh, 'So, I guess that palace in Riyadh is out of the question then, eh?'" she said, finishing her story with a howl of laughter that was enthusiastically matched by her husband.

As she finished her story, she navigated the car off the main road of the small, rural California town, down a dusty, gravel road, hidden on either side by tall shade trees. The dusty lane went for about 500 metres, at which point it opened up into a little-used, but relatively well-maintained semi-circular drive that sat in front of a small, but well-kept bungalow.

The house was a far cry from the southwestern or mission-style sprawling suburban-style homes in Burbank or the greater Los Angeles area, but it wasn't a Spartan cabin in the woods, either. It certainly had rustic features that fit with its location, such as lots of wood and stone and exposed ironwork, but it also looked homely and well cared. The rough wood siding of the house was painted a cheerful blue, and the exposed wood and stone front patio housed a rather comfortable looking set of chairs and a table that suggested the owner of the home liked spending time out of doors and required significant outdoor living space. There were no lights on in the home, and it was on the whole rather small, but it appeared generally well cared for, and sat on what appeared be a large, secluded plot of land.

"Babe? Where are we?" Chuck asked, cautiously taking in his surroundings. "I thought you said we made a detour for lunch"

"I did, Chuck. I did. Don't worry," Sarah said, squeezing his arm and smiling at him brightly as she killed the engine and exited the car.

"I just wanted to make another quick stop first," she said, continuing. "I wanted to…show you something"

"O…k," Chuck said, extending the vowels of his speech out noticeably in the way she knew he did when he was nervous. "Where are we?"

"Chuck, this is my house. Our house. Our safehouse," she said brightly and confidently, sweeping her arms demonstratively, encouraging Chuck to take in the whole vista.

"But I…I don't understand," Chuck said lamely, though the smile did not disappear entirely from his face.

"Let's get inside first, Sweetie," Sarah said, stepping up to the front door and searching under the welcome mat and around the various other bric-a-brac until she found the key, muttering something that sounded like not where its supposed to be, before finally turning the keys in the locks on the door and beckoning her husband inside.

"I promise I'll explain everything inside"

After a few moments, they were both inside the house and after a brief sweep of the house for anything that wasn't supposed to be there, they both made their way back to the main room of the house.

The interior of the house was much like the exterior: simple, but not Spartan, and cozy, but with a slightly more rustic feel than Chuck knew to fit with his wife's personal tastes. There was one bedroom with a large, comfortable and under-used looking bed; a small, but well-appointed kitchen, a similarly appointed dining room, and a main sitting room with two small sofas and a leather arm chair, two moderately-filled bookshelves with a variety of titles across several genres, and a decent sized television with a moderately well stocked DVD collection. Off the side of the main room was a small wood paneled office with two desks and a relatively modern – and by that, Chuck meant that he would only have to update some of the equipment, rather than all of it – computer set up. All in all it seemed to be a very cozy and comfortable, if small and remote, home.

"What's going on, Sarah?" he asked, trying to keep his surprise and annoyance out of his voice. After all, he re-assured himself, if he had learned only one thing since Sarah had come into his life, it was that surprises like this usually had some purpose behind them.

"Chuck, this is my – well, our, now – Ace in the Hole," Sarah said simply, taking a seat on one of the overstuffed couches.

"I don't understand," Chuck said, simply.

"Chuck," Sarah said, smiling softly as she placed her hand lightly on his. "Obviously, you know by now how dangerous this life of ours is," she began.

Chuck snorted in laughter, finding her understatement of the realities of their work hilarious. She beamed broadly, the humour not lost on her in the least.

"Yeah, okay, Chuck, I get it. Can we be serious for a minute and let me answer your question?"

Chuck simply nodded in acquiescence. Sarah continued,

"Anyway, like I was saying," she said, staring at her husband in mock anger at being interrupted, "by know, you're obviously very familiar with the fact that this…job…this…lifestyle…is very dangerous," she said, continuing as Chuck nodded the affirmative.

"This is never official procedure, of course, as it would illegal in about five thousand different ways for the Agency to require or instruct agents to do this, of course, but…."

"Sarah," Chuck said, smiling exasperatedly at how his normally calm and collected wife seemed to be almost spiraling, like he knew he often did. "Calm down. You're spiraling"

Sarah took a deep, calming breath to re-centre herself and re-focus her train of thought before continuing.

"Right. Anyway, well, I guess the best way to explain it is…I'm – well, we're – kinda, sorta….rich," she said, pausing before she concluded her sentence and dragging the vowels in her speech out in a way that made it sound almost as if she wasn't quite sure of her own words.

"I mean, like, not 'We'll never have to work another day in our lives', rich," she added quickly, to stop Chuck from freaking out before he had a chance to start.

"But certainly rich enough to safely and securely live completely off-grid and under everyone's radar for at least two or three years, if we ever need to go to ground"

"I don't understand"

"Chuck, you remember when we talked about finances, right?" She asked, hoping she could hint at what she wanted him to understand, rather than rehashing another long, boring, and somewhat uncomfortable conversation.

"You know that the Agency pays me well and covers all my expensive when I'm on a mission…"

"Are you saying that you were able to save that much money from your salary, Sarah? Is that even possible?"

"What? No. Well, I mean, sort of. I mean, well, I do have a relatively decent sized nest egg in the bank – which reminds me, Sweetheart, when we get to Palo Alto, we need to go to the bank and make sure they've finalized the process of setting up our joint accounts," She said, stuttering nervously, even though she wasn't even entirely sure why she was so nervous telling Chuck about these particular details. It wasn't like she believed he'd love her any less, or judge her, or leave her. But for whatever reason, admitting this particular truth still made her extremely nervous.

"But even if that were monetarily possible with the money we've got in the bank, and just to be clear: it's not," she added, smirking a little bit at her husband's face towards the end as she continued, "Regardless, the CIA, the NSA, and probably several other governmental bodies have access to that banking information – I mean, after all, how do you think I get paid? I get direct deposit like everyone else – and could, in a worst-case scenario, theoretically monitor, or even freeze those assets," she said plainly.

Chuck paled slightly at the thought. Sarah smiled indulgently and warmly at her husband, before squeezing his hand comfortingly as she continued,

She spent the next hour or so explaining how her first handler and mentor had taught her from practically the very first day the importance of having a slush fund that she could access at will, any time, any place, without the Agency's knowledge or approval. She learned very quickly from him – and later, from personal experience – how such a fund could mean literally the difference between life and death. She told him how she had acquired such a fund – originally very small at first; just enough to potentially bribe some guards and buy a last minute ticket on the first flight out of dodge, and maybe a sandwich and bottle of water at some point along the way – in the line of duty, from seized funds that legally and officially the CIA could not recover because it had no knowledge of.

By the end she was bawling, as she hated the idea that Chuck might judge her poorly or harshly for her past, for stealing money that didn't belong to her, even if it did originally belong to terrorists and smugglers and drug cartels and the like. She told him how she was ashamed of the things that she did – that she had to do – in the line of duty in order to make herself safe, but that she would never apologise for this place. Their haven, their Ace in the Hole.

"If anything, it's a kind of poetic justice, if you think about it," she said, slowly finishing her confession.

"These scumbags were going to use that money to do terrible things to good people, and instead, I wound up taking it from them and using it to make sure that I – and now, you and I – have a backup plan in case shit hits the fan and we need to disappear for a while," she said, nervously but unapologetically.

"It wasn't an instantaneous thing. It didn't happen all at once. For a while it was, at best, a few hundred here, maybe a thousand there. And it was actually relatively rare, when you consider how much of my time was actually spent on missions," she said, somberly.

"But slowly it grew. Slowly I had enough for more than just a last minute flight if I needed to disappear. I had enough money to really prepare. To have something in reserve, ya know, just in case. It took a long time, but slowly over the past few years its grown to something that enables us to have enough resources at our disposal if we ever need them, Chuck," she said.

"I know you're probably not very comfortable with this. You don't like the idea of doing something wrong, and I know you think this was probably wrong to steal all that money from those people, Chuck. I know. You were always a much better person than I am, but I just hope that you'll forgive me, and trust me when I say that something like this could potentially save us from…" she said, starting to ramble, her words beginning to speed up and spiral out of control when Chuck kissed her, soundly.

"You're right," Chuck said, softly but firmly, when they pulled away from each other, several moments later.

"I do think stealing is wrong. But I've also learned over the past few years we've been together that sometimes, if you want to do good, you need to sometimes do bad things," he said, lamely.

It was clear that he didn't quite like admitting this reality out loud, but it was also equally clear that he had, at least, come to accept it, if begrudgingly, and he would prefer shouting it to the rooftops, if necessary, than to let his wife think she was a bad person. He continued,

"I don't particularly like it, you're right. But if taking money from those bad guys has kept you safe and helped us be together, than I'm not going to make a big deal out of it. I love you, Sarah, and I hope you know that I'm not going to somehow start judging you, now of all times, because you stole some money from some bad guys. I love you and nothing's going to change that," he said, kissing her softly, but soundly, once again.

"And I love you, too, Chuck," she said, firmly. "More than you could possibly imagine"

"How much money are we talking about, anyway?" Chuck asked, almost innocently.

Sarah smirked devilishly before leaning in and whispering the amount in his ear. He gulped, almost audibly, before replying.

"That's…that, uh…that's a lot of zeros"

"Like I said, Chuck, we're kind of rich – maybe not rich enough to not need jobs anymore, but certainly rich enough to be able to disappear for a while if we need to"

"Yeah, I'm still not sure exactly how that all works, Sarah. And what this place is…I mean, we have an apartment already, and there's my dad's cabin…"

"Those are all places the Agency knows about. What I've been setting up is only for an absolute last resort, worst-case scenario situation, Chuck, and in those sorts of situations, the Agency would be monitoring all our known locations like a hawk," she said.

"Especially our apartment, or anything associated with you, or your family," she added, bluntly.

"Everything, all this – this whole thing, my entire plan – it only works if we act as if it doesn't exist. The money doesn't exist, this house doesn't exist, nothing. I mean an even higher level of security and secrecy than we're used to. Nobody can know about it, not even Ellie or your Dad. We can't ever talk about it, even in code, on any device that could possibly be tapped, tracked, or traced. The only way it will possibly work is if we act is it literally doesn't exist. Does that make sense?"

"Not really," Chuck said, apologetically. "You're going to need to help me out a bit more here"

"Okay, Chuck," Sarah said, understanding. "Basically, we have our money, held not only in US dollars, but also Pesos, Yen, Pounds and Euros, since we can never know ahead of time what might or might not come in handy," she began, continuing.

"The money is held in various safe deposit boxes, bank accounts and the like, all of them 'dumb' accounts – unlinked, and completely disconnected from any sort of internet, or server, or anything that isn't done in the painfully slow and inconvenient, but much more secure, old-fashioned way," Sarah said, pausing for breath as she continued,

"The various banks and storage locations are also spread out, very far apart from each other both in this country, and a few internationally as well, for extra security. They may be able to find and seize one account, or one stash here or there, but they'll never be able to find it all, and we'd be way ahead of them by that point anyway," she added, continuing,

"Of course, we have this house, too. It's our safe house. I bought it several years ago, before I had even met you, in the off chance I ever had to go to ground, at least I'd have somewhere to call my own when I changed my name and disappeared," she explained.

"I didn't want to spend the rest of my life living out of suitcases, from motel to motel changing my identity constantly, like I did as a kid," she continued, explaining, "So I bought this place – completely anonymously, and in full, with cash, mind you – to have some place to go to where I could be comfortable and call my own, at the very least, if I ever had to disappear," she said, her voice tinged with a slight melancholy, as she thought about all the potentialities for such a fate she had narrowly escaped in her past.

"I'd sell the Porsche for some quick cash, buy a junker – a lot like the one we've got now – change my identity, drive up here and hide the junker in the shed out back, and disappear here in quiet anonymity and at least relative comfort for as long as I could, should the need arise," she said confidently.

"Now it belongs to both of us," she continued. "I doubt it would ever be a permanent home for us, and I don't think I'd want that, anyway," she said, continuing,

"But if things ever got so bad that you and I had to run, our plan would be to essentially lead everyone, and anyone, chasing after us on a wild goose chase, lose them once they were good and confused, and return here under the radar and disappear until it was safe to come out of hiding," she said.

"Think of it as our very own Last Homely House," she said, referencing the home of Tom Bombadil in the Lord of the Rings books which they both happened to enjoy.

"Its comfortable enough and familiar enough here – and most importantly ours and comes with some very strict privacy protections in place – that if we need to, we could disappear here and just live and be ourselves for several years at least," she said confidently.

"Its not an ideal situation of course, but it's a plan that would keep us together in an absolute worst case scenario," she said, nipping the proposal she knew was on the tip of his tongue in the bud before he could even say it.

"This sort of situation is only for absolute dire emergencies in a worst case scenario, though, Chuck," she said knowingly. "I'm talking a sort of DEFCON-1 level emergency. Casey's dead, Beckman's either dead or has betrayed us, Ellie, Awesome and Morgan are either dead or compromised and we can't save them, sort of bad. I mean, absolute worst case scenario, where the options are we run and disappear, or we die sort of thing," she said, emphatically, and Chuck simply gulped and nodded somberly, understanding the seriousness of the discussion they were having.

"In order for the plan I've put in place to work, after we leave here today – and I've only brought you here just so that you can see it, and know that it exists at all, so that if we ever do have that kind of situation and we get separated, you'd know where to go – we have to pretend as if this place does not exist. At all. Ever. The only way for the plan I have to work, should we ever need it – which I hope we never will, of course – is to catch everyone by complete surprise. And the only way to do that is if, even amongst ourselves, we act as if this place, this money, the supplies and the plan, everything, doesn't exist. Understand?"

"I…I think so…"

"And you're okay with this?"

"Well, I mean, it's a lot to take in all at once," Chuck said honestly.

"I understand, Sweetie. If you need to take some time…"

"No, no, its nothing like that, Sarah," Chuck said. "Its just…a lot of information, ya know? A lot to consider. I mean, I'd be lying if I said I was completely okay with all this," he said, honestly, continuing,

"But you know how I feel about this sort of thing – this secrecy, the whole spy work thing more or less in general – as a whole," he said, lamely, hoping he was expressing himself well enough.

"But if you think this will help keep us safe and together, then I guess that's what we'll do. Sarah, I love you, and I trust you. If you say it will work, but we have to do it this way, well, then I guess that's how we'll have to do it. I might not like it, but I like the alternative a lot less"

"Thank you, Sweetie," Sarah said, kissing him softly. "If it helps, I feel the same way. I don't particularly like the fact that I still have to have backup plans like this in place just so that I won't be separated from my husband or worse – but until its safe for both of us to walk away completely, I'll do what I have to do to make sure we stay together. Because I love you. More than I ever thought I could," she said, her eyes suddenly misty, which was most assuredly not part of her plan for the day.

Wiping her eyes quickly and furiously to banish the mist, she sat up straight, pulling out of Chuck's embrace, to reach for her handbag which was on the floor just out of reach.

"That leaves just one more thing for us to do here before we leave," she said, her voice trailing off towards the end of the sentence as she was distracted by Chuck's flirtatious employment of the Bartowski eyebrow dance. She smirked impishly before replying,

"Okay, make that two things we have to do," she said, her grin widening and threatening to split her face in two as she noticed the blush on Chuck's face in response to her quip.

"But before we get to that, there is one more thing we need to do," she said, pulling two small syringes from her handbag, whilst simultaneously rolling the sleeve up Chuck's left forearm.

She handed Chuck one of the identical syringes and offered him her left arm in return.

"Here, do me first," she said, indicating he should inject the syringe she had given him into the proffered arm.

"Any major vein will be fine," she added, noticing her husband's small and nearly imperceptible flash – most likely accessing the CIA training manual on field medicine so that he could inject her properly and safely – before he took her left arm firmly in his and injected the syringe into the proper vein.

Sarah winced slightly. This particular injection hurt more than she had anticipated.

"Okay, Sweetie, your turn," she said, grabbing the remaining syringe in her arm, and indicating Chuck should hold out his left arm to her.

"Fair warning, though, this one does hurt a bit. But I promise I'll kiss it and make it better when we're done," she said, waggling her eyes in what she hoped was a sultry manner, before turning to focus on what she was supposed to be doing.

"Ah! Sonuvabitch!" Chuck cried, wincing, as she injected the syringe into his arm. "What is this, anyway?"

"Sub-dermal self-replicating leukocyte-bonding GPS nano bots," Sarah responded immediately.

"Come again?"

"Sub-dermal self-replicating leukocyte-bonding GPS nano bots," Sarah repeated.

"And what, exactly, the hell is that?"

"What are you asking me for, Chuck? You're supposed to be the nerdy one in this marriage," Sarah said, teasing, as she disposed of the syringes.

"Yeah, but I know about videogames, and computers, and comic books and sci-fi…not real-life science-y technobabble," Chuck protested half-heartedly. "What's next, are you going to turn into a 70-something year old British man?"

"What?"

"That was a Q reference"

"A what?"

"A Q reference? You know, from James Bond?"

"A what? Is that from one of those Avenger comics guys?" Sarah asked innocently.

"A Q…a what…you don't even…you don't know…you're seriously telling me you've never seen any James Bond…" Chuck began to stammer and stutter out as best he could.

Sarah smirked mirthfully, her mouth wide and thin in the way he knew it did when she was pleased with herself – and in particular, when she managed to tease or mess with him successfully. Of course she knew who James Bond and Q were. She wasn't born an Agent, after all. His wife could certainly be quite the prankster when she wanted to be, and he loved her for it.

"Wait," he asked, switching gears after he realised that Sarah was simply messing with him for her amusement, "Do we have a Q?"

"Well, not exactly," Sarah explained. "But you having the Intersect downloaded into that marvelous brain of yours does come with certain…perks," she said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, its not exactly Q, but us being one of the top operating field teams, coupled with the fact that you're carrying the Intersect around in your head kind of makes us top priority, which basically gets us access to all the best toys first," she explained. "Its not exactly Q and 007, but its not that far off…"

Chuck simply pursed his lips and smiled, impressed.

"Alright then," Chuck said, moving the conversation forward, "what did these things we just injected into each other's arms do, exactly?"

"Well, I'm not 100% clear on the medical jargon or techno-babble," Sarah said, continuing,

"but my understanding is basically that they are self-replicating nano bots that bind to our white blood cells, and emits a high frequency GPS tracking beacon, accurate to 50 metres, and that can only be read by special equipment on special frequencies," she said.

"What does that mean?"

"It means that we can track each other on a GPS if necessary during a mission, for example, to a almost pinpoint accuracy, whilst at the same time eliminating the problems of earlier designs: it can't be hacked or over-heard or anything like that because it uses a special frequency and requires special equipment to be detected, and because they bind themselves to white blood cells, simply cutting a chip out, or a body part off, or whatever won't render the GPS useless, like earlier models," she said, happily, choosing to ignore the way Chuck's face paled at the mention of cutting out chips or removing limbs.

"So, essentially, we lo-jacked each other," Chuck said.

"Yes"

"And this came from Beckman?"

"Oh God no, of course not," Sarah said, almost too quickly.

"This is all me, Sweetie. But this way, we can be sure we'll always be able to find each other and know where the other person is, you know, just in case," Sarah said, emphatically.

And whilst he wasn't entirely comfortable becoming a walking GPS beacon because of his wife's tendency to over-prepare, he couldn't help but recognise that in certain possible situations this could potentially come in handy.

"You're not angry, are you Chuck?"

"Nah," Chuck said, surprising himself with how honestly he felt this answer. "Just next time tell me before you inject me with some experimental new equipment, okay?" he added, laughing at the absurdity of what had just happened.

"I promise, Sweetie," Sarah said, kissing him soundly and pulling him gently by the hand towards the bedroom at the back of the house.

"But I think for now we have one more thing we have to do before we leave and forget this house exists," she said, as they neared the bedroom door. She could feel Chuck's smirk against her lips as they fumbled with each other's clothes and made their way haphazardly towards the bed.


Somewhere between Edinburgh and the Forth Rail Bridge

M20 Motorway

East Lothian, Scotland

11.32 GMT

Edinburgh – Langston Graham reflected to himself as his car made good speed down the M20 Motorway to Fife and RAF Leuchars where his private jet to Paris was waiting for his arrival – was a city of contrasts. The capital of Scotland since mediaeval times, it often struck him that it was almost a city within a city. Of course, there was the posh and prosperous Georgian New Town, with its wide, pre-planned streets that easily accommodated later urban sprawl and its neat, clean rows of neat, clean, well-appointed Georgian row-houses that housed families, students, and young professionals on wide boulevards and neat, clean side streets, with appropriately new and British Imperial street names, like George Street, Princes Street, Rose Street, Thistle Street and the like; it was the centre of commerce and industry, and had, since its construction in the eighteenth century been the prim and proper "public face" of Scotland's mediaeval capital.

But of course, there was much more to the city than the New Town. After all, Edinburgh was a city of contrasts; a Jekyll and Hyde city very much forming the inspiration for such gruesome and horrific tales as that particular masterpiece. Edinburgh had a dark, sordid and brutal past, with one of the most violent histories of any city in Europe, leading to claims by some even to this very day that the city is the single most haunted city in all of Britain, and possibly even all of Europe. The city had often been the backdrop against which gruesome and horrific crime dramas had been set, and Graham could see why. The city seemed to ooze dark secrets – the kind of dark secrets that were talked about only in hushed tones in the cover of darkness – out of every stone, every corner, every pore of its being. It was like it was a character in and of itself in its own gruesome drama.

The Old Town, the old, higgledy-piggeldy mediaeval city, appears almost to rise out of the stone of the very hills it is built upon, with strong, dour, granite buildings lining old, cobbled streets aligned in an old, ad-hoc and ramshackle mediaeval town plan. It is a city of cobbled streets and old, cramped mediaeval alleyways, closes, and wynds which still bear the names they had five centuries earlier – Royal Mile, which leads from the mediaeval Castle to the current Royal Palace of Holyrood House, Grassmarket, Cowgate, Fishmonger's Close, Butcher's Wynd – and of cramped, no-name back lanes and staircases that seem to lead no where, except perhaps back in time to a dark and violent past, which seems to seem out of its very core. It is a city which oozed its history – its often sordid and macabre history – out of at every sight and every turn, out of every corner and every stone.

It is a city that reminded Graham – and certainly, he assumed, many of its thousands of other yearly visitors – of its long and proud, but also extremely bloody and macabre past, everywhere he looked. Of Burke and Hare and the Enlightenment Body Snatchers. Of the murderous Deacon Brodie. Of the fictional Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as the gritty Inspector Rebus. It was a city where he felt more connected to the grim and macabre history of this place more than anywhere else in the world. A city where, especially in the Old Town, he imagined that, if he took a stroll at just the right time of day, at just the right time of the year, when the summer haar came rolling inland from the North Sea, he could imagine catching a glimpse of a tartan kilt and tam-o-shanter clad Jacobite ducking in and out of the shadows and the mist, along one of the myriad of unnamed back alleys to the safety of a sympathetic pub, or some similar encounter with yet another element of Edinburgh's long, storied, and violent history.

It was, of course, logically considered an absolutely ridiculous concept to anyone claiming the least bit of intelligence, but he couldn't help the fact that this was the feeling he got – the mood the city impressed upon him – every time he visited. This was, of course rather fitting – almost poetic – he thought, given the purpose for his visit to the city this morning. After all, he wasn't in Edinburgh for personal pleasure: he wasn't on holiday, he wasn't in town for whichever Festival was currently in town. He was here on business. He was here to kill a man.

To be fair, that wasn't completely accurate. He was here to arrange and ensure the suicide of James Pearson, the Deputy Director of MI6 Cyber Operations. A very crucial and critical position in the foreign operations element of his grand plan. Because of this, it was crucial that he was able to ensure that whoever was in that position at MI6 was fully and completely loyal to Fulcrum, and ultimately, to him and his vision. That man was not, in point of fact, James Pearson. It wasn't that he wasn't intelligent enough – in fact, the man was a genius, in point of fact – or that he was in any way incapable of his job, or that he wasn't amenable to Graham's plan – or at least the vision of his plan which Graham had told him during his coded and covert interactions with the man up to this point – he was a thinking, intellectual man who cared deeply about the Greater Good of all the people of the world. The problem with keeping Pearson in place was that he could not be turned. The man, for all his good qualities, suffered from that cancer, the single most dangerous and heinous disease for someone in this business who hoped to live long enough to see retirement: a Love of Country and a firm sense of honour. He would never be turned to Fulcrum, and for that reason, the man unfortunately had to die. It would be a shame about his wife and daughter, though. But of course, in order to make an omelette, on did have to break a few eggs. So, too, in the creation of a newer, better world, must some lives be sacrificed.

And so, Langston Graham had come to Edinburgh early this morning in order to implement the plan he had put into place for the elimination of Deputy Director Pearson. More specifically, the cameras, tools, and other various elements which had to be perfectly in place in order for his plan to go off as it must – which was why he was in Edinburgh himself to ensure it was done right – in order to make sure that, to not put too fine a point on it, ensure that Pearson's life ended this afternoon. It was unfortunate, but it was necessary. The Greater Good must be served and protected at all costs, after all. Especially when doing so would lead to the creation of a newer, better, more peaceful world.

These were the thoughts which were spinning around and turning themselves over in Graham's head as his car sped down the M20 Motorway in the middle of a light drizzle, heading out of Edinburgh and towards Fife and RAF Leuchars to his private plane which was waiting there, to take him to Paris to see the plan through to its completion.


Home of James Pearson

MI6 Deputy Chief of Cyber Operations

27 Princes Street

New Town, Edinburgh

19.37 GMT

James Pearson walked through the door of his Edinburgh home, shrugged off his tweed jacket, threw his keys into the bowl on the sideboard nearest the door, as he always did, and proceeded into the spare bedroom-cum-home office to turn on his personal computer and take a long slug of whiskey, as was his usual routine.

In many ways, James Pearson was everything one would expect of the stereotypical MI6 brass. He came from a family of money, though perhaps not quite as well off as some of his other colleagues; he attended the Rugby School instead of Eton, for example, and whereas most of the upper echelons of the Intelligence Service were Oxford educated, he was a Cambridge man, having read Philosophy, Classics, and Law at King's College. Having excelled in his coursework, but finding it rather dull and not in fitting with his personal interests in science, technology and advanced computing, he enrolled at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. After graduation, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army, serving with the Royal Engineers attached to the Grenadier Guards. He served in this capacity for several years, including tours in Iraq, Kuwait, the Sudan, and several other exotic locations, eventually earning the rank of Major when he was recruited to MI6 and retired from active service.

Yet, despite some of these similarities in his background with those of the rest of the MI6 brass, and their iconic if fictitious poster boy, he was, in all honesty, much less James Bond and Sean Connery as he was Richard Aoyade and Q. For starters, where Bond tended to wear tuxedos or custom made Saville Row suits and shoes, he favoured corduroy trousers with tweed jackets and bow ties. In point of fact, his choice of work attire generally made him look more like a good natured, if absent-minded professor, rather than a member of top level leadership of MI6, someone who was in control of decisions that could potentially mean life or death for thousands, if not more, people on a daily basis. This particular eccentricity of his had lead to his – rather obvious and pedantic, to his view, especially for supposedly highly-educated intelligence officers – office nickname of "The Professor", and the more-or-less good natured nickname his section was given around the office: King's College, after his alma mater. Of course his frequent insistence that since there were several people in his department, and therefore it should be the lesser used plural almae matres, didn't help this particular impression in the slightest.

Additionally, despite his leadership position in MI6 and his several tours with the military, he didn't particularly like guns, warfare, or killing. He was a peaceful man, who largely shied away from guns and weapons of war unless absolutely necessary – he was a scientist and an engineer, first and foremost, and his weapons of war were computers and technology, which he had used to dramatic effect against Enemies of the Realm throughout his career.

Another thing that made him stick out as and oddity in the Intelligence community was that he was married – and happily so. He and his wife, Hélène, had been married for the last twenty years, more or less, and had been a couple almost since the day they met, in their first week at King's College. She was the daughter of a Scottish shipping magnate father, and a French-Algerian Jewish mother who had fled to Paris with the Pieds Noir. They had met very early on in their time at King's College, and were more or less together – and practically inseparable – since. She had been nothing but loving and supportive throughout his career and its many transitions, despite being an active, high powered career woman – a solicitor who was recently awarded the title of QC, Queen's Counsel – herself. She was supportive of his career change into the Intelligence Service, even though they both knew he would be encouraged by his superiors to end their marriage.

But through it all they had stayed together; she had even been allowed to know what he really did. Not all of it, of course, but since he was in the cyber division and rarely, if ever, was required to leave the country to do his job, as a glorified analyst, and since they had already been married for several years when he was recruited she was allowed to be his one confidant. As long as he didn't tell her specifics or breach the National Secrets Act – which he never did – she was allowed into his world, just enough. She knew that he was a relatively high level official in the Intelligence Service working with computers, and that his cover was that he was yet another nameless, replaceable bureaucrat – an IT consultant – for the Home Office. Of course this often seemed to be near enough to the truth, and was as good a reason as any to explain away the questions of why, even though they lived in Edinburgh, did he spend so much time working out of London. They had a fourteen year old daughter, Abigail, who was kind, sweet, nurturing, tender and mature beyond her years, and was immensely smart and popular. She was on the girls football team at her school and was also one of the top students in her year. She wanted to study medicine and become a doctor working for Doctors Without Borders. James and Hélène were extremely proud of her.

That was one particular thing he pondered as he went through the rest of his normal after work routine. As he poured himself a drink, he was startled by the absolute silence in the rest of the house: his wife was no where to be found – and this was strange as she almost always made sure that she was home before he was on days she knew he was coming home – and he couldn't hear her voice anywhere in the house or in the garden. Additionally, there were no signs of Abigail, either. Usually when he came home from work, his wife greeted him with a kiss and a "how was your day?" as his computer booted up and they would share a drink and tell each other about their day, or week, or however long it had been seen they had last seen each other face to face. This was then usually interrupted by Abigail walking by, headphones in her ears and iPod blasting whatever the latest corporate crap was popular with the kids at her school at that moment and singing along, poorly – she was blessed with many talents, but musical ability was not one of them – until she'd she them two of them and she would quickly embrace her father in a tight hug, followed by a "Hi, Daddy, welcome home", before resolutely going back about her business.

Today when he got home, neither of those things happened, and he was put strangely on guard by their conspicuous absence. That was, of course, until his phone buzzed with a digital reminder that Hélène and Abigail were spending the week before school started back up in Paris, visiting Hélène's parents. That mystery solved, he settled down in front of his personal computer, with a generous portion of whisky by his side, to see if he'd received another riddle from his contemporary in the States.

It had started a little over a year ago. One of his colleagues in a similar position – though he couldn't be exactly sure as he couldn't make heads or tails out of the American's administrative structure – in the CIA, or one of the several other foreign intelligence services in the United States' intelligence community had contacted him over the ARPANET. ARPANET was a newly implemented system developed by the Americans and to which his superiors had immediately begun singing its praises if it meant access to more resources from more sources. It was a system based on a server – well, technically several hundreds of servers, in several hundreds of locations, based with several intelligence services world-wide – that was designed as a way for all agencies involved to store all their data on a highly secured (to external probing) server in cyber space where all the data from all the agencies could be uploaded instantaneously, shared, analysed, and everything else under the sun from any location across the world securely, into one location. Personally, he thought it was a bad idea with too many potential security risks, but his superiors – most of whom had eyes on potential political careers when they retired from their posts – were only too eager to tow the government's Party Line and do as they were told.

He had been approached by one of his American contemporaries, who was also working on, but critical of, the ARPANET take over. They had bonded – electronically, of course, as they had never so much as heard each other's voice or seen the other's face – over the potential problems of this system readjustment. The American, as he had taken to calling his Colonial Counterpart, had even told him of potential problems that his people had seen first hand. Apparently the first workable prototype of this system, which they'd dubbed The Intersect had managed to be downloaded into a person – a real, actual human being – and he'd lived. But now all their national secrets were walking around in some civilian, wasting time and resources in his protection and the like. And even worse, there were many in his Agency who liked the idea of a downloadable intersect, or now the more complete version, ARPANET, into a human host, with the potential to create instant super agents.

James Pearson obviously found this revelation beyond frightening and so he and The American had begun, covertly, doing what they could in small, miniscule, incremental ways to prevent the ARPANET being as successful as it was designed to be, and most importantly, to prevent such a blunder as that disaster occurring again. They both knew that they were violating their countries' respective State Secrets acts, and could theoretically be tried for treason if they were caught, but the benefits, they felt, far outweighed the risks.

They had been doing good work, the past few months especially had been productive. They had been sneaking in bits of code, piece by piece, a little at a time that would alter the way the ARPANET functioned. Its main function of being a singular, secure, cloud-based server and database for sharing intelligence remained operational. However, the code they had been implanting slowly over time was designed to prevent things like downloading data over certain thresholds or from a single location more than a certain amount of times, and building other, much more sophisticated failsafe protocols in order to prevent such disasters from taking place. During the course of their work, though, a strange sort of anonymous friendship began to form.

They found out that they had similar interests and career backgrounds; they both studied interesting but largely useless subjects at university – and they both happened to centre around the study of ancient civilisations – and several other things besides. From this, naturally, sprung competitiveness between the two in order to see who could best the other in a game of wits, the Brit or the American. This led to a back-and-forth game of secure messages sent over their personal, secure line in which one left riddles, puzzles and the like for the other to solve, and they were getting progressively more difficult – and interesting – the longer their competition drew on. And of course, waiting for him on his personal computer when it booted up was The American's latest challenge:

LEG _ FRET ?

It was a puzzle that he had to decipher and figure out the answer to in order to enable his computer to finish its start up protocols to the point where he would be able to use his computer normally. If he wanted to be able to use his computer at all – let alone send a reply back to The American, or win their contest – he had to solve the riddle.

After a few short minutes, though, he figured out the puzzle. It was really rather easy, once he considered The American's penchant for using things they have in common – in this instance, their training in Latin and interest in ancient Rome – as the source of his riddles.

"Clever, clever man, Yank," he said to himself, smirking, as he took a drink and moved the cursor to where it needed to be on the screen to input the right answer.

"X marks the spot, as they say, isn't that right, Old Boy? – Legio Decima Fretensis," he said, as he deleted the question mark and wrote a capital X – the Roman numeral for ten – in the relevant open space. He had the correct answer.

LEG X FRET

X marks the spot, indeed.

Almost immediately after he solved the riddle, his computer received a skype notification informing him of an incoming call. The caller ID simply said "Secure". This was nothing terribly out of the ordinary, as members of his own team – especially the younger ones – tended to keep him in the loop in this way, and without even thinking of taking precautions, he opened the chat client. It was not a member of his staff on the other side of the feed.

What he saw was not the organised chaos illuminated by fluorescent lighting and staffed by over-achieving young tech geeks that was the Cyber Operations desk, further playing into its stereotypical nickname even more. Instead, he found himself staring into a darkened room, with no windows placed in direct view of the camera, providing him with no meaningful view that could potentially reveal a location.

"Hello, Agent Pearson. Or should I say James? It certainly has been wonderful getting to know you these past few months. Its not every day I run into someone who can come close to being my intellectual equal," a disembodied voice spoke, followed not far behind by an imposing figure which immediately sat down in full view of the camera.

The man sat in front of him, who James now recognised must be The American, was dark skinned – he wasn't sure how they were referred to in America, but in Britain he would have been called black, or Black British – and fit. He wasn't abnormally tall or muscular, but fit enough to cut an impressive figure. Add on to that the very fashionable and well-cut hand-tailored Italian suit he wore and the fact that he carried himself with the crazy mix of seriousness and glee that made him appear to be a high functioning sociopath. The picture unfolding before his eyes frightened James to his core.

"Oh where are my manners…apologies for my rude Colonial manners," the American said, shaking his head with mirth at his faux-pas. "Allow me to properly introduce myself. My name is Langston Graham, and until recently, I was the Director of the CIA"

James Pearson's eyes bugged out of his head. Langston Graham was a well-known and well-respected figure in the Intelligence Community, not just in the US, but on this side of the Pond as well. He was dead. He had died a hero. In fact, his death was the death that served as the final catalyst for the bureaucrats to give the go-ahead for the ARPANET in the first place. Langston Graham was dead. Langston Graham couldn't be the sociopath staring back at him from, well, wherever he was, and giving him such a fright. Langston Graham could not be The American. He couldn't.

"As you can probably guess, I'm not actually dead. And as you can also probably guess, I am no longer employed by the Central Intelligence Agency," he said, his voice chilling James to his very core.

"Guys like you and me, James? We're special. Your average Agent type, they're a dime-a-dozen, if you'll forgive my Americanism," Graham began. "Our respective agencies sure go through them as if they are, that's for damn sure," he said, continuing.

"But guys like us? You and me? Men of our particular vision and genius? We only come around so often," he said, almost gloating.

"Men like what?" Pearson asked.

"Oh come on Jack," Graham said. "You don't mind if I call you Jack, do you? I mean we've known each other for long enough I don't think we have to rest on formalities anymore, what do you think?" he said, not pausing for a breath or a response before continuing.

"Like I was saying, come on Jack. Don't be so humble. This isn't the time to be reserved. You know exactly the kind of men I mean. Geniuses. Men with not only the vision to see the world not as it is, but as it could be, but who also have the means of bringing that vision to reality," he said, smirking.

"Oh come on, Jack, don't be so thick…you already know what I'm talking about…you already know the answers to your questions before you ask them…tsk tsk tsk fake humility doesn't suit you," Graham said, continuing.

"You obviously know exactly what I'm talking about," he said. "After all, like I said, you are the closest person I've ever met who was anything near to an intellectual equal," he continued, his voice silky, but at the same time strangely like ice.

"Aren't normal people so funny? Running around like chickens with their heads cut off any time anything goes wrong, when they could have simply solved the problem the first time by actually being smart and planning ahead in the first place?"

"Oh no, oh no something's gone wrong what are we going to do help me help me," he mocked, his voice in a high falsetto and gesticulating his hands wildly, before smirking and chuckling a deep, chilling laugh.

"What?" was all that James could stutter out.

"Have you ever wondered, Jack, what life would be like if our world was different?"

"I…uh…"

"I don't mean like absent-mindedly wondering as an intellectual exercise," Graham said.

"I mean really wondered. Concrete things. What you would do, what you would change if you had the power? If you could re-create the world…if you could create a kinder, more thoughtful world, run by intelligent and benevolent leaders…a world without war, or poverty or hunger…"

"I mean, well, yeah…" Pearson began, but was once again cut off by Graham.

"Of course you have, Jack. You're like me. A misunderstood genius. I've thought about it a lot, Jack. In fact, I've done more than that. I've planned. Over the past thirty years I've planned, made preparations, set wheels in motion so that my dream – our dream – of a better world won't just have to be an imaginary exercise, but an unstoppable reality" he said, smiling ferociously as he spoke.

"You know our organisations – CIA, MI6, and all the rest – they're good for us, Jack. Up to a point. Useful idiots. Give us the training, and means, to do what they can only dream of, with their orders, and chain of command, and national security directives and the like," he said, smiling ruefully.

"Of course, all of that would be irrelevant in our world. A world re-made on our ideals, in the image of men like you and me," he said, continuing, "But in the meantime, our organisations are useful. Useful idiots. They're like someone whose seen their first sunrise, and now think that everything they do and say is enlightened, whilst at the same time completely missing the forest for the trees," he continued.

"You and I, though, Jack? You and I understand what its really all about. We understand the bigger picture," he said, smiling across the chat client.

"Director Graham, I…I uh…I think you might have me confused with someone else," Pearson said.

"Oh come on Jack, don't be like that," Graham responded. "We've been going back and forth for over a year now. I've helped you, you've helped me…we're in this together. But in the end, Jack, you don't need to worry. We'll win this war"

"War? What war? I'm just a glorified analyst, I…"

"I know exactly what you do, Jack. But make no mistake, we are in a war. A cyber war. An intelligence war. A war not only between nations, and not only between western civilisation and terror, as we all have become inured to in this post 9-11 world of ours," Graham continued, "but more importantly a war of purpose. A war of the new versus the old, a war of idealists against the old guard status quo…this war is a dark war. A personal war. But it's a war that is getting hotter by the day, and I assure you, with my ingenious plan, we will win," he said.

"I don't…I don't understand," Pearson said.

"Don't be so coy, Jack," Graham said. "You know exactly what I'm talking about. We could create a new society…a new world…a world built in our own image…we could be gods, Jack…gods…with the power we can wield, just imagine it…"

"Even if that were true," Jack said, trying to come to terms with what he was hearing, "there is no way the people would go for it. They have pride in their traditions, in democracy…"

"The people are idiots, Jack. Most of them are so stupid they're barely better than a goat, or a door handle…they are easily manipulated to do and believe what I tell them to do and believe," Graham said.

"And those that don't?"

"Then I will raze their cities to the ground around them and then I will grind their bones to dust," Graham said, eyes flashing wildly, like a sociopath.

"What you're insinuating is treason," Jack said. He figured he'd focus on the more practical elements of Graham's delusional so-called plan, let the sociopath talk and rave until he could think of a plan to diffuse the situation effectively.

Graham laughed a loud, barking, hearty laugh that in another situation might have seemed warm and friendly.

"How is it treason? I'm not seeking to topple democratically elected governments – like both of our services have done frequently in the past – or to destroy the USA or the UK, or anything like that. I'm simply talking about putting a system in place where highly intelligent, well-meaning individuals like ourselves could be in positions whereby we could affect progressive change for the better on behalf of everyone…"

"I still don't understand," Pearson said. He had to keep Graham on the line long enough to trace it and get agents en-route.

"Oh come on Jack, you're a smart guy. You and I are very similar, we've already established this. You're a Cambridge man, educated at King's College and then Sandhurst, mind sharp as a tack. You and I understand each other in ways that other people just can't," he said.

"But a university education doesn't…"

"Of course it doesn't, Jack. A university education does not make one intelligent, let alone a genius. That's precisely what I mean, Jack. You and I, we're born like this. Always thinking, always planning…I bet you play chess, don't you, Jack?"

"King's College Champion all three years"

Graham simply nodded in approval and understanding.

"I thought as much. This is precisely what I mean. You and I, we're constantly thinking, constantly planning, constantly trying to think of ways to maneuver real life people in our lives like they were chess pieces, trying to get the best result for everyone involved – playing with the status quo for the Greater Good, you might say," he said.

"And not to be indelicate, but to keep with the chess analogy, Jack…you're in Check. You're keeping me on the line, trying to keep me talking so you can try to trace my call – you won't be able to, by the way; I've bounced this off of so many satellites and re-routed the signal so many times it would take your entire team a year to find me – and trying to keep me talking so that you'll have time to think of a way to get the upper hand," he said, continuing.

"Its not like I blame you. Its what people like you and I do – we fight with our minds, not our fists or guns, Jack. I would have done the same thing in your position," he said, waving one of his massive hands dismissively as he continued.

"But I'm afraid you've been outmatched. You've been outmatched since before it even began, in point of actual fact. Its far too late for you to get the upper hand here, you see, because by the time I began cultivating you, and talking to you, and getting you to do my dirty work for me, it was already too late for you. By then, I had already put into place what I needed to, and set in motion a plan that can't be stopped, even without your participation. Essentially, my dear friend, and colleague, it is far too late for anything to be done. The die is cast, and Caesar has already crossed the Rubicon," he said, his voice silky, almost seductive, but with a cruel undertone that hinted to his psychosis.

"You see, now I run an organisation called Fulcrum, and we really need someone loyal to our organisation in your position," he said, continuing, as the blood slowly drained from James Pearson's face.

"I mean your position specifically, because you're in the right department – Cyber Operations – and we need access to what you have access to. You have precisely the right level security clearance to be able to give us what we want, and you're at precisely the right level in the brass – high enough to have the right clearance and to be able to push things through, but not so high as to make things suspicious," he explained.

"And see, I know that I could never turn you to our organisation. I knew that from day one. You're an idealist and a genius, just like me, of course, but you also suffer from that heinous disease, Love of Country," he said, shaking his head ruefully.

"I knew I could never turn you. You'd never join Fulcrum willingly, or even under duress. I couldn't, say, kidnap that beautiful wife of yours and force you to cooperate with us for her sake," he said, his voice dripping with disguised malice.

"So instead, I've shopped around for my own personnel and found the perfect man to put in your position. Your replacement, so to speak. The only thing that's standing in my way at the moment is the fact that you are still currently in your position, and knowing the MI6 policies being what they are, you can't exactly just retire now, can you? Especially now that I've fallen for the Bad Guy mistake number one and told you of my evil plan, can I? No, that won't do at all,"

"Which means, Jack, that you're going to have to die. I'm really sorry about this, truly, I am. I want you to know that."

"So, what, you're just going to come kill me now? What was the point of this conversation? To trace my location and give your people time to surround my location to come kill me?"

"What? Oh, no, not at all. I'm not some brute. That is hardly an elegant enough way to go for someone as close to my intellectual equal as I've ever met," Graham said. "No, no. Jack, Old Boy, I'm going to watch you kill yourself"

"What? You're mad. You must be out of your mind. What would possibly compel me to do that?"

"Are you familiar with Japanese history at all, Jack?"

"Not really, why?"

"Well, I just bring it up because there's some interesting facts you might like to know. I think they might be relevant to our present dilemma," Graham said, taking a sip of what appeared to be very good whisky. "In the Tokugawa period, Samurai warriors who had dishonoured themselves, or their Lords, or failed in any of their sworn pursuits, either on the battlefield or off, would kill themselves in a ritual suicide called seppuku"

"I'm familiar with Seppuku, Graham," Jack said. "What, are you saying that I'm somehow going to disembowel myself on video chat just because you say so?"

"Oh, of course not. No, no, no. That is much too messy, and we don't have nearly the kind of personnel set up to allow for a traditional seppuku, and I wouldn't want to half-ass it, as they say," Graham said, continuing.

"No, you're going to use the Smith and Wesson you keep under the false bottom of the top left-hand drawer of your desk, and you're going to shoot yourself in the head," Graham said, devoid of emotion.

James Pearson's eyes became wide as saucers at that particular piece of information.

"You're probably wondering how I knew that, right? Well, aside from it being so clichéd its almost a comedy trope, your housekeeper has a particularly low tolerance for pain," he said, smirking.

"Also, that whisky you've been drinking for the past ten minutes of this conversation has been laced with a newly developed undetectable poison," he said.

"Completely man-made, which means there's no natural basis for the toxin, which means there is no anti-toxin. It won't show up in the autopsy. It will, however, spread through your body relatively quickly, and in about an hour you'll develop a dangerously high fever, followed by convulsions and expelling of bodily fluids from both ends within the next two hours after that, and by about hour four or five, you'll suffer from severe brain hemorrhaging. You'll be dead before morning regardless, Jack. You might as well go out on your own terms, eh? You know, British Stiff Upper Lip and all that," Graham said, sounding almost sad about the state of affairs.

"Why…why would you do this?"

"I told you, Jack. We're fighting a war here. A war to build a new, and better world. And I needed someone I knew I could trust on the inside, where you were, and I knew that person wouldn't be you. I really am sorry it had to end this way. Truly, I am. But there are bigger things at steak here, and you know how the saying goes about omelets and eggs," he said, shrugging his shoulders.

"Do you like Star Trek, Jack?"

"Of course," Jack said, the first tremours of the poison running through his veins beginning to take effect.

"Next Generation, or Original Series?"

"Original Series over Next Generation, Picard over Kirk," Jack replied.

Graham smirked before replying.

"I had a feeling. I tend to agree," he said, before he continued.

"Think of this as your Kobiyashi Maru," he said.

"My what?"

"Kobiyashi Maru," Graham repeated. "You know, the unwinnable simulation at Starfleet Academy"

"Kirk won against the Kobiyashi Maru"

"Kirk cheated," Graham said. "Which is a luxury that I'm afraid you don't have, because by the time you started playing this game, I already held all the cards. Observe," he said, standing up and after a few minutes of shuffling which Jack could tell meant the laptop computer was being brought to a new location, it was put down and re-focused once more, and he immediately wished it hadn't. His heart dropped through his stomach.

In a large, once-grand formal sitting room, lay the dead bodies of his father and mother in law, lying dead in pools of their own blood on their own floor. On wooden chairs in the centre of the room were tied his wife and daughter, both beaten and bloodied. They were bound and gagged so tightly that they couldn't even scream or fidget. The only way he could tell they were still conscious and aware of what was going on were their wet, teary eyes.

"I'm sure you recognise your lovely wife and daughter, Jack," Graham said, waving his free hand in their direction. "But allow me to introduce you to my men," he said, indicating the four burly, heavily armed men stood behind them, two per prisoner, holding guns to their heads.

"This is Lars, Alexei, Magnus, and Michel," he said. "They work for me. Now let me tell you how this is going to work from now on, Jack," he said, his voice menacing now.

"You are going to die tonight anyway. You've been drinking poison for at least fifteen minutes, and if there is one thing about me you can take to the bank, its that I do not bluff," he said, firmly.

"You are going to die tonight either way, Jack. So you have two choices. You can either say your goodbyes to your wife and daughter, and go out like a man; You can sacrifice yourself like a martyr for our cause of a better future," he said, pausing for a moment for effect before continuing,

"Or, you can think I'm bluffing, call me on it, and then watch as my men here blow your daughter's and beautiful wife's brains out all over this carpet," he said. "And believe me, I think the fact that your parents-in-law's bodies are lying here dead on the floor is evidence that I'm not bluffing about that, Jack," he said. "Its them or you, Jack. There are no other choices"

"So, it comes down to two choices Jack. You can either kill yourself now, and save your wife and daughter – you have my word of honour that I will not touch them – or, you can call what you think is my bluff and watch my men here blow their brains out, and then die in a few hours from the poison you've been drinking. Either way, Jack, I win. Kobiyashi Maru. There are no other options. There are no possible moves for you to make. No possible way for you to think or maneuver your way out of this; I've out thought and out maneuvered you, dear friend. So, you have a decision to make. Either you, and only you, die right now. Or you all die. It's your choice, Jack. Checkmate."

For emphasis, he nodded to his henchman who knocked back a bullet into the chambers of their respective guns and prepared to fire. Not that it would have taken much preparation or aim or skill in that particular situation; its hard to miss when the gun is literally being held to the back of the target's skull, after all.

"Tick, tock, tick, tock," Graham said, almost taunting, in a pseudo sing-song voice. "What's it going to be…which are you going to choose? This is so very exciting isn't it? I'm on the edge of my seat," he said, continuing,

"You have one minute to decide, Jack, or I make the decision for you. 40 seconds," he said, counting down the seconds on his watch.

James looked back and forth between the tear-stained, terror-stricken faces of his wife and daughter. He had been beaten. Graham had won. What could he do? Even if he could, in the 40 seconds he had left, think of a plan to save his wife and daughter, as well as himself, he couldn't implement it, and have the relevant evac teams on site both in Paris and Edinburgh in time to do anything more than collect bodies. And that was being generous. He had no other choice. He looked first to his beautiful wife, the love of his life. The woman he had pledged to love, and take care of, and make feel special, and beautiful, and loved until the day they died, and his heart physically hurt at the thought of leaving her.

Then he looked into the tear-stained, terror stricken eyes of his daughter. His beautiful little Abigail. He had cried the day she was born, and had sworn that he would do anything – anything – to keep her safe and happy. Anything. What choice did he have now? How could he choose anything else? After all, he chose this career path; he knew that there was always some level of risk in what he did, in the back of his mind. It was one thing for him to suffer, or even die, for his choices, and it was quite another to condemn his beautiful daughter, with nothing but a bright future ahead of her to die because he was too stubborn to see that he had no more road on which to maneuver. His choice was made up for him. He wouldn't let any harm come to her, even if it was literally the last thing he did.

"Fifteen seconds, Jack. Clock's a-ticking," Graham said.

"Stop! Stop the countdown, Ok? I'll…I'll do it. Just make sure they're safe, ok?"

"Of course, Jack. I promise. They will be under my protection"

"O…Ok," James Pearson said. "If I have your word that they will be unharmed, I'll…I'll do it. I'll do anything to protect them."

"I know you will, Jack," Graham said, in what should have sounded empathetic, but instead sounded empty and psychopathic.

"Can I…can I have a few minutes to say good-bye, first?"

"Of course, Jack. I did promise you that. I'm no monster, after all. Like I said, I wish it didn't have to end this way," he said, motioning with his hand that he should say his good-byes.

"Abigail," he choked out, his throat clenching around his words as he began.

"Abigail," he said, his voice stronger and firmer this time. "You listen to your Mum, okay? You listen to your Mum, and take care of her. Make sure she eats and gets plenty of sleep. You know how she worries and works too much," he said, laughing hollowly, trying to bring some levity into this very serious situation.

His goodbyes were long and heartfelt. He said everything he had ever wanted to say to either his child or his wife, but had held back. He laid his heart bare, and hoped that even if he couldn't be there to physically be there with them anymore, that his doing this to protect them, and his heartfelt good-byes would at least be something positive they would remember him by.

"…To the gallows-foot, and after," were the last words he would ever say to his wife.

"Boring," Graham said, cutting him off after several minutes. "Blah blah blah, he'll love you forever, till death do you part, blah blah blah," Graham interjected in an almost bored tone, and shaking his free hand dismissively. "This is boring me, Jack. I thought your good byes would me more entertaining than this…not so…normal," he said, shaking his head, as he continued.

"I'm pretty sure everyone gets it, Jack. Hélène, say good-bye. Jack, let's wrap this up. C'mon, we haven't got all day here"

"I…ah…O…Ok," Jack stammered, shocked that he would be cut off at such an intimate moment. Graham really must be a high-functioning sociopath. "I, uh, yeah. I will always love you, my love. To the gallows-foot and after," he said, quoting one of her favourite poems from one of her favourite poets, that he happened to remember she wrote her dissertation on in their last year at Cambridge.

"Well, Jack? What are you waiting for? You've said your good-byes. I've kept my side of the bargain," he prompted, making a gun shape out of his thumb and forefinger and placing it on the side of his head.

"Right. Yes. Well, could you…could you at least take me into the other room first, please? Don't make them watch me do it"

"Fair enough," Graham said, immediately picking up the laptop and moving it back to the original spot. "There you go, Jack. Nice and comfortable final moments. Now keep up your side of the bargain if you want me to keep mine," he said.

Jack nodded solemnly and with finality, grace and poise he summoned from places he didn't know he had, he finished his drink and straightened his tie before pulling the gun from its hidden location, placing it against his temple, and squeezing the trigger.

After ensuring that James Pearson had, indeed, just blown his brains out on camera and did not pull some kind of computer wizardry to trick him, Langston Graham stood up from his seat, drank a slug of his own (un-poisoned) whisky, and walked into the next room, where the girls were being held, on his way out the door and to his waiting car to take him to the airport.

"Wait, boss! What are we supposed to do with the girls? They're witnesses," one of the goons called out after him.

"Well, I guess we're just going to have to kill them, too, aren't we, Agent?" Graham said, continuing,

"I trust you can handle things from here. Clean this place up and make it look like an open-and-shut case. No investigations. The family has suffered enough already, don't you think?"

"Of course, Sir," came the reply.

"Good. And I trust I shouldn't have to say this, but I'll say it again for good measure anyway: your trail better be cleaner than unbidden snow before you go anywhere near headquarters, you got me?"

"Yes, Sir. I understand"

"Good. I'll see you when I see you," Graham said, pulling on his overcoat and headed out into the unpredictable early autumn Paris weather, to his waiting car that would take him to a private airfield where his private jet was fuelled and waiting. He didn't even hear the four nearly simultaneous gunshots coming from the home he had just vacated.


Stanford University Advanced Computing Lab

Stanford Center for Advanced Computer Security (SCACS)

Palo Alto, California

31 October

18.27 PST

For most of her life, Sarah Bartowski (neé Walker) hated Halloween. When she was a kid with her Dad on the grift, it was just what her Dad would call a "sloppy con". It was just kids dressing up in terrible costumes to convince strangers to give them candy – which is essentially what her and her Dad did on a daily basis, except that her costumes were always believable and came with well-rehearsed back-stories, and the pay off was usually cold, hard cash which was infinitely better than some crappy M&Ms or a Snickers bar; and they did it walking through neighbourhoods she didn't live in, reminding her of a normative childhood life that she couldn't have.

This dislike of All Hallows Eve continued into High School, and later into her time at University at Harvard, i.e. when she was already a part of the CIA. By that time, of course, when Halloween was passed off as an excuse for girls to dress up as slutty as they wanted and get away with it, get super drunk, and generally have a debauched time and maybe "con" their way into bed with the guy they'd fancied all semester but who until that night hadn't noticed she even existed. This, too, seemed to be not inherently different to what her job at the CIA was, except that she had more skill in it, she looked classy instead of trashy when she did it, and she did it to save lives and protect people. All in all, she didn't get the appeal.

For these reasons, it wasn't any wonder that she generally had an overall negative and distasteful view of Halloween. That was, of course, until she married Chuck. She didn't know what it was about the holiday that made her husband love it so much; she suspected it had to do with the similar things related to all his other nerdy loves – the mythology and costumes allowed a level of escapism, where one night a year he could be anyone he wanted, whether that was Indiana Jones, or Julius Caesar, or apparently, some giant worm thing from an old movie she'd never seen before that he usually shared with Morgan – and in addition, this one day a year wearing a costume and dressing up and playing pretend, even as a grown man in his late 20s, was accepted and appreciated.

Her husband's enthusiasm for the holiday seemed to be infectious, even here at Stanford, on this seemingly pointless mission that seemed to go on forever without end. It had been fun, at first. They had decided at first to let Chuck take the lead on this Manoosh character, since he was the one who knew the most about all the technology stuff and the nerd babble, as well as the practicality of the fact that he was the one would be in closest proximity – which would make forming a friendship with him easiest – to the target most of the time. This was fun, at first. Seeing Chuck back at Stanford, getting glimpses to what he was like in college, before Bryce, before Jill, before the Intersect, and yes, before her. She also loved, at first, being able to take a back seat and pretend, just for a little while that she actually was just another married graduate student working on a Ph.D.

That feeling, however, wore off fast as this assignment seemed more and more to be a long-term thing as the mark seemed a harder nut to crack than any of them had previously anticipated. Days turned into weeks, weeks into fortnights, and fortnights had turned into moths, and now here they were, almost three months in to this assignment, and all Sarah wanted to do was wrap this stupid assignment up and go home. To her home. In Burbank. Which she shared with Chuck. That was close to Ellie and Devon – her family – and yes, even Casey and Morgan. She just wanted to go home, and the frustrating part about it was that she knew that Chuck knew that too, and was trying his best, but despite the best efforts of their entire team, they hadn't, as yet, found a way to insinuate themselves – or at least Chuck – into his life and trust as they thought they would have been able to do by now. It was extremely frustrating.

That was, of course, until recently. Recently, they seemed to finally be starting to make some progress. It had originally been much harder than they had originally suspected for Chuck to build rapport with Manoosh. They had originally thought that they could easily bond over nerdy things like computers and video games and the like, but it turned out to be a much harder nut to crack. Apparently, in an entire department full of tech nerds, liking nerdy things like computers and videogames and socially awkward wasn't enough to build rapport with someone like it was in the so-called "real world"; this was something which Chuck had learned the hard way over several weeks of trying. Manoosh was cautious and observant and mostly kept to himself; when he did come out of his self-induced isolation at his workstation in the departmental graduate student office, it was mostly for the occasional communal meal – usually pizza – or weekly departmental meetings which they were all required to attend.

It frustrated them all to no end that Manoosh's rapport with Chuck basically extended to casual, meaningless polite small talk at these particular events. They were getting nowhere, and it was frustrating all of them. This was compounded by Chuck and Sarah's secondary frustration: Hannah.

Hannah Kreuk was another graduate student in Chuck and Manoosh's department. Working on a PhD in cyber-security something-or-other and how it related protecting corporations from corporate espionage, or something like that. Sarah didn't really understand it when Chuck had briefed her. Regardless, she was becoming a thorn in both of their sides; she clearly seemed to have taken a liking to Chuck, in a much more-than-platonic sort of way, and despite how many times Chuck hinted, or even outright told her that he was spoken for, happily married, and not at all interested, she didn't seem to take a hint. Granted, thankfully, nothing too overtly inappropriate had happened…yet, but she paid him far too much attention, flashed him googly eyes whenever she thought he wasn't looking – and often when she knew he was, as well – and whenever they had interdepartmental group work assigned by the head of their lab, she immediately clung to Chuck like a magnet, preventing him from using such activities as an excuse to get close to Manoosh. It was grating on both of them; for Chuck, having to put up with Hannah and her shenanigans, despite repeatedly telling her off, and still not getting any closer to accomplishing his mission was deeply frustrating; for Sarah, it was more than frustrating having to deal with those things and not being able to march into that grad student's office and violently tell that bitch Hannah to find her own man if she knew what was good for her.

However, as it turned out, Hannah might be the key to turning around their misfortunes after all. A few weeks ago, after re-watching surveillance footage for the umpteenth time, Carina had caught a glimpse of something new, giving them a new angle to work. She had noticed that whenever Hannah was around, Manoosh always seemed to give her more attention – though nervously and shyly from the background – than he did anyone else, and when she showed her obvious interest in Chuck, despite his frequent protestations, Manoosh appeared to be tense and his face showed signs of anger and jealousy. This was their a-ha moment. This was why Chuck had been having next to no luck building rapport with Manoosh: Manoosh was angry, bitter, and jealous of Hannah's attention to and affection for Chuck.

They had used this to hatch a plan to kill two birds with one stone. They would not only put Hannah off Chuck permanently, they would also show Manoosh two things: first, that Chuck had zero interest in moving in on the woman he had a thing for, and second, Chuck had a smoking hot wife and "sister in law", which would demonstrate to Manoosh that if he wanted to meet pretty girls, Chuck was a good guy to get to know and to get good graces with.

Today was the day they were going to put their plan in motion – on Halloween, during Chuck's departmental Halloween party – and Sarah was a ball of excited, nervous energy. She was excited to finally be making progress, and nervous that this plan they'd concocted – as logical and well put together as it may have seemed to them – might fall through for any number of reasons. But she was mostly excited that not only they were going to finally be making progress, which brought them a step closer to being able to go home, but also that she had an excuse to let off some of the steam and anger that was bubbling beneath the surface of her emotions for weeks, and finally let that bitch Hannah as well as her dear, loving husband, just what Jealous Sarah looked like.

There was a knock on the bathroom cubicle door, and she looked down at her watch. Go time. She opened the cubicle door to reveal Carina on the other side, dressed to the nines in a sexy, feminized "Dr Henry Jones, Sr" costume. The three of them decided on a theme costume to go with their cover which was that they were going to enter themselves in costume contest later that night; Chuck was going as Indiana Jones, she as the Nazi Agent Elsa from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Carina, as was blatantly, gender-bendingly obvious, was a feminized, sexy, and extremely confused Dr Henry Jones Senior from the same film.

"Its time, Blondie," Carina said, before smirking and continuing, "or should I shay itsh time, Blohndie," she said, doing a terrible impression of Sean Connery's accent.

Sarah just smirked and shook her head at Carina's antics – and her clearly gleeful anticipation of what was about to happen – before checking herself over in the mirror once more (she still didn't feel comfortable wearing a Nazi uniform, but with her blonde hair and statuesque figure, she certainly cut an impressive "Aryan" figure), before she and Carina left the women's toilets and proceeded down the corridor down to the Graduate Student's office where the party was being held.

"Ready Blondie?" Carina asked as they approached the door.

"Oh, you bet," Sarah said, smiling like a Cheshire cat. She wiped the grin off her face and opened the door, and they both strode purposely through.

Right on cue, Hannah was hovering all over Chuck in very inappropriate ways. It was as if she was trying to "mark her territory" and be as intimate as she could with Chuck before she was told off – which she must have thought was him being flirtatious or playing some kind of game, Sarah thought, otherwise why did she keep doing it? – and, just as they had practiced and rehearsed, Chuck did his best to let her, and not look awkward about it. After all, they needed ammunition to really start a believable fight, much as neither of them actually wanted to fight.

"WHAT THE FUCK, CHUCK?!" She yelled at the top of her lungs, after play-acting stopping dead in her tracks.

"Sarah!" Chuck said, play-acting his part brilliantly.

" WHAT, ARE YOU SURPRISED TO SEE ME HERE? I MEAN, AFTER ALL, I'M ONLY YOUR WIFE CHARLES IRVING BARTOWSKI," she crowed, marching purposefully over towards them in two effortless strides.

"WHO THE FUCK IS THIS BITCH?" She crowed, for once real emotions mixing in with her acting as she motioned towards Hannah. At the unwanted attention she was receiving, Hannah, for herself tried as best she could – and failed miserably – to back away out of the line of fire whilst she was distracted with Chuck. She wasn't so lucky.

"WHERE THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING, HO?" Sarah said, rounding Hannah, "What, you think I don't know exactly what game you're trying to play here, you little skank?! You think I don't see you around, constantly throwing yourself at my husband, you classless little homewrecker?"

"What, you think that just because my husband is one of like 3 of the guys in this entire department who actually is attractive and has his shit together and is normal that you think you're entitled to dip your peanut butter in my man's chocolate just because you know how to thread your eyebrows and have a good push up bra?!"

"Sarah, Babe, you know its nothing like that," Chuck said, playing his part perfectly. They both knew that it was very much like that. "We just work together is all, I don't know what you think…"

"Oh don't give me that bullshit, Charles Irving Bartowski," she crowed back. "You know exactly what she was doing – you've certainly complained to me about it enough times - stop defending her," she continued,

"You and I both know what this little wannabe homewrecker wants," she said. "And if you want to sleep in your own bed tonight, I suggest you start siding with your wife," she said pointedly, before turning back to Hannah.

"What the fuck are you still doing here, bitch? Do you want me to make this physical?" She said, pausing for dramatic effect. "I swear to God I will kick your scrawny 12-year-old-boy looking ass from here to Mexico if you don't back the fuck off and stay the fuck away from my husband," she said, which was made all the more menacing by Carina standing silently but menacingly off to one side. Hannah didn't have to be told twice.

From there, Sarah and Chuck continued their play-acting for several more minutes, but arguing more between themselves then focusing on any external factor, i.e. Hannah. Of course it was all for show, but Chuck was a decent play actor in his own right, and Sarah had not become one of the top agents in the CIA – and Carina hadn't been rising high in her own right in the DEA – if they weren't able to act convincingly. Their "argument" went from anger, to frustration, to sadness, to anger again, and everything in between. Carina even got in on the action, pretending to "comfort her sister" and yelling at the husband who "wasn't good enough" from time to time. On the whole, it lasted for about 25 minutes, most of which the rest of the party goers – including, they all noted, Manoosh – watched unfold in stunned silence.

When they were convinced that their little show had done the trick, Sarah, followed by Carina made to storm out the door. Before she left, she turned towards her husband and almost imperceptibly winked conspiratorially, before forcefully grinding out between fake sobs,

"I think you should find somewhere else to sleep tonight, Chuck"

She then turned on her heels and slammed the door shut.

After she had left, Chuck continued the act up, just as they had practiced and discussed, and slowly sank down into the chair at his workstation, almost as if he was in a daze.

He was vaguely aware of several of his colleague's comments of shock and disbelief.

"Did that just happen?" One disembodied voice to his left said.

"Holy fuck," another succinctly put it.

"Poor Hannah," came another, female voice.

"Poor Hannah? She had it coming for hitting on a married man who told her off several times…poor Chuck"

"Did you even know Chuck was married?"

Whilst Chuck was aware of all of these comments, he didn't engage or acknowledge them, as he continued his charade of dazed husband. Several moments passed until finally – finally – Manoosh approached him. It seems that their plan might have worked after all.

"Fuck man," Manoosh said. "That was insane. I'm really sorry that had to happen, especially on a holiday…and you guys had such cool costumes, too," he said, patting Chuck's shoulder warmly as if they were old friends who went way back.

"I mean, fuckin' hell, man," Manoosh continued, "I don't mean to be rude or anything, but…bitches be crazy"

Chuck turned his head to study Manoosh from under heavy hooded eyes.

"I'm only going to say this once: Don't call my wife a bitch, Manoosh," he said simply, before sighing heavily and taking a swig of the beer Manoosh had handed him. "But yeah…bitches definitely be crazy," he agreed.

Yes, things were definitely finally starting to go according to plan.


Chuck and Sarah's Apartment

Stanford University

Palo Alto, California

Christmas Eve

19.23 PST

After their simulated "fight" on Halloween, things had started to look up. The night of their fight, as they had hoped and planned for, the dual conclusions of Chuck not being interested in Hannah and Chuck knowing very attractive women had played just the right cards for Manoosh, and their target had finally taken the bait. That very night, long after Sarah and Carina had returned to Chuck and Sarah's apartment, Chuck had been "hanging out" with Manoosh, building rapport and gaining trust.

It had still been slow going though, unfortunately. Manoosh may have been lonely and horny, but he was also extremely smart and very cautious. Sarah had had to put up with a lot of sleepless nights without her husband in bed next to her, because her husband was out doing what he needed to do to help complete their mission, which in this case consisted mostly of "hanging out" with Manoosh to gain his trust and convince him that he and Chuck were very good friends, in the hope that he would eventually let them in on the information they wanted to know. It wasn't particularly dangerous work, thankfully, otherwise Sarah never would have let Chuck go on his own – it mostly consisted of Chuck and Manoosh playing video games or going to nerdy movies that she frankly had no desire to see, anyway; essentially acting more or less as Chuck and Morgan did, but without the deep history, and with the knowledge that eventually something was going to happen that would alter the situation dramatically, and extremely quickly. Regardless of whether he was a willing participant in a Fulcrum plot and had to be taken out or turned, or an unwitting patsy who had to be sent underground for his own protection, or even simply just an ingenious campus drug dealer – regardless, things were going to change, and she just hoped that Chuck was mentally prepared for what they were going to have to do, and that she wasn't going to have to kill him at the end of all of this.

This did, of course, bother Chuck deeply. How could it not? He was not a trained spy – a fact she thanked the god she wasn't sure she believed in every single day for – and didn't have the training in how to compartmentalise his emotions when he was put in situations like this where he had to bond, and build a rapport with, a mark. And of course, the similarities between his situation and Manoosh's wasn't lost on her husband. Yes, they were slightly different, and they had certainly reacted in different ways, but Chuck could see himself in Manoosh and his situation, which made the realities of what they were most likely going to have to do that much more difficult. She honestly didn't know how he did it, knowing that in the end what they were probably going to have to do, he still got up every day and did it. She was, put simply, in awe of him, his resilience, and his determination to do what was right – for the greater good, for their relationship, and for what needed to be done in order to help make sure Beckman had no reason not to sanction their marriage – despite how significant his personal objections might have been.

Of course, part of that was probably due to the fact that she was a trained CIA Agent with years of experience, and in all things spy world, he trusted her and her instinct. He didn't have to like them – in fact, he rarely did – and he often challenged them (after all, he never did stay in the damn car), but he knew that when push came to shove, her instincts could be trusted. This was a fact which she was thankful for every day. Because whilst she, too, felt bad for what they would have to do, and tried to walk the fine line of balance for sympathy for her husbands views on the subject, and trusting her instincts which had saved both of their lives many times over, she knew, deep in their gut, that this Manoosh guy was not all as he seemed. She understood her husband's desire not to contribute to the imprisonment or death of another innocent, or nearly innocent, person, but she had a gut feeling that Manoosh was not nearly as innocent as they believed. She didn't know how she knew, but her instincts had never served her wrong in the past. They just needed Chuck to be successful enough in gaining his trust to the point where they could get proof.

Finally, however, after weeks and weeks of little to nothing, they had their breakthrough. Week after week of waiting around and doing essentially nothing, whilst Chuck bonded with this asset whom she didn't trust, but whom she couldn't protect the way she wanted to without risking blowing their cover; week after week of Chuck hanging out with Manoosh, coming home stoned and with nothing to report other than the campus drug trade was very lucrative for Manoosh but otherwise empty-handed and frustrated, had finally come to an end.

One day, about a week and a half ago, Chuck had come home from "hanging out" with Manoosh absolutely giddy. Of course there had been recordings and surveillance from the cameras and recording equipment he had always had on his person, but Sarah hadn't gone through it all before he had gotten home and told her the good news. Apparently, the campus drug network was much more than met the eye; it was only one facet of a much larger network. Apparently, some guy called Decker had approached him over a year ago.

Decker had told him he was a member of a radical libertarian – Anarcho-Capitalist – group which sought to undermine the authority of the United States Government and its Unconstitutional Laws which prohibited personal freedoms. He had been approached due to the nature of the work which he had done for his undergraduate thesis at MIT and the proposed scope of his graduate work here at Stanford, which when put in layman's terms was essentially using the resources and anonymity of the Deep Web in such a way that it could be used to, firstly, circumvent any and all electronic security of a given target of national or international importance – such as the Whitehouse, or the Pentagon, or MI6, for example – and open them to cyberattack, information phishing, and similarly related activities for anyone who wished to use his methods in a concerted attack as if there were no defences at all.

Secondly, was the utilization of the same Deep Web methodology to create a multifaceted, untraceable, completely anonymous – to both buyer and seller – silk road, that could be used not only to buy and sell drugs and weapons, but also to enable human trafficking, the purchasing of assassinations, and anything and anything under the sun. A further benefit of such a scheme was that it provided the groups and individuals affiliated with it a ready stream of constantly available, laundered, clean cash.

The scariest thing about the whole situation was that, according to Chuck, Manoosh actually believed that this was being put forth by well-meaning, freedom-loving anarchists, not, say, a well-funded organisation such as Fulcrum which only sought to topple the established governments and replace it with puppets of its own. Or that he believed that what he was doing was right, and helping to advance the cause of American liberty, by giving individuals ways to circumvent unjust laws, and gain access to information he felt was their right as American Citizens, rather than live at the mercy of half-truths which the government told them, and other similar ideas.

It was clear that this operation had Fulcrum written all over it, and that Manoosh needed to be brought in. Unfortunately, they couldn't just go in guns blazing, however, because that would ruin the months of work they'd done already, and they didn't know if Fulcrum had assigned him an agent for protection, or anything of the like. They would have to be very smart about how they were going to bring him in – and then, once he was brought in, whether they could turn him, or whether or not they would have to throw him in a bunker. The one good thing this experience had done was that Chuck was no longer against Manoosh being locked in a secure facility. Being a geeky tech guy himself, he knew exactly the kind of damage Fulcrum could do with a weapon of that kind, had it been allowed to be able to become fully developed. He was no longer on the fence and Sarah and he were now fully in agreement: if Manoosh could not be turned, he had to be handed over to Beckman and put in a bunker somewhere. It was sad and unfortunate, but sometimes the Greater Good actually was.

So, they had decided that they would bring him in by cunning, rather than by brute strength, which had been the modus operandi of the Intersect Team when Graham had been in command. They decided that they invite him to Christmas dinner at their apartment. They would make sure he came with a promise of a home-cooked, traditional Christmas meal as well as the promise of the presence of Carina, to whom he had taken a particular shining. They would wine and dine him, and at the end of the night, feed him dessert laced with enough powerful horse tranquilizer to put down the Kentucky Derby. Such a dosage wouldn't be fatal, but it would certainly keep him knocked out and sedated long enough to transport him back to Castle for interrogation. An added benefit of this method meant that, despite the weirdness of the whole situation, they could still have some semblance of a normal Christmas, which was their first as husband and wife.

Sarah had always hated Christmas, due to her past. It was just another day for her, or worse, the day of the annual Salvation Army scam, and so she had always treated it like any other day, nothing particularly special or cheery about it. Of course, that all changed when she met Chuck. Her poor, wonderful, amazing husband had, from their very first Christmas together – that wonderful, yet horrible, Christmas when they were taken hostage in the BuyMore and she had to kill Mauser – refused to let her be alone on the holiday. He had refused to let her follow her personal Christmas tradition of ignoring it completely. He, and by extension Ellie, Devon, and Morgan, had invited her into their family and their traditions, Twilight Zone marathon and all.

After she had gotten over her initial frustration and insecurities about it, she loved him all the more for it. She found that having loved ones – a partner, a family, friends – to celebrate the holidays with, and a warm, inviting home to celebrate them in, changed everything. Rather than being the day when she tried as best she could to forget about all the poor, less fortunate people she had helped her father steal from every year, she thought about presents, and tress, and eggnog; she thought about her husband, and her sister-and brother-in-law, she even thought about Morgan, and the poor and less fortunate who, thankfully, this year and every year to come will not have to suffer because of her and her father stealing from the Salvation Army.

Now that, since being with Chuck, she had happily become one of the people who looks forward to Christmas, rather than one of those who dread its arrival, she had originally been disappointed that they wouldn't be home in Burbank in time to celebrate it with their whole family and all their friends. This was especially true considering the fact that they were still on a mission and Carina was also still living in the apartment they were using – their cover being that she was Sarah's sister from San Francisco who was staying with them for a while due to marital problems – which meant that they also couldn't have a quiet, private, and very naked first Christmas as man and wife alone together, either.

So when the opportunity to do this Christmas meal as part of their mission presented itself, she surprised herself by how excited and into it she had become. This way, she could kill two birds with one stone. They could bring in their asset and finally end this mission they had been on for nearly six months and go home, but they could also have some semblance of a Christmas celebration, too. Granted, it wouldn't be a true Bartowski Christmas; they were far too small a group, with far too few Bartowskis (both real and honourary) for that to be the case, and besides, they were after all still on a mission, anyway.

Nevertheless, she threw herself into the final stages of this mission with gusto: she had Chuck buy the biggest, most amazing tree he could find, and use all his electronics and engineering skills he could use to decorate the tree and apartment as best he could, whilst she and Carina went shopping, planned the meal, and on the morning of Christmas eve, woke up early and started cooking Christmas dinner by around 0900. By the end of the day, they had prepared a turkey and a ham, countless side dishes, three pies, traditional punch and eggnog, and had sent Chuck to the shops to procure several bottles of wine. It may not have been what she had in mind, but she was going to make the best of the situation she had been presented with.

And now, it was all finally coming to fruition. Chuck had told Manoosh to come over around 19.30, and it was now 19.23. A series of short, solid rasps on the front door to their apartment shook Sarah out of her contemplatory haze, as she pulled her apron off and shoved it haphazardly into a drawer, grabbed the glass of wine she had been drinking, and proceeded to open the door.

What she expected to find on the other side of the door was a tall, scrawny, nerdy man who looked a little bit like a less-attractive, Indian version of Chuck. What she did find on the other side of the door as she pulled it open, however, was Ellie and Devon, huge smiled plastered across their faces, arms interlocked, Devon carrying a few gift-wrapped packages which were clearly gifts, and Ellie held a bottle of wine in each hand.

"Surprise!" they cried out happily, their smiles seeming to grow even larger on their faces, to the point where it looked like if they got any bigger they might rip their respective faces in two. "Happy Christmas!"

Despite the extreme shock she was feeling at seeing her family standing, unannounced at her front door – which she was glad for, as private citizen Sarah Bartowski, but raised her hackles and sounded alarm bells in the back of her mind as CIA Agent Sarah Walker – she recovered imperceptibly quickly, and she smiled broadly as she allowed herself to be pulled in by each of them, each providing one arm of a two-person hug.

"Ellie! Devon! Happy Christmas!" she said, happily, as she was released. "What are you doing here? Did Chuck invite you and not tell me?" she asked, making sure to keep her voice cheerful – because she was after all happy to see them – whilst inside she was fuming at her husband for doing such a foolish thing; this was still an active operation, after all, and they would be actively engaging in skycraft that evening, and there was no way to forsee if this plan would backfire, potentially dangerously, at any moment. It was a horribly risky thing to do, to invite them, despite how nice of a surprise it was.

"What? No, Chuck didn't invite us," Ellie said. "You didn't know?"

"Babe," Devon said, "I don't think she'd be asking us if she didn't know"

"Maybe she forgot, Devon?"

"I didn't forget anything, Ellie, I didn't know you were coming"

"Really?"

Sarah shook her head confirming the negative answer.

"But where are my manners," Sarah said instantly moving aside for them to enter. "Come in, come in"

As soon as they were inside and their coats were taken and hung up, and one of the bottles of wine they had brought was opened, Sarah continued,

"So Chuck really didn't invite you?"

"No," Devon said. "It was that guy who lives across the courtyard and works with Chuck…John Casey. He said that you guys were up here for some work thing with Chuck and that you guys could use some company for the holiday," he said.

"That doesn't…sound anything like John Casey"

"Yeah, I know, but it was him. You know…big guy, around 6 foot, built like a brick shit house…"

That description earned Devon a not-quite-playful slap across his arm from his wife.

"Devon"

"What? Its true, isn't it Babe? I mean, its not like there are any kids around or something that we need to watch our language for or anything…"

"I guess that's true, Devon, but still…"

"Anyway," Sarah said, cutting them off. "That sure fits Casey's description, but that doesn't sound anything like him"

"Well, maybe he was just getting into the Christmas spirit"

"I didn't know John Casey had any Christmas spirit.," Sarah half-mumbled, which Ellie noticed and gave her a pointed neither-did-you-before-you-met-Chuck-Missy look.

"Maybe not, but maybe it was because he was with his family"

"Family?"

"Yeah, he said he had his family with him for the first time in a long time…there were two of 'em," Devon said. "I met them when I was going out for a run," he said.

"I guess they were coming back from picking up one of them from the airport," he said. "Short, redhead, looked really out of place in the California sunshine," he said. "But she was a nice lady…her name was…Donna? Or Debbie, maybe? I can't remember I was coming off a 24 hour shift and about to go for a run…"

"Dianne?" Sarah offered nervously.

"Yeah, that's it. Dianne…something with a B…," he said, continuing before Sarah could respond. "Anyway, she's his Aunt, or something…"

"Dianne Beckman is Casey's Aunt?"

"Yeah, that's it…but that's not the craziest part," he said, before continuing.

There's more? Sarah thought to herself. Beckman's appearance in Burbank wasn't terribly surprising – though she would have thought that they would have been briefed on such things beforehand, but apparently not – and the cover they chose to use was indeed a bit strange, but not completely unbelievable.

"Oh?" Sarah said, intrigued. Ellie clearly already knew what was coming as her lips were tightly pursed as if she was using all her energy to clamp down on her desire to blurt out the rest of the story, rather than let her husband tell it.

"Yeah, well, apparently," Devon said, building up, "he has a kid," he said. "Well, not really a kid," he continued. "She's only a few years younger than Chuck, in her early, maybe mid 20s…apparently they were estranged for a long time and now they're starting to reconnect," he said.

"She's lived in Pasadena with her mother her whole life," Ellie said, unable to hold back any more. "She's been not an hour away all this time and he didn't know, or wasn't able to see her, or something, but now he has and they're able to start reconnecting," she gushed. "Its like a feel-good Christmas movie, or something," she continued, "Maybe that's what got him to tell us about where you guys were and told us we should come up to see you…"

"Maybe…" Sarah was saying when Carina chose that minute to walk into the living room where they were all sat, from the room which she had claimed as hers, where she had been changing into a "strategically skimpy" Mrs. Claus costume.

"Sarah, I heard the doorbell, is that Chuck with whatisface? I'm hoping we can get started…" she began before noticing that they were neither alone, nor the people she had been expecting to see were sitting on the sofa in the living room. She recovered quickly.

"Well hello, Sailor," she said, saucily teasing Devon before seeing the unhappy look on Ellie's face.

"Don't worry, Tequila Shots," she said quickly, teasing Ellie with the nickname she'd come up with her the night of the "bachelorette" party. "I'm only teasing…Mr. Tequila Shots is off-limits, I'm well aware. I'm just a little surprised to see you here tonight, is all"

"Same here," Ellie said honestly. "Sarah, are we imposing?" she asked. "Are you guys working tonight?"

Sarah could tell that the conversation she had been putting off having with her sister-in-law for as long as she could could not wait any longer. Smiling, she stood up, grabbed threw her own coat over herself and handed Ellie hers.

"Ellie, have you seen the Christmas tree in the square yet? Its really beautiful around this time of day…why don't we go for a little walk?" she asked, as Ellie nodded enthusiastically and getting up to follow.

"Carina, sorry, but I think you'll have to stay here with Devon and wait for the boys…we shouldn't be gone too long"

Devon for his part, took a swig of wine and relaxed further into the plush couch. He seemed completely at ease, despite Carina's overt sexuality and clear attempts to make him uncomfortable with her flirting, which had zero effect on him. A fact which, Sarah noted with a sense of shadenfreude, made Carina quite frustrated.

They hadn't walked more than five steps away from the apartment before Ellie spoke.

"So…you guys are working, aren't you?"

"Not here," Sarah said, her eyes and voice burning with an intensity that Ellie hadn't seen before and which she knew instinctively not to question.

They walked along together in more or less companionable silence until they had walked several dozens of metres from the apartment, at which point Sarah turned to her sister-in-law and with much softer and more familiar features, said,

"Give me your phone"

"What?"

"Do you want answers or not, Ellie?"

"Yes, of course I do, but I don't…"

"Then give me your fucking phone," Sarah said, cutting off Ellie a bit more harshly than she had intended.

Ellie duly did as she was instructing, handing Sarah her iPhone. Sarah immediately took the phone in hand, and swiftly and adeptly – and without the use of any tools – took the backplate off of the phone, removed the battery and the SIM card, and handed it back to her best friend and sister-in-law with a promise to put it back together again when they were finished.

"Sorry about that. I didn't mean to be so harsh, but you can never be too careful…you never know who may be listening," she said, before giving a quick, but deliberate – for Ellie's sake – glance in each direction before continuing,

"But yes, to answer your question…Chuck, Carina, and I are working on a mission tonight. And if everything goes well, it will be over by the end of the night and we can go home"

"So…what are you guys working on?"

Sarah just looked at her sister in law, half frustrated, and half amazed, at her gall.

"That's classified"

"So, don't tell me the classified stuff…just something Sarah! I want to be informed of what's going on with you and my brother! What you guys really do…"

Sarah cut her off, almost immediately.

"Ellie, I love you. You know that. You know that if I could tell you, I would, but…"

"But what?"

"But even if I could tell you about the sort of things we're doing…I wouldn't"

"What? Why? Don't you trust me?"

"Of course I do. That's got nothing to do with it"

"Then what is it? Is this all some kind of ruse? Are you keeping us all at arm lengths to use us all – including Chuck – in some kind of vast spy web…thing…and leave us all for dead when you're done and we're not useful?"

Sarah spun on her heel and grabbed Ellie – in a firm way to let her know what sort of things she was capable of, without actually hurting her – so quick, it was like lightening. The fire in her eyes burned like electricity and ice as she spoke.

"Ellie, I love you, but don't ever suggest that again…if you knew half of the things I've done to keep you, and Devon, and Chuck safe, and the things that I've seen and done before we came into each other's lives…if you knew some of the things I'm capable of…you wouldn't even think that," she said, lamely ending her pseudo-threat.

"Then tell me, Sarah!" Ellie said. "I'm your sister, but more importantly, I'm your best friend. You can tell me anything!"

"No," Sarah said. "Unfortunately, I can't. Not everything"

"I don't like being lied to, Sarah. And I don't like being kept in the dark…you promised me an explanation"

"I did, Ellie. I know. And you'll get one…but you have to understand that there are some things that I can't tell you. Or that I won't. For your own good. In this business, sometimes knowing things is dangerous…and I'm not going to knowingly put you in harms way, even if that means you'll be angry at me. I'd rather have you angry and alive than the alternative"

"I'm not afraid"

"You should be"

"Why? What's the worst that can happen? I know you and Chuck would never let anything bad happen to me or Devon"

"And what happens if Chuck and I can't come to your rescue? What if Chuck and I are both killed? Ellie, you don't understand, and that's not your fault, how could you possibly…you live in a world so radically different from the one I do, as far as this concerned…"

"So explain it to me, Sarah. Please. I just want to understand…I just don't want to feel like I'm out of the loop, or you don't trust me…"

"Ellie, its not that we don't trust you," Sarah said. "Its that we're trying to keep you safe. The less you know, the less likely you are to be captured and used as bait and tortured for information," she said, bluntly, noting already the colour draining from Ellie's face. Yes, she was right to keep a lot of this world from her sister-in-law, but at the same time, Ellie was right. She did promise, and she did have a right to know. So she ploughed forward, continuing.

"And if, God forbid, you or Devon were captured, the less you know, the less they can torture out of you…and believe me, I know this from experience…under torture, everyone breaks. Its not a question of 'if', but a question of 'when'," she said.

"I…uh…I…wow…I…uh…," Ellie said, not fully being able to process the fact that Sarah had just admitted to her that she had been tortured before.

"I'm not afraid, Sarah," Ellie said, bravely trying to bravado her way through it. "I want to know"

"Yes you are, Ellie. You're very scared, and you should be," Sarah said, seriously. She wasn't trying to frighten Ellie needlessly, but if her sister-in-law and best friend wanted the truth, she should know what she was getting into. "Fear keeps you sharp. Fear keeps you on top of your game. Fear keeps you alive," she added, continuing.

"Ellie, let me put it this way…as a doctor, you've seen a lot of blood and death, right?"

"Of course"

"Do you know what its like to watch the life leave someone's eyes as you bash their skull on the pavement until they die, because if you didn't, they were going to kill you, get away with stolen nuclear launch codes which they could then sell to the highest bidder, including potentially violent and volatile people, like Iran, North Korea, Al-Qaeda, or Hezbollah?"

Ellie swallowed visibly.

"No, I can't say that I do"

"I do," Sarah said matter-of-factly.

"Ok, do you know what its like to take an undercover job knowing full well – and I mean knowing with 100% certainty – that if you are caught, that before you are killed, you will be tortured for information, and then raped over and over and over again for the sadistic pleasure of your captors, before they finally, mercifully, put a bullet in your skull?"

"Sarah, have you been…?"

"Answer the question, Ellie," Sarah said, clamping her eyes shut to keep the tears at bay, her voice a cross between a pout and a shout.

"You know that I don't, Sarah," Ellie said softly, full of love and understanding.

"This is why I keep what we do from you, Ellie. I – we – don't want to worry you, we – I – don't want you to look at us, at me, any differently…but more importantly than that, Ellie," Sarah said, "its to keep you safe. You don't need to need just how dangerous and depraved some parts of this world can be, or how on the brink of very, very bad things we can sometimes get…I know we promised you answers, Ellie, so I'll do the best I can to answer your questions, as long as it doesn't violate security clearance or your safety, but if I have to continue to lie to you, or keep you in the dark to keep you – my family – safe, Ellie Bartowski-Woodcomb, know for a fact I will, without a second thought"

"You act like every time you leave the house, someone is trying to kill you"

"Well, maybe not every time we leave the house…"

"Sarah!"

"Ellie, you wanted the truth, then here it is. What Chuck and I do is extremely dangerous, and he is of particularly high value to the CIA – and thus to everyone who is trying to stop the CIA – and so, well, what you said is more true than any of us would like it to be…"

"What exactly do you do for the CIA, Sarah?"

"I keep Chuck safe"

"I don't understand"

This lead to Sarah explaining, as in depth as she possibly could, whilst still maintaining security protocols and not giving away too much that would put any of them in danger the nature of Chuck's value to the CIA, her role in protecting him and keeping him safe – and of course that led back in to a digression about how that led to them falling in love, so she could reassure her sister-in-law that she wasn't running Chuck and she needn't worry about her later burning him – and about much of what they had done and accomplished up to that point.

"Wow, Sarah," Ellie said. "I…I don't know what to say"

"You don't have to say anything," Sarah said, eyeing the ground. She knew their relationship would never be the same.

"No, not like that, Sarah Bartowski," Ellie said, emphasizing their now-permanent bond through the exaggerated use of Sarah's new surname.

"If anything, you've assured me that you and Chuck are truly in love and I have nothing to worry about there, and you and I are still sister and best friends. I just…wow…you've done so much in so little time…" she said, continuing,

"Before you came to Burbank, what did you do?"

"Before I came to Burbank, my official title was Intelligence Officer"

"Oh, that sounds pretty…normal…I guess?"

"But in reality," Sarah continued, ignoring Ellie's statement, "I was a government trained assassin. I killed people for the US government."

Ellie paled.

This lead to another discussion – this one comparatively longer – about her recruitment to the CIA, and some details about her training. About the sort of missions she was given and how she quickly rose through the ranks to become Graham's favourite; how she became the CIA's Ice Queen and Graham's personal enforcer, who often went places and did things that other agents didn't, which were almost always completely and wholly off the books. How she had been taken in by the romance of it all, of the sense of duty and honour and the greater good.

"I don't understand, Sarah," Ellie said at the end. "You said that you were caught up in the idea you were serving your country, what do you mean?"

"I did dirty work in the shadows so that people like you and Devon can live in the sunshine"

"Yes, I know you said that already, Sarah," Ellie said. "But I don't really know what that means. What does that entail?"

Sarah sighed heavily and began speaking again.

"Think of it like being a plumber, or a garbage man, Ellie," Sarah said. "It's a dirty, thankless job that no one likes to think about…but someone's gotta do it," she said softly.

If Ellie had a reply, Sarah didn't hear it. They were in the town square now, and the sun was just setting in the distance, giving the whole scene a picture-book style glow to it. Further, the piped-in seasonal music that constantly played on repeat out of speakers near the tree just switched over to play Silent Night. Between the picture-book like scene with the tree and the lights and the sunset, and the dulcet tones of that particular Christmas Carol assaulting her senses, Sarah was no longer in Palo Alto California with her best friend and sister in law.

She was transported several years back in time to 2003, and several thousand kilometres to the town of Jabal al-Qasr in the central Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. It was there, on a Christmas Eve not entirely unlike the one she was currently celebrating, that she first truly became an assassin.

`ayad el leyl / zahr el leyl / sawt el-`Eid / dawa el leyl

She had been using the alias of German documentarian Katrin Hochfeldt. Using this alias, she had grown close to several key members of a radical offshoot of the secular-Christian-led Communist Palestinian terror group, PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). This particular group was an extremely radical splinter group which had broken off from the main group which had become much more mainstream and less violent after the disasters of the 1976 Air France hijacking – and subsequent rescue from the Entebbe Airport by the Israelis – as well as the disastrous affects of the Lebanese Civil War, on which they had chosen the losing side. This splinter group had recently sprung up and become active after the relative successes of Al-Qaeda two years earlier in striking at the beating heart of America.

Mouji ya sama / bil `ana'eid / hilli bil Hala / wou bil mawa`eid

This splinter group, calling itself the Comrade Khaled Communist Army for the Liberation of Palestine (KCALP), was named after the famous hijacker and, to them, martyr of the Entebbe Operation, Leyla Khaled. Their stated goal was to once again become proactive in the armed struggle, first and foremost for a liberation of all of historic Palestine, and beyond that for a wider pan-Arab, Communist movement which would unite the Middle East against that which they saw as imperialist, bourgeois aggression by foreign powers. They were small, and relatively unheard of, but unquestionably ambitious: they had only been officially active and "on the scene" – that was, on the radar of outside powers – for a little over a year when she had been assigned her mission, and they had already conducted several attacks. Most of them were initially against Israel, launching rockets and several other small attacks at the northern border towns, such as Afula, Kiryat Shemona, and others, as well as other Arab groups which they felt were holding back the unified Arabist struggle with religious and sectarian squabbles, mostly within Lebanon, such as Hezbollah and remnants of other sectarian groups which were still fighting over the area to the south of Beirut.

Their leader, Anwar el Saleh was ambitious, however. He actively recruited Christian and secular Palestinians who were displaced all over the region – those still living in their traditional homeland under Israeli rule, in the West Bank, in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Syria, as well as those in the wider Palestinian Diaspora; as a leader of a Communist group, he also actively campaigned and recruited from amongst members of the radical left – mostly communists – from western countries. This activity was mostly focused around Europe, but also Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US as well.

Zar el leyl yassou` / lawan el leyl yassou`

Using her alias as a German documentarian, she had found, and been granted access to the group. Her orders from the CIA were to penetrate the group, gain their trust, and report back to Langley in regular despatches the intricacies of their organisation, what attacks were being planned, and if possible, to attempt to sabotage their efforts, especially in regards to recruiting.

rayHa tzour / koukh masHour / darbha 'mar / talj wou zour

Because of the PFLP's – and therefore the CKALP's – traditional close relationship with German Leftists, thanks to their allegiance and joint operations in the 1970s with the Bader-Meinhoff gang and Red Army Faction, she found it easy, posing as a German documentarian of sympathetic values, to gain access to the group. Perhaps it was because they were young, and idealistic, or perhaps she was just particularly good at what she did, even at that young stage in her career, but they talked freely and openly about their organisation, its goals, etc during their "interviews" she staged, which were all, of course, recorded on camera. She had quickly and easily gained their trust, and allowed herself to be inserted into the inner circle, with promises of sympathetic exposure in the German media, which could potentially lead, she promised them, to a paradigm shift in public opinion and the policy of the German government.

Wel le`ab tayra wou / yedHako wlad / 'ardna natra / wel sama `yad

That Christmas Eve, she had been invited to – and was attending – the feast that the top brass of the organisation was throwing themselves for Christmas. They were Communists, of course, so they didn't go to Church or anything, but they all came from Christian families, so they all still gathered together in their compound in Jabal el-Qasr for a Christmas feast.

The table was laden and heavy with food, and wine, and raki, and they were all drinking and eating and celebrating the progress they had made that year. In the background, someone was playing Fairouz's Arabic version of Silent Night.

Her burner phone that she used to maintain contact with the CIA buzzed during the middle of the festivities. Quickly and without suspicion, she excused herself to the toilet, where she rang the number she had long ago memorized to gain further instructions. Her orders came directly from Graham himself: neutralise the entire leadership. They couldn't afford the regional instability this group could cause if they began to actually build up a base of support both within the region and within diaspora communities. They needed to be neutralised, quickly, brutality, and without fanfare.

At that point in her career, Sarah had been a young, idealistic new Agent who wanted to do her part to protect America and defend the greater good. She had no reason to doubt or disbelieve anything Graham had told her, as he had always helped her up to then; she had no reason to doubt or question her orders. They may have been distasteful, but this was the sort of thing the CIA had spent all that money training her for. It was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it; that somebody was her.

After doing her business, she quickly splashed water on her face and flushed the toilet so as to not raise any suspicions amongst the group of soon-to-be-dead men in the room she had just left a few moments ago, on the off-chance she was being spied upon. She checked her trusty Smith and Wesson which had a full magazine loaded and ready. However, there were twelve men in the next room at the Christmas feast, all of whom were violent, trained killers, and heavily armed. She wanted to ensure her survival as best she could by overpowering them and catching them by surprise before they could react, and the Smith and Wesson wasn't the best tool for the job.

Luckily, as she exited the toilet, she noticed one of the group members sitting in the next room had stupidly left his AK-74 rifle, with fully loaded 30 round magazine propped lazily and unattended against a wall in the corridor leading from the toilet to the dining room.

She picked it up, loaded it, primed the first cartridge into the chamber and removed the safety. When she entered the main dining room, the rifle was already up to her shoulder, and she squeezed the trigger, releasing three rounds into the back of the closest man's skull before anyone could even register surprise at what was happening.

Before anyone could register anything but shock, she quickly despatched four others, who had either slumped forward onto the table, or off to one side of their chair, as they bled out. It all happened so fast, and none of them could believe what was going on, all that could be mustered was several of them yelling in shock,

"Katrin, Was machst du?!" [Katrin, what are you doing?!]

This of course, was futile, as she entered the room more fully, discharging the weapon as she went with almost reckless abandon. She mowed down the rest of the diners in short order, dispatching all twelve of them in under a minute; they had all been so shocked at her actions, and so slowed by the alcohol and food in their system, that all but one hadn't even managed to get a shot off; the leader, Anwar el Saleh , to his credit had at least managed to draw his sidearm and get a few shots off. It was all for naught, however, as his aim was terrible, due to his high level of inebriation, and missed her by a wide margin, after which she rounded the AK-74 on him and put several bullets in his chest, and several more in his skull.

Zar el leyl yassou` / lawan el leyl yassou`

The entire encounter was over in less than two minutes. As she looked upon the scene of carnage that she had wrought, there were thirteen dead bodies, riddled with bullet holes and either hunched over the table or pitched on the floor or leaning off their chairs at odd angles, all broken and mangled with dark blue-red blood pooling and congealing under them, where not five minutes before there were thirteen boisterous, loud men raucously celebrating their holiday. Yes, they were bad men who probably deserved their fate, and yes, Sarah had done her duty, but as she stood there, taking in the carnage that she had wrought, listening to the dulcet sounds of Fairouz's voice as she continued to sing Silent Night, Sarah became acutely aware that something in her had changed, even if she didn't know what, and couldn't quite point her finger to it. It may have taken a long time for her to realise it, but that terrible, violent Christmas in Lebanon was probably the first step of Sarah's journey towards the path she was now on. Her path towards, ironically, love, family, and most of all, redemption.

As the song changed from Fairouz's Silent Night to another Arabic Christmas song, Sarah quickly left the compound for her safehouse, where she would destroy all evidence of Katrin ever existing, or of anyone ever being present there, before she made her way to the extraction point.

"Hello…earth to Sarah, come in Sarah! Are you there?" Ellie was saying, as Sarah came back to awareness of her surroundings.

"Huh..oh, yes, of course," Sarah said, shaking off the haze from her flashback. "Sorry, what was the question?"

"Sarah, are you okay?"

"Of course, why wouldn't I be?"

"You just…stopped dead there in the middle of the square, for like five minutes," Ellie said. "You didn't say anything, didn't move, didn't hear me asking you questions or saying your name…"

"I'm fine," Sarah said.

"Sarah," Ellie said in a voice that brooked no argument. "You might be able to fool my idiot brother like that, but I'm your best friend, and a woman. I know how to pick up on emotions. But more importantly than all of that…I'm a doctor," she said.

"Now," Ellie continued in her best "doctor" voice. "You want to tell me where you just were?"

"Jabal el-Qasr, Lebanon. 2003," Sarah replied almost immediately, as if she were reciting a report from wrote. Her voice was almost completely empty of emotion, yet Ellie could her the exhaustion in it.

"Lebanon, what were you…oh, I see," Ellie said, after Sarah shot her a death glare. "And 2003…you must have been, only what…"

"21"

"Oh my god, honey, I'm so sorry…"

"I'm not telling you for your sympathy, Ellie," Sarah ground out, a tad more harshly than she intended.

"Sorry," she immediately apologised. "I didn't mean it like that, its just…I'm telling you because you wanted to know the truth, and I promised you I'd give you answers to as much as I could that wasn't classified, or putting you in danger…"

Ellie didn't know what to say, so she simply wrapped one of her arms around her sister-in-law and best friend's shoulders, in silent support. It wasn't much, but it was enough for Sarah. It told her that Ellie understood now, even if in a very abstract way, why she didn't want to talk about it, why she didn't want to tell Ellie things. And it was Ellie's way of saying thank you for allowing her in, and promising, very much like Chuck had done, not to push for more than she was willing to give.

They stood like that, quietly admiring the tree for some time before Sarah spoke again.

"I still see them, you know"

"Sometimes, when I close my eyes at night…I still see them. Their faces. I remember their names, hear their voices. I mean…sure, yeah, they were bad people for sure – at least, that's what I believed at the time, and have to still believe in order to keep myself sane – they deserved what they got, and in some of their cases, what I gave them was too good, but…I still see their faces, hear their voices. When you kill a person…especially when you kill as many people as I have…eventually it starts to come back to you, at night in the deepest, darkest part of your soul where nothing else can reach you…it – they – come back to haunt you," Sarah said.

"Honestly, sometimes it's a wonder that I am able to sleep at all, or that I haven't woken Chuck up in the middle of the night from screaming in terror…"

"Sarah," Ellie said softly, kindly. "Sarah, honey…I think you might have PTSD"

"No, Ellie, this is my punishment," Sarah said. "I killed people – a lot – of people. For the Greater Good, sure, but I did kill them all the same," She said.

"I let myself get transformed," she continued. "I let them transform me, turn me into a killer. I let them turn me into a…a monster," she said, choking back tears.

"Do you remember when Chuck and I were still very unsure about where we stood with each other? About how I was always unsure about whether or not I deserved him? How I would always say I was a monster, and you would always be so shocked and tell me I was crazy for thinking that?" Sarah asked, and Ellie nodded encouragingly, both as confirmation, and in urging her to continue,

"This is what I meant, Ellie. This. I let myself be turned into a murderer. I let them turn me into a monster, Ellie, and this is my punishment," Sarah said, continuing,

"Especially because I know for a fact that before Chuck and I are fully safe and able to retire completely safe and secure to civilian life, I know for a fact that I'm going to have to kill again before this is all over. And I won't even hesitate, even for a second. In order to protect Chuck, and you, and Devon, and even Morgan – our family – I will kill every last person who tries to hurt any of us, if I have to, without even a second thought, without any hesitation…and that's what scares me the most, Ellie. I'm…I'm a monster. I'm broken. I'm a murderer…this is my punishment," she said, trying valiantly, but failing, to stem the tide of tears from falling down her face, and the sobs from escaping her lips.

Sarah must have stood there, completely oblivious to the world around her for at least ten minutes whilst Ellie held her as she sobbed. After she had finally cried herself out, she pulled herself away from Ellie, apologizing profusely, and dabbing at her eyes to prevent any further smearing or ruining of her makeup.

Sarah's confession led to the two talking about PTSD and emotions, and mental health for nearly ten minutes. It seemed to be going nowhere for most of it, until Ellie started using her "doctor voice", and bringing Chuck into it. Eventually, it led to Sarah agreeing – albeit extremely begrudgingly – to see Ellie's friend Jenna, a psychologist who specialised in veterans and others dealing with PTSD at Westside Medical Centre – for a consultation and, Ellie hoped, further treatment.

Their conversation was cut short by a chirping of Sarah's phone.

"Oh, it looks like the boys are back, and everyone is hungry and waiting for us," Sarah said. "They're being very polite and waiting for us to come back before eating, but they're getting very hungry and want us to come back ASAP," she said, chuckling.

"Well, if I know your husband – and I do – between him and Devon, we'd better get back soon so they can start ending if we want to hear the end of it before New Years," Ellie said, smirking, and taking this as her cue to officially lighten the mood and change the subject.

The two women then turned around and walked back the way they came to Chuck and Sarah's apartment.


Castle

Burbank, California

27 December

02.32 PST

The past several days had run the gamut from boring to chaotic and every exciting option in between, but it was now, finally, all over. Manoosh had woken up from his sedatives not even halfway through the trip transporting him down to Burbank from Palo Alto, and he escaped and had almost managed to escape, leading them on a wild goose chase, until they had found him on a small, private airfield in the Mexican desert attempting to board a piper cub bound for the Yucatán Peninsula, and from there god only knows.

Luckily, he was apprehended rather smoothly at that stage and did not put up much of a fight. After a short interrogation in castle by none other than Dianne Beckman herself, he was determined to great of an asset – given the information he knew – to be able to set free, but given his proclivities and his actions, too unstable to be trusted to turn and run as a double agent, so under direct orders of Dianne Beckman, he was taken into "protective custody" of the CIA and would, for the foreseeable future live in a well-appointed, comfortable, but very much guarded, secure facility in some bunker somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

Chuck, for his part, was surprised by how little he cared. When this operation had begun, he was very adamant about sticking up for Manoosh's rights, and making sure he was treated well. He did, after all, see a lot of himself and his situation paralleled in the position Manoosh found himself in. That of course, all changed, when Manoosh finally trusted him enough to clue him into what he had been doing. When he found out what Manoosh had been doing, and the lengths that he was willing to go, and what he was willing to do – after all the Deep Web was a dark, murky place full of things that most people wanted nothing to do with – all the sympathy Chuck had for Manoosh, and all the similarities he had previously seen in their situations had disappeared in a puff of smoke. Sure, he didn't believe that Manoosh was exactly a "bad guy", so to speak, but given what he had done, and what he was willing to continue to do – even if he believed it was for a "good cause", i.e. the Greater Good – Chuck was convinced that he was, at best, neutral. He certainly wasn't a "good guy", and Chuck felt very little sympathy for him having to deal with the consequences of the actions he had chosen to take.

Of course, it wasn't as if he didn't put up a fight, or resist – even to the very end of his interrogation – he called them all kinds of horrible things, and played with Chuck's mind and heart strings, challenging him, questioning how he could possibly work for such an evil, corrupt government institution responsible for so much corruption, pain, and death and still have a clear conscience. But compared to what Manoosh had done, or was prepared and willing to do, Chuck didn't pay him any mind; he had no ground to stand on, and he was surprised at how little he felt, either empathy or otherwise, for the man who, had the situation been different, had one or both of them made different choices, could have been a good friend, as he was led away to his new, heavily secured, life in a bunker.

Beckman, for her part, nodded approvingly from the seat she still imperiously inhabited in the conference room in Castle. The fact that she hadn't left her seat and was still there, sitting almost as if she were holding court, meant only one thing to Sarah and Chuck. They knew it was coming, and they had prepared as best they could under the circumstances, and now was the moment of truth. What happened in that briefing room over the next several minutes would determine whether or not they continued on as they had, or if they disappeared.

"Bartowski! Walker….err, I mean, also Bartowski," Casey said, in response to the stink-eye Sarah shot him. "Beckman wants you in the conference room."

"We'll be in in a moment, Casey," Sarah said, outwardly calm. Chuck knew better, however. She was squeezing his hand in a near death-grip – he was worried she might break some fingers – and she was doing her mental calming and breathing exercises which were barely noticeable, except to him, since he knew what to look for. She was trying her best to centre herself so that she could remain calm, cool, and level headed when they dealt with General Beckman, since what happened now determined the course of the rest of their lives.

"Now, Bartowskis," Casey said loudly, and then under his breath muttered, "she hates being kept waiting…it would behoove you to not keep her waiting," he said, leading them into the room.

"Ah, the Bartowskis," she said, as they entered the room. The greeting seemed stilted and strange coming from her, as if she was still trying it out and the words didn't quite fit properly in her mouth. "Please sit, we have a lot to discuss. Casey, you are dismissed. Go home."

"Yes, General," Casey said, saluting quickly, and doing as he had been instructed.

General Beckman inhaled deeply and audibly exhaled – as if she had been holding in all her frustrations and stresses for several weeks in that one inhalation – and steepled her fingers in front of her before she spoke.

"Where do we begin?" She said imperiously. She already knew ahead of time that she was going to sanction their relationship, and should they wish to renegotiate certain terms in their contract, she would be willing to acquiesce to most demands…but that didn't mean she had to let them know it. She did, after all, still have to keep up appearances, and not lose her authority like she had lost their respect.

She began with a quick summary of their activities over the past 16 months or so, which ended with an in-depth secondary debriefing of the mission which they had just finished. She was surprised, herself, at how much genuine commendation she was giving to Mr. Bartowski for his actions and how he had behaved during this extended mission, especially towards the end when things had gotten dicey. He may yet make a decent agent after all.

"Which brings us to the 800 pound elephant in the room," Beckman concluded her debrief with. "Your personal relationship"

"Our marriage, you mean?" Sarah asked, her voice already on edge, despite her attempts to remain calm and respectful.

"Yes, yes, of course," Beckman said, a tad more dismissively than she had intended. "Relationship, marriage, you know what I meant"

"No, Ma'am, our marriage is very much different than a normal relationship," Sarah said. "For starters, as you well know, our marriage makes our relationship a legally binding and protected contract that you can't do anything about, whether you want to or not"

"Don't remind me"

"Furthermore, the fact that I would be willing to jeapordise my career as much as I have by marrying Chuck should make it perfectly clear how serious we are, and furthermore…"

"Agent Bartowski!" General Beckman said loudly and firmly. The combination of the volume and use of her proper, married name, caught Sarah off guard.

"I have no intention of separating you, or forcing you apart," Beckman said, her features on her face softening considerably. "First and foremost, as you've pointed out to me several times, you two outmaneuvered me. My hands are tied, even if I wanted to. But beyond that…I've done some soul searching, as it were. I've observed your mission logs and reports, and I've come to understand that you work together so well precisely because you are able to be with and care for each other…I've been focusing so much on the particularities of hierarchy and regulations that I've missed the forest for the trees. I'm not going to break up my best team now. This meeting is just a formality to officially sanction your marriage, sign some paperwork, and more or less go back to normal"

"No," Sarah said.

"I'm sorry? Is there something I should know about, Agent?"

"Well, yes, but probably not what you're thinking," Sarah said. Chuck remained quiet, allowing Sarah, who knew much better than he what she was doing, and what they could safely get away with. He was ready to back her up if she needed it, but he let her take the lead in this conversation.

"You know as well as I do that Federal Employees are eligible for contract re-negotiations at major Life Cycle Events…and that's exactly what we're going to do. We aren't simply going back to how things were before, General"

"You're not getting a raise, Bartowski," Beckman said flat out.

"With respect, General, that wasn't what we had in mind," Sarah said. "I'm quite happy with my salary, and Chuck and I are happy to continue working under you and against Fulcrum, based here in Burbank, given a few key changes are addressed"

"What did you have in mind?" General Beckman asked warily. She would certainly hear them out, at the very least. This was good though. With some negotiation, she would have her best team back, and be well on the way to regaining their trust and respect.

"Well, first and foremost, Chuck needs to start getting paid," Sarah said.

"Well, of course he's going to still get paid…"

"No, you misunderstood me, General," Sarah said. "I said Chuck needs to start getting paid"

"Are you telling me…," General Beckman began, pinching the bridge of her nose to stem the headache she could tell was coming, before continuing,

"Are you telling me that Chuck has been working with us as the Intersect for almost three years, and hasn't received a paycheque?" she bit out, her words like ice.

"That's exactly what I'm telling you"

"Chuck," Beckman said, turning her focus to him, "surely you've been paid for your services thus far…you can't have not been paid, surely?" she asked, incredulous.

"I'm sorry General, but I haven't…I mean, its fine, I get it, I'm an asset and I like doing the right thing, but the Buy More doesn't pay that much and…"

"It is most certainly not fine, Chuck," she said with a passion that surprised both Sarah and Chuck. She immediately picked up the phone handset from the conference table.

"Hello, Mary? Yes, Beckman here. Patch me through to the DDO's direct line over at Langley"

The three of them sat in tense, suspenseful silence for several minutes as Beckman's secure line at Castle was securely patched through to the appropriate secure like at Langley. After several minutes a soft, non-descript male voice came on the other line, and Beckman exploded in the way only a career military woman could.

"WHAT IN THE FUCKING HELL KIND OF GRABASSED TWO BIT OPERATION ARE YOU GMEN RUNNING OVER THERE, GODDAMMIT?!" she bellowed, to the great surprise of the newly appointed DDO.

This went on in varying degrees of back and forth for several minutes, before Beckman hung up the phone, caught her breath, and turned back towards the Bartowskis and smiled.

"Chuck, on behalf of the United States Government, and in particular the Intelligence Community, I want to formally apologise for this. It turns out that Graham had been personally in charge of your payroll, and for some reason the proper forms had never been reported to the proper offices. Suffice it to say, the problem is fixed. You will from this point forward receive a salary equivalent to a GS-12, just like your wife," she said.

"That comes out to approximately 62,000 dollars a year. Also, you'll get three years of tax-free backpay at that same rate as means of an official apology. I truly am sorry, Chuck, I had no idea things were so out of control"

"What else?"

"As I'm sure you can figure out, General," Sarah said, "Chuck doesn't particularly want to be a spy, and I don't want to be going out on these kinds of missions without him after this is all over," she said.

"So this is your last mission, is what you're saying"

"Yes. Consider this my very gradual transition into retirement"

"Are you absolutely sure? I'm sure we could set you up with a nice analyst position with very limited field time…"

"No, thank you, General. The CIA has been very good to me, over the years, has given me experiences and taught me things that I never would have otherwise, and led me to meet the man I would eventually marry, and for that I am forever in its, and your, debt," she said.

"But all things must eventually come to an end, and I think that this is the perfect time to make that transition," she said.

General Beckman nodded sagely, if a bit disappointed.

"We will all be sorry to see you go. But of course, there is much to do until such a time…Chuck needs to be kept safe, and I assume you do not trust anyone other than yourself to do so?"

"You assume correct, Ma'am," Sarah said. "Also, whilst Fulcrum is still out there and Chuck still has the intersect stuck in his head, we are both willing to do our part to help protect this country and the Greater Good," she said, truthfully. This brought a smile to Dianne Beckman's face.

"But, with some caveats," Sarah said. "We want our focus to be entirely on eliminating Fulcrum and making the Intersect useless"

"Making the intersect useless?"

"Of course, General. Surely you agree that having all our national secrets in easily downloadable format that can be transferred into a living, breathing human being is a huge mistake and waste of a massive amount of resources"

"Well, yes, but it could potentially mean…"

"General, the Intersect Project is never going to create an army of super spies. The best thing we can do to protect our national secrets, is put them on a secure, computer based server, and at the same time either find a way to take it out of Chuck's head, or create a lot of other human intersects as well, in order to make it non-unique and therefore no longer a high-priority target amongst other intelligence services and groups like Fulcrum," Sarah said, logically. "Making the Intersect a non-unique asset makes it no longer an asset"

"And how do you plan on doing that, Agent Bartowski?"

It was Chuck, this time, who answered.

"We find its creator. We find Orion. If anyone can help us get it out of my head, or at the very least make it no longer valuable – and therefore take the target off my forehead whenever I go outside – Orion can," Chuck said, full of passion and hope.

General Beckman pursed her lips into a thin line, thinking for a long moment.

"I will take this into consideration. I tend to actually agree with you, as I was against the current iteration of the Intersect Project from its inception," she said. "I'm not sure how possible what you want to do actually is, but it is certainly something we can consider as we gather more information. Unfortunately, that is not my decision to make, at the end of the day…but it will certainly be given its proper consideration, you both have my word on that," she said, continuing.

"I assume that related to that, you want to dedicate the majority, if not all, of your time, to taking down Fulcrum?"

"Yes, Ma'am," they both answered immediately.

"That's good," Beckman said. "Because there's a war coming. And we're going to need all hands on deck on that front," she said. "And its good to see that we're finally on the same page there. Of course, I can't promise to put you only and exclusively on Fulcrum related missions to the exclusion of anything else – after all, our job is to ensure national security in a larger framework – but I can promise that if there are other teams who are able to take care of other, non-Fulcrum related missions who I can assign to such things, I will. I will only call you in to non-Fulcrum related missions when I have no other choice. Is that an acceptable compromise?"

Sarah and Chuck looked at each other for a long moment, communicating silently, before Chuck finally spoke,

"Yes, Ma'am, that works for us"

"Excellent," Dianne Beckman said, reaching under the table to withdraw two new contracts. "Now, if you'd both just sign these, please…"

"Wait, General, we have a few other conditions," Sarah said.

"Of course you do," Beckman said, sighing. "What are they?"

"First of all, when this is all finally over, we walk away, free to live our lives. I know how this business works well enough to know all the tricks," Sarah said, her eyes staring directly into Beckman's as she spoke, neither woman breaking eye contact as they bore into each other.

"No bunkers, no surveillance, no trails. No nothing. We walk away, free to live our lives in peaceful, civilian anonymity"

It was a long, tense moment before General Beckman agreed.

"Fine. Anything else"

"We don't get put into a bunker. The Agency has a tendency of putting good people who have served their country honourably into bunkers for doing nothing but the right thing, and only for the simple fact that putting them into a secure bunker is more convenient for the brass than to spend the resources necessary to keep them safe," Sarah said.

"And, in the off-chance that there we do have to go into a bunker – and by that I mean that everyone is compromised or dead, there is no possible way to keep us safe without us going into a bunker – we have some demands. We stay together. We are not to be separated. If Chuck goes underground, so do I. And our bunker will be well-appointed, and make every attempt to make it as much a home, as a secure facility – that includes access to the outside and fresh air, and ways to communicate with our family, even if it is all heavily secured and supervised," Sarah said. "And we get to say goodbye. This is not negotiable"

"That sounds…reasonable," Beckman said. "Let us hope that it never comes to that"

"Indeed," Sarah agreed. "One more final caveat, General," she added, continuing,

"No Kill Orders, ever. I know that the Agency loves to use Kill Orders to get rid of people – even its own people – who have become too much of a burden or resources to keep safe, or are no longer politically expedient to do so, or for any variety of things…"

"I have no idea what you're talking about…"

"General, don't play dumb with me. Who the fuck do you think carried out most of the Kill Orders Graham sent down the line? That's right, you're looking at her," Sarah said, her voice steady and calm, but strangely cold.

"Absolutely no Kill Orders, General," Sarah repeated. "I guarantee you that I have my ways of finding out if one is coming down the line, and I promise you that if I find that out, we will disappear so fast, and so completely you won't know what happened. And you'll try and try and try to find us, to bring us in from the cold, but make no mistake, General. If you issue a Kill Order for one, or both, of us, the next time you'll see us is when I break into your home and put a bullet in your brain"

"That sounded an awful lot like a threat to me, Bartowski," Beckman said, her voice matching Sarah's.

"No General," Sarah replied, her voice like ice. "Its not a threat. It's a promise."


AN2: So, I hope that you guys liked my "descent into madness" of Graham. I started this series making him a sort of larger-than-life comic-style "Big Baddie" as I felt was true to the spirit of the show, and I think I've continued to carry that on here, if in a slightly different path; much less comic and comedic and much more dark and sociopathic/psychotic. I'm modelling him loosely on the character of Moriarty from BBC's Sherlock.

AN3: For those of you who speak Arabic, I hope I didn't offend by not using the numbers. I assume most English speaking people reading this won't know the purpose or meaning of 3, 2, 7, etc, and so i did my best to represent these Arabic sounds with Latin characters, rather than the number system.