Author's Note: Ok, here's the latest chapter, which apparently is a surprise to some of you based on the reviews of the last chapter – still trying to figure out how so many readers got the idea that the previous chapter was the final chapter of this story. I don't know how far this story is going to go, but its definitely not done yet!
Once again, I'd like to thank my beta-reader, CloudZen, for all the help provided in writing this chapter.
Parking Lot Across from Burbank Investigative Services
September 20, 2007
Major John Casey, United States Marine and Agent of the NSA sat in the passenger seat of the standard-issue government SUV watching the office across the street. With him inside the vehicle were the three members of his team. On his lap was the dossier that the NSA had on his target, Charles Bartowski. His boss assured him the CIA had contributed to it but Casey suspected that, typical of them, they weren't sharing everything they knew. He had spent the flight out here reviewing everything that was known and frankly, he was unsure how he felt about his current assignment.
Looking at the file, he had a hard time believing this kid had been working with Larkin. Hell, if he hadn't personally seen the PDA that Larkin had used to e-mail the Intersect, he would have had a hard time believing that Larkin and this kid would even have been communicating. The file made it pretty clear that this kid was a boy scout. It also made clear that Bryce Larkin had effectively destroyed whatever friendship they had had several years earlier.
"I don't know what the hell Larkin's problem was," Casey thought. Try as he might, he could find no reasoning behind Larkin's framing of Bartowski for stealing. The fact that it looked like the kid had managed to pull his life together spoke volumes about his character.
Casey chuckled to himself. Just a few years ago, he never would have been thinking thoughts like this about a target. And if his superiors, especially General Beckman, had known what he was thinking, they would have said he was going soft.
"Nonsense," He thought to himself. "I'm still doing my job; part of my job is figuring out why the bad guys do what they do. Besides, just because it looks like the kid may be an innocent victim of Larkin doesn't make it so. It wouldn't be the first time the other side has planted innocent-looking people that have come back to bite us."
"Major, the target has arrived," The agent next to him said, interrupting his thoughts. Casey looked up and watched Chuck Bartowski exit his car and walk towards the office.
"Any sign of the CIA skirt?" Casey asked.
"No." the agent said.
Casey grunted, considering. Normally, he would have directed his team to move in and grab the target now, while he was in the parking lot. Once he got into the office, it would make things more complicated. However, this was not a normal situation.
Casey was well aware of the record of the CIA operative that had been sent to investigate the target. And even though his team didn't see her, he was sure that Sarah Walker was out there, watching. He had no desire to go up against her without being exactly sure where she was and what her plans were.
She may be a CIA skirt, but she's a CIA skirt that's smart and tough. Casey thought. He didn't like the CIA or its agents and he had a particularly sore opinion of the CIA's female agents. Part of that was because of the way the CIA used them, part of it was their tendency to rely on mind games but most of it was from a past bad personal experience with a skirt that had since gone to the DEA.
Unlike most of the CIA's female agents, Walker was different. She didn't seem to play nearly the same games that the majority did. In fact, the one time he had encountered her to date, she had helped him out of the embarrassing situation the DEA skirt had tried to get him in. Casey shuddered at what might have happened if a certain photograph had ended up circulated around the community.
In a lot of ways, Walker was a lot like a female version of him. The key difference between them was that she also had a reputation for not being afraid to go against her superiors if needed, something that Casey, as a Marine, couldn't fathom.
In an empty office building nearby, Sarah grinned as she watched Casey and his team through her binoculars. Thanks to her experience in the other time line, she could read his facial expressions rather well. She could tell he was fighting against his usual instincts to order his team to grab Chuck in the Parking Lot. There was no doubt in her mind it was because he was afraid to make a move until he knew where she was.
"That's one change that I've been able to cause without getting involved directly." She thought. In some ways, her reputation this time around was even fiercer than last time. Part of that was because of the fact that she didn't let herself get used like she had the last time in the beginning of her career.
Like all female agents, Sarah had done her share of seduction-type missions. Like most female agents of comparable beauty, she'd been forced to allow her targets to get handsy from time to time. Thankfully, she'd was among the majority that had never been required to sacrifice everything for a mission just to get close to some piece of scum.
Also, because she was much more aware of both what she could do and what it took to accomplish missions, she wasn't nearly the wildcard she was last time. Even as a rookie, she handled herself like a veteran agent. It did raise a few eyebrows at first but after any suspicions died down, it caused others to fear her more.
"I just hope this works." She thought as she pulled out her burner phone and began typing a message on it.
A chirping sound indicating an incoming text message on his phone startled Casey.
"What the hell?" He thought. It was a new phone specifically for this mission given the sensitivity of it. The only one that had the number was General Beckman and she would never text, only call. Pulling it out of his pocket he read the message.
Casey – Glad to see you're taking things cautiously. I've already made contact with your target. All is not what it seems. We need to talk ASAP. Alone. Too sensitive for the rest of your team. Meet me in parking lot at the Large Mart in Burbank at 1500 hours. Don't do anything until we talk. Remember, you owe me for Prague. I'm calling the marker in. Walker
Casey cursed mentally to himself. "Of course she would remember Prague." He thought. She was right, of course. He did owe her. And Casey didn't like owing anyone. So he would go, if for no other reason than to wipe out the debt. Besides, I have to admit to being a little curious about whatever it is she wants to tell me.
September 20, 2007
"Major, the CIA operative just picked up our target." The voice said in the earwig that Casey was wearing. He had left his team watching Bartowski's office after picking up another car and moving to the meet location. He had arrived a half hour early, determined to not be taken by surprise.
"Roger." He responded. "I'm guessing they're on their way here but, just to be safe, follow at a discreet distance until we know for sure. If they pull in here, go to the rally point and wait for me to contact you."
"Are you sure about this, Major?"
"Not really. But if a five-minute conversation can accomplish our mission, as opposed to having to go up against the Enforcer, I'd rather take the chance. I have do doubt we'd be able to accomplish our mission either way but this way will be a lot less painful." He replied.
After several tense minutes of silence, a voice chirped through the radio. "Major, the targets are turning into the parking lot."
Taking note of the description provided, Casey looked towards the entrance to the shopping center and saw the car. From his vantage point he could see two occupants in the car. He watched as it pulled into a spot a few feet away. A moment later, his phone buzzed from another text message.
We're here. Parking Aisle C. Meet us by the shopping cart return. Walker.
Putting her phone back in her pocket, Sarah turned to her nervous companion. She had to smile a bit at his obvious fidgeting.
"Are you sure about this?" Chuck asked. Sarah reached over and took his hand, squeezing it.
"Look, I know we still have a lot to work out between us but you need to trust me on this. I know John Casey. In the long run we'll be better off if we explain everything up front. He'll be suspicious because of how open we're being but it's much better this way. He'll be key in keeping the CIA and NSA from trying to throw you in a bunker." Sarah said. "Like I said, he owes me. I helped him out of a tight spot once before."
"You really think they'd do that?" Chuck asked.
Sarah smiled, half sadly, half happily. While she'd been successful in making changes to Chuck's worldview since she came back in time, the core of who he was had stayed the same. Even now, after working for a private investigator for several years and seeing what he had seen, he still maintained his ingrained optimism about people and groups.
"Yes, Chuck, they would." Sarah said. "Like I explained last night, the CIA and NSA are used to dealing with intelligence assets who are criminals or enemy agents or in some other way have done something to deserve being treated that way. We frequently do deal with people who are caught up in messes other people make but your situation isn't like that."
"What do you mean?" Chuck protested. That's exactly what happened!"
Sarah gave him a wan smile. "Yes, you were inadvertently caught up in this thanks to someone else but you aren't someone who was tricked into aiding bad guys. In situations like yours, they'd usually try to bribe or otherwise blackmail you but you have nothing they can use. Anything else they might do wouldn't end well for them."
Choosing to ignore the question, knowing Chuck would be furious if she ever hinted at the possibility of threatening Ellie, Morgan, or anyone else in Chuck's life, and not ready to explain just what Orion would do if they tried such a stunt, Sarah pushed on. "The other problem is that you are the Intersect. There isn't a backup. You have everything in your head and it's safe to say no government scientist knows how to get it out just yet."
"But they can, right?"
Nodding, Sarah answered, "I'm positive it can be done. It may just take more time than my boss is comfortable with which is why we're in the situation we are. Because they aren't as sure about you as I am, and the fact that you have every secret in your head, they're going to want to control you. Hell, that's half the reason they sent me. I'm very good at getting people to tell me things and do what I want them to."
Watching Chuck only get more nervous, and knowing they were short on time, Sarah drew on their conversation the night before. "Chuck, I need you to trust me. Yes, I'm came here because of my job but I'm staying because of us, because of my friendship with you. I won't let them use you and throw you away."
"Okay, Sarah, I get it. And I trust you." Chuck said. Taking a deep breath to try to calm himself, he mumbled, just loud enough for her to hear, "Let's do this."
September 20, 2007
"Walker." Casey said in greeting as she and Chuck walked up to where he was standing.
"Casey." Sarah responded. "This is Charles Irving Bartowski. He goes by 'Chuck'." Casey nodded to the obvious computer nerd.
"Alright, Walker, you asked for this meeting. What's so important that you wanted to meet? For that matter, care to explain to me why if you were sent here to recover the data Larkin sent Mr. Bartowski here, he's not in custody already?"
"Because it's not as simple as the higher ups think." Sarah said. "Bryce did send the Intersect to Chuck but, Casey, you saw his file; he's had nothing to do with Bryce or the Intelligence community. We'd have to ask Bryce why he sent it because Chuck doesn't have a clue. Shame he isn't available for us to find out.
"So where's the data?"
Sarah stared directly at Casey, making sure the Marine met her gaze. "Chuck opened the e-mail. He didn't know what it was and looked at it. He saw the pictures without any protection." Sarah said.
"And he's still alive?" Casey glanced at Chuck in shock.
She nodded. "It's more than that. For lack of a better description, when he saw everything, he downloaded everything."
"Are you trying to tell me-"
"The data's in his head. Chuck IS the Intersect."
"Bullshit," Casey said. "The Intersect can't work inside the human mind. It's been tried before and it failed."
"Look Major," Chuck began before he notice a pin on Casey's lapel. His eyelids immediately began to flutter, indicating what Sarah knew was a flash. After a moment, he came out of it. "As I was saying, I don't know why it's working in me. Hell, I'm not even 100% sure it's working like it should. I have no control at the moment over it. I just seem to get these flashes of information. Like just now. Your lapel pin triggered one. I saw your file. There was some mention about a woman you were involved with in Chechnya."
"Big deal." Casey said. "That's not exactly the most secret information around. Hell, Walker could have told you that."
"Oh, yeah? Do you think she knows about the nickname the woman gave you?" Chuck said. "Or your real name?"
"There's no way that's in there." Casey said nervously. Chuck walked closer to him.
"She called you Sugar Bear," Chuck whispered only for Casey's hand to jerk towards the nerd's neck. The only thing that kept his fingers from closing around Chuck's neck was the distinct sound of Walker pulling the hammer back on her weapon. Slowly, he pulled his hand back and stepped away.
While more than a little shaken, Chuck continued, just as softly. "And your real name is Alex. Oddly enough, your last name was redacted, even in the Intersect file."
Casey's eyes widened, albeit only briefly. Holy shit. It actually works, he thought.
"Ok. So it's in the kid's head." Casey said. "So all we need to do is grab his computer and throw him in a bunker and let the science nerds study him."
"That's not going to work," Sarah said. "First, his computer is fried. It happened when he opened the email. Second, it appears that he has to be stimulated by something for the data in his head to be see; like with your pin. And finally, because I won't let you put him in a bunker."
Before Casey could respond to Sarah, both agents noticed Chuck go through another convulsion.
"Uh, guys." Chuck said after a moment, his voice lower than it had been before. "That guy, the one that just came out of the Large Mart, walking towards the green SUV. He's in the Intersect!" Both agents tensed at Chuck's claim. "That's Vuc Andric, he's a Serbian demolitions expert that Interpol has been looking for."
Casey and Sarah turned just in time to see the man Chuck was talking about get into the SUV and drive off a moment later.
Sarah Walker's Hotel Room
Los Angeles, California
September 20, 2007
"So Agent Walker. You're telling us that Mr. Bartowski IS the Intersect?" General Beckman asked. Sarah and Casey were sitting at the table in her room, staring at the laptop computer screen. On the left of the screen sat Deputy Director Graham and on the right was General Beckman. After Chuck's flash on Andric, Casey had ordered his team to pursue the Serbian terrorist but they had lost him near downtown. At that point Sarah and Casey decided it was time to inform their bosses of the situation.
"Yes ma'am." Sarah replied.
"In that case it's all the more important we bring him in," Graham declared.
"Will all due respect, ma'am, sir, I don't think that's the right way to handle this," Sarah offered. Casey tried to catch her eye, asking if she thought she was crazy for directly opposing a stated order.
Beckman's eyes narrowed slightly. "And what is that?"
"Ma'am, I've worked with agents, assets and marks of all kinds. If Director Graham has shared even a tenth of what's in my file, you'd know that. If we want his cooperation, we aren't going to be able to force it."
"Explain, Sarah," Graham ordered.
Squaring her shoulders, Sarah prepared herself for the moment of truth. "He isn't like the people we usually find in this life. He values friends, family and doing what's right. He also values the life he forged for himself with his sister. If we take any of that away from him, he'll either rebel or shut down and be useless. Most of all, he looks for the best in people."
Beckman gave Sarah a pointed look. "You sound awfully taken with Mr. Bartowski, Agent Walker."
"General, I've spent almost the entirety of the last twenty-four hours in his presence. I can tell you with absolute certainty; he is the kind of person that we aspire to protect, why we do what we do. It's refreshing to actually meet someone like him that makes me feel like the last decade of my life was worth it."
Before Beckman could grill Sarah any further, Graham cut in. "So how do you recommend we handle him?" She was grateful for the interruption. Graham had generally trusted her judgment even when Sarah was actively working against him. She knew she couldn't trust him to keep his word regarding Chuck but he'd just provided the opening she needed to start convincing Beckman to treat her Chuck as he deserved.
"We don't treat him like a mark or an asset. We treat him as a man with a valuable skill that we want to recruit. Appeal to more than his sense of right and wrong. We could try his sense of patriotism but I get the feeling he's not enough like Casey here for that to work."
"He's not like me at all," Casey grumbled only for Sarah to shoot him a look that made him second-guess speaking out.
Beckham eyed her agent before returning her gaze to Sarah. "So you're recommending we treat him like a prospective agent?"
"More like a prospective analyst," Sarah clarified. "We don't know enough about how the Intersect works inside him and it'll take more than one day to know how best to motivate him but I feel we'd be making a grave mistake if we ignored the potential he represents."
"Then why not just fly him here and put him under the microscope?" Graham asked. "We could pay him for his time but you seem to be implying something different."
"Two reasons. First, given what he is, the circle that knows about him should be as small as possible for obvious reasons." Neither Beckman nor Graham indicated agreement but Sarah knew they understood. "Second, we have a golden opportunity before us."
Striking a few keys, she brought up the Interpol dossier on Andric. "With barely a glance, he was able to identify a potential terrorist and give us a small amount of actionable intel. We could change the parameters of this operation to see what help he can be in handling Andric. Think of it as a test run for a support position."
The two bosses exchanged a glance. Sarah barely caught Graham's slight acquiescence but it made her want to breathe a sigh of relief.
"I don't like this, Agent Walker," Beckman noted. "If there is any danger, you extract him and bring Mr. Bartowski here whether he likes it or not. I'll give you this chance for him to prove his worth." Sarah bristled at the wording but kept her silence.
"If there isn't anything else, agents-" Beckman began when she was interrupted by a chirp on Casey's phone. Casey looked at it.
"Sorry General, that's the detail that we have babysitting Mr. Bartowski. Apparently he's demanding to see us. Say's it's important. Something about something he saw on the news."
"General, this could be important," Sarah exclaimed. "We know he has the ability to retrieve data when he sees something that triggers the Intersect."
"Send him in," Graham said. Casey tapped a few keys on his phone. A few moments later, the door to the room opened and an NSA agent ushered Chuck in.
"Guys, I know why Andric's here. General Stanfield - I saw him on the news - there's a bomb. He's going to try and kill Stanfield." Chuck said hurriedly.
Sarah tried to fight the smirk on her lips. She really did.
Hyatt Regency Hotel
Los Angeles, California
September 20, 2007
Chuck, Casey, and Sarah ran into the hotel lobby. Suddenly Casey stopped and held Chuck.
"Wait Walker. We can't take him in there. He's too valuable and you know our orders," Casey said. "Tell us where to go."
"The easiest way?" Chuck asked.
"No, the fastest," Casey demanded, missing the small grin on Sarah's face since she knew what was about to happen.
"The fastest. Right," Chuck said, then took off. "Follow me." Casey and Sarah exchanged looks before taking off after him.
"Here we go again," Sarah chuckled to herself as she watched Chuck run through the fountain on his way to the hotel's banquet room.
Five minutes later the trio entered the banquet room. On the stage, General Stanfield was giving the same speech he had been giving in the last time line.
"Where's the bomb?" Casey asked. Sarah spotted the serving cart a moment before Chuck spoke.
"There!" he pointed and took off towards it. A moment later the trio had removed the covering, exposing the bomb.
"Oh, God," Sarah said.
"Disconnect the laptop?" Sarah suggested.
"There's an auto trigger," Casey responded. "The cables?"
"No, definitely a trap."
A member of the General's security detail came up to them. Casey showed his credentials and spoke the agent briefly. After a minute, the agent signalled the rest of the detail, who began evacuating the room.
"Chuck is there anything else you remember about the bomb?" Sarah asked. Before Chuck could respond, his phone started ringing. He took it out and looked at the caller ID.
"Morgan," he thought. His best friend had been calling him a lot today, being bored since his computer wasn't working thanks his predilection for less than clean porn sites. The virus his computer had contracted even managed to overload and burnout certain computers like the one sitting before him. "Wait. That's it," Chuck said out loud, kneeling before the bomb.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Casey asked as he grabbed ahold of Chuck's arm.
"Casey, this is a Prism Express laptop. Every model of theirs has a DOS override. I've exploited it more than a few times when snooping for our clients at the firm." Chuck said. "I can do this." Casey and Sarah exchanged looks only for her to nod at the Marine.
"It's our best shot." Sarah said. A half second later, Casey grunted his agreement. Chuck began typing on the computer, bringing up the command prompt.
"What the hell is he doing?" Casey asked. Chuck made shushing motion at Casey. A series of commands later and the computer making a harsh sound. Seconds later, smoke started pouring from the vents. The screen glitched out before everything shut down.
"You did it!" Sarah exclaimed happily. Things were working out better than she had imagined they would.
"I did it! I defused a real bomb." Chuck said, the paled. "What if I'd been wrong?"
"What the hell did you do?" Casey asked, looking for an explanation.
Still in shock, Chuck started rambling. "Well, I tried using the command prompt to force a shutdown but those commands had been disabled somehow. I'd be interested in knowing exactly how he did that. Anyway, when that didn't work, I tried to remove the drivers that controlled the connection to the bomb through the-"
"Less nerd-speak," Casey interrupted with a growl.
"The first half dozen things I tried didn't work so I connected to the hotel WiFi and downloaded a particularly nasty virus known for trashing whole systems."
"Where the hell do you just find one of those?"
Casey stared at the pale man. Shaking his head and refusing to ask just how Chuck knew that such sites contained such viruses, he patted Chuck's shoulder before offering a bit of wisdom.
"Don't puke on the C4."