A/N: One of the recurring themes in season three was Sarah's fear that Chuck would be changed by the Intersect 2.0. That he would become some sort of heartless machine that she would no longer be able to love. So she pushes him away and we know the rest.
This story is my alternative AU take on what could have happened instead. A different start to that season.
Definitely a change in pace from my two latest stories.
Thought I might release this in chapters, but decided in the end to let this go in one lump.
A one-shot with no connection to my other stories.
Thanks as always, for the hard work and very helpful suggestions from michaelfmx, my beta.
Don't own Chuck, etc.
"Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real."
CHUCK VERSUS THE IDIOT
Part One: Charles
The voluptuous brunette at the nearby table gives Charles Carmichael a sultry look as she leans forward in order to give him a better view. His sly smile, in turn, shows her how much he appreciates her thoughtfulness.
A very attractive woman, indeed.
"Chuck, we need to talk."
The words that no man really wants to hear brings his attention back to his dinner partner. He frowns as he moves his eyes back to her. "Sarah, you know I don't go by that name anymore."
It's easy to tell that she bites back an angry retort. "Please forgive me. Charles, we need to talk."
The words drip with sarcasm. Even though she's being quite disrespectful, he chooses to ignore it for the moment. He'll correct her later, when they're alone.
"OK, Sarah. What is it that you would like to discuss?"
"Two weeks ago, I requested a change of partner. It came through today."
"Did I just hear you say that you're no longer going to work with me?"
She nods firmly.
"Sarah, I must say I'm a little surprised at this. Is it because you find it hard to keep up with me, to match my abilities? If so, you needn't be concerned. I've always been willing to compensate for the limitations of average agents. Please don't think you're hindering me in any significant way. I assure you, there's no reason to feel that I no longer want you as a partner."
"Charles, you're missing the point. I no longer want you as my partner."
"Sarah, that's going to make it very hard on our relationship. How are we supposed to maintain it when we would be apart for such long periods of time?"
She grimaces. "I see that I haven't made myself clear."
She looks him straight in the eye. "Charles Carmichael. I'm breaking up with you in every possible way. Right here. Right now. We're done."
This finally penetrates his cool demeanor and he stumbles over his next words.
"Sarah, why…why are you doing this? We love each other."
"No, Charles. The man I fell in love with is Chuck Bartowski, but he hasn't been around for quite some time now."
He's bewildered. "What do you mean? I'm right here!"
"No. Charles Carmichael is right here. Not Chuck Bartowski."
"They're one and the same!"
"No, they're not."
"You're not making any sen—"
She cuts him off, harshly. "Chuck Bartowski would never shout at the Maitre D' because our table was ready two minutes later than promised. Chuck Bartowski would never ream out a waiter for spilling a single drop of wine on the tablecloth. Chuck Bartowski would never ogle the slutty brunette at my nine o'clock."
He's speechless as he hears her vehemence, sees it echoed in her expression.
She pauses, her quiet voice doing nothing to reduce the intensity of her words. "Chuck Bartowski would never treat me in the way I've foolishly allowed you to treat me these past months." As she turns her head, he's not certain, but thinks he sees a solitary tear escape her left eye.
She swipes at her cheek before turning to fix her gaze on him once more. "If you ever happen to find Chuck again, here's when and how he can get in touch with me." She places a card on the table. "But as for you, don't ever try to speak to me or contact me again."
And with that, she stands and walks away, her back ramrod straight. She doesn't look back.
He stares stupidly at her retreating form, unable to act. Part of him is telling him to go after her, that he's allowing the best thing that's ever happened to him to walk right out of his life.
But another part is telling him that he doesn't need her. That there are dozens of attractive and capable female agents just begging for the chance to be his partner.
I'm the original and still the best Intersect Special Agent, the pattern for all the ISAs that followed in my footsteps. If Sarah Walker can't see how privileged she is to be with me, then that's her loss.
He looks at the card she left and sees an unfamiliar phone number with a date and time some six months from today.
Does she actually expect I'll wait for that long and then come crawling back to her? Ain't gonna happen. Time to move on.
He tosses some bills on the table and takes his leave. But, as he does, he puts the card in his wallet.
Part Two: Diane
Five Months Later.
"Agent Carmichael, it seems you've had a bad run these last few months. Due to your past successes, we haven't been overly concerned. However, it seems that it's becoming a pattern. Care to explain?"
Charles Carmichael looks across the desk at the petite redheaded woman, who is, amongst other things, the head of the ISA project. "General, thank you for your concern, but I assure you it's nothing serious. Just a few missteps from my support teams and some bad choices by my partners."
She looks a little dubious. "Which brings up another area of concern. Agent Carmichael, you've had four partners since Agent Walker moved on." She looks down at the file in front of her. "Unless I'm mistaken, the most recent one lasted only two weeks. What's the issue here?"
"Well, General, I'm beginning to doubt the competency of the agents that have been made available to me. It seems they're just not up to my standards."
"The odd part is that they're the ones who've requested a reassignment, not you. Even Agent Walker, who'd work so well and so long with you, was the one to ask for a transfer. By the way, her partnership with Agent Larkin is going very well. One of the best teams we have. So it doesn't seem she's lacking in competency."
At this unwelcome reminder of Sarah reuniting with her previous partner, there's a stab of jealous anger.
How could she go back to him? After the way he treated her?
"Well, if she hadn't asked for a transfer first, I would have requested it myself. Agent Walker, as good as she is, was simply unable to keep up with me. I'm sure it's much better for her to be with a regular agent. In that kind of partnership, I'm sure she'll do just fine."
Beckman gives him a long, appraising look before going on. "It has also been noticed that all the partners you've requested have been blonde and of above average height. Any particular reason for that?"
He's actually surprised by her statement. Were they? I don't remember thinking of that when I chose them.
After a second he shrugs. "Just coincidence."
She gives him a disbelieving look as she replies, "You're sure of that?"
What does she think? That subconsciously I was trying to get back with Sarah? Not a chance of that!
She continues without waiting for an answer. "Agent Carmichael, we have a number of concerns." She gestures to the file in front of her. "In your last psych evaluation the words arrogant, condescending, conceited, egotistical, and so forth, kept coming up again and again." She grabs a sheaf of papers. "In all these transfer requests, the thoughts are basically the same, that your attitude makes it extremely difficult to have a working relationship with you."
He jumps in. "Is that what Sarah said too?"
Beckman looks at him for a few seconds before answering, "No. Agent Walker simply stated it was time to move on. She had nothing derogatory to say about you."
He feels an almost overpowering sense of relief, but then quickly takes himself to task. Why should I be relieved? I don't care what Sarah Walker thinks of me.
He brings his attention back to his boss. "Thank you for your concern, ma'am. However, I believe the problems are both exaggerated and temporary. I'm sure my next partnership will work out much better."
"About that. It's been decided that you should take some time off. Thirty days at a minimum. Perhaps longer."
He protests, "I don't need time off. I'm ready for the next mission."
Beckman gives him a very firm look. "This isn't a suggestion, Agent Carmichael. Am I clear on this?"
"Yes, Ma'am." He's seething inside, but somehow manages to keep his voice calm.
"Why don't you return to Burbank. Visit your family and friends. At the end of the thirty days, we'll reevaluate the situation. Understood?"
"That's all for now. Dismissed."
He stands to leave, but as he does so, the General quietly says, "Chuck, people change when they get into this business. Unfortunately, more often than not, it's for the worse. It's all too easy to forget who we were, to get too deep in the persona. Take some time and try to find Chuck Bartowski again. He's a great guy. Everyone who worked with him agreed on that."
Charles is surprised both by the informality of her words and the personal concern evidenced in them. He's never seen her this way before, and it baffles him. He can't think of anything to say, so instead stares mutely across the desk.
After returning his gaze for a few seconds, not unkindly, she turns her attention back to her work, gesturing with her hand for him to leave.
With no further words, he leaves her office, closing the door gently behind him.
And for the first time in recent memory, Charles Carmichael begins to doubt himself.
Part Three: John
As he leaves her office, he walks right by the large man sitting in the anteroom. Wrapped up in his own thoughts, he doesn't recognize who it is at first. But then he stops and turns back to face him, is genuinely happy to see his former guardian.
"Casey? What are you doing here? It's great to see you!"
Casey looks up from his Guns & Ammo magazine. "Well, if it isn't Bartowski, or should I say, Agent Carmichael?"
"Bartowski is fine. After all, you knew me when I was plain, old Chuck."
Casey grunts as he stands, dropping the magazine on the chair. They shake hands. "How are you doing, Bartowski?"
"Just fine. How long has it been? A year and a half?"
"About seventeen months since you made agent and they decided I didn't need to babysit you anymore."
"What have you been doing with yourself?"
"Can't say exactly, but I've recently discovered that you can actually live reasonably comfortably in the walls of some palaces. I just got back for reassignment."
"Maybe one day you can tell me that story in full."
"Maybe. How's Walker? The last I heard you two were tearing it up pretty good in L.A."
It's obvious that Casey has been out of the loop for a while.
Charles averts his eyes as he replies, "Sarah and I are no longer a team. We decided to part ways about five months ago. She's still in L.A. with her current partner. I thought a change of scenery would be good, so I've been working out of D.C. since then."
Casey is obviously caught by surprise. "What the hell happened with you two? You went through all that crap so you could be together and now you're telling me you've broken up?"
Charles shrugs his shoulders. "Things change. People change."
"Bartowski, there's more to it than that." He's obviously angry as he adds, "Wait. Did you cheat on her, moron? Because if you did…"
As big as Casey is, he gets even bigger as he steps in closer.
He's a little afraid as he recognizes the protective fierceness in Casey's posture and words. The implied threat in his unfinished sentence is somehow much more frightening than an actual one.
Casey's question hits him hard, dredges up memories that he hasn't given heed to for quite some time.
After he'd downloaded the Intersect 2.0 and completed his training, he'd finally been able to leave the Buy More, and all that went with it, behind him. He'd miss Morgan, but that was his only regret. And when he'd assumed his Charles Carmichael cover, his confidence levels had taken a huge jump. Of course, a lot of that came from the fact that he and Sarah had been able to work through her issues with him becoming an actual agent, finally enabling them to have a real relationship. To be able to openly work with and be with someone as incredible as Sarah Walker made him feel like he could accomplish anything. And, as their successes mounted, that self-assurance only kept on increasing.
And as that confidence had grown, he'd begun to be aware of how women, both agents and civilians, started paying more attention to him. Sending subtle and often not so subtle hints of their interest. Not having experienced this level of attention before, he was at first embarrassed, as well as a little puzzled. Besides, he was with Sarah, so he didn't need any other woman's attention.
But as the months passed, he'd grown accustomed to it. Liked the way it made him feel. After all, she attracted all sorts of attention. What was wrong with him having a turn for a change? So he'd started to return their flirtations, sometimes even when Sarah was nearby. When she'd become angry, he'd told her it meant nothing, that it was just a harmless game and good practice for missions that might require that sort of act.
She hadn't agreed.
But he had never crossed the line. Though, with Casey's words ringing in his ears, he wonders if he maybe did, in fact, cross some sort of line. However, he's certainly not going to tell Casey that.
This time, Chuck does look him in the eye. "No. I didn't cheat on her, Casey."
A thought comes unbidden. At least not physically.
He's startled by the big man's next words, echoing, as they do, his thoughts so closely.
"There are different ways of cheating, moron."
Chuck shakes his head.
Casey stares at him for a long moment. "OK. I'll accept that you didn't fool around on her." He steps back and looks him up and down. "This is part of the problem, isn't it?" He gestures towards him.
Charles is puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"The expensive suit. The fancy shoes. The pricey watch. The way you carry yourself." He snorts. "You've obviously bought into the whole James Bond Intersect Super Agent thing. Thinking you're something special, too good for regular spies like Sarah and the rest of us."
He bristles at Casey's accusations, even as part of him wonders for a second if there's any truth in it. "Casey, there's nothing wrong with trying to look good. I can afford it now. Besides, there are missions that require I play that kind of role."
"You don't have to tell me, Bartowski. How many times did I see the both of you get all gussied up for a mission? The difference was that after it was done, you and Sarah would go back to jeans and sweatshirts. I've got the feeling you keep this up all the time."
He replies angrily, "I think you're assuming a lot here, Casey."
"Am I? Tell me, when was the last time you wore your Chucks?"
Charles is about to answer but stops as he suddenly realizes he can't remember when that was.
"See what I mean? And tell me this, when's the last time you kicked back and had pizza for dinner like you used to with Sarah?"
Once again he can't recall, but he defends himself. "Still, that doesn't prove anything. I'm not all that different from before all of this."
There's derision in Casey's grunt. "You just go right on believing that, Agent Carmichael."
At that moment, an attractive brunette enters and heads towards the secretary's desk at the opposite end of the anteroom. She smiles at Charles as she passes and he smiles back, his eyes following her. As he turns back to Casey, he sees the man has noticed his distraction.
"She left you, didn't she?"
Charles, caught off guard, looks away.
"No, why would you think that?" He tries to shake it off, but Casey is having none of it.
He nods towards the woman standing at the desk. "What the hell is wrong with you? The last time I saw you, a troupe of Victoria's Secret models could have walked by and you wouldn't have even noticed. All you could focus on was Sarah."
"There's nothing wrong in noticing other attractive women."
"Noticing, maybe. Looking at them the way you just looked at that brunette is something different. You pulled that kind of crap even when Sarah was around, didn't you?"
Charles starts to reply, "No—"
Casey cuts him off, growls, "Don't lie to me. I can see it in your face."
Chuck blushes, something that he hasn't done for quite some time.
"It's no wonder she dumped you. Considering how damned stupid you are, it's a wonder she stayed with you as long as she did. Driving away someone like Sarah Walker just proves that you've got to be the biggest idiot on God's green earth."
Charles can tell Casey is steaming but then sees his expression soften a little. They've been speaking quietly enough as to not be overheard, but Casey drops his volume even more as he leans in. "I never told him this, but I was proud to work with Chuck Bartowski, proud to be his friend. But right now I can't find that person I knew. And it's obvious that Sarah can't find him either."
As he goes on, it's almost as if he's pleading, but this is Casey, so Charles must be mistaken. "Chuck, you need to take a hard look at yourself. You need to pull your head out and realize just how much of a jackass you've become. If you don't, there's no chance you'll ever get her back."
He opens his mouth to protest, but Casey cuts him off once again.
"Don't tell me you don't want that. That's the one bit of Chuck I can still read."
Straightening up, he says, harshly, "Time to shape up, moron. Until then, I don't want to hear from you." Poking him hard in the chest, he says, "Now get the hell out of here before I do something I won't regret."
With that, Casey sits and, picking up his magazine, ignores him.
As Charles Carmichael leaves the room, he feels something he hasn't felt for a very long time.
Part Four: Morgan
"I'm sorry; the number you have reached is not in service, or temporarily disconnected. I'm sorry; the number you have reached is ..."
He angrily stabs at the icon to disconnect the call. It's exactly the same message he's received every time he's called since the night she left him the card.
Why am I so stupid? Why do I expect I'm going to hear her voice every time I call? Why the hell am I even calling?
He's over three weeks into his forced leave and is bored out of his mind. The security conference he'd decided to attend in Vancouver hadn't held his interest for more than half a day. Instead of bringing back fond memories of his days as the Piranha, he'd only been irritated by the juvenile posturing that surrounded him.
The hackers would crow over breaking through a bank's firewall or exploiting a vulnerability in a software company's website, and then "humbly" accept the glory for their actions.
In contrast, Team Bartowski's actions had saved thousands of lives, perhaps many more. They had put a lot of bad people away and made the world just a little bit safer for good people. And almost no one knew what they'd done.
The conference just seemed pointless. So, even though he knew there was some value in the work being done there, he'd found that he couldn't tolerate the atmosphere and had walked away after only a few hours. He knew then that he wasn't the same person he'd been a few years ago. He's come to realize that they are things in life that hold much more value than the praise of your computer hacking peers.
So instead of spending his time in meeting rooms or in front of a monitor, he's wandering down Robson Street, a prominent downtown shopping area. He has the vague idea of buying some new shoes and there is certainly no lack of places to check out.
For some reason, he finds himself passing by the more expensive stores, instead, looking in the window of a store selling athletic shoes, including Converse All-Stars (even though they're not really athletic footwear, at least not by today's standards.)
He looks down at his costly Italian loafers. They're fairly comfortable, but then he remembers how perfect the Chucks were for his big feet. There's a sudden memory of how Sarah had kidded about him wearing them when they went on their first date as a real couple. But when he'd offered to change, she'd just smiled and told him he didn't need to do that, that she loved him just the way he was.
The way I was? Have I really changed that much?
Time to think. His leave has given him way too much of that. At first, the assignments had helped keep away the thoughts he didn't want to face. But, thinking back now, he realizes that the missions had eventually only made it that much worse. How many times had he caught himself turning to his then current partner, forgetting for a moment that it wasn't Sarah? How many times had he stopped himself before saying or doing something only she would truly understand or appreciate? And each and every time it happened (even though he hadn't fully appreciated that at the time), it'd driven home just how much he'd let slip away.
Walking down the busy street has only served as a bitter reminder. He'd caught sight of a tall blonde out of the corner of his eye and had turned, thinking, irrationally, for a moment that it was her. Then he'd heard her name called out and had found himself searching the crowded sidewalks, foolishly expecting her to appear.
Staring at his reflection in the window, lost in his thoughts, he doesn't notice a group of businessmen who've just exited a building beside the shoe store. Doesn't notice one shorter member of the group walking towards him.
He turns around at the familiar voice.
Morgan. In a suit. Wearing green suede shoes.
Clapping him on the shoulder, Chuck can't stop the smile on his face. "Morgan, little buddy, it's great to see you. What are you doing here?"
Morgan looks just as happy. "I was just about to ask you the same question." He drops his voice to a theatrical whisper. "Are you on a mission?"
Fortunately, there's no one close enough to hear his injudicious words.
Quietly, Chuck replies, "No, Morg. Just on leave. Came up here to attend a hacker's conference, but got bored. How about you?"
"Well, a big electronic chain up here shut down and we're," he gestures to the group of men behind him, "investigating the possibility of bringing the Buy More up to the Great White North." He points behind him. "This space became available when they closed."
"That explains part of it, but why are you here?"
"After you left, I finally realized that if Alex and I are going to get married, I needed to start being serious about work and stuff. With Jeff and Lester gone, I managed to turn the old store around and make it into one of the most profitable in the chain. I was the one who suggested to Corporate that they look into this move, so they decided to bring me along."
"Wow, look at you, all grown up. I'm proud of you, Morgan. I'm sorry I didn't know about all of this. Are you and Alex engaged?"
He smiles. "Yeah, last month." There's a flash of disappointment on Morgan's face. "Chuck, I told you about all this stuff in my texts. I even updated my Facebook wall. I thought that maybe you were on a deep undercover mission and couldn't reply. But at least I thought you knew."
Chuck can't stop his flush of shame.
Damn! I did see the texts come in but always thought I was too busy to read them right then. What's happened to me? Do I think I'm too important to pay any attention to my best friend?
"I'm sorry, Morgan. I haven't been a good friend for a quite a while. I've let other things crowd out the important stuff. Can you forgive me?"
"Hey, of course, I can. We're best buds, right? You're just a busy guy. I understand."
Chuck feels the shame even more keenly as his friend tries to defend him.
"Thanks. The last few months have been difficult, but I'll be better in the future."
"No prob. Don't sweat it. Oh, by the way, I saw Sarah a few days ago. She and some guy were walking into the Orange Orange. It was dark, so I didn't get a good look at him. Thought it was you for a second, but then I saw he wasn't tall enough. I thought you two were stationed in D.C. Is she on some sort of temporary assignment?"
The mental picture of Sarah with Bryce hits Chuck hard. It's a moment or two before he can answer, "Morg, Sarah and I aren't together anymore. It happened just before I left. Who you saw was her current partner. She stayed to work out of L.A."
"Chuck, how could you break up with her again? I thought you were an idiot the first couple of times, but to do it again! What hap-"
Chuck cuts him off. "She broke up with me."
"What?! Why would she do that? Trust me, that girl's into you. Has been from day one. What could you have possibly done to make her want to dump you?"
"Her partner is Bryce Larkin."
This stops Morgan in his tracks. Chuck can see the wheels turning at this roundabout answer.
"Whoa, dude. If she went back to Larkin, you must have really screwed up. How the hell did you manage to out-douche the douche-meister himself?"
And there it is. Summed up so succinctly in his own unique Morganesque way.
"Chuck, do you think she might be trying to send you a message?"
Of course! Why didn't I see that? She's telling me she'd rather be with Bryce freaking Larkin than Charles Carmichael.
It shocks him to his core to think he's sunk that low. Even though Sarah had generally refrained from speaking about Bryce, he'd picked up enough along the way to understand the succession of heartaches the man had brought upon her. And even though he'd said and done stupid, even hurtful, things on occasion, Chuck had always believed himself well removed from Bryce's level of heartless behavior.
It appears he's been deluding himself.
"I think you're right, buddy."
"Chuck, do you think you can maybe get her back?"
Why should she? Would I take her back if the situation was reversed? There's a part of him that's uncertain.
"I don't know if she'll take me back, Morg. And I'm not sure if I even deserve it. But before I can even try, I need to figure out how I could have been so stupid to lose her in the first place."
He knows there's only one person to whom he can turn. If she'll still talk to me.
"Morgan, I'm going to have to catch a flight out of here."
"OK. Are you going right now or do you have time for lunch? The Corporate guys are going to some French restaurant but I'd rather go to this pizza place that serves New York style slices. Saw it on Yelp. Got good reviews."
"I'll make time. Pizza sounds great."
Morgan glances at the map on his phone. "Denman Street. It's about a mile walk, but I thought we could use the time to talk and catch up."
"Good. You can tell me all about how you whipped the old crew into shape. But I'll need new shoes if we're going to walk that far. I know what I want, so it'll just be a couple of minutes."
For the first time in many months, Chuck feels that there's hope, something he'd thought was gone from his life.
Part Five: Ellie
The courtyard and the fountain are achingly familiar. So much heartache. So much joy.
He can almost see the two of them sitting at the fountain, struggling to find their way through the tangled mess their lives had become. Seemingly always out of sync as they tried to sort out how they felt about each other. Failing again and again to make that final connection.
But after they finally, almost miraculously, did manage to work it out, it became one of their favorite places. Sometimes they'd come out here just to talk, even though the concrete wasn't nearly as comfortable as the couch in their apartment.
There was something about the light in here that made Sarah look even more beautiful than usual, and that's saying a lot. He has a sudden memory of the dazzling smile she'd given him during that conversation about the dreams he had for the two of them, post-CIA. He remembers the kiss they'd shared, sealing their plans.
That was before he persuaded, almost forced, her into moving someplace more modern, more upscale. Before he somehow managed to throw away the absolute best thing in his life. Before he finally did become that moron that Casey had always accused him of being.
What's that old Joni Mitchell song? You don't know what you've got til it's gone?
As he approaches the door, his trepidation mounts. He hasn't communicated with Ellie for months, always putting it aside for another time. He'd called ahead, but had gotten Devon, who'd then informed him that Ellie would be off today, while he himself would be stuck at the hospital.
Just before they disconnected, his brother-in-law had said, "She hasn't heard from you for a while, bro. She misses you."
Chuck had just embarrassedly mumbled some sort of semi-coherent apology.
Now he's here, about to face this force of nature, his sister, in an effort to help him understand how he messed up so badly. He knows this isn't going to be a pleasant conversation and kind of wishes Devon could be here to serve as some sort of buffer.
Why did I think this was a good idea? Then he answers his own question. Sarah.
With renewed determination, he knocks firmly on the door.
When it swings open and he sees her face, he's immediately hit by the realization of just how much he's missed her. Just how important she is to him. And how badly he's neglected one of the most critical relationships in his life.
Before she even has the chance to move, he steps in and hugs her tightly, blinking back the sudden tears in his eyes.
Their heads close, he whispers, "Ellie, I'm so sorry. Can you forgive me?"
After a few more moments in his embrace, she pulls her head back to look in his face.
There's a hint of wetness in her eyes as she replies, "Of course I will, Chuck. You're my little brother and I love you.
"Come in. We need to talk." Closing the door behind him, Ellie leads him to the couch, where they sit, turning to face each other.
Her expression is firm and her voice has a definite edge as she asks, "But before I do forgive you, what is it exactly that you're apologizing for? Is it for how badly you've neglected Morgan, your best friend since you were a kid? Or is it for how you've basically ignored Devon and me for the last year? Or is it for how you've thrown away the love of an amazing woman, who's the best thing you ever had, and ever will have, in your life.
She looks at him, head cocked, waiting for his answer.
Ouch! So much for small talk.
He's angry for a brief moment but quickly calms himself. No. I deserved that. And expected it.
He takes a deep breath. "All of the above."
This appears to catch Ellie by surprise, apparently mollifying her anger. At least a little.
"You're right Ellie. I've been a jerk for quite some time now. With the help of a few friends, I'm starting to see how much of an idiot I've been. For example, yesterday I ran into Morgan in Vancouver—"
Ellie nods her head. "Yes, I know. He's up there on business for the Buy More."
Chuck's a little surprised at this, aware as he is of his sister's long-standing antipathy toward his friend.
"How did you know?"
"Chuck, he and Alex live right across the courtyard from us. Since he's been with her, I find I can tolerate him a lot better. We have them over for dinner quite regularly. They told us a few days ago about the trip."
He's embarrassed anew at knowing so little of what's been happening with the people with whom he used to be so close. He shakes it off and brings his mind back to the conversation.
"Seeing Morgan helped me realize how badly I've been neglecting the most important people in my life. We had a chance to talk and we've worked things out. I'm grateful that he was willing to accept my apology."
She nods. "Yes, I'm not surprised he did. He's a good man."
There's a stinging implication in her words, but he chooses to ignore it, doesn't want to be sidetracked by the instinctive urge to defend himself.
Remember, you deserve it.
Instead, he focuses own why he's here. "Ellie, when you opened the door just now, it hit me just how much I've missed you. Missed your advice."
His request for her help is left unsaid, his expression imploring as he waits for her reply.
She looks closely at him, a gravity in her expression that he's not certain he's seen before. "Chuck, before you ask for my help, there's something you need to know. I told you that I love you and that's the absolute truth. But I haven't actually liked you for quite some time now."
He'd thought her previous words were hard hitting, but this is like a punch to the gut. He can't recall anything from her lips that has ever wounded him as much. Sure, they've exchanged hurtful words before. What siblings haven't? But this is different. Different because this time they weren't spoken in the heat of the moment, driven by anger or frustration. No, this time, they were spoken coolly, calmly. This time, she means them. His heart sinks as he fully realizes just how much he's fallen in her estimation.
It's the worst moment in his life, save for the one when he watched Sarah walk away instead of throwing himself at her feet, begging her for the chance to make it right. That night he'd let his arrogance, his vanity, lead him down a disastrous path. He vows, right here and now, that he won't let that happen again. He'll take whatever medicine Ellie will dish out, gladly, willingly, if only it will help him find his way once more.
"Ellie, I've screwed it all up. I do need your help. I can't seem to figure out how I could have been so stupid as to push away the people I love."
Ellie looks him in the eyes, he thinks to gauge his sincerity. After a few seconds, she nods, apparently satisfied with what she sees.
"OK, Chuck. I'll help you, but I'm not going to pull any punches here. You need to hear the unvarnished truth. Are you going to be able to handle that?"
He swallows loudly. "I'll try."
There's just the tiniest sliver of a smile as she says, "Do or do not, there is no try."
And just like that, he knows things are going to be alright between them. Eventually. That is, as long as he does his part and really listens to her.
"OK, sis, I'll do, no try."
"What do you want to know first?"
He thinks for a few seconds before replying, "Maybe a good place to start would be you telling me what kind of person I've become."
It takes no time at all for her to reply. "I would say that you came across as a selfish, egomaniacal ass, but I wouldn't want you to think I was sugar-coating it."
Even though the statement is accompanied by a little grin, he can tell she means it.
"Wow, sis. Getting right to the point there. Maybe you could tell me when you started to notice that I was becoming said ass?"
"It was sometime after you finally came clean about what was going on in your life. You know, the whole fake girlfriend and Intersect thing." She glares at him and he holds his hands up in surrender. "When I finally understood what was going on, that my little brother was some sort of super spy, I started to notice changes in you."
"What kind of changes?"
"They weren't all bad. In fact, some were really good. First of all, really being with Sarah made you more confident. Quite understandable, given how gorgeous she is, she could have practically any man she wanted and she chose you."
He suddenly remembers the exact moment when he realized that his feelings for Sarah Walker were truly and fully reciprocated. He'd been so stunned that it had taken Sarah's laughing kiss to snap him out of it. He'd believed right then that he was the luckiest man on earth. And he had been.
"You're right, sis. Being with Sarah did change me."
"But it wasn't just her, Chuck. You were finally doing something meaningful in your life. Even though the thought that my little brother was putting himself in harm's way made me feel sick to my stomach, I knew you were doing a good thing, helping people, saving lives. I was proud of you."
He suddenly feels a little embarrassed, "Ellie, you know most of that was the Intersect—"
She jumps in and, in a scolding tone, says, "Charles Irving Bartowski, don't ever say that again. And don't you believe it. The Intersect only gave you abilities. How you used them, how you treated others was pure Chuck. And for a very long time, you handled the whole thing really well.'
"I hear a 'but' coming."
"Yeah, you do. Chuck, it didn't happen right away, and it wasn't anything big at first. It kinda snuck up on me, and, if I had to guess, on you as well."
"What do you mean?"
"Like I said, it was small things, things I look back at now and understand in hindsight."
"The way you'd look at yourself in a mirror, for example."
"I've always checked myself out in mirrors, so what changed?"
"Chuck, before it was because you needed the reassurance that you looked presentable. Even after, you'd ask me if you looked alright, especially if you were going out with Sarah. But then, as time went on, I started to notice you would linger in front of the mirror a little longer than normal, couldn't pass one up without taking a look. Sometimes you would have this smug look on your face as if to say, 'I'm pretty hot stuff'. Gradually, you stopped asking for my opinion, started taking it for granted that you look good."
Ellie continues, "I didn't really think it was a problem. I actually liked that you were more self-assured. But then I started to realize that your self-confidence was starting to turn into conceit. Still, I didn't say anything. I was trying not to be the interfering big sister, sticking my nose in."
He smiles. "It's never stopped you before."
She grins back, ruefully. "Yeah, I know. But you were with Sarah. And I decided that if it didn't bother her, it wasn't my place to step in."
He remembers, how at first, Sarah had gently chided him over his mirror habits. Gradually, though, she'd become less patient when he'd kept them up, her gentle tolerance eventually giving way to occasional bouts of exasperation.
How did I let that happen?
"What else, Ellie?"
"Lots of things. I noticed more and more that you felt your opinions on matters, whether they were about movies, politics, or pretty much anything else, were always right. You had less and less tolerance for other people's viewpoints. Again, at first I liked that you were more self-assured, but then it started to grate on me. After a while, even Devon told me it was definitely 'not awesome'.
"One time you went so far as to brutally shoot Sarah down in front of the group. I could tell she was upset, embarrassed, even though she tried to hide it behind that poker face of hers. But you know what the saddest part of it was?"
He just shakes his head.
"That you didn't even notice what you'd done. You just plowed on as if everything was fine. The Chuck I knew and loved would never have done that. Sure, maybe you were a little too apologetic at times, but that was far better than being so callously insensitive to the feelings of a woman who cared for you so much. And the feelings of other people, for that matter."
It comes back to him how Sarah had tried to tell him how much he'd hurt her, but he'd been harshly dismissive, told her she was being much too sensitive.
He grasps at a straw. "Ellie, could this be a side effect of the Intersect?"
She sighs as she shakes her head. "I talked to Dad about it. Told him what was happening to you. He looked into it and got back to me a while ago. He was thorough, had Beckman run a psych test on the other ISAs. He was very clear that they couldn't find any evidence that the Intersect was responsible for the personality changes you were experiencing."
His shoulders slump. "So it was just me."
She nods. "Chuck, there's a battle we have to fight within ourselves when we're given the ability and the opportunity to accomplish great things. There's a razor thin line between self-confidence and hubris. I see it all the time in my profession. Brilliant doctors who cross that line, think they're virtually gods because of what they're able to achieve."
She pauses for a few seconds as she looks him in the eye. "Sad to say, little brother, in this battle you didn't exactly come off victorious. Remember, with great power-"
He finishes for her. "-comes great responsibility. Thanks, Uncle Ben. It seems I've forgotten my basic Spider-Man lore."
He's about to comment further when suddenly something occurs to him. "Ellie, how did you know that Sarah and I are no longer together? Even Morgan had no idea."
She appears to hesitate before quietly replying, "Chuck, Sarah and I talk quite often. When she's in town we try to have lunch together at least once a week, if possible. If not, we talk on the phone."
He's shocked. "I…I had no idea she was still in contact with you."
"Chuck, Sarah and I are close. Just—"
He cuts her off, can't stop himself from eagerly inquiring, "Does she ever ask about me?"
Ellie doesn't reply immediately. Then shaking her head, says, "No, not anymore."
"Oh." Just at that moment, Chuck can't help but think how so much disappointment can be packed into such a small word. Until this instant, there'd been part of him that firmly believed that she was as much devastated by their painful separation as he was. That she was as keen as him to reconcile. But now, as a painful memory strikes him, he's suddenly much less sure.
Not long before his mother had disappeared, she'd taken him and Morgan on a winter weekend trip to the Sierras. Neither of them had ever seen that much snow. Immediately, they'd fell to planning out, and then building a massive snow fort. Using washtubs and pails to mold the snow, they'd worked hard all day long, building the structure up from nothing. It was a thing of beauty, and both of them had felt proud of their accomplishment. Since it was dusk by the time they finished, they'd retired to their nearby cabin, talking almost incessantly of the epic snowball fight they would have the next day.
Just before going to bed, he'd gone to the window to take one last look at the fort, only to see two teenage boys kicking at it, laughing as they smashed down the walls. Before his mother could stop him, he'd rushed outside, clothed in nothing more than his pajamas, his feet bare.
He was too late. They'd moved on, leaving the fort in ruins. And as that ten-year-old boy stood there in the snow, crying, trying hard to comprehend this act of incomprehensible callousness, he'd hated those boys with a passion he'd never experienced before. And he promised himself he would never, ever be like them.
But now Chuck's forced to admit that his conduct has been far more deplorable than theirs ever was. He's taken something far more beautiful, something far more precious, something that he and Sarah had made together, and torn it down with his own two hands. If Sarah feels even remotely close to the way he'd felt that night, he knows he has virtually no chance of ever getting her back.
Ellie's voice jolts him out got his despondent introspection.
"Chuck, sometimes I think she wants to ask, but lately our conversations have become increasingly superficial. We no longer touch on anything that went on between the two of you. She hasn't specifically said so, but I believe she doesn't want me to tell you how she currently feels."
"Sis, can you tell me just one thing? Is she happy?" He's torn, unsure which answer he really wants to hear. Part of him hates the possibility that, without him, she's found a way to be happy. But another part of him truly wishes she's somehow managed it. She deserves it.
He's afraid, but he has to know. He pleads. "Please, Ellie. Just this one thing."
Ellie hesitates again. "No, Chuck. She's not happy."
His instant exultation is immediately tempered by shame. How can he be so joyous over the fact that she isn't? But as much as he tries, he just can't stop himself.
Maybe there's still a chance. A chance to put things right.
Ellie's words bring him back to the here and now. "You hurt her, Chuck. Badly."
"How can you be sure? I thought she didn't talk about stuff like that anymore."
"Chuck, she didn't have to say anything for me to know. It was obvious that she's changed since you broke up. She's much more like she was in the beginning. Harder. More guarded. More withdrawn. Even Devon saw the difference the only time she came over after it all happened." Ellie pauses before asking, "Did I tell you she doesn't come here anymore?"
He shakes his head. "No, you didn't."
"That day, when she came over to tell me about your breakup, I found her in the courtyard, sitting at the fountain, staring at your old apartment. She tried to cover it up, but I could tell she'd been crying. Ever since then, I always meet her for lunch well away from this place."
He's shamed by her words. Somehow, all this time he'd truly only been thinking how this whole thing affected him.
"Ellie, I didn't realize—"
"How much your actions affected other people? No, Chuck, you didn't. Yes, her and I still talk, but I feel I'm losing her, like she's slowly pulling away. I'm so afraid that one day she'll just be gone and I'll never see her, never speak to her again. I'd miss her terribly. She's like a sister to me. The only people I love more are Devon and you."
How did I become this self-centered?
"I'm so sorry, Ellie. I had no idea."
"I know, Chuck. It's all too easy to focus only on oneself when our heart's been broken."
"It's that obvious?"
"Yes, it's easy to see. And with Sarah, too."
She looks into his eyes. "Chuck, I don't think you understand just how badly you broke her heart when you took away what you'd given her."
He's a little puzzled. "What do you mean? What did I give her?"
"Something no one else ever had. Confidence."
He almost laughs at that. "Ellie, you've seen her. You've seen what she's capable of accomplishing. One thing that Sarah Walker definitely doesn't lack is confidence."
"No, Chuck, you're wrong," Ellie adamantly exclaims, making him flinch a little. "You gave her a kind of confidence she'd never had before. The confidence that, behind all those walls she put up, buried underneath all the things she's done, there was a woman truly worthy of being loved. And for the first time in her life, she felt that she deserved to be adored, cherished."
His head down, he mutters, "And then I made her feel second-rate, took her for granted, treated her like crap." He smacks himself in the forehead. "Idiot!"
He raises his head, looks into Ellie's eyes. Desperate. "Is there any hope I can fix this? Do you think she'll take me back?"
"Truthfully, I'm not sure. I think she wants to, but she's been betrayed so often that she may not be able to come back from this one."
Despite his previous resolve to accept her counsel without complaint, he takes offense at that, angrily saying, "Ellie, don't you think that betrayal is a bit strong?"
She's furious as she leans in closer, practically spitting out the words. "Chuck, how can you be so damned stupid? If anything, that word isn't nearly strong enough to describe what you did to her! She put her faith, her trust, in you. She believed that you'd always be there for her and only her. That you would always put her first in your life. That you would always be that man she fell in love with. And for so long, that's exactly who you were.
"And then you weren't."
He tries to turn away from her wrath, but she takes his head in her hands, forces him to look her way. "If that's not betrayal, I don't know what is. Surely, Chuck, you can't be so blind as to not see that?"
He opens his mouth to defend himself, but stops as he realizes she's absolutely correct. He's no better than Jack Burton, or Bryce Larkin, or any of those other faceless, nameless people that had passed through her life, hurting her over and over.
Who am I kidding? I'm worse. Than any of them.
Then the tears come. And at that moment, it becomes perfectly clear. He knows what has to be done.
Clearing his throat he says, "You're right Ellie, I've been blind. I need to meet with Dad. Can you arrange that for me?"
Ellie's expression softens. "What for?"
"There's something I need him to do. Three days from now, I'll have a chance to make this right and I'm going to do whatever it takes."
He can see the dawning comprehension in her face. "I'll call him right now, Chuck."
"Thanks, Ellie. For everything."
Part Six: Sarah
Three Days Later
Sitting in his rental car, he stares at the beach stretched out in front of him. The beach where she'd told him to trust her. He'd never specifically asked, but it's likely she'd doubted he would be able to do so after all that happened that fateful night. It's ironic that now the shoe is on the other foot, that now he'll be the one asking, doubting if he's any longer worthy of her trust.
As the time arrives to make the call, he finds that his hands are trembling. So much so, that he can barely read the number on the well-worn card Sarah had given him. Not that he really needs to do so. He'd memorized the number the first time he'd seen it. But he wants to be absolutely certain he gets this right.
He takes a deep breath, calming himself somewhat. That he'll hear her voice again after all this time is making him antsy with anticipation. As he punches in the number, he again goes over the words he's rehearsed.
It rings only once before connecting. He doesn't even wait for a hello before blurting out, "Sarah, it's Chuck—"
He stops when he realizes it's a recording. The message is brief, so brief that he's not sure what he heard. He calls again, listens more carefully this time.
It's her voice. "7 p.m."
That's it? After six months, that's all I get? No hello? No, let's meet? No, we need to talk?
He calls again, wondering if he's missed something, some nuance in her tone. Maybe there's more to the message if he just waits a little longer. He listens again, but there's nothing more and he finds himself still confused. And frustrated.
What am I supposed to do with that?
But then he understands. It's a test. She's given him the when. He has to figure out the where. Glancing at his watch, he sees that he has only a single hour in which to do so. One hour, one chance to get it right.
He breathes a small sigh of relief, believing he's already passed part of the test, that he's here in L.A., close enough to reach her within the time allotted.
But where exactly?
Think, Chuck, think!
The Buy More? The first place they met?
The restaurant where they had their first date?
The Orange Orange?
The beach? Should I just wait for her here?
His mind whirls.
A moment later, he smiles.
As he approaches the building, he's suddenly hit by the magnitude of the risk he's taking and his earlier confidence rapidly fades. All at once, he feels like he's walking through wet cement, his feet so weighed down as to make it virtually impossible to lift them from the ground. He stops.
What if she's not here? What if I chose wrong?
No. This has to be it.
He takes a deep breath and walks through the arched gateway. He can't bear to look ahead of him quite yet, so puts his head down, focuses instead on his Chuck-clad feet as they take him down the familiar path. After a few more steps, he stops, knowing he can't put if off any longer. He raises his head, looks toward the fountain, afraid of what he might see there, or, more accurately, not see there.
It takes a second for his eyes to adapt to the brighter light of the courtyard, and, for a panic-inducing instant, he believes it to be empty. But then he catches sight of her, sitting on the edge of the fountain, her back turned to him, long blond hair tumbling over her shoulders.
He releases the breath he didn't know he'd been holding.
Sarah Walker is always aware of her surroundings, so almost certainly knows that he's behind her. But she doesn't turn, doesn't look his way. He believes that he can see, even from behind, that she's tense, with apprehension, perhaps. Maybe it's uncertainty. However, it could be that he's just projecting his own fears onto her.
He stops on the opposite side of the fountain and softly calls out, "Sarah, it's me."
Without turning, she speaks, her tone of voice, it seems to him, an odd mixture of hope and doubt.
"How can I be sure?"
For a moment, he has no idea how to answer that, all his carefully rehearsed words suddenly fleeing his mind.
Just say something.
Walking around the fountain, he sits beside her, a couple of feet away. She continues to look straight ahead. Her hair obscures much of her profile, but even what little he can see is enough to set his heart beating wildly.
Why did I ever even look at anyone else?
He takes a deep breath. "Because, Charles Carmichael, even if he could've somehow found a way to put aside his arrogance, his stupidity and beg for your forgiveness, would never have known where to find you. He would have failed your test, because, as someone I know once told him, he was the biggest idiot on God's green earth."
She nods, still looking straight ahead. "Sounds like Casey."
He nods in turn, smiling a little bit. "Yes. It was."
She's quiet for a few seconds. "You said was the biggest idiot. Tell me, why should I believe that he's really changed?"
He replies, his voice quiet, "No, Sarah, you misunderstand me. I'm not telling you he's changed. What I'm telling you is that, as of two days ago, Charles Carmichael is dead and buried. And believe me, no one mourned his passing less than I did."
He hears a sharp intake of breath as she finally turns to him and asks, "What did you do?"
He's unable to answer right away, because seeing her look at him once again takes his breath away for a second or two. He thinks her sees in her expression that same mixture of hope and doubt he'd heard in her voice just moments ago.
"It's gone, Sarah. I had my dad remove it two days ago."
She looks shocked for a moment, but then her expression hardens. "That's not good enough. You can't blame the Intersect for the way you acted. I checked."
Although caught by surprise by her statement, he's touched by the fact she cared enough to look into it.
He looks intently into her eyes. "Sarah, I'm not trying to imply the Intersect was to blame. In the end, I had choices to make and I made the wrong ones. I allowed the Intersect, and all that came along with it, to change me. I allowed myself to become a person who didn't deserve your love."
Her voice is hard, disbelieving. "So, are you saying you did this just for me? Some grand gesture to get me back?"
"No, Sarah. Of course, I want you back, otherwise, I wouldn't be here. But first and foremost, I did this for me."
He pauses. "Sarah, have you ever come across the quote, 'True friends stab you in the front'?"
She seems a little surprised at the apparent sudden change in subject, but after a second or two, replies, "Yes, I have."
"Well, I never really understood what it meant until this past month. Fortunately for me, there were some people in my life who cared enough to look me in the eye and knife me repeatedly. It took me a while, but eventually, I saw what they saw. A self-absorbed, narcissistic, pompous idiot. Someone so full of himself that he pushed away everyone who cared for him."
The rigidity in her posture suddenly eases a little, and she uncrosses her arms, places her hands in her lap.
"And with that, I realized just how intensely I disliked the man I'd become. I finally understood that if I was to ever get back to being just Chuck Bartowski again, if I was to ever be a man you could maybe love again, the Intersect had to go."
Chuck can see she's following his every word, her eyes searching his face.
He slides closer to her. "So that's what I did. And now there's no one here but me, Chuck Bartowski, begging you for a second chance. A chance to prove that I'm the same man you fell in love with."
He gently takes her hand and pleads, "Sarah, I know I don't deserve it, but please, please just give me that chance."
She doesn't immediately respond, and when she does, her reaction is not what he'd hoped.
She pulls her hand from his, leaving it feeling cold and empty. "Before I can answer that, there are some things you should know. These past six months haven't just been a learning experience for you. I've also had time to learn about myself. What I wanted, what I needed going forward."
Suddenly, he gets the awful feeling that the bottom is about to fall out of his world.
"I assume you knew that when I requested to be partnered with Bryce again, it was primarily because I was trying to send you a message."
"Yes, I did figure that out." He's too embarrassed to admit how long it took for him to do so.
"Good. So, when Bryce and I met again, I made sure he knew where he and I stood. I told him we were to be nothing but partners, that our relationship was to be purely professional. He agreed and promised he wouldn't do anything to jeopardize that. Bryce told me that he'd been a changed man ever since he nearly died on the night you downloaded the Intersect 2.0. Frankly, I didn't know if I should believe him. So, I reminded myself to keep a close watch.
"I even went so far as to speak with some of his recent partners. They told me that he hadn't been at all like his reputation had portrayed him. And as the months passed, I found out for myself that they were right. This Bryce was always respectful of my personal space. He never went beyond the mission parameters, even when we had to pretend to be a couple. He never presumed to take advantage, never pressured me, no matter what the circumstances. We became a good team again, even better than we'd been before."
Something in his gut stirs, and he suddenly feels a little sick. "Sarah, why are you telling me all this?"
She stops for a second, looks straight into his eyes. "Because, as the weeks rolled by, something unexpected happened. I grew to like this new Bryce Larkin. A lot."
Abruptly, Chuck finds it very hard to breathe.
"We grew close again, close enough that I felt I could tell him about what had happened to us. He knew about our breakup, of course. But he'd never pried. Instead, he left it up to me to talk about it. When I told him that I was going to see you tonight, you know what he asked me?"
He swallows hard, just shakes his head, afraid to speak, sensing he's not going to like what she has to say.
"That if things didn't work out between us, would I consider giving him a second chance, another opportunity to see if he and I could make a go of it."
So this is it. She brought me here just so she can tell me she's going to leave with Bryce.
"Chuck," she pauses and he can easily see that she's doing her best to stay composed, "I couldn't give him an answer, one way or the other. Because until you walked in here, I had no idea how things were going to play out tonight. I wanted to give you a fair chance, but wasn't certain I would be able to do so."
She takes a deep breath. "I was facing this horribly difficult dilemma. You have to understand that, as bad as they were, the wounds Bryce had inflicted were older and the passage of time had started to heal them."
She stops for a moment. When she continues, he can hear her voice cracking with emotion. "But what you did, Chuck…was so much worse than anything Bryce had ever done. Because I never expected it from you. I've never trusted anyone like I trusted you. So you hurt me like no one else has ever been able to do. And those wounds were still so fresh, so painful."
His eyes averted, he can only nod, numbly, certain in his heart that he's about to pay the commensurate penalty for his unfathomable stupidity.
"Chuck, when I gave you that card, I'd believed that, in the end, this was going to be simple. That after tonight, we would either be together or I'd be alone. It'd never occurred to me that there might be a third option. That I could wind up with Bryce Larkin once more."
That's it then. I've lost her to Bryce again, and this time I have no one to blame but myself
He lurches to his feet, doing his best to rein in his absolute, soul-crushing despair. He smiles, a sickly one, he knows, but it's the best he can manage at this moment. "I understand, Sarah. I genuinely wish you and Bryce happiness. You deserve it. You really do. I'm truly sorry I put you through all this and can only hope that someday you'll find a way to think well of me again. Please be safe."
He takes one long, last look at her, trying to burn the image into his mind. "Goodbye, Sarah."
He turns to leave, hoping to escape before he completely breaks down. But, before he's able to take a single step, she surprises him by standing and grabbing his hand. Her touch sends that familiar jolt of electricity through him, and for just a moment he's back at the Buy More, her hand in his for the very first time.
"Come with me." Taking the lead, she drags him toward their former apartment. Stopping at the door, she reaches into her purse, pulls out a set of keys and inserts one into the lock.
Although he doesn't see any light leaking through the closed curtains, he whispers urgently, "Sarah, what are you doing? They might be home!"
She doesn't reply, simply opens the door, pulling him inside and shutting the door behind them. When she turns on the lights, he sees the apartment is an empty shell. No furniture. No photographs, no pictures on the wall.
He's confused, not sure what to read into her actions. "What's this all about, Sarah?"
She looks around for a few seconds, then brings her eyes to his. "A couple of months after you insisted that we move from here to that hi-tech, modern apartment you liked so much, this place became available. So I bought it. Secretly."
He's dumbfounded. "Why would you do that?"
"Because this was the only place in the world that ever felt like a real home to me. I couldn't bear the thought of someone else living here, being happy here. I'd hoped that the whole Charles Carmichael thing was just some sort of stupid phase and that, one day soon, we could make this place ours once again."
He's mortified anew by the realization of how insensitive he'd been.
"But then everything fell apart, and I had to leave. And I found that I couldn't bear coming back here. Even thinking about this place was much too painful. Just too many memories. But I couldn't let it go either. So it just sat here. Empty. Cold. Lifeless."
She gestures to the barren space that surrounds them. "Chuck, I don't want to end up like this. I'm so tired of being alone. Tired of wandering through this world with no place to call my own. I want a home. Right here. A place that I can share with the man I love. A place that he and I can fill with us."
She moves closer and, looking up into his face, says quietly, "And there's only one man I can see here with me."
There's something raging in his chest. Hope, maybe. But a part of him still has to ask. "Bryce?"
She shakes her head and his heart leaps. "No, Chuck. It was idiotic of me to think, even for a second, that it could ever be Bryce Larkin. And I'm so sorry I made you think that."
He holds his breath, afraid to believe.
"Chuck, how can you not see that it could never be anyone but you?"
She gently brushes the curls back from his forehead, looks into his eyes and tenderly says, "Chuck Bartowski, you're my home. You always have been and always will be."
He manages to choke back a sob, but can't stop the tears spilling from his eyes. He feels like his heart is about to explode. But, even as his joy threatens to overwhelm him, he can't stop himself from asking, "Sarah, how can you be so sure? I've been such an ass. Don't you think that you should take more time—"
She places her fingers softly on his lips, gently cuts him off as she shakes her head. "The moment I heard your voice tonight, my heart knew that Chuck, my Chuck, had come back to me. But, after what had happened with us, I wasn't sure if I could, or even should, trust my heart ever again. So I had to be convinced that Chuck Bartowski, not Charles Carmichael was here in this courtyard tonight. And you did just that.
"So, to answer your question, no, I don't need more time. We've wasted far too much of it already."
He swipes away his tears, unable to speak, just nods, solemnly.
But there's a perverseness in him that, even at this most joyful of moments, impels him to ask how she could be so forgiving, so quickly.
"You're wondering how I could forgive you so quickly."
He can only nod, confounded by her insightfulness.
"Chuck, I've seen over and over how this business changes people. They become someone whom they're not. Some fall so deep that they never get back to who they were. They dispense with their humanity in order to serve the greater good. So, when you downloaded it that night and suddenly had all these abilities, I was terrified that you would wind up on that same path.
"But then you showed me that you could rise above it. That you could, in your own unique way, do this job, and still remain the man I loved. We were together. And I was happy, happier than I'd ever been. Happier than I deserved."
He jumps in. "No, Sarah, you des—"
She cuts him off, a little sternly. "Chuck, please let me finish."
He hangs his head a little. "Sorry."
"It's OK. I just need to get this out."
Sarah continues, "We were happy, and as time went by, I suppose I got a little careless. I failed to notice that you were changing in ways I'd never expected. I glossed over my misgivings about how you were acting. I fooled myself into thinking that it wasn't a serious problem. That I could live with it."
She pauses, makes sure she has his attention. "Until one day I awoke to find myself living with a poor substitute for the man I'd fallen for. A version of him that I could neither love nor respect. And I realized I had to get out. I believed my leaving was the only way to shock you into understanding just how far off course you'd gone, and how badly you needed to change your direction. And, before you say we could've worked it out, please remember that I tried."
Chuck flushes as he remembers how many times she tried to get through to him, but he'd always brushed aside her concerns, told her she was worrying needlessly.
"But even as I was leaving, I knew that Chuck Bartowski was still there, somewhere under all the ugliness that was Charles Carmichael. And I believed that, given enough time, he would find his back again."
Sarah takes his hand, steps a little closer. "Chuck, I understand what it's like to almost lose yourself." She pauses. "I know, because I was almost gone by the time I met you. But then you helped me see that there was an alternate to the path I'd been on. You showed me that I was worthy of being forgiven for the things I'd done. Truly worthy of being loved.
"Chuck, you saved me."
"Sarah, I had no idea…" Dropping his head, he chokes up, can't finish his sentence.
"Don't you see? That's it. Right there. That's the man I fell in love with. That's what makes you such a great man. Because you have no real awareness of just how truly good you are."
She raises her hand, gently takes his chin and raises his head. Looking into his eyes, she says softly, "So, before I came here tonight, a part of me knew if that man appeared, I would forgive you. That to not do so would be both unnecessarily cruel and unduly spiteful."
He takes her in arms then, buries his tear-stained face in her hair. He just holds her tight, mutters, again and again, "Thank you."
After a few minutes, she pulls back a little, asks, "Sweetie, do you know what you did that finally convinced me you were back?"
He shakes his head. "I'm not certain."
"It was when you stood up to leave, thinking that I was going back to Bryce. I could see you were crushed, horribly disappointed. But I could also see that you were unselfish, genuine in wishing me happiness, even if that meant giving me up for good.
"And right then, I knew."
He manages a small grin. "So having the Intersect removed, somehow finding you in this big city, confessing that I was an idiot, and begging for your forgiveness, all of that, played no part in your decision?"
She blushes a little, slaps him on the chest. "Don't be a smart-ass. Of course, all of that was important, very much so. It was just that moment which crystallized it all."
"I know, Sarah." He pauses, then asks quietly, "Sarah, I'd like to kiss you now, if that's OK?"
She gives him a wobbly little grin. "I was wondering when you were going to ask. I was getting very close to taking matters into my own hands."
He grins back as he moves closer, tilts his head. As their lips meet, Chuck is struck by the absolute familiarity of her kiss. He'd thought that kissing Sarah again after so long might be strange, even a little uncomfortable at first. But it isn't. It's like he's never been gone. And judging by her whole-souled response, she feels the same way.
It seems that the heart remembers.
Some minutes later, he pulls back a few inches, then gently uses his thumb to swipe away some of the tears on her cheek. "Sarah, I know I'll have to work at fully regaining your trust. I don't expect that to happen overnight, but I'm so very grateful you've given me that chance. So, here's my promise to you.
"Sarah Walker, from this day forward, I vow to let my love for you guide my every thought, word and action. To always treat you with respect. I promise that I'll do my very best to never hurt you again. But if I fail in some way, and I likely will, I pledge to listen to you and do whatever it takes to gain your forgiveness. Lastly, I promise that, from now on, I'll do all I can to make you as happy as you've made me at this moment."
She blinks rapidly, her eyes glistening. "Sweetie, that was beautiful. Every word. Thank you, so much." She stands on her tiptoes, giving him a brief kiss. Smirking a little through her tears, she says, "Chuck, I must say, that was rather articulate for an off the cuff speech."
He blushes. "I have a little confession to make. I've been mulling the words over for the past three days. I didn't want to stumble over something this important." He leans in to kiss her again. "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to use them."
"Your welcome, sweetie."
A thought comes to him. "Sarah, there's something I haven't asked you yet. I'm only going to be a regular field analyst/agent from now on. I know it's a lot to ask after the way I've acted, but do you think we could be a team again? Or would I be holding you back too much?" He hastily adds, "I promise I won't be upset if you decide to stay on with Bryce."
She shakes her head. "Of course, we're going to be a team, sweetie. I'd rather work with an Intersect-free Chuck Bartowski than anyone else, including Bryce. You're a much better 'regular' agent than you give yourself credit for."
He releases the breath he'd been holding. "Thank you, Sarah. You don't know how much that means to me." He pauses. "The money's going to be a lot less as well."
Firmly, she says, "Chuck, I couldn't care less. Between the two of us, there'll be enough. Our money, remember?"
Nodding, he looks around the bare apartment. "We're gonna need some furniture."
"Yes, we will. Chuck, over the next while, I want to make this our home. Chuck and Sarah's. I want everything in here to be new, our choices, no carryovers from before. We can take our time, build it together, at our own pace. Is that OK with you?"
He understands that she means much more than just furniture. He smiles. "Yes, a fresh start. I like that idea."
He grins. "However, I'm asking for just one exception."
She looks mildly suspicious. "What? Please don't tell me it's your action figures."
"No. Gave them all to Morgan a while ago. It's my Tron poster."
She heaves a pretended sigh. "OK. But I get to choose where it goes."
"OK." He grins. "See what just happened there, babe? We just did the whole couple compromise thingy. I believe we're really going to be good at it this time."
She rolls her eyes, but says, "I think you're right, sweetie."
Glancing towards his feet, she smiles and says, "I noticed the Chucks when you sat down. I like them. They're you."
He quickly looks down before giving her a lopsided grin. "Yeah, they are, aren't they?"
"It's good to have you back."
"It's good to be back."
A/N: Thank you for reading. I really, really appreciate constructive reviews.