SARAH VS. THE CAVEAT EMPTOR

A Chuck story

by Rachel Smith Cobleigh


1

January 2012

San Pedro, California

The deserted beach was unfamiliar, yet here she stood at the top of the rise, on the edge of the parking lot, feeling as though there was one spot on the sand, just there, where if she could only reach it, she would have a hope of... of something.

She sighed and put her hands on her hips as she glared out at the ocean.

Why was she even here? She should just get back in her car and leave town, as she'd planned.

But a faint echo of something had caught her eye when she saw the exit sign off the freeway, and the strange sensation had persisted, tugging her on from one turn to the next, until she had pulled into this empty beach lot and finally turned off her car's engine in disgust. What was she chasing? A ghost of her past? A feeling that if she could just find the right thing, it would all come flooding back to her, and she wouldn't be so fucking lost?

God, it was so frustrating, this being on the edge of something and not knowing what the hell it was.

Well, she was done standing on the edge.

Sarah stepped out onto the sand and picked her way down to that mythical, ridiculous, unfamiliar spot in the middle of nowhere. Pausing when she reached it, she turned in a slow circle, looking at everything in the hopes that something would spark a memory, but nothing did. The beach was empty, just a half mile of unexceptional sand in both directions. The parking lot lay behind her, and before her, the mild tossing gray-blue of the Pacific Ocean stretched to the horizon. A lone boat drifted a mile or so out to sea on her right, and she squinted, frowning up at the overcast sky. Cloud cover kept the faint hint of late-afternoon sunlight from reaching her.

Fitting. She sighed, wrapped her sweater around herself—it wasn't cold, but it wasn't exactly beach season, either—and sat down on the sand. What was she doing here? This spot wasn't special at all. Still, there was a kind of wild, peaceful beauty here. She wanted to be alone right now, and this was as good a place as any. She usually preferred to keep moving, to always be prepared for the next mission, but what did she have to lose by spending a few more minutes here? She'd already lost everything.

She pulled the sweater more tightly around herself and tucked her hands under her arms.

She hadn't let herself stop to think before now; her days had been a whirlwind, caught up in circumstances that she hadn't understood at first. When she had finally begun to grasp the truth of them, she had fled from the implications, pouring all of her skills and resources into stopping the man who had stolen so much from her: burned-out former CIA agent Nicholas Quinn.

Quinn had destroyed her life, lied to her, and used her to steal something called "the Intersect glasses" for him. He had told her that her mission was to kill someone, a man she later discovered was the one person in the world who cared the most about her—although of course, at the time, she hadn't known who her target really was. But once she did, she had put everything she could into stopping Quinn.

Her self-imposed mission had been successful: she had killed Quinn only the night before. Of course, she hadn't done it alone.

Then there had been the debriefing, which had taken a couple of hours, and a pile of paperwork for the local police department, and the reports to be filed with the CIA and NSA, and when that was finished, there were too many eyes on her, silently wanting, expecting, questioning. But she had no answers for them, and she was exhausted, the adrenaline having long since drained away. So she had gone back to the only place she could bear, her hotel room, and she hadn't even changed or brushed her teeth before she had collapsed on the bed.

Then, today. They had called to tell her that General Beckman would be convening the mission post-mortem at 1300 hours, and of course Sarah was expected to be there, given that she had played a central role in bringing about the mission's successful conclusion. Sarah had dragged herself out of bed, dreading the eyes she would soon have to face. After showering, she had chosen to armor herself with a professional outfit that did not invite casual, friendly conversation, and she had put on minimal makeup. She wasn't dressing up for anyone. She did not plan to linger once the meeting was over. She hadn't known where she would go next, but she knew she couldn't stay here. There were too many eyes.

Or rather, there was one pair of them, in particular, that she couldn't face.

And so she had been professional and concise, and had observed, listened, and kept her own counsel. After tying up the loose ends, NSA Director General Diane Beckman had congratulated them all on a job well done and said, with a parting smile, that if any of them ever wanted to save the world again, they knew where to find her.

So Sarah could have her old job back, if she wanted it. Or some form of her old job. There was no way that the CIA would simply let her pick back up where she had left off. She was more of a liability than an asset to them right now, with her Swiss-cheese memory.

Because two weeks and three days ago, she had woken up in an unfamiliar hotel room in the middle of the afternoon, with no idea of how she had gotten there, or even where she was.

Waking up, Rip Van Winkle style, five years older and in a life that wasn't hers, had left her reeling and adrift. She was accustomed to riding life's ever-changing circumstances, and she took pride in expertly surfing those waves, most of the time. But this life? She was utterly out to sea, lost. And not just by a little, but by so laughably much that if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes, she never would have believed that the circumstances of this new life were even possible.

It was science-fiction-cum-fairy-tale, unbelievable on so many levels. Yet the people she found herself among acted like it was just business as usual, when it was anything but.

Her persistent amnesia wasn't helping at all.

Who might she contact to find her bearings? The man who had originally recruited her into the CIA, Director Langston Graham, was dead, as was her field partner—and lover—Bryce Larkin. The only two people at the CIA whom she had come close to trusting were gone.

She couldn't contact her former team, the C.A.T. Squad. Sarah knew there was a traitor among them, so it would be dangerous to expose her tactical weakness. Not to mention that she was apparently no longer a CIA agent, and her former coworkers probably wouldn't be willing to talk to her about much, if anything.

She didn't know where her father was, and she had no way of contacting him. He regularly burned his phones. He would call her when he needed a favor.

She couldn't call her mother, not as long as Ryker and his gang were still after the baby.

So who could Sarah turn to now? Why had she never noticed before how isolated and friendless she was? How few people she could truly rely on?

General Beckman seemed to be a potential ally, but Sarah had no memory of ever working with her before. Was Sarah willing to work for this woman now, taking orders, traveling the world, trusting that she wouldn't just be a patsy again, allowing yet another stranger to use her as a lethal weapon?

And since when did Sarah have any qualms about being an assassin? It was what she had signed up for when Director Graham recruited her.

But it wasn't the same, not anymore, because whenever she thought about returning to that life, she kept seeing one face, his eyes begging and betrayed, as she had kicked him down a flight of stairs. The thought of becoming that cold, ruthless assassin again made her stomach turn over.

She could be cold and hard, but when he took a bullet for her, when he looked at her, she didn't want to be. She wanted to be the woman that he saw instead. But who was that woman?

Unbidden, a stray thought without context came to her, in his voice:

"You better be careful, Sarah. One day, you might actually turn into a real girl."

As opposed to the block of wood she became when she had to take a life, she assumed.

It wasn't a bad metaphor.

Sarah frowned and rocked forward, digging her heels into the sand. Snaking her arms under her legs, she rested her forehead on her knees. She was only thirty, but she felt older than that—and, paradoxically, younger, because she only had about twenty-five years' worth of memories. But her soul was weary.

Over the course of those missing five years, it seemed that she had become a real girl. Two weeks ago, John Casey—John Casey! Of all the burned-out, hard-bitten agents in circulation, he was the least likely to have gone soft like this!—Casey had given her a DVD of her Project Bartowski mission logs.

Morbid curiosity had filled her as she pushed the DVD into the player and sank down on the bed to watch herself as she, over the course of two years' worth of logs, transformed from Sarah Walker, Ruthless Spy, into Sarah Walker, a human woman in love with a sweet dork who made her laugh and blush and feel.

She had watched the woman in the videos soften by inches, usually unwillingly, until she realized she was helplessly in love. Then it was heartbreaking to hear the despair in her voice, as she faced working in close quarters every day with a man who had her heart but could never be permitted to know it.

The mission logs were terse, however, and what details they provided were sketchy. It was impossible to make out the forest for the trees. All she knew was that she had been assigned to protect one Charles Irving "Chuck" Bartowski, because he had been the Intersect—which didn't make any sense. What was this Intersect, exactly, and how could a person be it? Wasn't it just information stored in a pair of sunglasses? Which also didn't make much sense—and it boiled down to Chuck somehow being in possession of a huge amount of U.S. counterintelligence data. He could perform intelligence analyses that made him uniquely valuable to the U.S. government, and he was therefore a target of both foreign agencies and domestic terrorists.

But he wasn't considered a direct security threat himself, which implied that he hadn't hacked into either agency to get the data. And in the mission logs, she had clearly referred to him as if he were merely a civilian, so he wasn't a CIA or NSA agent and thus hadn't been given the data by legitimate means.

Then how had he gotten access to all these secrets? And what did "getting the Intersect out of his head" even mean?

It was all very confusing. What was clear was that Chuck Bartowski, the human Intersect, had been her asset.

Watching the mission logs, Sarah had been able to read between the lines—until they had eventually blurred and then disappeared altogether—to see what sort of hell this assignment had become. It had all been depressingly simple, except that her growing feelings for Chuck during those early years had made it terribly complicated. Fraternization between intelligence officers wasn't usually an issue, but between a handler and an asset? Especially someone who was apparently the most valuable intelligence asset the country had? From the implications of some of her recorded statements, Chuck had given the U.S. a unique, unprecedented edge over both foreign and domestic threats, and over the global network of organized crime.

Pursuing a relationship had absolutely been out of the question. If she allowed her feelings for him to affect her actions, she would have been deemed compromised and her replacement would have arrived within a matter of hours. How could she do what was necessary to protect him if her emotions were clouding her judgment? She had been assigned to protect him because she was the best the CIA had, and she sure as hell wasn't going to let anyone else do a half-assed job in her place. So she had suffered in silence, pushed her heart as far back as she could, and made damn sure that he was safe, each and every day.

Sarah grimaced and sat up, crossing her legs and tucking her feet underneath her. She tugged her sweater closed and frowned at the tossing gray waves. She had certainly failed at that mission since she had woken up. Not only had she not protected him, she had gone to great lengths to hurt him and the people he loved.

And still he cared about her, and had thrown himself between her and Quinn's bullet without even a moment's hesitation.

What had she ever done to deserve him? She must have changed a great deal in those missing five years for him to be willing to go to such lengths for her now. She owed him her life. How could she ever repay him? She knew what he wanted, but she couldn't give it to him. He was in love with a woman who no longer existed. How could she ever hope to be that woman again?

The mission logs gave her a few clues as to her transformation, but the logs hadn't covered the full five missing years. They had stopped abruptly, and Sarah didn't think it was because the DVD had reached its capacity. Something in the situation had altered. Given how she, Chuck, Casey, and Chuck's odd little bearded friend Morgan seemed to have been operating as Carmichael Industries, a team of independent spies-for-hire, a vast amount about their situation had obviously changed. She was no longer working for the CIA? Casey was no longer with the NSA? And Chuck was no longer the sole human Intersect, apparently. Not if there were Intersect glasses floating around, where anyone could put them on and download the Intersect data the glasses contained.

That still sounded like science fiction to her, but given how everyone talked about the Intersect glasses, that seemed to be how they worked. The technology had apparently evolved beyond what little she could glean from her old mission logs. Even Morgan acted like an expert on all things Intersect, and she didn't want to start speculating about how he had gotten himself mixed up in all of this.

What had happened?

She felt disconnected and hollow, as if Quinn had scooped a huge chunk from her chest and then shoved her out into the world to limp around with several internal organs missing... and she couldn't even remember what the organs were, or what they were supposed to do.

She was so lost.

She grasped at what threads she had. The final video on the DVD hadn't been one of her mission logs. It was a recording John Casey had made of himself, likely only a short while before he had brought the DVD to her.

"Walker. If you're watching this, then you've gotten this far, and you've seen the highlights of our first two years' worth of missions. Then you and Bartowski went AWOL—" Casey's expression soured, like he had a bad taste in his mouth. "It's a long story, ask him to explain it to you—and shortly after that, he ceased being a mere asset and became an agent. Then you two had your wires crossed for a while, but you eventually sorted yourselves out and got married." Casey's stony features softened slightly. "I was one of your groomsmen." Sarah had blinked at that, but Casey was still talking. "—'s a good man, Walker, and a damn fine spy, the second-best I've ever worked with." Casey almost smiled, but then the light went out of his eyes again. "After another long story, which ended right before your wedding, we all ended up out on our asses."

Sarah's mouth had dropped open and she had narrowed her eyes, but the onscreen Casey hadn't paused to explain.

"So we went into business for ourselves as Carmichael Industries, a private security firm. It's been a rocky six months, but it's been an honor. You wanted out—God knows this life isn't compatible with raising a family, I don't blame you—and we were closing up shop." Casey's mouth flattened into a grim line. "That's when Quinn showed up, about three weeks ago. He kidnapped Chuck and, to save him, you knowingly chose to download a faulty version of the Intersect—another long story, I don't have time right now, sorry—and we used it to track Quinn and his thugs to Japan, where we got to Chuck. The point is, the faulty Intersect wipes out memories every time it flashes, and Quinn knew that. He managed to get the drop on us and captured you." Casey's lips twisted. "Before we could get to you, Quinn apparently showed you specific triggers and forced you to flash until he had wiped out all your memories of the whole Intersect mission. We found some of the patterned cards he was using on you. Then he lied to you and sicced you on us."

Casey's frowned deepened. "I'm sorry, Walker. I really am. I just hope you can find your way back. Whatever happens, though, if you need anything, you call me, got it?"

He gave her a nod, then reached up and switched off the camera.

Sarah had sat staring at the blank TV screen for a while after that.

Now, she wanted to kick herself for finding it easier to believe Quinn's lies than Chuck's heart-on-his-sleeve, so-obvious-now-it-hurt truth.

She believed what Chuck had told her, but it wasn't enough. She only had facts. She didn't feel any of it.

She wasn't devoid of feelings; she was just empty and confused. Chuck had somehow changed her, not just over the course of the missing five years, but again over the course of these last few days since she had woken up. She was no longer the ruthless, wildcard assassin, but she wasn't Sarah Bartowski, his wife, either.

The air was growing cooler, and Sarah pulled her sweater snugly around herself, not quite ready to leave yet. The sun had drifted closer to the horizon, leaving a strip of burnished gold across the sky, above the gray of the clouds and the ocean. She would need to go soon, to get in her car and drive away, leaving this last amorphous hope behind. She would drive up the coast, find a hotel, get her bearings, and decide where to go from there. Perhaps she would get on a flight to Langley. She still had her skills, even if she didn't have her memories. Sarah could find a place at the CIA. It wouldn't be the same as she remembered, but she could make it work.

And maybe... She was still married, technically. Maybe she could come back and visit Chuck from time to time, see how he was doing. Maybe they could Skype when they were apart. Maybe she could get to know him again, and try... again. She knew he wanted to, and although she wasn't ready to restart a relationship yet—never mind commit to a marriage with a stranger—she could honestly say that she wasn't entirely opposed to the idea of him. Well, if she were honest, she wasn't opposed to the idea of him at all. There was nothing unappealing about him. He was kind of handsome, in a tall, earnest, nerdy sort of way, and although he was gangly, he had a grace that was all his own. He wouldn't have been her type before, but then her type hadn't been the sort to love selflessly. People in her world used each other, minimized their attachments, and moved on. She never could fully trust anyone.

She still didn't fully trust him, but when she wondered what she wouldn't trust him with, she had a hard time finding something, and that frightened her a little bit. She only had a few days' worth of memories of him, but he had proven himself over and over, in small ways and large. His moral compass was extraordinary. How had he ever survived in the spy world? It was the kind of world that chewed up people like him and spat them out—or got them killed. Yet here he was, apparently five years on, this strange anomaly: a top-notch spy who went out of his way to avoid killing people.

In the past two days, she had seen him in action. He had a brilliant mind, and was unusually good with computers. He could be relied upon in hand-to-hand combat. He could work a cover. But he had an annoying tendency to talk about his feelings during missions—while they were in Germany two days ago, trying to track down Quinn, Chuck had kept trying to tell her their story, until she finally shut him down. They hadn't had time for the distraction!—and he could be a complete idiot sometimes.

She shook her head and exhaled a short, disbelieving laugh at the memory of how, to avoid shooting Quinn two days ago—Chuck had only had a Desert Eagle, and at that close range with rounds that large, pretty much all of his possible shots would have either killed Quinn instantly or done enough damage that the man would have bled out on the sidewalk before an ambulance could arrive—Chuck had aimed the gun upward and fired off a warning shot instead.

But the warning shot had hit the helicopter Casey was in above them, thus forcing the pilot to do an emergency landing in the middle of the street, and allowing Quinn to escape amidst all the resulting chaos.

Despite that fiasco, they had regrouped, recaptured the Intersect glasses before Quinn was able to use them, and had prevented him from blowing up a concert hall full of people to cover his tracks. And Sarah had finally gotten to put a bullet in Quinn's chest, where it belonged.

Of course, that victory had been bittersweet. Sarah had known that Chuck and his sister, Ellie, had been preparing to modify the Intersect that was loaded in the glasses. They were planning to add in all the images and files they could muster that covered the missing five years of Sarah's life. Ellie was a neurologist, and she believed that she could use the Intersect to help kick-start Sarah's brain into retrieving her lost memories.

Then, if Sarah walked through the spaces of her old life, if she spent time with her loved ones, doing familiar things, she would flash on each trigger and her mind would rebuild itself. The theory involved something about the firing patterns of neural networks, and how memories were stored in the brain. Sarah hadn't followed most of it, and she wasn't sure if she believed it, but she had hoped. She wanted her life back.

But there had been a bomb in the concert hall and, with Quinn lying dead at their feet, the only way to stop it from going off in time was to use the Intersect to look up the specs of that particular bomb, and analyze which components needed to be disconnected to defuse it. Which meant that one of them had to put on the glasses and download the Intersect. Chuck had been the best candidate.

Unfortunately, the glasses were single-use; each Intersect that was loaded into them was designed to erase its data once the download was complete, as a security measure to prevent unauthorized downloads, and the only way to reload the glasses was to get to an Intersect terminal—the last known one of which Sarah had helped to blow up two weeks earlier, on Quinn's orders.

So, armed with the Intersect, they had defused the bomb, saved the oblivious concert hall full of people, and had gone back to their base, Castle, to wrap everything up and return the Intersect glasses to the U.S. government for safekeeping.

Sarah wondered how "safe" the glasses would really be. This kind of technology wouldn't stay under wraps for long.

But that wasn't her problem. No, her problems were myriad and impossible enough to make her want to crawl into bed and drag the covers over her head, despite how useless that would be. Where the hell was she going to go now?

Sarah had initially been prepared to continuing working for Carmichael Industries, because it was a living, at least until she got her feet under her and figured out where she was going to go next. But she, Chuck, Casey, and Morgan had been in the process of dissolving Carmichael Industries and reconstituting it into something else when everything had happened with Quinn, and given how uncertain Sarah felt about everything right now, she wasn't prepared to build a new business from the ground up. Casey was leaving, his skill set no longer needed in the brave new world, whatever it was supposed to be. The Buy More—a big-box electronics store where Chuck and Morgan worked their cover jobs—and Castle, secretly located underneath it, had been sold to new owners. Sarah wasn't clear on how Carmichael Industries had come to own either property in the first place, but it seemed that the sale of both was apparently where she and Chuck had gotten the money to buy their dream house.

And Sarah was definitely not ready to move into a "dream house" when she couldn't even remember the dream it was supposed to represent.

She was sure Chuck would tell her about it, if she asked, but she wasn't sure she wanted to ask. Would hearing about this "dream" just make her ache—or worse, would she feel nothing? It wasn't just that she would have to endure disappointing him again, but the thought that she had had a dream, and lost it, was just too soul-leeching.

What did she want? Where did she want to go? The CIA didn't hold the same appeal anymore. The thought of spending the rest of her life alone, moving from place to place, doing other people's dirty work, forced to insinuate herself into the lives of people she despised, lying, sleeping with a gun under her pillow and walking with knives strapped to her ankles... it wearied her. The life of an elite field agent used to at least get her adrenaline pumping, and the satisfaction of having done a difficult job well was an indisputable upside, but she could tell almost no one about her successes or her failures. It was an essentially isolating line of work, and Sarah didn't want to be alone anymore. Not when she had seen that dream life in the framed portraits, had carved her name in that dream house, and had, for just a few days, experienced what it felt like to be cared for by an unlikely, motley little family. Not when she had had a taste of how it felt to be loved so completely, even if she hadn't been able to receive it at the time.

But how could she go back? She couldn't be that person he remembered. She didn't know how to be, and the thought of trying to put on a performance—

No. She couldn't do it.

She couldn't go back, and if she were honest, she didn't want to go forward alone.

But she was alone. No one knew where she was. She didn't even know where she was.

A few plovers picked at the sand, moving from spot to spot, racing down to the water's edge and then back up as the waves seethed in. She let her gaze drift out over the ocean, watching as the waves lapped at the shore, the whitecaps rolling over and over, their movements endless and calming. The thin line of gold over the horizon, now edged with pink and orange above, and grayish-lavender and blue below, was brilliant in a muted sort of way. It echoed in her like a live, restless painting of how she felt, writ large.

She didn't have to know where she was, and maybe she wasn't alone after all. She had the oddest sense that this wild, peaceful panorama was meant for her to see, and to simply be a part of. The ocean waves would keep rolling in. The sun would keep drifting through the sky. The plovers would find a place to sleep when the sun went down. And tomorrow, when the sun came up and the plovers came back out, the waves would still be there, rolling in and sliding out again. She would still be there, too. Perhaps not sitting in this spot anymore, but tomorrow would be a new dawn, a new day, a new life...

For some reason, that phrase relaxed her. It felt familiar, just as this spot on the beach did, even though she didn't understand why.

She felt like the Painter was saying that she was going to be okay.

She closed her eyes, drew in a deep, cleansing breath, and slowly exhaled, feeling the salty whisper-brush of the ocean breeze wash over her, gently tugging at tendrils of her hair before swirling on to play somewhere else.

Yes, this. This was where she wanted to be.

She opened her eyes. The sun was drifting closer to the horizon, and she knew she would have to leave the beach soon, when the air grew too cool for her to be comfortable in this thin sweater. But perhaps she could stay for a few minutes more. Taking a deep breath, she let it out with a sigh.

She didn't hear his footfalls at first, but as he drew up beside her, she felt the small tremors in the ground, and she looked up just as he sat down. He rested his elbows on his knees and, after glancing at her, he looked out at the ocean.

"I was hoping you'd be here," Chuck said quietly.


Author's Notes

I do not own any Chuck properties, nor do I make any money from the writing of this story.

Story excerpts and characters, created by Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak, are taken from Chuck Seasons 1 - 5 (2007-2012) © College Hill Pictures Inc., and Warner Bros. Television.

This story is released under the GPL/CC BY: verbatim copying and distribution of this entire work are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided attribution is preserved.