A/N: This is a Romance built on the structure of Chuck. I borrow a skoosh from the movie, Beautiful Creatures. I don't borrow anything plot-wise from the latter, only a few structuring devices and a few selected features of its world, although I change even those fairly drastically. I also borrow a couple of terms. This means that no one needs to have seen the movie in order to follow what happens. This is really all Chuck. I am engaged here in some medium-scale worldmaking: every Romance needs its world. Hence, I will have a fair amount to explain but be warned that I dole out explanations in pieces, over different parts of the story. (By 'Romance' I mean a love story told in a world of marvels and heightened perceptiveness.) Enjoy!

I do not own Chuck or any brand of anything mentioned herein. I may own items of the brand, of course, but not the brand itself. Zero money made.


Book One: Intersections

CHAPTER 1 Curiosity Shop

Chuck Bartowski hated green. Buy More green, anyway. He looked around the store, at its bizarre signs covered in strange sub-Orwellian slogans. He shook his head. Sometimes it got to him. He went home and hallucinated the signs on his bedroom walls. Spooky. They seemed to hang there on his walls and then to slide down out of sight, but leaving a trail of shimmering greenish phosphorescence. It was like the Buy More was haunting him. And, hell, if it was going to haunt him, it needed to pay him a lot more than eleven bucks an hour. He shook his head again, breaking the spell.


He hadn't been quite himself for a while, but especially since he took his second job. The Buy More salary was not going to get him out of Ellie's apartment, and as much as he loved her, and as much as he liked her boyfriend, Captain Awesome, for Chuck living with his sister and his sister's boyfriend was a spectacular failure to launch. The humiliating countdown began at Stanford. He had been a straight 'A' student majoring in both archeology and computer engineering. Just before graduation, they had expelled him summarily for cheating. He was innocent; no one would listen. Shortly after that, his (he had believed) serious relationship with Jill Roberts crashed and burned. The countdown was still going on; it never seemed to end. No launch, never a launch. All he knew was that he kept feeling smaller as the numbers kept getting smaller. The countdown never reached zero, though. He needed to find his own place if anything else in his life was ever going to get better, if he was ever going to bring this interminable, Zeno of Elea-inspired countdown to an end.

So, he'd gone out, resumes in hand. It seemed like nothing was happening, that he was only wasting paper, until he noticed a surprisingly small Help Wanted sign in the corner of a shop window. The Old Curiosity Shop. He looked at the pell-mell, unsettling collection of trinkets in the window display. Tarot cards, bits of string, oddities of jewelry, feathers, old leather-bound books, crystal balls, shrunken heads. But there were also, mixed in at random, genuine artifacts, old statues, masks. Chuck's archeological knowledge clicked in, and he recognized some of the items. None was particularly rare or valuable, but it was strange to see them scattered amongst the other oddments.

Intrigued (and still in need of a part-time job) Chuck entered the store. He was immediately overwhelmed by the scent of the place-the combined smell of old books, burning wax and incense, but all supported on a strong scent of exotic spices, a scent related to the scent of incense but distinguishable from it. The inside of the store was at least as jumbled as the window display. There were long, glass-topped tables with items under the glass. There were rows and rows of shelves covered in books, some books standing, some on their sides, some laying open on top of others. The books looked like a reference library, not like books for sale. There were displays of plants. There were-well, there were things everywhere. But there wasn't anyone-no one behind the counter, no one anywhere.

When Chuck got to what he took to be the main counter, identified by the huge, heavy antique cash register and the one small open bit of counter space beside it, he called out, softly.

"Uh, hello?"

There was no answer. He called out again, this time more greeting than question, and a little louder.

"Hello!"

He thought he heard a noise from behind the closed door on the opposite side of the counter. He noticed a brass bell on the counter and he tapped it sharply. After the ring, the noise from behind the door increased. But it still had not opened. He rang the bell again.

Finally, the noises grew closer to the door. It opened. But only a crack. A voice-female and sleepy-called out.

"What?"

"Uh, I, uh, saw the sign in the window. You need help?"

"You saw the sign?" The voice seemed suddenly awake but said nothing more.

"Yeah, yeah, the sign. Do you need help? I need a job-that is, a second job-and I like the shop. I even have some training that might be useful. Can I give you my resume and maybe fill out an application, or something?"

The door closed and silence fell over the shop. Chuck stood still, waiting. Nothing stirred. Chuck kept standing there, not moving. He would have thought he was being treated rudely if he had not felt more like he was being...tested.

"Really, I would like the job. I could use it. I...uh...I'm loyal." Loyal? What? Why did I say that?

The door opened. A small woman, middle-aged, plump, with reddish hair, walked to the counter after closing the door carefully behind her. She stopped and looked at Chuck. She was much shorter than him and had to tilt her head back sharply to look him in the eyes. And yet, despite the difference in their size, she seemed to be the one he was looking up to.

After meeting his eyes, she scanned him up and down in frank appraisal. She seemed to shake her head minutely in disapproval. But Chuck had seen so much disapproval in the eyes of others in the last five years or so, it did not unbalance him. He looked at her, trying to hold her eyes. But he found that difficult, not because of the hint of disapproval in them, but because the small woman somehow seemed to gather immense authority in her diminutive frame.

"I'm Chuck, like I said…" Chuck extended his hand. The woman ignored it. After a few seconds, Chuck looked at his own hand, still extended, then closed it and dropped it to his side in two slow, robotic movements. He smiled wanly.

"You are not the person I expected. No, no, you are not what I had in mind at all. But you saw the sign, and that's not up to me. I guess you are hired."

"Really?" Chuck was incredulous. He expected the woman to just shoo him away, like an annoyance. "So, what will I be doing?"

"We will figure that out as we go. My name is Beckmann. Two 'n's. I run the shop. You do what I say. I will pay you thirteen bucks an hour. You can work any three days a week, for five hours each day. The shop is open 24/7. I live in the back. Never, ever go into my quarters, and we will find a way to get along." She then extended her hand. Something about the hard glint in her eye as he took her hand and shook it made Chuck worry that he had promised the small woman something big, but he had no idea what that could be.


Chuck shook his head a third time, clearing his memory. He was back in the Buy More green. So far, his work with Beckmann had been...unusual. He had worked for the first time last night. He had waited on maybe two or three customers. Most of the time, he just wandered in the shop, looking at the items for sale, and trying to get a sense of the chaotic jumble of the place. Beckmann had greeted him when he showed up, had him sign some tax forms and other surprisingly normal forms-she hadn't even asked him to sign in blood!-and then she had shown him how to use the cash register. Soon afterwards, she had gone through the door behind the counter and closed it, leaving Chuck on his own.

Ever since he had seen the Help Wanted sign, Chuck had felt...weird. His handshake with Beckmann when he got the job had cemented the feeling in place, but had not made it any more intelligible. He felt expectant, like a shoe had dropped and another was supposed to drop soon. But he did not remember any first shoe dropping. He just had this expectancy, a low-level, something's-on-the-way feeling of impending...what? Not impending disaster, exactly; not impending joy, either. No, just a feeling of impending...change. Maybe snakes felt like this just before shedding their old skin? Maybe it was the feeling of birds at the beginning of the molting season?

In an attempt to get rid of the feeling, Chuck looked at the stack of books behind the counter, on a bookcase next to Beckmann's door. He noticed that there was one, slim and elegant, covered in a rich but unadorned leather, almost hidden between two very heavy tomes. He moved the top one and grabbed the slim book. It felt almost warm in his hand, and he had the distinct impression that it was breathing, or that it had a beating heart. It registered as: alive. Chuck swung his head quickly side to side. His nerves were playing tricks on him. He noticed the title of the book printed in gold tracery on the front: The Intersection of Perfect Natures Or on the Seeing of What Is and What Is Not. Chuck chuckled. There's the title of a best seller. He remember a crazy book he read in a philosophy class at Stanford-On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. That book had been by Schopenhauer, whose novelist mother had told him, rather unkindly, that his book's title made it sound like an apothecary's handbook. This title was perhaps even worse.

Chuck opened the book. The first page had the title again. It also listed the author: Orion. No publication date or publisher was listed, although the typesetting was beautiful and the paper of high quality. The odor of the book was nice, nothing moldy or musty, just the faint smell of good leather. Chuck turned the couple of blank pages after the title page, and began reading at Chapter One.


Sometime later-about two and a half hours, if his cell phone could be trusted-he finished the book. But he had no memory of having read it. But he somehow knew he had. As he looked back at the final page, the words became wavy and then disappeared. Chuck winced. He thumbed backwards through the book, but all the earlier pages were blank. The title page was blank. The front cover had no title. The book looked, for all intents and purposes, like a nicely made but empty journal. Chuck dropped it on the counter. His head ached, he realized. He reached up and rubbed his forehead, then used both hands to rub his temples. He felt a drop of something warm on his upper lip, and wiped at it with a finger. Blood. His nose was bleeding. It didn't seem bad. He grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket and squeezed his nostrils shut. In a few minutes, the bleeding stopped. All that was on his handkerchief was one small blot of blood. He carefully folded it closed and then dropped it in the wastebasket beneath the counter. Handkerchiefs were cheap, and if Ellie saw any sign of blood, she would go into turbo-doctor mode and Chuck would have to explain. And he wasn't sure how he could. Better to just get rid of the evidence.

Chuck retrieved the book from the counter and put it back where he had found it, stacking it again between the two heavy volumes. Shortly after that, Beckmann came out to tell him goodbye, and Chuck headed out of the shop.

When Chuck left, he had a distinct sense that he was being watched, followed. But several, he hoped subtle, checks over his shoulder revealed no one. When he got to the nearby parking lot, he climbed into his aging Corolla and headed home to Echo Park.


That had all been last night. This morning, in the light of a beautiful California day, all that seemed far away, except for the headache. Even a handful of aspirin had left that in place. He had been able to ignore it for most of the morning. But it seemed like it was responsible for the green of the Buy More crowding him more than usual. His grey Nerd Herd tie seemed like it was slowly tightening around his throat. His pocket protector felt like it was getting heavier and heavier. Even his familiar, treasured Chuck Taylors seemed like the laces were being pulled tighter around his feet. His uniform felt like it was trying to kill him, slowly, slowly, by suffocation.

Overcome, Chuck dropped his head on the Nerd Herd desk, hoping the strange feeling of the last couple of days would finally end. As he sat there, his head resting on his arms crossed on the counter, he felt a sudden gentle warmth, a hand had been placed softly over his own. Chuck felt a moment of sudden calm-the strange feelings of the last couple of days, indeed the general existential anxiety that had been with him since Jill and his dismissal from Stanford, all of that melted away instantaneously. All that existed was that hand on his hand.

But then Chuck thought the calm was just another of the strange feelings he had been having, not their cessation. The hand probably belonged to his best friend and coworker, Morgan Grimes, who loved to play practical jokes on him, the more humiliating the better. Without lifting his head, Chuck spoke.

"Look, Morgan, I know it's you. Gimme a break. I've got such a headache."

The hand on his moved; he felt it stroking the back of his hand, and the calm returned. Chuck finally looked up.

His hand was being ministered to by a woman of incandescent beauty. She was tall. Her hair was blond. But most important and most unmissable-her eyes were blue, cloudless sky blue. Azure. That cloudless sky blue was looking at him with a warmth that somehow felt as tactile as the warmth of her hand, still on his. Still?

Chuck jerked up, pulling his hand back as he did. He thought that for the briefest instant, the blue of her eyes clouded. But then she smiled.

"Headache, huh? The worst." Her voice was musical, alight with warmth. She continued to look at him, a small smile playing around the corners of her lips and peeking out from her eyes.

"Uh, yeah. Headache. Sorry, I thought you were Morgan." Chuck wished something else had come out of his mouth, some impressive string of words, but those were the words that had shown up.

"Morgan?" She kept smiling.

"Yeah, my, uh, friend. He works here too. Likes to screw with me. Like you were." Chuck suddenly realized what he had said. Horror showed on his face. But she barely reacted, a tinkle of laughter, and kept smiling.

"I would have thought you could tell the difference. You know, between me screwing with you and him?" Her smile went slightly crooked; she was waiting for his reaction. She is flirting with me?

"Is there anyway I could help you with something?" Chuck wanted to keep flirting, but he had to get the topic under control, at least a little.

She laughed. A genuine, hearty laugh. "So you are, like, a professional geek, or something?" She asked this while gesturing up at the Nerd Herd sign above the desk. "I guess I do need a geek's help."

Chuck laughed too. "No, not geek. Nerd. If it helps, nerd's care more about the distinction than geeks, and I am a nerd. What can this nerd do for you?" Chuck's laugh became a grin and his eyebrows climbed toward the top of his forehead.

The woman blushed slightly. She took a moment to gather herself, then reached into the purse slung from her shoulder. After rummaging in it for a minute, she pulled out her cell phone.

"I need help, yes. Uh. With this; I mean, just with this." She was momentarily flustered but she mastered it quickly. She handed him her phone and their hands brushed again. Chuck felt the same calm suffuse him. The calm was odd, because the woman also excited him as much as any woman he had ever talked to. But somehow his excitement felt right, appropriate-it belonged to him. He was calm about being excited by her-if that made any sense. She gave signs of being affected too, but Chuck was sure that was his imagination creating something that he wanted but that did not exist.

Chuck took her phone and opened the back. He tinkered with it for a moment.

"Oh, it turns out a screw is the problem. You need one." Chuck was so engrossed by the inwards of her phone that he had stopped listening to himself. It was only when he heard her gasping laugh that he remembered his own words. Mortified, he put the phone down and looked at her.

"I am very sorry. I never meant to say...that. I mean, I have no idea what you need. I mean, look at you...I mean, you do need a screw-but just a little one…."

"Oh, so that makes it better? Are you volunteering to give me a little screw?" She was looking at him with no readable expression, daring him to figure out how to answer that.

Chuck knew when to throw in the towel. He shut his mouth with an audible click of his teeth. He picked up her phone. Double-checking what was needed, he dug in the desk of the Nerd Herd and found a replacement for the small screw that had fallen out of her phone, and he screwed it into place. When he re-assembled the phone and turned it back on, he plugged it into the desk computer and ran a quick diagnostic. Everything seemed good. He unplugged the phone and held it out to her. She seemed like she had been carefully studying all that he did. She was so engrossed that it took her a moment to react to the proffered phone.

"Oh. It's fixed? Wow. You nerds are good." She took the phone and slipped it back in her purse. Then she looked at him almost bashfully. "I am new in town. I don't really know anyone here, and I prefer learning about a new place from someone who knows it. Would you, ah, be willing to maybe show me around one evening soon? Maybe tonight?"

Chuck had been behindhand in the conversation almost from the beginning. He was certain he had missed something. Did she just ask me out?

"He'd love too!" Chuck wheeled around and saw Morgan, small and bearded in his green Buy More sales shirt, grinning maniacally at him and the woman.

Chuck wheeled back around and found the woman looking at him, one eyebrow suspended, a question mark.

She asked again. "Well? Will you?"

"Yes, sure. I'd love...I'd be happy to show you around."

"Great. I will…."


Just then, an older man and a young girl approached the desk, barging into the conversation. Chuck immediately noticed that both the man and the girl were upset. He smiled quickly at the woman and turned to the older man.

"How can I help you?"

The man related a story about having filmed his granddaughter's piano recital for his daughter, the girl's mother. But he had hit the wrong button inadvertently and feared he had erased the video. At any rate, he could no longer find it on the phone. He desperately shoved the phone at Chuck.

Chuck took the phone and, as he had before with the woman's, plugged it into the desk computer. He typed quickly and scanned the screen. He frowned and looked up at the man.

"I don't see any video on the phone at all. You either erased it or never recorded it. I am really sorry."

Chuck grimaced when the older man's face fell completely.

"My daughter will be crushed. She wanted to hear her daughter play. She's in the hospital, hospice actually, and has been for a while. She wanted to hear her daughter play once more."

Chuck's eyes filled. "We have electronic keyboards here. Could we take one to her room, so her daughter could play there for her?"

The older man looked shocked.

"You would do that? But we have no money to afford…"

Chuck waved his hand gently at the man. Chuck grabbed a clipboard and signed himself and a keyboard out. He hopped over the desk and made his way quickly to the corner of the store with the keyboards. He grabbed a boxed one and a stand and gestured for the disbelieving older man and his daughter to come with him.

"C'mon. We'll take a Nerd Herder." As he turned to join the man and his granddaughter, Chuck shot a look quickly back to his desk. The beautiful woman, the woman with the sky in her gaze, was gone. They had not arranged the date. Chuck knew he would react to that later. But right now he had to help the grandfather and granddaughter.


Sarah Walker was fed up with Langston Graham. Fed. Up. He had been the one who found her, years ago, and who had recognized her powers. He had taught her to use them, and had been pleased, instead of threatened, when her abilities outstripped his instruction. But he had also remained very much in control of their relationship. He was, in effect, her teacher and her boss. She worked for him. If it were a matter of her powers versus his, she would win. But Graham was teacher and boss of many Casters, and while none was Sarah's equal, any group of them would be hard for her to resist, if she could resist. So, she remained Graham's golden-haired Enforcer, scourge of the underworld, even though she wanted to be free of him.

Her desire for freedom had grown sharply of late. Various events had soured her on the life she was living. The life of mortals-ordinary, normal life-suddenly seemed like something worth having to her. She even thought, once or twice, when it was very dark and when she was very alone, about the fact that she might someday be someone's mother, that she could have a child. She wasn't sure she wanted that. But she thought she at least wanted to want it. Who knew what tomorrow might bring?


And, now, this. Graham forces her to rush to Burbank because someone had read The Intersection. The bizarre thing was that the person who read it was mortal. Graham had a vision of it when it happened.

Sarah was not a Seer, like Graham. She was an Enforcer. She did not keep up with lore. She was a quick study, but never one for poring over ancient books. She knew that The Intersection appeared only once every age, and that it's doing so meant that important changes were on the way. No one seemed to know for sure if the changes were good or bad or both, but everyone agreed they would be...significant. The book normally chose its reader, usually a Caster of great power. But evidently this time, for the first time, the book had been read by a mortal, had chosen a mortal. A mortal. That was supposed to be impossible. Adding to the strangeness of it all, the book had been read, Graham told her, by a guy who worked at a big box store and who lived with his sister. A guy who had, for some reason, been thrown out of college and who seemed destined to live the life of You know, that guy who everyone used to think had so much potential. He was that guy. Basically, not just a mortal, but a loser mortal. Graham had told her what he had seen in his vision. He had transported her to Burbank and given her her mission. Figure out who was controlling this Chuck Bartowski and why. Graham was certain that Bartowski had to be somehow in the thrall of a Caster, probably a powerful dark Caster, and that somehow the Caster had managed to bring about the book's choosing Chuck.

Sarah had oriented in Burbank quickly. She showed up outside the shop shortly before Bartowski left. She followed him all the way back to his apartment. Despite his obvious sense that he was being followed-where did that come from, by the way?-she easily avoided detection. She watched him as he fell asleep through the window of his bedroom. His face, turned toward her on his pillow, looked innocent and peaceful. She knew that would not last long. But she felt the look on his face tug at her, at her heart, a reminder of something that she had not known in many years. She tightened her grip on her emotions. What fools these mortals be! Shakespeare had been a Caster, of course.

Graham wanted her to get to know Bartowski, insinuate herself into his life as quickly as possible. So she put her plan into action the next day. She put on a pink blouse and grey skirt and headed to the Buy More. Bartowski was standing at a desk, under a sign that read "Nerd Herd". Fool, indeed! But just as she was about to start to the desk, she swallowed her smirk as she saw pain in his expression and then watched him put his head down on his arms. When she reached him, the contrast between the innocence and peace of his face in sleep and the pain in it today moved her hand. She placed her hand, palm down, on top of one of his. She expected him to look up, but he didn't. She allowed her fingers, which seemed to have minds of their own, to rub gently across the back of his hand.

Suddenly he jumped up and pulled his hand back. He had thought she was someone else, some guy friend of his. Some guy? They talked back and forth, and she enjoyed his babbling, awkward responses to her. She had planned to pretend to flirt with him, but she found that she was flirting with him. At least, that is how it seemed to her. Normally, she had little reaction to mortals. She wished them the best, of course. Much that she did was intended to protect them. But she did not really mix with them. She did not know how. She wasn't really close to Casters, much less mortals. But she was mixing with Bartowski, with Chuck. Something about his eyes, their deep brown honesty, held hers. She knew that the word 'humble' came from the word for earth, 'humus', and that his eyes were like the earth, brown and humble and solid. She could build something on what she saw in his eyes. But before she had been able to finalize a date with Chuck, he had turned from her, with a quick smile of apology, and had, well, rescued the grandfather and granddaughter.

He had obviously been interested in her, in the date. But he put his interest aside to help someone he obviously did not know. If Chuck was indeed the thrall of a dark Caster, he was a thrall of a sort she knew nothing about. When she saw that Chuck's friend, Morgan, who had intervened in their conversation earlier, was watching her from behind a box for a big screen tv, she took out one of her cards and put it on the Nerd Herd desk. She wrote on it.

Chuck (I read your name tag),

How about we meet for dinner and then you can show me around? Maybe tomorrow?

Call me.

Sarah

She put circled her cell number on the card and left it on the desk, reasonably sure that the small bearded guy would make sure his friend got it.


Chuck was on the elevator, headed up to the room Sarah had told him was hers. He had a small bouquet of flowers in his hand. Ellie, unbelievably excited that Chuck was going to go on a date, had helped him choose what to wear. He took her advice, wearing the long-sleeved shirt over a t-shirt that she had suggested, a pair of dark jeans and his omnipresent Chucks. He felt as confident as someone like him could feel heading up to the room of someone like her. His breathing was a little ragged and his palms were sweaty. He still half-believed the whole thing was an extended practical joke of Morgan's. What could this woman, Sarah, this beautiful woman, want with him? Any man in Burbank would have gladly shown her around. Men with college degrees, real jobs, viable romantic histories, good looks. He could easily imagine falling in love with her at first sight (why did he find that so easy?), but he could not imagine anyone, much less Sarah, falling even in like with him at first sight. It made no sense. Objectively, it made no sense. But here he was, at her door. Now or never. He would never forgive himself if he chose never. So he knocked.


Sarah had gotten the call from Chuck that she expected. He seemed a little guarded on the phone, at least at first. But they had talked for a few minutes and fallen quickly into the teasing, flirty conversation of the Buy More. Chuck asked her about what sort of place she preferred for dinner, but she told him, truthfully, that she liked about anything, and that he should choose a place. He asked about things to do after dinner, but she told him to choose that too. She knew that she should have dictated the places, have chosen whatever was most likely to allow her to charm him and to find out what he knew. He had read the book-Graham was sure of that. But he simply seemed like a good guy. There was no trace of...knowledge...about him. Or power. How could that be? Some Casters who had read the book had ended up deathly ill because of it. Being chosen by the book was no armor against the consequences of reading it. Few who read it had remained free of side-effects, some truly awful. Anyway, the readers had been decisively changed by reading the book, and quickly. Chuck had only read the book very recently, but there should have been something about him that showed it, or at least suggested it. She had explained this to Graham when she had cast a Communication spell so as to speak with him at length. But he insisted that there was no way a genuinely innocent mere mortal could have been chosen by the book. No way. Something more had to be going on. When she asked what she should do if Chuck figured out what she was after and ran, Graham's answer was brief and categorical: Kill him. Those words were still echoing in Sarah's ears when she answered the door after Chuck's knock.

He stood there in the doorway, smiling awkwardly, clutching a small bunch of flowers. He had a smile on his face that somehow combined Here I am! with What the hell am I doing here? He was the most lovable thing Sarah had ever seen.

She put that thought out of her head even before it clearly registered, but its lingering effect was to close whatever distance Sarah had maintained where he was concerned. She would ask the questions Graham wanted her to ask, but she knew the answers would show that Chuck was innocent. He was a mystery, sure, but he was neither a monster nor was he the thrall of some monster. By the time Sarah had put the flowers in water, grabbed her coat, closed the door of her apartment, and joined Chuck in the hallway, she was on a date with him, even if she didn't admit it to herself.


Sarah was even more incandescent when she opened the door than she had been in the Buy More. And that was impossible. There was no way she could be more beautiful than she had been in the Buy More. No way. It was now like she was lit up from inside, like she could, if she chose, become all flame. But more than anything, those eyes, those eyes of hers, again. They had shifted as she opened the door, from a flickering guardedness to a heartful openness he had not seen in them before. It hadn't lasted long, she broke their gaze: she was quickly inviting him inside her apartment, admiring the flowers, putting them in water, grabbing her coat. But it had been there. She had been happy to see him, and, even more, she had been happy that she was happy. By the time she began bustling them out the door, that happiness and openness had been covered by other things. But Chuck suspected it was still there, and he thought he could see it, even if she thought he could not. Chuck was not sure what all the things happening in her eyes meant, but he was reasonably sure she was stirred by him. She certainly stirred him. He found looking at her a little like staring at the sun, a bad idea but hard to resist.


They sat down at the Mexican place Chuck suggested. They ordered margaritas and sipped them as they made small talk. Sarah felt nervous. But she never got nervous. She couldn't figure it out. But the nerves weren't worrying her. Instead, they were a kind of pleasant buzz in the background, proof that she was alive. And that is how she felt, sitting there. Alive. Like an actual girl on an actual date. But she wasn't (supposed to be). She had to keep telling herself that, because her default setting around Chuck clearly was: open, responsive. That was not her normal default; it was the opposite of her normal default. She felt like her heart itself might leap from her chest and reveal itself to this man. To this mortal man. Involuntarily, she crossed her arms so as to make her heart's leap less likely.


Since arriving at the restaurant, Chuck kept getting mixed signals from Sarah. She was enjoying herself. But he could tell that she now was...worried or bothered by that. It was like every moment with her required at least two levels of explanation-the level of what she was feeling or thinking, and the level of what she was feeling or thinking about what she was feeling or thinking. Keeping track of the levels while being so affected by her required an effort Chuck feared would eventually make his eyes cross. Now, something had made her arms cross.

"So where do you live?" Sarah asked him.

"You mean, like what is my address?" Chuck smiled. But he knew what she was asking. He dreaded answering.

"No, I mean do you have an apartment by yourself? Roommates? That sort of thing."

"I get it. Uh, yeah, I...well, I live with my sister. She pretty much raised me. And after I left Stanford, things got tough for me, so she invited me to live with her and her fiance, Captain Awesome."

Sarah hadn't flinched at the information that he in effect still lived at home. She was instead caught by something else.

"You call your sister's boyfriend 'Captain Awesome'?" She giggled a little and raised her eyebrows. Her arms uncrossed.

"Well, yes. He is genuinely awesome. Handsome, athletic, smart-a former UCLA football player and now a heart surgeon. He's also a good guy. He does everything awesomely-surgery, exercise, flossing."

Sarah laughed again. "Flossing? You're funny, Chuck."

Something inside Chuck reacted each time she said his name. It was like a call to his heart, it roused him, made him feel capable, ready for anything.

"So, what about women? Anyone special in your past?" Sarah's eyes again had that two-level look, like she was both generally, conversationally interested in the answer, and personally, seriously interested in the answer. Chuck hesitated and then realized that his hesitation was obvious.

"Yeah, well, there was someone. But that has been over for a long time." Chuck said that expecting it to provoke the same hollow ache any talk of Jill provoked. But, wonderfully, he felt no ache in saying it. It was just a fact of his past. But it had never been that before. It had always been, in a way, the fact of his past, the sucking center of his personal purgatory. But simply being here, sitting across from Sarah, he no longer felt defined by that fact. The sun had risen in his world. He had climbed from the dark valley. There were suddenly new horizons. Old wounds were closing. Her azure gaze, so complicated in so many ways, was nonetheless a balm. Emboldened, Chuck volleyed her question back to her. "What about you?"

It was a though she had been so intent on his answer and his reactions that she had not foreseen the question returning to her. She dropped her eyes for a moment, collecting herself.

"My last relationship ended, well, apocalyptically. Complete disaster. And to make it worse, all my friends were actually our friends, his first, then mine, if they were mine, and so when we fell apart, everything did. There was nothing for me there any more. I packed. I left. And so here I am, with a lot of baggage." She seemed surprised by her own answer, and saddened by it.

Chuck smiled kindly at her. He understood that sort of mess. It was a lot like what had happened to him at Stanford. Suddenly, all he knew was that he wanted to help Sarah, wanted to make her happy. "Well," he said, chuckling, "I can be your very own baggage handler."

Sarah's sudden intake of breath was just barely audible. Her eyes glazed over for a second. He saw her hand move on the table, in his direction, then it stopped. There was a long silence. Just about the time that Chuck thought he had killed the date, ruined the evening, she exhaled and smiled at him, a smile more beautiful than any she had bestowed on him yet.

"I like you, Chuck."


Sarah was shocked at herself. She kept losing her way and herself in this conversation. Her desire to share herself with this man kept drawing her into admissions, tells, giveaways. Each time she got hold of herself, she relaxed that hold again a moment later. It was like magic. But she knew magic. This wasn't magic. Chuck wasn't a Caster. But he enchanted her, he made her want to be, somehow he made her be, herself, or a better version of herself. Her heart kept moving around in her chest. She couldn't get a firm grip on it. It was listening to him, not to her.

She prided herself on her control, her self-control. She was disciplined, mind and body. She had been molded by Graham, but mostly she had molded herself. A long series of disappointments, little ones and big ones, had taught her that life rarely had more good to offer than a space between disappointments. She had trained herself to cope with that, to anticipate the disappointments so that they would not hurt so much when they occurred. She had, once or twice, realized darkly that what she had really done was to make her life one prolonged disappointment, stretching the last disappointment forward until it met the anticipation of the next, so that she was in a state of unsettled disappointment, going or coming, constantly. But she had not been in that state since she talked to Chuck the first time.

And now she had confessed to Chuck that she liked him. Confessed. Because she did. She does. She likes him. But she was not supposed to feel that way, much less tell him that she felt that way. And her reaction to his baggage handling comment! Whose says something like that to someone else on a first date, and who means it if he says it? Her core liquified again as she thought about it. It was campy, an artificial extension of a dead metaphor about suitcases. Yet it had seemed like a vow, a pledge. But what were they to each other that would make such a vow possible? People needed a certain standing toward each other for vows to make sense. But they were just on a date, a first date, not even dating yet, in the typical sense of that term. (Yet?) What was going on inside her?


Chuck was, to his surprise, relaxed and having a good time. Maybe Sarah would never go out with him again, but the date was going well. Their meals came and they talked about various things, but nothing too serious. Other than her comment about her previous breakup, Sarah managed to dodge, sidestep or skirt answering any other personal questions, and eventually Chuck let it go. She could have her secrets. Maybe, if they saw each other again, she would feel like sharing more. But there was no reason to gum up the works tonight by insisting. They were having a good time, and that was enough. She wasn't hiding, at least not effectively, her enjoyment or her desire to respond to him.

Chuck told Sarah that the plan after dinner was to go to a club he frequented, to hear a band he was curious about. Sarah was game. So, when they finished and Chuck paid for the meal, they drove his Toyota from the restaurant to the club.


They climbed down the stairs at the entrance to the club, Chuck grinning from ear to ear. Sarah found the grin infectious: it spread to her face immediately. When Chuck had found a table for them, she patted his arm and leaned into him, so that she could say that she was going to the bathroom. His scent made her slightly woozy. And she could feel his whole body stiffen as her breath caressed his ear and neck. His face was deep pink when she stepped away. She had always had an effect on men, mortal or Casters, but somehow the effect she had on him seemed purer, deeper. She wasn't trying to affect him, she wasn't planning any of it. It was just her, and his reaction to her. To create such a reaction without any manipulation, by just being, was an affirmation of her place in the world. Here was a man to whom she could belong, not because he would be possessive, but because she could give herself completely. She felt real.

Once in the bathroom, Sarah stood before the mirror. She saw the flush still on her face. Evidently, Chuck was not the only one who had turned pink before. She made herself take a breath or two, and, as much as part of her resisted doing it, she reviewed her interaction with Chuck so far. He had said and done nothing that was suspicious.

What was going on? He had read the book. Why was there no sign of it? Maybe the book did not cause any change in mortals? Maybe it was too soon? Why had the book chosen him? No one understood the book's choices, although there were Casters who had given their lives to the puzzle. They had produced many theories, but none of them suggested that a mortal would one day be chosen, so all those theories seemed either false or woefully incomplete. Why Chuck?

{Sarah}

Sarah heard Graham's voice in her head. She answered. If he was talking to her telepathically, at this distance, it must be an emergency, he must not have time for a Communication spell.

{What? I'm still out with Chuck.}

{Casey is coming.}

Sarah grimaced.

{Really? Damn.}

{Yes, really. He will catch up with you soon. Be careful. Beckmann must now know Chuck read the book. I can't keep this link open any longer; the distance is too great. Good luck.}

"So much for my date," Sarah thought to herself. Casey was bad news. A Caster, an Enforcer, who was nearly her equal, but not at all as reticent to do damage as she was. In a word, he was dangerous. Duty-bound, efficient. He had real power. Why would Beckmann have sent him? There was every reason to think Chuck would show up to work at the shop in the next couple of days. Why not wait for him? Let him come to her? Why bring Casey into this?

The answer had to be the question that had been bugging Sarah. Why hadn't Chuck shown any sign that he had read the book? How could he have read it and simply walked out of the shop afterward? Beckmann did not understand. And Sarah knew Beckmann enough to know that Beckmann considered any unknown a threat. If she had Chuck killed, the book would have to make another choice, maybe one that made more sense. Still, that seemed like a risky strategy, involving more unknowns. The more likely plan was for Casey to capture Chuck and for Beckmann to imprison him, keep him under lock and key, use him once she understood what, if anything, his having read the book meant.

Her heart contracted at the thought of Chuck imprisoned in some dungeon. If Beckmann got him there, he would be unlikely ever to leave. A sudden conviction, fully formed and undeniable, surged into Sarah consciousness: Chuck was hers. They could not have him. And just like that, the Enforcer Walker appeared, and as the blush faded, her power surged through her, her fingertips tingling. Casey would get more than he bargained for tonight.


When Sarah joined Chuck at the table, he knew something had changed. Her chair was close to him. She scooted her chair even closer and put her arms around one of his. But the smile she gave him as she did so, while warm, was not one of her smiles from earlier in the evening. It was perfunctory around the edges, genuine, but not representing the total state of her mind. She seemed suddenly very aware of the club, and he noticed her eyes scanning the crowd.

Chuck really was interested in the band, and since the band was too loud to allow easy conversation, and since Sarah did not seem as open to conversation as she had been, Chuck began to listen to the band, mainly to keep from pressuring her. She could decide how things went from here. He was just getting caught up in the current song when Sarah stood upright and took his arm with her, so that Chuck had to stand too. When he whirled to look at her, she gave him an order: Dance! Then she pulled him into the swaying crowd.

Chuck did not understand. Did she want to dance? She seemed to want to dance. But she still seemed distracted, like her attention was focused on their surroundings, and not on them, not on the music. But once they were on the floor, among the dancers, her focused returned to him.

Chuck was about to ask her what was going on when she put her hands around his face and transfixed him with her blue eyes. What he saw in them was impossible to read in full, but desire was present. She began to sway in front of him as she continued to hold his face, continued to stare into his eyes. Her hands became impossibly warm against his skin. She slowly let her hands run down his face and onto his shoulders. Her swaying become more pronounced, lascivious. Nearby dancers were beginning to notice. She swung her blonde hair from side to side as she swayed, bending backwards slightly at the waist. Chuck, both fearing that she would fall, and burning to touch her, put out his hands and placed them around her moving waist. She unbent and looked into his eyes again, and Chuck could both see and feel her respond to his touch. Her lips parted and she licked them unselfconsciously. Chuck wanted to kiss her more than anything he had ever wanted in his life. She went up on her toes and he leaned down. But just before their lips met, he saw her eyes shift and heard her say something. It sounded like something in Latin.

Suddenly, the dance floor twisted, moved under Chuck's feet, but not in a way that threw him off balance. A bright bolt of red flashed past his head and impacted the far wall with explosive force. The other dancers all seemed frozen in place, in various poses of dancing, talking, kissing. The floor undulated again and Chuck saw a bolt of blue shoot from Sarah's hands as she stepped past him, her blue bolt going back in the direction of the red bolt. Chuck was still stuck to the floor. Another red bolt shot between him and Sarah. She mumbled in Latin (yes, it was Latin!) and a field of roiling power moved from her hands, distorting the objects around in the club as it went. Sarah did not wait to judge its effects. She grabbed Chuck's hand and pulled him. His feet unstuck, the floor stopped moving, and the dancers started dancing again. None seemed to realize what had happened. Chuck ran as fast as he could after Sarah, as she snaked through the crowd toward an exit at the rear of the club. She waved her hand and the door exploded outward. Sarah ran through the opening, shooting a glance back at Chuck as she began to climb the rear stairs. He could tell the glance was meant to be reassuring. But Chuck could only think: What the hell?

They ran up the street.


Sarah saw Casey enter the club. He had two other men, both Casters, with him. Beckmann had rolled out real power for this. It was a measure, evidently, of how much the situation concerned her. Of course, Casey came in at just the moment when Chuck leaned in to kiss her. She had almost delayed reacting to Casey until after that kiss. But Casey attacked first, attacked her. Then she realized that Beckmann must have discovered that she had found Chuck. Beckmann had no great love for Graham. Their two Houses, while not warring, had been in constant jockeying competition. It was unsurprising, Sarah suddenly realized, that Beckmann would panic when she realized Sarah was involved, and so realized Graham was involved. Casey's orders were clearly to kill her if necessary, and then to take Chuck. No attack of Casey's had been aimed at Chuck. Sarah thought it likely that her final attack had at least incapacitated Casey's two henchmen. That sort of spell took a lot out of her, but it packed a mean punch. It was possible that they were dead. But Casey wasn't. He was giving chase.

Sarah looked up to confirm that the moon was full. If she could get closer to it, she could use it to restore some of the power she had expended. Casey was no longer at full power either, but a Caster's power was tied in complicated ways to his or her body, to sex, size and physical health and stamina. Casey, she knew, was a big guy in seriously good condition. She might have more power than he did when the fight started, but he would have something left when her reserves had emptied. But, as a female Caster, she had access to the moon in a way that Casey did not. She could draw power from it. Sarah spotted a fire escape on a nearby building. Casting as she ran, she was able to lower the ladder to the street.

She pushed Chuck onto it and told him to climb. He did. She followed him. They were not far enough ahead of Casey for her to pull up the ladder; he would reach its bottom just as they made the landing at the top. But the lead might be enough to allow her to equalize the fight that was to come. They climbed onto the landing and then mounted the stairs to the next. Up and up they went, until they reached the ceiling. Casey's size was working against him, he was losing steps as they climbed. When they got to the top, Sarah pushed Chuck aside and reached her hands into the air. She chanted quickly, almost under her breath. She felt her power being restored. With one part of her attention, she knew that Chuck was watching her, his jaw hanging slack in amazement. She also knew Casey would be upon them in seconds. She drew the last of the power she dared, then put down her arms and grabbed Chuck in one smooth motion. She hugged him to her and whispered in his ear.

"Chuck, the man chasing us is Casey. He is not playing. Don't freak out, no matter what I do. I promise I will not hurt you or let him hurt you." She couldn't help herself; she finished by kissing his neck just below his ear. Then she turned to face Casey as he appeared on the roof.


Chuck was only marginally able to understand what was going on. He was running behind Sarah, then climbing above her, climbing and climbing, then they were on the roof and she was muttering and waving at the moon. The next thing he knew, she had whispered in his ear and kissed his neck. And then...Casey...was there.

Casey was tall, maybe as tall as Chuck. But, because he was much broader and much thicker, it was hard to tell. He oozed confidence. He was a man who carried his territory with him. He was panting hard from the climb, but that in no way suggested that he would be easy to handle. He got his breath back quickly as he began to circle around the roof, trying to get closer to Chuck.

"Alright, Blondie. Play time ends now. Hand mortal boy over and I let you live." Casey's voice sounded a little like rocks rubbing against each other. But Sarah seemed unconcerned. She smiled brightly at Casey as if to invite him to try something.

"You know the kid read the book. No way he gets to walk around free after that. Who knows what happens next? Who knows what kind of disaster-in-the-making he is? Give him to me."

{Chuck!}

Chuck shook his head. He heard Sarah say his name, but he was looking right at her. Her mouth never moved.

{Chuck? Can you hear me?}

{Uh, yeah, Sarah...I can. -What the hell?}

{I can't believe it, but I wondered. I had a sudden feeling that you could do this. Chuck, no mortal can do this, but you are doing it. I hear you. You hear me. Look, Casey doesn't know. So pay attention. He wants to take you and imprison you because you read a book, The Intersection. You did read it, didn't you?}

{I think so. Yeah. But I don't remember anything from it. I got a headache and a bloody nose. But that's all.}

{No, Chuck, that's not all. We are talking telepathically. Could you do that before you read the book?}

{Oh, right...No. I couldn't. How can I do this? How can you? Who are you, Sarah? What are you?}

He felt her thoughts part company with his. He knew the conversation was over, at least for now. Casey was beginning to make threatening sounds. Threatening grunts, really, and Sarah was now wholly focused on him. Chuck heard Casey begin a Latin rhyme, and saw him move his hands. Sarah mirrored him, mumbling and gesturing. But before anything could happen, Chuck felt his eyes roll back in his head and he heard his own voice, ringing with authority: "Stop!"

He felt power flash from him and he made both Sarah and Casey freeze in place. As his eyes rolled back around, his circumstances looked and felt wildly different. Sarah was surrounded by a pale blue light, nearly the color of her eyes, and it shimmered around her. Casey was surrounded by an intense red light, and it pulsed regularly, as if it were registering Casey's heartbeat. Chuck could feel the power rolling off of each of them, serious power. He had felt nothing like it before. But he could also feel power emanating from the moon, and he could tell that he was absorbing that power, and redirecting it to keep control of Sarah and Casey. For a moment, Chuck felt as if he could stride across the globe like some Colossus, too large and too mighty for anyone to interfere with his desires, free to remake the world to his liking. He knew in that moment the temptation to corruption that comes with all real power. And, just like that, he said: No, thanks. And he released Sarah from his control. She whirled to look at him, her blue eyes wide in stunned disbelief.

"You, you...Chuck, you can't do that. No mortal can do that. You can't have power. By definition, you can't have power. You are mortal, aren't you?"

Chuck didn't quite understand the question. "Do you mean: am I going to die? Yeah, sure. Someday. I hope not tonight. Although I am not placing bets. What do you mean?"

"Never mind. For how much longer can you control Casey?"

Chuck could tell (how, he did not know, but he could tell) that his control over Casey was weakening. Soon, it would be lost. He had no idea how to re-establish it, or even if it could be re-established. The moon had not changed; it still emanated the same power. But Chuck's access to it was waning.

"Not much longer."

"Ok. Come on. We need to find some place to hide. We will figure this out, Chuck. Together."

She held out her hand. Chuck's vision of her draped in pale blue power was fading. Her hand looked like the slim hand of the woman who had accepted flowers from him at the beginning of the night. He didn't move. She looked deep into his eyes.

"Trust me, Chuck." After a beat or two, he took her hand. They ran off the roof, down the fire escape, and back to his car. When Casey followed, some minutes later, they were gone.