A/N: I sure, by now, that you've figured out that this story will not be told in a linear fashion. We'll be bouncing back and forth a bit. The present in this tale will be the prologue. All flashback dates are keyed to that.

As mentioned in a previous A/N, things will make much more sense and carry more weight if you are familiar with the parent story. (Hint, hint if you haven't already read it.)

A big thanks to my beta, michaelfmx.

Don't own Chuck, et al.

As always, do this just for fun and the reward of your comments and reviews (hint, hint again.)

Enjoy!

CHUCK VERSUS THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS-THE THIRD ARC

Chapter 2

11 months ago

Reining in her anger, her frustration, Sarah keeps her voice level as she asks, "I'm sorry, Ellie. I don't think I heard you correctly. Are you saying that Chuck woke up early this morning, but they're not allowing us to visit him?"

She can see that the doctor, ever perceptive, realizes that the blonde spy is about to blow her top, so quickly replies, "Yes, that's what they've asked of us, but they have their reasons."

Gritting her teeth a little, Sarah asks, "What possible reasons could they have to keep us away?"

From behind her, Sarah hears Casey's grunt of agreement and Morgan's, "Yeah, what's that about?"

Devon steps in to help out his wife. "Guys, they talked to both of us early this morning and told us that they'd evaluated Chuck and found some problems. They requested that Ellie and I give you the heads up."

For the moment, at least, Sarah's anger is replaced by sudden, almost overpowering disquiet. Her voice betrays her anxiety. "What's wrong? Is it serious?"

Ellie replies, "We don't think so, but they can't be sure until they do some more tests. The problem is that he's confused about his identity. He seems to believe, at least right now, that he's Charles Carmichael, not Chuck."

Morgan pipes up, "What the hell? He thinks he's some made up character? How could that happen?"

Devon answers, "The good news is that they feel that they did get rid of the Intersect. Most of it, anyway. He's not flashing. But they do believe that it's likely they couldn't get it all. They think it's possible that Chuck's problems stem from a 'leftover' that wasn't eliminated by the procedure."

Ellie then jumps in. "Since Chuck used that cover so often, it may be that it somehow got stuck in his mind. And that, combined with the residual confusion from the procedure, especially if it didn't quite work, left him disoriented, at least temporarily."

Sarah takes a deep breath, trying to calm herself. "OK. I think I understand. But why would that mean we can't see him?"

"The doctors feel that seeing us right now might confuse matters for him even further. They've asked us to just give them a day to check him out more thoroughly. Hopefully, the problem will pass quickly. But if it doesn't, they'll bring us in to see if our presence jump-starts his memory."

"Just today?"

"Yes. All they want is the one day."

Sarah's voice is firm. "I intend to hold them to that, Ellie."

Ellie gives her a grim smile. "So do I, Sarah. So do I."

With the tension ratcheted down a little, Devon suggests that they all go to breakfast at the diner across the street. There's a general murmur of agreement and the men file out of the hotel room in which they'd gathered to discuss matters.

Holding the door, Ellie calls out to her husband, "Devon, Sarah and I will be along in a few minutes."

"No problem. We'll grab a table with room for all of us."

"Thanks."

Ellie closes the door, then turns to lean back against it. She gives Sarah a look, which stops the blonde agent in her tracks.

"OK, Sarah. Time to fess up. I need to hear it from you."

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"Don't do that, Sarah. Don't try to pretend."

Avoiding Ellie's look, she replies, "Pretend what?"

Apparently irritated with the woman's continued prevarication, Ellie replies, somewhat harshly. "Don't keep on pretending that what you feel for Chuck is the same you'd feel for any of us if we were in his position."

"Ellie, I think you must be mista—"

Ellie cuts her off, angry. "Sarah, I said don't do that. And I meant it."

Silence.

"Those mooks who just walked out the door might not be bright enough to notice, but you're not fooling me. It's pretty obvious how you feel."

Sarah opens her mouth to defend herself, but then stops, her shoulders slumping, defeated.

"How did you figure it out?"

"The better question is, how come it took me so long to be certain?"

"What gave me away?"

"Sarah, we've all been worried sick about Chuck. All of us love him in our own way, even that hulking brute, Casey. But the way you've been acting ever since all this began, clinched matters for me.

"Except for Devon, I love my brother more than any person in this world. Even so, when things started to go downhill, and even though I knew he wasn't really himself, I found it very difficult to deal with his unkind words, his paranoia. But we, the rest of us, only caught the fringes of his cruelty. Most of it was directed, with perfect aim, straight at you."

Sarah nods, her expression neutral as she recalls those difficult days of the so recent past.

"God, Sarah, he was absolutely brutal with you. I would've never thought that he was capable being like that with anyone. Not even with Jill or Bryce, even after all the things they did to him.

"Sarah, excuse me for saying this, but I know you have a temper. I've seen it once or twice, and Chuck told me about a couple of times you chewed him out. And yet, I saw you stand there and take his abuse without retaliating. I saw you treat him with kindness and patience, even when he was at his worst." She pauses. "I saw the tears you tried so hard to hide.

Sarah tries to wave it off. "Like you said, he wasn't himself, Ellie."

"Of course. But even so, there are limits to what a person can take. The only way I could put up with him is because I love him so much. And when all this went down and I had to remind myself of that, it suddenly clicked.

"You, Sarah Walker, had truly fallen for my nerdy little brother."

Sarah doesn't reply, her eyes downcast. But it seems that's enough for Ellie.

"I'd always felt you had, but with all the dancing around, the back and forth crap, you guys have been doing the past few years, I sometimes doubted myself." She pauses. "But, at that moment, I knew with absolute certainty that you loved him. And have for some time. Everything I've seen from you since we got here, only reinforces that."

"What do you mean?"

"Sarah, I know you've spent four or five hours in his room each night since we got here."

Sarah snaps back. "Has Nurse Green been talking?"

"No. I admit that, once, I did casually ask her about your visits, but the woman was like a clam. She wouldn't tell me anything of what went on in his room. It was the other staff members who commented on your comings and goings. Last night, the charge nurse saw your face as you left his room. She swore that she could see you'd been crying."

"So you've had people spying on me?"

"No, Sarah. I didn't ask them to. They just mentioned it to us in the course of Devon and I looking after Chuck." She pauses. "It's just that you've been so quiet the last few days. Anxious. I was worried about you. And the staff were concerned as well."

"We're all worried about him, Ellie."

"Of course. I've shed my fair share of tears as well. But I'm seeing something else from you."

Ellie asks, somewhat hesitantly, "Sarah, would you mind if I ask you what you did while in his room? I'd hate to think you sat there crying the whole time, alone, when you could've had someone beside you to commiserate with. Me, for instance."

There's nothing but silence for a few seconds, and just as Ellie thinks she'll get no answer, Sarah speaks up.

"I sit beside his bed and we talk."

Ellie's surprised. "With an unconscious man? It'd be a one-sided conversation at best."

"I talk and imagine what he would say in response."

Ellie ponders that for a few seconds, then asks, "About what?"

Sarah's reply is quick. "That's private, Ellie. Just between him and me. Even Nurse Green made sure that she was far enough way as to not overhear."

This time, it's Ellie's turn to blush. "Sorry. Too much of the nosy big sister thing."

Sarah decides to let her off the hook. A little. "It's OK, Ellie. It's just something I've wanted to say to him for a very long time."

"OK, I get…"

Suddenly, Ellie stares at her, and Sarah swears she can almost see the light come on.

"Oh, my god! You've never told him that you love him, have you? Before now, I mean."

Sarah opens her mouth, but before she can answer, Ellie cuts her off. "No, don't tell me. It's none of my business. I'm so sorry. Again. I just can't seem to stop myself, but please understand it's only because I want so much for you two to be happy. Chuck has loved you since way back, even though he hasn't said as much to me, I could tell how he felt…and I'm gonna stop talking now."

At almost any other time, the Bartowski babble would've amused her. But, right now, all Sarah feels is irritation. Because Ellie's accurate observations have only served to, once again, remind Sarah of her gaping deficiencies in all things relationship-wise. And of all the opportunities she'd let slip by, too afraid to step up to the plate.

Sarah is on the cusp of firmly telling Ellie to drop the subject, but stops when she sees the look on the woman's face. Sure, there's embarrassment. And a measure of contrition over her continued nosiness.

But there's also something else. Something Sarah had rarely seen in her adult life. That is until she was assigned to Burbank.

A genuine, unselfish concern for her wellbeing. A sincere desire to know of her trials, her disappointments, not so they can be held over her head, but, rather, in an honest effort to help her find her way to the other side.

Sarah can't recall the last time her father looked at her like that. Doesn't believe she ever saw it from Bryce.

But she's seen it more times than she can remember in Chuck's eyes. And Ellie's, too, for that matter. But she's always been too stubborn, too self-reliant, perhaps too embarrassed over her own shortcomings, to acknowledge that look and take them up on the offer.

And with that, Sarah decides it's time for a change. So, instead of forcefully terminating their conversation, she replies, "No, Ellie, you're right. I didn't tell him before. I've told him now, numerous times, but, of course, I have no way of knowing if he actually heard me."

Ellie nods sympathetically, gently asks, "Why, Sarah? Why did you wait so long?"

Sarah hesitates, unsure if she's ready to reveal so much of that secret person, the one she keeps buried deep in her heart. But, in the end, the patience and kindness she feels from the woman standing in front of her, tips the balance.

"Ellie, I'm damaged. How damaged, I've only truly understood since Chuck, and the rest of you came into my life."

Quietly, Ellie replies, "What kind of damage, Sarah?"

Sarah is unsure how far back she should go, but after a moment's thought, she takes the plunge.

"It started when I was seven and on the road with my father."

Before she can say anything more, the doctor quickly closes the distance between them, and taking Sarah's hands in hers, squeezes them tightly.

Looking into her eyes, Ellie asks, her voice eerily calm, "Sarah, honey, did he abuse you?"

Sarah is startled. "What? No! Nothing like that."

Under her breath, Ellie mutters a relieved, "Thank God."

"Ellie, my father was, is, a con man. He used me, his cute little blonde, blue-eyed girl, to bilk people out of their hard-earned cash. From him, I learned how to read people. How to lie to them. How to play upon their sympathy, their gullibility. How to become a different person at the drop of hat." She pauses. "I've had so many names that I can't possibly recall them all. I lived in so many places, but can't recall even a single one that felt like a real home."

Sarah sees the tears gathering in Ellie's eyes. She shakes her head. "Sarah, you're wrong. It was abuse. Just of a different kind."

Shocked, she realizes Ellie's right, but even while she's still wrapping her head around this epiphany, Ellie asks, quite forcefully, "Where was your mother in all this? Why didn't she step in and take care of you?"

"It wasn't her fault, Ellie. I chose to go with my dad when I was young. Mom wanted what was best for me, but that meant discipline and restrictions. My dad, on the other hand, would let me do pretty much whatever I wanted. As a kid, the choice I made seemed quite sensible. In any case, once he and I were on the road together, and along with all the identity changes, it was virtually impossible to track us down."

"OK. I guess I understand that. What I don't understand is how you went from there to the CIA."

"Ellie, much later on, my father was arrested at the behest of the CIA director. When he found me later that day, he told me it was for my father's own protection. In truth, it was a way for him to coerce me into joining the CIA. It seemed he'd known about me for quite some time and felt my skill set would be of use to him."

She can hear the rigidly controlled anger in Ellie's voice. "Just how old were you when all this happened?"

Sensing the dam is about to burst, Sarah is reluctant to answer, but, after a second, quietly replies, "Seventeen."

"SEVENTEEN?!" Ellie shouts, before lowering her voice and going on a little more calmly."Do you mean to tell me that…that bastard, on the day you effectively became an orphan, took advantage of your youth, your naivety, to drag you into his world?"

"Yes, Ellie. He did. But to be fair, I was less naive than most seventeen-year-olds."

"Still doesn't excuse him. Who is he? I would like to have a little discussion with the gentleman."

Warmed by her protectiveness (clearly a Bartowski family trait), Sarah answers, "He's dead, Ellie. He died a while ago."

"Painfully, I hope."

Sarah, surprised by the vindictiveness she hears in the doctor's voice, simply says, "No, there was an explosion. It was quick."

"Pity." Ellie grins, wickedly. "Maybe we could visit his grave one day. I have an idea of some things we might do there."

Sarah chuckles, grateful for the moment of comic relief, knowing, as she does, that the worst is yet to come.

Becoming serious once again, Sarah goes on, "Ellie, after I went through training and a physical transformation, I became his personal tool. His blunt instrument, to wield as he saw fit."

Ellie looks puzzled. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"No, I expect you don't. Fortunately, despite your level of involvement in Chuck's spy life, you've never really experienced my world. And I'm glad you haven't."

Sarah looks the doctor straight in the eyes, unflinchingly says, "Ellie, I was his 'Wildcard Enforcer', sent around the world to take care of legitimate and, often, not so legitimate, threats to the security of this country."

"What do you mean take care of? Arrest them?"

Sarah says nothing, just looks at her and shakes her head.

Ellie suddenly looks a little ill. "You mean you were an…assassin?"

Sarah nods.

Ellie shakes her head. "I don't believe it."

"It's true, Ellie. I was quite good at it. Please understand that I'm not saying this to shock you, or to sound like I'm bragging. It's the simple truth. And there are many other things that I've done. Things I'm not ready to talk about."

Ellie shakes her head, incredulous. "How much does Chuck know?"

She shrugs her shoulders. "Some of it, for sure. All of it, if he actually was able to hear me during the last few evenings I spent in his room. I've told him everything. Everything, Ellie."

It's easy to see that Ellie is struggling to come to grips with this shockingly blunt description of the woman she thought she knew. A minute or so passes before the doctor goes on, "Sarah, if you ever want to talk more about your past, you can always come to me. You know that, right?

Sarah, warmed by the woman's offer, nonetheless shakes her head. "Thank you. But not until I can say with certainty that Chuck knows the whole story first."

"I wasn't presuming anything."

Sarah nods. "I know you weren't. It's OK."

"Thanks, Sarah. Just so I'm clear, you didn't tell Chuck you loved him, even though you've known for quite some time, because you thought he wouldn't be able to return your love once he knew the full story of the life you've led, the things you've done. Is that right?"

"Yes, Ellie. I couldn't say the words to him without also letting him know what he was taking on. I could not, would not, let him love me in ignorance. But, at the same time, I've been so terrified of losing even that which we did have, frustrating as it's been."

"So, basically you let him dangle while you made up your mind?

Sarah flinches, Ellie's words cutting her to the quick.

"Ellie, I know it seems like that, but I didn't mean to do it." She hangs her head. "I guess I was just too much of a coward. I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry too, Sarah. I didn't mean for it to come out that harshly. I do feel for you, for the dilemma you were facing."

Ellie looks around, notices the love seat against the far wall. "Sarah, let's go and sit for a bit. There are a few things I'd like to ask and a few things I want to tell you. OK?"

Sarah nods. "Won't the guys be waiting for us?"

Ellie pulls out her phone. "I'll text and tell them to start without us." Her fingers fly over the keyboard. A few seconds later there's the ding of an incoming message.

After quickly scanning it, Ellie says, "OK. They're good. Let's talk."

They sit and turn to face each other, their knees almost touching.

"Sarah, you said that unless Chuck somehow heard what you told him, which, by the way, I highly doubt, he likely only knows some of your story. What are you basing that on?"

"Well, he spent some time with me and my father, so knows a fair amount of that story."

"So, let me ask you this. Do you think Chuck would ever, even for a moment, be disgusted by any of the stuff you did as a child while under the direction of a criminally wayward parent?"

Sarah's answer is immediate, almost instinctive. "No, of course not."

"Good. So that takes cares of everything until your seventeenth year. Right?"

Sarah, momentarily taken aback by the doctor's logic, is about to raise an objection, when she realizes the woman is right.

"I suppose it does."

"Good. Now, in the years you've been with us in Burbank, have you done anything that Chuck found to be so repugnant that he was unable to get past it and forgive you?"

"Ellie, I haven't been assigned any missions like the ones I did before coming here. And I'm quite certain I wouldn't accept that kind of assignment anymore. But there were a few times where I had to get close to some of the bad guys we had to deal with. And there was an…incident with Bryce and another one with an MI6 agent. That kind of stuff bothered him a lot."

Ellie bluntly asks, "Did you ever sleep with any of them?"

She shakes her head, embarrassed. "No, but-"

"No buts. Were you two able to hash it out?"

"Yes, but-"

"No 'yes, buts', either. You worked it out between you and moved on. Was there anything else?"

Sarah thinks for a moment, then shakes her head.

"Good. Then, all that leaves us with are the years in between. Right?"

"You're right, but those will be the toughest ones."

"I agree. And, for most normal guys, I think what you did during those years would likely be the deal breaker. Would you agree?"

"Yes. Ellie. I did some terrible things during that time. Stuff that still gives me nightmares. It's those incidents that almost certainly would be the 'deal breaker' for a normal guy like Chuck."

"And I would agree with you, except for one thing. Chuck, as much as I love the goof, is certainly not normal. Not even close."

Sarah splutters, "What…what did you just say?"

Ellie smiles at her reaction. "You heard me."

Sarah shakes her head. "Ellie, I'm surprised you would say that. And you're wrong. One of the other reasons I didn't tell him how I felt was that he made it quite clear he was just a normal man who wanted a regular life. How could I give that to him?"

Ellie nods thoughtfully. "Ah! I see that he gave you the 'normal guy' speech.

For the second time in the last few moments, Sarah is taken by surprised at the unexpected words from the woman facing her.

"How did you know about that? Wait. You weren't listening that night in the courtyard, were you?"

"Nope. Don't even know what night you're talking about. It's just that I've heard that from him before."

"Why on earth would he say it to you?"

"It was after he was kicked out of Stanford and had been betrayed by Jill. Understandably, he was depressed. After he came home, we had these talks where he bemoaned his fate. About how all he'd wanted was just to have a normal life. Graduate college. Get a good job. To settle down with her. Have kids. And how that was shot to hell now. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Just about drove me up the wall, because he couldn't figure out that he could do anything he wanted if he just put his mind to it. Even after I keep encouraging him. Fortunately, that was about the time when he went back to the Buy More and, as bad as that place is, it did give him something else to focus on."

Sarah is taken aback by Ellie's candidness, unused to hearing any real criticism of Chuck from her lips.

"So what's your point, Ellie?"

"Chuck may think he's a normal guy, may believe that's what he wants in life, but he's wrong on both counts."

Sarah shakes her head, is about to disagree once more, but doesn't get the chance.

"Think about it, Sarah. What normal man could've survived having the Intersect stuck in his brain for more than a few days, maybe a few weeks at best? Certainly, none would have survived for all the years that Chuck had it. And not only that, what normal guy could have made effective use of it right down until just a few weeks ago?"

"None, I guess, but what does that have to do with my reluctance to tell him?"

"To reiterate. You believe that if he learns the truth about the kind of life you've led, he'll turn away, repulsed. Right?"

Mentally she flinches once more, a little cowed by Ellie's ability to get right to the heart of matters. "Yes."

"Sarah, your logic is faulty. For example, is there any reason to believe that your service records, your psychological assessments, aren't in the Intersect?"

Sarah thinks for a moment. "Not the unsanctioned missions, but most of it would be there."

"So, knowing how the Intersect triggers work, can you doubt that he's already flashed on a lot of the data about Agent Sarah Walker?"

"He's only mentioned a couple of incidents, and he told me that he would never do it on purpose. I assumed it only happened those couple of times."

"That was a nice sentiment on his part, but you know as well as I do, that he has no control over what he flashes on, anymore more than he can control the beating of his heart. All it takes is one little thing to trigger it. A piece of jewelry. A little gesture. A word. And Bam! There it is, right in front of him, with him unable to turn his mind's eye away."

"But why wouldn't he tell me?"

Ellie regards her, sadly for a few moments.

"Sarah, what would motivate a person to go out of their way to make sure they don't dredge up a whole ream of hurtful, gut-wrenching memories of what another person's gone through?"

"Because you love that…Oh!"

Ellie nods, smiles at Sarah's look of wonder.

"He was trying to protect me, while the whole time I was trying to protect him."

"Yes. You didn't, you don't, need to be afraid of him turning away. Because even though he already knows a lot of your past, he—"

"—still loves me."

"Bingo."

Sarah can't help but shake her head, angry and disappointed over all the times their mutually meagre communication skills had let them down. How much better off would they've been right now, if they'd only found a way to really talk?

Well, no more of that crap. After he's better, we're going to have a long conversation.

Sarah stands. "Thank you, Ellie. I promise to get things out in the open tomorrow."

"I know you will, Sarah, but I'm not quite finished yet. Please sit down."

Sarah's obliges, but is genuinely puzzled. It seemed they'd covered the bases. "What else was there?"

"You were surprised, even a little upset, that I said that Chuck was far from being normal, weren't you?"

"Yes. It seemed a little cruel."

Ellie smiles. "You're right, or you would have been if what I said was meant in any way to be derogatory. The truth is that Chuck's never been ordinary, normal or regular, even when he was a kid.

"He was exceptional, even then. And he grew up to be an exceptional man."

She pauses. "Sarah, false modesty aside, I know I'm quite intelligent. You don't get to my position if you're not. And Devon is too, despite his occasional frat boy manners. Even Casey, under that rough exterior, has a remarkable mind." She grins. "Jury's still out on Morgan, however.

"My point is that Chuck puts all of us to shame. He's far beyond intelligent. A true genius, even though he hides his light more than he should. But not just that, he's also a very good man, which, all too often, doesn't go hand-in-hand with genius."

Ellie pauses, looks into Sarah's eyes. "And I don't think you give him enough credit."

Offense bubbles up. "Excuse me, Ellie. That's a little unfair. I've always appreciated how intelligent, how good he is."

"I don't think you really do, at least not in some ways. Because if you did, you would've never been afraid to tell him about your past."

Sarah's temper flares. "You're being unkind. I've done my very best to understand Chuck, even when others dismissed him."

"I'm sorry, Sarah. I know you have. Please give me a chance to explain what I mean."

The spy nods, grudgingly, rigidly. "OK. Go ahead."

"Even if he hadn't had all that data stuffed into his brain, Chuck would've been smart enough on his own to figure you out, would've formulated his own opinion of you. Sure, if you'd laid out your past, he would've been shocked, overwhelmed. At first. But, then, given a bit of time, he would've found a way to separate you, the person, from the actions. He would've understood that they're not one and the same.

"Chuck always looks for the good in people. Always assumes there is good to be found. A trait, which, frankly, I find a little frustrating at times. When Jill cheated on him, his first instinct was to feel that he, somehow, was the one to blame. That she couldn't be as cruel as her actions seemed to indicate. When I contradicted him, told him that she was simply a world-class bitch, he wouldn't accept it. At least at first. Later on, he did come around. At least to some degree.

"But in your case, he would've been totally right. Regardless of what you believe, you are a good person. And he wouldn't have stopped loving you just because you told him about yourself. Rather, he would've loved you even more because you were willing to trust him with the things that you'd told no one else." Ellie pauses. "Sarah, do you really understand what kind of man he is?"

Sarah, blinking, trying to keep the sudden tears at bay, just nods, not trusting herself to speak.

Ellie nods in turn, takes Sarah's hand once more. "Good. You need to believe that there is no comparison between you and Jill.

"She was his mediocrity. If it had worked out, if he'd settled for her, for the life he believed he'd wanted, one day, somewhere down the road, he would've woken up realizing just how much he'd short-changed himself.

"But you, Sarah, are his extraordinary. The one he's been waiting for all his life, even if he doesn't realize it. The one he deserves, even though he would never think that.

"And he's the one you deserve, even though I'm quite certain you don't believe that to be true, either."

Sarah swipes at her eyes, brushes the tears away. But it's a useless gesture because they come right back.

"I'm not saying that the two of you won't ever have the house, the kids, the PTA meetings. That's up to you. What I am saying is that even if you do wind up there, you'll never, ever be regular, average, because you, Sarah Walker, will never be normal. And neither will Chuck, as long as he has you.

"Because each day when he wakes up beside you and looks into your eyes, all he'll see is possibilities, not regrets."

Sarah, struck dumb by this vision of her future, can only nod her head.

"Do you understand, Sarah?"

It takes a few seconds, but finally finding her voice, she replies, "Yes. I do understand what you're saying, Ellie."

"That's good, but do you believe it?"

"I'm starting to."

Ellie nods. "Good. Now all you have to do is tell him." She grins. "Preferably when he's awake."

Sarah, laughs, a little wetly. "I promise."

But then sudden worry clouds her face. "What if he's still confused tomorrow?"

Ellie shrugs her shoulders. "Then we'll wait until the next day. Or the next."

"But what if he doesn't remember me?"

Ellie snorts. "Seriously? Have you seen yourself? It wouldn't be possible for any man, let alone crazy-for-you Chuck, to ever really forget you. I'm sure that when he sees you face to face, he'll remember."

Reassured, Sarah squeezes Ellie's hand, earnestly says, "Thank you for talking some sense into me."

"Hey, what's the good of having an older sister if she doesn't kick your butt from time to time?"

Sarah raises an eyebrow. "Sister?"

The older woman has the grace to be a little sheepish. "Just anticipating."

Chuckling, Sarah stands. "OK, sis. Let's join the guys for some breakfast. I'm suddenly famished."

The pounding on Sarah's room door drags her from her pleasant dream: Chuck and her walking, hand in hand, on a beach somewhere. She's almost certain there was a ring on her finger.

Through the door, she hears Casey's urgent voice. "Walker, wake up! There's been some sort of incident at the hospital!"

Suddenly wide awake, she jumps from her bed and, throwing on a robe, goes to the door, opens it. It's easy to tell the big man has just thrown on some clothes, shoes still untied.

There's an icy spike of panic in her gut, but she does her best to quell it, to keep it out of her voice as she asks, "What happened, Casey?"

"Don't know. Beckman just called me and told us to get there ASAP. You get ready and I'll go and collect the rest. Meet you at the van."

"OK. OK." Closing the door, she shucks off her sleepwear, frantically throws on a tee shirt, jeans and then ties up her chucks. Standing, she puts on her leather coat, stuffs her wallet, phone and keys into the pockets. Lastly, she slips her S&W into the waistband at the back of her pants.

Now I'm ready.

Out in the hallway, she can hear the commotion as Casey rouses the rest of the team. She's certain that she hears Ellie's voice from somewhere, her words echoing down the hallway.

"Oh my god! Has something happened to Chuck?"

Echoing in her own heart.

She sees Casey come around the corner at the end of the hallway, calls out to him, "Casey, I'm going to take my own car. I can't wait for everyone to get ready."

He waves her away. "Go on. We'll catch up,"

Running to the stairs, unwilling to wait for the elevator, she practically hurtles herself down the steps, taking three or four at a time. A few seconds later she bursts through the door leading to the parking lot behind the hotel. Spies her rental car parked next to the van the team has been using to shuttle back and forth from the hospital.

She drags the keys from her pocket, hits the remote to unlock the car but nothing happens. She lets out a curse, then realizes she's holding the stupid thing the wrong way. She presses the right button this time, opens the door and flings herself into the driver's seat.

Quickly putting the car in motion, she swings out onto the road. She floors it, watches the speed build ever so slowly, desperately wishing she was sitting in her Porsche rather than this underpowered piece of crap rental sedan.

Fortunately, the road is pretty much deserted this early in the morning. If there'd been anyone to slow her down, she's quite certain that her reaction would've gone down in the annals of extreme road rage.

It's only about five miles to the hospital, but, to Sarah, it feels like some uncrossable, infinite distance. Finally, after what seems an almost interminable amount of time, she finds herself on the winding, tree-lined road which leads into the grounds of the facility.

Coming to the last straight section, she's able to see the full moon in front of her, just coming up over the horizon. A chill goes through her.

A blood moon.

Stained that color, she quickly realizes, by smoke rising from the hospital, which has just now come into view. As do the flashing lights of a large number of emergency vehicles clustered around the structure.

Screeching to a halt at the front gate, it's clear that she can go no further in her car, what with the various vehicles blocking the road.

She quickly opens her door, and, launching herself out of the car, is about to start running towards the hospital when the guard steps out of his shack. He stops right in front of her, blocking her path.

"I'm sorry, miss. This area is restricted. I can't let you pass."

Resisting the urge to punch him in the throat and be done with it, Sarah pulls her wallet from her pocket and shows the burly young man her ID. Scowling, she impatiently waits for the guard, one she's never met before, to complete his task. She notices he visibly starts upon reading her name. And even though he has six inches and probably eighty pounds on her, when he looks up and meets her fierce gaze, he actually seems to pale a little.

It appears her reputation has preceded her.

He quickly steps aside, then says, very politely, "I'm sorry I held you up, Agent Walker. Please proceed."

Grunting, sounding almost Casey-like, she takes off, running full tilt toward the main entrance. As she nears it, she notices the staff are gathered outside, along with what appears to be a couple of patients. There's also a guard lying prone on a gurney, seemingly unconscious. She recognizes a few of the nurses and doctors, but her eyes are drawn to Nurse Green sitting on the edge of another gurney, her arms bandaged, her hair and eyebrows singed, visibly distraught.

Sarah doesn't stop, but catches a snatch of the woman's conversation with the doctor in front of her as she runs past.

"I tried, but the flames were just too much. I couldn't reach him..."

No. No. No. She's not talking about Chuck. She's talking about some other patient.

She has to be. This can't happen now. We were so close. So close.

She has to know for herself, so rushes past the two of them, heads toward the entrance. A fireman tries to block her way, telling her she can't go in yet, that it's too dangerous.

Her patience exhausted, she grabs the man's wrist, twists it in such a way that he lets out a grunt of pain, and falls to his knees, cradling his temporarily useless limb. She feels bad for second or two, the man was only doing his job, after all, but consoles herself with the knowledge that the pain will only last for a minute or so and there won't be any permanent damage.

The corridors are hazy with smoke, causing her to cough a couple of times as she heads down the now familiar path to Chuck's room. As she rounds the final corner, she sees a couple of fireman standing in front of his door, talking. Engrossed in their conversation, they don't notice her approach.

Coming closer, she hears one say to the other, "It appears the oxygen lines in the room were ruptured by the explosion.

His partner replies, shaking his head, "No wonder the sprinklers couldn't handle the flames."

At that moment, the blackened door of Chuck's room is opened, and a third firefighter steps out into the corridor, an object in her hand.

She addresses one of the men, "Captain, there's no sign of a body. Not any trace that I could see at all. Maybe he got out before the fire started."

Hope soars in her chest.

The woman holds up the partially melted object in her hand. "All I could find was his cellphone."

An NSA incinerator.

Somehow, Sarah manages to keep herself upright. Somehow, she manages to stop herself from howling in pain. Somehow, she manages to keep her heart beating.

Unbidden, a line from a poem she'd read at Harvard comes back to mind. Words that had stuck with her, long after she'd forgotten the rest of the piece. Words she'd lived by until she'd found him.

I must lose myself in action, lest I wither in despair.

Someone has just taken away all her tomorrows.

Now all that remains is for her is to take away theirs.

Casey finishes his discussion with the head of security and walks back to the group anxiously awaiting his information.

Devon has his arms around his wife, who seems to be on the verge of collapse, barely able to remain on her feet. Morgan stands close, his hand supportively on Ellie's shoulder.

She asks, a tremor in her voice, "What happened? What did he tell you?"

Quietly he replies, "Ellie, maybe we should go back to the hotel and discuss it there."

She straightens, sudden steel in spine and voice. "John Casey, you will tell us right now. Right here."

He still hesitates, but upon seeing the look in her eyes, he gives in. "The man I spoke with just came on duty at midnight. He and his team had been sent here to replace the regular crew, to make sure that security was extra tight. At about three this morning, the fire alarm was triggered in the wing which contains Chuck's room. After making sure the local fire department was notified, he, along with a couple of guards, ran to that area. Smoke was starting to fill the corridor. They discovered one of the guards unconscious on the floor outside Chuck's room. He'd been tranqued. He also found Nurse Green attempting to enter the room, but the flames within beat her back. She was about to try a second time when he grabbed her and pulled her back. She suffered second-degree burns to her arms. The guard was pulled to safety."

He pauses. "Ellie, all the staff and patients are accounted for. Except for Chuck. He's missing."

If Casey had expected the woman to fall to the ground, wailing, he's proved wrong.

Rather, she just looks at him and nods her head, her eyes glistening with, as yet, unshed tears.

"Thank you, John." She turns to Devon, asks very softly, "Can we please go back to the hotel? We're just in the way here and I'm not going to break down in front of strangers."

Devon nods, replies, his voice choking, "Sure, babe. Let's go."

At that moment, the main door of the hospital slides open. A tall blonde woman, preceded by a puff of smoke, strides through the entrance. Upon seeing the look on her face, everyone in her path moves aside.

When she reaches Casey, she tosses him the object she'd held in her hand.

"They found this in his room."

Casey immediately recognizes it, along with all the implications it carries.

Without acknowledging the others, she walks away, her posture rigid, never looks back.

Ellie, seemingly unsure of the evidence from her own eyes, blurts out, "Was that Sarah?"

Watching the woman's retreating form, Casey shakes his head sadly. "No, Ellie. Sarah's gone.

"That was Agent Walker."

TBC—A/N: Next time we'll find out how Casey found our lost soul up there in Wyoming. (Well for me, down and to the left.) Until then, Zettel's back, and along with Grayroc's great story, you'll have plenty of good stuff to read.