A/N1 An interlude, but, as I warned, not exactly a pause. Actually, a pivotal chapter. Thanks so much for all the reviews of the last chapter—and the PMs. I love hearing from folks. Readers systematically underestimate how much writers enjoy reviews, even brief ones (I know this because I've been on both sides). Without them, writing is a very solitary business. As I like to say, reading is free but the suggested donation is a review.

Don't own Chuck or Mad Magazine.


Turned Tables

Interlude (Part One)


Saturday, February 17, 2008
On a Flight, Savannah to DC


CHAPTER 24 Twelve Thousand Years


As Chuck slid into his plane seat beside Sarah, he noticed his own shoes.

He'd put on his Chucks. It'd been them or his black spy shoes, and he had not wanted to wear those. But the Chucks looked odd to him. Maybe that was because he had gotten used to his clown shoes. They'd been completely ridiculous, of course, but wearing them had made him happy. Until Antonio shot one of them.

Chuck shook his head slightly and sighed as he levered himself into the always too-small space of plane seats. His knees would be pressed against the seat in front of him for the rest of the flight. His ribs were tender too. It was going to be an uncomfortable flight. He glanced toward Sarah, worried all at once that she heard his sigh. It'd been a long, hard few days. He did not want to add to her burdens.

The battle at the marina had left them both shaken—and then the stress of Liz's dad's injury and surgery, the leave-taking from their friends and from the circus itself: it had all added up. He and Sarah had sat in the airport, waiting to board, in near exhaustion. They were too tired to eat. Sarah had fallen asleep with her head on his shoulder. He had dozed too, in and out, trying to keep track of the boarding call.

At one point, he had found himself staring again at the cover bridal set on her finger and the matching ring on his own. Neither had thought to take the rings off. Of course, they were traveling as the Charleses, so it made sense to leave them on. But Chuck knew that had almost nothing to do with his reluctance.

Jan's parting comment to them had reached his heart. He wanted to ask Sarah to marry him. They'd been together—dating, in some sense or in some fashion—for months. And during that time, they'd spent far more time together than normal dating couples. She lived with him now, was dating him exclusively. She'd said she wanted everything between them to be real. She said that knowing he'd been thinking about their cover wedding rings.

He wanted to ask. He felt like she wanted him to ask. But he felt reluctant.

Sarah had said they needed to figure out how to settle issues with Graham and the Ring, or they'd end up having the spy life follow them home. She was right. If he asked her to marry him while they were still in the life, would it somehow taint the proposal, the marriage? Chuck had come to one certainty about the spy life. It eventually claimed everything. Even if you tried to find something, some item or symbol or piece of yourself to hide away from it, its darkness kept creeping until that thing you thought you had hidden away became darkened too. He twisted his lips as he thought of the bullet hole in his clown shoe.

And now he was on a new team, his mom's team, a team he did not know existed until a few hours ago. More secrets, probably more lies. He was about to go on another mission. What end to it could there be? What had his mom implied on the phone earlier—that he wrongly believed he could exit the spy life on his own terms? Maybe he couldn't. Maybe they couldn't. Maybe he'd been wrong all this time.

He'd thought the problem was for Sarah to exit the spy life, but maybe the real problem was for them to exit it together. Could they exit it as a real couple, after all the fakery, all the lying and pretending and evasions, could they be real—not just Sarah, but him, and them, together?

He thought of Sarah as having been a spy for much longer than he had, and that was true. Except that Chuck's life had been spy-ridden from the very beginning: he'd been given life by a spy, nurtured (a little, at least) by a spy. It was like he'd taken in the spy life, taking in deceit, with his mother's milk. What in his life had ever been real? He'd thought a lot was. But, really, was that true? Ellie. She was real—even if she was an occasional spy. Martin. He was real. Even if he was a CIA analyst. But what else? His dad? Who knew if he was even still alive?

Sarah reached over and took his hand. He looked at her, into her eyes. Sarah was real. Her heart was real. Chuck castigated himself. He needed to have faith, agile and regenerating faith. That was his thing. He couldn't let the aftermath of the marina make him despair. Sarah. Sarah and Chuck. They could find a way out, him, her, together, for real.

}o{

Sarah's nap in the airport had been rent by a sudden nightmare. Clowns. Greasy. The feeling of his neck snapping when she had kicked him. She killed…intimately…like that only a few times. Usually, she was at a distance from the person she killed. Looking through a scope. Administering a poison. It was not often that she—her own body—was the lethal instrument. She glanced peripherally at Chuck. She knew he was struggling with it all, the marina, too.

After she'd taken her seat on the plane and gathered herself, Sarah decided they needed to talk.

"Chuck," she asked in a gentle whisper, "today, the marina, that was bad. I mean, we had no real choice, but…but it has upset me too. Greasy. I…I mean…" She held Chuck's eyes.

"I know, Sarah," Chuck replied, looking down at their hands as he took hers in his. "I can't stop feeling the baseball bat bite into Cupcake's jaw…It's easy to forget how…breakable…everyone is. Good guys and bad." She nodded and saw that he understood that she was having a similar trouble.

Chuck looked away for a moment, thinking. "Grammar misleads us, you know?"

Sarah wasn't sure she understood. "No, not exactly. What do you mean?"

"Just that grammar makes it the case that the violence you do—the verb—seems done only to the 'victim'—the direct object of the verb. 'Chuck hit Cupcake.' But the subject in this sort of case is also a kind of direct object. The violence done rebounds on the doer of it. The violence you do is always done to you too. Maybe it doesn't take the same physical or psychological form, but you suffer too." Chuck paused and swallowed.

"There's something that happened in Romney that I didn't tell you, Sarah. I had Coombs in the truck and I was trying to get him to tell me where you were, where Lawton took you. I…" Chuck paused long enough to say this without a shaking voice, "I threatened to torture him—to shot him in the knees, to cut off his fingers, starting with his thumbs, if he didn't tell me. I terrified him into talking. Parks took him into the abandoned church and I vomited outside, under that old sign."

He stopped to let Sarah speak, but she only looked at him with damp eyes. "I should've told you this when you told me about your first trip to the CIA supermax prison...I didn't do it to Coombs, Sarah, but I am almost sure that I would have done it, could have done it, anyway."

She reversed their hands, hers now holding his. She leaned against him and kissed him. "Chuck, thank you for loving me so much. I hardly know how to process it. What that must have cost you…Let's get out of this life. Let's find a place in the sun where we can love and learn and live together. And help each other heal. Live at high noon instead of at midnight.

"Whatever Frost has planned for us—we won't do it unless we can see light at the end of this tunnel. Agreed?"

Chuck nodded, but then he frowned. "How will we know the light is not an oncoming train? You know, like in the cartoons."

"Have a little faith, Chuck. I do. I think you are rubbing off on me." She smirked as she said the last bit, and Chuck reacted by blushing. They were quiet for a moment.

He leaned against her. "I need to make love to you. I just want to be in our bed together, to make all this go away—forget this life—for a few hours."

She kissed his cheek and pulled back, her eyes dancing. "Well, when you ask so nicely, what's a girl to say...?"

}o{

There was a driver waiting for them when they got to the airport. She drove them to their apartment. Chuck got their suitcases in the door and he took his shoes off, as did Sarah. They got ready for bed. Chuck wanted to make love; he knew Sarah did too.

But although the spirit was willing, the flesh was unable. Their exhaustion, the satisfaction of being home, the size and comfort of their bed after the small one in the trailer…Chuck closed his eyes. He drifted into a warm, comfortable sleep with Sarah wrapped around him. They'd welcome each other home in the morning.

}o{

Chuck had just reappeared from under the covers, having finished Sarah's welcome home, when Sarah's phone rang. She sighed and her body shook, toe to head—a final aftershock. When it passed, she picked the phone up. She intended to refuse the call, but then she saw that it was Frost.

"Hey, Mary," Sarah said, blushing as Chuck nuzzled her neck, thinking about what they'd just been doing and the oddity of talking to Chuck's mother in the afterglow.

"Hi, Sarah. I'm so glad you guys are back safe…Your driver reported to me last night. She'll also be the one who picks you up today. How soon can you two be ready? We have…a lot to talk about." Frost's voice had gone from warm and excited to cold and clipped in just a few seconds. Sarah knew that rapid switch—she had done it to Chuck time after time in Burbank, when she was fighting being compromised by him. Frost was both committed to and hoping to avoid the coming conversation—what did that mean?

"We can be ready," Sarah paused looking at Chuck, "in an hour." Chuck nodded his agreement.

"Good. The driver is already in town. Expect to be with me for a while. I'll take care of lunch for…everybody." Frost was gone, the connection broken.

"An hour?" Chuck said, grinning. "Enough time for an instant replay?" He grimaced a bit, his sore ribs rebelling against his demands on them.

Sarah gently rubbed his chest. "No, but I promise you that later, if possible, we'll enjoy a slow-motion, live-action replay from a variety of angles…comfortable for you."

Chuck's eyes glassed over for a second, and Sarah laughed again as she got out of bed. As she turned on the shower, she looked back into the bedroom at Chuck.

The upsurge of love for him stole her breath. How had she gotten so lucky? She heard a voice in her head, her own voice from her past, the voice of the Ice Queen, deep in her Fortress of Solitude: "What the spy gods give, the spy gods take away..."

Sarah squeezed her eyes shut to quiet the voice, and she stepped into the heated spray of water. "No," she answered her past self, "no, he's my Chuck. I am not giving him up." The warm water drove away the momentary chill.

}o{

The driver knocked on the door and Chuck and Sarah walked out into the cold February day. It was sunny, bright, but windy, so that the sun made little difference in warmth, although it did brighten the prospect.

February DC was not an attractive place. The trees, other than the pines, were all bare and looked as if this winter would be their last. Old snow, plowed into piles, turned ashen as time, salt and cinders blended with it. On the sidewalks, the few pedestrians looked like they were beaten, marking time until the cold claimed them too.

Chuck made himself turn away from the window. He and Sarah chatted amiably with the driver—they'd met her last night and were feeling at ease with her today. She was in her mid to late forties. Carly was her name. She'd been working with Frost for a while—and would be no clearer about things than that. The car eventually left the confines of the city and headed out, through the suburbs, out into the countryside. Chuck began to wonder exactly where they were going.

Carly turned the car into a state park. They drove down a long road, to a small building manned by a park service employee. Carly came to a stop at the window on the side of the building. "Carly here for Frost. I have Special Agents Carmichael and Walker with me."

The man at the window bent down, so that he could see Chuck and Sarah in the rear seat. He seemed less concerned to identify them than to just see them. His eyes were full of curiosity. Carly chortled, "Alright, Sam, you've seen them." Sam's slightly star-struck gaze instantly became professional, and he nodded.

"Right, Carly, right. You're cleared to enter. They're waiting for you." Sam turned and punched some keys on a keyboard. Carly eased the car forward. "We'll be there soon."

"Where's there?" Chuck leaned toward Carly.

"Where we're going."

He turned to Sarah. "See, and you told me that no woman in my life giving me a straight answer was all in my head, didn't you?"

Sarah looked at him, her blue eyes made bluer by her innocent expression. "Is that what I said?"

Chuck closed his eyes, shook his head and sighed. He heard Carly join in Sarah's soft chuckle.

Carly drove them deeper into the park, past picnic areas and trailheads. Eventually, she turned into a very narrow lane, marked simply Service: Park Personnel Only. Some distance down the road, not far, but far enough not to be easily visible from the road, a fence closed off the lane. But as they neared it, it swung open. Chuck and Sarah both looked back to see it swing closed behind them. A high fence ran off in both directions, it too was obscured to vision from the road.

The narrow lane went on and on, much farther than Chuck anticipated. He noticed a couple of cameras mounted on trees and was sure he must have missed others. There were small, camouflaged boxes at intervals along the side of the lane. He realized that this was a highly secured area. Just as they were about to get to a clearing, Carly stopped the car again. Chuck could not see why she had stopped. She reached up and turned on the radio, tuned it to 89.1, and waited.

A deep male voice, slow-spoken and richly cultured, began: "Welcome to 89.1 AM, Washington's favorite Public Broadcasting Station. Please stand by—we are conducting a test of our emergency broadcasting system. This is a test. This is only a test." The car was filled with a high-pitched, static-filled whine. It seemed to Chuck to last several seconds longer than usual.

When it ended, the male voice on the radio resumed. "Welcome back, Carly. Missed you last night. I trust you look as comely as always in your uniform."

Carly dipped her head. "Norman, I have people with me. Keep the flirting to a minimum." Her words were annoyed but her tone was pleased.

"Oh, yes, Carly, I know. And you may now move forward, the scan is complete."

Carly nodded, as if she expected Norman to see her do so. "Alright, you golden-tongued devil…"

"Carly, don't make our newest friends privy to our innermost secrets, please…"

Carly looked at Chuck and Sarah by looking in the rearview mirror. She blushed. Chuck looked at Sarah and they both thought about earlier in the morning, at their apartment, and they both blushed in return.

Carly drove on for a moment and then parked the car. She parked it under heavy netting designed to obscure anything beneath it. The parking lot was small and made of heavy gravel. On its edge, there was a large concrete rectangle, a building of sorts, with a door off to the side. Otherwise, there was nothing to see. No other cars. Carly got out. Sarah got out on her side and then Chuck opened the door on his side and got out too. Sarah was gazing around, deeply puzzled. Chuck knew he had the same look.

"I've been authorized to share some information with you now. We are about to enter a facility that was first built as a bomb shelter in the early days of the Cold War. It was abandoned for many years after that, until the CIA began to use it. It was used for a variety of purposes, most better left unstated. It was supposed to have been filled and closed, and it is listed in the official logs that way. But it has been put to another use, as you will see." She said all this as she opened the trunk and took out a couple of grocery bags and walked across the parking lot. She put the bags down, then pressed her hand to a scanner by the door. Chuck could see multiple cameras trained on the door, some on the building, some on the heavy poles holding up the netting, some on trees nearby. The number of them made would make it hard to blind those below ground, unless the system itself could be attacked.

A low metallic sound came from the door. Carly put her other hand on the scanner and the door cracked opened. She pulled it open and gestured for Chuck and Sarah to go inside. She grabbed the bags. Inside, there was nothing but an elevator door several feet from the outer door. Chuck started to press the call button, but Carly stopped him.

"Don't Chuck. You are not yet in the system. You wouldn't like the result." Carly handed him one of her bags and she pushed the button. The doors slid open. The panel in the elevator had only one button on it, and Carly pressed it after Chuck and Sarah had stepped in. The elevator began to go down.

Carly gestured at the grocery bags. "Lunch. Frost—um, Mary—had me get it before picking you two up. Be glad. Normally we cook out of the stores down here. Ok, but not much variation. We normally never have visitors, but when we do, it often means topside food." She smiled, clearly looking forward to lunch. Norman and I will do the prep while you two talk to Mary."

"Oh, so the radio guy is down here?" Chuck asked.

"Yes, the 'radio guy' is my husband. We live here."

Chuck shot Sarah a look and she gave him a baffled glance in response. Carly saw the exchange.

"You two are now in the best-kept intelligence secret in the US." As Carly finished her comment, the elevator doors opened, and Frost stood facing them, in the middle of a large room. Around her on all three sides were massive computers, and one monitor after another. The wall behind her was divided by a hallway in its middle, but Chuck could not tell where it went or how far. The light from the main room did not allow him to see. There was a door in each other the other two walls, right and left.

They stepped out of the elevator. "Welcome, Chuck. Welcome, Sarah. Welcome to Castle." Frost stepped forward to give each of them a quick, stiff hug. "Carly, go ahead and see to your duties, then please start preparing lunch." Frost turned. A large wooden table stood in the center of the room, with comfortable chairs around it. "Would you two have a seat for a minute, please?"

Chuck and Sarah sat down. Both looked at Frost, waiting. She sat down across from them, then stood up again. She walked over to one of the monitors as if she were considering the information displayed on it, then she turned back to them. She closed her eyes for a moment, then she sat down.

"Chuck, Sarah. What I am going to tell you is sensitive, dangerous information. If certain people knew that you had this information, they would stop at nothing to get it from you. I am going to tell you only because I believe we can and must stop the Ring. I need you two to help me do that. I only ask that you both—you both—be patient and let me tell you all of what I need to tell you before you react."

Chuck thought that sounded ominous, but what choice did they have? They were already in the facility, so—in for a dime, in for a dollar. He noticed that Sarah was waiting for him to answer. She nodded her head at him; it was ok with her. "Alright, Mom. We will be patient."

Frost closed her eyes again. Then she stood up, determined, her lips set in a thin line. "Follow me."

She started down the dark hallway. A light came on as she got a step or two into it. On the far end were three doors, one on each side and one at the very end of the hallway. Frost stopped before the one at the end of the hallway. She turned to Chuck. She started to say something, then decided against it. She opened the door and let Chuck and Sarah go in before she did.

In front of them was a medium-sized table. One side of it was against the far wall. A chair was pushed under each other the other three sides. But Chuck's eyes were pulled to the two-way mirror above the table. On the other side of the mirror was a room exactly like Chuck's dad's basement lab, exactly like it was just before his father disappeared, exactly like it Chuck remembered it from his boyhood.

Stephen Carmichael was sitting in a chair in the center of the room—older, thinner, gray, but unmistakable. At first, Chuck thought his dad was staring at him. No. Then Chuck thought his dad was staring at the mirror. No. Then Chuck realized: his dad was staring into space, staring at nothing. Nothing.

"Dad?"

}o{

Chuck whirled around, only to be met with another shocking sight. His mother was gazing at him, weeping. He'd whirled around vaguely planning to scream at her, to demand an answer, to hurl a curse. But the sight of her, her entire body beginning to rack with sobs, undid him, undid his plans. He felt Sarah's warm hand take his and squeeze it. "Chuck, your mom needs you."

Those foreign words—when had Frost, his mom, ever needed him, ever needed anyone?—pushed him forward and he crossed the distance to his mother, took her in his arms. She began to weep in earnest, a mixture of misery and relief. His mom had her arms around his neck, holding on as if for dear life, and her tears were dampening his shoulder. He stood like that with her for a long while. Finally, she pushed him away, wiped her eyes on the back of her hand, and made herself face him.

"Stephen has been here since shortly after he went missing. He is," she looked past Chuck and at her staring husband, his father, "…unwell. And it is my fault."

She stepped around Chuck and pulled out a chair. She gestured, and Sarah and Chuck each took one. Chuck continued to fight down his urge to scream at his mom. Sarah's eyes, soft and pleading, kept him under control.

Frost began simply. "Your father had a psychotic break. It was my fault. His doctor is here today; I will let you talk to the doctor to get the medical details. But I owe you a story because I am sure you now hate me, or will when I tell you the story."

Frost wiped her eyes again, took a deep breath and went on. "Your photographic memory, Chuck, is an inheritance from your father. Like you, he did not try to draw attention to his gift. He just had it.

"I learned of it while we were dating, and it was then mostly a funny quirk of the man I loved. He could do odd and endearing things, like remember what I had worn on any date we ever had, head to toe, colors, fabric, etc." She paused for a moment and smiled weakly at Sarah. "Has Chuck made you aware that he can do this?"

Sarah smiled back at Frost. "Well, he did talk to me about…an outfit of mine being his mental screen saver. And he did once, quite a while ago, mention a blue blouse of mine with little buttons…"

Frost looked from Sarah to Chuck. "My guess, Sarah, is that he can tell you what you were wearing anytime he saw you." Sarah turned to Chuck and he looked away.

"Oh," she said, "I never really thought about all he could remember, not that way, I guess."

"Well," Frost's tone darkened, "one night I brought a file home with me—a file for a mission I was about to go on. Normally, your father never asked about missions and I never told him. I don't mean that he was wholly ignorant of the kind of work I did, or that he was at ease with it, but I made it clear to him that I was not going to give it up no matter what. He knew that when he married me. We both thought he could handle it—and he did, for a while, handle it, that is. The knowing but not knowing.

"But that night I made a mistake and left the file out. His curiosity got the best of him and he looked at it. I caught him with it. At first, I was furious; he was hurt. Why didn't I trust him? I told him that I did, but that my superiors didn't. I could lose my job if anyone knew he'd seen the file. I accused him of not trusting me. We went on like that for a while before we both lost steam. We just stood there, glaring at each other.

"And then he asked me if I realized that my target had been involved in a relationship with my asset—and that the whole mission was likely a trap? I was flabbergasted. I told him our analysts had been all over the question and that they saw no connection. He opened the file and pointed to various things in the history of the target and the asset. A pattern emerged—but a delicate one, hard to see, subtle.

"I realized that your father did not only have a remarkable memory, he had a remarkable mind. He was a genius at that sort of analysis. He'd put together things no one else would have imagined connecting. And he turned out to be right. I…completed the mission and…reversed the trap that had been planned for me.

"I started sharing all my missions with your father. He became my mission de facto analyst. As he got more and more of my missions into his head, he saw more and more connections, ways in which people or events of previous missions were related to ones in new missions. It was like he could hold the entire spy world in his head.

"But I should have seen what it was costing him. He hid how frightened for me he was. How saddened he was by my secrets. He kept me from knowing how disturbed he was by my job. He had never had to face it in anything but the abstract. But now he was almost daily facing what I did. I should have seen that in his desire to keep me safe, he was pushing himself too hard, was allowing himself to be hurt." Frost began to cry again but she went on. "But I didn't see any of that. Instead, I now understand, I saw myself as an agent with the most amazing asset anyone had ever had. I started thinking about what he could do if he had not just my missions in his head, but the missions of many agents.

"I knew not to trust the CIA. I needed someone who would understand what Stephen could do and who could make any and all US intelligence data available to him. So, one day I slipped into the car of the Chairman of the oversight committee and I explained…what I had, what my analyst/asset could do. He visited Stephen secretly and he agreed that Stephen would be a remarkable aid to US intelligence. And so, he started sending us as much current data as he could. Stephen would do his work at UCLA, spend time with you and Ellie, put you to bed, and then he'd go to the basement with me and I would fill his head—and he would find patterns.

"I was blind to so much, Chuck. We were making a difference. Increasing the greater good—at least that was my excuse. But it was overtaxing even your father's gifts. He started self-medicating. It got worse—mostly amphetamines but in larger and larger doses. I didn't notice. God, I didn't notice!

"But then he ran across a file about the CIA's horrid LSD testing, the MK-Ultra experiments, the attempts at mind control. He somehow found someone to buy LSD from and started experimenting on himself, to see if he could stretch his own limits, 'throw open the doors to perception', as he once put it to me later.

"It worked for a while—until it didn't. You know the result. The blank periods. The day he wandered off looking for syrup…" She choked up. "I found him that night and put him in a CIA safe house until I could put him somewhere…more permanent. I hoped his condition could be reversed.

"The best doctors were brought in, but nothing helped. The strange thing was that he would regularly become 'lucid', but that he was trapped in the time around when he left. He wanted to see me and to do analysis. He still could do it, better even than before. But he seemed to believe that he was working on hypothetical files—the changing dates and world situation he took to be just part of a game he was playing, working on possible future missions, possible future emergencies. He somehow never noticed that I was aging. But he was helping us. He has done so much good." She gazed through the mirror at Stephen, and the fact that she was still in love with him was unmistakable.

She wiped her eyes yet again. Sarah got up and stopped by Mary's chair. She put her hand on Mary's shoulder and Mary turned her face up and smiled at Sarah. Then Sarah went and picked up her chair and carried it around the table to put it beside Chuck's. He was sitting, staring through the mirror at his father. He felt her hand on his leg, reassuring him, comforting him.

Sarah's actions gave Mary time to re-focus. "The doctors believed that seeing his children would break him, destroy his delusions, and take even his 'lucid' periods from him, from us. Because, you see, during those periods, he and I are not just doing analysis—we are husband and wife." She waited, making sure the implication was clear. "I live here with him part of the time. He still loves me. And he loves you, Chuck, and Ellie. But the doctors think I am 'internal' to his delusion, so seeing me will not bring on a final psychotic break—but you and Ellie, the degree to which you have changed since he left the house that night, you two are 'external' to the delusion. And since I knew it would kill you to see your father like this but to be unable to interact with him, I have kept this from you for all these years.

She fell silent, then continued in a whisper: "And because I couldn't bear for you to see what I did to the man I love…"

Chuck had listened. Tried to be patient. But his anger and frustration and sadness overcame him, overcame even Sarah's steadying hand.

He matched his mom's whisper: "You know, Mom, I knew you were a bad mom, even before Dad vanished. I suspected you loved your work more than you loved us. But," his voice began to rise in loudness, in intensity, "but I had no idea what a colossal bitch you really are!" Mary flinched, but she let him go on, made herself look at him. "You did this to him. He would have done anything for you. And you made your own husband your asset. And you pushed him until you broke him, and even broken, you keep pushing."

Chuck covered his face with his trembling hands, trying to wipe the rage from his eyes. He was having a hard time seeing straight. He knew he was yelling; he couldn't prevent it. "How could you…How could you keep him from me, from us, keep us from him? All this time, thinking he had abandoned us, or that he had just wandered away, and that God knows what happened? Why the hell do you believe these doctors, why the hell can't I just go in there and see my dad?"

Just then, the door to the room opened, and Ellie walked in. "Because, Chuck," she said as she walked to Frost and stood behind her, "I am the lead doctor and I forbid it."

Chuck jumped up. Sarah nearly fell out of her chair.

}o{

A long quiet settled on the room. Chuck gaped at Ellie as she stood behind their mom. Ellie had on a white lab coat and had her reading glasses pushed up on her head. Her face was stern but her eyes were sympathetic, misty.

She took advantage of the quiet to say hello to Sarah. Sarah just nodded, looking from Ellie to Chuck, unable to figure out how to fit into this bizarre family drama.

Ellie walked over to Sarah. "Sarah, mom and I wanted you here because we knew Chuck would need you, and because we consider you family already—although, after today, you may decide that you'd rather we not consider you family. I'm sorry all this got dropped on you so suddenly," she glanced at Chuck, who sat back down, "on both of you. Mom and I often disagree, but on this, we agreed: it was better just to tell you all of it at once."

Sarah glanced at Chuck too. Chuck's face was weary, almost distraught. The seams of his life were straining. Everything he thought he knew turned around. Ellie had been lying to him. Sarah was tempted to take him and run, get him above ground to fresh air, sunlight.

"How," he stopped, the word sounded like a croak, "How long have you known?" His eyes, on Ellie, were full of recrimination. Sarah could see how much that look hurt Ellie.

"Since shortly after you decided to join the CIA. Mom needed a new neurosurgeon for her team. The other one moved away from Washington. I came up on the list and she…" Ellie turned to her mom and her voice softened, "…she needed us, one of us, to know. She'd carried this burden alone for so long."

Ellie turned back to Chuck. "I understand your shock and your anger. I thought about burrowing out of this place with my bare hands when I first saw him…But I stayed. He's our dad. And, however the blame for this," she looked through the two-way mirror at her father, "…however it gets divided, I couldn't turn my back on him—or her. I'm sorry for the lies, Chuck. I had no real choice."

Frost stood. "I'm going to check on Carly and lunch. We'll eat in the main room." She headed for the door, but glanced back at Chuck. "I'm sorry too, Chuck. I can't say how much." Then she was gone into the hallway.

Ellie moved to the open chair. She sat down and pressed her hands flat on the table. She sighed, looked up with a partly forced smile. "What can I tell you about Dad, Chuck?"

Chuck took a deep breath. "Is there a name for what he has?"

"I'm not sure there is an exact name. At one time, it might have been called a severe nervous breakdown. Whatever happened to him, it was exacerbated by the drugs, by the stress and pressure. It has or it mimics features of schizophrenia. But, putting it in layman's terms, his mind eventually gave way under the enormous strain. He can still do the analytical work in his 'lucid' periods, but part of his on-going delusion is that he no longer understands where he really is in time. He takes his analyses to be gaming, fiction. Like war games—he calls them 'spy games'. You remember Spy vs. Spy? I remember you and him chuckling over those in Mad Magazine." Ellie drifted into memory, then made herself return to the present. "He thinks it's a game, a cartoon, not reality. He ignores or doesn't see the changes to mom and to himself. But I don't think he can maintain the delusion if he sees either of us…"

"But Ellie, you're his doctor. How does he not see you?"

"Because I interact with him through our nurse, Carly, who does all the hands-on work. I talk to him when he is 'lucid' but through an intercom system. He never sees me." Her eyes misted again. "I've known he was alive, here, known he was suffering. I've tried to help. But I have never touched our dad since Syrup Day, Chuck. I've never spoken to him face-to-face or even had him recognize my voice. I am a stranger in Dad's life." Ellie's voice had been straining. It broke.

Chuck got up, and Ellie did too, and Sarah watched as they embraced each other. Just when she started to feel like she didn't belong there, like an interloper, Chuck opened the hug in her direction and she got up and hugged both the brother and the sister—two people who had become incredibly important to her life, the man she wanted to marry and the sister she'd never had.

After a few minutes, they all sat back down. Chuck spoke: "Is there any chance he will get better or that we could see him face-to-face?"

Ellie's face fell. "I don't know. Maybe. There's an experimental drug out there that virtually no one knows anything about. It had worked—in limited ways—on patients with similar problems. But we've put off giving it to Dad…"

"Why, Ellie?" Chuck demanded.

"Because of the Ring, Chuck. They have been hunting Dad for a long time. His analyses have kept them at bay, stymied and stifled them again and again. But he has become their number one target. They will kill him if they can. They don't know all about him, his troubles; they wouldn't care. They just want him dead.

"The problem is that our best chance of keeping him alive is keeping him like he is. We need him to protect him. He is, although he thinks he's playing a game, keeping himself safe. He's the best weapon we have against the Ring—the best defensive weapon. But Mom's brought you two in to be our offensive weapon.

"We are ready to take the fight to the Ring, to the Ring Elders. But Mom will tell you more about that shortly. Look, Chuck, I know this is a lot. Dad, me, Mom. There's more to come. Take it slow. You don't have to come to grips with it all at once. No one expects you too. I didn't, that's for damn sure. Just don't be too quick to judge Mom. She's made lots of mistakes and she knows it. Her guilt is eating her alive. She's trying to find a way back to us."

Chuck tried not to sound angry or hurt. "Ok, Ellie, you've earned my trust over the years. I guess I understand some of why you two chose not to tell me...to lie to me. If you agreed with Mom…well, ok, for now." He turned and looked at his father, still seated and staring as he had been when Chuck first saw him. "If I can't go in there, then I need to get out of here, out of this room."

"I get it, Chuck. C'mon, you two. There's still lots to talk about, lots to do."

}o{

Chuck followed Ellie from the room. Sarah took his hand. His mom had been right to read Sarah in too. Chuck wasn't sure he'd have weathered the past hour without her with him. He squeezed her hand and she looked at him, her eyes huge blue pools of sympathy. "I love you, Chuck. Just breathe. Look at me if it gets to be too much."

They emerged into the main room. On the table were sandwiches in stacks, and a large bowl of salad. And fresh brownies. Their sweet scent seemed strangely incongruous in that setting—homey, in a place that decidedly not-homey to Chuck. What had his mom called it? Castle. What a stupid name.

As Chuck and Sarah approached the table, Carly and a large, bearded man came into the room through one of the side doors. Carly had a tray of condiments in one hand, a tray of sliced tomatoes, onions, pickles and other items for the sandwiches. The man was carrying paper plates, cups, and utensils.

Chuck assumed the man was Norman. He was balding and thick bodied, but not fat. He seemed powerful, like a wrestler or football player, and he moved on his feet very lightly for a man his size.

Chuck turned his attention back to the table—despite the turmoil of the past hour, he was famished. He and Sarah hadn't eaten much of anything the day before, and breakfast earlier had been a hurried affair of toast with jelly and a half each of a shared apple.

Because his attention shifted to the table, Chuck missed the third person who came through the door. He felt Sarah squeeze his hand at the same moment as he heard a familiar voice.

"Welcome to Bag End, Frodo!" Martin Gomez was standing there, a large bag of potato chips in each hand.

Chuck felt dizzy, diagonal, teetering. "Et tu, Brute?"


A/N2 Turned tables, indeed. This interlude will require another chapter. More on Chuck's dad, and on old and new missions in Chapter 25, "Day to Day".

This chapter title is taken from a Nico Stai song. You may recall that one of Stai's songs, "One October Song", plays in the scene in which Shaw kills Chuck's dad (Chuck vs. the Subway). The song I've taken the title from here is a song about an absentee dad. Here's one verse:

And here you go floating out on some goddam window sill
Screaming
Believing
There's something in your eyes for them to hold
But there's nothing there to hold
You waited 'round for some 12 fucking years
For your father to call
But if he's not called you yet
You know he's never gonna call
And there's nothing you can do

You've got one thing in your heart
But another thing is what you do with it…

Listen to the tune. It is available all around the Internet. Think of it as playing in the background of later sections this chapter.

My thanks [bow] to the wonderful wilf21 who mentioned Nico Stai's "Miss Friday" to me (it plays during Chuck vs. Phase Three) and who got me to listen to that song more closely—and, as a result, to start listening to all of Stai seriously.