[Story republished on 2/20/2021. If you read it before that date and are now reading it again, there are some modest changes that have been made.]
A/N: This story picks up from canon at the end of the rooftop scene of S2:E1 "Chuck vs the First Date." I'll say more about this in the notes at the end of this chapter.
Colt was smiling, resigned. Resigned as he felt his wrists taken and pulled behind his back by Major John Casey, who, like the rest of Agent Charles Carmichael's tactical team, was armed and in full tactical gear. As Colt felt the handcuffs securing his wrists, it dawned on him that he had fallen for the CIA's ruse –hook, line and sinker. That this Carmichael was one "Chuck Bartowski," a computer repairman and the furthest thing from a CIA agent, had felt so authentic.
Chuck Bartowski was smiling, pleased. Pleased because Colt and his crew were now captured and the Cipher reclaimed, pleased with himself for having turned the tables on Colt with the aid of "his" tactical team –'Tell me something? Do you find them imposing? …I was going for imposing.' He had enjoyed turning the tables on Colt, but was mostly pleased because the team was safe. He glanced Sarah's way. Yes, thank God, safe.
Sarah Walker was smiling (inwardly), relieved. Relieved beyond measure that Chuck stood only a few yards from her, surrounded by their tactical team, alive. How is Chuck alive? She was trying to catch her breath from her brawl with Colt. She possessed superior quickness and had expert technique, but Colt was massive, moved well for a man his size and was also skilled in fighting. Hand-to-hand combat with him was very dangerous, approaching foolhardy, and made worse in that only moments before she had seen Chuck thrown from the rooftop to what she believed was certain death ...and a numbness had enveloped her. The loss had hollowed her out, and she had not reacted as Colt closed the distance, allowing him to easily disarm her. Then the echo of Colt's words –'Your boyfriend's dead now, baby. Whatcha gonna do?'– reverberated in that hollow and all became red as rage rushed in to replace the numbness. She had fought with a ferocity she did not know she had, as though Colt's life or her own could take the place of Chuck's and bring him back. The fight had briefly reached a stalemate, with both of them on their knees and dazed. Then events had seesawed quickly. Casey had appeared from the fire escape and trained his rifle on Colt, but was quickly outgunned when Colt's men arrived. Again the situation had flipped as Chuck –Chuck!– and the tactical team, with superior numbers and firepower, poured out of the roof access stairwell. When Chuck addressed Colt, Sarah had stared at Chuck, dumbfounded.
Colt, still grinning, said over his shoulder, "Your boss, Carmichael."
Casey blinked and bared his teeth. "What?"
"He's good," chuckled Colt.
Casey growled. He was most definitely not smiling.
Still breathing heavily, Sarah approached Chuck, her eyes riveted to him. He's really here! Yet he grew blurry, and she realized she was blinking back tears. This situation between her and Chuck was becoming complicated. More complicated to be precise –it had seemingly started off complicated when they first met and steadily, inexorably grew more so from there. Agreeing to go on that date last night had certainly complicated matters further. Sarah was on the verge of telling him how relieved she was that he was uninjured and pleading with him to stop taking risks because it petrified her to think of him being harmed or worse. –God, I thought he had just been… No, I can't think about that. She looked around and took in all of the agents moving about the roof, securing Colt's men, and remembered Casey was among them and able to see her. I shouldn't be feeling like this! She clamped down on her nerves, mustering the self control that she had been taught as an agent, and put on an impassive expression as best she could. "Do you have the Cipher? Please tell me you have it."
Chuck, a smile forming, replied, "Of course I have it. It's me."
Casey came up behind Sarah pushing a cuffed Colt before him and without breaking stride unceremoniously plucked the Cipher from Chuck's grip. Chuck turned his head Casey's way and watched him hand Colt off to a couple members of the tactical team.
"I feel terrible," Chuck said to Sarah. "I owe Casey my life, but I was sort of a jerk towards him earlier." A slightly pained look passed over Chuck's face, and then it softened as his eyes returned to Sarah. "I'm so relieved you're okay. Did you fight that guy, Colt? My gosh, he nearly knocked Casey's block off last night with one punch!" Chuck took a step closer to her and grasped her upper arm, lightly rubbing it with his thumb. Sarah's eyelids closed as she drew in the comfort of his touch.
"Hey," Casey gruffly said as he walked towards the two. Sarah and Chuck each stepped back from the other, Chuck's hand dropping to his side, and both turned towards Casey.
"Casey, what's the plan?" Sarah asked, her voice now tinged with formality.
Casey began, "Colt is being moved–"
Chuck cut in, "Does this plan include me? Because Big Mike thinks I left to handle a computer emergency. I've been away long enough that he might already be looking for me. Plus I left Morgan in charge of finding the next Buy More assistant manager, and I have a bad feeling that I may have made a big mistake. Huge, really."
"Don't worry, Bartowski, we'll find a way to manage without you," Casey growled.
Chuck, picking up on Casey's snideness, replied, "Try not to miss me too much. So, you're working today, right?" Casey nodded as Chuck continued to speak, Chuck's volume increasing while he briskly walked away from Casey and Sarah and towards the roof exit, "So I'll see you there, buddy." Chuck was nearly shouting now, and there was a mischievous glint in his eye. "Maybe that single white female will be back and you can show her why she can't live without the Beastmaster!" A few agents looked Casey's way questioningly.
Casey emitted an unappreciative grunt.
Sarah watched Chuck leave through the roof access door, and her thoughts dwelled on him. Chuck may not be tough in the physically rugged sense, but he possessed a toughness that let him keep on going as the Intersect despite not asking for it, wanting it, or being properly trained to be it. One minute he could be fixing phones, the next defusing bombs. A significant threat to national security had been squashed today, largely thanks to Chuck. And he did such things despite being his own biggest skeptic of what he was capable of accomplishing. What is it going to take for him to realize he can do anything? Have anything he wants?
"Walker. Hello, Walker! You alright?" Casey asked.
Sarah's brief daydreaming broke and she turned to face Casey. "Yeah, sorry, I'm fine." The wind had intensified and was stirring up debris on the rooftop and whipping Sarah's hair about her face. "I didn't get to ask Chuck. How did he survive the toss from the roof?"
Casey glanced at the spot where he had emerged on the roof from the fire escape. "Bartowski says I keep catching him, well, I did again, this time literally while climbing my way up."
"Thank you, John."
Casey's eyes narrowed and panned to Sarah, intent on examining her; she, however, was no longer looking at him, instead she was staring off in the direction where Colt had stood holding Chuck over the roof edge. After a moment Casey joined Sarah in staring in that direction and said in a low voice, "Forget it."
Sarah continued to look off into the distance. "What now?"
"General Beckman is already inbound on a jet. After last night's fiasco, she wants me to directly hand the Cipher over to her and she'll personally transport it back to D.C. I'm heading to Los Alamitos base, with some of the team providing security, to meet her and deliver the Cipher." Casey held up the Cipher for a moment, then placed it in a Velcro-closure pocket on his tactical vest. With a slow nod of his head he continued, "And then I go clock in at the Buy More, clean out my locker, collect some 'toys' I stashed around the store, and leave it clean. Should be the last time I'm ever in that place."
That surprised Sarah and she turned towards Casey, with a questioning look. "So soon? Shouldn't you maintain your cover a little longer? I think we need some time to wrap up the operation properly, help Chuck transition back to his normal life and… and put some safeguards in place for him."
Casey stiffened and his eyes darted to Sarah, then away. "Well, yeah, maybe. I'm sure I'll find out what my orders are from the General soon."
It seemed so abrupt that the operation was ending now. Sarah had just started her new cover job. Someone in the Intelligence Community had taken pity on her and replaced the Weinerlicious with the Orange Orange frozen yogurt shop. No more wearing that absurd Bavarian waitress outfit or smelling of sausage and fryer oil. Of course the renovation to the store had primarily been a cover for the real change –the joint CIA/NSA subterranean operations base. Presumably the base would be shuttered, closed almost before it was ever utilized. But this is where the team found itself. On their last video conference at Casey's apartment, Director Graham had said Operation Bartowski was coming to its end. He had told Chuck to "Enjoy the rest of your life." Now that Chuck wasn't the Intersect, hopefully his prospects for a long, healthy and happy life had dramatically improved. Well, now that he no longer had to serve as the Intersect since he still had it, the means of removing it unknown. Chuck still has the Intersect. Sarah rolled that around in her head. Are they really going to just let him keep it, like some parting gift?
The wind now was unrelenting. Sarah brushed the hair out of her eyes. "Casey, I don't have anything to worry about do I? About Chuck? I mean, he's safe, right? You'd tell me if Beckman or Graham wanted him…."
"Dead? Hmph." Casey shifted his weight. "Don't worry, Sarah, he's safe."
Sarah watched Casey –scrutinized him– as he turned his back to her and began walking to the roof exit. After a few steps he stopped, but did not look back. His usual ramrod straight posture was absent and he looked… small. That felt so odd to her.
"That Bartowski, he did good today," he said.
"Yes he did, and not just today."
"Yeah, as far as novice spies go, he's alright." Casey did not move for several beats while Sarah continued to look him over silently, anticipating he might turn back to face her or say more. Finally without another word he resumed his slow walk. As Casey reached the roof exit, Sarah considered calling out to him, but before her decision could be made he was through and the door between them closed.
Chuck still has the Intersect. Sarah continued to ponder that as she sped along the freeway in her Porsche heading to her apartment, the speedometer hovering about five miles over the speed limit as she took advantage of the light traffic. Casey said she didn't have anything to worry about from Graham and Beckman. But something was off. As she thought back to her last few moments with Casey on the roof, she recognized that he was not acting like himself. He had been her partner for a year now. Acrimonious at the start would be an understatement, but quickly a grudging acknowledgement of the other's abilities and value to the operation formed and eventually mutual respect… and even trust. Truth be told, he stacked up favorably to any agent from any agency she had worked with in the past. He was far from an open book, but the amount of time she had spent with him, often in highly tense situations, had imparted to her some ability to read John Casey. And he definitely was not himself on that rooftop after Chuck left. Casey was a stoic. She could not remember ever seeing him off-kilter like he seemed when they parted on the roof, except perhaps when Chuck blew up the Crown Vic. What's roiling his usually in-check emotions? The Porsche's RPMs climbed as Sarah accelerated to fifteen miles over the speed limit.
And what about my own emotions? When she thought that Colt had killed Chuck, it practically undid her. Before that, throughout the day she had found herself dwelling on her dinner with Chuck the prior night. She had agreed to a date, without pretense that it was for their cover. It had an air of finality to it, but it was a real date nonetheless. She had even left her pistol at her apartment –that had been foolish– but doing so crystalized for her how much that night she had wanted to be Sarah, Chuck's date, and not Agent Walker, Chuck's handler. And nothing she did at dinner was a put-on. Her responses were genuine, her actions and reactions unscripted. She was so thoroughly enjoying the evening, enjoying her self –rediscovered in Burbank of all places– because of Chuck and how he made her feel. She flirted with him. Honest, spontaneous flirtation. She was ready to kiss him and was leaning in, as he was, to do so. Not some show peck on clenched lips to sell their cover relationship to Ellie, Devon or Chuck's friends and co-workers. Not a desperate we-are-going-to-be-blown-to-smithereens kiss that could be rationalized away by the extreme circumstances under which it happened. A pure and simple kiss… with a world of complications surely in tow. And then Chuck's flashes, Colt's arrival and the harrowing escape had dashed that moment, that near-kiss. I need to get it together! My job is to keep Chuck safe. Sarah was aggressively changing lanes in order to pass slower moving vehicles.
Chuck still has the Intersect, and that thought had Sarah worried. Graham and Beckman made no mention of that fact, seemingly unfazed by Chuck still possessing the Intersect while talking about shutting down the operation as the new Intersect computer came online. Before they were ready to stick him in a bunker when they thought he could fall into Fulcrum's clutches. What has changed? Why are they no longer worried he could be taken by Fulcrum or someone else bent on misusing the Intersect? The difference between speedometer and posted limit was nearly twenty-five miles-per-hour now. "Enjoy the rest of your life, Chuck." But how long are you giving him, Director? Sarah felt a chill run down her back.
Wheels squealed and the driver of the car she cut off leaned on his horn, but she hardly noticed as she crossed lanes abruptly, changing her route. Her destination now was the Buy More. I have to save Chuck.
Casey watched, alone, from the driver's seat of the black Suburban he had driven to the air base as an Air Force C-21A transport jet rolled off the runway and onto the taxiway. The jet came to a stop about twenty-five yards away. The agent who had accompanied Casey had already stepped out of the SUV and was joining the half dozen agents from the tactical team that were emerging from the two other black Suburbans that had convoyed Casey's on the ride to the base. The agents fanned out to establish a perimeter. Although the possibility of an attack here seemed highly remote, Fulcrum had proven to be surprisingly resourceful and daring. The General is right. Director Graham is right. Fulcrum is a grave threat to national security that must be stopped at all costs. Casey punched in a six digit code that unlatched the lid to the hardened steel lockbox secured to the SUV's cabin floor, lifted the lid, and removed the Cipher. He contemplated it, turning it over and over in his hand. Whatever the cost, right? But if we hadn't been able to recover this, then maybe Chuck... He let that thought drift away. He was here now and there was no time for what-ifs.
The jet's engines cut out and its hatch opened. A lean man wearing a dark suit and with close cropped hair stepped out and down the couple of folding steps. He scanned the area and after getting the all clear sign from one of the agents on the ground, cupped his hand to the side of his mouth to say something into the cabin. A moment later General Diane Beckman emerged, in her usual service dress uniform. Casey steeled himself, exited the SUV and broke into a light jog towards the plane and his boss.
Beckman wasted no time when Casey reached her. "Do you have it, Major?" Despite her small stature, General Beckman projected authority and Casey, already at attention, further straightened himself.
"Yes, General." Casey produced the Cipher and Beckman took it and put it in a small padded clamshell case, which she snapped closed.
Beckman stepped in close to Casey, the volume of her voice dropping while maintaining all of its authority. "We're clear on what needs to happen now, correct, Major?"
"I understand. And Director Graham agrees?"
Annoyance flashed on the General's face, and she asked, "When has that mattered to you? Yes, Graham is in full agreement. Sometimes assets have to be burned. Completely."
"Agent Walker's asset. But Graham's cutting her out of, uh…" Casey glanced around at the tactical team members fanned out around the jet and the security agent that had accompanied the General, "…Carmichael's involuntary last full measure." Casey said that as a matter of fact, no hint of a question in his tone.
Beckman sneered, "Yes, Graham seems to have lost some confidence in Agent Walker executing orders without question, at least when it comes to this operation. It has not been lost on him –or me– that Agent Walker may be blurring the line between handler and asset. Do you think we're misreading her?" Beckman's stare bored into Casey.
Casey did not speak right away. To think that Walker might go rogue was difficult. In his mind somewhere along the way Sarah Walker stopped being the shady "CIA skirt" and had become his partner, his trusted equal, not that he liked to admit that openly. Would Walker really be willing to go rogue to shield Bartowski? That fool Bartowski has got it bad for Walker I'm sure, but Walker…?
Beckman pointedly cleared her throat. Casey straightened. "Agent Walker is a pro, Ma'am."
Beckman was still staring at Casey, measuring his response. Casey relented. "Sometimes…"
Beckman prodded, "'Sometimes'?"
"Sometimes her decisions, her, uh, reactions in the moment, regarding the asset are... peculiar."
Beckman's expression soured. "Then, Major, you need to act immediately before she has time to complicate the matter with one of her 'peculiar' decisions. Get it done tonight."
Casey shifted on his feet, his ramrod posture slackening a bit. "General, I'm not one to usually question orders–"
Beckman pounced with her response before Casey could finish his sentence, "Then don't start now."
"It's just..." –Casey leaned in and lowered his voice– "...Chuck's served his country with honor. Maybe he even has potential as an analyst for the organization."
Beckman stepped in closer still to Casey; the paltry distance between them made him uneasy. She whispered, a hiss only loud enough for Casey to hear, "Are you worried that this 'exit strategy' will be on your record, soldier? You think I would have any trail of this black op that could lead back to me or you? Don't be naive. Director Graham and I are keeping an extremely tight lid on this cleanup. Just you, me and him know of it."
Casey's nostrils flared, he again stood erect and growled, "It's not my record I'm worried about, Ma'am."
"Check your tone, soldier. We're playing for keeps to protect what matters." Beckman's voice was growing strident. "Get back to Burbank, find the former asset and see that what must be done is done, and quickly. Those are your orders." Regaining her composure, she ran her hand down the front of her uniform jacket to smooth it flat. "I expect you to report tonight with the matter resolved. You are dismissed, Major."
Casey watched the General board the Air Force jet, then her security detail stepped in and closed the hatch. Christ, could this get any more fubar? This afternoon I'm saving Bartowski's life. Now…. Casey turned and trudged towards the Suburban. The agent that had ridden with him began to approach, but Casey waved him off.
The jet's engines started up, their whine rising, intensifying. Normally such sounds, the din of the battlefield, would help sharpen Casey's focus and amplify his drive to complete whatever mission lay before him. But the disquiet he felt remained. He slid into the driver's seat and started up the engine. All alone, he sat there for a moment tightly gripping the steering wheel before putting the SUV into drive. The General is right. Director Graham is right. Fulcrum is too dangerous to risk allowing it to get its hands on the Intersect.
Casey gave the SUV some gas and drove off the airstrip. His destination now was the Buy More. I have to kill Bartowski.
A/N: I would love to hear from readers. It's no secret that reviews put a fire into fanfic authors' bellies to continue writing. Please consider leaving a review and/or sending a PM.
Before I get into the background and plans for this story, I want to say that the community for "Chuck" fanfic is extraordinary. I am grateful to Zettel and David Carner for their encouragement and feedback while I was drafting this. Zettel has a knack for picking out one or two things in a draft and giving keenly insightful comments that point you towards ways to make the story better. Rachel Smith Cobleigh did an amazing job editing this chapter. Ah-maze-ing. If you happened to be grading this from A to F, whatever grade you gave was probably a whole letter higher because of her efforts. SmatterChoo imparted some writing advice that I applied here and that will be valuable going forward for improving the readability of the story. And a huge thank you to WillieGarvin for basically making this story a reality. He provided endless encouragement to me to write again when I thought I was done, suffered through listening to some dead-end story ideas, and then once this story idea took root gave feedback throughout the long outlining effort that saved it from being a train wreck. There is a wonderful Facebook group for "Chuck" fanfic and if you are an avid reader or writer, I encourage you to check it out.
This story intends to be faithful to the show's canon up to about the moment that Casey plucks the Cipher from Chuck's grip on the rooftop after Colt and his men were captured. That includes being faithful to other events in canon that would have happened before that moment in the timeline but were not presented to viewers until later episodes. (This story will add to that history, may spin it in ways not necessarily hinted at by the show, but will attempt to do so in a way that is plausible and not at odds with what was seen on the show.) Readers are assumed to know those events as they may impact or inform what happens in this story.
I also wish to capture some of the show's vibe, in particular, I have some light, (hopefully) humorous moments planned. There was virtually none in this chapter, but there'll be some in later ones. Also it may from time to time rely on television show devices (e.g., almost too good to be true timing, bad guys who feel compelled to give long speeches…).
The idea for the story in part came from a deleted scene from S2:E1 on the DVD set. In that scene, Sarah worries that Chuck may not be safe from Beckman and Graham; Casey tells her she has nothing to worry about despite the scene, if it had been included in the show, occurring after his one-on-one call with Beckman about what must happen to Chuck –the exit strategy– once the new Intersect computer is built. The dialog in my story that starts "Casey, I don't have anything to worry about do I?" and ends "he's safe" is a direct quote from that deleted scene, although that scene was set in the Orange Orange and would have apparently occurred the morning after Colt's attack in the restaurant. The deleted scene got me thinking that Sarah would have, should have, been skeptical about the purported freedom Chuck was going to get once the new Intersect was built, especially in light of the events that happened in S1:E13 "Chuck vs the Marlin." Dialog and scenes from the show, or twists on them, will find their way into this story (e.g., Casey's line in this chapter that starts "It's just…" is from S2:E1, appearing in that episode after the divergence point where my story starts). I may highlight some in the chapter endnotes, but certainly not all (I look forward to hearing from those who believe they've found such lines).