There was a flicker of relaxation from Sarah, then she stiffened. Her eyes, growing wide, looked past Casey. Casey turned, but he already knew: Kieran Ryker had arrived.
Ryker was just inside the doorway, coming out of a crouch with his pistol in one hand and Sarah's pistol now in his other. His glare covered all three as he kicked the door closed with his heel.
"Major," said Ryker, "I thought you were going to wait for me. Taking on Walker alone was risky. If it weren't for your reputation, I might be questioning your devotion to successfully completing the mission.
"Ah, Walker, good to see you again." Riker's voice was oily and his expression slithered between a smile and a sneer. His eyes raked up Sarah's body. "Oh yes, so very nice. Although I would be lying if I didn't say how disappointed I was with you on our last mission. It was very... unrewarding. That'll be fixed soon enough. Major, kill the target and then we can cuff Walker and be on our way."
"'No,' Major?" Ryker, now abreast of Casey, furled his brow. "What are you playing at? Our orders are clear. Charles Bartowski is to be eliminated."
Casey finished lowering his arms, letting his gun hang at his side. He continued to look between Chuck and Sarah. "That order, it's goddamn garbage!" Casey's voice was a rising rumble. "Killing an innocent civilian in cold blood? There has to be another way. We're taking the two of them in."
Ryker snorted out a sharp, derisive laugh. "Innocent? What does that matter? Graham says Bartowski is a serious threat to national security, that's what matters. But, fine. Let's drag them in and you can make your little speech to Graham and your General. Good luck changing their minds." He paused, drew in a long breath. "One question, though, did you find time to put on your vest?"
"No, I didn't–" Casey's instincts kicked in and attempted to respond to the materializing threat. But the path his gun hand had to travel was too great; the barrel of Sarah's gun was mere inches from Casey's heart when Ryker squeezed the trigger.
Frozen in shock, Chuck watched Casey topple backwards uncontrolled, his pistol spiraling away. Casey's head and back slammed with a tremendous thud against the lower part of the wall behind Ryker. For the briefest moment it looked as though Casey was sitting there, then his limp body slid sideways along the wall in a slow arc, leaving a crimson streak of blood.
Ryker had barely turned his head, using his peripheral vision to both target Casey on one side and to keep Sarah in his sights on the other side, his own gun's barrel never straying from her. Sarah had coiled to spring at him but held. Her position –a dozen or so feet away and with the bed between her and Ryker– and his alertness had not given her any real chance to reach him. If I can improve my position…, she thought.
"Oh, Agent Walker, it looks like you shot and killed the Major. I think your CIA days are done. But maybe I can help you out of this jam. All you need to do…" Ryker's faux sunnyness clouded over and his expression darkened "...is tell me where the package is."
"Screw you, Kieran. How are you even involved?"
"Did Graham tell you I was gone? Give you some line about me being a wildcard? I suspected you went soft in Budapest and told him as much. He didn't want to believe it of his favorite enforcer, but he had just enough doubt about you that I was able to convince him he needed me, in the shadows."
Sarah nearly shook with rage thinking about Graham's deceit, his callousness, and his manipulations. She eyed her pistol in Ryker's hand and took a small, sideways step towards the bed's corner.
He noticed. "Wouldn't you like to have this back," he said as he tossed the gun behind himself, putting it well out of her reach, while keeping his gun aimed at her. "Step back. Now." After Sarah did, Ryker continued, "Time is running out. Give me the package and–"
"Stop saying package." Sarah spat out the last word. "She's an innocent child!"
Ryker's expression shifted again, now to a smug grin. "You are really letting your emotions get the better of you, Walker. Okay, your way. Where is the fucking girl?"
Sarah's response was a silent scowl.
"Tell me now where the little heiress is and maybe I'll let you and Bartowski go."
Sarah Walker. Kieran Ryker. Budapest. Heiress. Chuck wobbled and his eyelids fluttered. Innumerable images spooled through his mind, as connections were made and implications revealed at a dizzying speed. After a moment he gave his head a snap as the flash ended and awareness of his surroundings returned. He looked at Ryker, horrified, then to Sarah.
"He's a bad man, Sarah."
"A very bad man."
"I know, Chuck."
Chuck turned back to Ryker, "Abusing your power. Killing innocent people! All so you could make a buck? How could you?"
Ryker squinted at Chuck. "What was that? You've seen my CIA file?" Realization dawned on Ryker's face. "You accessed it! Is that right? Just now?" Ryker addressed Sarah. "That's why you're involved. Why there's that high tech base in Burbank. He's the human computer that has been whispered about, that Fulcrum wants." The smug grin returned. "And now I have him." Sarah and Chuck exchanged furtive glances.
Ryker pulled handcuffs from a back pocket. "Here's my offer, Walker. Both of you come quietly. I hand you over to Graham. For Bartowski, well, I'm sure Fulcrum will pay me for him. I tell Graham that the target slipped away and if you're smart you'll go along with the story. With Fulcrum, Bartowski at least stays alive, I think. Not enviable, but I'm guessing he'll be comfortable enough if he cooperates with them. If you don't go along, Graham and General Beckman will use every available resource to find and destroy whatever Fulcrum hideout Bartowski ends up at, and him with it, to keep the human computer out of their hands. Or I can just shoot him and drag you out of here."
Sarah looked at Chuck for a long moment. I need to keep Chuck alive. If he's alive, I can save him. I will save him. Somehow. She looked back at Ryker and nodded.
"Catch." Ryker tossed the handcuffs to Chuck. "Put those on her. Behind her back."
Sarah turned and spoke to Chuck over her shoulder. "It's Okay. This keeps you alive." Chuck hesitated. "Chuck, I need you to stay alive." She took a backwards step, moving in close to him.
Ryker watched with interest. "Sarah, don't tell me you're letting your asset dip his pen in the Company ink?"
Sarah ignored Ryker. "Please, Chuck." Chuck's expression was pained, but he acquiesced and closed the handcuffs on her wrists. When he finished she leaned back, laying her head against his chest as he wrapped an arm around to hold her.
"Break it up, you two." Sarah and Chuck separated. Ryker chuckled, slow and guttural.
"Did you just do a movie villain laugh?" Chuck asked.
"Too emotional and too trusting, Walker," Ryker gloated. "It seems no one can live up to their reputation today."
Sarah felt ill, realizing she, a conman's daughter, had just been duped.
"Maybe Fulcrum is right, maybe they're wrong," Ryker continued. "I don't know or care. I do know I've got a lucrative arrangement with Graham that I'm not going to risk, and that should only get better when I bring you back alive and Bartowski back dead."
Ryker pointed his gun at Chuck and began to squeeze the trigger.
Sarah had not been able to improve her position relative to Ryker, and in an instant her expertly trained mind calculated the direness of the situation: the distance, the obstacle created by the bed, her cuffed wrists, all together, gave her no chance to reach Ryker in time to bowl him over or to deflect his aim. In that same instant her heart decided what to do about it: Sarah threw herself between the barrel of Ryker's pistol and Chuck, the man she loved.
The technicians who had installed the Cipher closed the white room's door behind them as they stepped out. Director Graham leaned over the Intersect computer's keyboard, with General Beckman standing to his side. Arrayed behind them were the agents. Graham typed in a security code, straightened and withdrew polarized shaded glasses from an inside breast pocket of his coat. Beckman held an identical pair and together they placed the glasses on while the agents standing behind them removed their shades.
The initialization progress bar on the computer monitor advanced. The video screens that lined every inch of the walls, ceiling and floor of the room sprang to life. (Graham's and Beckman's polarized glasses allowed them to see the computer monitor while shielding their eyes from nearly all of the light coming from the room's screens.) Countless images were flashing on the screens, each displayed for the briefest moment before another and another appeared. The screens had a thrum that was almost hypnotic.
One screen ceased cycling images and only showed static. Then several more failed. The flashing became arrhythmic and although he could not see the images, Graham sensed something was amiss from the small amount of light that reached his eyes. Beckman noticed it, too. Something was wrong with the Intersect. Both looked at the Intersect computer's monitor to see the progress bar replaced with three words in pixelated text.
Beckman's eyes grew wide. Graham blew out his last breath.
Reflexively Chuck reached out and grabbed Sarah's body as it crossed in front of him, Sarah's leap placing her between Chuck and Ryker just as the single loud report of gunfire filled the room.
"NO! Sarah!" Chuck screamed and every fiber of him strained then tore as his world lost meaning in that instant. Chuck absorbed her body's momentum and redirected it to spin the two of them around while falling to his knees, so that Chuck's back was now presented to Ryker, as though he could shield her from Ryker's pistol after the fact. No! God, please, no!
Sarah's mouth was open and her eyes wide… with surprise. "I'm ok, Chuck." Chuck pressed his cheek against hers, greedy for her contact. He did not know how she was unharmed and at that moment he did not care. He shut his eyes to seal within his mind's eye the sight of her as he inhaled deeply to capture her scent. With that, a tranquility settled on him as he waited for Ryker's follow up shot. He can kill me and take Sarah with him and maybe she'll survive this. Sarah squirmed; Chuck squeezed her against him tight, not willing to risk another attempt of heroism from her. An interminable second passed. From behind Chuck there was a thud and a wet wheeze that dimly registered with him, but no gunshot.
"Chuck. Chuck!" Sarah exclaimed.
Chuck opened his eyes and loosened his hold on her. He could see that she was looking past him, stunned, in the direction of Ryker. He looked over his shoulder, his stare following hers.
Ryker was also on his knees. He clutched his neck as blood pulsed through his fingers and ran down his front. Disbelief, then fright, then no expression as his face slackened and he pitched forward to the floor. Past where Ryker had been, Chuck and Sarah could now see Casey, lying on his side, holding Sarah's smoking pistol in a shaky two handed grip. His hands opened, letting the gun fall to the ground.
Sarah was quickly on her feet. Chuck hardly noticed as he gawked disbelievingly at Casey. She flopped on the bed on her back, pulled her knees tightly to her body, and in a fluid motion swung her arms past her rump and feet to bring her cuffed hands from behind her to in front. Chuck stood up and moved to Casey's side, who was starting to sit up. Sarah reached under the bed.
Chuck kneeled and looked Casey up and down. "You're not dead? But Ryker shot you point blank."
Casey's speech was a bit slow and ragged. "I have my Kevlar on."
"But you told him you weren't wearing it." Chuck glanced at the smeared wall. "And the blood."
"Yeah, thankfully… it's second nature for me… to not give people I don't trust… intel on my combat readiness." Casey inhaled deeply. "Oof. A broken rib or two…. If I was thinking clearly… I wouldn't have said anything or let him get the drop on me." Casey placed a palm on the back of his head and grimaced. When he brought his hand back around it was covered in blood. He showed it to Chuck. "Also a split scalp and probably a concussion."
Casey's stare shifted to look past Chuck. He grunted as he tilted his head slightly. "One of mine? Maybe that's fitting… seeing how I betrayed you two."
Chuck twisted and saw lying on the bed the computer case he had given Sarah at the Buy More. Then he saw her pointing at Casey one of the pistols that she had taken from the store. The rage on her face startled Chuck. He stood up quickly and waived his hands. "Whoa, whoa, whoa!"
"Chuck, move out of the way. He was going to kill you–"
"He saved us, Sarah."
Casey, his strength returning, said firmly, "Let her finish."
"He was going to kill you," said Sarah, icily, her stare not leaving Casey. "Now he wants to drag you back to them, which is just another way of killing you."
Casey met Sarah's stare. "Whatever you decide for me, I'm alright with it. But know that I won't try to take Chuck or you in. Ryker was right, that's probably a death sentence for Chuck. And I won't try to stop you running with him. I'll help. It's what I should have been doing from the get-go."
Sarah appeared unmoved, the gun in her cuffed hands still aimed at Casey.
"Please, Sarah," Chuck said softly, "For me. And for you. Don't do this."
Sarah held her aim for a moment longer, then decocked the pistol and jammed it into her waist band. "I need to get these cuffs off and finish getting dressed." She gave Casey a threatening look. "You harm one hair on my Chuck's head and I end you." Sarah turned and strode into the bathroom, closing the door loudly behind her.
Chuck gave Casey a crooked smile. "I'd ask her if she needs help with the handcuffs, but she probably already has them off." Casey responded with a soft grunt and nod.
"So you're her guy." Casey said it as a statement, not a question.
"I hope so."
Casey stared into the palm of his hand, closed his fingers then opened them again as he continued to stare. He frowned. "I once chose love of country over love of a woman. I thought it was the right choice. Maybe it was for me. Not for you, Chuck. All you need is the girl. Hold onto her."
Chuck's smile broadened.
Casey started to get to his feet. He wobbled, then began to stumble. Chuck caught him and held on while Casey steadied himself. "Thanks." The two shared a silent moment before Casey spoke again. "I'm sorry. I failed you both."
The bathroom door opened and Sarah emerged. Chuck turned and felt his stomach lurch as he caught sight of Ryker's body. He quickly went to the bed, pulled off the comforter and tossed it over Ryker's body.
Casey took a step towards Chuck and Sarah, then, seeing the glare from Sarah, balked before taking another. "You two should go quickly." A faint buzzing came from one of his pockets. He put his hand to it, then caught himself. "I should answer. It might be the General wanting an update. I can tell her something to buy you more time before I lose control of the situation and they send more agents after you."
Sarah nodded to give her permission.
"Casey here. … Yes, go. … … What?! Repeat that. … … That's been corroborated? You are certain? … Yes, understood." Casey slowly withdrew the cellphone from his ear.
Chuck could see that Casey was taking a moment to digest whatever he had just heard. "What is it, Case?"
"They're dead. The General. The Director. They were at the Intersect computer installation when it blew up." Chuck's mouth fell open and Sarah's chilly demeanor was replaced with surprise. "It's believed that the Cipher was a trojan horse that triggered a detonation as soon as it went online."
"Wha…? What does that mean?" Chuck asked.
Casey replied, "It means..." he took a moment to mentally recheck his conclusion. "...that no one is coming after you. The decision and plan to… remove you… was hatched by Beckman and Graham and shared only with me and him." Casey finished with a glance at the covered body, then he took in the rest of the room. "This is still a mess. But from what I know about Ryker it shouldn't be too hard to sell the story that he was a Fulcrum double agent, and that maybe he was involved with the explosion that killed the General and Director." Casey looked purposely at Sarah. "He came after your asset, but we were able to kill him instead."
Sarah made a brief, sour expression when Casey said "asset," then replied, "Fine. I need some air. Chuck, would you come?"
Sarah opened the motel room door and stepped outside. Chuck followed and pulled the door closed behind him.
Chuck walked to Sarah, who had stopped a few yards from the door. She was staring in the direction of the rising sun. He took up a spot just to her side and joined her in facing the horizon.
Chuck spoke softly. "Hey."
Sarah glanced over. "Hey."
"Can you promise me," Chuck asked, turning his head towards her, "That's the last time you try taking a bullet for me?"
Sarah's eyes met Chuck's. She shook her head as her hand found his arm and gently squeezed. "I need you safe." Then the corners of her mouth quirked up into a trusting smile. "You would do the same for me."
They were quiet for several moments before Chuck broke the silence. "Can you forgive him?"
Sarah let out a sigh. "I don't know. You seem ready to. He was going to kill you, Chuck."
Chuck shook his head. "Nah, I don't believe that now. He had us convinced that he would and I guess he had convinced himself. But at the moment of truth, he remembered who he really is. Other than you, he is why I, Ellie, all the people I care about, have been kept safe this past year. And I don't think he'll ever forget himself again. So, yeah…I think I can forgive him. — Ellie. I need to call her soon."
"I need to make a call, too." Hearing a hint of excitement in Sarah's voice, Chuck glanced quizzically at her. Noticing, she added, "I'll explain later, when we're away from here."
After another silent moment, Chuck asked, "With the General and Director gone, does this mean I'm safe? Free?"
"I don't think it's that easy. Fulcrum is still searching. They may not know you're the Intersect, but they've gotten close before, and Zarnow, maybe others we can't trust, know. Plus whoever replaces Graham and Beckman are going to get their files on you and the Intersect." A scowl flashed momentarily on Sarah's face. "But this time you'll be safe from our own, I'll make sure of that."
Chuck looked down while scuffing at the ground with one foot. "So I guess I'm once again indispensable as the only Intersect, with the CIA and NSA still intruding on every aspect of my life."
"I'm sorry, Chuck. That's not likely going to change with new leadership."
Chuck's despondency deepened. "And whoever ends up in charge could reassign you, and then you do end up somewhere like Jakarta. Somewhere that isn't here."
"No. I'm telling whoever takes over as director that they can keep me on this assignment in Burbank and I'll stay with the CIA. Or they can remove me from the assignment, I leave the Agency, and I still stay in Burbank …with you. Either way, I stay. It's not your normal life back, but maybe it gets you a little bit closer. If you're ok with that."
A small grin formed on Chuck's face. "Yeah, I'd be ok with that. And they'd be fools to let you go. So, asset and handler once again."
"If they keep me on and that's how they want to label it for their purposes, fine. But, Chuck, you must know you're not my 'asset' anymore. You haven't been for a long time, if I'm being honest with you… and with me." Sarah, with a dazzling smile, looked at Chuck as his eyes swept from the horizon to meet hers. Chuck's grin filled the entirety of his face, crinkling his nose.
Sarah and Chuck each reached out a hand and took the other's.
John Casey stood at the window. On the other side of the glass were Chuck and Sarah, their backs to him. He felt dizzy. Yes, he probably had a concussion, but he was sure it was the unfamiliar torrent of emotions coursing through him that was primarily responsible.
He stared at his friends –at least he hoped they would be again, someday– monumentally relieved that he had refound himself before it had been too late. His eyes scanned down and smiled at the sight of Chuck and Sarah holding hands.
His thoughts returned to that Buffalo bus station. Maybe he had proved Kathleen's faith in him right after all. Maybe he had not made the right choice all those years ago. And maybe, just maybe, Alex Coburn had a phone call to make.
Sarah and Chuck basked, enjoying what seemed like their first serene moment together in a long time. She gave his hand a squeeze. He brought her hand up to his lips and gently kissed it. Their hands dropped back down but did not let go.
"I think things are finally going to get exciting around here," Chuck deadpanned.
Chuck's words struck Sarah just so and she laughed. She attempted to put on a faux-impassive face to match Chuck's tone, but could not keep her smile out of it. "They just may."
The sun continued to ascend as Chuck and Sarah stood together, each filled with an excitement about the new dawn that was opening before them.
A/N Oh, the asterisk. This story covers what I had planned to tell all along, and I hope that readers feel that the ending arrived at a generally satisfactory point. I do not have anything further outlined, but there are certainly elements of the story that could be continued. So perhaps an epilogue or a part two someday. (If writing came easy to me, it would be a no-brainer as I have immensely enjoyed sharing this story, but, alas, it does not. It's almost embarrassing how long it took me to put this short story together.)
To those who have written one or more reviews along the way, I greatly appreciate you taking the time to do that and would love to hear your final thoughts. If you haven't yet reviewed, please consider leaving one.
A big thank you to the following who helped edit and/or encouraged me while I was writing this story: David Carner, Rachel Smith Cobleigh, SmatterChoo, WillieGarvin and Zettel. For this chapter Zettel kindly provided extensive feedback and WillieGarvin helped me decide on the finishing touches. And thanks to Marc Vun Kannon who struck up a lively dialog with me about this story as I was publishing chapters, which lead to some ideas that found their way into this chapter. (Are you reading Marc's stories? You should be, they're good.)
Casey's "All you need is the girl." is taken from S4:E11 "Chuck vs. the Balcony," although I have Casey's inflection here different, changing it from the more general declaration in the episode to one more specific here to Chuck. When Casey describes the Cipher as a Trojan horse, that entire line is verbatim what Sarah told Chuck at the end of S2:E1 "Chuck vs. the First Date."
If you enjoyed this story may I invite you to read my other stories. Note that my first two, "Chuck vs the Beach" and "Chuck vs the Final Threat," were done in an atypical style, written more like a teleplay. If you try and that style doesn't grab you, please note that my third story, "Chuck and Sarah vs the Hello," is written in typical prose like this story.
Thank you for reading!