Chuck vs. the Child

Chapter 8 / Epilogue

The blue Taurus didn't last long against the SWAT truck, although it did try. Given the civilians in the area, SWAT used minimal force and still had the situation well contained. Casey checked over Bartowski, but aside from having the hair ripped off his arms when the duct tape came off, he wasn't more than shaken. Agent Walker was sitting on the ground, but had enough sense and pride in tact to be fending off anyone who might help her. Coleson was barely scratched and Casey admired that about the man. If Casey ever left the NSA or this assignment, he figured Coleson had what it took to keep the world from imploding. The man still had a lot to learn.

"Major –"

"No rank," Casey interrupted distractedly. "Still have cover to keep."

"Of course," the agent answered, flipping through his notepad, wanting a statement.

"Any word on those left inside?" Casey asked before he could be questioned.

"Agent Walker directed us to one that she'd incapacitated. We're getting local help because the police were called in on a kidnapping."

"Kidnapping!" Casey's eyes went so wide they nearly fell out of his head.

"Attempted kidnapping," the agent clarified. "The man was apprehended. Local authorities –"

"Has the NSA questioned the man?"

"No. Why –"

"Is he still on sight?"

"Well, yes," the agent stammered, confused that now he was being questioned instead of the other way around.

"Bartowski and I will go in. I will send signal if this man is identified as Sandomierz."

"But, sir!" the agent protested.

Casey wasn't listening. He snapped his fingers in the air and summoned Chuck in a loud voice. Casey's insides were shaking at the thought of someone abducting Ryan and while he prayed the incident was unrelated, experience told him that that was wishful thinking. When Chuck and Casey entered the BuyMore, it was crowded as ever, with customers fighting for those last minute gifts. The Nerd Herd booth was completely vacant.

"Where did you leave Ryan?" Casey whispered and Chuck indicated the Home Entertainment Room.

"She and Morgan were going to watch a movie."

Casey bristled immediately because Morgan was at the front of the store talking animatedly to a police officer, apparently taking him through the events. Ryan was nowhere to be seen. A moment later, a man was led out to the parking lot in hand cuffs and Morgan threw taunts as the police officer walked him by. The man stood tall and defiant, not at all concerned about his current situation, but Casey distinguished a bloody shoe print on the side of his face that probably belonged to Anna. Casey looked sideways and Chuck's eyes were wide with flash and fear.

"Look familiar?"

Chuck nodded and his lips parted, but he was too frightened to speak.

"Sandomierz?"

"Worse," Chuck croaked. It was all Casey needed to hear. He sent a quick message that the NSA intercept the local police in the parking lot, then approached the front of the store cautiously, his heart beating harder ever moment Ryan did not appear.

"Grimes," Casey said sharply, "What happened?"

"That dude came charging into the store and tried to take your niece!" Morgan answered excitedly, glad to be a hero. "He was pretty intimidating, but we kept calm. Anna, Jeff, Lester, and me swooped in like the Fantastic Four and took out the bad guy. I bet you've never seen excitement like that."

"Never," Casey nodded distractedly, looking around. "Where's my girl?"

"In Big Mike's office. You should've seen it. I never knew the old guy could throw a punch like that!"

Casey left Chuck to absorb Morgan's continued storytelling and went to the office. The door was tipped open and Ryan's giggles emerged sweetly as Big Mike bounced her on his knee. A huge smile was plastered across her face and Casey's heart soared at the trust in her eyes. He knocked softly and entered the room. As soon as Ryan saw him, she jumped out of Big Mike's lap and ran into Casey's open arms.

"Baby-Mine," he said into her ear as relief flooded through him.

"People came," she whispered, her soft breath tickling his ear. "They came to help me. All of them came! Even the ones who didn't know me!"

'Don't get too used to it,' Casey thought, but didn't say out loud. She was just too happy.

-----

Chuck was at Casey's apartment for the second time in a week, frustrated that he had to page through more intel and wait for the Intersect to flash. Hnilo, Raynet, Hnilo, Hnilo. The best anyone could figure, the Sandomierz had undergone a coup shortly after the safe house bombing, leaving one of the more violent members in charge, but that man and his blue Taurus were now in the custody of the U.S. government and Chuck did not like thinking about what might happen to him there. The Ukraine was a different matter. Chuck kept trying to clear up what exactly had happened on that job when Casey was there. He'd fulfilled his individual assignment of protecting his charge, but at the cost of the greater goal of the mission. No one had expected the two tasks to come in conflict. Chuck was glad that somewhere deep in Casey's past, he'd chosen to protect a person over a mission, but given Casey's record since, he worried that that man was long buried.

The silence was exasperating to Chuck's ears. Every time Casey snipped that stupid bonsai, it irritated him. Every time the pages ruffled, or the refrigerator hummed. But Casey never let him listen to music when matters of national security were involved. He'd brought an MP3 player, but when he asked, Casey said no to that too. Now he was sitting here in the loudest silence he'd ever experienced. Hnilo. Raynet. Hnilo. Raynet. Raynet. Raynet. The man who killed Hnilo. Wait! What?!

"Casey, I think Hnilo is dead."

"Huh?"

"I don't know," Chuck said, looking at the photo again. Sometimes the Intersect flashed, sometimes it leaked. "I think this is the guy that killed him."

"Does he have a name?"

"No. But here he is standing next to that bald guy – the one from the hospital."

Casey considered the photo, grunted, then went back to his pruning, so Chuck went back to scrolling. Ryan wandered in, rolled up bologna in one hand, and went to one of the computers in the dining room. A few minutes later, the room filled with music.

"Wait a second! How come you let her turn on music but when I ask, you say no?!"

Casey looked into the dining room where Ryan was dancing then looked squarely at Chuck, his voice dead panned. "She wasn't stupid enough to ask first."

-----

Morgan climbed in through Chuck's window the night before Christmas Eve, DVD in hand.

"There's leftover ham in the fridge," Chuck said absently, his eyes focused on the game he was playing. "But if you touch that pie, Ellie will personally kill you, and as fair warning, it will not be done with mercy."

"Can I use your computer?" Morgan asked, though his eyes were now looking hungrily toward the kitchen.

"Now?"

"I want to get the Morgan Tours edited for the day after Christmas and tomorrow is cookie making and the next day is Christmas."

"I don't have video editing software."

"So download a trial version of something. You have the speed and memory."

"'Kay," Chuck agreed, but continued playing. Morgan could go scavenge for food until he died or found a good save point. It wouldn't take long.

Two hours later, Morgan was fighting with his chosen program, adding music, and tweaking the files. He wanted to cut eight hours of footage into a five minute video and an extended thirty minute video. Chuck wondered how Morgan managed not to get fired, goofing off so much at work, but then Chuck figured he'd like his life a lot more if he lived as carefree as Morgan. He wandered through the kitchen, cleaning up the details because he knew Ellie could get fickle about that before company came over. Then he found the Swiffer duster and ran it over every surface he could find, just because he liked the fluffy blue thing. He smiled sympathetically when as he tiptoed through the living room, and pulled the blanket over Sarah where it had fallen away. They'd been watching a movie earlier and she'd crashed right there on the couch, and Chuck didn't have the heart to wake her. He thought about reorganizing the DVDs and games on the shelf, but just ran a cursory sweep with the duster and went back to check Morgan's progress.

"Morgan, out," Chuck ordered when he came in and caught Morgan gawking at his footage of Anna. "You're never going to finish if you keep watching this clip."

"But you see something new every time!" Morgan protested, rewinding the segment and starting again.

"Like what?" Chuck carped. "New customers in the background?"

In fact, it had never occurred to Chuck to look for Sandomierz or other terrorist-type people in Morgan's footage. He gave closer consideration to the background as the clip continued. There was Casey by the TVs, recognizable because he was big and scary, even if slightly out of focus. Chuck recognized Shrek playing in the background and he tried not to cringe at the fact that he could identify the exact scene based on three seconds of looking. He'd truly come to loathe that movie. The dragon's eye opened and half a second later, Ryan jumped into Casey's arms, alternately hiding her face on his neck and peeking back at the screen.

"Wait, roll it back a few seconds," Chuck requested. He watched it unfold again.

"Haha! There!" Chuck cried, then dropped his voice when he realized that everyone else in the house was trying to sleep. "Did you see that? Look?"

Morgan rolled back the tape again, then zoomed in on the corner Chuck indicated. It was fuzzy, because you can't resolve pixels like they do in CSI, but it was unmistakable. Casey picked Ryan up like he'd expected her to get scared and leap into his arms, and in the space of a breath, he'd looked at her, laughed, and then returned to helping the customer.

"A real laugh?" Morgan gawked incredulously.

-----

It was Christmas Eve and the gang was gathered at the Bartowski apartment for cookie baking. Devon did the mass baking and Ellie, Chuck, Morgan, and Anna decorated while Sarah hovered socially making sure the milk supply didn't run low. Ellie had invited Casey and Ryan to come, but Casey had some excuse or other lined up.

Chuck liked decorating cookies with Morgan because then Ellie wouldn't criticize him for putting super-suits on the gingerbread men. She was too busy criticizing Morgan and Anna for making the cookies look like murder victims. Anna had a fairly brutal line-up and one wreath that said "Joy." Chuck wasn't sure how that fit the theme. After he'd finished a Spiderman, Batman, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and a selection of X-men, Chuck stood up and offered the seat to Sarah who shook her head and smiled sweetly. Taking Sarah's hand gently, he led the way to the couch and sat down, pulling Sarah next to him. She was hurt pretty bad from the fights and explosions, but she wasn't about to admit it or let it show. Unfortunately for her, she'd been spending the nights with Chuck, trying to pick up slack for Casey, so he saw every bit of it.

"Need some Class 2 painkillers?" he asked her as she sat stiffly next to him. He wanted to put an arm around her, but she was so bruised, he couldn't. He wished they had a real relationship and not a fake one, because then she could let her guard down and really take the comfort he wanted to offer her.

"I'm fine," she answered. Her eyes closed briefly like she wanted to sleep, but she forced them open again.

"I'll wake you up if you start snoring," Chuck joked and she batted him lightly. He leaned sideways against the arm of the sofa and she leaned against him, but her body was rigid with the pretense of fake relationship. Chuck cast a glance at the cookie-makers and Ellie averted her eyes quickly. He knew Ellie thought Sarah was hanging around so much because she was lonely and it was the holidays. When things settled again and Sarah stopped spending the nights here, Ellie's suspicions would only be confirmed. It didn't take a sleuth to know that Chuck wasn't having sex with the pretty woman sharing his bed.

"Maybe a cup of coffee," Sarah said softly. She was pushing herself to the limits and Chuck worried for her.

"It's okay to rest some," he tried again. "I feel safer when you're rested. If anything happens, I'll freak out and scream like a girl, and that will wake you up. Go on and sleep."

Sarah considered him seriously and then looked back to the crowd making cookies. Finally, she rested her head on Chuck's chest and closed her eyes. He stroked his hands lightly through her hair because as best he could figure, it was the only part of her not hurting.

-----

It was Christmas day when the call finally came. Casey had taken Ryan to the Bartowski's apartment because Ryan liked playing video games with Chuck and Ellie liked feeling that she was helping in some way. Casey had tried to stay away, but true to Chuck's prediction, big sister had come knocking on his door offering assistance. They'd come by for Christmas dinner and Ellie had given Ryan a book called 'Frog and Toad' and they'd read it together. The whole thing seemed so foreign to Casey. He'd had a family once, but had been on the field so long, he'd forgotten what it was like to be part of one.

It was getting late when his phone rang, and he stepped into the back hallway to answer because the source number was protected. Casey nearly shouted for joy when he heard Maya's voice on the other end.

"Are you safe to talk on your end?" he asked quickly, poking his head from the hallway to locate Ryan. He snapped his fingers in the air and Ryan immediately paused the game she was playing and ran to his side, pressing against his leg and holding onto his hand.

"Safe enough," Maya answered and Casey broke into a wide smile.

"I got someone here who wants to say hi."

He handed the phone down to Ryan and held it close to her ear until she took it. She looked up at him with wide frightened eyes and her lips hung partly open. Casey knelt beside her, leaning his forehead against hers until he could just hear Maya gushing out her heartfelt assurances to her baby girl.

"You gotta talk into it," Casey whispered. "You can't just nod. She doesn't see you."

"Merry Christmas, Mommy," Ryan whispered tentatively and the voice on the other end of the line fell immediately silent. "I love you."

Casey sat back on his heels and laughed outright at the little girl. After a few more minutes of listening, Ryan's eyes went wide as saucers and filled with tears.

"Don't cry, Mommy. Please."

Casey scooped her up and retrieved the phone, heading back into the hallway for privacy. He'd discovered this black zone a few days ago and planned to fix it, but until then, he could take advantage. He'd have to be careful, given that he recorded everything that went on in this house and if he were ever reassigned, someone would review his tapes.

"Happy tears," Casey whispered to Ryan, kissing her temple soothingly. "Your mom is happy."

Ryan buried her face in his shoulder, so he gave up on comforting her for now. Safe or no, Maya probably didn't have long to talk.

"Can you walk okay?" he asked her.

"When did she start talking?" Maya wept.

"The same night you woke up. When can we hand off?"

"I – she hasn't spoken – so long."

"Can you come here for her?" Casey persisted. "It's not safe for her here."

"But you – she's talking –"

"Can you come for her?"

"I can't make it far," Maya finally managed, choking back the sobs and covering it with a professional tone. They went back and forth for ten minutes hammering out the details of the handoff and when Casey hung up, he realized he was swaying on his feet again. Why did he always do that when Ryan's head was on his shoulder? It was like an auto-response.

"Ready to see your mom again?" he asked her.

She shrugged, noncommittally. "I guess."

He nodded and smiled. That was a 'yes' in Ryan's terms – a 'yes' when she didn't dare hope to get what was offered. Maybe there was sadness there in leaving, but he'd been warning her for the past several days that this call would come. He'd been warning her that they would have to be ready to leave at a moment's notice and there'd be no time for good-byes. That's why he'd been avoiding coming here. He didn't want her getting too attached. Ever since she'd been rescued by the BuyMore employees, he'd seen that trust growing in her eyes and he hated ripping her from that safety net. He was glad when she didn't complain.

"Sorry to cut the night short," Casey apologized to the gathered crowd as he returned to the living room again. They hadn't even had dessert. "We should be getting home."

He exchanged a look with Agent Walker on the way out which hopefully she could read clear as day. It would take six hours to drive to the rendezvous, meaning he'd get back just in time to start his shift at work the day after Christmas.

"Say good-bye, Ry," he encouraged, but she just sighed sadly and hugged him tighter. He collected her Supergirl cape from the back of the couch and made his way for the door.

"Don't forget your book," Ellie called after them, trotting to the door and slipping the book into John's fingers.

"Thanks."

"Is she not feeling well?" Ellie asked, following them outside and rubbing Ryan's back.

"Just misses her mom," Casey answered. He held tight to Ryan as he darted to his apartment and gathered a few of her things. He was glad she was leaving, and he wouldn't miss her one bit. He couldn't. Once Ryan was transferred, any further contact between him and Maya would endanger them all.

-----

Casey rubbed his eyes tiredly as his phone chirped. He'd handed off Ryan successfully and was still an hour out of town, meaning he could either drive home, take a quick shower, jump in the car, and go to work, or he could change in the bathroom at the BuyMore and take a ten minute nap before his shift started. He picked up his phone from the passenger seat and checked – new picture mail from Bartowski. Picture mail? Why would Chuck send him a picture? Maybe he'd flashed on something.

With a few quick button presses, Casey set the picture to load while he drove. The thinking actually helped him to focus. Maybe he should –

The accompanying text scrolled up. "It's not a Crown Vic, but Merry Christmas."

Then the picture – Ryan in Casey's arms, looking up at him with needy eyes, and him looking right back, laughing. His first reaction was to drop the phone. His second was to pull over onto the shoulder of the highway and stop the car. He picked up the phone again, and stared at the picture, his hands shaking more than he'd ever confess to. He'd achieved the greater good! He'd made her feel safe and restored peace to her life. He'd given her a stable environment and surrounded her with people she could trust. Then he'd ripped her from all of that to reunite her with her mother. This picture was a stolen moment and a glimpse at an alternate life of might-have-beens. It wasn't a dream car, but it was a dream, and as priceless as it was, Casey couldn't help but think how dangerous the existence of this picture was.

-----

Casey came home from work mentally and emotionally exhausted, but his first order of business was to fix a system in that sound proof closet so he wouldn't be caught off guard if an attacker hid in there. When he slid open the door, he was greeted with an unexpected mess. Every red shirt he owned seemed to be sitting on the floor, and one blue t-shirt was in mix with a stylized "S" drawn in the middle with marker. He sighed at the memory of his little Supergirl. After finding out it was safe to talk in here, she'd apparently turned it into her personal playroom and he hadn't been keeping close enough eye on her to notice. The corner was filled with a bag of stale bread and little cheese-and-cracker snack packs. Morgan had mentioned Jonah to Casey and started giving the girl the snack packs as an alternative to bread. She'd hoarded those too, but Casey hadn't given her much opportunity to collect her stash before they'd left. Cleaning out the room, he started pondering his plan for modifying this space. Fortunately, he'd left the closet open, so he heard the knock on his front door. Grabbing his gun, he made his way to the front, checked the peep-hole, then concealed the weapon quickly. It was Ellie.

"Hi," she greeted, smiling kindly at him. "Chuck told me that Ann Elise and Ryan are reunited."

"Yeah, well, you know how that out-of-state medical care can get away from you." Casey had prepared that excuse, but he wasn't sure he'd delivered it properly, seeing as he was so tired. He stepped into the court yard, closing the door behind him, ready to go on a brief walk-and-talk to satisfy his neighbor's need to be supportive. They talked about Ryan and whether she'd come back to visit. There wasn't a chance of that, but Casey couldn't tell Ellie that. She was a good neighbor. A sweet neighbor. And she was there for him. It was sad, because he couldn't return the favor when the worst happened to her – when he killed her brother.

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