Author's note: "Chuck vs Auld Lang Syne" is a fanfic based upon the "Chuck" television series. The usual disclaimers about network ownership of "Chuck" apply.

This episode is written to fall after "Chuck vs the Crown Vic". Think of it as episode 1-11a.

"Hi! I'm Chuck. Here are a few things you might need to know."

[Music plays quietly in the background.

Sarah kisses Chuck in front of the "bomb".

Coffin opens. Sarah: "Oh my god!"

Sarah at the Buy More: "Chuck, Bryce is alive."

Chuck saying: "How is this possible?", while the screen shows Bryce in the interrogation room.

Bryce kisses Sarah in Chuck's room. Chuck watches.

Bryce: "Sorry, Chuck." Bryce shoots Chuck.

Chuck, lying on the ground, vest exposed: "…that stings a little."

Sarah looks back and forth between Bryce and Chuck before walking past both.

Bryce: "We'll always have Omaha."

Sarah stands by the window in her hotel room, packed, as the phone rings, Bryce on the other end.

Chuck: "I thought you'd be halfway to Bryce by now."

Sarah: "What made you think that?"

Casey polishes his Crown Vic lovingly.

Sarah storms out of Ellie's apartment. "What happened was a mistake. One I will not make again."

A missile blows up the Crown Vic, to Casey's dismay, overlaid with Casey saying, "I hate this assignment."

Sarah at the Buy More holiday party: "I'm not so good at relationships."

Chuck: "Friends?" Chuck and Sarah share a lingering handshake.

General: "Once the new computer is online, it will be time to take care of Bartowski."

Casey: "I understand my orders, General."

General: "Oh, and John?" [Music stops "Happy holidays"

Scene I - Casey's apartment

Sarah, Casey and Chuck stood shoulder-to-shoulder facing the communication monitor in the living area of Casey's apartment. Director Graham could be seen on-screen, arranging some papers on his desk as they finished the briefing.

In his typical gravelly voice, Graham said, "So, it looks like your slate is pretty clean for the time being."

Sarah responded, "That's correct, Director. All our missions have been wrapped up, and Chuck hasn't had any new flashes."

"Well, for once things look neat and tidy. Good work, Agents Walker and Casey."

Chuck was a bit chagrined at the omission of his name. Graham noticed and rolled his eyes. "And you, too, Chuck."

Chuck brightened, but only a little. The way the director said 'Chuck' made it sound like an insult.

Graham continued, "Casey, Walker: you may take shifts watching over the Intersect during the holidays so that you can take some R&R. Work out a schedule between yourselves. Happy Holidays." The director signed off.

Chuck couldn't help but notice the director didn't comment on his R&R. He was tired of being treated like a liability, but played it off, "Wow, R&R. I didn't think you guys needed breaks."

Sarah spoke quickly, her glance at Casey making it obvious she was looking to pre-empt a saracastic remark from Casey. "The last few weeks have been pretty rough on all of us. We could use a break." Her face lit up. "Besides, it's Christmas Eve."

Casey snorted.

Chuck said, in a light tone, "Aw, c'mon, Case." Casey looked menacing at the use of the nickname, causing Chuck to correct himself. "Casey. Casey. Surely there's something you want for Christmas?"

Casey turned to face Chuck, crossing his arms. "A new Crown Vic. Think Santa might have one in his bag?"

"Wow, that wasn't predictable at all. Just how often am I going to be apologizing for that?"

"Dunno. How often are we going to see each other?"

Chuck, sensing a no-win, decided to move the conversation along. "Seriously, there must be something. What do you want … besides a Crown Vic?"

Somewhat surprisingly, Casey actually seemed to give it a little thought. "How about an M60? And don't forget the ammo."

"What, you don't have enough firepower?"

Casey walked over to the armoire, opening it up to reveal a cache of guns mounted in custom foam moldings. "Nah, I think I'm good. But I still want the M60. Sentimental value. Used it at the start of my career."

Chuck gaped at the sight of the collection. "You've got … like … 200 guns there. What, I can't borrow just one for a mission?"

Casey, with a sardonic grin, said, "You'll shoot your eye out."

Chuck looked helplessly at Sarah. While her look was sympathetic, she didn't exactly disagree, either. Chuck glanced back at Casey before exiting without a word.

Casey grunted with pleasure. He closed up the armoire.

Sarah hesitated for a moment before speaking, "So … how do you want to handle the coverage?"

Casey started to collect the mission folders from the coffee table. "Dealer's choice. We've got about ten days; why don't we just split it down the middle?"

Sarah's face lacked its usual confidence, but her tone came out confidently. "Well, I'm probably not going anywhere, but you're welcome to take off for a few days."

Casey's face grew suspicious. He stopped organizing the folders and turned to confront Sarah. "Really. You plan on hanging around Chuck during the holidays?"

Sarah's adopted an innocent expression on her face; she shrugged, "What's the problem?"

Casey's expression became more demanding.

"Look, Chuck and my cover took a beating over the last couple of months, between the break-up and Bryce and … it wouldn't take a spy to figure out that things were off between Chuck and me. It feels like a good idea to try to shore up the cover while I know we won't be interrupted by a mission."

Casey's eyes narrowed. "Seems like a pretty convenient excuse to hang around Bartowski for a few days. Drink a little eggnog, get your tree trimmed…"

Sarah's eyes rolled. "Look, you asked me to fix things with Chuck, and I did. We agreed to put aside his petty little infatuation and just be friends."

Casey looked intrigued by her choice of words, but he was obviously still suspicious. "Did he, now. A few days ago he was following you around like a lost puppy, and now he's fine with 'friends'?"

Her face grew a little sad before she answered, "I straightened him out on a few things."

"That had to sting poor Chucky more than a little bit."

"Yes, it probably did."

"Well, that explains the sobbing I heard through the bugs in his room."

Sarah looked uncertainly at Casey for the slightest of instants; she quickly covered it up, her eyes becoming hard. "Enough. You helped me in a moment of weakness, and for that I'm grateful. But that doesn't give you the right to turn around and treat me like this. Back off."

"Not yet." Casey moved in a little closer, giving her an intense look as he lectured, "You realize hanging around Captain Awesome and the Chuck-tones for the holidays is about the worst thing you could do for your cover, right? You'll drink a little wine, and they'll ask you questions about your family and Christmases back home. Before you know it, your cover will fall off faster than a dress on prom night."

Sarah's jaw locked. While Casey was correct in assessing the risk, a weak cover was a risk as well. Ultimately, this was her call. "My cover is my problem, and I'll fix it. Don't tell me how to do my job."

Casey's expression showed that, as far as he was concerned, the matter wasn't close to being closed.

Outside, Chuck walked back from the mail box through the courtyard, lugging a stack of mail. Chuck stopped near the fountain, ignoring the catalogs in favor of flipping through the small ream of Christmas cards. "Ellie. Ellie and Devon. Devon and Ellie. Devon and Ellie. Ellie. Chuck!"

Chuck tore into the envelope eagerly. Inside was a very nice holiday card, embossed and elegant, with a set of generic holiday images alongside the words "Seasons Greetings". Chuck opened the card, exposing a folded piece of computer paper. Glancing down at the signature on the card, Chuck's heart sank a little. "Aw, Liniman. What are you writing to brag about this year?"

Chuck read the note inside the card aloud.

Dear Chuck,

Thought you might be interested in hearing how my year went. As you know, I tend travel a lot, but I'll be back at the home office in Los Angeles over the holidays, and would love to share some career advice.

Best regards,

Shawn Liniman

Chuck gave an insulted laugh, looking as though he wanted to crumple up the card. Restraining himself, he instead unfolded the letter. At the top of the page was a picture of Shawn at some type of industry event. He was dressed in a custom-fit suit, all grins as he shook hands with somebody handing him an award in front of a podium. Chuck sighed, his expression becoming a bit forlorn. He had pictured himself in scenes like this while back at Stanford.

Chuck took a closer look at the picture. His eyes caught the words "DCI Enterprises", and then locked onto a gentleman standing to applaud in the picture. His eyes rolled slightly back as he started to flash.

A tall barren tree standing in a field.

A picture of the gentleman in the picture.

A series of file documents listing his personal information.

A scan of a government defense contract.

A page listing wire transfers for large sums of money coming into DCI Enterprises.

The tall barren tree in a field.

Chuck snapped out of his trance. As he wrapped his head around what had just happened and what it meant, his expression became downtrodden. Shoulders slumped, he headed back to Casey's apartment and entered without knocking.

Inside, Casey and Sarah were having a tense conversation; both looked fiercely upset with the other. Chuck caught the tail end of what Casey is saying, "…and start thinking like an agent instead of a..." Casey cut himself off when he noticed Chuck had returned. Chuck was surprised to find the two of them arguing like that, and his face reflected that.

Before Chuck could speak, Casey angrily demanded, "Do you always enter somebody else's apartment without knocking?"

"Oh, that coming from the guy who spends his evenings listening to the bugs he planted in my room."

"Fair point."

Sarah's face had suddenly calmed; she tried to smooth things over. "We were just trying to figure out how to split up time off over the holidays."

Her comment reminded Chuck why he had returned. "Well, that may not happen. An old acquaintance of mine is coming to town, and I think he's been more naughty than nice." Hand dejectedly on one hip, he tossed the letter and Christmas card on the table.

Scene II - Casey's Apartment

Sarah and Casey stood in front of the computer screen, having brought the director back online. He looked irritated. Well, more irritated than usual.

"You're telling me Chuck flashed in the last ten minutes?"

Sarah answered, "Sorry, Director, we still don't know what triggers the flashes. This time it was a Christmas card, of all things.

Graham's eyes narrowed. "And where exactly is the Intersect?"

"He had to get back home. He told his sister he was taking a walk to give him an excuse to attend the earlier briefing, and he had already been gone too long."

Graham obviously was looking for something to justify his irritation, but was finding nothing. "OK. Brief me on the flash."

Casey said, "Shawn Liniman is an acquaintance of Chuck's from high school. He currently has a position as a high-level executive at a defense contractor called DCI Enterprises. Intel from the Intersect suggests this contractor has received a series of large cash transfers of dubious origin."

Graham looked skeptical. "That doesn't seem like much. Those transfers could be perfectly legitimate."

"True. However, there is also a picture showing a man Chuck identifies as Andon Minh in proximity to Liniman."

Sarah added, "Andon Minh has been rumored to be involved with the sale of classified American intelligence on the black market. I know there have been several investigations into his dealings, but nothing has come of them."

Graham mulled over their report for a minute. "Well, there's certainly smoke here, but I don't see any fire. What do you recommend?"

Sarah said, "I suggest that Chuck accepts this guy's invitation to meet up for dinner over the holidays. That's about as low-risk as it comes: the meeting will be in a public place, and we can select the location."

Graham looked doubtful. "Do you really think Chuck can handle the meeting with Liniman?" His tone clearly conveyed his opinion on the matter.

"I'll go with him as his girlfriend to keep him on course, and provide protection in case this guy is dirty. Besides, the obnoxious little note this guy wrote suggests he's out to prove something to Chuck, so it seems likely that we'll be able to use that to our advantage."

"Casey?"

"I agree. But before they meet, we should set up reconnaissance at this guy's office to see if we can dredge up anything. We can give ourselves a few days by scheduling dinner on the 28th or 29th."

"Seems like a solid plan. We'll do some research on our end to see what else we can dig up. Just make sure you have something before you move on the guy; I don't want a repeat of the Kirk situation." With a final warning look to emphasize his last point, Graham signed off.

Sarah turned to Casey, and said, "Once we get the equipment set up, you're going to need to take on a fair bit of the reconnaissance work.

Casey looked at Sarah questioningly, "And why is that?"

Sarah shook her head. "There's no way Ellie will buy any excuse from Chuck or me for missing any part of Christmas. Not after Thanksgiving."

Scene III - Casa Bartowski

Chuck walked back into Casa Bartowski, lugging the mail. Devon and Ellie were eating breakfast at the dining room table, while Morgan lounged on the couch, reading the comics.

Ellie looked up as Chuck closed the door. "Good walk?"

Chuck responded a little gloomily as he strode across the room, "So-so. Looks like it's clouding up a little." He dropped the mail onto the kitchen table, and then headed back to the living room to flop down on the opposite end of the couch from Morgan. Devon began to leaf through the mail, while Ellie followed Chuck back into the living room.

Ellie, as she sat in a chair, asked, "Everything all right?"

Chuck realized he was acting fairly grumpy after discovering there would be a mission during the holidays. Not only was he upset about losing the break, he wasn't looking forward to engineering a meeting with Shawn, who apparently hadn't gotten any less obnoxious since his high school days.

Since he couldn't discuss that with his sister, he did his best to shake off his bad mood. "Yeah, I just found out I have to work a little more during the holidays than I wanted."

Ellie looked at Chuck questioningly, "How much more?"

Chuck, a little lost in thought about his flash, didn't consider his answer very carefully. "Oh, another shift or two." Distracted by Liniman, he completely missed the undertone of the question.

Ellie got a determined expression on her face. "Devon, can you join us for a sec?"

Awesome boomed, "Sure thing, babe." He picked up the sheaf of Christmas cards and headed into the living room. Without really looking, Devon took a seat on Chuck's end of the couch, forcing Chuck into the middle of the couch. Morgan chuckled at something he read in the comics.

Ellie stood opposite the couch and cleared her throat. "I would like your full attention for the next five minutes."

Devon muttered, "Uh huh." Chuck nodded, still staring off into space. Morgan nudged Chuck with his elbow. "So, has Dilbert jumped the shark, or what?"

Ellie cleared her throat again, this time loudly. All three looked up. "Full. Attention. Now!"

The three immediately stopped what they are doing.

Ellie began pacing back and forth, and lectured the three, "As you may recall, this year's Thanksgiving wasn't exactly the family experience we've come to know and love." She turned to face them. "There will be no repeat of that over Christmas." She looked forcefully at all three of them in turn.

Devon protested, "But, babe, I didn't…"

Ellie cut him off with a mock-sweet smile, "No. Repeat. Of. Thanksgiving."

It appeared Devon wanted to say something else, but instead just nodded as she stared him down. Sensing she had his agreement, Ellie turned around to grab some papers off the kitchen counter. Chuck whispered, "Smart move."

Devon whispered back with an intimidated expression: "I just hope this isn't a relapse."

Chuck looked at him, and with all sincerity said, "I really, really doubt it." Devon didn't look convinced.

Ellie returned and handed out copies to each of them. "These are the itineraries for the festivities. Now, I understand that you have girlfriends." She looked at Morgan. "I don't always understand how…"

Morgan replied, "Aw, don't be jealous." His voice shifted to a loud whisper as he shook his head disparagingly. "It doesn't look good on you."

Ellie pressed the palms of her hands downwards as she adopted a disgusted look. "Ew. Anyway, you are welcome," looking at Morgan, " or strongly encouraged," looking at Chuck, "to bring them. Activities that are not optional are marked with a star."

Devon's eyes widened in disbelief. "That's a whole lot of stars."

Chuck loved his sister, but he couldn't resist poking a little fun at her. "Hey, I'm thinking that Pictionary needs to start a little later than 9:09; you didn't really allot enough time for the 'Eggnog and Holiday Cheer' bullet."

Morgan jumped in, "Yeah, I can't get my Holiday Cheer on in only 11 minutes."

"Definitely need, at least…"

"…what, 17?"

"I was thinking 19."

"Yeah, that works."

They both turned back towards Ellie. Chuck proposed, "So, 19 minutes for egg nog?"

Ellie gave Chuck a sarcastic little smile, then promptly ignored the teasing. "If you have any, and I mean any, potential conflicts, tell me today." She smiled sweetly. "Hey, now you know."

Devon stood up. "And knowing is half the battle." Devon walked over to kiss Ellie, and boomed out, "Awesome."

Ellie, still sugary sweet, said, "Don't forget to share the plans with Sarah and Anna!" Devon and Ellie headed back to their bedroom.

Chuck sighed, staring at the list. He just hoped the mission wouldn't interfere with the itinerary. "I'm thinking knowing is a little less than half the battle here." He idly wondered when he would find time for the Buy More.

Morgan, still staring at the list, replied, "No kidding. That felt like a mission briefing."

The term 'mission briefing' caught Chuck off guard; he fought to keep his expression neutral. He managed to stammer, "I don't know that 'mission briefing' is …"

"Dude, how the hell am I going to tell Anna that Ellie planned out our entire Christmas?"

Chuck was more than a little relieved. One of his biggest fears was that Morgan would discover his other life; while he wasn't certain exactly how Morgan might react, he knew the result wouldn't be good.

To complete the change of subject, he snagged the comics from Morgan and fanned out the paper. "Don't know, but you can figure it out as you head to work. You're opening the store in twenty minutes. Better push some pedals."

Morgan looked at Chuck in disbelief. "Crap. When did my schedule change?"

Chuck studied the paper with a remarkable lack of concern. "After you asked me to set it up so you and Anna would be on the same shift together."

"What was I thinking?"

"You were thinking just fine. Remembering seems to be a different story."

"I've got my morning routine. I can't lose that. It's the platform from which I attack the day."

Chuck drily responded, "You'll survive without your energy drink and hour of playing 'Call of Duty'."

"Chuck, you can't build a house without a good foundation."

Chuck cradled the paper with his legs so he could wave a hand without looking up, "Goodbye, Morgan."

Morgan got more exasperated. "Can you at least give me a ride?"

"Can't. Sarah's meeting me here in fifteen minutes, and I'm giving her a lift to work."

Morgan summoned the effort for one last "Crap!" before dragging himself off the couch. As he walked away, Ellie came back into the living room.

A thought occurred to Chuck; he finally looked up from the paper to call after Morgan, "And don't forget to sterilize the break-room table."

Morgan waved back without looking as he shut the door to the apartment. Ellie looked curiously at Chuck.

Chuck's expression clearly indicated that she really didn't want to know. To be safe, he warned her, "Don't ask."

Ellie looked amused and faintly sickened. "I won't." She plopped down onto the couch where Morgan was sitting. "So, how are you and Sarah? You two have seemed a little rocky lately."

Chuck's eyes got a little wild, but he kept his eyes on the paper until he settled down a little. Trying to sound calm, he said, "Nah, Sarah and I are fine."

Ellie's eyes clearly showed she was not buying it. "Really. You two haven't spent a lot of time together lately. Heck, she never spends the night."

Once Chuck realized what she was implying, his expression made it clear that he felt slightly violated. He looked up from the paper to stare her down. "I thought that last part was none of your business."

"What makes you say that?"

"I'm directly quoting you from our double-date at the sushi restaurant."

Ellie waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, that. I thought Devon was embarrassing Sarah."

Chuck responded drily, "You obviously don't know Sarah that well. Besides, she has spent the night."

"The one time."

"Yeah, that was a weird night."

Ellie winced. "Sorry about that."

Chuck, realizing what she was talking about, reassured her, "No, no, not that. Besides, I know you do your best to dodge mostly unexplained life-threatening illnesses that muck up my sex life."

Ellie's smile reappeared when she understood he wasn't upset. "Well, I am your sister; it's the least I can do."

Chuck deadpanned, "Thanks, sis. You're the best. No, really. I'm touched." She threw a pillow at him, then laughed.

However, Ellie was not to be deterred. "So what was so weird about that night … aside from my random babbling and collapse on the couch?"

Chuck thought a moment before responding. "That was the first time I think I recognized that Sarah and I had some…" Chuck paused while searching for the right words. "…relationship issues."

Ellie looked concerned. "Such as…?"

Chuck thought for a moment. "I don't know … I guess that's when I really realized that the two of us had different expectations about how things were supposed to work."

"And you've worked through that now?"

Chuck's expression became just a little melancholy; he looked down and away from Ellie. "I think we have an understanding now."

Ellie's brow wrinkled. "You don't seem convinced." She was obviously unable to reconcile his tone with his words.

Chuck again paused, badly wanting to share what he's going through with his sister, but he knowing he could not. He started and stopped a couple of times, with Ellie looking more expectant each time he began. After a long silence, he finally figured out a way to tell the truth and confide in Ellie at the same time. "Some times … it doesn't even feel like we're really dating. That we're good as friends, but not as more than that."

Ellie's expression showed that she understood. Chuck looked a little relieved. The hardest part about his other life was not being able to share things with his sister.

"That's always a tough one." Ellie processed what Chuck just told her. Finally, she advised, "Look, at the end of the day, the best course is usually just to be yourself. Just make sure she knows you are still interested."

Chuck's face was a picture of uncertainty. Being yourself and being an agent were often mutually exclusive, as he had found out so frequently over the past months. Plus, he doubted he had the strength to put himself out there for Sarah again, especially after Sarah had been so clear that things weren't going anywhere. Of course, he couldn't tell Ellie any of that. The whole situation just stunk.

Ellie, sensing Chuck was uncomfortable, changed the subject: "So, have you figured out what you're getting Sarah for Christmas?"

Chuck looked relieved at the subject change. He leaned back on the couch, opening the paper again as he responded, "Already covered. I got her an alarm clock."

Ellie's face fell. "Oh, Chuck," she said with a hopeless tone.

Chuck looked up at her tone with an expression that clearly said, "What?"

Scene IV - Buy More

The store bustled with shoppers finishing their last-minute Christmas shopping. The green-shirted salesmen eagerly covered the floor near the big-ticket items, sensing the opportunity to make some easy sales. Jeff and Lester sat behind the Nerd Herd desk as Chuck entered the store, the pair appearing surprisingly dedicated to their jobs.

About halfway up the aisle to the circular desk, an aggravated voice cut through the din. "Bartowski!"

Chuck stopped and turned towards the source of the call. Big Mike was angrily striding down the "easy listening" CD aisle, his usual grouchy expression on his face and his tense shoulders lifted up towards his ears.

Chuck wasn't too worried; Big Mike vented at Chuck an average of four times a day. "And a 'Happy Holidays' to you, Big Mike. How can I help?"

Big Mike demanded, "What have I told you about letting Grimes open the store?"

Chuck did his best not to flinch; he knew he might be sailing into dangerous waters here. "Tha-at it's about as good an idea as letting Jeff be the designated driver?"

The answer did nothing to lower Big Mike's blood pressure. "That's right. So why did Grimes open today?"

Most days, Big Mike holed up in his office until at least lunch time. Chuck took a chance that he had nothing on Morgan. "Why, did he do something wrong?"

Big Mike deflated a bit. "Well, no."

"Glad to hear it. I'll pass along that you noticed he did a bang-up job opening."

Big Mike, looked a little confused, but then convinced himself that was his point all along. In a much calmer voice, he ordered, "Do that. I'll see you on the 26th."

"Anything you say, Big Mike," giving Big Mike a three-fingered salute as he walked away. Disaster averted, he continued back towards the Nerd Herd desk.

As Big Mike ambled towards the back of the store, he ran into Morgan along the way. "Bang-up job opening today, Grimes."

Morgan looked pleasantly surprised at the praise. "Thanks, Big Mike." He looked pretty pleased with himself as he met up with Chuck at the desk. "Looks like you may have some competition as top dog around here soon, Chuck. Big Mike likes what he sees."

Chuck set his bag on the counter: "Well, that's only because Big Mike never leaves his office, and I basically pulled a Jedi mind trick on him. A couple of minor criticisms." Chuck pulled a set of keys from his pocket and tossed them to Morgan. "You left the keys hanging in the front door, the sales display for Guitar Hero Guitars at the front of the store is completely empty, and we need more than one register open on one of the busier shopping days of the year. But I guess that was all I saw wrong … in the front ten feet of the store."

"I'm on it." Morgan backed away, muttering, "These are not the droids you're looking for," while waving his hand dramatically.

Chuck turned to eye Jeff and Lester suspiciously. Both seemed to be intently working as they should be. Something was clearly up. "And what's with you two?"

Lester briefly looked up from whatever he was doing, his face all innocence, "I'm sorry. I don't know what you mean?"

"C'mon. You never work this hard. What's going on."

Lester looked up, knowing he was busted. He leaned over conspiratorially, causing Chuck to lean over as well. In a low voice, Lester said, "Well, Jeff dressed up like Santa and set up a collection bell for the March of Dimes outside the store."

"I don't see the problem there."

Jeff, his face as blank as usual, leaned over to say, "Neither did we, until a real March of Dimes Santa showed."

Chuck's face went completely slack.

Jeff sat back up as he continued, "Big Mike pretty much freaked."

"That's pretty low, even for you two."

Lester whispered behind his hand, "I tried some of his eggnog," pointing surreptitiously at Jeff.

Chuck wasn't exactly surprised that Lester would try to blame Jeff, even if it basically meant admitting to being drunk while at the Buy More. "Great. And so this," Chuck waved his hand in a circle at the two, "is your effort to get back on Big Mike's good side."

Jeff said slickly, "Yep. We actually need to look productive."

A thought occurred to Lester. With a hopeful smile, he said, "Unless you want to use your Jedi mind powers on him again."

Chuck picked up a clipboard and started checking the list of jobs for the day. "Sorry, fellas, I'm not going over to the dark side today. So how long can I expect this to last; we may need to staff down if you guys are actually getting work done."

Lester, completely missing the insult, explained, "Only until Big Mike heads home for the holidays. He always ducks out a few hours early, so I figure we'll be home free before too long."

Jeff's face lit up as he declared, "And then the Christmas tradition of Beer Trek will continue."

Lester claimed, "Dibs on Deanna"

"Dude, you always get Deanna." The two started a heated debate over who had dibs.

When Big Mike always checked out early for the holidays, the atmosphere in the store always deteriorated quickly. Last year, a drunken group of Buy More employees had stumbled out of the home theater room about an hour before closing. They accosted the remaining shoppers with bad imitations of the Borg, saying things in monotone voices such as, "Need is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. You will purchase that toaster oven."

Most of the customers were not amused, although one submitted a job application on the spot.

Chuck's mind worked quickly to head off that kind disaster, and he interrupted the debate, "Bad news, guys. Big Mike has some reports the Buy More home office is clamoring for, so he's locked in his office trying to get them finished. He isn't skipping out early today."

Both their faces fell. Lester forced out a despondent, "Aw, man."

Chuck acted as if an idea just struck him. "Look, just keep your heads down and get some good work done. I'll let Big Mike know you're kicking butt. Those reports can't take too long; he should be gone in a few hours."

Lester looked like a beaten man. "Well, I'd better head back to the cage and finish a few jobs."

Jeff got up and stretched lazily. "I'll go with you. I can only pretend to work for so long before I need a nap."

Chuck said. "I know I'll hate myself for asking, but exactly how lazy a person does someone need to be to find faking work to be tiring?"

Jeff, a slack-jawed expression on his face, answered, "Somewhere between a 'sloth' and a 'deadbeat'."

His eyes narrowing, Chuck responded, "It's frightening that you've thought about this." Jeff shrugged.

Jeff and Lester turned to head to the back of the store. As they walked, Lester asked, "I thought we decided on 'sloth' and 'malingerer'?"

"No, I wanted 'laggard', and you wanted 'malingerer'. So we compromised on 'deadbeat'."

Lester's voice faded into the background noise of panicked shoppers. "Ah, that's right. Although I still have a strange fondness for 'layabout'…"

Morgan re-appeared, staring at Jeff and Lester as he walked up to the desk. "Those two have the weirdest conversations."

Casey passed by on the other side of the desk, pushing a dolly filled with iPod docks. He interjected, "This coming from the pair who spent hours discussing the sandwich they would take to a desert island." He continued on towards the front of the store without missing a step.

Morgan shuddered. "That guy has spooky hearing." Suddenly looking puzzled, he asked, "By the way, how did he know about that?"

Chuck froze for a moment. "I asked him his opinion." In an attempt to pre-empt Morgan's next question and being forced to lie again, Chuck quickly changed the subject. "By the way, you might be interested to know that I am going to hell."

Morgan chucked him on the shoulder. "Well, sorry to hear about your immortal soul, buddy; be sure to say 'hi' to Bryce for me. Out of curiosity, what did you do?"

The Larkin reference brought up some unpleasant emotions, but he pushed them back down. "Ah, nothing. I just lied to Jeff and Lester to get them to do some work."

Morgan shifted his gaze to the front of the store. "Well, do you believe in karma?"

Chuck shook his head, looking up at Morgan briefly from the clipboard. "Not really. Why?"

Morgan leaned back against the counter. "Because Shawn Liniman just strolled in. You're clearly being punished."

Chuck spun around to see Liniman heading down the center aisle towards them. He wore an expensive suit and a smug grin.

Chuck's expression grew a bit dazed, and his response was a little slower than usual. "OK, maybe I believe in karma a little." He silently wondered how Shawn had found out he worked at the Buy More. Maybe Buy More finally got their web site for their stores up, including the Nerd Herd roster. Or maybe Shawn had called Ellie at home. He made a mental note to look into it.

Liniman was a good eight inches shorter than Chuck, and his dark hair was held into place by a little too much gel. His close-set eyes focused on Chuck, leaving him only occasionally to glance around the store. The size of his smirk increased. Chuck stole a quick glance around the store, looking for Casey, but he had disappeared.

As Liniman walked up, not only did he choose to not offer a hand to shake, but he deliberately stuck his hands into his pockets to emphasize that fact. Without preamble, he said, "Guess Buy More is having a two-for-one special today. Why am I not surprised to see Morgan Grimes toiling away in mediocrity as well."

Chuck focused on his clipboard, looking up only occasionally. "Nine years since we've seen each other and that's how you say 'hello'?" He knew he should be setting up a meeting with Liniman, but he didn't see how he was going to make that happen. Shawn was clearly interested in flaunting his success and little else. Chuck chose to feign disinterest, although Liniman was making that fairly easy with his attitude.

However, Morgan couldn't resist jumping in, quipping, "But if you ever decide to switch careers, you should consider greeting-card writing. Seriously."

Liniman utterly missed the point. "Switch careers? Do you have any idea how much I make?"

Chuck, still intensely studying the job listing on the clipboard, instantly shot back, "Do you have any idea how little we care?"

"It doesn't eat at you even a little, Chuck? You two working at the Buy More, me a successful businessman…"

Morgan's eyes shot back and forth in a poor imitation of a computer working. "Checking … checking … nope, not even a little bit."

"C'mon, Bartowski. You were the big man on campus back in high school: president of the math club, valedictorian…"

At that, a revelation came to Chuck. "After all these years, it still eats you up that I beat you out for valedictorian, doesn't it. That's what all this is about: a plaque missing from your trophy shelf."

Liniman got defensive in a hurry. ".005 points between our GPAs, Bartowski. That's all."

Chuck looked Liniman dead in the eye, "Guess you shouldn't have played it safe and ditched that physics class. An 'A' would have put you over the top."

Liniman shrugged, shaking off his anger. "It doesn't matter: it turns out GPA wasn't a very good predictor of success, was it. I mean, look at you. Have you managed to do anything with your life?"

Sarah walked up in her Weinerlicious uniform and kissed Chuck on the cheek. Putting her arm around Chuck, she turned her blue eyes curiously towards Shawn and asked, "Hey, Chuck, who's your friend?"

As Shawn picked his jaw up off the floor, Chuck whispered to Morgan, "I'm believing in karma more and more every minute."