It was a week now that they had been in New York City, with absolutely no progress. Chuck was getting pissed, and to make matters worse, after their kiss in Central Park on Sunday night, he and Sarah had gone back to the hotel, made out for a while, and then fallen asleep.
NOTHING since then. Not a kiss, not a hug, not a hand-hold, not so much as even a secret, special little smile.
Chuck had no idea what had gone wrong. He understood why nothing could appear to be happening when Casey was around, but when they were alone – well, he was starting to get annoyed.
But on this particular morning, he was willing to set all that aside. He had to.
Today was September 11th.
It had been seven years since Bryce came rushing into their dorm room. The instant the door slammed open, Chuck had known that something was wrong. Bryce NEVER interrupted his crack-of-dawn run, not for anything.
Without a word, Bryce had grabbed the remote and turned the television on to CNN – just in time for the two roommates to watch, live, as United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. They stayed in their dorm room, in shock, for the next hour and a half, watching in horror as the twin towers fell.
The entire Stanford campus had spent the next several weeks living in fear. If there was going to be another terrorist attack, the Bay Area would be the "ideal" location. And then, just when their nerves were calming, Aaron Sorkin had a genius idea for the Golden Gate Bridge to be the target of a failed terrorist attack on "The West Wing".
In the seven years since then, Chuck had come to view it more as a day of remembrance than a day of vengeance. Sure, he wanted the terrorists brought to justice, but he thought that the deaths of 3,000 Americans was a poor excuse for xenophobia and indiscriminate warfare.
Nonetheless, on this morning, he would be going to the World Trade Center site. He had decided that if he was going to be in New York on 9/11, then he was darn sure going to go to the World Trade Center. The powers that be also wanted him in the crowd, because John McCain and Barack Obama would be visiting the site that day, and they wanted Chuck to keep his eyes open for anybody that the Intersect might identify as a potential threat.
Chuck and Sarah were supposed to meet Casey downstairs at 9:00 AM, but much to the NSA agent's surprise, Chuck stepped out of the elevator alone.
"Where's Walker?" Casey growled.
Chuck looked at Casey curiously. He had never seen him dressed in his Class A Air Force uniform before, so Casey appeared almost to be a different person.
"Stomach flu," Chuck replied. "She was in the bathroom most of the night."
Casey rolled his eyes. "So I get to keep an eye on you by myself," he shot back. "Oh, joy."
They headed outside and caught a cab. As they got closer to the World Trade Center, Chuck noticed that Casey was getting more and more somber. He thought about saying something, and was just about to, when Casey spoke up.
"I was in the Pentagon that day," he said quietly. "I was working for the office of the Air Force Chief of Staff at the time. I honestly thought that we were having an earthquake. But then – then I heard the explosion. The lights went out."
He sighed. "We all thought it was the end of the world. We thought that somebody, some rogue nation, had finally gotten their hands on a nuclear bomb, and had detonated it outside."
Casey shook his head, and seemed to be making a concerted effort to not tear up. "None of us ever figured that anybody could be so ruthless as to use a jetliner full of innocent people as a weapon. It just… it went against everything that every single one of us, trained, military officers, everything we believed in."
Chuck sat silently, watching his NSA handler as he reminisced about that day. "Every year, on 9/11, I sit on the edge of my seat for most of the day, expecting the bastards to do something again," Casey said. "And every year, at the end of the day, I thank God that nothing happened."
Chuck nodded, but he couldn't think of anything to say, and so he was silent for the rest of the ride to the World Trade Center.
They spent several hours that morning walking around the site, looking at the many memorials erected against the fence that bordered the enormous pit. Chuck looked at as many faces as he could, but didn't flash on anybody.
Toward early afternoon, a convoy came roaring down the street, lights flashing, sirens blaring. It came to a halt near the construction entrance to the site. Immediately, a number of Secret Service agents disembarked from the vehicles and formed a perimeter.
As soon as the area was secure, agents opened the doors of two Suburbans, and Barack Obama and John McCain climbed out, heading toward the ramp into the site. They were followed by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, escorting Cindy McCain.
Chuck and Casey watched from the edge, in silence, as Obama and McCain reached the bottom of the site. They each tossed a rose into the small reflecting pool at the bottom, and then bowed their heads.
Chuck couldn't believe just how silent the crowd around the site had become. He looked around, making sure nobody was up to no good –
And saw her.
"What the hell?" he whispered.
Casey looked up at him, an annoyed look on his face. Chuck pointed, to a spot about five hundred feet away.
Casey narrowed his eyes, and then his face registered surprise. "What the hell is she doing here?" he asked. "I thought she was sick!"
Chuck didn't respond – he just began moving around the edge. He had to move quickly – Obama and McCain were coming out of the pit, and they would reach the point at which their path intersected Chuck's before he did if he wasn't fast.
Chuck speed-walked around the edge. Behind him, he could hear Casey wheezing a little bit – his right knee had been bothering him the last few weeks.
He got past the point of intersection just before the two senators got there. He looked behind him, and watched as they started shaking the hands of police officers and firefighters – and watched in amazement and a little bit of amusement as Barack Obama and John McCain both shook the hand of a uniformed John Casey, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Chuck smiled and pressed onward.
She didn't see him approach. She probably didn't hear him approach. As she gently ran her fingers over the picture taped to the fence in front of her, he didn't even think she knew he was there.
So it came as a bit of a shock when he heard the words, "Brian Fitzgerald O'Toole," come softly from her mouth.
Without even looking, she reached behind her and gently took Chuck's left hand in her right hand, bringing it to her shoulder. "He was born a decade before me," Sarah told him. "He was the oldest of five, and I was the youngest."
Chuck knelt down beside Sarah, gently removing his hand from hers and wrapping his left arm around her back. "I always looked up to him," she said. "I thought he was larger than life. When I was in elementary school, he used to take me joyriding in his Mustang – boy, did that piss Mom off."
She laughed a little bit, and Chuck looked at her. Sarah was smiling, but she had tears in her eyes. "When I was in high school, and did stupid stuff – and I often did – he was always the responsible big brother, the one who would come get his baby sister and make sure she got home okay."
Now the tears were starting to flow down her cheeks. "He had been with the New York Fire Department for five years when I graduated from high school. His whole company insisted that I show up for graduation on the back of a ladder truck."
In spite of her tears, the smile on her face was huge. "It was so incredible, showing up that way. I felt so special, so loved."
Then her smile began to fade. "I never would've imagined that a year and a half later, that same truck would be screaming through the streets of Manhattan on the way to this place."
Sarah turned to look at Chuck for the first time since she had started talking. "He was one of the first firefighters in," she said quietly. "He never…" Her chin began to quiver a little, and her face was now wet with tears. "He never came out."
A great sob worked its way up from Sarah's chest and burst out. Chuck reached his other arm around her and held her against him, whispering, "It's okay," over and over again into her ear, letting her cry herself out.
Finally, she stopped. She sniffled, and wiped her hand across her face. "You… you're the first man that I've ever cared about and trusted as much as Brian."
Chuck's breath froze in his chest. He had no idea what to say. What could he POSSIBLY say after having just been told that Sarah cared about him as much as her big brother, who she seemed to have practically deified?
He chose to go the simple route, and whispered, "Thank you."
Sarah hugged him tight, and then turned back toward the picture of her brother. Reaching out a hand, she brushed her fingertips across the surface of the picture and whispered, "Love you, Brian."
And with that, she stood. Chuck stood with her, and they headed back toward where Casey was talking to the gathered police officers and firefighters. She slipped her hand into his, and squeezed it briefly.
As they walked, she asked, "Do you remember what you said the other night, when you kissed me?"
"Of course," Chuck replied. "I said, 'No day but today'."
Sarah smiled and nodded. "You know, Jonathan Larson wrote that six years before 9/11… but being here just gives that one little four-word phrase so much more meaning."
Chuck looked over at her. "It really does," he agreed quietly.
Sarah stopped, and then embraced Chuck again, hugging him tightly. He put his arms around her back, folding her into his embrace.
"I can hear your heartbeat," she whispered, giggling a little.
"Well… that IS where your ear is," Chuck replied drily.
He looked down at her, and she looked up at him. She looked like she wanted to say something, but she seemed to be hesitant –
"I love you."
The words were out of Chuck's mouth before he could stop himself. It seemed so right, so natural – and yet, Sarah looked surprised. Her eyes went wide.
"No day but today, Sarah."
She nodded, and then she smiled. "I know, Chuck."
She broke the embrace, but didn't say anything, instead taking Chuck by the hand again and leading him over to where Casey was waiting for them.
The rest of the day, she didn't mention the incident, although she was now holding Chuck's hand, hugging him, and acting a little more like she had on Sunday night. Finally, after they had gone to bed that night, as Chuck was falling asleep, he heard her roll over to face him.
"Chuck?" she whispered.
"Yeah," he whispered back.
He felt her hand on his face, and he opened his eyes. He turned himself to face her. She reached behind his head and gently pulled him to her, and kissed him.
After a moment, she pulled back. Chuck opened his eyes and looked at her. Sarah smiled.
"I love you too, Chuck."