Back Around

It finally happens, really happens, from one day to the next. On a Friday morning they get the word that the new intersect is up and successful, no explosions, no ninja assassins running interference. Friday afternoon, Chuck stares down the barrel of a gun for exactly 2.3 seconds before Casey groans in defeat and puts it down. Sarah bursts in a moment later, almost a moment too late and that night…

That night he kisses her for the last time and then she disappears.

Saturday morning, Chuck's on a plane to New York, his place at Columbia secured. It's big enough for him to be anonymous and far enough away from Ellie and Morgan so they can't try to visit often. He won't be there long, anyway just enough to complete his degree as part of the agreement that was made for him. He'll be down to one handler, a guy who probably had his heyday under Nixon. He doesn't work at Buy More, he doesn't listen to Neil Diamond and, to be honest, he's not really nice to look at in the first place and would look ridiculous in a skirt.

His life is starting, though, and Chuck's not one to look the gift horse in the mouth.

Doesn't mean he doesn't miss her, though.

He meets Betsy Williams more than six months later. She's a brunette and charming from the word go. They meet on a quad on campus, Chuck nearly missing her completely as he reads for class. He hasn't made a lot of friends in New York, mostly because he doesn't expect to stay long and because people ask questions that he's still not sure how to answer. But she's bold and surprises him by coming out of nowhere to sit next to him on the bench, so bubbly and eager that he doesn't really know what to do with her at first.

It's been a long time since either of them has had a first date; there's something there, so much that it scares Chuck a little. He misses Sarah, but Betsy is funny, Betsy is cute as she steals his fries and Betsy leans over and starts making out with him in the middle of the movie theater. She tears at his clothes outside of his apartment and Chuck can't find it in himself to care that she's ruined his best shirt.

Problem is, Betsy's not so reliable, and that's poison at just about the time that Chuck realizes that he really wants reliable in his life. She won't answer her phone for a few days in a row and he tries to understand that whole free-spirit-I've-got-a-lot-on-my-plate thing, but it's not quite what he's been waiting for.

One day Betsy lets him know that her job is transferring her out of the city. They're both sad about it and when he kisses her goodbye, Chuck feels a little bit of himself break off. He knows he's been unfair to her, all the while waiting for someone else to show up, but Betsy still takes a piece of his heart as she goes. And he's just left wondering if he'll ever get it back.

Three months after Betsy's gone, Claire Boatwright enters his life. They run into each other in a coffee shop; he's not much for coffee, but his handler is and Chuck was willing to run the errand. The guy's old, it's the least he can do. So Chuck is standing behind her in line, staring at the short crop of strawberry blonde hair, thinking it probably smells really nice, that she must be very pretty, too, and his breath catches when she turns around because he was definitely correct on both counts.

She's the shyest girl he's ever dated. Something tells him that there's something in her past looming over her present, something dark and hard and no matter how much he tries, he can't get in very far. They do quiet dinners, long walks holding hands. Chuck gets the idea that she's afraid of him, maybe afraid of everything, so they take it slowly.

Claire, for all her hesitance, clings to him sometimes. When she sleeps over, Claire holds onto him tightly in her sleep, like she's afraid he won't be there when she wakes up. Chuck holds her against him, thinking he could do this, he could give it time, buy an apartment in the city, buy a ring, buy baby clothes. He can give her the time because even if she doesn't have Sarah's confidence or Betsy's giddiness, there's a fragile sweetness to her that's become engrained in his still intersected brain.

They have an argument one night; Claire hates feeling like Chuck is trying to fix her and Chuck hates feeling like he has to before they can have any chance of getting anywhere. It ends when she finally storms out. He tries calling her, but Claire won't call back. She never comes back at all.

Natalie Boone is in Washington D.C. when he arrives there a year later. He's finally, despite Bryce's efforts, in the CIA and she works somewhere on Capitol Hill, but he's never quite sure what the initials are supposed to stand for. There's a swanky benefit that requires a tux and she asks him to dance; Chuck's relieved because there was no way he could have approached her, with the shiny auburn hair and perfect posture and the way he hasn't been able to fully recover since he lost Claire. But she moves to fit perfectly in his arms and smiles widely up at him and Chuck thinks maybe he's not completely screwed when it comes to women after all.

They make it the longest out of all the relationships he's had. Natalie really wants it to work and Chuck does, too. They deal with her constant traveling by texting and emails, he writes her letters and hides them around the apartment so she can find them later. His handler finds one by mistake and is pretty embarrassed for a while, but they work it out.

It's possible they would have made it past their one-year anniversary if Natalie weren't so committed to her work. Chuck knows she's trying to prove something, make her mark in some fashion and he's not in any position to stop her. Natalie's fierce about it sometimes and Chuck hears about how ruthless she can be with her opposition. At home, though, she's gentle and sweet, like she's always trying to gain his trust, though it's never a question for him.

She should be at home with him that night, watching the movies he's rented, but Natalie insists on working late. That's where she was, they tell him later, when the explosions went off. No mercy, no survivors, no Natalie.

It takes… it takes a long time after that.

His handler has a cardiac episode a couple years later. Chuck imagines that with all that he's put the guy through over the years, he's due a restful retirement. Besides, no one cares that he's got old information in his head, especially since all of Fulcrum has slowly been hunted down, one by one, only one more they know of on the loose. Anyone else interested is going for the newest intersect and for once Chuck's glad to be associated with the word obsolete.

He's reassigned to Chicago, which leaves him somewhere in the middle of all the places he's been. He likes Lakeshore Drive and the L – he likes disappearing into a new city so he can deal with old wounds and maybe move forward, too.

While unpacking, he finds the old photo of Sarah and him that hung in his Buy More locker and he smiles fondly at it. A couple boxes later, a picture of Betsy turns up and he runs his fingers over her dimples. Next he finds one of Claire's headbands in his bathroom stuff and twirls it around his finger. Finally he brings out Natalie's stack of letters, those nearly worn through from her constant reading, the few she never found and the one that was the only thing that gave him hope in the darkest time.

A line: One more, okay?

So he waits.

Two months into his Chicagoan existence, the door buzzer rings and the voice through the intercom makes his heart skip in such a way that Chuck's afraid he might have an episode of his own. He races down the stairs as she comes up, they meet halfway and then they freeze.

Chuck knows he looks the same, he always has, but he wasn't the one who had to change. She's blonde again and he hopes that this is it. They close the distance in between and before saying a word their lips meet. It's a strange combination of familiar and fear and it's a toss up over which of them is more frightened. All the same, he has to know, has to make sure because he just can't stand to watch her leave anymore, taking another piece so that all that's left is a husk where his heart used to be.

So who are you this time, Chuck finally asks.

She takes a deep breath, smiles, and says yours.

A/N: Thank you for reading! A review would be greatly appreciated.