A/N: So when I first decided that I wanted to write this story, I spent about a month reflecting on how I was going to turn our delightful Sarah into the next Ebenezer Scrooge. And when I was finished and the fic was finally written, I realized just how angsty it was going to begin. So prepare yourself for a thick dose of angst, to be quickly followed by an interesting resolution and (as always in a Mikki story) a happy ending. I hope you enjoy the ride. ;-)

Disclaimer: I tried to charge them once, but my credit card kept coming up declined.

Stave One: Bryce's Ghost

Bryce was dead. Of that, she was certain. She had been at his funeral, had stared at his casket. Had watched as he was slowly lowered into the ground, his face pale and wan against his satin pillow, his hands smooth and white against his black dress suit. Unnamed pallbearers were perched along the sidelines, an unknown minister had pronounced his life decent and worthwhile, and unidentified soldiers had placed an American flag upon his grave. And all the while, she had stood in the front row, firm and resolute, with clenched hands at her sides and a mask shielding the warring emotions threatening to emerge upon her face. Pretending like none of it mattered, like she hadn't cared about the man lying in the dark, dingy grave. Pretending like her world hadn't just been turned upside down, like every apprehension, every fear hadn't been made all too real. Pretending like she didn't feel the numbness seeping into her body, the tension knotting in her stomach, the dull ache throbbing through her chest.

In her world, nothing is certain. Anything, anyone can be ripped away within a single, life shattering moment.

But even while she drones out her emotions, even while she forces back her pain, she can't ignore the way her skin prickles at the mere proximity of the man standing by her side. The way her hand twitches when he brushes his fingers against her wrist, the way her chest constricts when he turns caring, concerned eyes to examine her guarded façade. And when a deep, heavy sigh sounds from his lips, and his arm slowly comes to rest upon her shoulders, she can't stop herself from leaning against his sure, solid frame. She can't stop the lump from rising into her throat. And she can't stop herself from thinking about everything that's just come to pass. Because even while her ex-partner, her ex-lover, her ex-friend is lowered into his shadowy grave, the future still looms before the loving, innocent man in her midst, bleak and absolute and entirely uncertain. And as she takes solace in his touch, and a shadow of emotion peeks out from underneath the shield carefully guarding her bright blue eyes, she realizes with a jolt just how much everything has changed. Just how open Chuck has made himself to her world. Just how vulnerable he is to the danger lurking behind every corner, hiding within every realm. Just how possible it is that she could be at his funeral next.

So when the casket is slowly lowered into the ground, and the backs of Sarah's eyes prickle with unshed tears, she allows Chuck to rest his cheek against the top of her head. She allows him to splay his fingers over her bare shoulder, the soft pads of his fingertips kneading her smooth skin. And she allows him to whisper, "I'm sorry, Sarah. I'm sorry for everything."

"There's nothing to be sorry for, Chuck," she murmurs, swallowing back the lump which has grown within her throat. "It's not your fault."

But even while she says it, and even while she continues to lean into his touch, she can't help but wonder what it is that he's sorry for.

~*~

Jingle. Chime. Clink. Jangle. Clang.

A world of wonder spreads out across the busy Burbank shopping mall, its many shops and restaurants each decorated with a wide array of gleaming lights, glistening garland, and glittering pine trees. The wintry wind blows through the bustling parking lot, turning the cheeks of flustered shoppers a rosy pink and causing them to burrow their hands deep within their jacket pockets. A display of reindeer prances across the Buy More's roof, a cluster of elves rings bells and collects donations at the entrance of every major store, and a jolly Santa Clause perches upon his garland-bedecked throne, waiting for wide-eyed children to confide their ideal gifts. It's the quintessential Christmas Eve, full of cheer and excitement and even a few carolers.

But across the street, sequestered inside a vacant yogurt shop, a blonde spy pretends as if she doesn't notice the scene outside her large glass window. With furrowed brow and pursed lips, she stands poised over the pristine counter, a battered sponge held tightly in her clenched fist. Her shoulders hunched and her muscles tense, she scours the linoleum, scrubbing every surface, cleansing every corner, polishing every crevice until it shines unlike it's ever shined before. But even as she does so, even as the water pools around her taut knuckles and bits of sponge flake out of her hands and onto the floor, she can't stop the thoughts from flooding her head. She can't stop the memories from coursing through her mind, the recollections from threading through her thoughts.

And even as she wills herself to stay focused, even as she continues to throw every movement, every effort, every bit of energy into remaining in the present, into forgetting the past, into keeping her mind blank, her thoughts detached, she realizes that the effort is futile. That no matter how hard she tries to forget, she will always inevitably remember. She will always inevitably find herself reeling backward six months in time. To when she first realized just how much had actually changed. To when she first started to shelve her emotions, to hide her desires, and to throw herself into training the man currently hard at work in the room beneath her feet. The man who's life rests on her shoulders. So as she returns to their first training session now, she realizes that she's not even surprised.

"Okay," Sarah says, her jaw tight. "This is a –"

"A staff," Chuck interrupts, stepping onto the mat. "I know."

She tenses at his overly eager tone, at the way he bounces a little too enthusiastically when he eyes the weapon within her hand. For a moment, she almost considers calling off the lesson. Telling him to go home. Maybe even yelling at him for the reckless way he seems to be entering his training. Doesn't he get it? Doesn't he understand? Doesn't he know that this can all come to an end, that the world can come crashing down within the space of a single second? That within minutes, he could end up just like Bryce? That if that happened, if he got hurt, if he died and she lost him, then her life would never be the same?

Gritting her teeth, tightening her fists, she pushes these thoughts aside. Because she can't do this. She can't allow herself to succumb, to surrender, to let Chuck know what it is that she's really thinking. What it is that she's really feeling. She has to keep it together, or there will be no coming back. And if there's no coming back, if she gives into the swell of emotions racing through her veins, then she won't be able to protect him. She won't be able to keep him safe. And as General Beckman so clearly stated no more than a day before, Chuck's safety depended on her. It was up to her to teach him to be a real spy. Even if the very idea of Chuck being a real spy causes her heart to twist as her world turn quickly and irreversibly upside down.

"Yeah," Sarah returns, forcing the thoughts from her mind as she tightens her jaw and throws Chuck the staff. "It's a staff. Now get ready to use it." Her chest constricts when he catches it easily in midair, almost as if he's been staff fighting all of his life. And when he stares at the weapon hard, his forehead creasing with the effort, she bites back a groan when she sees the Intersect 2.0 immediately kick into effect. Because even though she knows she should be grateful, even relieved that the computer inside his head is at least functional, it's just another factor that will add to his continued journey down this tumultuous path.

"Okay," he says easily, interrupting her thoughts as he crouches into a fighting stance while his hands quickly find their purchase on the smooth piece of wood. "I'm ready."

"You're ready?" Sarah repeats, slipping into her own fighting stance. "For what, Chuck?" she asks, looping the staff into a half circle arc. "To play? To spar? To pretend to fight?" To put your entire life, your entire future in danger? To enter a world that you never should have been a part of in the first place? A world that I was ready to leave before you thrust us both back into it without a second's thought?

Chuck blinks at her tone, and she feels a twinge of guilt when she notices the hurt waft across his face. But then she remembers why they're here, and she thinks about General Beckman's orders, and she takes a quick step in his direction, moving the staff in a brisk upward arc. "What are you ready for, Chuck?" she challenges.

"I'm ready to learn," Chuck returns, parrying her strike and reengaging with one of his own. "I'm ready to be a spy."

For some reason, the statement causes Sarah's stomach muscles to knot. "Really?" she counters, blocking his movement by swinging the staff into a rapid downward arc. "You want to be a real spy?"

Chuck blocks her movement, their staffs connecting with a dull thwack as his eyes narrow in resentment and pain. "I am a real spy," he says.

Her heart drops as she looks into his face, as she registers the emotion reflected within his deep brown gaze. And when she thinks about the fact that his words are all to true, and when she flashes upon an image of a pale, motionless man, staring into nothingness with unseeing bright blue eyes, she suddenly realizes that she can't do this anymore. At least not right now. At least not today. "Fine, Chuck," she snaps, breaking eye contact by whirling around and bringing her staff colliding into his own with a loud smack. "You want to be a real spy? You want to enter this world? Then you'd better stop talking and start training."

And with that, the two fall back into the heated rhythm of faux battle, the sounds of their staffs communicating far more than the silence of their words or their complete lack of eye contact. And even though Sarah knows that she wouldn't feel this way if it were anyone else, and even though she understands, at least partially, why Chuck threw himself into this situation, it doesn't stop the chilly fingers of fear from flowing through her frame, or the sharp bristle of remorseful regret from cutting her to the core. It doesn't stop the fierce desire to train Chuck as she's never trained anyone in her life. And it doesn't stop her from retreating into her calm, detached shell, her fortified defenses bolstered once more as she falls into the life into which she has suddenly found herself.

It's only later, when the silence between them becomes thick and the walls between them become nearly tangible that she begins to realize just how much they stand to lose. But then, she tells herself that it's too late. That they've already made their decisions, they've already chosen their path. They've already reached the path of no return. And that Chuck's safety is more important than any relationship they might have had.

Even if maybe she misses him more than she'll ever admit.

Sarah starts when the bell above the door jangles and chimes, the unexpected intrusion jarring her from her memories. And when she notices the tall brunette striding into the shop, a cheerful smile spread across her face, she blinks in surprise and quickly pastes on a smile of her own. "Ellie," she greets, pausing in her scouring of the linoleum. "Hi."

"Hi, Sarah," Ellie replies, a troubled hue coloring her deep hazel eyes. "What are you doing working on Christmas Eve?"

"Oh, you know," Sarah replies off-handedly. "It's the busiest day of the shopping season."

Ellie quirks a brow and looks around the vacant yogurt shop, and Sarah has to stop herself from rolling her eyes at her lame excuse. "I can see that," the doctor says drily, her lips curving upward into a smirk as her gaze returns to Sarah's face.

"Oh, well," Sarah replies easily, her skin prickling slightly under the intensity of Ellie's stare. Inadvertently, her gaze drops to the counter, and she finds herself slipping back into scrubbing the counter, almost thankful for the excuse to divert her attention. "Things are slowing down for the day."

Ellie studies her for a long moment, the turbulence growing more prevalent within her gaze. Finally, taking a deep breath, she moves closer to the counter, concerned creases forming around the corners of her eyes. "Listen," she says quietly, "I just wanted to invite you to Christmas dinner. We've all missed having you around lately."

Despite herself, a wistful pang echoes through Sarah's chest and she tucks her lips against the hidden emotion threatening to peek out from the shield guarding her features. "Oh, I'd love to," she replies blithely, swiping at an imaginary speck as she racks her mind for an excuse. "But I think I'm going to avoid Christmas this year," she finally says. "All this commercialism is just a little too much, you know? Besides, I'm pretty busy . . ." With work? With training? With polishing my knife collection? Jogging her mind for an explanation, she finally shrugs and tries not to wince when Ellie's expression turns heavily skeptical.

"You're going to skip Christmas because of commercialism and a vacant yogurt shop?" she demands, frowning slightly. And in that moment, Sarah realizes just how far she's come from six months earlier, just how much has changed in her relationship with the Bartowskis. Her chest constricts at the thought, at the realization that everything is different. That nothing is the same. Everything she thought her life would become, every happiness she almost had, has crumbled, leaving her standing in a vacant yogurt shop, lying to a woman who she once considered a friend. And yet she can't seem to bring herself to stop.

"It's just not really my thing, Ellie," she replies quickly, guardedly, her smile tightening as a twinge of guilt courses through her slender frame. "But thanks for the invitation."

Unfortunately, it seems that Ellie's not willing to give up quite so easily. Placing her hands onto the shining linoleum counter, she leans toward the blonde spy as her features turn serious. "You know, Sarah," she says earnestly, and the woman in question suddenly feels trapped within her gaze, "I'm not quite sure what's going on between you and my brother. I don't know if something happened, or if you're growing apart, or if you two had a fight." She bites her lower lip, and Sarah can almost see the thoughts forming within her mind, the battle being played out within her head. Ellie has rarely confronted her about Chuck, and when she has, she's been careful to keep a safe distance. But now, as she leans against the counter of the Orange Orange, her fingers digging into the tile, Sarah suddenly understands that she's not going to back down. "Chuck misses you, Sarah," she finally says, her words firm, distinct. "He hasn't been the same for the last few months. And I know it would mean a lot to him if you came to dinner."

The mask upon Sarah's face wavers and shifts as the yearning ache intensifies within her chest, the deep longing that she's finding harder to ignore. Curling her hands into fists, she swallows against her sudden wave of emotions. "Ellie, thank you for the invitation," she says firmly, her features still guarded, her tone slightly detached. "If I can make it, I promise that I will."

Again, Ellie studies her, a shadow wafting over her face as a hardened layer forms over her eyes. "Please make sure that you do," she says, her friendly tone tinged with a touch of ice. "Chuck deserves to have you there."

Even as she says it, Sarah can hear the hidden meaning behind the words. Chuck deserves to have a girlfriend who actually wants to be with him, who doesn't make ridiculous excuses not to spend Christmas by his side. Who doesn't hide behind a mask, who doesn't erect unshakable walls, who doesn't make him wonder and wait for years at a time. Who doesn't pretend like she doesn't miss him as much as he misses her.

And even though she secretly agrees, and despite the fact that the ache is still prevalent, that the pain is still real, that she wants nothing more than to spend Christmas with Chuck's family, with the family she's never known, Sarah simply nods. "I will," she says quietly. "I promise."

~*~

Sarah's footsteps echo loudly down the stairs, the metallic click of her heels beating a steady rhythm into the basement of Castle. Her gaze is distant, her expression aloof. And even though her conversation with Ellie is still prevalent within her mind, and despite the fact that she still feels the distinct longing for something she knows she can never have, she can't help but tense at the sight that greets her when she enters the room. Chuck is standing in the center of the training area, his gloved fists raised and his feet beating a natural, steady circle around his sparring partner. His face is flushed and beads of sweat glisten upon his forehead, yet he appears to be holding his own. Worse, he appears to be having fun, to be enjoying the situation into which he's found himself. To be relishing the fight. Clenching her jaw, Sarah ignores the way her chest tightens, the way her heart squeezes, instead crossing her arms and staring hard at the scene before her.

"Is that all you've got?" Casey goads, motioning to Chuck with a gloved hand. "We're never gonna beat the Ring if you can't learn to do better than that."

"Easy," Chuck returns, a wide grin spreading over his face. And even though he misses Casey entirely, his fist connecting with solid air as the NSA Agent sidesteps the blow, the blithe light remains in his eyes.

"Come on, Bartowski," Casey prods, blocking Chuck's next punch, "If you don't learn to punch, we're gonna be here all day."

Chuck's grin falters slightly, a hint of determination wafting across his face. Bobbing in place, he directs a jab to Casey's cheek, the determination intensifying when the Agent sidesteps him again. "You know, Casey," he states, blocking the other man's cross hook, "This might be easier if you were a little nicer. I mean, would it kill you to be friendly?"

"Tell you what," Casey returns, wiping a thin sheen of sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm, "You stop punching like a girl, and I'll stop stepping on your lady feelings." Blocking another of Chuck's punches, he chuckles and raises his fists again.

The scene is too much for Sarah. Shaking her head, she slips off her heels and grabs her boxing gloves from the shelf. "Casey," she interrupts, purposely avoiding Chuck's gaze when he turns to her with a hopeful gleam within his eyes. "Why don't you take a break? I'll take it from here."

"Fine," Casey grunts, tugging at the velcro of his leather gloves. "I have to get going anyway."

"Where are you going?" Chuck asks, arching his brows even as he continues to watch Sarah's movements. The feel of his intent eyes upon her back causes her to shiver slightly, even as she keeps her blank mask firmly in place.

"Flying out to see my Mom," Casey replies nonchalantly, stepping across the mat to place his gloves onto a nearby table. "Christmas dinner."

"Wow, Casey," Chuck drawls, his face falling slightly when he realizes that Sarah isn't going to look in his direction. "I didn't realize you actually did normal."

"Mom's cooking turkey and stuffing," the NSA agent replies, shrugging as he slips into his jacket. "It's worth the ordeal."

"I didn't know you and your mom were so close," Chuck chirps, glancing at Sarah as she takes her place on the mat. "Were you planning on introducing us, Casey?"

Snorting, Casey smirks. "Keep dreaming, Bartowski," he returns, then nods toward Sarah. "See you on the twenty-sixth, Walker." And with that, he glances between the both of them again, a slightly disturbed, knowing look within his eyes, then nods twice more before heading toward the steps and departing Castle, leaving Chuck and Sarah alone behind him.

When the door finally closes with a bang and she's left alone with Chuck, Sarah thumps her fists together before anything else can be said. "Let's go, Chuck," she orders, motioning to the other side of the mat. When he turns to her with those same intense brown eyes, she purses her lips, attempting to ignore the way her pulse increases under the weight of his stare.

"It's Christmas, Sarah," Chuck replies, his tone slightly plaintive even as he follows orders and crosses to the other side. "Can't we leave early?"

"No, we can't," Sarah returns, her face hardening. "You're the one that chose this life, Chuck. Now it's your job to train." And even though she knows it's unfair, and despite the fact that she understands the sacrifice he made when he downloaded the Intersect, she doesn't back down. She doesn't retract her statement, she doesn't give up the fight. Instead, she continues bobbing on the mat, her fists raised and her eyes hard as a shadow of hurt washes over Chuck's face.

"But I have been training," he retorts, raising his fists to block Sarah's upper cut. Unfortunately, it appears that the Intersect has stopped working momentarily, and he winces when she easily connects with his jaw. "I've trained every day for the last six months."

"It doesn't matter, Chuck," Sarah counters, smoothly blocking his cross strike. "It doesn't count. You're still missing punches, you're still messing up blocks. You're still not getting it right." You're still completely vulnerable to the Ring, still completely open to attack. You can still be ripped from this place, from this world, from this life at any given minute of any given day. You can still be taken away from me at any time.

This last thought pierces her mind, infiltrating her thoughts, tearing away at her defenses. And before she can stop herself, before she can hide behind her mask, before she can shield her emotions, a flicker of fear, of panic, of deep-seated longing enters her eyes. Taking a deep, slightly shaky breath, she attempts to harden her gaze, to disguise her weakness. To bury her pain. Unfortunately, she's already too late. Stopping his momentum, Chuck's hands fall to his side, his own brown depths suddenly fixed upon her bright blue gaze.

"Sarah," he says softly, taking a step toward the blonde as his own eyes glint with emotion. "What is this really about?"

Swallowing gently, her stomach knotting at his proximity, Sarah's gaze flickers to a spot just over Chuck's left shoulder, her features guarded. "It's about the need to train, Chuck," she says, the sharp edge fading from her voice. "It's about being ready to take down the Ring, to fight the war." To stay alive.

He stares at her for a long moment, and she can almost sense the conflicting desires within his mind. He's always held back, he's rarely made the first move. He's always allowed her to take the lead, even when she might have taken the wrong path. But now, as he stares at her with countless emotions radiating from his cinnamon gaze, as the tension between them crackles and thickens, almost tangible within the dank, dingy air of the Castle, she has to stop herself from hiding. From running. From putting up a hand to stop his forward momentum, to stop him as he moves ever closer to her on the mat. "I think there's more to it than that," he says quietly, pulling his gloves from his hands. "Please, Sarah. Talk to me."

"There's nothing to say, Chuck," she replies, crossing her arms over her chest. "Things are the way they are, and now we need to focus."

A shadow flickers across his face, a hint of something deeper that she can't quite put her finger on. And when he next speaks, when the statement falls from his mouth and sounds in the air between them, she finds herself starting in surprise. "I'm sorry," he says, echoing the sentiment from six months earlier.

Despite herself, Sarah's eyes swivel to lock upon Chuck's intense gaze. "What are you sorry for?" she asks softly, her breath hitching when finally she notices the emotion pooled within his eyes.

"For everything," Chuck replies, shrugging. He places his bare hand upon her arm, causing her to tense even while a prickle of electricity courses through her skin. "For Bryce. For this. For keeping you here when you wanted to leave."

For keeping her here? The apology jars her to the quick, causing her to blink as her mask momentarily slips away. "You don't have anything to apologize for, Chuck," she states firmly, goose bumps breaking onto her skin as he traces a path with his thumb. "It's not your fault that Bryce died."

"But it's my fault that you're still here," he counters, his hand still warm upon her arm. "It's my fault that you had to stay."

Doesn't he get it? Doesn't he understand that she's staying for him? She opens her mouth to ask, to inquire, to demand if he really understands. If he knows how much she's given up just so that she can keep him safe. Just so she can protect him, just so she can keep him alive. But then the same shadow that's been following her for the past six months quickly descends, eclipsing her thoughts and blotting out her desires. Stopping her before she can really say what it is that she needs to say. Pursing her lips, she quickly looks away, the moment lost among so many other random pieces of personal debris. It's only when Chuck's shoulders slump and his arm drops to his side that she swallows and wills herself to look back into his eyes.

"Why won't you let me in?" he murmurs, the pain clear upon his face.

Because I can't. "Because there's nothing else to say," she insists again, and then turns her back when the emotion upon his face becomes too much to bear. Ripping her gloves from her hands, her shoulders tense when she hears his defeated sigh. Still, she continues: "Bryce is dead, you downloaded the Intersect, and I'm still here. It's over, Chuck. We need to move on."

She can feel his eyes upon her, feel their chocolaty depths fixated upon her every movement. A wild rush of longing floods her chest, a crazy burst of hope that he won't back off, that he won't go away, that he'll force her to finally come clean. But when she hears his footsteps vibrate through the dim underground room, when she hears the soft thump of his gloves hitting the table, followed by the jangle of his keys as he pulls them from his pocket, the hope is quickly replaced by the familiar ache of yearning and regret.

"I'd love it if you'd come for Christmas," he says to her tense back, his tone dejected and faint. "I know it's not really your thing, and that you haven't really celebrated in the past. But I promise that you'll have fun. And it would mean a lot to me if you were there."

Even though he can't see it, even though he's staring wearily at the floor, his converses etching a disjointed pattern upon the concrete, Sarah's resolve falters and her guarded mask slips once more. She opens her mouth to say something, to respond, perhaps even to accept. But before she can say a word, before she can even form a sentence within her mind, a pair of lifeless blue eyes flashes within her head, followed immediately by a pale, unmoving face and the sound of her own voice piercing the still, rancid air. And suddenly, the image of Bryce morphs and shifts, replaced by another man. A man with clear, innocent eyes and a wide, innocent grin. A man who means so much more to her than she's willing to admit. And before she realizes what's happening, she's blinking away her vulnerability, hiding behind her shield, and shaking her head. "I'm sorry, Chuck," she says quietly. "I can't."

The sigh which next escapes his lips causes her to cringe and her heart to twist. "I understand," he whispers. "But I'll save a place for you just in case." And then he heads for the stairs, and his footsteps reverberate dully through the underground chamber, fading as he climbs ever higher and ever farther from Sarah's side. But just as he's about to leave, just as the door closes shut behind him, his voice drifts distinctly down the stairs. "I miss you, Sarah," he says. "I miss you all the time."

And then the door swings shut behind him, leaving Sarah alone in the dim, cold room.

~*~

The chill wind assaults her cheeks and turns her nose red as she steps out into the brisk, wintry day, her hands buried deep inside her jacket pockets and her body hunched against the cold. Her jacket zipped tightly around her slender frame, Sarah steps across the busy square, her brow furrowed against her thoughts, against the pulsing emotions she's still attempting to conceal deep inside. And when she finds herself being pulled along by crowds of people, and jostled by enthusiastic shoppers and eager children, she barely notices the scenes unfolding around her. The only thing that registers, the only thing that even permeates her consciousness is the sound of Chuck's voice as he left her in Castle, the look on his face when she refused to open up, and the way his shoulders slumped in defeat.

So when the distinct chords of a piano and the rhythmic sounds of singing begin to vibrate in the air around her, it takes a moment for her to realize where they're coming from. And it takes her even longer to realize who it is that's making the noise.

"God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay," comes the shrill voice, and Sarah blinks when she realizes that it's Lester who's singing. She quickly steps further away from the display, trying to blend into the crowd. Unfortunately, he appears to notice her at the exact same time, and stops his song before it can progress even further.

"Sarah," he says brightly, abandoning his microphone even while Jeff grunts in disappointment. "How are you doing this fine Christmas Eve?"

"Larry," Sarah replies, shrugging out from under his arm as he slips it around her shoulders. "What are you up to?"

"Lester," he reminds her, running his hand over his chest in an effort to feign nonchalance at Sarah's obvious dismissal. "And we're procuring some capital for our holiday festivities," he continues, gesturing toward the red collecting tin currently hosting a "Salvation Army" sign.

"Yeah," Jeff blurts, nodding dully. "You can never have enough money for alcohol enhanced festivities."

Sarah's eyes narrow, her lips parting as she stares at the collecting tin. "Wait a second," she says slowly, her cheeks flushing with mild anger as a passerby tosses a few coins into the pot. "You're taking money for your own celebration?"

"Well, I wouldn't call it taking," Lester replies, slightly flustered when a few shoppers stop and stare.

"Right," Jeff cuts in, leaning his elbows upon the keyboard. "Just borrowing. Without returning."

"And besides," Lester continues quickly, "We're giving free entertainment. It's like a mutual exchange of interests. A sharing of assets, if you will."

"A sharing of assets," Sarah repeats, pursing her lips as she glances between the two idiots positioned on the sidewalk. Something about the situation, about the sign positioned precariously upon their collecting tin causes her to bristle, causes her fists to tighten as her fingernails form tiny half-moon indentations upon her palms. And in that moment, she's transported back in time, to a point when she was just 15-years old, bundled tightly in a jacket and following her father's every move.

"Come on, Angel," Jack Burton coaxes, smiling devilishly as they stealthily enter the Salvation Army for their latest holiday scam. "They can't miss what they never had."

"But it's stealing, Daddy," Jenny replies, her face screwed up in guilt. "Shouldn't we take from the people who don't really need it?"

"Aw, no one needs presents on Christmas," Jack whispers, ducking around a corner when a worker passes them in the hall. "And we really need the money. Now come on. We have to get this over with before we're caught."

And with that, her father moves discreetly down the hall, Sarah's younger version reluctantly following along in his wake. It's only later, when the presents have been sold and the money collected, that she finds the article wedged in the trash. A picture of a thin, frail child peeks up at her from the paper, along with the blaring title: "ORPHANS SWINDLED OUT OF CHRISTMAS PRESENTS." And when she reads the story, and she discovers how many children went without a Christmas, the guilt solidifies within her gut and she can't stop the angry prickle of tears from forming behind her bright blue eyes.

Wrenching herself back to the present, Sarah clenches her jaw and extracts her hand from her pocket, reaching out to grab Lester's shirt collar, and pulling him to her. "I'll tell you what," she whispers roughly into his ear, "You give this to the real Salvation Army right now, and I won't alert law enforcement."

"What?" Lester stutters, his eyes flying wide. "But –"

"Right now," Sarah repeats, glaring at the nerd.

"Fine," Lester replies, pulling away from Sarah and straightening his shirt. "Okay. We'll do it."

"You'd better," Sarah states meaningfully, giving him a long, pointed look. And then she turns on her heel, disappearing back into the crowd of shoppers. But before she's fully out of earshot, before the two men have disappeared from sight, she distinctly hears them mutter, "Who died and made her Scrooge?"

"Bah humbug," Sarah mutters, rolling her eyes as she watches them hand over the collecting tin. And even though she's not sure what got into her, and despite the fact that she wants nothing more than to get home, to get into her hotel room, and to go to sleep, she can't deny the feeling of satisfaction that flows through her chest.

~*~

Sarah's stomach drops as the elevator zooms closer to her floor, the low hum of the engine echoing through the enclosed space while the gentle vibration of the floor plays against the soles of her feet. Her mind is a million miles away, images of Chuck and Ellie and even the Buy More idiots threading through her thoughts. And when the elevator finally comes to a stop, and the doors slide open with a clink, it takes her a moment to realize that she's reached her destination. And it takes her even longer to push off the metallic wall and exit the machine.

Trudging down the long hallway, her footfall muffled by the plush carpet under her feet, Sarah fumbles lazily for her keys, staring blankly at the path ahead. Still caught up in her thoughts, she doesn't even notice the change in temperature as steps closer to her room, or the way the hair on the back of her neck slowly begins to rise. She doesn't notice the way her breath suddenly emerges in cloudy wisps, or the way goose bumps break out onto her skin.

So when she extracts the key from her pocket, when she places it into the lock and her hand closes in upon the cool metallic knob, she almost misses the sight that greets her eyes. She almost misses the way the knob alters and shifts, morphs and stirs. It's only when she begins to turn the knob that her breath catches in her throat and she jumps back, her eyes going wide. Staring at the place where her hand had rested no more than a few seconds before, she takes in the strange features etched into the lock – the strange features that look strangely like those of a man who died six months earlier. And when she finally realizes what she's seeing, when she finally notices the face that has become a part of her doorknob, her heart begins to hammer within her chest.

"Bryce," she breathes, her hand rising toward the knob. Her fingers curl around the tarnished piece of metal, her thumb brushing against what appears to be her ex-partner's brow. But just as she touches the cool brass, just as she leans forward to study the mysterious features, the metal shifts once more and the face dissolves.

Shaking her head, Sarah's eyes narrow as she gazes in bewilderment at her doorknob. And then a skeptical laugh slips from her lips, and she rolls her eyes. "Get it together, Sarah," she murmurs, finally slipping the key into the lock and turning the knob. But even as she steps into her room, even as she tells herself that the image was caused by lack of sleep and the difficult day she's just endured, she can't ignore the strange prickling of her skin or the way Bryce's face remains fixated within her mind. Tossing her keys onto her nightstand, she grabs her nightshirt, determined to get into bed before any other odd occurrences can happen.

And then the knives on her dresser suddenly start to shake, and the water in her goldfish bowl suddenly begins to slosh over the side, and her shoulders tense, her jaw drops and she backs toward her armchair, her eyes scanning the room for any further signs of disturbance. Which is when the tinny, clanking sounds of metal begin to sound from far away, gradually becoming closer until the noise is almost deafening. Gripping the sides of her chair, her forehead turns slightly clammy. "What the hell is happening?" she mutters hoarsely, disengaging one hand so that she can reach for the knife sheathed upon her ankle.

Almost immediately, a low wail echoes through her room, growing in pitch until it joins the tinny clanking in one discordant, ear shattering rhythm. Slipping her knife from its sheathe, Sarah flexes her jaw and points the sharp, jagged blade toward her door, even though she has no idea what it is she's waiting to attack. And when a vapory mist starts to float through her door, followed quickly by long, heavy chains, succeeded almost immediately by what almost appears to be a solid figure, she hurls the knife at the specter, the blade quivering as it moves easily through her mark and directly into the wall behind him.

"Is that any way to greet an old friend?" Bryce queries, finishing his journey through the wall and glancing at the knife with raised brow.

"Bryce?" Sarah whispers, paling slightly as her eyes widen. "Is that you?" Standing slowly from her chair, she takes a few steps toward the apparition, her hand rising in midair as her eyes rake his shimmery visage.

"Hi, Sarah," Bryce greets her, smiling softly. "It's been awhile."

"It is you," she says, continuing to gaze at the man who has suddenly entered her room. His hair is neatly combed, a black suit decorates his muscular frame, and his eyes are sad yet friendly. For a moment, Sarah's lips begin to quirk upward into a smile, a thrill of happiness coursing through her frame. But then she continues to study him, she continues to stare, and several other things become readily apparent. She notices that he's floating before her, his feet seemingly dragging along the floor. She realizes that a blue tint colors his image, making him appear ghastly and ethereal. And finally, she recognizes that countless chains weigh heavily upon his pale form, causing his shoulders to hunch as they pool on the floor around him. "I don't understand, Bryce," she finally says, "What's going on? How are you here? And why are you covered in chains?"

"Hey, hey," Bryce replies, holding up a hand, "One question at a time."

"Okay," Sarah says, backing toward the chair as her knees turn slightly weak. "What's going on?"

"I could ask you the same question," Bryce returns, his chains clanking as he crosses his arms. When she stares at him blankly, he continues. "I thought you had everything figured out?"

"I'm sorry?" Sarah answers faintly, taking a deep breath in an attempt to calm her racing pulse.

"You and Chuck, Sarah," Bryce clarifies. "You and the CIA. You and your life. What the hell happened?"

Her lips parting, Sarah stares at Bryce in dumbfounded consternation, his question barely registering within her mind. But when he continues to study her, when he continues to look at her with a pained light in his eyes, she finally answers. "A lot has happened since you died, Bryce," she replies, her features hardening. "It's not that simple." And I'm sitting here, talking to a ghost. Clearly, things weren't cut and dry.

"Come on, Sarah," Bryce returns, "It's not that difficult, either."

A jolt of annoyance prickles within Sarah's gut, and she narrows her eyes. "Bryce, you've been dead for the last six months," she counters. "What do you know about it?"

"I know that you've never been good at this part," he replies, his own features hardening. "I know that you had everything figured out, and then when I died, you closed down and shut everyone out. And I know that I don't want you to end up like me."

"Like you?" Sarah demands, her annoyance fading to be replaced by a twinge of confusion. Unbidden, her eyes travel once more to the chains wrapped tightly around his frame, to the binds holding him fixed to the floor. "Bryce, what happened to you? Why are you wearing those chains?"

"They're the chains I forged in life, Sarah," Bryce replies simply, shrugging. "The binds that keep me forever tied to this world, even when I'd rather move on."

"I don't understand," Sarah repeats, her chest clenching at the wan look that wafts across his face. "The binds that keep you tied to this world?" This is insane. I have to be dreaming. This has to be some sort of odd nightmare. Or maybe indigestion, caused by those french fries I had for lunch. But still, she continues to look at Bryce, continues to wait for him to talk. To wait for what he has to say.

Sighing, Bryce floats to the other side of the room, turning his back on the blonde spy as his chains clank along the carpet. "In life, I was your partner," he finally says, his tone taking on a distant quality. "Your lover," he continues, a hint of warmth joining the distance in his voice. "In death, I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, yard by yard, regret by regret and mistake by mistake." He whirls around, and Sarah immediately notices the desperation reflected within his eyes. "Sarah, I created this thing of my own free will," he states, grabbing onto the chain before allowing it to crash onto the floor with a deafening BANG. "And the only way I'm going to get rid of it, the only way I'm going to keep you from forging one of your own, is by helping you now."

"Helping me?" Sarah repeats, her brow furrowing. "Helping me with what?"

Taking a deep breath, Bryce pushes himself away from the wall and heads quickly to her side, clanking and clanging along the way. When he finally reaches her, when he finally looks into her skeptical, troubled gaze, his pale blue eyes reflect his pain. "I spent my life hiding from what I truly wanted, Sarah," he confides heatedly. "I spent years chasing the wrong thing. I don't want you to do the same thing."

A shadow passes across Sarah's face, and she forces her features into a neutral expression. "I don't know what you're talking about, Bryce," she replies, her words carefully guarded.

"Come on, Sarah," Bryce wheedles, a hint of disappointment joining the rawness of his pain. "I came all the way back from the grave to warn you. The least you can do is be honest with yourself."

Sarah's chest constricts at his admonition, an edge of undiluted emotion entering her eyes. "I don't have time to be honest with myself," she states simply. "I have a job to do."

A huff of exasperation escapes Bryce's lips, and he shakes his head. "That's just it, Sarah," he returns. "It's my reliance on the job that did this to me." At the word 'this,' he again lifts his arms and rattles his chains, the sound cutting sharply through the room. "My reliance on the job that took away everything I ever wanted. Everything I ever needed," his expression softens slightly as he gazes at his ex-partner. "But there are more important things in life. You have to realize that."

"Like what?" Sarah prods, her throat constricting as her features harden.

He pauses, the hurt in his voice spilling over onto his face. "Like love, Sarah," he says quietly, his words strained. "Like a future."

Sarah blinks, caught off guard by his statement. "Love?" she repeats, surprised.

"You love Chuck, Sarah," he states, and she knows that it isn't a question. "You were prepared to leave the job for him. What the hell happened?"

It's the second time he's asked the question, the second time he's demanded her accountability. Only this time, the words slice through her guard, cut through her defenses, and cause her to explode. "He downloaded the Intersect, Bryce," she returns, too heated to focus on the fact that her ex-boyfriend, her ex-lover, is urging her to find love with his best friend. "He became my asset. I became his handler."

"I don't buy that," Bryce replies, perching himself on the edge of a nearby chair as he echoes Chuck's words from earlier that evening. "I think there's something more going on. Something more that you're not admitting to yourself."

"And what gives you that idea?" she demands, crossing her arms over her chest.

"You never have been very good at this," he states, sighing. Unfortunately, it's exactly the wrong thing to say.

"I don't have time for love, Bryce," she snaps, clenching her jaw. "I'm too busy trying to keep the world from ending."

It's clearly not what he wanted to hear. "The world isn't going to end if you're not there to protect it," Bryce retorts, his eyes flashing. "It's going to keep right on going."

"Try telling that to Beckman," she snaps. "Try telling that to Chuck, when I'm too emotionally vested to keep him safe."

The name of his friend acts as a silencer where the topic before had not. Seeming to fold in upon himself, Bryce lets out a ragged sigh and drops his hands to his sides, the increasingly familiar clinking sound reverberating through the room. "Fine," he says tiredly, shaking his head. "If that's the way you want it. But you should know that this won't stop with me."

"What's that supposed to mean?!" Sarah exclaims, glaring at him.

"Tonight, you will be visited by three spirits," Bryce continues, and the whispery quality of his tone sends a shiver up Sarah's spine.

"Three spirits," she repeats, slightly dismayed when her voice wobbles. I'm never eating french fries again.

"Three spirits," Bryce nods, holding up three fingers. "The first will arrive when the clock strikes one, the second when the clock strikes two, and the third –"

"When the clock strikes three?" Sarah interrupts helpfully, and she gives him a peachy smile even despite the way her muscles are knotting.

"Exactly," Bryce replies smartly.

"And here I was hoping to get some sleep," she says drily, shaking her head. Even so, she can't suppress a shiver when he continues to stare at her as if everything is perfectly normal, as if everything is exactly the way it should be. As if she really should expect three visitors during the night.

"You always were too tough for your own good," Bryce states quietly, sighing. "Just make sure that you listen to what they have to say, Sarah. This could be your only chance."

"What do –" But before she can finish her statement, before the words can even leave her lips, Bryce suddenly gives her one last look before shimmering into nothingness, the clanking of his chains fading into the night. "Take care of yourself," is the parting whisper, reverberating through the room and caressing Sarah's ears.

Her breath hitching, Sarah stares at the spot Bryce just vacated with a hint of fear flooding into her eyes. And when she finally drags herself out of her chair, and begins her nightly rituals to get ready for bed, the visit is still all too fresh within her mind.