This is almost the same as the version I posted before, just with some minor errors corrected. Chapter 2 is completely new, though.

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He struggled, fighting for air, clawing desperately at the hand that closed vice-like on his throat. His killer watched him impassively, almost curiously, as though he had never before seen someone make quite that sort of face before. He looked like a fish out of water, gasping helplessly for air that would not come, and his flailing was growing weaker and weaker. His killer's grip never slackened, confident that the others had been taken out and he could take his time on this last one; he seemed almost enthralled by the spectacle of death. Finally the struggle was over, and the killer let the body slump to the floor, dropping it as though it burned him. The dead man's eyes stared accusingly out from his mottled face, and the livid bruises circling his neck stood out in sharp contrast to the pallor of his skin. The killer, suddenly uncertain, turned away; numbly he registered the blonde woman standing in the doorway, tears coursing down her horror-stricken face.

"Chuck," she whispered, "what have you done?"


Chuck woke with a start, shivering and covered in sweat. He fumbled for the light on his nightstand, his hand shaking so badly he could barely turn the switch. The soft light of the lamp touched the familiar objects of his room, warm and peaceful; the clock read 3:13 am, and the apartment was perfectly quiet apart from his hoarse panting. Chuck rubbed his face with nerveless fingers, consciously taking deep calming breaths until his shivering eased off.

He had woken from nightmares every night for the past week, and he knew by now that he wouldn't be able to fall back asleep. The first time, he had been so shocked by horror and self-loathing that he had had to stumble retching to the bathroom, unable to quell waves of fear and nausea. Fortunately, Morgan was a heavy sleeper; had Ellie still been here she would have doubtless woken, spurred on by the maternal instinct developed from years of parental neglect and abandonment. She was always the one to sit and soothe Chuck through childhood illnesses, and her care had not faded with time.

That first night, though, there was no one to hear, and no one to come soothe. He had spent hours slumped on the floor, letting the coolness of the tile and the bright florescent light of the vanity ground him and ease his terror. He had not reacted that badly again, and by now he knew how to calm the shakes, and that sleep was a lost cause. Not to say the nightmares were always the same- rather, they were all of a theme. Sometimes it played out just as it had in reality, with Sarah coming in and stopping him before he killed that man. Other times, the enemy operative was replaced by someone he knew and cared about; the worst had been Sarah, though sometimes it was a coworker from BuyMore or someone he knew from his spy work. Frequently it was like tonight, with the details changed in different and horrifying ways, as though his brain were inventing new ways to torment him. Always, he was coldly hurting and killing someone, and always, there was some locked-off part off his brain screaming that this was wrong, that he wasn't like this.

Chuck rolled from his bed and opened the window, letting the cool night air in. The moon was out, bathing the courtyard in her silver light. He stepped through the Morgan door out into the night, forcing himself to focus on the feel of the cool paving stones and the gentle breeze that played through the courtyard. He tried to drown out his mental turmoil with physical sensation, though guilt and anxiety sat in a tight knot in his chest. He settled into one of the beach chairs Morgan had left outside, letting the peaceful night wash over him.

Captain Awesome, out for his daily pre-dawn jog, found him dozing there a couple hours later. "Dude, Chuck, wake up. You keep sleeping like that and you'll give yourself back problems. Not awesome." Devon grinned indulgently at his groggy brother-in-law.

"Oh, hey Devon, yeah. Thanks for waking me up." Chuck looked around muzzily, still disoriented.

"What are you doing sleeping out here, guy? Doing a little sleep walking? Or," and here Devon's voice grew hushed, and he glanced furtively around the courtyard, "is it a stakeout?"

Chuck laughed reassuringly. "No, buddy, nothing like that. Must've been sleepwalking. Had some trouble sleeping."

Captain Awesome wrinkled his forehead in concern. "Brother, if you need something to help you sleep, I'm a doctor. Can't have you wandering around in, uh, your line of work."

"No, buddy, I'm fine. Just a little stressed out from all the, you know, Nerd Herding I've been doing lately."

"I got ya. Well, gotta go get that heart rate up. See you later, bro." Devon headed off at a quick jog. Chuck stretched sore muscles, and went inside to get ready for another long day of saving the world one computer at a time.

_________________

Later that day, after hours spent delegating tech calls and trying to get Jeff and Lester to do some work, any work, Chuck sloped off for his daily briefing at the Castle. Morgan spied him sneaking out, and gave him a very conspicuous wink and thumbs-up. Chuck shook his head in despair of Morgan's discretion, glad that all of the other BuyMorians were too oblivious to notice.

He got to the briefing room first, and made himself a pot of government-issue, substandard coffee. Even with the doze he had snuck in, he had only had about four hours of sleep; coupled with the sleep deprivation of the last week, he was feeling like something a bus ran over. He was beginning to dread the file flash-checking the General had assigned him, since exhaustion only worsened the headaches flashing caused. Because they were a man short without Casey and Shaw was still out of the country, he had been doing pretty much nothing but going to briefings and skimming files for potential flashes.

Sarah came down the stairs, pausing at the landing to watch Chuck unobserved for a moment. He sat slumped at the briefing table, his head down on the counter and rubbing the back of his neck. He looked gray under his naturally olive complexion, and his hair was mussed as though he had been running his hands through it. She spared a brief moment of regret for his shortened hair. His old haircut, though prone to forming funny animal shapes, seemed more 'Chuck' to her. He looked like a spy now, and less like the lovable guy she had first met three years ago. He sighed then and raised his head to take a swig of coffee. As he did so he spotted her on the landing and gave her his customary (and involuntary) grin.

"Hey, want some of this coffee? I made a pot. It's almost not caustic sludge this time."

She smiled as she continued down the stairs. "Mm. Sounds appetizing, but I think I'll stick with Starbucks. I'm more of a latte kind of girl."

"Starbucks, on a government salary? Orange Orange must pay better than I thought."

"Frozen yogurt is a lucrative business."

"Ah, yes, that explains the utter lack of customers I'm always seeing in there. They just can't not stay away."

As Sarah drew closer to him, she could see the dark smudges under his eyes; his faced even seemed thinner that it ought to be. She frowned in concern. "Hey, are you feeling okay? You don't look so good."

Chuck shrugged it off. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a headache."

"Maybe you shouldn't try flashing today. The general's just been trying to get some use out of us while we wait for Shaw, I'm sure it can wait."

"Yeah, wouldn't want to damage the Intersect." When Sarah frowned at this, he went on placatingly, "Don't worry, I took something for it before I came down. It'll be gone in no time."

Sarah made a doubtful noise, but was forced to give up the issue when the briefing screen came on. General Beckman's grumpy face seemed more annoyed than usual. "Good afternoon agents." Her voice was clipped and terse. "There's not much to cover, so I'll be brief. Agent Shaw should be done with his mission in a few days, and will head straight back to Burbank. In the meantime, we have a development that may help Agent Carmichael's job performance."

"General?" Chuck straightened up in his seat.

"After the success you had accessing the Intersect while on Laudinol, we've decided to run you through a set of trials to see if would be a good solution to your... performance anxiety."

Chuck grimaced at the double entendre, and his stomach felt like he had swallowed a rock. "That no-fear drug did make it easier to flash, but--" he was cut off by Sarah.

"General, I don't know if this is a good solution. Wouldn't it be better to train Chuck to access the Intersect naturally? What if he was in a situation where he couldn't get to the drug, or it wore off at a bad time? He'd be in a much worse position than if he could flash on his own. And what about the side effects of long-term use? It might--" here the General interrupted.

"Yes, Agent Walker, we are aware of the potential problems. That is why we are going to run some trials with Chuck first. You need to remember that Chuck is in much worse danger now, with a completely unreliable Intersect, than he would be with a potentially unreliable one."

Sarah subsided. "Yes, General."

"Agent Carmichael, we will need you available every afternoon for the next week or so for the drug trials. Since your assistant manager is aware of your covert activities, you shouldn't have any trouble getting the time off, yes?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good. I'm sending you the files you need to review now." The screen cut to black.