September 12, 2004

The target's name was Aaron DeCartes. He was French. Day Car Tay. You don't pronounce the S, Agent McKenzie had said.

The man was classically handsome, Chuck supposed, in that European club owner sort of way; a description he shouldn't have ever known but now did. DeCartes' hair was slicked back and his smile was perpetually devious and sharp at the edges. His suit was expensive just by sight, and so was his wine. He slithered smoothly through the crowd, selling snake oil to the most gullible faces and selling the gullible faces back to the other snakes.

He was either running guns through impoverished Eastern European countries, exacerbating the region's predilection for violence, or he was blockading the running of guns through impoverished Eastern European countries, a champion for peace. The answer depended on which former President you were talking to. More likely he was doing both.

Charles Carmichael had short hair. This meant Chuck Bartowski had to get a hair cut.

Chuck was used to walking down spiral staircases without using the railings now, which was one of the more bizarre curios of the CIA training lexicon. He ran his fingers through the unfamiliar feeling on the top of his head as he descended, making sure to draw just enough attention with his entrance to fit in with everyone else, and then be forgotten just as quickly.

DeCartes laughed with the Lithuanian Prime Minister. Chuck watched.

Nothing was ever what it seemed during a state dinner held by black market dictators. Handshakes weren't handshakes, but heart-crushing declinations of a deal three months in the making. A pat on the back meant a new shipment of sidewinder missiles. Depending on the amount of teeth in DeCartes smile, a Prime Minister knew whether he should prepare for a victory parade or a coup d'etat.

Killing a lion, Agent McKenzie had said during their briefing, just puts another lion at the head of the pride. Cutting off that same lion's legs, though, cripples and confuses the entire system just long enough to sneak in between the cracks.

Chuck was basically a trip wire.

He ran his fingers through his hair again, feeling someone else beneath his scalp, as he took long, smooth strides across the ballroom's elegant wood floors. Long hair just gave your enemy an advantage they didn't need. Sarah had told him that, during one of their first sparring sessions.

"You have long hair," he had said.

"If anyone could catch me, I'd be more worried." She had smiled as she had said it and it had probably been the first time Chuck had seen her do that.

He had his hair cut the next day.

He had watched Bryce kill a man.

Now whenever he saw a flash of the color yellow, like the swirling, elegant maelstrom of sunshine that was the dress of Monsieur DeCartes' escort for the evening, he thought of Spanish autumn and twisted wreckage. And Bryce.

Bryce, pummeling a man already mostly dead.

Bryce, his knuckles wet with blood.

"Excuse moi, monsieur," Chuck said as he smiled at a dignitary who almost backed into him. The rotund man, dressed in something ridiculous that signified time in the military spent doing nothing, smiled drunkenly at him.

"My young man, you look so serious!" the dignitary, obviously a tag-a-long, replied to Chuck in half-garbled Italian. Or, at least, that was what Chuck reasoned he had said. He wasn't quite as fluent in Italian as he was with French and Spanish, but those Latin languages stumbled over each other enough that he felt confident in his appraisal.

He smiled at the shorter man, taking care not to draw too much attention to how he was straightening out his appearance; he did not want to appear insulting. "For serious matters, Monsieur DeCartes requests serious people," Chuck replied in hushed Italian, and watched in morbid fascination as the gentleman's face dropped. Chuck's smile turned vaguely threatening and, not for the first time, he completely forgot who he was.

Chuck hadn't been sleeping well since getting back from Spain. Trauma, a probable concussion, stress, and fear had all been listed by CIA psychiatrists as possible factors. He'd seen at least four different shrinks since getting back from Rota.

Bryce had barely even been asked to speak during the debriefing.

Chuck wasn't supposed to have been redeployed for international field training so soon, but he had been too anxious and uncomfortable in the apartment not to make the request. He had spent most mornings watching Bryce eat Apple Jacks and wanting to strangle his friend for it.

The ballroom was all old European wealth, with high Roman ceilings and Greek pillars and French decor. DeCartes' tastes weren't so much an homage to the history of his continent so much as they were a theft of them, pulling in various elements and putting them together in a way that was the across-the-pond version of a trophy wife's home.

Then again, Chuck still had TRON posters.

When Agent McKenzie had given Chuck the mission, the older man had prowled the small, nondescript conference room from side to side like a caged animal. He had opened by saying, "Your mission, should you choose to accept it," with enough disdain that Chuck actually felt ashamed for having seen the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movies. Then he had given what amounted to a poorly- done PowerPoint presentation on Aaron DeCartes.

Why the CIA couldn't afford some basic Javascript in their briefings was beyond Chuck.

He took a seat at the bar, ordering an Old Fashioned because ordering a vodka martini was too cliché, even for him. The amber liquid glowed a shade somewhere between rust and gold in the dim light and Chuck only just resisted the urge to hold it up to the light before he took a solid draught.

The flash drive, the one from Spain, was burning a hole in his pocket about as effectively as the scotch was burning its way down his throat.

The data they had found on it had been more than what the brass had originally thought. It had been names upon names, and had corresponded eerily with people the CIA or the NSA or whoever had been trying to nail for treasonous behavior for months or years now. But it was just the names. Now they had to connect it with something.

The party DeCartes was having instantly became a two-birds-one-stone scenario. Connecting the names on the list with DeCartes proved the names were up to something. Connecting DeCartes with the names on the list proved DeCartes was up to something. Having Chuck program a backdoor so the CIA could cross reference the two lists with impunity proved to Chuck that he was still just a computer nerd. He just had a gun now.

Bryce had killed a man and Chuck couldn't stay at home because he just couldn't not care. So now he was in the south of France trying to hack into an international arms dealer's computer system, undoubtedly to find people either he or Bryce would be asked to kill.

Chuck could ignore the hypocrisy of it if he didn't think about it too much. Or drank enough. Or both.

He resisted the urge to tap his fingers impatiently against the bar's counter. Instead, he sipped his drink, feeling its brutal warmth slip down his throat and settle into his stomach. Patience, he had found, was defined in the spy world less by waiting and more about restraining yourself from hating yourself so vehemently that you just admitted what you were doing to the entire world.

"I do not believe I know you." The woman whom he had taken a seat next to spoke Spanish, and looked it. Her skin was dark and flawless, her hair cascading effortlessly down her back to the point where she almost looked impossible. Dressed in devil red, and with a face that was beautiful despite its hard lines, Chuck knew immediately that she was probably a person of disrepute. He wasn't entirely sure if he cared.

"You don't," he heard Charles Carmichael reply in the woman's native tongue. He turned in his seat toward her. "Charles Carmichael," he said, nodding in her direction.

"I am Marlena." The woman extended her hand with the clear intention of having Chuck take it and kiss it. He did.

"It's a pleasure, Marlena."

She seemed to take a moment to gather him in, and he only just resisted checking his hair for the hundredth time to make sure it was as short as it had been this morning. "So, Mr. Carmichael, how are you enjoying your first trip to Marseilles?"

The question was one designed to trip him up, and Chuck wondered idly if she was an enforcer of some kind for DeCartes, a praying mantis or black widow that drew men in only to leave them dismembered. "My first trip?" Chuck allowed his smile to grow wide in contradiction but stay short of mocking. "My fifth, actually. Though my first for business."

The casual answer seemed to be the correct one, as Marlena's carefully hidden apprehension melted into something more overtly seductive. "Normally you come for pleasure, then?"

Chuck couldn't muster up the false bravado to respond agreeably to that remark. "Something like that," he said in soft Spanish.

Marlena's shoulders shifted backwards, a subtle movement that made her seem more approachable and less predatory. It was a physical indication Chuck read to mean that the woman had changed her mind about him about three or four different times just in the course of the conversation. Which wasn't too hard to believe; Chuck himself had done the same thing.

"Would you like to dance, Mr. Carmichael?" she asked, and most of the previously rampant pretense was absent; it seemed like nothing more than a genuine question in an estate of ingenuous people.

For Charles Carmichael, the answer had to be no. He had a firewall to decrypt and a database to covertly download onto Monsieur DeCartes' network. He had a mission to complete. Taking time to James Bond his way across the dance floor with some woman he had just met was foolish, no matter how striking her beauty may have been.

For Chuck Bartowski, the answer had to be no. He was nervous. He was too tall. Too awkward. Too not a dancer. He had a girlfriend. He was a capital letter Good Person. He didn't even really know what he was doing here, and he certainly didn't know what that flash drive was doing in his pocket. Chuck Bartowski was supposed to excuse himself, and then politely go have a "man up" moment in the bathroom.

Whatever personality smiled gently at Marlena and said "Sure," Chuck certainly didn't recognize.

Par for the course.

September 24, 2004

It was Chuck's birthday and Chuck wasn't in the apartment.

Agent Larkin, your partner Trainee Bartowski is in France attempting to link Aaron DeCartes to a variety of suspected terrorists and anti-government agents in the United States. McKenzie had said it to Bryce authoritatively enough to belay any questions, condescendingly enough to shame him into hanging his head.

Chuck's off doing your job, was basically what McKenzie had said.

Chuck's a trainee and you're an agent and he's off doing your job.

Bryce had even purchased a present for his roommate. One of the actual hats that Harrison Ford had worn in Temple of Doom. Something to protect his head. Though Bryce knew that no amount of movie paraphernalia was going to keep Chuck from the Intersect project, it still seemed appropriate.

Since Spain, Bryce had been granted full agent status, and then granted an inexplicable vacation.

McKenzie had said it was because he needed to sort his head out. Then, in that gruff voice, had begrudgingly told Bryce congratulations.

It hadn't meant a thing.

Bryce sat alone at the breakfast table, staring at a half-eaten bowl of Apple Jacks. Idly, he flipped the Indiana Jones hat onto his head, leaving it there for a moment, and then just as easily grabbing it off, the movement fluid and practiced.

He was in his robe and boxer shorts and nothing else.

He had killed a man and he didn't care.

The U.S. government was stepping up its surveillance of Alejandro Goya, according to Orion. It meant that within a few months, he was likely going to be assigned to some trainee as a Red Test. It meant Goya was probably going to die soon.

Or, if Orion had his way, he wasn't.

There was a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black next to the bowl of cereal.

Bryce momentarily considered mixing the two, then decided flipping the hat back onto his head would be a smarter way to pass the time. He watched the hat half-drunkenly as it tumbled over his fingers, spinning in his hand as it approached his head, then smiled in amusement as he felt the suede prop find its place on his skull.

"Snakes," Bryce quipped to no one. "Why did it have to be snakes?"

According to Orion, Goya was quietly plotting a Caribbean cartel among the islands. Joining Communist forces with Cuba and Jamaica, with Haiti and the Dominican Republic. An ugly, black market hub hidden by smiling resorts and beach paradises. Gun running funded by traveller's checks. He had Castro close to coming on board, but another attempt on the Premier's life would probably break the tenuous thread that bound the two revolutionaries.

Even if Chuck didn't kill the Premier, the intent of the mission would be successful.

They just wanted to break Bryce's friend.

Bryce thought he might have done that already. He remembered with startling clarity not the look of the man that Bryce had beaten to death with his own fits, but Chuck's look of shock, of revulsion, of disappointment. Bryce remembered the way Chuck's mouth had hung open, the way his shoulders hung heavily as if in defeat.

There was a cherry cheesecake in the fridge.

In Costa Gravas, there would be jungle and heat and, according to Orion, some Major named Casey, though if that was a first name or last name, Bryce hadn't been able to suss out. There would be camouflaged ammo pouches and knives in ankle sheathes, dangerous animals and possibly hiding within walls. Orion hadn't been able to determine the accuracy of a report claiming "Casey" had hid out in the interior architecture of Goya's estate for a week.

There wouldn't be cereal, or suede Harrison Ford hats, or cherry cheesecake.

"Don't call me 'Junior,'" Bryce added.

Even knowing Chuck wasn't going to be there, Bryce had set up an entire birthday celebration for his friend because what else was he going to do? He'd bought an original Nintendo Entertainment System and scrounged out his copy of the Legend of Zelda. Bryce had just got the raft.

Chuck would be murdering a violent dictator and Bryce would be sitting at home waiting for deployment, forgetting to shave and trying vainly to get past the sixth dungeon. Bryce had always needed Chuck's help on the sixth dungeon.

Bryce flipped the hat off his head again.

The hat was heavier than he had expected, and actually felt hefty in his hands. He had expected it to be feather-light, to be easy to flip high into the air and to be gentle when it came falling onto his head. When he had first tried that particular trick, Bryce had almost felt as though he had given himself a concussion.

Orion was ninety-eight percent certain that the CIA was going to sanction another attempt on Goya's life, and seventy-three percent certain that the mission would be a part of a recruit's Red Test. Orion had percentages for everything. Twenty-nine percent sure that Director Graham's favorite ice cream was Rocky Road. Eighty-one percent sure that Langley's cafeteria would serve meatloaf that week.

Bryce was one hundred thirty-two percent sure he wanted to punch Orion in the face.

Bryce's hand reached out toward either the spoon of his cereal or the neck of his bottle of scotch. It hesitated halfway between each, unsure of which way to go.

"Fortune and glory, kid," Bryce muttered and grabbed the scotch.

They'd written Chuck a recommendation for a mission directly reflecting any possible Goya mission. Well, Orion had dictated it and Bryce had written it down. Orion had given it a letterhead that was seventy percent more likely to be read than any other officially recognized letterhead of the CIA and Bryce had to actually deliver it.

It was in the back pocket of the jeans he wasn't wearing.

He took a swig off the bottle of Johnnie because why the hell not?

It was Chuck's birthday and Chuck was out doing his job, out on actual missions. It was Chuck's birthday and Bryce was at home with a dumb hat, a robe, and the choice between marshmallows and malt liquor.

It was Chuck's birthday and Bryce was giving the man either a death sentence or failing to give him a death sentence.

Bryce carelessly put the hat back on his head.

"Nothing shocks me. I'm a scientist."

It was Chuck's birthday.

October 11, 2004

Jill was running.

It was something she had taken up over the course of the last few months, jogging through the streets of L.A. in the vain attempt that it would make it seem like the scenic, circuitous routes she and her boys used to navigate that last year at Stanford. But the militant grids of the suburbs around the City of Angels weren't the immaculate landscapes of campus, just like her life now wasn't what it had been then.

Chuck Bartowski's name now was published in scientific journals, as an assistant to Dr. George Fleming. They had published the tests they were running on encoding visual images with information. Jill had read it. There had been a TRON reference hidden in it and she had both laughed and cried a little bit when she noticed it.

She stopped at a red light, doing the stupid thing that runners do where they jog in place to keep their heart rate up. Back on campus, there had been no red lights, just her and Bryce keeping pace with each other while her boyfriend intentionally trailed behind, where she could look over her shoulder and blush and smile at the fact that he was staring at her.

The world used to disappear during her runs. Her body would ache and sweat, her lungs would try to suck in enough air, her muscles would burn with the build up of lactic acid. Everything else would disappear, her mind too worried about basic respiratory functions to stress about anything else. Now, her runs were more like a night of drinking after a hard week. She used them simply to dull her own senses.

A man had died in front of her.

The light turned green and her feet pushed her forward across the warm, soft concrete. The jogging shoes under her feet were not as comfortable as the soft material of the shoes she wore in the research labs and, truth be told, they were probably a half or full size too small. They dug into her heels even through the athletic socks Jill wore and she knew that she'd hiss in pain as she removed them after her run. But the pain seemed necessary.

She had visited Ellie recently. Ellie and Devon had moved into an apartment in Echo Park, near the hospital where they were both currently residents. The apartment had been both simple and homey, a reflection of Ellie to a T. There had been pictures of Chuck around, and to Jill they had seemed like those creepy framed pictures families keep of children who passed away fifteen years prior. He would be thirty-two today, these people would say.

Chuck would be- was, she reminded herself- twenty-four.

She, Ellie, Devon and Morgan had played board games and all Jill could keep thinking was that Ellie was a doctor. Logic and political affiliations be damned, Ellie should have been the one in that room where Jill watched a man die. Ellie should have been in that room where Jill killed a man. She could have saved him, or at least stabilized him. Ellie was a doctor. She could have done something.

Then Ellie had laughed and her wide, open smile and hearty laugh had reminded Jill of Chuck. Or at least of how Chuck used to be.

Jill could feel the light sheen of sweat covering her body in the California heat, and her heart pounded in her ears. It was shutting everything out, causing a silence that Los Angeles couldn't procure naturally.

It was in the silences that the ghost of Chuck reared its head. His distance made him seem dead. His silence made him seem unconcerned. His absence drew a spotlight to the fact that his outsized personality had been the glue that had held the people together. Jill missed him.

When Ellie had laughed, back at the apartment in Echo Park, Jill felt like if she closed her eyes, she could hear depressingly open spaces that Chuck's laugh would have fit perfectly into.

Then again, Chuck didn't laugh so much anymore. Neither did she.

She kept pushing her body, going straight on Glendale when she would usually turn, determined to double the length of her route. Jill tried to ignore the fact that it felt like she was just trying to outrun her loneliness and failed.

Her box, the one Chuck had helped her conceive, had been actually, physically built over a month ago now, shortly after the last time she had seen Chuck. She had watched through glass walls as woodworkers had cut planks from scrap pieces of wood to create walls. They used sanders and grinders and other manner of electrical tools to chisel intricate designs into the woodwork: codes that marked it as Fulcrum. Artists took the time to hand paint the numbers for the Rubik's Cube slash Sudoku key onto each individual tile. Engineers reconstructed the block from those individual tiles. Metal workers cut copper for the actual key, and for the spring mechanism that launched it.

For whatever reason, and maybe it was because she saw herself as a murderer now, it made sense to Jill that the most lauded of her achievements would be a tool of deception.

The last time Jill had talked to her boyfriend had been three weeks ago. She had missed his birthday.

She had watched a team of twenty men built a small box. She had watched a man die as his closest associates did nothing to save him.

Chuck would be twenty-four, if he were still alive. Maybe he was.

As she tried to outrun her ghosts, Jill couldn't decide whether or not that was true.

She had missed his birthday.