So I know I said that "The Heart of the Matter" was just a one-shot, and then I decided that a companion makes it technically still a one-shot. Et voila! Chuck's side of the story. There may be more "technical" one-shots to follow. :) As per usual, I'm still working on other stories, and I don't own Chuck. Please let me know what you think of this, and even which half/side you like better!
After hours in that dark basement in Encino, on the drive back to Echo Park, Chuck contemplates leaving her. Just leave, and tell her nothing. It is the responsible thing to do, after all.
He discards that possibility immediately, but he has to acknowledge that it exists.
Because, really, both Sarah and Ellie — and Devon and Morgan and Casey, of course, but it's Sarah and Ellie — would be safer without him. After just a cursory look at the files in Stephen Bartowski's Batcave, he gets why Dad thought they were safer when he wasn't around. The groups he was tracking, his not-so-crazy theories on the disappearance of one Mary Elizabeth Bartowski, put Fulcrum and the Ring to shame. Just three days ago, his father had probably posed the biggest internal threat to the national security of the United States; today, he had inherited that dubious honor. There was literally nobody he could turn to for any sort of protection, save for his family; if the CIA knew what sort of information he had while not in their employ, they would want him dead (again) too. If Sarah or Ellie knew anything, they would also be hunted, Sarah especially, because everyone would think she was helping him. Whatever he does, he has to protect them.
But ignoring the fact that Sarah would probably track him down herself to kill him if she found out he was a self-employed spy — and that Ellie would come along to kick him in the shins — he just can't. He and Ellie have been through too much together, and he and Sarah have too much ahead of them, for him to do the right thing and ensure their safety. Sarah had once asked him, very, very early in their partnership, if he was ready to be a hero. Some people (like Bryce Larkin, though she hadn't named names, which had been kind of her) wanted to be heroes, were ready to be heroes, could just always be heroes, and some people had to be asked. So she had asked him. It was cute and charming in a CIA-ish way. To do this would be to be the ultimate hero, and his father had just asked him. But he wasn't ready. And he knew it was pretty damn selfish, and petty and cowardly, but he honestly didn't ever think he would ever want to be ready.
Because how could he, really? As big a fan as he is of comics and Star Wars and The Matrix and Lost, of all the superhero stories that were about fulfilling a destiny larger than oneself, he has to believe, a little bit, that Sarah is his destiny, too. He's not much at big, romantic Say Anything gestures — on their first anniversary he got Jill a T-shirt; Ellie still hasn't forgiven him for giving Sarah an alarm clock on their first Christmas; all his attempts failed pretty miserably when he was wooing Sarah back; he still doesn't even know when her birthday is — or crap like soul mates. But he's pretty sure that he and Sarah fought enough (with each other, with their own personal demons, with the world) that they deserve a real shot. The last few days especially have worn him down, made him more selfish, and made him realize he needs that as much as possible, and he's not sure how much he needs the spy stuff.
Leaving would kill their fragile, fantastic relationship, and he can't do that. He's out of second chances on big stuff, and he just wants more time to know her. Since she moved in (just under a month ago, and their lives are already changing again), he's learned that she has a ridiculously large stash of books and reads voraciously (she's even read Crime and Punishment in freaking Russian)and that her favorite TV show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which Ellie introduced her to. She doesn't match socks when she does laundry, prefers popsicles to ice cream, and majored in psychology at Harvard ("my senior thesis was how to interrogate more effectively"). He wants to learn a random new fact every day for the rest of his life. This new twist makes him want to stand outside and yell "Really? Really?" at the heavens until something changes.
But he knows that won't happen, so he forces this moment of self-pity to pass. He's got a few options, but he's going to lose something big no matter which one he takes. He hates his father, just a little, for putting him in this position. If he's honest with himself, he wants to be a spy, but he also wants to be honest with his family and he wants to have his family. And they're all mutually exclusive and it's impossible. He misses being the guy who always did the right thing, although back then, the right thing was always obvious. Hello adulthood, he thinks.
He runs through the options he recognizes immediately. The first is to ignore everything in the Batcave. Forget he was ever there. Take a few weeks off, take Sarah on a real vacation, finally put that Stanford degree to good use. Sleep a lot.
He can't do that. He's a Bartowski. They fight for things.
The second is work from the information, but tell nobody. Not even Sarah. Especially not Ellie. Lead a deeper double life.
Probably technically the "right" thing, and definitely the first one that came to mind, but he can't do that either. It would keep everyone safer, but hurt everyone more. Even if he did try this tack, everything would eventually come out. And though Ellie would kill him for lying again, it would kill Sarah. He's gotten a lot better at understanding her lately (granted, she's also gotten a lot better at actually saying what she thinks), and he's pretty sure if he did the safe, noble thing and lied to her, she would break from the weight of his personal betrayal (because that's what lying about this would be, even if he was doing it to protect her).
She would never say so, because she's Sarah Walker (or Sam/Samantha Lisa Last-name-to-be-determined, but really, she's Sarah Walker) and she's truly superhumanly strong. But he knows how hard this — being with him, being with his friends and family, negotiating the mundanities of life — is for her most days. She's gotten better over the past three years, but she's used to leaving, or shooting someone, instead of sticking with things and people and saying it'll work out for the best. Whatever faith in humanity she had was hammered out of her by the age of 13 and this just exhausts her (it actually physically exhausts her, which amazes him. She sleeps late daily, drinks an obscene amount of coffee, and always needs a nap before dinners with Ellie and Awesome).
She's overcoming it, for him, and that fact makes him love her more, but there's no way they would survive it. She'd begged him for weeks not to "change;" when she thought he had, she could barely be in the same room with him. He realizes now her fixation on his Red Test wasn't because she was repulsed by the idea of him killing someone, but the idea of him no longer being that person she could believe was good. Although the weird, elaborate double standard that she'd held him to during those crazy last weeks with Shaw still exasperates him, it's almost rational and romantic in retrospect, and he's more than happy to let it drop and move past it.
More than killing people, though, keeping this from her would be a bigger and greater indication that he had morphed into someone different than that guy who just wanted to share a hamburger with her. He could kill and still be that guy for her. He couldn't lie to her repeatedly and intentionally and still be that guy. He wants to be that guy. It's not just for her — right now, the only thing he knows about himself is that he wants to be that guy for her.
He could tweak the status quo. He tells Sarah, maybe Casey, maybe Morgan, but leave Ellie and Awesome in the dark. It's the most practical solution, spy-guy wise: enlist the professionals; tell the civilians nothing.
But Chuck-the-good-guy can't lie to Ellie anymore. The thought of it leaves a bitter, metallic taste in his mouth. Over the last three years, his own "necessary" lying had tightened until it was a noose around his life and relationships. At first it was nothing, just faking offsite installs, and that was kind of fun. Then there was Lou, which was unfortunate, but a matter of national security. Then Jill — mind games leading to confusion and heartbreak. Finally, Hannah; there, lying about his feelings and if he could move past Sarah probably hurt her (and him, and Sarah) more than lying about who cooked the pepperoni chicken did, and probably meant more, too. That was the type of lying he, Chuck Bartowski, good guy, didn't do, and he'd disappointed himself — and probably Sarah and Ellie, if they knew about it — with it.
Besides, he doubts Sarah would agree not to tell Ellie. Sarah's definition of "necessary" lying now excludes lying to loved ones. She's been incredibly forgiving about his recent lies, though he suspects that might have more to do with her ability to prioritize missions than anything else. In fact, he should probably be prepared to grovel in the near future. He shudders. At least groveling beats picking up shards of broken glass after she goes on a pencil-throwing spree, he thinks ruefully.
But, really, he can't lie to Ellie any more. If there is a legitimate reason that their mother has been absent, that Ellie had been forced to take care of him and their dad for most of their lives, to turn down Brown, her dream school, so that she could stay close to home, she deserves to know it.
So he could tell everyone, and possibly enlist their help. Ellie would try and make him stop, but he could stand up to his big sister (he'd need a bulletproof vest, but he could do it. Probably.).
Except that's incredibly dangerous. It's too much of a risk. The whole truth isn't the "right thing" in this situation.
Finally, he could tell her, and then leave, but promise to come back. It's a mildly jackass move, and definitely insulting, but a possible compromise solution. Even though it ends, again, with him letting everyone down. And there's a distinct possibility that Sarah won't let him, which leads back to the distinct possibility that she'll kick his ass and/or leave him.
Frustrated, he smacks his palm against the steering wheel of Sarah's Porsche, then winces immediately (it hurts).
He's home, but continues to circle the block, wasting gas. He again settles on hating his father, for giving him such conflicting dicta: Be good for your sister. Be a man. Don't be a spy. This is in your blood. I did it all for her.
He wants too many incompatible things. He wants to protect the people he loves and do the right thing, that's a given. On one hand, he misses being the guy who trusted people, who had faith in people and himself, and who didn't have the weight of the world on his shoulders. But he also wants to do good, and be something those people can be proud of, and he can't turn his back entirely on what's in that vault, either.
He finally parks the car in its designated spot, smiling a little at the new parking stickers on the windshield. Resident. Maybe sleeping on it will help.
Opening the door, he tosses the keys on the little table. The noise startles Sarah, on the couch. She looks concerned, and he realizes how haggard he appears. She shuts her book (probably Gone With the Wind), and crosses to him, regaining her composure.
"Hey," she says, kissing him lightly. With that kiss, the wheels in his head stop spinning temporarily, and it's reinforced, again, that he can't just disappear and leave her. He's got to find a way to protect her, here. "How are you doing? How was the drive?" She pulls back, but keeps her hand on his bicep. He stares at her intently, memorizing the worry etched on his face
"Good, I guess," he swallows rubs a thumb along her cheekbone. "I went over to Encino, actually. Saw the house where we grew up," he hugs her lightly, mostly for his own reassurance, and then scans the room. "Where's Morgan?"
"Still at Casey's." He smiles. Casey and his little buddy have been getting along much better, but he can't imagine that their conversation is pleasant right now, and it makes him smirk a little. "I figure we give them till midnight and then make sure Morgan's alive," she smiles slightly. He decides, suddenly, that he's thirsty, and he shrugs off his jacket, places it on a chair, and walks into the kitchen. He surveys the shelves, weighs his options. "I talked to Beckman," she says from behind him.
"Oh?" he asks, trying to cover his surprise. Hot chocolate, he decides, and puts the kettle on the stove.
"I … took a leave of absence," she admits, leaning against the counter and appraising his reaction. "Just … with everything that's happened, I needed a break, too. I'm starting with three months."
Whoa. Unexpected. She's more rattled than he thought. "Are you sure about this, Sar?" he asks, putting down the bag of marshmallows to cross to her. She's picking at her cuticles, studiously avoiding his eyes, running a socked foot up and down her calf. She's terrified.
"Yes. Absolutely. I need to breathe, we need to figure out what we both want to do, I think … It was the right choice," she chuckles a little before looking straight at him. "I was thinking that we could maybe take a real vacation first, though."
He laughs, because that's the understatement of the year. "That does sound nice."
He pours them each a mug of hot chocolate and leans against the counter as she hops up to sit on it (that had driven Ellie nuts, and he thinks it might be a way of Sarah reminding herself that she can do that, that she belongs here). She still looks nervous as hell, though.
"Chuck?" she finally breaks the silence after a few minutes.
"Yeah?" he asks carefully, wondering what she's about to say.
"I'm not trying to … start something, especially after your father just …" she trails off. "I just have something I want to say."
He's not scared — she's clearly not about to start a fight. Instead, he's more concerned. Moving to her, he asks, "Is everything OK? This sounds a little rehearsed."
"It is and it isn't," she admits, avoiding eye contact by staring at his hair. She runs a hand through his hair, tugging at the shorter curls. "I only need one thing from you, Chuck," she says, and he reflexively cocks his head at the indirect route she's taking to whatever. "I know you love me. I know that. But I need you to trust me, Chuck."
He runs his hands up her body, realizing what she's getting at, and grips her waist lightly as he begins a pre-emptive apology. It's nice, having something besides the Batcave to focus on. "I know, I know I should have told you sooner about what the doctor said. I just didn't want …"
"I know you were trying to protect me," she interrupts, grasping his shoulders. Words start tumbling, uninhibited, from her mouth. "I know you were doing that because you love me. But I know you love me, alright? And I will always love you — I don't know how or why I know it, but I know it. OK? Don't ever worry about that. Ever." She even shakes him a little here. "But we need to trust each other enough to be honest with each other about what's going on. I know that we don't have the best history with telling each other everything, because of work and insecurities and many, many other things — but from here on out, we need to. Both of us. And I know I've probably been guiltier than you about this in the past but today just made me realize ... We need a clean slate. And a new Casa Walker-Bartowski policy of no lies. I've been lied to or lying for most of my life," her voice thickens slightly, "and you have too, and I just … I really feel like the only way we're actually going to work is if we trust each other enough to tell each other everything from here on out. Even if we're worried it will worry the other person. Or make them angry. Or … whatever. It won't, not in the long term. But what can is if we don't trust each other. I don't need you to tell me or show me you love me, but I need you to tell me or show me that you trust me."
He's a little shell-shocked — she's never said that many consecutive words about their relationship. He's not quite sure where the speech came from, but it's unexpectedly reassuring to hear that she's going to fight step-by-step for them, and he realizes she needs him as much as he needs her.
And in that minute, staring at her as she anxiously waits for a response, he realizes something. He's Chuck Bartowski, and that means he does things his own way, even when it's a little unconventional. He doesn't need to go at this alone, the Superman way, the Bryce Larkin way. He can — he should — bring Sarah in on this, maybe even the rest of his family. She's always made him better, and want to be better, and he'll need that on this mission. Besides, they're always much better together than they are alone. But for that to happen he needs to be a better partner and just trust her, like she says. "I know," he says, finally at peace, finally smiling. It's ridiculously relieving, remembering that there's someone else he can have faith in. He kisses her gently, then pulls her off the counter. "We need to go to Encino. I have something I need to show you."
Like/love/hate/wish I hadn't added on? Let me know!