Casey tried not to glare at Bartowski's sister.

He knew this was coming. Expected it, really. Problem was, he still didn't have a plan of action. He had never been very good at the whole comforting-reassuring routine.

Maybe he should have taken up Walker's offer to intercede.

But, no, he hadn't.

Argg.

Sighing, he eyed his guest critically.

She looked rather high-strung at the moment, but he didn't think she was about to burst into tears or anything. That didn't change the fact that he needed to think of something – soon.

"Yes."

Ellie startled.

"Yes, what?"

"Yes, I helped plan your wedding."

"Oh." The young doctor blinked, as if that was something that just wouldn't compute. He really didn't blame her – he never thought he'd do anything of the sort, either. At least, not without orders. "Why?"

Why?

Well, hell.

He didn't like to think about why.

He wasn't the kind of guy that went around doing nice things for nice people because he wanted to.

He wasn't the kind of guy that could afford to go around doing nice things for nice people because he cared.

No.

NO.

He did NOT care.

He couldn't afford to. Not him, not a spy.

No personal attachments.

But he knew it was too late – somewhere along the way, Casey had become attached to his team here. And not just his team – not just Walker and Bartowski, and even Grimes – he had come to care for Chuck's family, too. He went soft.

Well, softer.

He would never be soft – he hadn't ever been.

"I – " he rubbed his hand over his face – a nervous gesture he normally wouldn't have allowed himself. "I'm sorry I scared you the other night – "

"You didn't answer my question." Ellie interrupted him firmly.

Hells bells, it was a Bartowski with balls. He stared at her, but he already knew that she wasn't going to back down. And he still didn't have an answer for her. He didn't know how to say why he did what he did.

"Why don't you just say what you really want to?" Best defense was offense. "How could your brother trust someone like me with something that important?"

Ellie swallowed.

"I'm not going to prove myself to you, Ellie." He took a predatory step closer to her. He knew, somewhere deep down, that intimidating her wasn't going to help – but she was threatening him. She was threatening his control – as long as he could at least pretend not to care, he could get through. He didn't need more vulnerable spots – Alex and Kathy were enough.

And he was glad to have them, but he didn't want more.

"I've served my country with loyalty for more than twenty years – I don't have to prove myself to you. Not to you, or anyone."

And he had served his country loyally for twenty years – there were only two things he cared about more. But Ellie didn't need to know about that – she didn't need to know about his treasured vulnerabilities.

Ellie blinked, clearly taken aback, but she refused to give ground.

"You don't, do you?" She challenged – something in her eyes hardened. "I should just trust you – by virtue of your association with some super-secret government spy agency…"

His 'guest' trailed of angrily, once more close to tears.

Casey felt a wrenching in his gut – an emotion that was not sympathy. He'd call it – understanding.

He understood where she was coming from. Despite the fact that she hadn't yet said it out loud, he knew what she was thinking.

Maybe if I'd been less trusting with Justin – maybe if I'd gone to Chuck or Devon – maybe if I'd paid more attention to what was going on around me…

I could have, should have done more. No one had to die.

He sighed and looked away from Ellie's anger.

Casey understood that her anger and mistrust were really directed at herself. He understood very well the emotional turmoil that inevitably followed a badly botched mission or the death of someone close, trusted, or even loved.

But, damnit, she was a civilian. He had worked long and hard protecting his country – protecting civilians – not only from actual, physical threats, but also from this emotional hell. He knew he couldn't save everybody from everything, or even most people from most things, but he could go out there, into the thick of the fray, and brave the emotional storm afterward.

And he could do it quietly alone, without spreading knowledge of the monsters that lurked in the dark, just so that some people could be free of some demons.

But everything he gave hadn't been enough for Ellie. She wasn't like Chuck – even if he'd never really had a choice, he had known about the danger, even been ready and willing to face it.

He looked back at the miserable young woman before him.

"Stop it," he commanded, wishing he knew what to say.

ooo oo ooo oo ooo oo ooo

"Stop it."

Ellie immediately went on the defensive – he had no call to be-

"You can't blame yourself."

Her angry retort lodged in her throat. Before she could work up some kind of response, he continued with an air of doggedness.

"That cree- Justin was very good at his job. And his job included manipulating and lying to people. Getting them to trust him. It wasn't your fault – you couldn't have known."

What?

"When it came down to it, you did everything in your power to keep Chuck safe – and he is safe, now. If you, Devon, and Morgan hadn't acted when you did – " He paused, giving the impression that he was having to force himself to continue a very unpleasant admission. "Walker, Chuck, and I might not be here today, if not for you. You can't blame yourself for your father's death."

Ellie stopped breathing.

Devon, Chuck, even Sarah, had all assured her that she hadn't done anything wrong. She had made the best decision, the only decision she was able to, at the time.

But no one had said the words – not like that.

And he looked her straight in the eye when he said it.

Something eased inside her. She couldn't really call it relief – she knew relief. She was a trauma surgeon. She felt relief every time one of her critical patients didn't die. Intense, potent relief.

Then there was the more intimate, encompassing relief she experienced every time Chuck or Devon worked their way out of some funk or difficult situation.

Morgan's leave taking was generally accompanied by a dry, surface sense of relief.

She didn't know what it was – she didn't really care. In the back of her mind, she thought that Casey could probably give a name to this – whatever it was. But she didn't care.

That pressure that had been squeezing her insides continuously, the weight that pressed against her heart without respite was gone.

And she didn't care to understand it.

The colonel suddenly sighed heavily and glanced toward the front door. Ellie glanced backwards, but didn't notice anything unusual. She frowned.

"Bartowski," she jumped, again, as Casey unexpectedly raised his voice, "you gonna stand there all day? Get in here."

Chuck slouched into the apartment, grinning sheepishly.

"Sorry, Buddy. I saw Ellie come over here and thought you might – erm – might want some back-up." He shrugged, half-apologetically, half-determined. Ellie's chest tightened slightly as Chuck turned toward her – openly assessing her condition. It was brotherly protectiveness – expected and appreciated – but she wasn't used to the semi-calculating gleam in her only brother's eyes.

He had changed.

She had been watching, she had known he was changing, but she had never expected this.

Maybe…

Casey grunted, causing Ellie to twitch nervously for the umpteenth time during her impromptu visit. She resigned herself to fidgeting like a nervous school girl until she could go home.

"What'd I tell you about that?" Ellie blinked at his tone. It was at once strict and… sensitive, understanding? "It wasn't your fault. None of it." He glared at Chuck, who immediately nodded his agreement.

"Wha – Sis, you're blaming yourself? It wasn't – you didn't –It wall all my –" The former Nerd Herder slumped despondently. "I'm sorry."

Chuck looked like he would've expanded on that sentiment, but Casey growled.

"I thought Walker straightened you out?"

"You two keep tabs on me like that?"

"You bet your ass we do."

"Oh." Chuck blinked, looking slightly stunned. Then, wonder of wonders, he grinned. It was an honest-to-goodness, 100 watt, Chuck Irving Bartowski smile – one of his rare 'I really believe everything is going to be okay' smiles. It was that same smile that convinced Ellie that Sarah was 'The One'. The smile that disappeared for years after their Dad left – Ellie blinked away a sudden moisture in her eyes. Chuck was safe – and now he was smiling. "Thanks, Big Guy."

Ellie felt her eyes begin to cross. This was surreal.

How could…

John made Chuck smile – just by being his typical ill-tempered, intimidating self.

But, perhaps more tellingly, he had just admitted – albeit very subtly – that he monitored her brother's emotional well being. And cared enough to step in when necessary.

Which is what he had just been doing for her, she realized.

"I hit you with a frying pan," she blurted abruptly.

"What, you want a gold star?" Casey raised an eyebrow. Ellie gaped - that was not what she meant. Chuck made some sort of choking noise that earned him a stinging look from Casey. "You did exactly what you should have in the case of your home being invaded by the enemy." He shrugged.

Her eyes misted and, for the first time, she felt gratitude towards her surly neighbor, but she knew that thanks wouldn't be accepted. And an apology was likely to be taken as an insult rather than, well, an apology.

The emotional aura was thick and sappy inside the small apartment – Ellie is sure that's what explained her brother's next action. Chuck had a proclivity for making stupid, whimsical decisions when he was emotionally compromised.

If she hadn't been in the same position, she may have been able to stop him. By the time she realized what was about to happen – well, there was no time to stop it. Ellie Woodcomb watched in horror as Chuck reached out impulsively to hug a man that reminded her of the Terminator more than anyone she'd met.

Casey easily dodged Chuck's reaching arms, delivered a healthy slap to the back of his asset's head, and proceeded to unceremoniously shove the two siblings out the door.

At the harsh but predictable response, Ellie's world finally righted itself.

On the other side of the door, Chuck grinned down at her.

And she grinned back, in the safety of an NSA monitored courtyard.

End

A/N: Oookay, so, that was both sappy and forced. I hope you enjoyed it though – I'm making a supreme effort to finish some of my long neglected fics. Thanks for reading and please review.