A/N There's very little of the Beard that I can use in this story, so I'm just going to hijack the plotline for my own fell designs. Mwa-ha-ha!


"Martin, are you trying to get me sober?"

"You mess with my friends, you mess with me!"

"I'll tell you what I would do…"

"I'm firing you as my best friend!"


Carina sat at her desk, staring at her screen, now blank. Somehow she could still see the shock that was starting to move across her once-best-friend's face before the screen took it away.

Got your attention now, didn't I?

Too late.

No! It can't be too–

She raised her hand and almost, almost, hit the button to reconnect. But no. This was for Sarah's own good, and however hard it would be on her personally she had to see it through.

Agents shouldn't fall in love.


"She did what?"

Not amused. Not even upset, just confused. "Fired me, can you believe it?"

"Oh, I could believe it all right, if it was Morgan." He could believe just about anything, if it was Morgan. It was about the only way he could believe some things. 'Firing' a best friend sounded like something from Morgan's inner managerial self, a part of him that he struggled to keep buried, lest someone notice it and make him work.

"Morgan would fire you?" No way. Morgan would die before he would betray Chuck. How much would Chuck have to betray him first to deserve that?

Chuck nodded. "He documents every step of the friendship process. You're lucky he was in Hawaii when we got married, or he would have made you sign a contract before he would've allowed it."

She bared her teeth, but no one would have called it a smile. "If Morgan had gotten between me and that Justice with a silly piece of paper he would have been roadkill."

Chuck smiled at her ferocity, it was just too adorable not to. "It is important to him, though, and I can guarantee you that at least a little part of him resents you for taking me away from him. All those conversations through the wall weren't for nothing."

Just the memory of that frustrating time boiled over. "I didn't take you away—!"

"I know you didn't, but come on, this is Morgan we're talking about here. He's so much about feelings, if we were in the Star Wars universe he'd be running the Jedi."

"Didn't they all get slaughtered?" A coup is a coup, comic book movie or not. She could relate to that.

He touched the tip of her nose. "Not my point, but yes they did."

She ran a finger lightly over the curve of his ear. "So what is your point, Captain Spock?"

Chuck winced, shaking his head slightly. "My point is, it doesn't have to make sense. In fact, with Morgan it's probably better that way. But he's been booted from the top of the Chuck's-best-friend pecking order and he can't be a hundred percent comfortable about it."

She drew her hands down his neck, tracing the collar of his shirt. No tie again, dammit. College casual may be his nerd comfort zone but she wouldn't mind a chance to paint her lily once in a while. "And his comfort is that important to you."

"Of course. He may not be my best friend but he's still my friend. And among the male slightly-less-than-half of the population I think the 'best' still applies."

She sighed. "Well, as your new best friend I suppose that means I should do something about it." If only she knew what. Agents don't have best friends.


She called from the road, but his phone went to voice mail. "Hi Morgan, it's Sarah," she said, as if he wouldn't recognize her voice. "Call me when you get this, please, we have a lot to talk about." Short and sweet. Maybe too short? She hung up, amazed once again at how stupid she became talking to a machine.


"Inform Leader we have a contact."


"Good morning, Agent Shaw."

Shaw gave his usual nod to the broom-pushing Tough Guy. "Good morning, Chuck. How are you today?"

"I don't like it when Agent Walker's out."

Daniel Shaw paused, unsure what to make of that statement. Chuck was trusting him, talking about Agent Walker like that. He ought to be pleased. Is that what he was feeling, pleasure? Pride? For once he wished he knew how to smile. At least he could watch out for the poor kid while she was away.

"She's just at an incident site, Chuck. We had a little action last night, and they're looking for clues today to try to understand it better."

"She wasn't hurt."

"No, she wasn't. Someone was trying to hurt her friend Hannah, but we don't know why, since she's only an analyst and not a threat to anybody." Shaw noticed a strange look come over Chuck's face and stopped talking.

"Following the success of your operation against Nicos Vassilis it's only reasonable to suppose that the Ring would try to determine the quality of your allies. In such a scenario Hannah would probably seem to be the most vulnerable test subject. They achieve some measure of vengeance, diminish your resources, and can observe your response."

Shaw's normal lack of affect became even more pronounced than usual. "What did you say?"

Chuck blinked and took a step back. "I didn't say anything, Agent Shaw."

"How did you do that, Chuck?" Shaw took a step forward, realizing his mistake only when Tough Guy's eyes started to flutter. The last time that had happened he'd woken up in Medical.

Tough Guy collapsed, a completely boneless fall that indicated that there was no one at home inside his head. Shaw barely caught him before he impaled himself on the broom. "Chuck!"

Shaw debated moving him, but decided against it. Fortunately the lobby was empty, but the cameras had recorded everything. Even so, speed was essential, or Agent Carmichael would eat him alive. He got out his phone, speed-dialed her number. "Agent Carmichael. Chuck's collapsed."


Casey flinched when Sarah shouted, "Did I or did I not tell you to keep your distance, Mr. Shaw?" She slashed the air, not that Shaw would be able to see it. "Do not try to explain anything to me right now. Do you have Agent Miller's number on your phone? Good. Call it, give her your location, and tell her Chuck is down and disabled. She'll take it from there. I am on my way." She turned back to Casey, who wasn't even trying not to listen. "We're done here. Chuck's figured it out."

Casey started packing up their gear. "How could he do that, he wasn't even listening in last night." He checked his watch. "Is he even uploaded yet? I thought you just said he was talking to Shaw."

"He was."

"I don't understand."

"That's why we're done here. I need to get to Shaw, and you need to get to Dimples."


Her phone rang as she drove. "Ellie? Talk to me."

"Chuck's all right. He did what I expected him to do, pass out when he tried to use the skills. I have him resting for a little while but he should be good to go after that."

Using the skills wasn't necessarily bad news, lots of them would make him collapse like that. But not in the lobby at Spook Central. "Does he remember what skill he was trying to use, or why?"

"No, he lost some time, like before."

"Dammit." He must've felt threatened, he knew better than to use them on purpose. It had to be a reflex. "Shaw was there, I'll get the details from him."

"Shaw again? What is it with that guy?"

"I'm going to find out."


Daniel Shaw was not a fool. When Sarah stalked up to his desk he was waiting there for her. He had a small package on his desk. "This was delivered a short while ago. Addressed to you but delivered to me."

She took the box and ripped it open, removed a small flash drive from the shredded remains.

"I put a hold on the Quiet Room, figured we'd need it."

She was the Ice Queen, but he seemed curiously immune to her coldest expression. "You figured correctly."

Once in the room, she brought up the computer, plugging in the flash drive. As they watched, a brief scene played itself out several times over, from different points of view. In all of them Shaw and Chuck stopped near each other, exchanged a few words, and Chuck collapsed after Shaw took a single step nearer.

"What did you say?" said Sarah after all the playbacks had finished. She pulled the drive and pocketed it.

"I often meet him in the hall, and I say hello," said Shaw calmly. "Today I asked him how he was doing, and he expressed some concern that you were not on site."

"He shouldn't have done that."

"I admit I was surprised. I assumed that he had for some reason decided to trust me."

"No, he had a different reason. What else?"

"I told him where you were, and why."

"That's all? Then he collapsed?"

"No," said Shaw. "He got a very strange look on his face, spoke with a totally different voice, and offered an explanation for last night's action that none of us had yet come up with. I was…shocked, and asked him to repeat himself."

Sarah said, in a 'Good Boy Chuck' tone of voice, "I didn't say anything, Agent Shaw."

"You know about it, then." Shaw shrugged. "That was when I took that one step. I thought he was going to attack, as he did before, but instead…" He waved at the monitor.

"He only attacked you, Mr. Shaw, because you threatened my husband's interests. On his own Chuck is more harmless than a bunny rabbit."

"I see that."

Sarah sat and studied him, drumming her fingers slightly. "What was his explanation?"

"Why the interest?" said Shaw in response. "He's only a janitor. I'm hardly likely to file a report about such a contact, unless I had a reason to take it seriously."

Don't play games with me! "You know you do."

"No, I know I have reason to take you seriously, especially since you can acquire security-camera recordings at a moment's notice. I have only your word for Chuck, and I want more."

"You seem more than a little…preoccupied with my guy, Agent Shaw."

Shaw did not respond, at least not in words. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small envelope from the pocket nearest his heart. He opened the flap and poured two rings out onto the table between them.

Sarah looked at them, then at his own hand, the ring finger.

Shaw nodded. "My wife, Eve Shaw. We were investigating the Ring together in Paris five years ago, when she was killed while undercover, on a street corner. I haven't worn this ring since."

She raised a brow, silently asking the obvious question.

"DEA retrieved a small case from an arms dealer some months ago. Inside it was a lockbox containing her files, and these rings. You brought me the key."

She cleared her throat. "I'm sorry about your wife, Mr. Shaw."

He scooped up his treasures and put them back where they belonged. "Your guy said the exact same thing to me several days ago, Mrs. Carmichael, in that same lobby. Why would he do that? I need to know."

Oh, Chuck. What have you done? Sarah put a sad smile on her face. "You and my husband have a lot in common, Agent Shaw. You both married spies, you both had enemies. My husband's enemies were going to drop my body at his feet."

"Where was this?"

"Does it matter? What matters is that I ended up in a shopping plaza, where there was a Buy More. I broke in, hoping at least to lose them, or maybe do some damage. I hadn't planned on one of the employees working late."

"Chuck?" Something didn't add up. Buy More employees don't work late. They barely work at all.

"He was the Nerd Herd supervisor. Almost a Stanford graduate, too, if you can believe that."

He couldn't. "At a Buy More?"

"Yes, fortunately for me. That was Chuck. Was Chuck. A genuinely nice, friendly, helpful guy. My good boy." She looked down. "I think he fell in love with me at first sight. A hopeless romantic, and terribly naïve. I don't know, a couple of years younger and single, I might have fallen for him." She sat forward, suddenly, intensely. "He made throwing stars for me, out of CDs and a waffle iron! Cleverer by half than anyone I've ever met, and more heroic by at least two thirds."

Shaw made a show of wincing. "That's bad math."

She sagged back. "It got us to the roof. All we had up there was my gun. I got…almost all of them."

"How many left?"

"Just one. Managed to kick my gun out of my hand, then made sure I wouldn't be crawling after it anytime soon. Chuck caught my gun but the guy took one look at him and knew he'd never used one and never would. He turned his back on Chuck and dragged me over to the edge of the roof, said he would leave me as a gift to my husband. I hoped Chuck would take the opportunity to run away."

Shaw noticed the past tense. "Did he shoot?"

She nodded. "A warning shot."

He shook his head. "Not smart."

"The guy dumped me on the ledge and laughed. I don't remember what he said, just the derision in his voice, the…contempt. I saw him lift his gun, and I heard the shots."

"Chuck shot him?"

Sarah nodded. "He shot someone. For me. And he kept the man from dragging me over the edge with him. Bastard fell at my husband's feet, but too late to save Chuck. He's been a bit lost ever since. We take care of him, until he finds his way back. That's the Chuck you saw."

"He's impressive. I'm surprised we didn't recruit him from Stanford, we have a program there."

"There were…circumstances that kept him off the CIA's radar. We looked into it, but decided that off the CIA's radar was the best place for him." Her glare promised death to anyone who tried to change that.

"I understand." Broken, but an incredibly valuable resource anyway. And off the CIA's radar is off the Ring's radar as well.

"What was his explanation, Mr. Shaw?"

Shaw repeated Chuck's analysis, word for word, tone for tone.

"We're under surveillance." Worse, they were lab rats, for enemies who wanted them divided and conquerable.

Shaw nodded. "Without a doubt."

Casey spent the night with his guns, she had Chuck. And today Carina 'fired' her.

"What are you thinking?" asked Shaw.

"I'm thinking," she drawled, "That I need a favor. Are you busy?"


A/N2 And in case you're wondering, once again, I have no idea where this is going either. Love to hear your thoughts on the matter.