A/N Okay, here we go. By far the longest chapter in this series, I had a lot to do, but hopefully it won't feel too cramped or rushed.
"It's not my fault."
"Your girl, huh?"
"I'm a shadow."
The first step in any upload is to paralyze the subject's voluntary motor functions, especially the larger muscle groups. The autonomic functions were too delicate, too necessary, and so the upload was multiply redundant, in case a blink should interfere with the uptake of any particular image. Sarah could blink, but she could not be allowed to close her eyes.
Similarly, the subject's posture, maintained by the subtle and constant movement of muscles, had to remain reasonably constant. No amount of multiple redundancy would compensate for a fall. Sarah's body had to keep its balance, but she could not be allowed to, say, cover her face, or fire the gun she held out with such perfect form.
No program is perfect, however, not even the Intersect, and the Fulcrum version of the Intersect even less so. The CIA might think they wanted autonomous agents, but Fulcrum knew it did not, and the Ring agreed with them, so they'd made a virtue of necessity. The power of the Intersect was too much for mere agents to wield, so by the time the program was done with them, they weren't exactly 'agents' any more. Sarah would need to process data, but she could under no circumstances be allowed to think ever again.
Chuck and Shaw left the electrical room at the same time, but not together. Shaw was a missile, a smart bomb, his target locked in and unchangeable. He would not, he could not stop.
Neither could Chuck. "You go left, I'll go right."
Shaw didn't acknowledge the command, he simply obeyed it, uncaring as to his direction. All of his roads led to Leader, even if some were longer than others.
Chuck was in a bit more of a hurry. Sarah had chased her shadow up this way, and she hadn't come back yet. He had to find her, help her if she wanted his help, support her if she needed his support. He had to be the man she deserved, he simply had to be there.
He just had to find her first.
Carina slammed open the stairwell door at the first sign of trouble. Casey was going up, and Casey was methodical. There would be none behind him. In this case, though, the first sign of trouble did not go 'bang!' at any volume.
"–the Hell did you think you were doing, Grimes?"
Morgan was slow to reply. Casey was busy wrapping bandages around his second hand, the first being already mummified, and from the look on Morgan's face, Carina could tell he wasn't being gentle about it. "I-ah!-thought I was-ah!-helping you out."
"Oh, you helped me out all right, Grimes. Between the crappy aim and your girlish shrieks of pain, you had that guy laughing so hard I had plenty of time to reload and redecorate," snarled Casey, tearing the bandage down the middle. Carina looked down the hall. Grey and red, how tasteful. "But that's not what I'm talking about. I want to know why you decided to bring my daughter into a war zone! She's seeing you, isn't that bad enough?" He tied the bandage together with savage twists.
Morgan's eyes bugged out as he tried not to shriek in front of his girl, and her father.
"Dad!" Alex brought her stolen machine gun into line.
"Please," said Casey, "You're out. Don't bluff with what you ain't–"
BANG! "I reloaded."
Casey grunted, not in the least bothered. "Well, at least you shoot better than him."
"Is that how you hurt yourself, Morgan?" asked Carina.
Morgan opened his mouth but Casey slid his words in edgewise, like a very sharp knife. "Shooting .45s like .38s, with .22 hands."
"The only guy he hit was the one behind him, when the gun flew out of his grip."
"Knock it off, Casey," said Carina. "I have to admit I'm surprised to see you here, Morgan. How'd you get in?"
Morgan shrugged. "Wasn't easy."
Casey made a strangled sound. "Fired my missile, and blew my entire game plan all to hell, too. Here I had every guard with his back to me, and these two pull the whole kit and caboodle right around."
No way Carina would accept that at face value. "So now you have to kill the lot of them face to face instead of behind their backs, and you're objecting?"
"Hey, I'm as game for a suicidal last stand as much as anybody, but I want her to have a life!"
"It's a bit late in the game to start making me do what you want, dad."
"Whoa, whoa, time out," said Carina. "Family therapy time later. Now, kill the bad guys. You, come with me." She grabbed Alex by the elbow and towed her off. She got about ten feet.
Both women turned and looked back.
"You take care of her or I'll kick your ass!" said the two men together. Then they looked at each other, shocked.
Alex smiled, touched.
Carina smiled, amused. "Duly noted."
Morgan watched them go, Casey didn't. "I can't believe I'm doing this," he muttered, shoving gear into his bag. "Here, Grimes. Since you can't shoot a gun you'll have to hold them so I can. Try not to screw it up."
"I've been left holding the bag plenty of times, Casey," said Morgan confidently. "I got this." He stared at the bag, trying to figure out how to get the strap over his shoulders with two dislocated thumbs.
Now Casey was scared.
Recon! I need recon! Chuck barely stopped as the flash swept over him, but when his vision cleared, the hall looked different. Now he saw, he noticed, the traces of dust on the floor, the slight smudge on the wall, signs of movement from two different people the same height, but he somehow doubted that the shadow wore heels. He knew Sarah wasn't wearing a bathrobe, and if she had been, it would have barely covered her bathrobe-y parts, not swept the floor!
There! They went in there! No people, but two doors. One door, the left one. He didn't know how he knew, but the Intersect knew, and Chuck Bartowski was the Intersect.
The next room had a glass wall, and flickering images, bathed in red light. Chuck recoiled automatically, but the images weren't affecting him. The wall was glazed or something, blocking the critical frequencies so the lab techs wouldn't have to wear glasses all the time. The Ring had learned from Fulcrum's mistake.
Sarah! In the room, eyes wide, unmoving. He ran to the door, but it wouldn't open. He ran to the other side of the room, trying to get into her field of view. "Sarah!" He pounded on the wall, but it hurt his hand, making that dull thump that meant it was probably soundproof as well. He looked around frantically for something to break it down with.
"Interesting," said Leader, noticing the movement. "Charles Carmichael appears to have survived after all. You'll have to tell me how that happened, Sarah, after you've killed him for me, of course. I'm told you are still in there, somewhere. You have to be for the program to work." Leader stared at the face, the profile she'd seen only once before, five years ago. Five long years. The bile of it spilled out, as the spider watched the web wrap around her prey. "You'll be aware, at least, as you kill all your friends, even if you can't stop it. I wish I could make that pain last as long as mine, but unfortunately that's not part of the plan. I have to kill you eventually, so I can get out of this body."
The lights flickered out.
Leader waited, but Sarah only stood there, gun aimed at the spot where she had been. "Well, that's already a vast improvement. Drop the gun, slave."
Sarah dropped the gun. "Yes, Leader."
"Excellent. Take two steps backwards, slave, and stand at attention."
"Yes, Leader," said Sarah, as she complied.
Leader stepped forward and picked up the gun. "You won't need this for a while. I want to see a demonstration of your physical prowess, soon to be my physical prowess." Leader backed to the panel, tapped a control, and the door by Chuck opened.
"Sarah!" he yelled, rushing through.
"Kill him, slave," said Leader. "Kill your husband."
Chuck flashed, just in time to flip away from her vicious kick to his temple. "Sarah! Fight it!" He dodged again. "You're in there, I know you are!" And again. "You have to fight it."
Leader tapped another command, and another wall dropped, cutting Chuck off from half the room, and another, hemming him in further.
"I can't fight you, Sarah," cried Chuck desperately, "I won't."
That's the idea, Agent Carmichael.
There was a limit to the number of walls Leader could drop, but there was also a limit to Chuck's endurance and flexibility. Sarah caught him around the throat and started squeezing. Leader watched calmly as his struggles weakened, as Sarah pinned her husband to ground, as he stilled and stopped. "Stand and back away, slave."
Some of the walls went up, but not all. Leader activated a panel, pressed a button. Only two lights glowed on the screen. "Excellent." The last wall rose as she tucked the gun away in her robes. "I'm going to enjoy having your body," said Leader, moving to Sarah as fast as she could. "Maybe I should take it now and kill your friends myself." Something beeped under her robes, and she stopped. "I'm getting excited. That can't be allowed." Her voice flattened, steadied, as she talked herself down. "Your body is a tool, nothing more. It will get me into the Secret Service, and then to the President, and every President after him, no matter who the vermin vote for. The Ring will rule, and no one will ever know."
Sarah aimed a vicious kick to her midsection, much faster than she had used against Chuck. "Finally!"
Leader fell back, unhurt but off-balance. "Stop, slave."
Sarah did not, could not stop. Five years of self-loathing surged up, cloaked now in the shape of truth, self-loathing no more. Leader fled to her panel, but Sarah cut her off easily.
Daniel Shaw, five years of obsession and vengeance and longing wasted, his rings close to his heart. The cloak obscured Sarah's target, the suit took the damage and the helmet absorbed the power of the blows, but Sarah was tireless and Leader had nowhere to run.
Chuck falling silent under her hands, just so Leader could see true love die. Red-faced, wild-eyed, shrieking in rage, Sarah had death on her agenda and a target in sight. She pursued Leader, hunted her down, drove her relentlessly, nowhere near as efficiently as she'd defeated Chuck. "Kill you!" she shrieked, lifting her feeble foe off the ground by her neck.
"Unhand me, slave!" Leader grabbed at Sarah's arms, releasing a current of electricity that dropped her attacker to the ground. Leader felt for the gun but couldn't find it, and decided upon the better part of valor. Sarah struggled up to see the door close again, with Leader moving slowly out of the room on the other side, one leg dragging. "No!" She attacked the wall, but it was just as strong on this side, and she had nothing to attack it with. The only things in the room were her and–"Chuck!"
She fell on the floor beside him, touching his face gently. "Chuck, it's all right, you can get up now." She felt for a pulse, but with her own racing she couldn't tell. "Chuck, wake up!" She hadn't choked him so much, surely he'd just been playing along. Surely it was just–Fakeadeathanol! Of course, Leader wouldn't be fooled so easily. She grabbed his hands, turned them over…
No marks. No FRODO.
She touched his cheek, and his head tilted limply to the side. "Chuck?"
"So, tell me," said Carina, "You and Morgan?"
"Is that any of your business?"
Carina flashed her a smile. "Would it be nearly as much fun if it was?"
Alex returned a frown. "You can get your fun somewhere else. Morgan told me about you."
"You don't get to look at me in that tone of voice, missy. You get to be a better girlfriend than me, rub that in my face if you want to." And I hope you do. "Morgan got a shot at me, that was his right, but it's not yours. There's only one man in the world I'll take that kind of crap from now." Carina's voice dropped, as she muttered, "I wish he'd get on with it."
"The suspense is killing me!"
Casey fired, and the slide locked. He dropped the empty and Morgan handed him another. "How we doing?"
"Could use another resupply, sir."
"I'm working on it."
Morgan heard a footstep. He turned, checking a six that Casey had already checked, that should have been clear, and found himself staring at the operative's shark-like grin. His hands bandaged, he was even less of a threat than before, and the Force Leader took aim at Casey.
Morgan lunged, grabbing Casey's arm and his belt as he flung himself around, the carry-bag adding an extra bit of force to spin. Casey pivoted, his body moving out of the killer's line of fire, and found himself spun 180 degrees about with a target in front of him.
Casey took the grin off his face.
He looked down, saw Morgan trying to get himself off the ground without using his hands. "Good work, Grimes. One for you." He reached down and helped his man to his feet. "Go do your thing."
"Yes sir, thank you sir," said Morgan, a little breathless.
Casey looked back the way they'd been going, saw a toppled body he couldn't remember killing. "What happened to that one?"
Morgan looked up from his looting. "You moved. He didn't."
Casey noted the line of fire Morgan had moved him out of. "Geez, leave some for the rest of us, will you?"
Morgan grinned and saluted, something he could still do with his hands wrapped. "Sir, yes sir!"
Sarah lay still, holding her dead husband's hand, her head on her dead husband's chest. He looked so peaceful, like he was sleeping. She closed her eyes, no longer fearing that sleep, or any sleep.
She opened her eyes.
She sat up. "Chuck?"
Chuck sat up, gasping for air. "Is that guy paranoid or what?" He looked at her shocked, stunned, tear-streaked but still beautiful face. "I mean seriously, who uses a brainscan?"
"Good thing he didn't know what he was doing, isn't it? Ellie wouldn't have fallen for the old 'vanishing brain wave' ploy–"
She shut him up, giving herself some much-needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
When she finally let him have his lips back again, he found he was flat on his back, staring up at his blonde goddess of a wife. He reached up, brushing a tear from her cheek. "Hi."
She tried to frown. "Chuck, if you ever die on me again, I'll kill you." He burst out laughing. She didn't. "I'm serious, I thought I'd killed you for real, somehow. What did you do?"
He sat up again. "Honestly? I don't know. It's like suddenly I was in a panic room, watching everything on screens." His attention turned inward. "It was familiar though, like I'd been there before, taken refuge there. I knew how to slow my heart, my breathing, too slow, I think." He looked at her again. "I feel very strange."
"After the day you've had, I'm not surprised." She stood up, offered him her hand.
He took it, looking around the room once he was upright. "My day? What about your day? Since when did you become immune to mind-destroying Fulcrum technology?"
"I have no–hey! How did you know I was faking it?"
He tapped his head. "Recon! I'd just flashed on the skill set, and I saw your fingers move as you held the gun. If you'd been really affected you wouldn't have been able to do that."
She held up her hand, flexed her fingers. "I was a little paralyzed," she affirmed. "I could move, I did move, but at the start I couldn't, and I realized what she thought was happening. So I decided to go along with it, see if I could get her talking. Casey says they do that a lot. Thanks for playing along, sorry about strangling you."
He waggled his eyebrows at her. "You can take my breath away anytime."
Now she laughed. "Oh, smooth, Romeo."
Chuck looked stricken. "Oh my god, it really worked! This is horrible!"
"The Fulcrum Intersect has neutralized the power of the Bartowski Eyebrow Dance! I'm doomed!"
She smiled, tracing the curve. "It's not the eyebrows, it's the eyes. Word of advice, when romancing a spy, try your advanced door-opening skills, much more attractive."
"Leader locked us in."
It only took him a second to get it. "Oh."
Leader dropped the robe, covering up the mangled metal joint of her knee. Walker had damaged the suit and many of its mechanisms, leaving her slower and more crippled than ever. Five years of suffering, patience, and revenge, brought to this! How did they manage to confound her plans so thoroughly, so consistently? How?
She was getting excited, angry. That couldn't be allowed. They were trapped in the Intersect room, for a short while. She could use that. She calculated her speed and the distance she had to travel, estimated the time it would take them to win free. She could salvage something from this debacle.
Daniel Shaw completed his circuit of the level, methodically checking and locking every room. If he'd bothered to think about it, he would have found it odd that he hadn't run into Bartowski yet, but he didn't think about things like that. He didn't notice the traces in the dust, he just entered the room because it was there and the door was open. He checked the right hand room first, simply because he was right-handed, and then moved to the left-hand room. "Bartowski?"
"Shaw!" yelled Chuck, muffled through the thick glass. "Leader got away, but he's damaged, and can't have gone far."
"I have to find him," said Shaw, turning away. "I have to kill him."
Chuck pounded the door. "Shaw!"
Sarah came to her husband's side. "Agent Shaw?"
Shaw stopped, and turned. "Age–Missus–my–" he mumbled, standing frozen, like a robot faced with an insoluble problem.
"Open the door, Agent Shaw," said Sarah gently, and he complied, all his other directives opposing each other. "Do you know where Leader is, where 'he' might be going?" asked Sarah as they left the Fulcrum Intersect behind.
"The self-destruct," he said at once. "This was intended as a trap for me, but your–Agent Carmichael was trapped instead, and he's worth ten of me. The base has been compromised, it's purpose served, and he knows he has a team of enemy operatives inside it."
"Sounds like a no-brainer," said Chuck. "Where is the self-destruct, Agent Shaw?"
"Chuck, you have to get out of here," said Sarah. "You're far too valuable, especially if you're flashing again, and this is much too dangerous for you."
"Age–Missus–my–" Three names, and Shaw couldn't use any of them. "She's right, Agent–Mister Bar–Chuck. We have to get you to the escape tunnel."
"I'm not leaving you alone." Agent Carmichael would never leave his partners like that.
"You're not, Shaw is with me."
"Chuck, we don't have time for a fight we both know I'd win."
Chuck took a deep breath, let it out slowly. He was getting upset, that couldn't be allowed. Be what she deserves. He was not Agent Carmichael, and never would be again. "Be safe, wife." He stepped into the electrical room as they walked on.
Maybe if Eve had been able to step away from me like that…"You're very fortunate, Mrs. Bartowski."
Carina looked at the little puddle of vomit on the floor. "Really, your first?"
Alex nodded miserably.
"I'm glad you don't like it," said Carina, companionably. "But I'm also glad you can do it when you have to. Here. I thought I'd be using this on blood, but…close enough." She handed a Alex a cloth. "You clean up, while I go get you a souvenir." Her knife made an eager snick!
"Looks clear," said Sarah, wishing she was armed.
"It should be," agreed Shaw. He nodded at the display. "Not much time left. Leader would have overridden the timer to make his escape, if he's as damaged as you–ahh!" A knife struck Shaw in the hand, and he dropped his gun.
"Speaking of damaged…" said Leader, rising from the shadows, radiating scorn. "I'd tell you to put your gun down too, Agent Walker, but I seem to be holding it."
"Agent Walker is dead," said Shaw, pulling the knife out of his flesh as he positioned himself in front of her gun.
"Drop the knife, Daniel, before you cut yourself. You can't even throw with your good hand." Leader fired, hitting him in the thigh, and Daniel fell to his knees.
"Daniel!" Sarah moved forward.
Leader gestured with the gun. "How touching. I'd almost think she was your wife. I'm surprised at you, Daniel, shielding Agent Walker after all she's done."
"Her name…is…Bartowski," Shaw panted through his shock.
"Tell it to the undertaker." Leader sighted in on her next victim. "Goodbye, Sar–"
Shaw flung himself upward on his good leg, no balance, no time. Leader's shot took him in the chest as he flung the knife with deadly , pinpoint accuracy, left-handed.
Leader sagged, the mechanisms of her suit keeping her upright. The helmet wouldn't let her look down at that angle, but her hand came up to touch the hilt. "Daniel…how…?"
They fell to their knees together. "My name is Carmichael," said Shaw. "Charles Carmichael."
That was the last thing Leader heard. Eve Shaw died, at her husband's hand.
The sound of running feet preceded the runner only by microseconds. "I heard a shot!" yelled Chuck.
Shaw pitched forward.
"Daniel!" cried Sarah, rolling him over.
He looked up at her, but he didn't really see her. "Eve? Did I…save…wife?"
"Yes, Daniel," said Sarah, "You saved me."
Daniel Shaw smiled, warm, genuine, loving.
Chuck squeezed her shoulder as he looked down. "Thank you, Agent Shaw."
Sarah stood and faced to her husband, pointing at him with bloody hands. "You're supposed to be in the tunnel!"
"Yeah, well, I suddenly realized I was trying so hard to not be Carmichael I forgot to be me. When have I ever stayed in the car?"
"When there was a self-destruct, you idiot!"
"The only time there was ever a self-destruct it was in the car," said Chuck, moving to the display. "Oh, come on, you're worried about this? There's a whole minute left!"
One minute of bomb-defusing activity later…
"See?" said Morgan, holding out his two bandage-wrapped hands. "I told you I'd find it."
Casey turned, and went pale. "Don't move, Grimes. You drop that detonator and every charge in the place will–"
Morgan's hands slipped, batting the detonator against the wall and onto the floor behind a body, where they could easily find it by tracing the high-pitched beeps.
"What's that sound?" asked Chuck, looking up.
Casey spat the grit from his mouth. "Is everybody okay, except Grimes?"
"I was just following your plan, Casey."
"My plan was to blow the base from the outside, imbecile!"
"Dad!" Alex pulled Carina's cloth from her pocket, and something else fell out with it.
Casey saw the mark on her vest as she wiped her face. "You got hit?"
Carina looked up from where she was checking on Devon. "It's only a flesh wound, thank you very much for asking!"
"You let my daughter get shot?"
"Of course I didn't let her, how do you think I got the flesh wound?"
Casey snarled and stomped off.
Morgan walked over to Carina. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. Don't blow it."
Morgan looked up, saw father and daughter off by themselves. "Wish me luck."
Alex followed her father. "I shot him back."
"Good," said Casey, before he realized who he was talking to. "I mean, how are you–?"
"Carina was there." Which pretty much answered that question. "She got me something, she called it a souvenir." She felt around in her pocket. "Where'd it go?"
"Who's Keller?" asked Morgan, and Casey turned at the sound of the name. Grimes held a piece of cloth in his hand.
"What you got there?" Morgan handed it over, and Casey looked at his daughter. "You shot Keller?"
"Yeah," said Alex, and Casey smiled. She'd never seen that expression on his face before, and it creeped her out. "What?"
"That's my girl." Casey held out his arms, and Alex stepped awkwardly into his embrace.
Sarah nestled comfortably into the circle of her husband's arms, the sound of his heartbeat calming her doubts and easing her fears, as always. Time could have stopped there in the escape tunnel, except for the occasional sound of something falling on the other side of the door.
"I'm sorry, Sarah," he said.
"Thank you, Chuck," she said at the same time, and they laughed together. "Who goes first?"
"My track record isn't so stellar with the whole 'going first' thing," said Chuck. "I thought I was being modest, but I wasn't." I'm listening now, Doc.
"You have nothing to be modest about," said Sarah. "You are that guy, Chuck, even Ellie had to say so. The one who has to apologize is me. I wanted to keep you safe, when putting your safety over that of others is exactly the opposite of who you are. So thank you, for not being what I thought I wanted you to be."
"Um…happy to disappoint? So I guess you won't be sorry to hear that…I don't like Charles Carmichael, I really don't want to be him anymore. He was just my ego, trying to be what I thought you deserved when it wasn't even what you wanted. Do you think you could love a regular guy?"
She took a deep breath. "Absolutely not." She raised her head and kissed him. "You'll never be a regular guy, Chuck Bartowski, but you'll always be my guy."
"Yes," he said automatically, without thought. "Yes I will." Then he tensed. "What do we tell the team, and General Beckman?"
She let go of his body and took his hand. "Let's take a walk. You came up with four different origins for Tough Guy, I'm sure you'll think of something."
"Good morning, team," said General Beckman, a week later, at their first regular meeting since the collapse of the Ring. "I regret to inform you all that the body of Daniel Shaw, a/k/a Charles Carmichael, has been recovered from the ruined Ring base."
"That's most unfortunate, General," said Casey.
"It is indeed, Colonel. His combination of physical prowess and analytical ability was unparalleled. He will be sorely missed. Fortunately, the information he provided before and during his assault on the Ring base has proven surprisingly accurate. We have moved on all the locations he provided and captured their bases and most of the leadership, mostly intact. It is an incredible legacy. You should all be proud to have played a part in that success. I trust, Colonel, you will extend our gratitude to Mr. Grimes and Miss McHugh."
"We entered the Ring Base Agent Shaw neutralized single-handed, but it appears that not all of the Ring operatives were completely disabled. The agents you knew as the Lensmen were both injured, but they were able to confirm that at least one lab of special significance was completely destroyed."
"What about the data we found being sent to you, General?" asked Carina. "Can we reconstruct the plans?"
"I'm afraid not, Agent Miller. The use of cell phones was inspired, but so far we have discovered nothing in those files that explains the room or its purpose. Their aims and especially their techniques remain a mystery. On a happier note…Mr. Bartowski?"
Chuck smiled. "Yes, General?"
"You will be happy to know that Dr. Dreyfus has given you a clean bill of health, clearing the way for your return to the analytical duties for which you are so well suited. Your association with Interiors maintenance has been severed, effective immediately. Given the profound and protective nature of your relationship with Agent Shaw and his partner, the former Mrs. Carmichael, we have decided to formalize your partnership and assign you permanently to her team. Congratulations."
Sarah took Chuck's hand. "Thank you, General, but we have a more…permanent partnership in mind."
"I thought you might. I expect to get an invitation this time. Dismissed."
A/N2 The wedding is next. I'm still in the market for songs to be played. I have songs for Beckman, Ellie, Casey, Sarah, Carina, and Chuck, but my tastes in music are pretty old school. If you can think of a good song for the DJ to play at the reception let me know.