A Flip of the Coin 4/4

Author: dettiot

Rating: T for language, sex and violence

Summary: What made Charles Carmichael agree to become Chuck Bartowski? Well, to start, it wasn't as much of a change as you'd think. A companion to the early chapters of Two Sides of the Same Coin from Carmichael's perspective.

Disclaimer: I don't own Chuck. No copyright infringement intended.

Author's Note: And thus the conclusion of Charles Carmichael's journey to the Intersect! I hope you enjoyed this companion piece and I appreciate the readers who have followed this story. Thanks for reading. :-)

XXX

Glancing around him, Charles made sure that Ellie was still in the bathroom and the shower was still running before he dialed the number for Graham's office. Once Graham's assistant answered, he asked to be connected with the deputy director. He tapped his foot as he waited, looking out the window of his condo.

"Agent Carmichael?"

"Yes, Director Graham," Charles said, looking over his shoulder again. "Thank you for taking my call. I was wondering if you had gotten any word from Agent Walker?"

Charles could practically hear Graham roll his eyes through the phone. Not that he would actually roll his eyes under any condition, but Charles could sense the sentiment in Graham's answer. "No, Agent Carmichael. I won't be meeting with Walker until later today."

"Ah. Of course. But you will let me know her answer as soon as you do, yes? If she's not interested, we'll need to find someone else."

"I am well aware of that fact," Graham said testily. "If Agent Walker turns down this opportunity, I will immediately reach out to another agent."

He wasn't just on thin ice now-he was in the middle of a freezing lake, drowning in the icy water. "Of course, yes. I'm sorry to have disturbed you. Thank you, Director."

My God, you're already turning back into Chuck. Get yourself together!

Not waiting for any response from Graham, Charles hung up the phone and turned around, nearly letting out a small squeak of surprise at the sight of Ellie in a bathrobe, rubbing a towel over her hair. Now he wished he had suggested Ellie stay in a local hotel instead of with him.

"Who were you talking to?" she asked, taking a seat on his couch.

Taking a deep breath, Charles tried to sound nonplussed. "Graham. I was asking about the prospective CIA rep to the team. We're waiting to find out if she wants to join the team."

"She, huh?" Ellie raised her eyebrows as she looked up at him.

"There are female spies," Charles said, walking over to the kitchen. "You want some coffee?"

"Yes. And I know there's female spies. I guess I'm just surprised that you're so interested in one," Ellie said.

Charles shrugged. "I'm putting my life into the hands of these agents. I want to know I can depend on them." He walked over, handing Ellie a mug of coffee with two sugars, before sitting down next to her and sipping from his own mug.

There was no reason for Ellie to know just how much he hoped Sarah might say yes, let alone what had happened between them. It wouldn't matter, because he wasn't going to be the same man once the Intersect was uploaded-and he wasn't about to talk to his sister about his sex life.

"Hmm. That's true. I suppose that means I should care about these people, since they're going to be keeping my little brother safe." Ellie looked at him over the rim of her mug. "Anything I should know? I mean, have you worked with these people before?"

"I only know Casey by reputation. A bit gruff, but he can practically shoot around corners. Agent Walker . . . yes, I've worked with her. She's good." Charles took a large swallow of his coffee, hoping that Ellie wouldn't press the point but fairly confident that she would.

To his surprise, Ellie picked up on his thoughts and changed the subject. "Are you sure you want to do the personality implant? It's not too late to change your mind, you know."

"I can't," Charles said, looking over at her. "Graham won't let the op go ahead unless I get the cover personality."

"You could convince him," Ellie said, her eyes narrowed. "If you're as good as you're supposed to be."

He blew out a breath. "El, it took two months of pestering and begging for me to get this far. I'm not going to risk the mission for my own comfort."

Ellie sighed. "Of course you wouldn't. And I understand how important this is, even if you haven't really told me anything. I just . . . this is already really risky, Charles."

"Hey," he said, moving closer to her and resting his hand on her shoulder. "That's why I came to you in the first place. I wanted to minimize the risk. And you're going to be there for me throughout the whole year. I might have the best spies around to protect me, but I know you'll watch my back better than anyone."

Hopefully, Ellie could hear the sincerity in his voice. Could understand that he meant every word of what he said. This whole operation couldn't work without Ellie. He needed her to know that. Because even though they weren't as close as they used to be, even though he had let her down and disappointed her . . . he knew she loved him.

She held his gaze for a long moment, then gave him a tremulous smile. "You bet I can. And I don't even have a gun."

"All you need is your glare and a frying pan," Charles said, smiling back at her.

"You're lucky I love you so much," Ellie said, wrapping her arms around his neck and giving him a tight hug.

Charles closed his eyes as he hugged her back. "I know."

Her shoulders shook for a moment, but when she pulled back she was still smiling. "Okay. We should probably stop dawdling and get to work. I have a lot to talk to those scientists about, so your brain doesn't explode when the Intersect goes into it."

"An exploding brain could be in my future?" Charles asked, grinning a little. Trying to keep this from getting scary.

Ellie rolled her eyes. "Not with me here, duh."

Laughing, Charles stood up. "Of course. Lemme shower and we can get over to Langley."

With a nod, Ellie sipped her coffee and started going through her suitcase for clothes. Charles headed to the bathroom, his mind shifting into work mode. Yet still, he wondered just what decision Sarah might make about joining Operation Bartowski.

XXX

The next week kept Charles busy. Very, very busy. He shouldn't have had time to worry about Sarah Walker or be nervous about Operation Bartowski. But he did and he was.

At least his nerves about the mission were justified. Ellie had worked so hard, spending hours with the various scientists, yet he knew she still had concerns about the Intersect. But for some reason, she had held back on saying anything. Perhaps because she didn't want him to worry. At any other time, Charles would resent her attempts at coddling him. But right now . . . he knew he was barely holding things together.

And now that Ellie had left, going back to Los Angeles for a week to make sure everything was ready before the Intersect upload happened . . . it was getting harder to not freak out.

This wasn't like him. Chuck Bartowski freaked out and lost his cool, but not Charles Carmichael. It made him wonder if maybe the knowledge that he would soon be just Chuck was making him lose his grip on himself. He wished he could just cut himself some slack, that he could accept that the imminent upload of the Intersect was shaking him up. But he couldn't. He didn't want to let on about all the doubts he had. Not even to Ellie.

That explained why he found himself calling his childhood best friend late on a Tuesday night, less than a week before the Intersect upload.

"Go for Morgan." Morgan sounded slightly distracted and far-away through the speakerphone; he was probably playing video games, based on the music and sound effects Charles was hearing.

Taking a deep breath, Charles tried to act natural. "Hi, Morgan. It's . . . it's Chuck."

There was a yelp, a clatter, and a sudden silence. Then came a beep as Morgan took him off speakerphone, Charles guessed. "Chuck?!"

"It's been a long time," he said sheepishly. "Which is all my fault."

"Hey, no, buddy, it's okay! I know how super-busy that job of yours keeps you. After all, tax season is coming up!"

Morgan's voice was so cheerful, so full of understanding, that Charles once again felt the guilt at lying to him. The only person who knew that Charles worked for the CIA was his sister. When he had gotten recruited, he had told Morgan he was going to work for an accounting firm, the one used by Apple and Microsoft and Roark and other tech giants.

"Yeah, right," Charles said, holding on to the phone tightly. "How are you doing, Morgan?"

"Dude, I am so good. My Call of Duty team has been kicking ass. Seriously, we are one sniper away from total domination. Too bad you're so busy-you always had great instincts for when to go for the old kill shot," Morgan said, practically bubbling over with pride and enthusiasm.

That was how Charles remembered Morgan: full of life. Even though his life wouldn't look like much to most people, Morgan enjoyed every moment. When was the last time he had felt like that? Charles couldn't remember.

"I was okay," Charles said. "But there were plenty of guys who were better than me."

Morgan snorted. "Yeah, right. Chuck Bartowski was a legend in the making."

"Are you still at the Buy More?" Charles asked, feeling uncomfortable with Morgan's praise and wanting to change the subject.

"The green still owns my soul," Morgan said philosophically. "Remember Harry Tang? He's the assistant manager now. If you thought he was bad when he was just a green shirt, imagine him now in a special 'assistant manager' polo, with embroidery and epaulettes!"

To his surprise, Charles could imagine just how bad that was. He let out a small shudder. "That's the worst."

"Yup," Morgan said. "But we're keeping him in his place. We stole his universal remote the other day. None of us know the code to reprogram it, but at least he can't change the TVs without having to do it one at a time."

"I bet he's annoyed about that," Charles said, chuckling a little.

"Putting it mildly, Chuck." Morgan's voice was full of barely restrained glee. "So, hey, what's up?"

"'What's up?'" Charles repeated, settling himself down on the sofa.

Morgan let out a soft burp. "Yeah, what's up? You musta had a reason to call."

"No reason. Just wanted to catch up. 'Cause email's good and all, but I . . . I miss you." There was a catch in his voice. Because it wasn't until he had heard Morgan's voice, until he actually talked to his old friend, that he realized it was true. He did miss Morgan.

"Awwww, Chuck!" Morgan sounded truly touched. "I miss you so much. You should come visit! Those accountants are slave-drivers, never letting you have time off or anything."

"Actually, I'm moving back."

The words were out of Charles's mouth before he even realized he had thought them. What the hell was he doing? Because he hadn't prepared an explanation for Morgan, one that would hide the truth from him. This definitely wasn't the time to reveal his real career to his former best friend. Besides, they didn't have all the details of his cover story worked out yet, due to arguments between the CIA and NSA about how much access they should have to Chuck Bartowski-Charles didn't know what job they were going to come up with for Chuck.

"What?! That is so totally awesome! You're moving back here? Really? Does Ellie know yet? Where are you gonna live? Hey, maybe we should get an apartment together! It's time I moved out of Mom's place. Let me tell you, bringing ladies home is totally out with my current living conditions. Not-not that I've had much luck lately. But with Chuck Bartowski as my wingman, I'm bound to do better now! I can't believe this! What-"

"MORGAN!" Charles shouted into the phone, his previous attempts to interrupt his old friend not being successful.

"Yeah, Chuck?" Morgan sounded taken aback. "What is it?"

"I . . ." Thinking fast, Charles latched onto the first idea he came up with, one that would explain his return and keep Morgan from asking too many questions. "If I tell you, you have to promise not to tell anyone. And we can never talk about it after this call. Can you do that?"

There was a long pause, and Charles wondered if he had messed up. But then Morgan spoke.

"Are you okay, Chuck? Of course I'll do whatever you say, if you're in trouble or anything." Morgan paused again. "And you can count on me, buddy. Always."

The unquestioning, immediate support from Morgan made Charles feel a wave of relief. He hadn't realized how much he needed it from someone who didn't know everything. It was one thing for Ellie to support him, since she had all the facts. But Morgan knew he was being kept in the dark but still trusted him.

Charles lowered his voice. "I . . . this is gonna sound crazy, but before I joined the firm I worked at, I was recruited by the IRS to go in there undercover and find evidence of illegal activity. That's why I could never take time off or anything."

"Wow," Morgan said, sounding breathless. "I didn't know accounting was so exciting."

"Not really," Charles said, injecting some humor into his voice. "But I've done my job and now I need to hide for the next year or so, until the trial is ready to go. So I'm coming back to California."

"So you're like in Witness Protection or something? That is so cool!"

"Yeah, it's like Witness Protection," Charles said. "But it's really top-secret so you can't tell anyone, not your mom, not anyone, and we can't talk about it."

"No, no, I get it!" Morgan said. "My lips are sealed, bro. It's gonna be so awesome having you back! Hanging out together, playing video games . . ."

As Morgan spoke, Charles began to get another idea. "Hey, Morgan?"

"Yeah, Chuck?" Morgan said, stopping his enumeration of all the things they could do together once Charles was back in California.

"Do you think the Buy More is hiring?" Charles asked, his mind moving at a million miles an hour as his cover story began to fall into place.

XXX

It took a lot of convincing to make the powers-that-be agree with Charles's decision about his cover story, but eventually they agreed that it made sense. So Chuck Bartowski would be the Nerd Herd supervisor at the Burbank Buy More; Major Casey would be implanted as one of the Buy More's green-shirted sales staff; and Agent Walker would be working in a frozen yogurt shop in the same strip mall.

When Charles learned that Sarah Walker had agreed to join Operation Bartowski, it was all he could do to not overreact. Because it was very tempting to find her and talk to her, to try and explain what had happened in the Dominican so there wouldn't be any questions between them. After all, he was going to be depending on her, and if she was pissed off at him . . .

But no. That didn't seem like Sar-like Walker. She was a professional. She understood the job. Besides, what did it matter? He was going to spend the next year as Chuck Bartowski, who would know nothing about Charles Carmichael. And with the Intersect upload happening in only a few days, there just wasn't time.

At least, that was what he told himself. Many, many times. Because it sucked to realize that he was going to spend a whole year with Sarah Walker and he wouldn't remember any of it.

Although maybe it was for the best. Because this way, he couldn't act like a lovesick idiot around her. All stolen glances and hidden sighs. There would be none of that, no chances to screw up. He had already done enough of that.

It had all worked out, but he knew he had gotten lucky with Morgan. Only his ability to think quickly had allowed him to come up with an explanation for his return to California. If he hadn't gotten that right, things would be even more complicated, more difficult.

From here on out, he had to be very careful about the distinction between his two personalities. There was still plenty of prep work to be done, too. Chuck Bartowski wouldn't have Charles Carmichael's trim body and artfully messy hair-try slightly flabby muscles and completely untamed locks. And since Chuck had always been clean-shaven, because he never thought he could pull off the cool stubble look, Charles began shaving every day.

The physical look was just part of it, though. He spent a whole day reading up on the video game systems that had come out since he was in high school. Then he borrowed a system and did his best to regain some muscle memory. Ellie said there was no way of knowing if it would help, but it couldn't hurt, she said. "And at least it'll give you something to take your mind off things."

Charles had huffed out a laugh at her statement. Because he didn't think it was possible to be distracted from all his thoughts about the Intersect, about the implanted personality, and about Sarah Walker.

But he was proven wrong. Very wrong. Because once he got a controller in his hand, it all came back to him. The exact pressure you needed to apply to the buttons, the way your hands cramped a little cradling the controller, that he remembered. But some things were new: how fast you had to pull on the triggers, the new combos to launch attack moves . . . It surprised him. Because it wasn't as hard as he thought it might be. And it was very, very easy to fall down the rabbit hole. He started playing in the morning and the next thing he knew, he realized the sun had gone down.

It was like he was already Chuck Bartowski.

Frowning, Charles flopped back on the couch and rubbed his hands over his face. His mind felt so disordered. Normally he had no problems organizing his thoughts, making plans, juggling a dozen different ideas. Lately, though, he just felt perpetually confused. Even a bit lost. Like he had felt when he first started boarding school. When he wished with all his heart that he could just call Ellie and talk to her.

He found himself playing with his phone, pulling up the contacts screen and looking at the picture of Ellie that went with her contact. Ellie was going to be here in two days for the Intersect upload-there was no reason to call her. She had her own life, she must be so busy getting ready to come back here to D.C. yet again . . .

Almost on instinct, his thumb pressed Ellie's picture and set the phone to dialing. He knew that intellectually, he didn't need to talk to Ellie. But deep down inside himself, in the parts that he was slowly beginning to realize weren't gone after all, he really, really wanted to talk to his sister.

And when he heard Ellie's warm voice, he knew he made the right choice.

"Hi, Charles."

"Hey, Ellie," he said, hearing a sheepish note in his voice. "I hope I'm not bothering you."

"What? Of course you're not bothering me," Ellie said immediately.

Taking a deep breath, he tried to keep his voice light. "Good. I'm glad. I know you must be juggling a million different things . . ." In the background, he could hear the clinking of glasses and the sound of conversation. Before Ellie could say anything, Charles said, "Am I interrupting date night?"

Ellie laughed softly. "Kinda? But Devon understands. He's really excited that you're going to be living with us."

"Seriously?" Charles asked, raising an eyebrow. "Your husband is excited to have your brother living with you guys?"

"That's Devon," Ellie said affectionately. He could almost imagine the warm, loving smile she was directing at her husband.

"Well, I owe you guys for this," Charles said. "But I shouldn't keep you on the phone-"

There was a rustle and then Devon Woodcomb's voice boomed through the phone. "Charles! It's gonna be awesome having you staying with us. Ellie misses you a lot, bro."

For someone who had only met him once, Devon certainly acted like Charles was one of his best, oldest friends. It was disarming to the point of provoking Charles's paranoia, but at the same time, he found himself a little bit charmed. He could only imagine how Devon had swept Ellie off her feet.

"Thanks, Devon," Charles said. "I know it's an inconvenience, so I really appreciate it."

"No inconvenience at all!" Devon said cheerfully. "So stop worrying about it and just enjoy talking to Ellie. I've gotta get back to the hospital, so I'll just leave you to Ellie."

After a few moments of muffled conversation, Ellie returned to the phone. "Hey. You just caught us when we were wrapping up-Devon got a call so he's heading in to work. So you don't have to feel like you're interrupting or anything. I'm glad you called, actually."

"You are?" Charles asked, relaxing a little.

"Yep. Because I wanted to know how you're doing. Only two days left."

Charles looked down. He hadn't really needed the reminder. He knew, almost to the hour, how much time was left before the Intersect upload, before he would be gone. With everything he had been doing, trying to keep his mind off that ticking countdown-thinking about Sarah and wasting a whole day playing video games and hours of deliberation before buying new clothes for Chuck-had been a near-constant goal in the last week. That was why he felt so scatter-brained: he was trying so hard to not think about what he was trying not to think about. But perhaps . . . perhaps that was why he had called Ellie. To talk this over.

"Yeah," he said quietly. "Only two days."

"You must be feeling a little worried," Ellie said. "Wondering what's going to happen."

"Yeah," he repeated. Ellie let out a small huff and he knew, without even seeing her face, that she must have an annoyed expression on her face, an expression that reflected her worry and her sadness at his lack of disclosure. And that wasn't how he wanted this to go. So Charles took a deep breath as he prepared to do something he hadn't done in years: bare his soul.

"I-I'm scared, Ellie. Not enough to pull out," he said, wanting her to know that wasn't an option. "But not knowing what's going to happen, even if the upload is a success . . ."

Ellie sighed heavily. "I really wish we had more data on the previous agents. I can't believe how slipshod their records are. They should have more doctors involved and fewer computer scientists."

"You noticed that, too, huh?" Charles asked, sinking down against the couch cushions. "I thought that was pretty strange. But I guess the brain is a big computer, after all."

"That's just the thing-it's not. Not the way you're thinking of it," Ellie said. "There's so many systems that we still don't understand, aspects of brain development that seem redundant. I mean, when you're a child and you're learning, your brain is incredibly active and is building all these neural connections that then get pruned. The ultimate 'use it or lose it'. With me so far?"

Charles smiled and nodded, enjoying listening to his sister explain something to him. It took him back to when they were kids. "With you so far."

"Okay. So your brain does this when you're a baby and small child. But then, it does it again when you're a teenager. Why? And more importantly, how? How does your brain know that when you're a teenager, you need to learn more things, learn what will prepare you for being an adult, so it creates more pathways to help you prepare for that."

"Evolution?" Charles asked. "I mean, we had thousands of centuries for our brains to grow and change into what they are now."

"Maybe. I just wonder," Ellie said, sounding thoughtful. But then she laughed softly. "And nice job of getting me distracted from you being scared."

Shifting a little, Charles felt his sheepishness come through in his voice. "Sorry. But it wasn't just my fault."

"I know, I know," Ellie said. "But let's get back to you instead of brain development. Are you more scared of something going wrong and being a vegetable, or nothing going wrong and not remembering what happens?"

That really was the question, wasn't it? The one he had been ducking for weeks. Just what was he scared of: losing himself or losing his memories? Was he such a control freak that it was better to have the Intersect destroy his mind instead of having a year he wouldn't remember?

"Is it bad that I don't know?" he asked, rubbing his hand against his denim-clad knee.

"No. Not at all," his sister said gently. "Either option is scary, just in different ways."

He sat up, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, keeping the phone pressed against his ear. "Maybe I'm being too optimistic, but I think this is going to work. I don't think the Intersect is going to mess up my head. So . . . so I guess I keep thinking what it's going to be like when the year is over. When I have to live with what happened, when I didn't have any control over it."

"I understand," Ellie said. "It's hard to say for sure, but I do think you're right. I don't think the Intersect is going to damage your brain. If I had any real doubt, I wouldn't let you do this, CIA agent and the safety of the country and all that stuff being the case."

For a moment he felt his spirits lift at Ellie's mama bear tendencies before he grew serious again. "I don't want to hurt anyone. You or Morgan or Devon, or people I don't even know yet. I don't want to make promises that I have to break or choose a course that I can't follow through on."

"Do you really think that will happen, though? I mean, you're a good guy, Charles. You always have been. I think that if anything happens, anything like you're describing, you'll be able to make amends later on." Ellie paused and Charles got the sense that she had something else to say. "Does this have anything to do with Agent Walker?"

Oh, crap. What-why-how? How had Ellie put the pieces together, with barely knowing anything?

"Why would you ask that?" he said, stalling as his mind tried to stop thinking oh crap oh crap oh crap.

"I had lunch with her a few days ago."

Even though Ellie was trying to sound calm and even-tempered, he could hear a little note of glee in her voice. She had realized that she had found something that she could tease him about, and Eleanor Faye Bartowski Woodcomb had never passed up the opportunity to tease her little brother.

Running a hand through his messy hair, Charles attempted to keep this from getting too embarrassing. "What did you think of her? Did she pass the big sister test?"

And why the hell did he say it like that? As if he wanted to know if his sister liked a woman that he liked?

"Let's see: beautiful, smart, clearly capable of protecting you, seems to like you . . . yeah, I'd say she passed," Ellie said with a chuckle. "And I liked her, too."

She liked him? How did Ellie get that impression? Was it something Sarah had said, or just a vibe that Ellie got from the other woman? He could practically feel the questions trying to escape his lips, so Charles cleared his throat and tried to act natural. "Good. I'm hoping that she'll work well with Major Casey and that-that things will go all right with the team."

"Uh-huh." He could tell Ellie was fighting back full-on laughter, so Charles rushed ahead before she could make this situation even more embarrassing.

"I should let you go and I definitely need to get some sleep."

"All right, Charles," Ellie said. "But if you need to talk more, you call me, you understand? Any time, day or night."

He took a deep breath. Through these last four months, Ellie had done so much for him. Not just helping him make Operation Bartowski a reality, but in showing him how much he had missed out on by not having her in his life more. He knew now that after this year, he wanted to spend more time with Ellie. Wanted to get to know Devon better, wanted to be there if and when Ellie had kids. He wanted to be there for her, like she had for him. Like she had always been.

"Ellie, I couldn't have gotten through this without you," Charles said quietly.

"No."

Charles blinked at Ellie's response. "No?"

"No goodbyes. At least not yet-not over the phone. When I see you before the upload, then you can tell me goodbye, if you feel like you need to. Because then I can hug you so hard and make you fight. Because it might have been a long time since you were Chuck Bartowski, but you, Charles Carmichael, you'll need to fight like a Bartowski to make this work."

Her words were like a punch in the gut. There was such utter conviction in her voice-she had complete belief that this wasn't just about the Chuck personality. She thought that he played a part in this, too. And it was something he hadn't considered, something he hadn't expected her to feel. Because it wasn't very scientific, was it? But it was so Ellie and so supportive that he felt like he just might lose it.

"O-okay," he said, his voice cracking a little. "I . . . I gotta go, Ellie."

"Okay. I love you, Charles," she said softly.

Hearing Ellie say that made his tenuous grip on his emotions fray even more. "I love you, too," he blurted out. "Bye, Ellie."

Hanging up and dropping the phone on the couch beside him, Charles buried his face in his hands and breathed deeply. He had to get himself under control. There was barely two days until the Intersect upload would occur and he still had plenty of work to accomplish. Work that needed him to be focused and logical.

He only had a few more days as Charles Carmichael. It was time he started acting like himself. Not like Chuck Bartowski. Yet even with that talking-to, it still took Charles an hour before he was ready to get to work.

XXX

As the driver steered the car through the suburban sprawl of Northern Virginia, Charles Carmichael sat in the backseat, watching the scenery, such as it was. He didn't want to appear nervous or fidgety, so he clasped his hands tightly in his lap and kept his eyes on the window.

Once he arrived at the CIA warehouse where the Intersect upload would take place, he would be in the spotlight. There would be dozens of high-ranking CIA and NSA individuals present, observing the process and waiting to see what would happen. So this car ride was when he should be clearing his mind, reaching a Zen-like state that showed his readiness to take this risk.

And he was doing that. But it was proving to be a lot harder than he expected.

The driver muttered softly as the car rolled to a stop, surrounded by cars on all sides. "Sorry, sir-looks like the morning traffic is worse than normal," he said, meeting Charles's eyes in the rear view mirror.

"It's fine," Charles said after a moment, realizing that the driver was expecting some response. "It's D.C., what can you do?"

The other man let out a soft huff of laughter and nodded, then silence fell over the car again. Charles didn't mind the silence or the delay; it gave him more time to be himself. More time to consider his future.

There were so many possible outcomes for today's Intersect upload. Charles was choosing to not consider what would happen if the upload failed. If his brain was damaged by the Intersect. Because if that did happen . . . well, his fate would be out of his hands. His will and advance health care mandate were very clear about what he wanted to happen if he was mentally incapacitated, and he knew that Ellie would carry out his wishes, even if she didn't want to do it.

And deep down, he wondered how much it would matter if that happened. Of course he knew he would be missed by Ellie and Devon and by Morgan. And the CIA would regret losing him and his skills. But . . . but that was it. That didn't seem like much of a life, when only three people would truly miss you. At least, it wasn't the kind of life he thought he would have. When he was a kid, he thought he would grow up to have lots of friends and a successful business and a family of his own. He would get married and have children and grandchildren, he would start a computer company and make a fortune and leave the money and the company to his family to run, so he could retire and gad about with his wife. He would get to end his life with the woman who had been with him for decades, the woman he would still love as much as the day he met her.

Charles couldn't help a small sigh. It was romantic and melodramatic and over-the-top, but that was what he had imagined. Even as a nerdy, gangly kid, he had been full of optimism and hope for his future. But his actual life as an adult was the exact opposite of those childhood dreams. Did that mean he had put aside those dreams, that he thought they were foolish and unrealistic? Or had he just chosen to ignore his dreams because they didn't fit with what "normal" people wanted? Because in his experience, most people seemed to be willing to settle for contentment, for comfort. They didn't try for the fairy tale, the Hollywood ending. They were happy with normal instead of extraordinary.

While he certainly hadn't followed that mindset in his professional career, Charles couldn't deny that his personal life was stunted. It had been since he had chosen as a teenager to be more like his fellow students instead of being himself. And now those chickens were coming home to roost, it seemed.

So what was he going to do? In a few hours, he would be gone and it would be a year before he could do anything about this, if he was lucky. And even if everything went according to plan and the Intersect worked and he spent the next year as Chuck Bartowski, what reason would Charles Carmichael have to change when he came back?

Because you're so lost, you're burying yourself for a year.

As the thought sunk in, Charles swallowed. There was no way of knowing how things would be when he came back. He should take steps to make sure he didn't forget this epiphany. Because he couldn't keep doing this. Couldn't keep living half a life, couldn't keep denying what he really wanted.

He wanted more than being a spy. He wanted to be a whole person-the person he was supposed to be. Whoever that was. But it was definitely not just Charles Carmichael.

But how could he figure that out? And how was he going to make sure he followed through on this pledge? For all he knew, his memory might be affected more than they anticipated. He might forget all about this. There had to be a way-

Suddenly he remembered. His cell phone. It would allow him to send email. The interface was clunky and slow, yes, but it was possible. And given that the traffic was still at a standstill, it looked like he would have the time.

Fumbling in the pocket of his suit jacket, Charles pulled out his phone and navigated through the menus to the rudimentary email program. He paused, staring down at the blinking cursor on the small screen, then he began to laboriously type out a message to himself.

Dear Charles:

If you're reading this, the Intersect is out of your head and you're back to your old self. Old, but not better. That's still to come. Being better.

And you need to be better. Because then you might be happy.

XXX

As he had gotten used to the small keys on the phone, Charles had picked up speed. But it wasn't enough. Glancing up once again, he saw that they were nearly at the warehouse. He had to hurry-and to stop worrying about correct punctuation and correcting his typos.

In a rush, he finished his letter. He took a moment to read over the last paragraph.

Its going to be scary and hard. It might not work out. But itll be worth it if you could be happy. At least youve tried. Being a spy isnt all youre good at. Be a better brother and friend. Learn to be a good boyfriend. Make new friends, play video games, find something and someone to love. Find out who youre supposed to be.

It was good. It seemed very inspirational, very call-to-arms. But there was something missing. In all the honest admissions about the mistakes he had committed, the choices he had made, there was one thing he hadn't revealed. One person he hadn't mentioned. And if he couldn't be fully and completely honest with himself now, then he was missing the point.

Find Sarah Walker. You could have something with her maybe, even with everything thats happened. Because you cant stop thinking about her and thats gotta mean something.

There wasn't time to give himself examples or reasons. He had to hope that would be enough. Because they were at the warehouse and it was time to go.

Jabbing his thumb against the button that would send the email to his multiple accounts, Charles took a deep breath before sliding his phone into his jacket pocket. It was done. He had done all he could and now he had to hope it would all work out.

When the car came to a stop, Charles stepped out and walked towards the warehouse. A former aircraft hangar, it was large and echoing, with a smaller two-story room in the center of the space. That was where the Intersect upload would happen.

The buzz of conversation quieted as people caught sight of him. To his relief, Ellie hurried over to him and gave him a small smile. "Hey."

"Hey," he said, taking a step towards her and pulling her into a hug.

She rubbed his shoulders as she returned his embrace. "Okay there? I didn't expect you to hug me in front of your boss and several other very powerful people."

That was something he hadn't really considered. But . . . what did it matter? He shrugged his shoulders. "Just felt like hugging my sister. Like you said on the phone."

As he pulled back, he could feel the weight of Ellie's gaze on his face. Her eyes were narrowed as she took him in. "But you don't seem to be saying goodbye," she said quietly.

Charles shook his head. "No. Because someone told me I have to fight, and saying goodbye doesn't really seem like fighting."

Ellie's worried expression faded, replaced with a small smile. "Nice to see I'm not the only smart Bartowski."

He returned her smile. "Nope."

"Let's get ready, then," Ellie said, taking his arm and leading him into the prep area.

The next few hours were a whirl of final tests, last-minute checks, and all the other preparations for the Intersect upload. But finally, it ended with him in a somewhat-too-short hospital gown, standing in the middle of a large, white room that contained an old Macintosh computer and a scanner pad.

It was simple: he would place his hand on the scanner, which would begin the Intersect upload. The Chuck Bartowski personality was encoded in the Intersect already, ready and waiting to take over his actual identity.

It was all so simple and easy. But now that it was time to go, Charles found himself hesitating slightly. Having last-minute jitters, which was the last thing he wanted. Not in front of his bosses, not with Ellie worrying about him.

"Agent Carmichael? Are you ready?"

Director Graham's voice came in through the room's public address system. Looking up towards the observation window, Charles couldn't make out the director through the mirrored glass, but he knew his boss was there.

There was a slight hiss of feedback, then Ellie's voice came through. "Charles? Are you okay?"

Swallowing, he nodded and looked down at the computer. He rubbed his hands against the gown. This was it. It was time to go.

It was time to jump into the unknown. Whatever might happen to him during the next year, he knew that once he came back-because he was going to come back-he would create a new life for himself. One with purpose and hope and love.

He would be a whole man-not just a spy.

Looking up at the observation window, he managed a small smile. He moved into position and held his hand over the scanner.

"I'm ready."

End.