Sarah moved numbly, directed by medics and hospital personnel. She'd tried to comfort Chuck as best she could. She'd even tried to apologize, but he didn't seem to grasp the gravity of her sins. She hadn't decided to land the plane because she was a better pilot. She'd known full well the Intersect would be completely capable of landing a single engine plane. She'd taken the yoke for purely egotistical reasons. She'd wanted the position of control, so she would look and feel more important than simply holding some dumb can.
Not only had Chuck been capable, but he'd been in a better position to take the pilot's seat than she had. She'd given him that can of death and then made him step over her. Would she have ever tried to step over a pilot on a moving plane? And now she wasn't even certain she'd really needed to bank that soon to miss the radio tower. Could she have waited another few seconds? Could she have offered her hand to steady him before she made such a sharp move? Did everything really happen so fast, or was she deluding herself? Maybe this was some sort of backwards jab at Beckman to prove she shouldn't be responsible for anyone else.
Damn, she really needed to go see Dr. Dreyfus. She was a mess and it was time to stop pretending she wasn't.
But Chuck just waved his hand and forgave her so easily. He didn't know how dark her heart was. He still saw that other Sarah, the one he'd fallen in love with. But she had pretty much conspired to drive home the point both of them should have known a long time ago: Spies don't have feelings. Feelings get you killed.
She held his hand until someone said she had to leave him alone with the doctors. Sarah knew this facility had the rare doctors who actually had experience with radiation poisoning. If anyone could save him, they could.
They used her sudden freedom to whisk both her and Casey into examinations. She didn't feel so bad about Casey. She warned him not to touch the canister and he was just plain stubborn. Still, she should probably thank him for it later. His assumption of risk had lessened her exposure.
Now she understood why Rodriguez had taken that cyanide capsule. He knew that damned canister wasn't shielded like the lead case. The crop duster's hopper wasn't likely to be lead-lined either. He knew he was on a suicide mission from the beginning. He probably thought his mid-air death would crash the plane and achieve his terrible goals.
She answered questions in a daze. How did you hold the canister? Both hands or one? Against the body or away? How long was it in your possession? Didn't you know what you were dealing with? No, dammit, who tries to carry radioactive material in a canister that isn't properly shielded? How could she guess Rodriguez was a kamikaze?
They made her sign forms. They made her change into a backless gown. They took blood. They ran tests. They used sensors on her that she had never heard of and they talked in hushed whispers laced with too many references to roentgens and Chernobyl.
They started an IV and gave her counter-agents. An hour later, they took more blood and asked how she was feeling. "Fine, except for being poked and prodded and no one telling me what's happening with my husband." The word tasted funny on her tongue. People never gave as much weight to 'partner' as they did 'husband' so she used a word she didn't prefer, a cheat that removed barriers the same way a plunging neckline did when she had to seduce an enemy. She justified it by reminding herself she really did care how he was doing.
"He had a bit more damage to repair, but it looks like he'll live."
"Can I see him?"
The doctor pointed to the vial of blood just drawn by the nurse. "Give me fifteen minutes. We'll know then."
They already knew Chuck was going to make it, but they didn't know about her? Something felt fishy.
Sarah surveyed the room they put her in. It was clinical and utilitarian, devoid of any homey touch. When she was starting to feel sorry for herself, all alone and nervous, the door opened. Ellie and Mary stood in the doorway. "Are you feeling up to visitors?" Mary asked.
Sarah smiled. "Sure, come on in."
Mary carried a large, colorful bouquet, which she set on the table by her bed.
Sarah sniffed at the flowers and nodded in appreciation before a realization hit her. "You're back from China already?"
Her mother-in-law smiled and nodded. "I had help. MI-6 had an agent in Singapore. They sent him to Shanghai ahead of me. Cole Barker. He said he knows you and Chuck."
Sarah sighed and shook her head. "I don't remember him."
Ellie muttered something under her breath, but Sarah was paying more attention to Mary and didn't quite catch it.
Mary went on in a soothing tone. "Well, we had the easier assignment, clearly. Petrovich was the only blond in a population of black heads. He wasn't that hard to spot. Easy snatch."
"Did he take cyanide when you caught him?"
"Tried, but Barker stopped him. He'll be alive at least until they interrogate him."
The nebulous they. Sarah was acquainted with cases like this. The CIA would claim they handed him off to the Brits and MI-6 would swear they left him to the Americans. Since 'nobody' claimed custody of him, they could take him anywhere and use whatever means necessary to get him to talk, which was especially important since Rodriguez didn't get a chance to spill his guts.
Sarah glanced up at Ellie who looked like she was trying to plug her ears and yell 'I'm not listening' over and over while they skirted around any mention of torture. It was a little rude for her and Mary to talk shop, but they were in a secure facility. Wait, how did Ellie get in, anyway? Sarah remarked as nicely as she could, "I'm surprised they let you in."
"I'm not here as Chuck's sister. I'm here as Andromeda. As soon as you and Chuck are both feeling up to it, I've got a theory to discuss with you about your amnesia."
"I'm fine," Sarah assured her as she sat up even straighter, "physically, anyway." Ellie was a medical doctor. She could confirm it on her chart. "Have they said anything to you about Chuck?"
Ellie frowned and shook her head. "I'm afraid my Andromeda clearance doesn't cut it with the nuclear physicists and radiation specialists. I have to wait just like you."
They chatted for a while about random trivialities like Clara's newest antics and what they ate on their flight.
Finally, one of Sarah's doctors stepped in. "I need a moment alone with my patient, but then she'll be discharged. If you wouldn't mind stepping out in the hall?"
Mary and Ellie nodded, although Ellie looked a lot less willing to vacate than Mary did. Sarah could just see the wheels in her head turning, trying to decide whether sister-in-law trumped medical doctor or whether any of her let-me-stay-dammit ploys trumped privacy. She must have decided not. She followed her mother out with a soft, "We'll be right out here."
When the door clicked shut, the doctor fixed her with a solemn stare and started in. "Sarah, I'm going to tell you straight out: this branch of medicine is in its infancy. We see a few submariners from our nuclear subs every now and then, but all of them are male and none of them have ever been exposed to quite the same thing as you were. I'm going to tell you what might happen, but the truth is, we just don't know."
Sarah nodded. "Good. I prefer you just spit it out."
"There may be no side effects at all."
"Or I could keel over tomorrow?" she asked sarcastically.
"Well, you could, but not from anything related to radiation."
They must have told him her occupation. Okay, then he should know she dealt with danger and risk on an almost-daily basis. She looked at him earnestly. Spit. It. Out.
"There's a chance—and we can't give you numerical odds—but a chance this made you sterile."
Was that all? That didn't sound so bad... except she knew she'd have to tell Chuck. He'd probably be more upset than she was. Damn. She really didn't want to hurt him any more than he already was. "Okay, thanks for telling me straight."
"You should probably talk to a therapist. Many women feel grief."
"I already have one. Do you know Dr. Dreyfus?"
"Yes, he's excellent." He stood there, looking dumbfounded.
It was obvious this doctor wasn't prepared for her matter-of-fact acceptance. Sarah considered faking a 'more appropriate' reaction just to put him at ease, but then she'd delay getting out of here. She raised the hand with the IV in it and dangled it in front of him. Hello? Get this thing off me so I can leave.
He stepped up to the bed and removed the needle, then placed a bandage over the hole. "Make sure you sign out at the desk," he said as he left.
She had her gown off and her clothes back on in under thirty seconds. She grabbed her bouquet and hurried out. Mary and Ellie looked astonished.
"Everything okay?" Mary asked.
Sarah nodded. "I've been released. Clean bill of health. Just have to sign out." She started walking toward the desk where she assumed her discharge papers were. "Where is Chuck's room?"
Doctors were still working on Chuck and wouldn't let them see him. They ended up waiting for over an hour. Sarah chewed three coffee stirrers to shreds and barely drank any of the coffee. Casey came by wearing bandages over various veins, blew off their concerned inquiries with a roll of his eyes and a grunted 'I'm fine' then asked how Sarah was. She also said 'fine.'
At last, the doctor came to the waiting room and said he could see visitors, but only two at a time. Mary and Casey volunteered to stay back. Sarah was relieved she didn't have to face him alone.
His leg had a cast and he looked pale and tired, but he brightened when Sarah and Ellie walked in. "Hey, little brother, how are you doing?" Ellie said.
He produced a weak smile. "I've been better. Looks like I have to stay here a while. They're flushing some nasties out of my tissues." He leaned so he could get a look around his sister. Sarah hadn't realized she was hiding. She side-stepped so he could see her. He noticed her bandages right away and met her eyes. "How are you?"
She could tell him about the possible infertility later. He didn't need to know that now. Sarah smiled and nodded. "Me? I'm fine. They ran tests and released me." She approached the bed nervously, unsure if she should offer more support now that he was out of the woods.
Ellie looked back and forth between them, an odd look on her face that Sarah couldn't place. "Well, I have a theory that may make everyone feel better."
Chuck's eyes lit another degree. Sarah was going to clock that sister of his if she let him down again. Couldn't she see he was vulnerable right now? Still, Ellie had done a lot of EEGs on her before the Argentina mission. Maybe she found something.
"I need Mom to help explain," Ellie said to Chuck. "You all right with her coming in?"
"Mom's back from China? Already?"
Ellie said a simple 'yes' as she went back to the door. Sarah spoke at the same time, saying, "Blond terrorist in China," as if that would explain everything.
Chuck looked mildly confused, but he didn't question it. Mary could tell him the whole story later, if she didn't have to run off on assignment. Mary's eyes sparkled with the same excitement Ellie had shown.
Ellie arranged everyone so they could all see each other's faces. It was a little hard to work around the hospital bed, but not impossible. Her smile kept growing as she got everyone in place. With the air of someone who had a big announcement, she started in.
"Chuck, you've had the Intersect in and out of your head more than anyone. How do you know when it's gone?"
He answered, "Easy. I can't flash."
"But there was one time, after Mom suppressed the Intersect, when you still had it, right?"
Mary flashed an apologetic look at her son, but kept quiet.
"Yeah," Chuck said. "But I still had partial flashes. We never did figure out how to fix the damaged one. It never worked right again until I got a fresh download from Dad's computer."
Ellie turned to face Sarah. "I noticed from your EEGs and other scans that certain brainwave patterns were more like Chuck's than Morgan's, so I wondered if maybe you still had a piece of the Intersect and just weren't aware of it."
"I can't flash," Sarah said. "Not even partial."
Mary spoke up, also grinning now. "There was one other Intersect experiment who never had a single flash— Agent X."
"Hartley Winterbottom?" Chuck asked.
Ellie nodded and took up where Mary left off, her speech quickening as she got more excited. "What if Nicholas Quinn removed the data and skill Intersect on Sarah, but left the part of the program which can implant a cover personality? If he made the cover personality essentially Sarah, just the Sarah of five years ago, we would never realize it was an implant."
Mary added, "Alexei Volkoff was so different from Hartley that it was easy to tell. He implanted you with a past version of yourself so no one would suspect anything. We'd all just think you had amnesia, like Morgan did. Quinn knew he could manipulate this alternate Sarah into killing Chuck and following his orders."
Sarah crossed her arms. "Well, he failed at that, didn't he?"
"No one's blaming you, honey," Chuck said. "You didn't do even a fraction of the bad things Volkoff did."
"Those cards he used to torture you," Ellie broke in, "those were essentially the same thing as a suppression device, but missing key frames."
Mary looked at Chuck. "Do you remember the device I found in Stephen's basement, the one I used on you while I was still with Volkoff?"
"Yeah, it was like a horrible kaleidoscope swirling nightmare on a tablet device, but the pattern was similar to the glasses Clyde Decker used on me to remove the Intersect completely."
"Think of the glasses as removal and the tablet as a partial vandalism, as it were." She paused and patted Chuck's leg through the covers, whispering, "Sorry, honey."
Chuck nodded, but he was too swept up to focus on his mother's past wrongs.
Ellie cut in, "The cards are even more selective. You know how movie animation works, right? Every frame is a single picture and they change so fast that your brain translates that as movement. If I'm right, Nicholas Quinn used very specific frames of the removal program to make sure he only removed the parts of the Intersect that would flash and give his strategy away. The personality implant program would be like the ultimate direct-brain hypnosis. He programmed your brain to think it was this alternate Sarah."
"I still have an Intersect?" Sarah said, finally accepting what Ellie seemed to be saying.
"Yes!" Mary exclaimed, "A personality implant Intersect, like Hartley had. Quinn had to know that part of the program was stable because Hartley had it for twenty years and no one ever figured it out until Ellie got hold of Stephen's research."
"If that's the case," Chuck said, excitement bubbling up in his face, "then all we have to do is remove it completely, like Decker removed Volkoff's."
"Yes!" Ellie nearly squealed, jumping up and down. "Sarah, all you need is a quick removal and you'll get all your memories back, except maybe whatever the rotten Data Intersect had damaged."
Chuck supplied, "All you'd forgotten before Quinn captured you was Alex. You still remembered us. You still remembered almost everything!"
Now all eyes were on Sarah. The Agent X story was a little fuzzy in her memory, but she was pretty sure Chuck said Decker forced the removal on Volkoff to protect himself from the whole scandal of the CIA creating a criminal mastermind. Would she be forced as well? What if she didn't want to go back to that emotional Sarah who'd broken the cardinal rule of spying? Dare she just refuse?
"Uh, can I think about it?" Sarah asked weakly.
Ellie's eyeballs nearly popped out. "What?! I thought you'd be excited for the cure. It won't even hurt but a second or two. Not like the way Quinn did it."
"But what if you're wrong? What if this is really me?"
"Nothing happens at all. The suppression device is completely harmless if you don't have an Intersect," Ellie said. She grabbed one of Sarah's hands and looked at her intently. "I know you feel like yourself right now, but this is not you. Quinn twisted and tweaked the personality to his own purposes. He forced it on you, painfully and without your knowledge or permission. This is not you."
"I..uh..." Panic crept in. "Chuck, I just found out I may be sterile from the radiation. That family you wanted may be impossible with me now."
Chuck shook his head. "Sarah, I may be sterile too. It doesn't matter. I want you. We can adopt or we can just be aunt and uncle. Just..." He studied her face a long moment and the pale weariness returned to his features. He looked at his sister again. "If Sarah won't go back, then implant me with my old self."
"What?" all three women blurted out together.
Chuck looked at Sarah, shaking his head while a tear slipped out of his eye. "I can't live without you, Sarah. My now-self isn't attracting your old-you. At least if I go back to who I was, there's a chance that we could find each other again."
Female rebuttals overlapped:
Mary said, "But Chuck, you'd lose everything, including all the memories of finding me."
Ellie said, "You'd lose the last Data Intersect too. You wouldn't remember anything about being a spy. None of it."
He just shook his head, tears spilling now. "Can't you see? Without Sarah, there's no point to anything. But if I go back to the old me, there's a chance we'd fall in love again, and failing that, at least I won't know what I'm missing. I won't be haunted by what we once had. I can be blissfully ignorant again."
Ellie kept shaking her head, muttering something about the Buy More, but Mary quieted and adopted that motherly look on her face. What had she said about Chuck's father? "One man never stopped believing in me, never stopped looking for me, and never stopped loving me until the day he died. Chuck is cut from the same cloth."
Sarah cleared her throat and stood up straight. "I've decided. Remove it."
Ellie looked at her, blinking. "Are you sure? This isn't reversible."
Sarah gave a decisive nod. "I know. Once this is over, I won't remember the last few months, will I?"
Mary was very quiet. "Hartley lost twenty years and couldn't remember a single thing Volkoff did. It will be like a nightmare you forgot."
"I'm a little scared, but I'll be damned if I let Nicholas Quinn win." Sarah looked at Chuck, his glassy eyes sparkling with hope again. "I'm sorry it took me so long to see it."
"Just come back to me," he whispered.
Ellie drew a pair of glasses from her purse and offered them to Sarah. "Once you put them on, you won't be able to stop it."
Sarah took them and rolled them in her hands a few times. She was glad it was only going to take a second of willpower because she didn't trust this stupid, implanted, fake self to do anything right. Before she lost her nerve, she opened the arms of the glasses and thrust them on her face.
Swirls of color and flashes of bright lights danced on the lenses. She thought of taking a short break, but she found she couldn't blink. The universe danced across the theater of her mind, everything and nothing colliding in a hodgepodge clash of brilliance.
And then it stopped.
Sarah Bartowski shook her head to clear the cobwebs. Memories flooded her mind, staring out the window of a Japanese bullet train, defeated and captured, while Chuck and Casey receded into the distance.
How did she get glasses on? She took them off, expecting to see that bastard Quinn, but instead, she found herself in a hospital room with Ellie and Mary. Chuck was lying in the bed and everyone was staring at her.
"Quick, who am I?" asked Chuck.
"Chuck, don't be ridiculous. I would never forget you. Where's Quinn? What happened?"
"You got implanted with an Intersect personality," Ellie said.
"Not as bad as Volkoff," Mary added.
"Quinn," Chuck told her. "Quinn implanted you with a twisted version of yourself from five years ago. You didn't remember any of us. You tried to kill me."
She was a trained assassin to begin with, but Quinn twisted that further? "Oh, God, Chuck!" She ran to the bed, taking his face in her hands, her eyes roaming over his whole body, searching for whatever damage this Volkoffian thing in her body had caused. He had a cast on one leg, but she couldn't find any other injuries. The desperation and fear felt far too much like Thailand. "Are you all right?"
Tears spilled from his eyes and his voice was wet with weeping when he answered, "I am now, Sarah. I am now."
Ellie was crying too. She and Mary left the room quietly. Sarah wasn't sure how she got away from Quinn, but she'd bet Chuck had been responsible. Her Chuck. She'd ask later. Right now, she wrapped her arms around her husband and kissed every inch of his wonderful face.