You want to pound on the door. You’re so full of anger, of hate and fear and pain and loss. You want to batter your fists against the unyielding surface of the portal until your skin is raw and bleeding. Until the blood mars the fine grain of the wood, slowly smearing and darkening, and the liquid red-black has indelibly scarred the brown. Until you can scarcely lift your arms for trying, until the burn and hurt of your abused body is enough to quell your nearly maddening urge to scream. And god how you want to scream. Yell. Bellow. Holler. Cry.
You want your throat to close and thicken. To be as raw and bleeding as your hands; skinned and bruised flesh, the outside tattered, tender inside showing through in naked glimpses. You want hot, shameful, cleansing tears to soak and mark your face, leave faint bitter traces of themselves behind. You want the world to disappear in a blur you cannot see through. You want to reach out and hurt - something, anything – the way you’re hurting now.
You can have this, you think. If you throw your fury against this door, you can have the pain and ache and release. Knocking implies a request for an answer. An acknowledgement of presence. What you want – well, maybe it’s a request. But maybe it’s a demand. And maybe there’s an answer to be found. Maybe on the other side is something that can take the hurt. Can let you rage and storm and howl and grieve, and then help you find the surcease of it all. Maybe if you can hurt enough on the outside, then the inside won’t matter as much. Won’t consume you like this.
But when you’re standing there, you shake so hard you cannot lift your arm. Cannot curl your hand into a fist. Cannot even breathe. All you can do is tremble, and close your eyes. Your head falls forward in despair, and the single heavy sound of oak meeting flesh and bone seems to reverberate through your skull. It makes your ears ring, and you hate it. It’s a high-pitched keening, an echoing chorus of loss that you do not want to hear, because it is the very sound of what’s in your heart.
You take a shuddering breath, and focus on your pulse. Your heartbeat is wild, and racing, and you fixate on the thunder of it, on the deep throb that is slowly forcing out that other noise. That one you can’t bear. You think of the cardinality of an infinite set. Of things that can be listed, but go on forever. If the Intersect holds every secret, and every day new secrets are learned, then there will be never be an end to this perpetuation. The smallest number of infinity. They call it aleph null. Null. Doesn’t that mean an absence? A void, a zero, a nonexistence? Infinite, and void. You are everything… and you are nothing.
The door opens, and you stumble through.
Casey’s apartment is almost-dark. A sort of dusky ambience that defies identification of a light source. The corners of the living room are blurs and shadows, the furniture crouching in the twilight like half-written characters waiting to live again. Some lines are softened, others inexplicably edged. Your pulse keeps time in your temples.
Casey says, “So help me, if you’re here to ask about Honduras, I will throw your ass to the wolves.”
You shake your head. Well, you think you shake your head. You’re not really sure, and if the look on Casey’s face is anything to go by, the taller man isn’t sure either. Your hair is wild from constantly running your hands through it, and the torment of Hannah’s expression runs through your mind on a nightmare feedback loop.
Your hand is gripping the side of Casey’s chair, and your knuckles are red-white-red with the flex and release of your fingers. You bite your lip as hard as you can, and it isn’t enough.
You say, “Hit me.”
“What?” It’s only when Casey’s expression ices over that you realize how relaxed the man had been until just now.
“That’s right, you heard me. I said ‘Hit me’.”
“You’re joking.” But Casey isn’t laughing. You aren’t laughing. This isn’t funny.
“What’s your damage, Bartowski??” Casey is tensing – muscles bunching, weight shifting. Anticipation of… what? Fight or flight for Casey is always fight. Something is not right. Something is so very wrong.
You forcibly release your grip on the chair, and stalk forward. This, here. This can be your answer. “Goddamit, Casey! Hit me. Make me bleed. Black my eye, split my lip. What the hell, right? You’ve wanted to hit me for years – what’s stopping you now? Crack my ribs. Bruise my kidneys. You could have me pissing blood for a week. Hit. Me. ” Each step takes you closer, and there’s a look in Casey’s eyes that you’ve never seen.
Left hook to Casey’s jaw, right where a newly torn socket is missing a tooth, and you did it on purpose ohgodwhat’swrongwithme you did it on purpose. You stand, braced, fists loosely curled, body almost vibrating with adrenaline.
Casey’s head snaps back, absorbing the strength of the blow with the understated ease of long practice. He rolls his jaw, easing out the stab-ache of pain, and sighs. He looks you dead in the eye and says, “Alright, Chuck.”
The floodgates open, and your vision disappears in a wash of red. You lunge forward, and start raining your fists down on his chest, his arms, his shoulders. Anything, everything you can reach.
You aren’t flashing, and Casey knows the difference. He braces himself, and when the wild blows began to gain in strength and purpose, Casey stands firm, and lets them come.
You don’t know when you start to cry, great heaving sobs that tear out of your chest and steal your breath. Your hands and wrists ache shamefully, worn into exhaustion against the unyielding strength of Casey’s chest. You come back to yourself to realize you’re swaying, head bowed, arms hanging uselessly at your sides as you stare down and notice Casey’s feet are bare. His hands are loosely circling your wrists, and though he would never say as much, you think it might be to make sure that the next person you attack isn’t yourself. Just in case, like.
He says, “You… wanna talk about it?” And you can practically hear him grit his teeth, though you can’t quite bring yourself to meet his gaze just yet. You wish you could say no. Could just go back to your apartment and leave the man alone for the night. He’s done more than enough already. But you aren’t finished yet. You still have to push this. Have to know.
You say, “Sa… Sarah – she said she’d been on this assignment so long that she was losing who she was. Losing who she wants to be. I never realized… I mean… Three years, Casey.”
He’s steering you backwards towards the chair, and you let him. A docile passenger, while your arms are still remembering the repetition of strikes. You sit, and Casey’s feet disappear from your vision. You pluck at a loose thread on the arm of the chair and continue.
“That’s a long time. I guess – I forget sometimes, that this is my life, but it’s not hers. Or yours. You guys are just here. Team Bartowski, off to save the day, but what does that really mean? Who are we?” The sound of the fridge shutting. “Don’t you want your life back?”
Casey’s feet reappear in front of you, and above them, a beer is being held out. You wrap your fingers around the bottle, and the instant cold sends a shock through your fatigued hand. Casey tugs the beer, and you automatically look up. Those stunning blue eyes are waiting, and he holds your gaze for a long second before he releases the bottle to your grasp. You get the message. Quit being a chump, Bartowski. If you’re gonna assault someone, you can at least have the common courtesy to look them in the eyes after.
Casey sits on the edge of the coffee table and takes a long pull from his beer. He regards you steadily, and says, “I’m not Walker, Chuck. This is my life.”
You roll the bottle between your palms, watch as the first drops of condensation start to warp the label. You’ve never been a great beer drinker. By the time you’re done nursing this one, the paper and glue will be little more than a soggy mess. You look back up at Casey and try your best to smile. He doesn’t seem fooled.
“It’s just… Casey, there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the people I have to be. Everyone has this idea of who and what I am, how I should act, what I should say and think. And all of those Chucks are part of the me-Chuck, but none of them are the whole story. Is there ever a whole story? With Sarah, or with you? Is there ever a time when you get to hang your guns up and go home and just be yourself?”
Casey grunts, and looks mildly exasperated. He says, “Once again, you talk and talk, and never learn to listen. Chuck, my name is John Casey. That’s not an alias. That’s who I am. I am a Lieutenant Colonel in the Unites States Marine Corps. This is real. Sarah is playing make believe – likes to think there’s something and somewhere else for her out there. That girl’s been so many people in her life she wouldn’t know real if it bit her on the ass.”
The beer is cold and bitter on your tongue, foaming its way down your throat, and you know it’s just a stall tactic. Casey is genuinely trying to tell you something here, and you’re not quite sure you get what it is, but you don’t want him to stop talking. There’s something here. Something important. Hannah’s face is in your memory, damning you, and you’re trying to wrap your mind around what’s really being said, but you haven’t gotten there yet.
“Look around you, Chuck.”
You oblige him, though you don’t really need to. Casey’s home is as familiar as your own, and through the dimness of the room your mind supplies the details. Surveillance photos on the walls, monitors and body armor, Reagan, video feed, and a mini rock garden where a bonsai used to be. You got him that rock garden. Snuck it in one day when he wasn’t looking, and he never said thank you, but it’s been here ever since.
You realize that you’re everywhere, here, in this apartment. In the chair, and in the rock garden. In the photos and the video feed and the flak vest hanging next to Casey’s that has “Chuck” sewn in the neck lining. And there’s something… something…
“I don’t have some wonderland place I dream of going when I leave work at the end of the day. When I hang up my guns to go home, this is where I come. Not that I hang up my guns – fucking asinine expression. They stay right where I can reach them. But the rest of it?”
He tilts his head to the side, and you’re staring at him. You can’t help it. Every time you think you know the guy, he pulls the rug out from under you. You want to crawl inside his head, crack him open and lay him out so you can finally know. Can learn him, and store him away inside you like the precious, deadly secret that he is.
You’re shaking again, and you don’t dare stop to think about why. You whisper, “Is the whole more than the sum of its parts? Am I nothing but a lie?”
“You are not the lie, Chuck. You are the truth. You are real.”
“But who am I? If no one knows me, then do I exist?”
Casey is staring at you, intent, trying to tell you something with nothing but a look. Normally you two are pretty good at this, but everything is angles of itself tonight, and this is too important to get wrong. You’re begging with your eyes. Pleading, because the sonofabitch has had the answer the whole time, and you never realized. Never knew.
He says, “Almost three years, Chuck. All day, every day. When you work. When you play. When you eat, and breathe, and sleep, and dream, and wake in the night gasping. I’m always behind you, over your shoulder, in your ear, or across the room. You think no one knows you? Think again. I know nothing in the world so well as I know you. This is my life. You... are my life. ”
That’s it, you think. That’s the something. Your empty beer bottle slips from your grasp and rolls slowly out of sight across the floor. You’ve been so afraid of losing yourself, and all for nothing. Infinite nothing. You are not alone in this, you never were. And best, oh best of all, you are not the hurt and despair and hate that you have caused, that you must inevitably keep on causing. You are not only lies. Here, in this place, is this man who knows every part of you, and you are truth.
A warm hand settles at the back of your neck, and you smile. It’s as real as his hand, and that look in his eyes, and the slant of his lips on yours. You slide your arms around his neck, lean back in the chair, and he follows you down. You are yourself, and you are his life.
That’s not nothing… That’s everything.