"A Romance Timed By Sex"

The first time is far from ideal. It's awkward, a Catholic School five feet apart fumble of terror and desire and awkward limbs. Except instead of angry teachers or (the classic image) nuns with rulers, they have agents and ninjas and an assortment of highly dangerous and advanced technology to deal with if they get caught. But then, instead of Edwin McCain's "I'll Be", they have Damien Rice's "The Rat Within the Grain". Not quite but close enough to a fair trade, as Chuck jokes awkwardly when he can't quite unhook her bra.

The fourth time is better. It's not quite there; like the first dance at a club for an extremely shy college student, but it's satisfying, filling, and generally a hell of a good time. It makes them forget, just for a moment, that this is not right. That even if the government couldn't interfere, they'd never approve. That in seconds they could be separated forever without so much as a goodbye and they would just have to deal with knowing, or rather, never knowing. Never knowing where the other was, what the other was doing, whether the other was even alive. It is terrifying, but somehow worth the risk, as Sarah realizes when she gets giggly at the brush of his hand against her neck.

The tenth time - unremarkable, really. Not bad, but not good; they're in the swing of things, experienced but not quite up to more complicated steps. They settle into a groove. A bump of the shoulder means tonight is open; a question to Ellie means no, maybe later, sorry, Chuck. Before they even realized it, this has become normal. . .whatever this was. Neither of them could quite figure it out and ultimately, neither really cared. At least, this is what Chuck tells himself when he wakes up alone with nothing but a muffin on the night stand for company.

The twentieth time. . . or is the twenty-first? They've long since lost count but whatever number it is, it is outstanding. It's been weeks since they've seen each other, ironically not because of a spy mission but a Buy More conference. They are experts, dazzling their pretend audience of poster, drawings, and action figures in their own tango (Chuck dancing the man's part this time). They kiss and they pant and their sweat mixes with the mellow guitar twangs of The Shins until the air is practically thick with the aura of sex and in the morning Sarah wonders what it would be like if this bedroom was hers, theirs.

The last time has no number. It is their final hurrah, a slow waltz meant to draw out the time before the DJ calls out and all dancers must clear the floor. It could be good, it could be bad. The quality is a factor that, like the number, Chuck refuses to consider. If he classifies it, then it meant something, then it all meant something and it was not just her trying to soothe her poor tortured geek of a charge and it was not him taking advantage of the offer. And numbering it, now that he simply cannot to. If he gives it a number, completes the process, then the secret is out.

He was counting down, not up.