DISCLAIMER - I don't own Chuck. I'd have a bigger house if I did. And maybe a butler.

A/N – This takes place at the end of Season One, a few weeks after Chuck vs. the Marlin. I'm still new at this; my story count is now a whopping 2. Please review to let me know what you think, good or bad. I can use the help.

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Sarah was behind the wheel of her sleek black Porsche, lost in thought as she sat at the red light on Sunset. It was Friday night, and she was headed over to Casa Bartowskito meet Chuck for their latest "date"; one with a definite purpose in mind. Chuck had seemed down lately, quiet and withdrawn despite repeated vows that everything was fine, and Sarah thought that a night out with no mission involved might be just the thing to get him out of his funk. A funk that had, by her count, lasted for more than a week now. That's what bothered her the most, she thought. Anyone could have a bad day, even two. Even someone as normally upbeat as Chuck. But ten in a row? She didn't need her finely honed super spy instincts to tell her that something was rotten in Echo Park, and she was determined to find out what it was. Still brooding once the light turned green, Sarah's slight pause earned her a loud honk from the SUV behind her, a gigantic green one slightly reminiscent of an Abrams tank. Now officially irked, Sarah held her car motionless until the light changed to yellow, when a quick pop into first and punch to the gas rocketed the 911 through the intersection at lightning speed. The Family Tankster was caught by the now crimson signal, and Sarah smiled tightly into her rear view mirror as the SUV and its impatient driver shrank into the distance. She was in no mood to be honked at tonight.

Trying to calm down as she raced through the gears of the 911, Sarah considered the problem for what seemed like the thousandth time. Like any good agent on a mission, she had first gathered all available intel on the situation - she talked to Morgan and Ellie. Unsurprisingly, Morgan wasn't much help. He just said that Chuck must be a "seriously unhappy guy" because he had next to no interest in playing Metal Gear Solid 4, then went into a ten minute dissertation on the wonders of that game while managing to never completely take his eyes off Sarah's breasts (to be fair, Sarah thought, she had been wearing that damned Wienerlicious getup). Ellie, on the other hand, at least tried to be helpful. She too had noticed Chuck's mood and wanted to help, and she managed to keep her eyes focused above Sarah's neck for the entire conversation. But Ellie also had no idea what was bothering Chuck and that just seemed to frustrate her, so Sarah backed off, promising (with fingers crossed behind her back) that she would tell Ellie what was going on as soon as she found out. Her intel sources tapped out, Sarah was at loose ends on how to proceed when she suddenly had her own flash, one of inspiration - she would recreate their first date! Armed with what she considered to be a tactical masterstroke, she had gotten down to work.

This date wasn't technically a mission, she thought with an ironic smile, but it might as well be for all the thought she put into its planning. Dinner at Casa Fiesta, the Mexican restaurant with the great fajitas and the not so great mariachi band. Music and maybe even some dancing (doubtful on the dancing, but a girl can hope) at the same club they went to that night, this time possibly without the NSA hit team. And to end it, a walk on the beach where they had spent their first night together, even if they hadn't technically been together for most of the night. That first date had gone very well early on, pleasant conversation and awkward smiles over guacamole, and Sarah had been surprised to find that she was serious when she told Chuck she liked him. But the evening had gone straight to hell once Casey and his navy-suited thugs showed up, with car chases and guns and high explosives and, worst of all, the stunned look on Chuck's face as he realized that his life had just taken a sudden and unpleasant left turn. Depending on which part of that evening he chose to remember, Sarah would wind up with either a relaxed and smiling Chuck or an upset and emotional Chuck. All in all she'd prefer the Chuck behind curtain number one, which was not surprising since she preferred Smilin' Chuck to almost anything else in her life at the moment. But she figured she'd accomplish her mission either way, since Chuck normally has the same reaction to both emotional states – he talks. No matter which way it went, Sarah would know what was bothering her Chuck before tonight was through.

Her Chuck. Sarah had to smile at that. It had taken her so long to adjust to him, friendly and earnest and so open, qualities with which her recent life had provided her little experience. There were pitifully few people and things in her world that were what they appeared to be, and she thought that some part of her kept looking for ulterior motives and hidden agendas that just didn't exist with Chuck. He really was exactly as advertised. That hadn't been an easy truth to accept for someone who had been trained so thoroughly to mistrust, and sometimes she still found herself struggling with it. But it had finally begun to sink in despite all the awkward fits and starts, and she had to admit in retrospect that he was exactly how she needed him to be. He was the one thing in her life that she could take at face value, and she treasured the fact that he made her feel...well, that was it, really. He made her feel, and that excited and terrified her in equal measure because she was never exactly sure from moment to moment what she felt. She was sure, however, about the one thing she loved most about Chuck, and that was the look on his face whenever he saw her. She called it the Sarah Smile. Fantastically wide and toothy, utterly disarming, and impossible to resist, that smile was hers alone. It was like he had just found out at age 26 thatyes, Virginia, there really was a Santa Claus, and that the jolly old elf had left the best present of all time under Chuck's tree. That smile lit Sarah up inside, but more than that, it had become her touchstone. More and more lately it seemed that her formerly dependable internal compass had trouble finding true north, but she felt that if she could make a person like Chuck smile like that, well, there might be some hope for her yet. She hadn't seen that smile in over a week, and it was a little scary to realize how much she missed it.

Sarah turned onto Chuck's street, and was surprised to find him already waiting for her on the curb. She usually knocked on his door and was invited in, and she had come to enjoy the few minutes of chitchat she passed with Ellie and Awesome while Chuck combed his hair, brushed his teeth, or fretted over which shirt to wear. It was another little slice of normality that her inclusion in Chuck's life afforded her, and she didn't take it as a particularly good sign that he was cutting her off before she could even get to the door. Still, Sarah refused to give up so easily, especially when she had some decent cards to play. She stopped the car as Chuck shuffled towards the curb, fixed her best smile on her face, and leaned over a little further than necessary to push open the passenger door, fully aware of the neckline of her top. Chuck couldn't help but stare for just a second or two at the killer combo of dazzling smile and equally dazzling cleavage, and Sarah breathed a quiet sigh of relief when she saw him melt just a bit. She wasn't crazy about resorting to suck tricks, at least not against Chuck, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Chuck recovered and folded himself almost gracefully into the small front seat, and Sarah pulled away from the curb knowing she was still in the game. She kept smiling and laid her hand on his knee, and she was somewhat surprised to find that it was still there when they reached the restaurant.

- - - - - - - - -

It was well past midnight, and a light breeze was blowing in off the Pacific as Chuck and Sarah strolled aimlessly down the beach, shoes long since discarded, chatting about nothing in particular and generally enjoying each other's company. Chuck had been tickled by Sarah's idea of a first date do-over, and he really had seemed to enjoy himself even if he was a bit quieter than usual. They were walking side by side, their hands barely apart, and Sarah leaned in just far enough for Chuck's fingers to brush the back of her hand as it swung by. Chuck glanced down at the contact, and for just a second Sarah thought that he would take the not so subtle hint and slide his fingers through hers. But he let the opportunity pass, and with a small sigh Chuck settled for shoving his hands into his pockets and staring out over the leaden Pacific. Afraid that he was about to withdraw again, Sarah tried to nudge him into conversation.

"So, have you enjoyed this evening's showing of 'Chuck and Sarah's First Date Reloaded'?"

Chuck's eyes widened a bit in surprise. Was that a 'Matrix' reference? Kind of dated, but he appreciated the effort. "Yeah, I had a really good time. I've always wondered how that night would have gone if we hadn't stumbled into a taping of 'NSA Dance Party' starring John Casey. Not my favorite show."

The sudden visual of Casey in a white leisure suit under a disco ball caused Sarah to let out a rather undignified snort. "That did sort of kill the mood, didn't it? I'll admit there's nothing like a good knife fight to get the adrenaline going, but it did pretty much ruin the nice evening we had going. I liked tonight much better."

"I'll, uh, just take your word on the whole knife fighting thing, but I can definitely agree about tonight being a higher quality faux-dating experience. I'm sorry about the lack of dancing, though. Just not my thing, you know? Besides, I saved your feet from a serious bruising."

Sarah faked a pout. "I know, but I was still kind of hoping that I could get your butt moving. I figured that an outfit like this deserved at least a spin or two around the dance floor." Sarah did a slow, teasing little twirl, as if to show him what he'd missed out on. "I should have just pulled you onto the floor like I did last time."

"Thank you for confirming yet again that women do use their bodies as weapons. And yours did look particularly, um... lethal...tonight. You know, in case you thought I hadn't, uh, noticed." Chuck paused for just a moment to both stare and blush, then rallied himself to make what he thought was a rather good point. "If I remember correctly, though, the only reason for the dancing that first night was to distract me while you stuck pointy things into unfriendly men wearing blue suits. What's with those suits, anyway? Does the NSA issue them instead of ID cards? Those guys looked like they all shopped in the "Undercover Government Agent" section of the same Men's Wearhouse." He looked to see if his joke had gotten a smile, which it did. "Seriously though, I had a good night, and I really needed a good night. I know I've been kinda, well, down, and something tells me you noticed. With all the trouble you went to, I guess you thought that my attitude needed a reboot, huh?"

Alone on a beach with a girl in a slinky outfit, and he still couldn't help sounding like a computer geek. It was too cute, and Sarah gave Chuck a big smile. "Something like that. Just don't let it happen again, mister. The fajitas are great, but I don't think I can handle that mariachi band one more time." They had turned to face one another, and for a moment they both just stood still, looking into each other's eyes. On impulse, Sarah closed the small gap between them and slid her hand into his. The surprised smile that plastered itself onto Chuck's face wasn't quite a full-on Sarah Smile, but she felt better for seeing it all the same.

- - - - - - - - -

Hand in hand now, Chuck and Sarah continued their lazy stroll down the beach, waves lapping at their bare feet as they walked by the water's edge. Things seemed pleasant and comfortable between them again, and if Chuck wasn't fully back to his normal self he was at least in the neighborhood. Feeling content, Sarah contemplated the wet sand squishing between her toes as she walked and wondered if it would be better to just let the issue of Chuck's recent doldrums float away with the tide. But in the end, she couldn't let it go; Agent Sarah Walker was not one to abandon a mission. Besides, she rationalized to herself, he had been the one who first broached the subject, right? Still, she chose her words carefully, trying to keep it light and teasing. "Now that you mention it, why have you been in such a funk? It's so not like you. I was beginning to think you'd been body-snatched during the night or something."

Chuck grinned at that. "Two science fiction references in the same night? I applaud the effort, but try not to hurt yourself. Some things are best left to the professionals."

Sarah stuck her tongue out at him, then marveled for the millionth time at the effect Chuck had on her. How old had she been when she last stuck out her tongue at someone? Ten? "Okay, funny guy, I'll leave the sci-fi stuff to you and stick to my own areas of expertise. Like the super-spy kung fu that I will so use on you if I don't get an answer to my question."

Another grin from Chuck as he thought that it would be worth a sizable amount of pain to get body-slammed by Sarah, especially in her current outfit. But he realized that despite the teasing way in which she asked, she would not let this go without an answer. Feeling a little cornered, he kicked at nothing in particular in the sand while he tried to come up with a reply. "I guess sometimes I just think too much, that's all."

"Funny how easily you confuse the words 'mope' and 'think'. Do you mind telling me what you've been 'thinking' about?"

"There's not a chance in the world that you'll just drop it if I say no, right?"

Now it was Sarah's turn to grin. "I realize we haven't known each other that long, but I still can't believe you even bothered to ask that question." She was warming to the banter, enjoying the familiar back and forth. This was what served as intimacy in their complicated relationship, and in an odd way the verbal sparring made her feel closer to Chuck, like their weird situation was somehow more normal because of it. But when she turned to look at him she saw that the lopsided grin that usually accompanied these conversations was nowhere to be found, replaced by a look of quiet misery. Sarah's pleasant mood was gone in an instant, and she grabbed Chuck's other hand and turned him to face her. "Hey, you know you can tell me anything, right? I'm here. Tell me what's wrong."

"It's just...I just..." With a truly anguished look on his face, he turned to look out at the ocean again, pulling his hands out of Sarah's and shoving them back into his pockets. "Lately I just I keep thinking about how all of this is going to end."

So that was it, Sarah thought. She thought that Chuck had gotten past this, but she could certainly understand why he hadn't. God knows it had shaken her up, too. "I know that night on the roof with Longshore scared you, Chuck. It scared me, too. But I promise you, I won't let them stick you in a bunker somewhere. I'll keep you safe."

If possible, Chuck looked even more miserable. His reply came in a voice so small that the ocean breeze could have carried it away. "I'm not talking about a bunker, Sarah."

Sarah froze. "Chuck, I...what?" Her complete shock must have shown on her face, because Chuck began to explain.

"I fix computers for a living, Sarah. I know what people do when their computer is broken beyond repair – they get a new one. And once the new one is up and running, they don't have much use for the makeshift one they've been using to get by in the meantime, especially if its hard drive is storing a lot of stuff they don't want anyone else to see."

All of a sudden, Sarah found herself unable to look at Chuck. She started walking again, trying to buy herself some time to think, but Chuck turned the tables on her, taking her hands and turning her back toward him as he continued. "You wanted to know what was on my mind, so you can't walk away now. They have to be working on a new Intersect, Sarah. We both know that. It's probably in beta testing already, or at least close. Once it's functional, they're not going to see a need to keep me around. It's gotta be expensive to stash a guy in a CIA fortress for life, and I don't see Graham and Beckman spending that much money and effort to keep me locked away. Not when there's a much simpler option."

He understands everything, Sarah thought. Was that really a surprise? Chuck may be naive about a great many things, but he certainly couldn't be accused of stupidity. He was acing all his classes at a top five university, for God's sake, right up to the moment Bryce had gotten him expelled. Yet just because he didn't fully understand how our world worked, we assumed that he wouldn't be able to see the logical conclusion to his situation. Sure, he knew about the possibility of a secure facility, because we told him about that from day one. But we turned out to be the naive ones, Sarah thought, because none of us – not Graham, not Beckman, not Casey, and certainly not I – ever thought that Chuck would see past the secure facility to a time when he might not be needed at all, and what we might do with him then. Her mind whirling, Sarah couldn't seem to make herself do anything other than stare blankly at Chuck, and she had to actually force herself to speak. "How...how long have you been thinking about this?"

Chuck looked away again, back out to sea. "I guess it started when Casey told me that he was the one who shot Bryce. I asked him why, and he just kinda shrugged and said, "Orders." Like it was nothing, you know? Like I was silly for even asking. Of course, Casey thinks that pretty much everything I do or say is silly, but this time something started working in the back of my brain, like a program chugging along in the background, and eventually it just spit out an answer. He killed Bryce because he was a risk, and I am now the all-time grand pooh-bah of security risks. So sooner or later, Casey'll get the same order for me. I wish I hadn't come up with that answer, but once I figured it out there was just no un-figuring it, you know?"

"And yet you're still here. Still working with Casey...with me. Why, Chuck?"

"Remember what I asked you our first night on this beach? After our very first fake date?"

She did indeed. Sarah tried to answer, but it took her a moment to spit the words out of her suddenly dry mouth. "You asked if there was anywhere you could run."

"And you said, 'Not from us.' Not that I didn't think about it – for about ten whole seconds. Let's face it, most days I'm happy if I don't trip over my own feet in public. I'm not the guy for a daring, James Bond style escape. And even if I was, I don't think that I could handle being alone. I've thought about it a lot, and I'd rather spend whatever time I have with Ellie, and the Captain, and Morgan...and you. Plus I can help catch some really nasty bad guys along the way, which helps me to believe that there's some sort of point to this whole mess." He paused and looked at Sarah, then forced a smile onto his face and continued. "Besides, I figure Casey's got me LoJacked eight ways from Sunday by now. If I did try to take off, he'd probably just whip out an NSA-modified wireless gamepad and steer me right back to his apartment. Or something less geeky."

Sarah felt her eyes misting, and all the CIA training in the world couldn't have stopped the tear that rolled down her cheek. His little joke is what got her, she thought. He was talking about the complete loss of his freedom and future, about losing everything and everyone that matters to him, even losing his very life. And still he manages to force a smile and crack a joke. Sarah knew that it was for her, to make her feel less awkward, less ashamed of what they had done to him. To let her know that he didn't blame her. And to let her know that even though he was having a rough time adjusting to the truth of his situation, he was determined to come out the other side as himself if he could, and that he wanted her around if and when that happened. She suddenly felt a terrible, almost crushing sorrow. "I know you're probably sick of hearing me say this, but I'm sorry, Chuck. I'm sorry that Bryce dragged you into this mess. I'm sorry that we take your help for granted. I'm sorry that we've underestimated you so terribly. And I'm sorry that I...that I haven't been able to give you what you need from me."

"Sarah, you might not be able to give me everything I'd like to have, but you still give me more than you realize. I think I know how you feel about me, even if you can't say it. It sort of sneaks out of you when your guard is down. Sure, I'd rather have you come right out and say it, or better yet, show me. But I make do. I have conversations with you in my mind, and I imagine the way it would be. I kinda fill in what I imagine you'd say if you could, the things I think I see in your eyes when you look at me. I know that it's really just wishful thinking, that maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see even though it's not really there, but it helps. It gives me something to hold on to."

Chuck hesitated for a second, like he was unsure if he really wanted to say what he was about to say, but then went ahead anyway. "I know it's asking a lot, Sarah, but could you just sort of...let me go on pretending? Sometimes I get to thinking too much about everything, and you are the one thing that can pull me out of my tailspin, like you did tonight. So do me a favor, okay? Let me hold on to that. Can you please do that for me? I know you keep saying that we can't ever be together for real, and that I should stop hoping for that to happen. But I have to keep hoping. I can't let go of that hope. Partly because what I feel for you is real, and partly because it's the best chance I've got to get out of this alive and free."

The simple truth of his words hit Sarah in the face like cold water, and for a moment she could do nothing but stare at Chuck. He paused uncomfortably, afraid he wasn't making sense and trying to figure out how to make her understand, but Sarah decided that she had finally heard enough. "I can do better than that, Chuck." Eyes locked onto his, she walked toward him, and without a word she slid her arms around him and held tight. Chuck tensed, not sure what this meant or how to react, but only for a second. He let out the deep breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and sunk into the embrace.

Sarah couldn't say how long they held each other. A few minutes? A week? A million and one things were racing through her mind, and she held onto Chuck even tighter, as if that would keep her thoughts from carrying her away. Scenes from this night were playing in her mind like a highlight reel, but her perspective had just been radically shifted, and she saw the truth of them now. Why had she chosen to recreate their first evening together in the first place? The details came back to her - her outfit, the hand-holding, the silly little twirl - she had been flirting mercilessly all night. Why? She had told herself it was to cheer him up, but that didn't sound quite so believable anymore. Was it a subconscious effort to make things go "right" this time? Did she want to see what might have happened if Casey hadn't shown up? To feel like she had ever so briefly that night, just a girl out on a date with a guy who liked her? Maybe all of the above; she didn't know. But she did know that despite what she had told herself, nothing about this evening, this "date", was about what Chuck needed. It had been about her from the start.

It was that damned smile of his that caused all the trouble, she thought. She had been so desperate to see it again. So she had planned this elaborate charade complete with costume and told herself that it was all about finding out what was wrong with Chuck, about making him feel better, when it had really been about her missing the one thing that made her feel good about herself. And that led to the larger question – if Chuck's smile was the only thing that made her feel good anymore, what did that say about the rest of her life? She had always thought that the job was enough, that giving up everything else had been a fair trade because the CIA made her happy. But was that still true? This past year had confused everything. All the time she had spent with Chuck, growing closer to him no matter how much she tried to fight it, had led to a point on that rooftop where she had finally been forced to choose between the two things she wanted. And on that night, when her hand had quietly drifted towards her gun, she hadn't been thinking of pointing it at Chuck.

She realized that a fundamental decision had to be made. Was she the job, or not? She could do the job, better than just about anyone else. She had done it for so long and committed to it with such a ferocity that it had seemed to swallow her whole, that there was very little left of any other Sarah she might once have been. That was why she was always in motion around Chuck, spinning and running and jumping and anything to keep him from holding onto her, because she knew that if he held her still and close she would see that it was all a lie. Maybe it had once been more, but now the job was just a thing she did. It was not who she was. And it had never stopped her from loving him, it had just kept her from admitting it. She had fooled herself about that for a long time, but only herself. She had never fooled Chuck. And after tonight, she would never be able to fool herself again. Was she the job? The answer was no. And with that decision made, wasting even one more second was unacceptable to her.

Sarah pulled back from the embrace, taking hold of Chuck's hands instead. Chuck thought that it was to be the same old song again, that she had gone as far as she was willing to go, that she had simply freaked out over their conversation and her panic had overcome her self-control for all too brief a time, like it did that night at the pier. That night he had at least gotten a world class, soul rocking kiss for his trouble, but it looked like no such luck tonight. He gave her a small, resigned smile, thinking not for the first time how sad it was that he had gotten used to taking whatever small scraps of affection she could give, and turned to head back in the direction of the far-off Porsche. He was more than a little surprised when her hands held his tightly and would not let him leave.

"Chuck, I...I need to tell you something. I have no idea how to make it come out right, and I'm sure that I'll screw it up somehow, but I have to try anyway. I..." She faltered, and Chuck thought she looked like a deer caught in headlights, wanting to run but somehow unable. Whatever she was trying to say was obviously freaking her out, and anything that did that to Sarah just couldn't be good. Still, best to get it over with. "Hey, you told me a while ago that I could tell you anything, right? Well, that works both ways. Whatever it is, just say it. I can take it. C'mon, there's no firing squad here. It's just me."

Of course it's you, Sarah thought. No one but you could make me jump off this damned cliff. No one else has even come close to making me feel this way. And I'm tired of pretending that I don't want you. That's why I have to say it.

"Chuck, I love you." And then she kissed him.

She had only kissed him for real one other time, and this was as different from that frenzied kiss on the docks as light was from dark. The kiss on the docks came from passion borne of fear, and was completely about the moment because she had thought there would be no future. And when the world didn't end, she had run from that kiss like an Olympic sprinter rather than deal with what it really meant. But this kiss, this kiss was tender and sweet, and held the promise of so many things that might be. Lazy Sunday mornings in pajamas, eating pancakes and sharing the LA Times. Cutting grass and planting flowers in the small front yard of their cute little house. Playing with Ellie and Devon's kids. Arguing playfully over a book of children's names, and patiently explaining to Chuck yet again why "Obi-Wan" was not a good middle name for their soon to be born son. Choosing schools. Saving for college for three kids. But mostly, it held the promise that neither one of them would ever be alone again. She didn't know if any of these things would happen; she knew what they faced better than anyone. But she wanted them all, and she had finally decided to stand up and fight for them. For him.

After what seemed to Sarah to be all too short a time, Chuck broke the kiss and pulled back slightly. They just looked at each other for a moment, and Sarah felt the first stirrings of panic because Chuck still hadn't said anything. He was just looking at her intently, almost studying her. Did he think that she was doing this out of pity? Because she felt sorry for his situation, or guilty for being a part of it? She couldn't blame him for being confused; after all, she'd been sending him mixed signals for so long now. She started to explain, tell him that this was not pity or guilt, that this night had finally made everything clear, made her realize what she wanted. But before she could begin her protestations, she caught the look on Chuck's face.

He was smiling.

A small one at first, almost quizzical. But it kept spreading until it seemed his face couldn't contain it, eventually becoming what Sarah would always remember as the Mother of All Sarah Smiles. She had no choice but to return it, just like she always did. Before she met Chuck, Sarah couldn't remember the last time she smiled without a specific purpose in mind, even with Bryce. But Chuck did that to her every time she saw him, saw his Sarah Smile. She had to smile back. Because it was Chuck, and because she loved him. She leaned in to kiss him again, he kissed her right back, and it was a long time before they came up for air.

- - - - - - - - -

Chuck and Sarah were finally heading back towards the car, looking considerably more disheveled and yet much happier than they had on the walk up the beach. They were holding hands again, and the lovestruck little glances they kept sharing made Sarah feel like a teenager on her first big date. That's probably not far off, she thought to herself, because she had absolutely no idea how to be a girlfriend. And there were other issues as well, much more unpleasant ones...

"Sarah? Helllloooo, Sarah? Anyone there?" Of course Chuck had noticed her floating away. He noticed everything.

"I'm here, Chuck. Just thinking, that's all."

He wagged a finger at her in mock warning. "Careful now, that thinking is dangerous stuff. I've been thinking a lot lately, and look at all the trouble that got you into."

A shy little smile drew itself on Sarah's face, but only for a moment. "Actually, I was thinking that you might be in trouble here, not me."

"And how exactly would that be different from every other day since I met you?" This earned Chuck a punch on the arm, but no laugh. "Oookay, I'll play along. How am I in trouble?"

"I'm not good at this, Chuck. Relationships, I mean. I've never had one like this. I've never committed myself to being there for anyone, and I've gotta admit that I'm terrified. How ridiculous is that? Put me in a room full of bad guys with guns, and I won't break a sweat because I know that in less than a minute I'll be the only one standing. But the thought of us together freaks me out because I want this so much but I have no idea how to make it work. I'm scared to death that I'll screw it up."

"It's gonna be okay, Sarah. We're gonna be okay. You've already done the hard part."

"And that part was?"

"Admitting to yourself that you wanted this to happen. Taking the leap. I'm not saying it's gonna be easy; actually, now that I think about it, this relationship might be more complicated than third semester Calculus. But I got through that, and I don't like Calculus nearly as much as I like you."

Another punch on the arm. "It's so reassuring to know that I'm risking everything for a man who likes me slightly better than math."

"Whoa, don't get cocky there, Agent Walker. If Calculus had worn outfits like the one you're rocking, it might have been closer."

Look who's cocky now, Sarah thought with a grin. Time to even the score. "Well, I'll bet that your Calculus book didn't look nearly as good without its cover as I do without mine."

Chuck couldn't have stopped walking any more suddenly if he'd dropped an anchor. He just stood there, looking at her and through her at the same time, a dreamy little half-smile on his face, and Sarah knew exactly what he was seeing in his mind's eye. And for the first time in a long time, maybe ever, that thought made her blush. She knew that men looked at her all the time, and she had used that fact, in both assignments and past relationships, as a means of control, of keeping the upper hand. But not with Chuck. He wasn't picturing her as a conquest, or a trophy, or a notch on his belt; he was just picturing her, and she couldn't begin to describe how grateful she was that she could make him so happy with such a small suggestion of things to come. She played the moment forward, imagining the time not too far from now when she could share herself with him for real, and her stomach began to flip. She had never wanted anything more in her entire life, and that realization made any last shreds of doubt disappear, washed away like footprints with the tide.

But first, they had to get back to the car. She smiled coquettishly. "Are you coming, Chuck?"

"I'm pretty sure that it's against the Geneva Convention to make me think of you without your "cover" and then ask me that particular question."

She laughed out loud, a rich, rolling laugh, and she was amazed at how good it felt. It felt odd, especially for someone so used to controlling their every emotion, but so, so good. She walked back to Chuck and wrapped her arms around his waist. Reaching up on tiptoes, she brushed several soft kisses across his neck, then settled down and rested her head on his chest. They stood like that for a while, Sarah listening to Chuck's heart beat, and she thought that it'd be nice if this moment could last until, oh, say, the end of time. She was so sure of this now. But was he, really? There was one last thing to ask.

"Chuck? You've flashed on me before, right? The French assassins, remember?"

"Sure I remember. And may I say, what a weird thing to bring up right now."

She pulled back to look at him. "Not really. Do you know what I remember most about that? I remember how scared you were of me. I think about that, and I can't help thinking, 'If he only knew what else I've done...' Because I've done worse, Chuck. And I can't help but think that you deserve better than someone who's done things like that."

At first, Chuck was surprised at the thought that anyone could deserve better than Sarah, and he almost let out a small laugh. But he looked at her, saw the real fear in her eyes. He realized that she thought that this had never occurred to him, that he might run away from her screaming if it did. He had to put this to rest right now.

"If that's what has you worried, then don't be. That French assassin thing is a tremendously bad example. If you remember, I had Casey telling me not to trust you, you telling me not to trust Casey, cars exploding, and government scientists kidnapping me to put me up for auction on eBay. I was so on edge that my own shadow freaked me out. But more importantly, I didn't really know you then. We've spent so much more time together since then, and I know who you are now. Sometimes better than you do, I think. And yeah, Mr. Intersect here has seen a few of the, uh, unsavory things that you've had to do, and I'm sure that what I know is just the tip of the iceberg. But I also know that the things you had to do were just that – things you had to do. And even as naive as I can be, I never though that deep cover CIA agents spent their time petting fluffy little bunnies and helping old ladies cross the street. Besides, that stuff all happened B.C. - Before Chuck. A dark and primitive time in anyone's life, to be sure."

"Oh. you have no idea. And I'm going to keep it that way as long as I can, because saying that my past doesn't bother you will be a lot easier if you don't know much about it."

"That's your choice, Sarah. I'm not going to push you into telling me anything, not even your name. I've learned two things of value in the last year. One is no olives on pizza, and the other is that it's a bad idea to try to push you into anything. You decide when you're ready. Besides, I figure that if I show you every day how much I love you, eventually you'll realize that nothing you could ever say would make me want to leave you."

Just when she thought that she couldn't fall any deeper, he pulls out another gem like that one. She kissed him again and smiled. "How often will I have to change your batteries? You have to be a robot or a Stepford Boyfriend or something, because anyone who can wait as patiently as you just can't be human."

Boyfriend? Wow. But Stepford? "Okay, that's your third science fiction reference of the night, and all three have required the use of a time machine to be understood. So boyfriend mission number one is to get you up to speed, and quickly. You wanna roll with Chuck, you gotta speak the lingo. And as for the patience thing, let me just say, are you kidding?? I would have rented billboard space if I'd thought it would do any good. Waiting for you almost killed me." He stopped at the slight grimace on Sarah's face. "Okay, really bad choice of words. But it was tough to take, being sure – well, pretty sure – how you felt about me and wondering if you'd ever be willing to take a chance on us. But I knew that I couldn't force you to see anything you weren't ready to see. You had to figure it out on your own. My plan was just to be standing right there next to you when you finally did."

Her eyes misted over again, and she caught her bottom lip in her teeth to keep from completely breaking down. No one had ever been willing to put up with so much heartache just for her. She snuggled into him, reassured but still sniffling just a little. "Well played, Chuck."

He wrapped his arms around her even tighter. "Yeah, I love it when my evil plans come together. And so efficiently, too – only a whole year."

"I'm sorry I took so long, Chuck. It's just...it always came back to my job. It's how I've defined myself for so long. I've spent the last year beating myself up over falling for you, feeling like a professional failure or something. It just never dawned on me until tonight that maybe falling for you didn't make me a bad agent, that maybe it just meant that I've had enough of being one. That maybe now I want something better."

They held each other a while longer, watching the waves come in. Neither of them spoke; it was a moment that just didn't need words. Finally, hand in hand, they started back to the car once again.

"Sarah? Not to ask a cheesy cliché of a question, but...what happens now?"

"That's too much to think about right now. Let's just go to my place for the night and we'll start figuring it out tomorrow, okay? Thank God we don't have to work."

Chuck pictured himself in Sarah's bed and his brain almost shorted out. Some NSA agents, however, are just too stubborn to take the hint that it's time to go. "Well, if you insist. But Casey is just kinda standing there in my head, tapping his gun against his leg and refusing to leave. Anything you can do about that? I'd really like him to go away now so I can concentrate on the 'head to my place for the night' part of what you just said.

Sarah broke out in yet another big grin. She'd smiled so much tonight that she thought her facial muscles would be sore for a week. "Okay, Chuck. I'll tell you the truth about Casey. And the truth is that I don't know what will happen. Casey might get that order, Chuck, but he might not. I don't think that anyone really knows how this will play out; it's pretty much uncharted territory. And just between you and me, I'm not sure exactly what Casey would do if and when he got the order. Odds are that he would try to do what he was told, but he's not as stone cold as he likes to pretend, at least not when it comes to you. The way he's always teasing you, well, it reminds me of an older brother sometimes."

"Oh, so you know about older brothers, huh?"

Sarah chuckled at that. "What happened to not pressuring me to tell you anything? The point is this, Chuck. I promised you that I would never let anything happen to you, and I plan on keeping that promise. I'll find out if Casey gets that order. And I'll be ready."

Chuck raised his eyebrows in his best Spock impression, which was totally wasted on Sarah. "And when we say 'ready', we mean...what, exactly?"

"Well, worst case scenario is that it may come down between Casey and me, but even if I took Casey out they'd just send someone else after us. It's much more likely that we'd just run. I have enough identities and resources that I can hide us pretty well. Are you ready for that, Chuck? Leaving everything behind? You said before that you didn't think that you could do it."

"I said that I couldn't do it alone, Sarah. As long as you're there with me, I think I can handle anything. But just to be sure, I need an answer to a very important question."

Sarah steeled herself and looked straight into Chuck's brown eyes. "And that question is...?"

"If we ever do have to run, can you bring the Wienerlicious outfit with you? I don't come over for lunch every day for your cooking, you know."

With her best look of mock outrage, Sarah actually did body slam Chuck onto the sand. Then she joined him there.

He'd been right. It was worth the pain.