Hey all! Before you ask, I'm still working on "Sarah vs. the Ties that Bind," though the season finale sure threw a few wrenches in what I had plotted out. But do look for that, as well as updates to my "Bones" fic, if you got an alert for that. This is a short one-shot that takes place directly after "Ring Part 2" and it's my way of attempting to reconcile everything that Sarah's done over the past few years. Please let me know what you think!

Disclaimer: I don't own Chuck, obviously.

After their dinner/wake for Stephen Bartowski, after the flames of the Buy More fire have been extinguished, she thinks about leaving him. She really does.

For about a split second. But still.

She's alone in the apartment — Devon and Ellie have retreated across the courtyard; Casey drove Alex home before yanking Morgan over to his place to "talk"; and Chuck had tiredly announced that he wanted to go on a drive to clear his head, so she had given him the keys to the Porsche and a kiss — and finishing her glass of Cabernet when the thought occurs to her. I should leave him.

It's not because he's just a regular guy, like he was worried about in the Buy More. Really. She doesn't get why he's so insecure about not being a spy (or, some days, about being a spy), but that's not it. She's completely fine with regular. She's even taken a three-month leave of absence because she needs a break, too — two ex-boyfriends coming back from the dead to screw with her/kill her in just two years is exhausting enough, not to mention having Mr. Bartowski die, plus Chuck's own terrifying, near-death experience. She's tired, and she just wants a beach and sex and wine and books and Chuck for the next few weeks. After dinner she'd impulsively linked up, and Beckman had approved with a hint of resignation — she hadn't been surprised to see it coming.

It's because he lied to her.

She can't take any more lying. She really, really can't, and he had promised that there wouldn't be any more lying. She's spent so many years lying to herself and others and being lied to that she's reached a limit. Her youth had been built on lies, from her name on down. Bryce — she hadn't, at the time, been entirely sure if what she felt for Bryce qualified as love. They were best friends, and partners, and sleeping together, often. He knew everything about her; she felt, after a while, that she could tell him anything, and so she did. Bryce had come to the logical conclusion that it was love, and since she had never had any evidence — save for a niggling doubtful feeling in the pit of her stomach late at night — that it wasn't, she eventually started agreeing with him. They were partners for two years, dating for eighteen months, and they never discussed the future, which she didn't question at the time. Their lives were mission-to-mission, and that was the way they both preferred it. They really had an incredible agreement, were completely in sync, were almost of one mind. Even years later, this is the fact that strikes her most, and that was the Bryce that she eventually mourned — the one that was her, at that time and in that place, just in male form.

After he died the first time, after she thought he went rogue, she was incredibly angry. How dare he do that, lure her in, learn her weaknesses, get her to trust him, and then not be who he said he was. But after a few days of shocked, numbing grief when she mourned both the loss of a partner (half of herself, really) and a person; she realized she was madder at herself than at him — angry that she let her guard down and could get sucked in and suckered by him. She berated herself for getting lulled into a false sense of complacency and believing that there were constants in her world. She threw herself into work and locked herself down — both tasks that were made considerably more difficult by the appearance of one Charles Irving Bartowski in her life. She loved him before she realized it, and because she didn't know it — or maybe couldn't admit it — it just made it more complicated.

Initially, then, she had been relieved that Bryce was alive — relief that he was not dead, of course, because he didn't deserve to die, but also relief that she had not been wrong about him. That he hadn't manipulated her into being friends and lovers; that she wasn't a mark of some sort in his mind.

That feeling didn't last long.

No. To her surprise, she was angrier. At least if he had died, things would have been entirely in her control. She would just have been an idiot who had opened up to him. Instead, their relationship had been entirely real — and yet, he hadn't cared enough to give her a head's up when he was about to lie to the entire world about who he was and what he was doing. Not even a hey, a lot of stuff's going to happen, and I might not make it, but I'm doing it for a good reason, and I just wanted to tell you and I'm sorry. He just hadn't cared. To her, his words amounted to a logical fallacy: if he cared for her he would tell her in order to show her he cared for her; he said he loved her, but he hadn't told her. It had been a lie, and she'd been discarded, and it kind of ticked her off.

Even worse, she'd known, at the time, that she shouldn't be mad at him. After all, they had always been agents first, a couple second. She had watched him seduce enough people, and vice versa, to know that. And by not telling her he was protecting her, which was noble, she guessed. But just a few months near Chuck had changed her enough to know that it wasn't fair, and to feel betrayed. And pissed. And so yes, she had stayed in Burbank — mostly out of duty and a little bit because she wanted to be with Chuck, but also, a little, because she was mad at Bryce. For not trusting her, for not thinking that she could handle the situation. And also (an even smaller part) because she wasn't sure how she would have reacted if she had been in Bryce's shoes, and that knowledge about herself sickened her.

And then more time had passed and Bryce floated in and out of her life as Chuck, endearing and honest and earnest and growing in confidence every single day, stayed there and was there for her. And she started to believe that Chuck would never betray her the way Bryce had — he said so, often, but he also showed it, by buying her a dress and a hamburger with extra pickles and bringing her chocolate croissants and backing over bad guys. When Beckman told her to go to Zurich she'd said yes, reflexively, but then thought it over and changed her mind. And Bryce, damnable Bryce, got it, because he was more attuned to her than anyone else ever had been. Which was why she'd taken his ashes to Portugal and why she still smiled whenever she saw anything that startling shade of ice blue, like his eyes.

And just as Bryce had died, for sure and forever, the rules with Chuck changed. He said for years that he wanted the Intersect out of his head, until he didn't. He said he wanted to be a spy and that it was because of her, and the fact that she could do that to someone — not just change Chuck the way she had changed Chuck,but that she could have that much sway over someone's thoughts and desires and opinions, that she could be that important to someone that he would change the trajectory of his life if he thought that was what she wanted — made her retreat. She realized that she loved him, really loved him in the way that she had never loved Bryce, and that fact scared and confused her as much as the possibility that he was changing into something different, something terrifying and worse, did.

So they started another kind of lying — lying about how they felt and why they felt it, out of protective instincts and self-preservation. And Daniel Shaw, who had also lost someone (though she wasn't sure what she had lost, if it was Chuck or Bryce or both or just herself, and she wasn't going to analyze it) was there and simple and the rules seemed clear. Established. Daniel wasn't Bryce, so the dance was slightly more old-fashioned and formal, like Daniel was; she was more tired and less raw than she had been when she met Bryce, so it was less wild and adrenaline-fueled, like the new her. But she knew these rules, too, instinctively, the way things with Bryce had seemed easy and instinctive, and the opposite of how Chuck had made her think, and question, and want to do wild and crazy things like run away together and never look back and never care again.

Because the rules were that she would fall for her coworker and they would put mission first and emotions nowhere and they would be heroes. It would be very clean and neat and orderly — dinners would be expensive, gifts from both parties were a given, he would be courtly and gentlemanly and she would play the part of deferential junior agent and supportive companion/girlfriend. It was easy, and required so little thought and (she thought) so little heartbreak, but between Bryce and Chuck and life in general she was more vulnerable, and it didn't help that she liked and respected Daniel as a person and agent (well. Before he tried to kill her, and killed Mr. Bartowski, and then tried to kill Chuck). In retrospect, she actually invested herself far more than she should have (telling him her birth name, for instance, when really, now that she looked at it, she was Sarah, but it had given him leverage) and far more than she tried to appear, which was dangerous. But focusing on her career and being with Shaw and agreeing to go to Washington were just easy and easy felt nice and easy didn't require sacrifice. And it was a little boring and she was playing a role more often than not, just going through the motions, but it was a role that she knew she could do and there were no cute geeky jokes and Bartowski eyebrow dances to throw her off. It was the best decision, but it hurt. While it was harder to push those feelings down at first, it became easier as Chuck changed more and she could convince herself that he wasn't the same person (and really, he didn't want to be Chuck either).

But after Chuck (she thought) killed someone but then promised that he wouldn't lie to her again, ever, she then asked Daniel not to go to the Ring's headquarters, and to just stay alive, Daniel betrayed her personally where Bryce had only explicitly betrayed her professionally.

And she realized something. Imperfect and difficult as their relationship was, Chuck wouldn't do either. Ever. He would put her first, always, even above the mission or the country or personal dignity. And so despite the fact that it would be hard — and partly because of the fact that he said he wouldn't lie to her — it would all be worth it. She was ready. Chuck's speeches about what love meant finally made sense, more than Daniel's machinations or Bryce's martyr complex ever did, and she was ready and Casey's confession that he shot the mole was just icing on the cake. In Paris — she'd needed actual, physical saving at that point, but she no longer needed to be rescued in the save-the-princess sense, because she knew her answer was Chuck. And he would always be the answer. And that she was more than happy with that. Having that matter settled was empowering. Anchoring. Traveling through Europe, those first weeks back in Burbank, she felt more like herself than she had felt since Bryce had died (the first time).

Even then, though, even though they loved each other, they'd started lying to each other almost immediately, out of protection. They said they didn't want to be spies, for the other's benefit. And they'd figured that out and promised that it wouldn't happen again. And though she watched him lie to his father and to his sister, she didn't think he was lying to her.

But he had been. And that's why she considers leaving him.

She quickly decides against it, of course. She loves him, and after watching everyone else leave (her father) or die (Bryce) or turn into bitter shells of themselves (Shaw) because they put something else first, she knows that she will stay with him, just because of that, even if it destroys her. She loves him, and that doesn't happen often, especially the way they live their lives, and she knows now it's something that she should be selfish and self-sacrificing about.

But even though he would never hurt her intentionally, even though he would always consider her feelings, because he loves her, she needs him to trust her. It was the only way she was going to feel secure about them, she realizes now, and the only way this relationship won't destroy her. She doesn't care how many rules change, she just needs to know that he'll tell her when they do. She doesn't need him to prove that he loves her by trying to protect her — she knows that he does. He says it and shows it almost every day, even through this maniacal protective streak. But what she does need for him to do is show her that he still trusts her. She'd asked him to, so many years ago, and he'd said that he did. She knows that that was professional and this was personal, but trust is the only way they worked then and it was the only way they could work now.

So when he finally comes home, hours later, and startles her a little by throwing his keys on the table, she shuts her copy of Gone With the Wind quickly (he dad had given it to her sometime during the six months they lived in Georgia when she was 12, and it was her favorite) and prepares to have a serious, grown-up, relationship talk.

"Hey," she says, crossing to kiss him, because it will calm her nerves. "How are you doing? How was the drive?" She pulls back, but keeps her hand on his bicep.

"Good, I guess. I went over to Encino, actually. Saw the house where we grew up," he's quiet, but hugs her briefly. "Where's Morgan? I was thinking about making some hot chocolate."

"Still at Casey's. I figure we give them till midnight and then make sure Morgan's alive," she smiles slightly. She knows they'll both be OK. And Alex seems like she'll be good for both of them. "I talked to Beckman," she says, following him as he heads into the kitchen.

"Oh?" he asks, moving around, pouring water into the tea kettle.

"I … took a leave of absence," she admits. "Just … with everything that's happened, I needed a break, too. I'm starting with three months."

"Are you sure about this, Sar?" he asks, pausing after grabbing the marshmallows to cross to her.

"Yes. Absolutely. I need to breathe, we need to figure out what we both want to do, I think … It was the right choice," she bites her lip. "I was thinking that we could maybe take a real vacation first, though."

He laughs. "That does sound nice."

He pours them each a mug of hot chocolate, and they lean against the counter (OK, she jumps up and sits on the counter, which always drove Ellie nuts when she lived in the condo but she likes it because it puts her at eye level with Chuck) and they drink silently for a few minutes.

But she can't take it any more. "Chuck?"

"Yeah?" he asks, looking up from his mug.

"I'm not trying to … start something, especially after your father just …" she trails off. "I just have something I want to say."

He sets down his mug and moves to where she's sitting, puts his hand on either side of her thighs. "Is everything OK? This sounds a little rehearsed."

"It is and it isn't," she admits, avoiding eye contact by staring at his hair. She loves his new shorter cut, even if he has fewer floppy animal-shaped curls. She runs a hand through it as she tries to figure out how to start. Finally, she goes with an old standard. "I only need one thing from you, Chuck," she says. "I know you love me. I know that. But I need you to trust me, Chuck."

He moves his hands to her waist. "I know, I know I should have told you sooner about what the doctor said. I just didn't want …"

"I know you were trying to protect me," she interrupts. "I know you were doing that because you love me. But I know you love me, alright? And I will always love you — I don't know how or why I know it, but I know it. OK? Don't ever worry about that. Ever. But we need to trust each other enough to be honest with each other about what's going on. I know that we don't have the best history with telling each other everything, because of work and insecurities and many, many other things — but from here on out, we need to. Both of us. And I know I've probably been guiltier than you about this in the past but today just made me realize ... We need a clean slate. And a new Case Walker-Bartowski policy of no lies. I've been lied to or lying for most of my life," her voice thickens slightly, "and you have too, and I just … I really feel like the only way we're actually going to work is if we trust each other enough to tell each other everything from here on out. Even if we're worried it will worry the other person. Or make them angry. Or … whatever. It won't, not in the long term. But what can is if we don't trust each other. I don't need you to tell me or show me you love me, but I need you to tell me or show me that you trust me."

He's quiet, and she gets a little nervous. "I know," he says, finally, and leans over and kisses her gently, before taking her hand and pulling her off the counter. "We need to go to Encino. I have something I need to show you."

Like/love/hate? Let me know!