A couple of days later, a brain stem neuron, minding its daily chores, was slapped into alertness after receiving simultaneous chemical signals at several of its dendrites. The ion composition of its bustling interior was altered until, like rush hour on the subway, potassium, chloride, and sodium ions rushed to exchange places across the membrane at the base of its axon. The signal hopped its way towards the end of the narrow process in parallel with signals along hundreds of its neighbors, until it reached its terminus, releasing a flood of adrenaline across its synapse. A fountain of electrical activity was shooting up from the brain stem along the reticular activating system, spreading out on the cortex like a fire reaching the forest canopy. Respiration increased, awareness returned, and Sarah opened her eyes for the first time that day.

"Chuck? You're here."

He was hovering over her, having just stood up, his ridiculous bleached hair and bright smile setting her mind at ease even though she knew something big had happened.

"Where …"

"We're at Harborview Medical Center. You were shot and lost a lot of blood but they were able to stabilize you. They stopped the bleeding in your leg and repaired a few arteries so you get to keep it, thank god."

Sarah reflexively tried to move her leg but it was immobilized.

"No, don't try to move it. It's got some healing to do. By the way, I already thanked your surgeon, Dr. Leroy Pitts, but you might want to do the same if you see him. Your scar is going to be pretty small, considering, and, like I said, you still have two legs."

"Chuck … the Ring … and Daniel."

Chuck's smile darkened.

"Yes … Shaw. He saved us."

"So the whole operation wasn't compromised? What about Casey?"

"No, we were right; Casey was captured. Shaw couldn't do anything right away because he was pinned down in Castle. Before he locked everything down he got one alert off to Beckman, which it looks like this same cell tried to intercept. Apparently they'd been able to do it before but for some reason this time the attempt to intercept the signal failed and tripped some alarm. Not only did she end up getting the message but some of her tech guys discovered how the Ring was monitoring and censoring her communications. That's another story though. Anyway, she sent a team which took out the agents that had Shaw pinned down. They were also able to find Casey and bust him out of Ring custody … which is kind of a funny story, actually. Casey swallowed a radioactive tracer at the Buymore when he knew he was going to be taken. Shaw was able to track it because Casey's captors didn't give him a toilet in his cell. There was a drain in the cell that connected to the building's storm drain and Shaw was able to trace the plume of radioactivity …"

"Okay, I get the picture."

"Right, sorry. Anyway, Casey told Shaw about his contact, Blue, and that's how they found us. Now they're tracking the rest of the cell up here. Runkle's in custody and most of their ops teams have already been taken out. Raymond attempted to use a passport at the Canadian border that he didn't know had been flagged when he left the CIA. Kinda sloppy if you ask me. So, they have him in custody now and are trying to work out the last pieces of the cell before it goes underground."

"Who's Raymond?"

"Right, you never heard about that. Darnell Raymond. He's some kind of ranking operative in the cell we were after."

"Chuck. Are you okay? I saw you collapse. You were twitching."

Chuck's face froze, his eyes staring past Sarah.

"Yes … that. Apparently, a safety was added to the updated Intersect to allow it to be … disabled, which Shaw did. It's a verbal key that can send me into a seizure whenever it's spoken. Fortunately it has to be changed each time it's used but still, it's always nice to know you can be knocked over with a few words."

"Was it bad?"

"Sorta like being in a tornado and struck by lightning at the same time."

"I'm sorry, Chuck. So why did Shaw use it? Wait … were you trying to shoot him? I don't remember if that happened or if I dreamed it."

Chuck spoke the next words loud enough for his voice to carry.

"I was so amped up on adrenaline I didn't know who I was shooting at. I just thought he was another Ring agent."

Then Chuck bent over, putting his mouth next to Sarah's ear.

"Sarah, I learned something from that conversation at the park. Shaw's dirty. He's a traitor, just as bad as Fulcrum and the Ring. He has another operation we didn't know about and they're trying to …"

Chuck straightened quickly as he heard the curtain at the room's entrance moved aside. Sarah's eyes were wide, staring questioningly at Chuck. He nodded almost imperceptibly to confirm what he'd said. Daniel Shaw came up to the other side of the bed looking down at Sarah with a smile on his face.

"Hey there sweetie. You're awake finally. You weren't making too much sense yesterday with those meds after the surgery."

He leaned down and planted a kiss on Sarah's lips. Chuck stared in horror, his hands hardening into claws. Shaw straightened and looked back at Chuck, nodding towards the door.

That fucking traitor bastard wants me to leave my own girlfriend! Oh you … mother … son of a … damn it! He can't know we're together yet.

Chuck forced a smile and headed for the door. Just as he was about to leave he turned to see Sarah's eyes following him. It was only because he knew her as well as he did that he could see the pained look of distaste in her expression. He gave her a wink and a shake of his head which Shaw missed, having turned back to Sarah.

I hope she doesn't hate me for not telling him yet. Maybe she'll understand the reason.

Chuck waited outside the room, dark, ugly thoughts dripping from his mind, muddying the sunny feeling he'd gotten from seeing Sarah awake. As his emotions roiled, he thought about how Shaw always seemed to be coming between him and his friends or the people he loved. First separating he and Sarah, then trying to pry Casey away, and always scheduling missions which disrupted his plans with Morgan or Ellie.

It's like he doesn't want me to have friends or ...

Chuck felt the hair on his arms and the back of his neck raise up as his recall tripped over something Sarah had told him. It was a technique, used by intelligence agents and cults alike, to influence ... no ... to change one's allegiances. It always started with isolation of the subject, psychologically or physically, from the people they trusted. When someone was in this vulnerable state, one could insinuate themselves as a new ally, friend, or authority figure.

First there was the depression, using alcohol to fall asleep, then becoming detached and antisocial, and all of it … everything started after Shaw. I don't believe it. How did I not see it before? He's going to try to recruit me! That slimy bastard! He wants a little Intersect soldier for his very own. We'll see how well that goes over you slick robot.

Just as he had this last thought, Shaw exited Sarah's room. Chuck disguised the look of disgust on his face by faking a yawn and rubbing his eyes.

"You should get some sleep, Chuck. She's going to be fine. The nurses are taking care of her, and I can keep her company."

Oh, can you, you son of a … "Yeah, I suppose I should."

"Before you go …" Shaw took a step until he was within hugging distance and pitched his voice so only Chuck could hear. "We haven't been able to get much out of Raymond yet. He's had plenty of training to resist interrogation but we'll crack him eventually. It would be easier, though, if you could remember anything else about that meeting. Anything you can think of?"

Chuck closed his eyes in feigned concentration.

"Nope. Sorry. The only thing I saw them talking about was the cash pickup."

"Okay, no worries. If you think of anything though, let me know."

"Sure. Will do." Worried, traitor? Raymond knows all about you and Casey's extracting all of it as we speak. Not that you'll ever find out. That weasel is earning himself a pass from the needle and protection from a Ring assassination because of you.

Shaw began to turn towards Sarah's room but stopped. "Oh, I can't believe I forgot to mention this before. While you were out, after … well … after you had the seizure, we implanted a tracking device under your skin. It's made of special composites so it doesn't show up on x-ray, and it's activated only after being pinged by a satellite. It's nearly impossible to detect."

"Where is it?"

"That's the beauty of it. If we don't tell you where it is, it can't be tortured out of you if you're ever abducted again. I just thought you'd be happy to know that we'll always be able to track you from now on."

"Oh, I'm delighted. Believe me ..." ... you worthless rat fu ...

"Well, go get some rest. I'll stay with Sarah. I think she could use the company. I'll see you back at The Castle."

A nurse watched the lanky bleached blonde man head for the elevator past the nurse's station with murder on his face. The nurse considered calling security on the guy but then thought better of it, content that at least he was leaving.

Man … wonder who pissed in his cornflakes?

Sarah lay on her back in her own bed, reluctant to put her feet on the floor. This was a self-indulgence she held sacred and she wouldn't let discipline encroach on her little bubble of peace and quiet. Her schedule, normally chaotic due to the nature of being an operative, had recently become more akin to the wheel of fortune. Today it was hunting the Ring as usual, sitting in front of a computer doing research. The day before, on the other hand, she and Casey had broken into a bank vault downtown to retrieve a passel of documents and a flash drive containing information on Shaw's under the board financial transactions. The day before that, she and Chuck had nearly been discovered downloading files from an encrypted hard drive she'd lifted from a storage locker Shaw rented in Thousand Oaks.

They were looking for more evidence to bring to Beckman, as they'd discovered she was fortunately not part of Shaw's conspiracy. Darnell Raymond's accusation that Shaw was running an illegal operation had turned out to be true, and his information had been helpful, if incomplete. The problem was that they needed to uncover Shaw's network and find evidence of his political and economic objectives to bring to Beckman, a task that was turning out to be as difficult as hunting the Ring.

Then there was she and Chuck's other mission. The secret one. When Chuck had finally been able to tell her all of what he'd learned at the park they'd spent several intense hours considering the implications. It seemed to both of them that the shadow governments, conspiracies, and rogue operations would continue as long as the gold ring of the imprinting technology existed. One solution, then, was the complete destruction of the technology and all knowledge of it. Of course the inherent difficulty with technology in the modern age was that, once it was developed it was nearly impossible to make it disappear. Even if it did, there was always the possibility that it would pop up again later. Instead of eradication, Chuck had suggested another option, that they find a way to inoculate the public against the imprinting. A project of this sort was way beyond either of their abilities so they decided to look for help. Thus began the second great search for the whereabouts of Stephen J. Bartowski.

Sarah stretched decadently, enjoying the silky flow of her bamboo sheets over her skin, attempting to ignore the now familiar ache in her left thigh. This week the pain had been better than the previous one, her rehabilitation looking to be on a faster schedule than the one the physical therapist had suggested. This surprised no one, as Sarah wasn't one to accept imposed limitations when it came to her own body.

It was more than determination that had led to her faster than expected recovery, though. She and Chuck had been looking for ways to be together and rehab provided a perfect opportunity. Of course Shaw had insisted on helping at first but Sarah had no intention of letting him get between her and her man. Going off the pain meds to clear her head gave her the excuse she needed and she became a complete bitch as he tried to run her through the exercises. She was proud of herself that the normally unflappable agent hadn't lasted more than two sessions.

He'd attempted feigning jealousy when she suggested Chuck take over rehab duties, still trying to keep the wedge between the two, but this had backfired as well since it gave Sarah the excuse she needed to break up with him. She told him she did not find jealousy attractive.

When Chuck took over as her coach, the reversal from their usual roles had been somewhat awkward. Sarah restored the balance, however, when she suggested in exchange she coach him through conditioning training to relieve him of the muscle strains and cramps that the Intersect sometimes inflicted on him. Now, several times a week they met on the practice floor, bodies together, bending and stretching, sweating from the exertion. The sexual tension was maddening but delicious. She looked forward to each session, despite the pain, as any time with him was more precious than gold.

The green digital numbers across the room said 6:30 and the rumble in her stomach told her a foray for dinner was pending. Time to leave the bubble of no-work ... and no bugs. She brought the palm of her hand down on the naked bottom next to her, the satisfying smack bringing a wicked smile to her face.

"Hey, I was having a good dream."

"Mmmmm. Was I involved?"

"Maybe. Why don't you come sit on my lap, and I'll tell you all about it."

Chuck's infectious smile and casually sprawled nudity were too much to resist. She let herself be pulled down for a long leisurely kiss but as his hands began to roam she knew she'd soon be lost. With a catlike motion she slipped out of his arms and rolled off the bed, still feeling the path his fingers had traced on her skin. As usual, they didn't have time for another round but she enjoyed watching the way his eyes appraised her nakedness.

"I wish we could go again, babe, but there's only 45 minutes until the software for tracking your bug resets its encryption password. That's just about long enough for us to get dinner and make it back to the 'stakeout' we're supposed to be at."

"Fucking Shaw and his damn bug. I can't wait 'til you and I can be 'out' about us. I envision an entire day off with nothing to do but really naked, really fun things in bed." She saw it coming from a mile away as he lunged for her, and she easily slipped out of his reach.

"An entire day, huh? You sure you could handle it big guy?"

"I think you'd be the one handling it, Sarah."

She rolled her eyes. "You're such a dork."

"Nerd, remember, not dork. And anyways, that's why you love me."

"Yes, among other things."

"Ooo, like what?"

"Like how you're going to go get crab Rangoon, tofu pad see ew, and chicken pad prik king from Tam's while I take a shower."

"Oh I am, am I?"

"Yep. Then maybe later we can test how my flexibility is coming along in the backseat of the stakeout rental. It's a tight fit but we could manage, don't you think?"

"Mmmm. I'd call you a tease but you have a really fantastic way of following through. Have I told you that I love you lately?"

"It never hurts to hear it again."

"I love you, Sarah."

"I love you too, Chuck."

"You know we're going about this all backwards, saying I love you and having fan-frikin-tastic sex before we've been on more than two half-dates. And those both ended with vehicular violence of some sort."

Sarah held his face between her hands, wrapping a curl of his hair around her index finger

"Chuck, going on dates before sex and love is what normal people do. We don't do normal. That's just not … us."

"Nope, you're right. And now that I'm with you I can say with certainty, I hope it never is."

A/N: Well, I hope I didn't Scooby Doo that ending too badly. In any case, there's plenty of fodder for the sequel. Shaw's still on the loose and Chuck and Sarah are left having an illicit affair (at least as far as Shaw, Casey, and Beckman are concerned). Will Chuck and Sarah take Shaw down, will they get their chance to go on another real date, did the crab Rangoon turn out crispy or sodden ... find out in the sequel: The Revenge of the Bartowski.