Hey, all. This story has been taunting and tormenting me for almost nine months. I've reread, revised, and tweaked my work until I've driven myself crazy. It had gotten so long, that I thought I'd be forced to cut it in two in order to post it. If you pay enough attention, I bet you can probably tell where in the story I began tiring of the whole writing experience. I pressed on through the writer's block and the lack of motivation, though, and finally "finished" it.

In the last few months, my interest in Chuck fic – writing and reading – has significantly waned, as my interest in NCIS fanfic has fast become my newest obsession, which means you're probably not going to see any more Chuck stories from me after this any time soon.

I'm thinking about writing a NCIS fic, so if you like my stories and are a fan of the show, NCIS, then please keep your eyes open for something from me.

In case I never write another Chuck fic again for as long as I live, THANKS! to everyone who has read and enjoyed and reviewed my stories from this fandom. You are all awesome.

The Analyst and the Valkyrie

Present Day, July 12, 2007, 06:14, PST,

Chuck woke up early, feeling at ease from his unexpectedly pleasant dreams. He yawned widely, his jaw cracking from the strain, and stretched out his legs, wincing at the cramp that came from the movement. Something was weighing down his arm, preventing him from moving it without waking up the person who was sleeping next to him, cuddled so closely against him. He didn't mind and he didn't move it. No wonder he was having good dreams last night, a direct result of the company he was keeping.

Smiling, he looked down at his sleeping beauty, just taking her face in, as he was wont to do on the rare day that he was the first to wake.

A quick glance at his alarm clock confirmed that his alarm was about to go off soon, and for one brief moment he seriously considered just turning it off, just so he could stay in this moment for much much longer. But the day was promising to be a busy one. And a life changing one, at that.

It was a day he had both looked forward to and dreaded at once, because it meant that it was time for him to be drawn back to the kind of messy life he'd once hoped to leave behind entirely.

His bed mate stirred a little and it was only a few moments before slightly sleepy eyes met his and crinkled at the corners when she smiled at him. He pulled her closer to him, kissing the top of her forehead.

"Hey, you," he greeted with a gentle smile, pushing stray hair away from her face. "Good morning."

She blinked at him, and then wound her arm around his middle, wedging herself against him. He could feel her gentle hum of contentment reverberate against his neck. "Hmm. Good morning."

The held each other for several long moments and Chuck thought about how ridiculously easy it was to just bask in her presence, despite any anxieties in his life. After a while, however, she reluctantly raised her head from his chest in order to look into his eyes, and not for the first time, he thought he might have heard an audible click of personal connection when their eyes met.

"So. Busy day today, " she said, smiling softly and he was mesmerized by the way her eyes twinkled from the early morning light as she tilted her head up. "You nervous?"

"I think I'm beyond nervous," he commented good-naturedly, his jaw tightening ever so slightly, betraying that despite the lightness of his tone, his nervousness was really weighing on him. His jaw relaxed when she brushed the side of his face with the back of her hand. When she pulled the hand back, he immediately snatched it out of the air and brought it to his mouth for a kiss, watching her face closely as her eyes hooded for a moment.

"You've been preparing for this day for a long time, Chuck. I know you'll do fine," she assured with a soft smile that had his heart soaring. He got a thrill in knowing that his companion felt the same about him that he did for her, though she had yet admit to it out loud. But he could tell in the way that she allowed her usual vigilant, hyper-aware self to unbend, just a tiny little bit when they were in public, and so completely that she was nearly melded to him, when they were all alone.

It hadn't always been that way, he sentimentally recalled with a smirk. In fact, the first time they'd ever...

"And what's that look?" Sarah asked, the sound of her voice both curious and amused, effectively bringing him back down to earth.

"Oh," Chuck responded lightly, running the back of his fingers across the forearm that was resting on him. "I was just remembering the first time we... uh... met."

"Were you now?" she said, smiling into his shoulder and giving it a quick kiss. "We certainly made an impression on each other, didn't we? I'd never have guessed back then that our initial hostility would eventually turn into what we have now. "

"If deadly glares could actually kill, I would've dropped dead right there on the spot."

"Well, it's a good thing you survived, then," Sarah said as she shifted her body until she was straddling him. The sensual smile on her face kept him frozen to the spot in anticipation; he barely dared to even breathe so as not do anything that could ruin this moment. "Just think of all the wonderful things we'd be missing out on... Like this..." She leaned down and drew him into a long, lazy, deep kiss that didn't care if either of them had morning breath or not. Before oxygen deprivation could become a serious problem, she broke the kiss and smirked at him in such a way that told him that she wasn't done with him, just yet. "Or this," she said, coyly. She moved slowly and trailed burning kisses down his chest as she traveled down and downward still.

"Oh, God," was all that Chuck could say.

One Year Earlier

"Sarah Walker is on the warpath." Chuck looked up from his paperwork at the sound of his friend's voice to see Bryce Larkin stepping into his office. Bryce dropped into the wheeled office chair that sat next to Chuck's desk. Chuck turned his own chair to face him, grateful for the brief reprieve from mission reports. "And word on the street is that her target is you. What the hell did you do to piss her off so much?"

"Piss her off... Moi?..." Chuck asked with mock surprise that was ruined by the hint of humor beneath his voice and the way the corners of his lips tugged upward. "Honestly, Bryce, where do you get these ideas? I've no clue what you're talking about."

"Now, why do I find that hard to believe?" Bryce responded wryly, then like an overactive five year old, spun his chair around and around several times before coming to a stop and sprawling back in the seat to grin mischievously at his friend. Chuck rolled his eyes at the childish behavior – not that he hadn't ever acted so similarly before, but still. "Really, buddy. She's got it in for you and I'm thinking the best thing for your continued good health would be to..."

"To what? Run away? Hide?" Chuck turned back to his paperwork, finally allowing his lips to lift up into a real, amused smile. He twirled his pen in his fingers before signing his name at the bottom of the page with a flourish. He glanced back at Bryce. "Since when have I ever backed away from an argument?"

"Almost never," Bryce commented, again wryly. "It's that compulsive need to talk that gets you in trouble every time. But really, this'll be no ordinary argument, you know. This is Agent Sarah Walker we're talking about here. Graham's wild card enforcer... Giant Blonde She-Male... Zillionth degree black-belt in all martial arts disciplines..." Chuck gave Bryce a pointed look. "Okay so I'm exaggerating, but only by a fraction. Point is, Chuck... She'll kick your ass."

"I can handle myself, Bryce. You know that." Chuck glanced over the next page of the report and signed at the bottom, then with a sigh, closed the folder and put it in his out-box. Finally, he was done and ready to go home for the day. "If Agent Walker wants to get into it with me, then all I have to say is..."

"Okay, which one of you jerks is Charles Bartowski?" a woman's angry – outraged – voice interrupted what he was about to say. Speak of the Devil and she shall appear. Despite himself, Chuck felt nerves flutter in his stomach for a moment. Though he had never personally met Sarah Walker, he'd heard her voice coming over the wire at least a thousand times, so he knew that it was she who was referring to him. He'd heard that particular tone at least a dozen times, and knew that whenever she used it, she almost always – in Bryce's brilliant words – kicked someone's ass, in a dramatic and often permanent way.

"Aaand that would be me," Chuck responded pleasantly, giving the woman standing in the doorway what one his exes called his "signature grin." The nerves were gone, but the adrenaline in his system was raging with the excitement of a potentially invigorating verbal, and perhaps physical, fight. She looked like a warrior goddess standing there, all righteous fury and readiness for battle. The nerd in him marveled, though he did not show it when he leaned back casually in his seat, resting his elbows against the arms and threading his fingers in front of him, smile still in place. "How can I help you, Miss...?"

"Agent," the angry Valkyrie emphasized with a clenched jaw and tight voice, "Walker, thank you very much." Agent Walker stalked across the room to stand right in front of Chuck's desk and slammed her hands down on it to lean her weight on the surface. She glared across the shortened distance between them. "So, tell me, Chuck, what the hell is your problem with the way I go about my work? You had absolutely no right...!"

And that was when his marveling stopped and Chuck abruptly became deathly serious, his grin slipping and his affable expression hardening so quickly that he could see a flash of surprise in her eyes at the change. He shot up from his relaxed position, leaned over his desk, and looked her straight in the eyes, their faces now less than a half foot away from each other. Walker tensed, but didn't move.

"No right?" he scoffed. His voice was hard as he countered, "I had every right, Agent Walker. Your actionsput two of my people – who by the way, I allowed you to take out into the field as a measure of good faith – at great risk, and to make things worse, it didn't start or stop there. If Rogers hadn't contacted me when he did, then I have no doubt at least one of them would be seriously injured or dead right now. I do what I have to do to protect my people from harm, Walker, while agents like you think only of completing the mission objective, no matter the human cost, even if that human cost includes their one of their own."

"Agents like me?" She asked, incredulously. "Seriously? Do you really want to get into that right now?" Sarah slapped the surface of the desk angrily before straightening up and towering over him once more. She sneered at him and turned mocking. "Well, I certainly wouldn't expect a mere analyst like you to understand how things really work in the field. The choices aren't always as black and white out there. And you think I don't consider the human cost?" She leaned against the desk again, her voice still hard and also low and deadly. "Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Bartowski, I value human life, and I value my fellow operatives. However... however, sacrifices are sometimes called for in order to save a mission, and consequently many more lives. Not that it would have actually been a problem. I had a perfectly good plan that would've gotten all of us out of there safely."

"Yeah, sure..." Chuck barely just refrained from rolling his eyes. "A plan that, if it had succeeded, still would've left a very high body count after you took out each of the suspect's men on your way out."

"Uh, guys," Bryce tried to interject into the argument, but neither of the two opponents heard it over the heat of their fight. "Graham is..."

"They were bad people!"

"Guys, really, you..."

"And they all have the right to due process..."

"Chuck... uh, Walker..."

"Due process!" she exclaimed, then laughed harshly. "They were bad people doing bad things and I had every right to take them out of the equation."

"Oh, is that what they're calling it these days. Sounds to me like a simple bloodbath, which is the last thing we..."

"That! Is! Enough!" a male voice boomed out loudly enough to wake the dead. A voice that was definitely not Bryce Larkin's. It commanded unquestioning obedience and the argument immediately ceased as Chuck looked up and Walker straightened and whirled toward the sound in surprise. The CIA's Director of Clandestine Services, Graham, stood there in front of them, arms crossed, barely controlled anger nearly causing the man to vibrate in place. Chuck vaguely noticed that Bryce was not in the chair anymore, or even still in the room. He rose to his feet quickly, in deference to their boss's entrance. "If you two are going to... disagree on things... then have the courtesy, at least, to keep it down while you're at the office. From this moment on, you will at least try to keep a civil tongue in your heads. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," Chuck and Sarah simultaneously and contritely responded and had the intelligence to say no more.

"Good." Graham nodded and relaxed his stance. "Sit down, the both of you. We have much to discuss."

Graham didn't wait to see if they obeyed him before turning to close the office door.

Present Day, July 12, 2007, 07:06, PST

Sarah turned down a joint shower, not because she didn't want to join him in there, but because she had somehow got caught in a phone conversation with Chuck's sister, Ellie. Since she and Chuck were heading to DC for the next few months, Ellie had tried her best to convince them to have breakfast with her and Devon before their flight east. And boy, true to character, Ellie was very insistent.

Chuck, the coward, was all too eager to leave Sarah to Ellie's gentle – ha! – persuasion without back up. He'd pay for that later.

Eventually, Ellie had her way, and got Sarah to agree, which she tended to do more often than Sarah was strictly comfortable. Sometimes, it appalled her how easily Chuck and Ellie could bully her into doing exactly what they wanted. Not that they called it that or considered it to be bullying. But she was an agent for the CIA, for pity sake, and had once successfully resisted torture for two months without breaking. Dealing with Ellie should have been child's play.

However, the part of her personality that longed to be accepted and, God help her, liked, more often than not won the battle of wills against the part of her that didn't give a crap what other people thought of her. She wanted Ellie to like her, to love her as she loved family, and apparently, it made her jump through the hoops she normally would have knocked out of the hands of those who held them.

She was all mixed up and confused and it was completely Chuck's fault. If he hadn't been so stubborn a year ago – and proved her initial assessment of him so completely wrong – then this never would have happened.

Sarah heard the sound of the shower shutting off and quickly found her towel and clothing. If they wanted to make it on time for their flight, they'd have to make breakfast quick. She was beginning to regret not taking Ellie up on her offer to let them stay at her apartment instead of this hotel, if only to save time.

Even though she did end up basking all night in the victory of that rare battle won. And made sure that Chuck reaped the benefits, as well.

Okay and regret gone. There was no way she'd be able to do that toChuck, knowing his sister was right down the hall.

Chuck opened the door of the bathroom, clad only in a low hung towel, and Sarah almost made it past him without incident before giving it up as a lost cause. She grabbed him for another thorough kiss that was equal parts giving and possessing. He hummed low in his throat and pulled her against him, cradling her head with one hand while his other rested firmly against her lower back. His wet, heated skin dampened her camisole and droplets of water transferred from his body to hers and trickled down her chest and between her breasts. The resulting flare of lust nearly had her yanking him right back into the shower with her and having her way with him once again.

Too bad they hadn't the time for it. Damn Ellie and her cajoling, pleading voice.

She pulled back reluctantly and looked up at his flushed face.

"Ellie's expecting us downstairs at eight. I'll try to make this quick," she informed him, tracing a finger down his bare chest enticingly as she slipped into the bathroom. As soon as she was inside, she slowly closed the door, watching him as he watched her in that appreciative manner that almost always had her wanting to lower her eyes in uncharacteristic bashfulness. When the door finally shut, she took a moment to lean back against the door with an airy sigh, like some stupid, lovesick teenager.

She mentally shook herself before pushing herself off of the door with a huff and undressing. Before stepping into the shower, Sarah took a moment to stare at her face in the mirror. It looked the same as it always did, but for one main difference.

That damn glow.

"Sarah Walker, you are well and truly done for," she admonished herself.

Her reflection gave no reply.

Ten Months Earlier

"What?" Sarah snapped at the man leaning against the kitchenette counter, casually sipping at his coffee while he watched her fill her own cup. Instead of frightening him away as she had frightened many a man, he simply smiled instead of rushing to escape from her.

"Nothing," he nonchalantly replied with a shrug and took another brief sip from his mug. "Just admiring your ever so sunny morning personality. It never fails to brighten my day."

"I am not in the mood to be antagonized today, Chuck," Sarah gritted out as she ripped open three sugar packets at once and dumped them with a little more force than was necessary into her cup. She stirred rigorously with a coffee straw and took a taste sip. No, not enough sugar. Sarah did her best to ignore her supervisor – ugh, she hated being considered a stupid analyst's subordinate. It still pissed her off how Chuck had somehow had enough pull with the Director to convince him pull her out of the field for the next several months. She ripped open another two packets of sugar, then took another test sip.

Much better, she thought to herself and drank a few more sips before she finally allowed herself to mentally acknowledge Chuck's presence. He was just standing there; thankfully not staring at her anymore, though obviously aware of her movements. She could still see a hint of a smile on his face and tried to guess what he was thinking. He was, no doubt, coming up with his next smart-aleck remark. He always seemed to have one waiting in the wings. And not just for her, but for every one he worked with.

She seemed to be the only one who ever took offense to anything he said.

She supposed she should just take it all in stride, but she just couldn't seem to resist using his words to her as a jumping off point to rile him up. But the only time his good-natured attitude ever disappeared was when someone or something threatened one of his own people, which she had learned to respect very quickly the one time she had tried to bully intel out of one of his analysts.

It had been almost scary, his reaction, and after that, she never attempted it again.

"Okay, I give up," she huffed, not wanting to wonder what devious thoughts he had in his mind, especially if they were in regards to her. "What's so amusing?"

"Nothing," he answered with his previous response, just as nonchalantly as before. "I just never took you for a sugar person."

"Sugar person," she repeated flatly, hiding the flare of irritation beneath a controlled exterior. She mentally prepped herself for an insult. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing," he said once again to her annoyance. "I just figured that you'd take your coffee black. My friend Morgan has this running theory that a person's overall personality can be quickly determined by how they take their coffee. This doesn't include fancy coffees, of course, just the classic, plain, bitter kind. For example, a person who puts vanilla creamer in his... or her... coffee tends to..."

"Chuck," she harshly interrupted, trying hard not to stare at him incredulously. "As fascinating as your friend's theory may be, we don't have much time to go into it. We need to be at your computer in five, remember?"

If she was a tad bit too rude, Chuck just didn't acknowledge it. Instead, he immediately brightened as if that were the best news he'd heard all day. "Of course, of course," he said, pushing away from the counter. "You've just proved his theory terribly wrong, anyway. Not sure if I'll ever have the heart to tell him, though... I'll see you in my office in five, then."

Chuck was out the door and heading to his office before she could reply. She was finding that he was quick on his feet and could be rather stealthy in his movements when he tried to be, which she had discovered the half a dozen times or so he'd managed to come up behind her and startle her.

She sighed and decided to top off her mug with more coffee and one more sugar.

She'd noticed earlier that he had put one packet of sugar and just a dash of plain creamer in his own coffee. She wondered what that said about his personality, then nearly slapped herself for considering it, even briefly. As if she actually gave credence to ridiculous theories.

She followed Chuck back to the office where they silently waited for the leader of one of their teams to call and check in.

The previous two months had proved to be exactly how she had expected them to be... as boring as hell. The tediousness of sifting through reams of useless intel that consisted of ninety-percent of the job was bad enough, but being unable to go out into the field to act on the rare piece of relevant intel nearly made her go stir-crazy. While she could admit that some of it could be faintly interesting, as she'd often been able to use her experience in the field to give a new perspective or to catch things an analyst might miss, overall, the whole thing was as tedious and unexciting as watching grass grow.

And that's what she continued to believe when, several hours into her shift later, all of a sudden things began to go FUBAR almost all at once.

The last team they were covering for the afternoon at first didn't check in on time, which was actually pretty normal and not something to be overly concerned about, but then one of the analysts from the main control room came rushing into the office, yelling something about police reports coming in about a gun battle in progress at the exact location their people were supposed to be.

At the same time, an alarm on Chuck's computer made a shrill noise.

"What the..."

Chuck immediately sprang into action, giving the analyst – Cohen she believed his name to be – an order to continue to monitor the police response and prepare to send their own back up to the site. Chuck, on the other hand, needed to find a way to patch into the team's communications system, which for whatever reason had gone all wonky.

"Is there anything you need me to do, Chuck?" Sarah asked, eager to contribute something to the very first interesting thing to happen all month.

"Actually, for the moment, I need you to stay right here with me and sit tight." Sarah felt her face fall in disappointment, which Chuck did not miss. Instead of giving her some smart remark, he looked at her with sympathy. "I know it's not fun for you to miss out on any kind of action, even on this end, but I do need you here."

Sarah nodded shortly and watched, fascinated, as Chuck's attention turned to the computer and his fingers flew across the keyboard as he stared intently at the screen in front of him, swearing softly when he didn't get the result he needed.

"Okay, then, if you won't cooperate, why don't we try this?" he said with steely determination, speaking to the computer as if it were a real person. A moment later, his body relaxed slightly in satisfaction. "Ah ha, gotcha!"

Chuck suddenly looked up at her. She was so taken aback by how quickly she went from watching his fingers move across the keyboard to staring him right in the eyes that she nearly flinched. There was a glint of something she barely, yet completely recognized in his eyes that took her breath away. In that brief moment, she felt connected to him in a wholly unexpected way.

Before she could fully process it, his attention was back on his screen and his fingers started flying once again across the keyboard. That's when things started to get really urgent. Sarah heard the sound of gun fire and shouting coming from the speakers, but before Chuck could try to communicate with them, the feed went completely dead, no gun fire, no shouting, no static, no alarm... just nothing.

"What just happened?" she asked, horrified.

"I don't know, damn it," Chuck swore and started typing urgently with one hand, while at the same time, reaching for his office phone to call someone. "Whoever is preventing the feed from…"

Before Chuck touched the phone, there was a ruckus coming from the control room that sounded suspiciously like a panic.

"Damn it, what now?" Chuck looked at her and she saw the order before he even issued it. She tensed in anticipation. "Sarah, check it out. And take care of it."

If he had been a field leader and put as much intensity and undeniable authority into an order in the field as he did right then, she knew she'd follow him to the ends of the earth.

"On it," she answered and rushed out the door, feeling exactly as she always did going out into a dangerous and challenging mission. God, did she miss this rush.

"All right, people. What's going on? Someone fill me in," she shouted across the expanse of the room and miraculously they actually heard her.

As it turned out, the problem in the control room was connected to their current problem. Two other teams fell into a very similar ambushes and Sarah spent the next intense forty something minutes going back and forth between the control room and Chuck's office, taking her orders from him, or strategizing with him, and then issuing orders back to the analysts.

She needed everyone to believe she knew exactly what needed to be done so that they would follow her orders without hesitation. It took a great deal of all her training to coordinate everyone in a calm, precise, and, most importantly, authoritative manner. She might have been surprise by just how much of her training and experience she was utilizing had she not more important things on her mind.

Fortunately, there were several other analysts who were keeping their composure amid the chaos and doing their job with competence. Sarah wasted no time in grabbing those people up and using them to help her return the room to some hint of order. She took mental note of the names of these analysts so she could recommend them for commendations.

A long time later, which seemed like forever, it was over.

All three teams in the field had been ambushed and lost communication, but with a little bit of magic from Chuck, they were able to regain that communication and keep it this time. By the time that happened, however, news came down that there were two of their own dead. Back-up teams had fortunately been able to make it to all three sites, which helped to reduce the casualties, but still they'd lost twoof their own in what seemed to be a well-timed and coordinated attack.

Sarah couldn't help but feel responsible for the deaths of both agents, even knowing that she had done all she possibly could from where she was. She tried not to remember every single one of those god-awful moments – which had been many – of utter helplessness that she'd felt, knowing she was stuck here in an office while others had been the ones to put their lives on the line to physically go in and save the day.

While the entire control room was now only a little more quiet than usual as everyone did their jobs without the usual occasional chatter, Sarah sat in Chuck's chair, in Chuck's office, brooding over the events of the day.

"Hey, you doing okay there?" she heard Chuck say from the doorway and looked up to find him standing there with two mugs of freshly made coffee in his hands. A sympathetic expression was on his face for the second time that day and he appeared as haggard as she felt. His shirt was un-tucked and his sleeves rolled up unevenly; his eyes were tired, and his hair formed many more funny shapes than was usual. She took it all in without comment, certain that anything she might say about the state of his appearance could be repeated back at her.

"I'm fine," she answered, quietly and unconvincingly, nodding her thanks when Chuck placed a mug in her hand and sat down next to her. "Though I have to admit, your ploy has worked, probably better than you thought."

"My ploy?" he asked with completely fake innocence and instead of attacking as she had when he'd used that on her during their first meeting, she gave a small, mildly humorous laugh.

"You know the one," she said pointedly with her first genuine smile of the day, waggling a finger teasingly at him as she spoke. "Don't pretend you don't. But, seriously, tonight has me definitely feeling like I've formed a greater appreciation – and a greater sympathy – for mere analysts, such as yourself."

"Let me ask you something?"


"How does it feel when the great Agent Sarah Walker is proven wrong?"

"Oh, now don't you start," Sarah warned with laughter in her voice. "Try not to get used to it, Bartowski. It happens only once in every tenth blue moon. You'll soon come to learn that everything I think or do is practically infallible."

For the first time ever, when Chuck laughed in response, she felt like he was laughing with her rather than at her. And she had to admit she liked it. "Is that right? Well, we'll have to see about that, now won't we? I'll have to see what I can do about proving you wrong in that assumption, as well."

"Yeah, I'd like to see you try." Sarah flashed him a cheeky grin.

There was a comfortable silence between them as they sat in their respective seats and drank their coffee. At first taste, Sarah discovered that Chuck had doctored her coffee just as she liked it. In fact, she thought he may have actually made it even better than she ever could. Sarah eyed him, taking in his more relaxed appearance, wondering if she should tell him. But quickly decided against it. No need to make him even big-headed than he already was.

Instead, she merely savored her coffee without comment.

The office phone rang and Chuck picked it up on its first ring.

"Bartowski," he answered, then paused for a long time as the person on the other line spoke. Chuck looked over at her with an unreadable expression and she raised an eyebrow in question. "Yes, sir, we'll be there immediately."

He slowly placed the phone back down on the desk, giving her a funny look.

"What is it? What's wrong now?"

"Graham wants to see us right away. It's about what happened today."

Present Day, July 12, 2007, 14:31, CST

Chuck cracked a small yawn, while Sarah fiddled with the small plastic cup that used to hold water, as their jet flew somewhere over the central time zone. The closer they got to DC, the more her body seemed to crackle with a nervous energy that was completely unlike her. Just a few hours ago, she was reassuring him things would be okay. Now, it would appear that it was his turn. When he gently touched her arm, she jumped and reflexively reached out to make a defensive grab for him.

When she realized it was him, she immediately pulled her hand back and gave him a small, contrite smile. She turned in her seat and reached across the small gap between them to rest her hand on his wrist.

"Hey," she whispered and merely looked at him, her features softened and eyes almost searching.

He leaned over and gave her a quick kiss, then completely mirrored her expression and position.

"Hey," he said back, just as quietly, and closed his eyes in contentment when she brushed her hand down his cheek. "What're you thinking?"

"I'm just thinking... about how much things are about to change for us, starting tonight." Her soft expression shifted into a worried one and she opened her mouth to speak again, and then closed it before she did. A second or two, she tried again, not bothering to hide the vulnerability in her voice. "We have so much to lose, Chuck, now that we've just found each other. And I don't know what I would do if you were taken away from me, or died, or left me for something better or..."

"Hey, hey, hey," he gently coaxed when he realized that she was about to go into a ramble worthy of him. He played with a strand of her hair with a focused gaze for a moment, totally fascinated by the texture and different hues, before shifting his eyes to meet her vulnerable ones. "There are no guarantees; I could die in a simple car accident just as easily as I could on a mission, but I promise you that I will never, ever willingly leave you. I'm way stubborn to let you go. Remember that. Trust me, Sarah, and we will be fine."

"I do trust you, Chuck," she responded and kissed his upper arm, then looped her own arm though his, and held onto tightly to it as she pressed her cheek against it. "It's the world I don't trust. It has this unsettling ability to ruin even the best moments. It snatches away everything it can at every opportunity. I don't want it to take you from me. Or me from you."

"No matter what happens, Sarah," he said, reverently stroking the hand that was wrapped around his arm. "I will always fight to keep you. With every ounce of my considerable stubbornness, I'll hold on tight. You can count on that."

"And I'll hold on to you," she whispered so quietly that she wasn't sure he heard her at all.

Then next few minutes were spent in silence as each remembered how much their lives had changed since their very first encounter with each other, and the changes that were still to come.



"I love you," she said and he sharply inhaled at her declaration. This was the first time she'd ever spoken the words out loud, and he wasn't sure how to react, hearing them for the first time.

"I love you, too, Sarah" he quietly responded, his voice slightly choked. He kissed the top of her head, his eyes prickling from unshed tears. It worried him that all the progress they'd made in trusting and loving each other would be ruined by what was ahead, but he decided to just hold on to her words, repeating them back to her once more, in hopes that they would affirm a happy ending. "I love you, too."

Eight Months Earlier

They were all hanging out at the bar again, laughing and drinking beer, and shooting pool all night. But Chuck sat alone, nursing his second beer for the night, and gazed at Sarah Walker, who was across the room, playing darts with the usual admirers. When she hit the bulls-eye once again, the raucous group surrounding her cheered drunkenly and held up their beer bottles in salute. She took her own beer bottle and tapped it against several of theirs.

As if sensing his eyes on her, she turned to look in his direction, and almost smiled at him, before realizing what she was doing and immediately her smile became a cross between a scowl and frown. Someone approached her and touched her arm and the moment between them was over as she turned her attention to the clueless interloper.

"She still mad at you, huh?" Bryce Larkin sat on the chair next to his friend. "What did you do this time?"

"Nothing," Chuck protested, though it was a complete lie. Unfortunately, he had questioned Sarah's integrity in front of the Director of National Intelligence; even though it had not been his intention for it to come out that way. In retaliation, she had questioned his, which only made things worse for the both of them. Bryce gave him a pointed look. "Okay, I screwed up. Badly. Because of something I said, our effectiveness as a team is being questioned and now the fate of our new found partnership is up in the air."

"Ah, I see, I see. Well...don't worry too much about it, buddy," Bryce responded good- naturedly and gave Chuck a friendly slap on the back as he simultaneously winked at some random woman standing at the bar, waiting her order. "She'll get over it, eventually. As for the other thing, Chuck, I've seen your teamwork, and believe me, neither of you should have any reason to doubt you'll be partners for a very very long time..." Bryce took another sip of his beer and rose from his seat, his eye on the bar area, where his fair lady awaited him. He patted Chuck's shoulder, and absentmindedly wished him, "Good luck with that."

Chuck shook his head and laughed as he watched Bryce sidle up to his newest lady friend.

From his periphery, Chuck saw someone approaching him and glanced over curiously to see who it was. His mouth nearly dropped open when he saw that it was the woman of the hour herself. He silently followed her movements until she dropped down on the chair that Bryce had just abandoned. She took a drink of her beer and completely ignored him, though she was surely aware that he was in no state of mind to immediately look away.

When she continued to insist on ignoring him, he finally focused his attention on the pool game in front of them. Soon, he was grinning at what he witnessed. It was highly entertaining to see that Seth, a typically meek little analyst, turned out to be quite the pool shark. And because of the way he used his timid reputation, it was taking some time for the others to realize that they were being taken for all they were worth.

"Go, Seth," Sarah murmured appreciatively and he couldn't help but agree.

"Go, Seth," he repeated, a little more loudly, but not loud enough that anyone aside from himself and Sarah could hear it. "You show 'em."

When Seth sunk one consecutive ball after the other, then the final ball, his coworkers pretty much only stared at him in silent shock the entire time. At first, Chuck tensed to intervene in case of a fight, but like him and Sarah, those that Seth had so effectively conned were more impressed than angry. Chuck relaxed when everyone seemed to shake out of it as one and they enthusiastically congratulated Seth for a game well played and bought him a beer.

Chuck had to laugh when Seth hunched his shoulders in embarrassment and blushed when a waitress handed him his congratulatory beer and gave him a peck on the cheek. Seth – whom Chuck worried tended to withdraw a little too much into his own little world – then caught Chuck's gaze. Chuck raised his beer bottle in the air, a gesture which Seth bashfully returned before being drawn into a conversation with his new friends.

"And score one for the underdog," Chuck said.

"I'll drink to that," Sarah agreed and held out her own beer bottle to him. Chuck didn't hesitate to clink his nearly empty bottle against hers. "To the underdog," she continued. "May they always continue to show us all up."

"Here, here."

And after that, Chuck found that he had nothing else to say. And apparently neither did she. The air between them was a slightly less... uneasy... but he feared that testing the waters right now would set them back once again. He decided to wait for her to make the first move. The time stretched on and Chuck could practically hear the seconds ticking away, ever so slowly. It was probably two minutes, a lot less time than he'd expected, when she finally spoke to him.

"Listen, Chuck..." She paused as if taking a moment to collect her thoughts. "I just wanted to apologize... for what happened with the DNI."

Of all the things she could say, Chuck was startled that it would be this. Agent Sarah Walker, who hardly ever admitted she was wrong, was apologizing to him. For something that was hardly er fault.

"Really, Sarah, you don't..." Chuck began, but was cut off by a motion she made with her hand.

"Please, Chuck, let me say this before you interrupt." Chuck nodded in agreement and she gave him a a half smile. "Looking back, I now understand what you were really trying to say, and that you didn't mean to hurt me or imply that I was untrustworthy. Even if you had... I acted unprofessionally today. She took a breath. "I overreacted, and that's why both of our futures are in limbo right now. So, I'm asking you, Chuck, will you please forgive me?"

"Of course I forgive you," Chuck answered earnestly, knowing that protesting that she had nothing to apologize for would do no good. He just wanted to return back to that camaraderie that had been developing between them ever since they worked so well together during that crisis a few months ago. And if allowing her to apologize when she didn't really need to was the way to go about it, he was willing to do it. "But only if you forgive me, too, for putting my foot so effectively in my mouth."

Sarah looked like she wanted to protest, too, but had come to the same conclusion that he had about her. Instead, she simply said, "Yes, I forgive you, too."

Chuck grinned like an idiot at her and after what seemed to be a brief fight with her lips, she gave in to the urge to return his grin. He felt as though their relationship had reached yet another positive turning point. "So, how about a game of pool?" he asked to change the subject. "I promise you, I'm no pool shark. I'm truly terrible at the game."

"Well, when you put it that way... You're on," she accepted his not-really-a-challenge, and then proceeded to mercilessly beat him senseless at the game.

Present Day, July 12, 2007, 19:00, EST

Sarah shivered, though she couldn't say for certain whether it was because the room was kept at such a low temperature to be described as frigid, or if it was because she was unnerved by the impersonal and creepy atmosphere of the room's entire set up. The room was the very definition of clinical, from the white walls, to the gleaming medical instruments, to the computer equipment, and all the way down to the examination chair that was a hulking presence in the midst of it all.

It reminded her exactly why she'd always dreaded doctor and dentist visits all of her life. She'd been imprisoned and tortured in places that had been much homier than this.

Sarah didn't have to look at Chuck to gauge how he was handling this. Even though they'd kept a slight physical distance between them – for professionalism sake – she could sense his nervous tension as if their bodies were touching. Unable to stand the lack of contact and reasoning that it would make perfect sense for her to want to do something to try to calm his nerves, Sarah turned to Chuck, placing a hand on his arm. She frowned at the fine, but noticeable tremors she could feel within the tension of his muscles. She studied his face, which had gone paler than she'd ever seen. She also saw that he had a sheen of sweat settle along his hairline.

"Hey," she said, searching his eyes, concerned. "You doing okay?"

"Yeah, just a bit nervous, I guess," he responded, looking uneasily at the examination chair. She followed his gaze, feeling just as uneasy as he appeared. They heard someone clear their throat and turned their heads toward the source. The tremors in Chuck's arm increased when one of the doctors nodded at them, indicating that things were ready. "It's just... a download of this size... well... it's never been done before and nobody knows for certain if it will even work, and there is so much that could go wrong... And Sarah, I'm just plain scared silly."

"I understand," she murmured and rubbed his arm gently. And she did understand; because quite honestly, she was scared silly, too. She could very well lose him tonight, if not to death, then to something far far worse. "But you do remember what you told me on the plane, don't you? About how stubborn you are and how you won't ever let go of what's important to you, not without a fight? Chuck, you're one of the bravest, smartest, and yes, the most ridiculously stubborn men I have ever known. If anyone can get through this with flying colors, it's you. You trust me, right?"

Chuck gave her a weak smile and though the tremors in his arm didn't cease and the tension didn't go away, she could feel them both decrease, so subtly that most wouldn't have noticed. But she wasn't most people; she was a woman of great intuition who was more in tune with Chuck than she ever was or could be with even herself. She couldn't ever not notice anything that had to do with him.

"Sarah, you are one of the very few people in this world, aside from my family, that I do trust."

"Then trust that I know what I'm talking about." Sarah had a sudden idea that Chuck would definitely not approve, but for some reason, she couldn't stop herself suggesting it. She hesitantly asked, "Chuck... would you like me to be with you during the procedure? I can borrow a pair of those special sunglasses and sit with you, if you..."

"Absolutely not," Chuck said firmly and with quiet authority. "Even with the glasses, it's too risky for you. You know how important it is that at least one of us survives this. Please don't fight me on this."

Sarah wanted to argue, even though she knew that he was right. As much as she wanted to be there with him, to hold his hand while he went through the most frightening experience of his life, she couldn't. If things went wrong, then she would need to survive and go forward with their plans.

The fight that had led them to make the choice to put the Intersect in Chuck's head at great risk to his physical and mental health was bigger and more important than either of them as individuals.

At least that was the sort of creed she'd once lived by, before Chuck came into her life and began to challenge everything she thought she once knew. Revolving her life and choices around a creed that required a single life sacrificed for the greater good was one thing, but it took on a whole new meaning when she thought about how she might be end up losing the love of her life and being forced to face the cold world alone once more.

She knew that she couldn't ever go back to that old mindset – no matter how much she wanted to in that moment – but she could honor his request.

"Mr. Carmichael," one of the doctors in the room with them quietly interrupted. "We're ready to start the procedure when you are."

Chuck glanced over at the doctor and then back at her. She could feel a burning tightness in her chest and she knew that no amount of breathing exercises would fully dispel the anxiety and fear. She sensed that it would remain there for days, whether the download was a success or failure

She let go of Chuck's arm when he started to back away from her. She watched with trepidation as he sat down and they strapped him securely into the chair – a mere precaution they'd assured her – and hooked him up to various machines that would monitor his heartbeat, blood pressure, and brain waves for signs of distress.

"Okay, Mr. Carmichael. Everything looks normal," said the doctor who Sarah knew to be the one in charge after examining one of the monitors. He wrote a note down on the clipboard he held in his hand. "Your heart rate is a bit high, and so is your blood pressure, but still within the range we need. This, of course, is to be expected. If I were in your shoes, I'm sure my readings would be off the charts. Anyway, we can begin as soon as possible." The doctor turned to Sarah. "Agent Walker, if you'll follow me..."

Sarah tore her gaze away from Chuck whose eyes were closed and hands gripped the arm of his chair.

"Can you give us a moment, please?"

"Sure, but only a minute, okay?"

"Yeah, thanks." Sarah watched the last of the personnel leave the room, and then she cautiously walked to Chuck's chair. She could hear his heart rate starting to pick up a little by the sound of the beeping on the monitor next to him. As soon as she placed her hand on top of his, Chuck's eyes opened and immediately focused on her. That keen intelligence that she had come to adore had always shone so clearly through his eyes. Her gut clenched as she realized that this very well might be the last time that she would ever have the privilege of seeing it.

"Sarah?" he asked cautiously, making her realize that she had been looking at him for too long without saying anything at all.

She swallowed hard.

"Listen, Chuck… I know you've said that you want to do this, but I want to hear it one last time. Are you sure? Because, nobody is forcing you to go through this… You – we – can walk away, right now. All you have to do is say the word."

"Sarah, I'm sure." Even though she could still hear the worry in his voice, there was a determination behind it that she knew better than to question or ignore. Nonetheless, she stayed where she was, looking searchingly in his eyes, for a long moment before blinking and pulling reluctantly back. "I can't... won't... back down now."

"Okay," she breathed. "If you're sure, then let's do this. Are you ready?"

"A much as I'll ever be. You can go now, Sarah."

Sarah didn't want to go. Everything in her was trying to keep her grounded to the spot.. But knew she must not stay.

Recklessly not caring about maintaining distance for professionalism sake, she leaned over the chair and kissed him, then whispered in Chuck's ear what she should have declared to him at least a thousand times before today, rather than for the first time only a few hours ago. "I love you, Chuck. So much."

"I love you, too," he whispered back.

She backed away and turned and could feel his eyes on her as she walked to the door and stepped through the doorway, but she did not turn at any point to look back at him, feeling like she'd fall apart and go running into his arms, begging him to not go through with it if she did dare to look back.

Once she was out in the hall, the door swept closed and locked, a now impenetrable wall between them. Her legs trembling, she leaned briefly against the wall and slid down it and into a graceless heap on the floor.

For the first time in her life, she prayed.

Six Months Earlier

Chuck was preoccupied with a mess of paperwork that lay spread out before him when Sarah approached his office. Instead of going straight in, like she had done almost every day for the last five months, she hesitated just outside the open door, feeling like an like an errant child who had been tortured by her own conscious and was about to confess her disobedience. Considering how protective Chuck could be and how she had direct orders to stay at home for at least two weeks to recover from her last mission, she was concerned about how he was going to react to her presence.

Gathering her courage, she held her breath, keeping her eyes on Chuck as she rapped her knuckles on the doorjamb.

He briefly glanced up from a desk full of paperwork, then did a double take.

"Sarah! What are you doing here? " Chuck stood up abruptly from his seat, sending the chair rolling into the cabinet behind him with a loud clunk, and he was on his feet and across the room before she could react. For a moment, when he reached out to gently grasp her upper arms, she tensed, her first instinct being to fight back against attack. "You should be home right now, not... Wait, did something happen while you were at home? Are you okay?"

And, just like magic, the sound of his concern reminded her of just who this was, and how he would never purposefully hurt her, and her combative stance relaxed before she could cause him harm. Not knowing what else to do, Sarah stood self-consciously as he searched her face in concern, stiffening slightly when his eyes swept over the bandage that was covering the left side of her neck. It was only a quick glance over, but it nearly made her lift her hand to touch it in a nervous gesture.

"Nothing's happened, Chuck. I'm fine."

He stared at her blankly for a moment, then blinked.

"You're fine?" he repeated, flatly. "Are you kidding me? Sarah, you very nearly died yesterday."

"I very nearly die on a fairly regular basis, Chuck. It's pretty much in my job description."

"No, it isn't, Sarah, and you know it," Chuck immediately countered with an edge to his voice that she'd first heard on the day he took her to task for putting his people at risk. And had heard it repeatedly every time since then that she'd taken a personal risk to her own safety to get the job done.

Each time, she was reminded of the one thing that she kept conveniently forgetting while out in the field... that after her time working as an analyst under him, he now considered her one of his own and Chuck Bartowski didn't take danger to his own lightly. "Your job description is to be a ghost, to work the situation and get out before anyone is the wiser. It's not to go rushing into situations like the freaking SWAT team, and putting yourself in harm's way."

"For God's sake, Chuck." Sarah rolled her eyes and pulled away from him. She turned her back on him for a moment, running a hand through her hair before turning back to face him. "Do we really have to get into this every time I finish an assignment?" She took a deep breath and conceding with underlying defiance, "Okay, so I took a big risk, but I got out just fine."

"Great," Chuck gritted out, screwed his eyes tightly shut and rubbed at a phantom headache with his hand. "Only you would consider nearly having your throat slit getting out just fine," he tersely said, speaking mostly to himself, then opened his eyes to glare at her and address her directly. "Do you truly have no concept of how close you came to actually dying last night?"

Sarah felt a rush of indignation rise up in her at his point blank reminder of her close-call brush with death. The slice to the neck she'd received on the previous day's mission was merely a shallow flesh wound that would heal with barely a scar, but if the knife had gone just a little bit deeper and dragged farther along...

Well, then she wouldn't be standing in front of Chuck right now, being chewed out by him, now would she?

A chill raced through her at the thought, instantly canceling out the indignation she'd been carrying like a standard. She slumped tiredly with a small sigh and resignedly responded, "Of course, I understand how close I came to dying, Chuck." She watched as Chuck's angry mask softened at her admittance and she stepped around him to drop into the nearest office chair. "But it's not exactly something I really care to think about at the moment, okay. Can you please just drop it?"

Chuck sighed and she watched as he rolled his chair from behind his desk and placed it right in front of hers, and sat down, leaning forward against his elbows.

"You really shouldn't be here, Sarah," he told her gently without any lingering hints of reprimand. "After what happened, you need to get plenty of rest and recuperate a little. You're not doing yourself any favors by coming here."

"I know," she said. "I really do. I just wanted..."

She trailed off and looked down at her hands, unsure of how to phrase to him what she wanted, especially since she wasn't exactly sure, herself.

Maybe she could tell him that she was there because she wanted to do... something... to be … helpful in some way, because it had only been one day and already she was starting to go stir-crazy from inactivity.

Maybe she could tell him that the prospect of being alone with her thoughts and insecurities and the bone chilling fear that accompanied the memories she'd rather forget had brought her here, to a place that made her feel secure.

Maybe she could tell him she came here to just have someone to talk to... someone she could be vulnerable with and not have to worry that she'd be judged or ridiculed.

She couldn't say for certain what it was and couldn't put it to words, but whatever it was, it had steered her here, to Chuck's office in particular.

"Sarah." She jumped slightly at the sound of Chuck's voice, and realized that she was still staring at her hands, and perhaps hadn't spoken for a long time. She lifted her gaze back to his face, which was filled an earnest concern that was almost too genuine to be true. "What is it you need, Sarah? You don't have to hide anything from me. I'd like to help you... if you'll let me."

Or maybe, she could tell him that she just wanted to be with him. Or around him. Or just in the same building with him, even. Because any time the memories came, she thought of him and they somehow... receded. Still there, but held at a distance by some invisible source.

But she couldn't tell him that. He wouldn't laugh at her, but she couldn't let him know. He didn't see her as she saw him, as more than a friend. He'd only pity her and she couldn't abide being pitied.

"Chuck, I..." she began, but trailed off and shook her head, frustrated with herself. "I just don't know."

"That's okay," Chuck assured her and reached out to her, and her eyes followed the movement. When his hand touched one of hers, her fingers jerked spasmodically in her lap of their own volition. She was certain he felt the instinctive action, though he gave actually indication. "You don't have to tell me anything. Just know that if you ever need a listening ear without having to worry about being judged or given bad advice, I'm always available." He pulled his hand back and smiled at her. "I know it's hard to believe, what with my tendency to go on and on sometimes... but I'm a pretty good listener."

"Yeah," she shakily said, raising her head and giving him a weak smile. "I know you are." She took a large breath. "But... I've got so much baggage I wouldn't know where to start, anyway."

Sarah ended the sentence with an awkward shrug, and looked back down at her hands, suddenly feeling rather shy.

"Well, maybe I could be your very own baggage handler..." Chuck replied and when her eyes shot up to look at him again, she saw that his face looked positively horrified. The very sight uplifted her mood and her lips quirked. "And that was a really lame thing to say, wasn't it? Sometimes, these things just come out before I can stop them. You know what, let's just pretend I didn't say anything so...utterly..."

Sarah chuckled at his loss for finding the correct word and grinned.

"Chuck," she said, suppressed laughter in her voice. Faced with a moment like this, she had to think that maybe it wasn't quite so wondrous that thoughts of him could push the bad thoughts away. He really was... well, Chuck. Humor seemed to follow him wherever he went and adhere itself to everyone he met. "Believe me, coming from just about anyone else that might come across as a really lame pick-up line. But you just make it sound so... sweet. So, thank you."

Chuck gave her a speculative look and she thought that maybe he was trying to figure out if she was mocking him or not. So, she just smiled at him as genuinely as she could, trying to project to him that she was being sincere.

He must have seen something that reassured him because he smiled back in relief.

"You're welcome, though I could've put it so much better. But the spirit of the offer remains." Chuck looked at her... assessing her. "You're looking a little better now, but Sarah, you should really go home and get some rest. Are you okay getting back by yourself? I can give you a ride if you are too..."

"No, Chuck, a ride home won't be necessary. You seem to have enough on your plate as it is." Sarah glanced over at the piles of paperwork on his desk. "I can't recall the last time I've seen so much paperwork piled up on your desk." Her eyes narrowed playfully, she gave him a sly half-smile and her tone turning teasing. "Are you sure you haven't been slacking on the job?" She tsked, shaking her head. "That's not like you all. What on earth would Graham think?"

"Well, I could tell him that it's completely your fault," Chuck retorted back, just as teasingly.

"My fault?" she asked, all false innocence. "Don't tell me you were so worried for me that you couldn't think clearly enough to get a little bit of paperwork done. I don't know... sounds to me like you might actually care about me."

She had meant it to sound joking, but when Chuck's look turned grave, her heart seemed to skip a beat or two. Her smile slipped, and then, just like that, his look was gone. He smiled wryly, or maybe a bit sadly; she couldn't say. "Of course, I care about you, Sarah. In the past several months, you've become more than just an analyst who works under me or an agent who has my voice in her ear during an important mission. You've become... a true friend. I would've been devastated if you had died."

Her vision suddenly blurred at his obvious sincerity. He was the first person she's known since childhood who has given a damn about her well-being, not as an agent, or a con artist's daughter, but as a person.

"Oh, God, I hope I haven't put my foot in my mouth again... Really, you should depart from my presence post-haste before I embarrass myself even further."

"No, no," she protested and waved her hands at him, blinking back the tears and feeling the contradicting urges to both cry and grin like a fool at him. "You just said exactly what I think I needed to hear. You have a knack of doing that that I just can't explain... but I am very grateful for." Sarah stood up from her chair, feeling much like an eighty year old, but one with a joyous spirit. Chuck followed suit. "You're right, I should be getting home." Sarah hesitated for a moment, then approached him, rising up on her toes and using his shoulder for leverage in order to give Chuck a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you, Chuck."

She began to walk away from him and when she made it to the door, his voice stopped her.



"If you'd like... uh... if you think you could use come company... well, I could drop by your place tomorrow after work and we can... maybe... order some take-out, hang out a little?"

She tried her best not to shout out an affirmative answer, not wanting to sound too eager... as if she were simply dying for his company. She turned around and started walking backwards out the door.

"Sure," she responded nonchalantly, just like a friend – nothing more – accepting an invite to... hang out... with her... uh, friend would. "I'd really like that."

She turned quickly back around, but not before catching a glimpse of Chuck's smile. The very smile that devastated her – mostly in a half good, half frightening way – on a near daily basis. She couldn't wait and hoped the anticipation of his company would be enough to chase away the nightmares and uncertainties... even if just for the night.

Present Day, July 12, 2007, 20:20, EST

The lights went down and for moment Chuck tensed, then had to force himself to take deep, relaxing breaths. If any of his vitals were off by a little too much – even a mere millisecond before the download – it might not take and they might have to start over again, best case scenario. Or worst, he might end up being a vegetable for the rest of his life.

Or dead... which might actually be considered mercy if you thought about the last alternative.

As he started to breathe in again through his nose, the screens in front of him started scrolling, faster and faster, through image upon image until they were all he could see. It seemed to last forever and until he was only vaguely aware of his body. His thoughts were now buried beneath the weight of Intel until he was a slave to them.

Then the images stopped and his eyes rolled back into his head.

The last and only image in his head before losing consciousness was not one that had been projected in front of him, but the smiling, loving face of Sarah Walker, mixed with the sound of her voice telling him that she loved him.

Five Months Earlier

Sarah Walker shot to her feet, her gun still in hand, and did a victory dance.

"Yes! In your face, Bartowski!" she crowed, then blew pretend smoke off of the plastic Duck Hunt gun she'd just used to beat her rival's score. "Better watch your back; there's a new Duck Hunt champion in town." Chuck just smiled, enjoying the way Sarah milked her win for all it was worth and continued her little impromptu dance routine. It was so rare to see her smile, let alone dance like a lunatic because she'd won something as simple as a video game, that he didn't dare interrupt her moment of victory. "So, how's it feel, Bartowski, to finally be faced with some actual competition for once?"

When Sarah struck a pose worthy of the Charlie's Angels with her body angled slightly away from him, orange and gray plastic gun held at her chest as she winked over her shoulder at him, Chuck had to bite back a groan. She was just so very... adorable.

"Like I never should have introduced you to the game in the first place, that's how it feels," Chuck bemoaned melodramatically. "Man, Duck Hunt was supposed to be my thing. I was supposed to awe you with my superior skill and you were supposed to despair that you couldn't possibly ever come close to achieving my level of gaming awesomeness. But, once again, you have stolen my thunder. Don't you worry, though. I will not allow you to revel in your triumph for too long. I demand..." He paused dramatically. "...a rematch!"

"Oh, really? A rematch, huh?"

"Yes, you heard me right. A rematch. Your obvious beginner's luck against my superior skill." He lowered his voice, face turning exaggeratedly grave. "The question is... do you accept my challenge or would you like to spare yourself the trouble of embarrassing yourself and bow out gracefully right now?"

"Oh, you bet I accept your challenge," she responded, playing off on his playfulness with an ease that hadn't been there even a mere month ago. Their relationship had really come a long way since their very first encounter about half a year ago, and so had Sarah's sense of fun. It warmed him that he'd had a hand in bringing it out of her.

"It's decided, then." Chuck stood up and took a moment to stretch his muscles. "Next Saturday night, you and me... Duck Hunt rematch."

"You're on," she said, holding out her hand. He grabbed a hold of it and they shook on it.

"So, now that we've got that over with, how about a little change of pace. Movie?"

"Sounds great," Sarah agreed. "Your choice tonight."

"And thank God for that," Chuck couldn't help but tease with mock seriousness. "You're taste in movies is atrocious."

He grinned when she hit him playfully on the arm. "You better watch out, or else I'll be forced to show you what's truly atrocious."

"Oooh... Sounds scaaaary," he mocked, pretend fear on his face and in his voice as he wiggled his fingers in front of him. Chuck took a step back with an exaggerated wince, dogging another hit to his arm just in time. Sarah pretended to huff in outrage and sat herself down on the couch to watch him go to his entertainment center and take a look at his selection. "Let's see, let's see. Okay, we've got three choices." He grabbed all three choices and held them up one at a time as he went through them. "We have... Napoleon Dynamite.Ooor, if you'd like to go the more serious nerdy route, we have the ever classic Blade Runner. But if a romantic comedy is your preference, I'm sure that Love Actually will offer plenty to whet your appetite."

He watched her as she contemplated her answer, more than a little fascinated by the way she scrunched her entire face while she seriously entertained each choice. She then looked at his face a bit uncertainly, like she was trying to figure out how he might react to her choice and didn't want to make a choice that disappointed him. What she eventually chose mattered little to him. All he really cared about was spending time with her and he seriously doubted that he'd really be paying attention to the movie, anyway. He would most likely enjoy watching closely how she reacted to the action on screen.

"You know what?" she finally said with the kind self-assurance he expected of her. "I think I may actually be in the mood for a romantic comedy this time." A hint of humor lifted her face and lilted her voice. "A little change in pace from all the nerd movies we've been devouring these past few weeks might actually do you some good."

Chuck made a face at her teasing, knowing very well that she truly enjoyed watching so called "nerd movies" with him. Every once in a while, she'll even quote lines from the films they watched together or randomly interject references into conversations. It was always quite comical to see the stunned, awe-filled looks the more nerdy of his friends and acquaintances gave when she did that in front of them.

"Okay, Love Actually it is." As soon as he sat down next to her on the couch, he picked up the remote and used it to skip to the DVD's main menu, all the while feeling the weight of Sarah's gaze on the side of his face. He could practically sense the weight of inquisitiveness that, instead of pressing play, he turned off the volume and turned to face her with a partially amused smile. "What?"

"Oh, nothing," Sarah said, giving him a not-quite innocent look. She curled up on the couch and nodded toward the television, that mysterious smile still on her face. "Start the movie."

Chuck shook his head and wordlessly did as he was told. Two minutes into the movie, Sarah shifted and eventually moved to lean into Chuck's side. He forgot to breathe for a moment, but quickly adapted to her change of position.

He had been correct earlier. He was unable to concentrate on the movie. All that he was aware of the entire time was her scent and the warmth of her pressed against him. She spent the entirety of the movie wrapped in his arms and it felt like he'd died and gone to heaven.

Present Day, July 12, 2007, 21:36, EST

"Hey, Chuck, it's me... uh, Sarah," Sarah said as she sat down next to Chuck's bedside, feeling terribly awkward to be talking to an unconscious person. But the doctors had suggested it and she remembered hearing that people in comas tend to recover more quickly the sound of a familiar voice. Chuck wasn't exactly a coma patient, but Sarah was willing to try just about anything to get him back. "I don't know if you can really hear me or not, but you got through the download and all we're waiting for now is for you to wake up."

An hour ago, the Intersect was downloaded into Chuck's head. Though so far there weren't any signs that anything had gone wrong, Chuck was still unconscious and the wait for his return to consciousness was absolutely killing her. She scooted her chair closer to the bed and reached out in order to hold his hand, no longer concerned about appearing anything less than what she really was to this man. Luckily, nobody seemed to give their obvious closeness a second glance, and if they had, they were being very discreet about their feelings.

Sarah pretty much ignored – as much as a spy could ignore a potential threat– the nurse who came in to check Chuck's vitals and she focused on his lax face. He looked so peaceful sleeping there, his face showing none of the anxiety that had so often marred it in the last few months. What would be in that face, in those eyes, when he finally did wake up? Would he still be her Chuck or...

Sarah mentally shook herself out of the path of her thoughts. It would do neither her or Chuck any good do dwell on what now could not be helped. So, instead of thinking about her fear that Chuck would not be coming out of this with his mind and personality intact, she did exactly what the doctors suggested.

She talked to him. She reminded him of all the times they'd had together, and all of the things they had to look forward to. She earnestly prayed that her words, that her familiar voice would reach to wherever his mind rested, letting Chuck know which way he needed to go, so that he could anchor himself to her and pull himself back to where she was and where they could be together.

"... and do you remember that night, about three months ago... Well, of course you do, and oh, god, I can't believe you have me blushing... and I hardly ever blush..."

Three Months Earlier

Even though they'd both agreed that they'd leave work behind the doors of CIA headquarters and focus on their relationship when they were off duty, Sarah could not stop thinking about the bombshell that Graham had laid on both her and Chuck earlier that afternoon. And as she watched Chuck shuffle about the kitchen, cleaning every surface he could find and rearranging things that were perfectly fine in their original place, she knew that it was the only thing on his mind as well.

"Chuck, talk to me," she earnestly said as she leaned against the kitchen counter dividing the living room from the kitchen. "It's a bit of a role reversal for me to have to drag the stuff that's bothering you out into the open, I know, but I'd really like to return the favor every once in a while. Don't shut me out, Chuck. Please."

Chuck paused mid-scrub and a small smile quirked his lips, the first time since their meeting with Graham that Chuck had demonstrated a genuine levity. He swiped the counter one last time before tossing the dish towel over his shoulder and toward the sink. It missed the sink entirely and fell to the floor, either unnoticed by him or thankfully ignored.

"You're right, Sarah. I'm sorry, it's just..." Chuck shook his head and it concerned her that this normally talkative man was so at a loss for words. She was used to being the reticent one, not him, and she wasn't sure how to approach the situation from this end. After a brief consideration, she just decided to let him work through it in his own head. When he figured it out, it would most likely all come rushing out in typical form for him. After a minute or two, he brought his gaze back to her. "I don't know which part should scare me more... having a giant computer program placed in my brain, or going back into the field. I was never meant for field work, Sarah. It's why when the head of tech-ops job opened, I jumped at the chance."

"From what Graham said and what I've read in your mission files, you were an excellent field agent, Chuck," Sarah countered quietly, thinking back to the day that she had found out about his former status in the Agency. She'd been surprised, yet not surprised, especially when considering the kind of intuition he always seemed to have for someone who had supposedly spent his career behind a desk. "You had the potential to be one of the best."

"I was not meant for it," Chuck repeated firmly. He stared resolutely at her, the haunted look in his eyes more familiar than she'd like to admit. "The deception, the lies, the dark choices that way too often needed to be made. If I had stayed in, Sarah, it would have killed me. I would still be physically alive, but the state of my soul would be an entirely different matter. And now, I'm being asked to put myself out there again. I don't know if I can do that to myself again."

Sarah could certainly understand his feelings on the subject. How many times in the past several years had she questioned the state of her own soul? How many times had she felt dead inside? Chuck had brought her out of that dark place; he had annoyed and cajoled her, had made her laugh and made her cry and made her feel safe and unjudged and... and human.

Could she do the same for him, if or when they found their situations reversed? Could she help him keep his humanity intact? And by extension, hers? She couldn't say. Not until it happened.

"You have a choice, Chuck. Nobody is forcing you to do this. Not even Graham has the power to force you into it."

"No, he won't openly force me. But I've no doubt he'll find a way to coerce me into it, yet make it seem like it was my choice all along."

Cynicism was definitely another part to Chuck that she was partially unfamiliar with and it threw her a little. She had to agree, though. He was probably right. She had experience with that. It was exactly what Graham had done to her all those years ago, upon her own recruitment.

"You could leave the Agency," she suggested, though she doubted he really thought that was a viable option. He may not feel as if he were meant for field work, but she knew he loved his job as it was.

"No." He unsurprisingly shook his head. "I can't explain why, but leaving entirely just feels plain... wrong."

Sarah leaned further over the counter and placed her hands on top of his. His eyes left her face and stared down at their connected hands. "I wish I had the right words, the kind of insight to help you make the right choice for yourself, but I have a hard time enough time figuring out what the right choices for myself are. I can't make this decision for you, Chuck but just know that I will support you, no matter what."

"Thanks, Sarah," he whispered, and she smiled.

"No thanks needed," she responded, almost as quietly as he. "Just one last thing... If you decide to do this, know, too, that you won't be alone out there. Any time you feel like you are losing yourself, I'll be right there to help you through it. To bring you back to yourself. And I trust that you will do the same for me."

She knew which choice he was going to make, and he knew it, too, whether he acknowledged it or not. He could quite often surprise her, which was a natural result of the complexity of who he was, but in this, she was certain he would not.

The softly grateful look on his face made her heart melt into a pile of goo. He pulled away from her hands and rounded the counter into the living room. She stared up at him as he cupped her face and just stared at her, his eyes searching hers, as if looking for every thought, feeling, and intention that she possessed. She hid nothing from him and he must have seen something that reassured him, because soon he was soon pulling her into a sweet, loving kiss.

They broke apart, but as they stared at each other again, they knew that this kiss was only just the beginning for them, both for tonight and for a long time to come. Wordlessly, he pulled her through the apartment and into his bedroom, both of them stealing kisses and caresses wherever they could along the way.

They soon forgot their troubles, just for a while, choosing instead to concentrate on the passion that was between them.

Present Day, July 13, 2007, 02:00, EST

He could hear a voice calling from a distance. Well, the voice wasn't actually calling to him, in the sense that it was saying, 'Hey, you. Come here! I want to talk to you!' No, it was more of a hum of pleasant background noise, very pleasing and very familiar, and a sound that could never possibly grow old to his ears. Whatever was making that sound, he wanted to be near it.

He felt like he was floating steadily upward. It was a gentle rise, yes, but it also felt as if world was shifting one way and he another and the unsteadiness of it all made him feel dizzy and lightheaded and a little motion sick.

He couldn't stop it, though, and he knew that he could bear it – would bear it – if it brought him closer to that voice that reminded him of...

"And remember the day you introduced me to Ellie," the voice was saying and it was just as pleasant nearby as it was far away, maybe even more so. He could get used to this. There was a light laugh. "I have never been so nervous in my life. Me... nervous. I tried to treat the entire situation like it was a mission, but there's something about you Bartowskis that..."

He felt a part of his body convulse, a quick movement of a limb that he hadn't remembered he possessed. It made the voice pause.

"Chuck?" the hesitantly voice asked and it was so familiar to him. He knew it belonged to someone, whose name he could not quite place. "Hey, can you do that again for me, Chuck? Can you move your hand again?"

That voice. Sarah.

Yes, that was her name. Sarah.

"Please Chuck, just move your hand, one more time."

This time, the movement of his hand was a deliberate choice on his part.

"I think he's waking up," the voice – Sarah – said again, but it sounded this time like she had turned her head away to talk to someone else, somewhere else. "He just moved his hand. Twice."

There were more voices, more sound filling the space around him, but it wasn't very nearly as pleasant as that one voice. Sarah's voice.

It was too much for him, more than he could face. He had to get away. But only for a little bit. He needed to come back to her...

"Sarah," he heard another voice say, breathe out like a sigh.

He thought it might be his own voice. Before he could remember the sound of his own voice, he started to drift away. But not before he heard Sarah say, "Yes, Chuck. It's me. I'm right here. Everything is going to be fine. You can go back to sleep now."

He obeyed Sarah's voice and allowed himself to drift back off to sleep.

One Month Earlier

It had been a long and stressful day.

Which made it an especially pleasant surprise to walk into his apartment after work to find Sarah Walker standing in his kitchen, pulling something out of the oven that smelled deliciously of chocolate. Sarah wasn't much of a cook, and unfortunately, he wasn't much of one either. But she sure as hell made an incredible chocolate souffle that he suspected even Ellie would be envious of.

He breathed in the scent with appreciation and anticipation. His mouth watered at the very thought of the taste of chocolaty goodness melting in his mouth.

"Hey, Sarah."

Sarah turned around, hot souffle dish held firmly between two gloved hand, and cautiously walked to the kitchen counter to place the dish on a metal cooling rack.

"Chuck, welcome home," she greeted him with a radiant smile. "You get everything squared away at work?"

Chuck sighed at the reminder that today was the day he had to hand over the reigns to the man who would be taking over his position as head of Tech-ops for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, his replacement was someone he was confident could handle the demands of the job very well. However, the proficiency of the new tech-ops head was the least of his cares.

Chuck had left the building at Langley, somehow knowing that he would never be coming back to the tech-ops position that he had worked so hard to earn those years ago, despite Graham's reassurances that the position was waiting for him when this assignment was over.

"It went fine," Chuck said, speaking into her ear as he wrapped his arms around her stomach and gave her a gentle hug. He sighed deeply. "I'll miss it, you know."

Sarah leaned further back into his embrace, reaching up and pressing his arms closer to her body with her hands. "I know," was all she said.

They stood there for a very long time, just holding onto each other, not bothering – or needing – to say a single thing. Chuck found that he did not mind the silence. Sarah tilted her head slightly to the side and the new position exposed her neck to him. He lowered his head and pressed a kiss to the spot where her neck and shoulder met. He could feel her sigh contentedly and that spoke more to him than any words she could have ever spoken.

After a few minutes, she slowly turned in his arms and he held her loosely as she looked up at him. She reached up and with her hands against the back of his head, she pulled him down for an almost chaste kiss.

"You have me," she said, sounding a little unsure of herself and uncharacteristically timid. "I know that might not seem enough... but..."

He shook his head, tears coming to his eyes upon realizing the impact his attitude was having on her emotional well being. Her own life was as much affected by this as his was. He cupped her face, staring into her eyes and with as much sincerity as he had within him, he tried reassure her. "No, it is enough. You... You are more than enough. No matter what position I hold within the Agency, the important part is that we are facing this together." He paused. "I love you, Sarah."

He watched as Sarah closed her eyes as if trying to hide and contain whatever feeling were fighting to the surface at his words.

She opened her eyes again and those feelings shined for him, as visible to him as the stars on a clear, cloudless night. He did not feel any disappointment when she did not return the words. He could see that she returned his feelings, just by looking at her glimmering eyes.

He leaned down again and fervently kissed her.

Present Day, July 14, 2007, 15:12, PST

"That's very good, Mr. Carmichael," the doctor in charge of the Intersect download said after they had tested some of Chuck's new abilities. "That should be enough for today. We don't want to overdo things, especially this soon after the procedure." He stared sternly at Chuck, his glare reminding her a lot of Graham's when he wanted to be obeyed without question. "If you experience any negative symptoms, no matter how small they seem, I strongly insist that you tell someone immediately. Don't brush anything off as insignificant. And for God's sake, don't sacrifice your mental and physical health for the sake of the intel placed in your mind. The so-called "greater good" has gotten along just fine without the Intersect for a very long time and can continue to do so for much longer."

Chuck, whose mental capacity and acuity remained unchanged after the download, much to Sarah's relief, opened his mouth to speak, but Sarah beat him to the punch. "Don't worry, Doctor," she said, fixing her own stern gaze on Chuck as she spoke, quite enjoying the slightly intimidated look on his face that resulted. "I'll make certain he takes care of himself. He wouldn't dare cross me."

The doctor chuckled. "No, I imagine he would not. Well, then, I'll leave him in your more than capable hands and take my leave. I will check on you again tomorrow morning, Mr. Carmichael. Be sure to get some more rest. "

"I will," Chuck promised. "Thank you doctor."

"Yes, thank you," Sarah repeated.

As soon as the doctor left the room, Sarah scooted her chair closer to Chuck's hospital bed and grabbed a hold of Chuck's hand, bringing it up to her face and holding it against her right cheek as she kept her eyes on him. Before, she'd had a hard enough time trying not to stare all the time, but after he woke up from his mini-coma with his mind and soul completely unchanged, she found it near impossible to keep her eyes away from him. He was still her Chuck, and to her, that was miraculous.

"What's going on in that complex mind of yours, Sarah?" Chuck murmured after a while.

"For a... while, I thought for certain I was going to lose you," she honestly responded, her voice shaking slightly. She closed her eyes in an attempt to keep from breaking down completely. "I thought that you were either going to die... or if you lived, that you would only be a shell of your former self."

"Well aside from a slight... physical heaviness... inside my head, I'm still me," he said, relaxing back into the raised hospital bed. "I haven't lost any memories. I no longer feel any sense of disorientation or confusion. The ache in my head isn't even that bad. But I guess the real test will start when we're out in the field. The "flashes" are pretty intense and they could be a major distraction, especially when they come unexpectedly. I'll need to learn how to control them and hide them when they happen. Otherwise, I could be a real liability out there..."

Sarah patiently listened to him ramble without interruption as she knew that this was how he sometimes processed major life changing events. And when he was done, or she'd had enough, he would...

"Oh, for God's sake, man," someone gruffly interrupted behind her and Sarah started at the unfamiliar voice. She jumped to her feet and turned to find a man standing there, military written all over him. He looked familiar – but she couldn't quite place him – and his expression appeared to be somewhere between vaguely amused and disgusted. "I guess it was too much for me to expect that you'd have grown out of that whole... running off at the mouth nonsense by now. If what I've just walked into is any indication of what I'm going to have to put up with, I think I may end up going insane within a week."

"Well, hello to you, too, Major Casey," Chuck said wryly and a light bulb lit in Sarah's head. So, that's where she knew him. Looks like the NSA finally decided who they were going to partner them with and she had to admit, she wasn't displeased by their choice. John Casey had an excellent track record, though some in the major intelligence circles consider him to be on the verge of burning out. "It's good to see you again, too. How's it been since we last saw each other in... Prague wasn't it?"

Major Casey let out a low growl of displeasure that had Sarah eyebrow lift. Sounds like there was a story there and judging by the grin on Chuck's face, it was an entertaining one. She'd have to see what she could do to get the whole story out of him one day.

"Major Casey. Sir," Sarah intervened and gave Chuck a pointed look that warned him that she'd be interrogating him about the details very soon. She walked toward Casey, holding her hand out for him to shake. "I'm Agent Sarah Walker. It's very nice to meet you."

The Major grunted and briefly glared at Chuck, but politely met her half way and gave her a firm handshake.

"Agent Walker," he shortly greeted her back, his voice still gruff. He turned to Chuck, who was grinning with an almost unholy glee. "And yes, Bar – Carmichael – for your information, the last time we saw each other was in Prague." He paused and gave Chuck an assessing look before adeptly changing the subject. "I have to admit, Carmichael, I'm surprised you've ended up back in the spy game. Thought you were out for good."

A shadow passed over Chuck's face before he brightened.

"Yeah, well, you know me. I can never seem to pass up an opportunity to serve the greater good." He gave Casey an assessing look in return, his more mocking than serious. "Thought you said you'd voluntarily go through water-boarding before ever working with me again."

Major Casey made a scathing comment in return, and Sarah remained silent, stepping back and crossing her arms to watch their back and forth, amused by the interplay between the two. Though they were... talking smack?... it didn't feel at all like either of them had any true animosity toward each other. The interaction sounded almost like the kind of ribbing you'd expect between close, but competitive brothers.

She had a feeling the dynamic of this team was going to be very interesting, especially with the addition of this new member.

Chuck caught her eye and he smirked slightly, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking and was thinking the very same thing at the very same time.

Yes, it was going to be a very interesting dynamic, indeed.

Since she knew that from the angle she was standing, Casey would not be able to see her, Sarah shook her head in amusement and mouthed the words, I love you.

Delight spread through her at Chuck's acknowledging wink and smile.