A/N: Well, starting in a new fandom is somewhat scary, but Chuck is pretty alluring in its own right, so here I am. These characters are somewhat hard to nail down and this is my first Chuck story, so I'd love to hear your thoughts on characterization and such. Thanks!

Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended. Imitation is the highest form of flattery! :)

Unlearning Curve

When dealing with assets, Sarah had been taught, always be firm. Always keep a fixed line between yourself and the asset—and make certain they're aware of that line. Reinforce at every necessary juncture the fact that they are dependent on the CIA. Keep hope for obtaining whatever their goal is always just in front of them, always just a little bit out of reach. And never—never—let them step out of line. If they do err, reprimand them harshly, unequivocally, and immediately.

Most importantly of all, when dealing with an asset, she had been told, remember that fear is as powerful a motivator as any other. Perhaps even the most powerful, so apply it liberally.

But with Chuck, Sarah had learned, stern reprimands and a raised voice and severe criticism and threats designed to ignite his fear—none of that worked. Oh, sure, it made him pause, and stopped him in his tracks, and might even make him walk slowly back toward the car, but that was all it did. It didn't stop him from trying. It didn't stop him from leaving the car in the first place. It didn't make him more reliant on the CIA or on her. In fact, all it seemed to do was make her feel absolutely terrible.

The first time Sarah realized that almost every rule in the handler-asset relations handbook would have to be unlearned during her stay in Burbank was when Chuck emerged from the cockpit of a helicopter to dance a small jig on solid earth, clap Casey daringly on the back, and jubilantly proclaim his—or their, as he corrected himself—victory. If Sarah had known then what she did even ten minutes later, she would have smiled at him and continued to talk to him in the same calm, encouraging voice she had used to guide him through landing the helicopter and gently impressed on him the reasons he should never have assumed her safety was more important than his own.

But she hadn't known that then. And so she had done the worst possible thing in the case of this particular asset.

She yelled at him.

Or rather, she harshly, unequivocally, and immediately reprimanded him. She did it exactly by the book. She reminded him of his importance, made certain he knew who exactly was protecting him, and threatened his wish for a normal life far away from the CIA bunker already outfitted for him. Everything about the reprimand was exactly right, even up to her NSA counterpart backing her up and nodding sternly to everything she said.

The problem was that her asset didn't respond at all the way the handbook had implied that he would. And she didn't feel at all as satisfied as she should have felt after such a textbook response; in fact, she felt lower than dirt. It was almost impossible not to at the way Chuck's face fell. He even hung his head, for a moment concealing the startled, dejected, utterly bewildered expression that had coated his strong features.

And instead of staying to rectify the situation she could clearly see was spiraling—or rather, continuing to spiral since, really, her heart had been struggling to escape her chest since the moment he had entered the dangerous warehouse, refused her order to leave, and gotten shot in the chest with a tranquilizer dart—spiraling out of control, she had walked away.

Another lesson concerning handler-asset relations: give them time seemingly alone to think about what could happen if they didn't do as told. Another by-the-book response from her. Only she hadn't walked away because she was striving for a perfect score; she had walked away because as perfect as her response had been, it had violated the most important lesson she had been taught—never let personal feelings interfere with the job.

And, though point-by-point perfect, her shouted spiel had been directly influenced by her own confused hurt inflicted by Bryce's betrayal and the guilt stirred up by Chuck's previous accusations and the painful memory of hours spent hooked up to a polygraph machine answering countless questions about her time with Bryce and her relationship with Bryce and her knowledge of Bryce and her missions with Bryce and…

So she had walked away. Guilty, hurt…and desperate to escape Chuck's own obvious sense of stinging betrayal.

No, stern reprimands certainly didn't work with Chuck, and she should have realized it before that night, should have recognized it from that very first night with him on their pseudo-date when he had frozen under repeated yells yet responded immediately to a calm tone explaining the facts to him.

But that night, she had still been convinced that the CIA handler-asset relations handbook covered every type of asset. She had still been living under the delusion that Chuck was like any other asset, both to her and to the CIA. She hadn't yet realized just how much of a trap this Burbank assignment would prove to be.

Until the next day. When he had come alone to the Wienerlicious, walked right up to her, and apologized for not trusting her—which was exactly what her bruised and battered heart needed after Bryce's betrayal and the CIA's doubt. And then he thanked her for saving his life and serving her country and making wieners as her idiotic cover job demanded just so he could keep living at his sister's apartment and working at the Buy More—which was a response no handbook on assets had ever mentioned.

Assets were necessary because of what they brought to the CIA. They were valuable because of what they could offer and dangerous because of what they could end up turning around and giving to enemies of the state. They were to be kept in a controlled environment and coddled but never trusted.

Unfortunately, most assets knew just how important they were and just how precarious their situation was, and even worse, most of them acted as haughty and cruel as they were expected to act, hating that they needed protection and resenting how easily their bodyguards could turn into their jailors.

But Chuck…Chuck stood there and thanked her.

That was the moment Sarah realized that Chuck was never going to be like other assets. That she basically had to throw out her handbook and unlearn everything she had been taught. That Chuck's contrite, hurt eyes could drag from her apologies and concessions she should never have made. That his smile could make little parachutes open to flutter within her stomach. That his friendly openness and longing looks could make her suddenly envision life outside the agency in a way all of Bryce's adrenaline-filled kisses and suave one-liners had never even begun to do.

In other words, to realize that she was in big trouble.

Unfortunately, Sarah lamented three weeks later, she had come to her startling realizations far too late to do anything about them.

Once more, as he did nearly every day, Chuck had left the Buy More during his lunch hour and come to the Wienerlicious to sit across from her and astonish her with his words. Once more, he tormented her with the open emotions so carelessly, trustingly exposed across his face. Once more, he offered her a glimpse of that life so far outside what she had chosen, even before graduating high school, as her future. And once more, Sarah told herself she should ask for a reassignment and leave as quickly as the agency could get her an airplane ticket.

And that was all before he could even take his first bite of the wieners she had actually managed to not burn.

"Mmm, tasty," he observed, and the enthusiasm with which he delivered the line more than made up for the lack of sincerity.

"The fact that it's missing its usual layer of charcoal probably has something to do with that," she teased. That was something else the useless handbook hadn't ever seen fit to mention—the fact that her asset would make her laugh more than she ever had before in her life. The fact that he would cajole small jokes and teasing replies out of her in response to his own continuous monologues.

"I don't know. I was starting to think of that…uh, unique…taste as your own personal signature." Chuck's mouth twitched into a smile, but it never reached his eyes and his hands played with the corndog stick and he didn't take another bite. They were signs, though she hadn't needed them; Sarah had known from the moment she saw him awkwardly crossing the street toward her that he had something on his mind. Chuck was a novelty in her world—a person singularly incapable of hiding even the smallest of his thoughts.

"What is it, Chuck?" Sarah reached across the small table to set her fingers on his hands, stilling their nervous fiddling. He froze at her touch, as he almost always did, his eyes falling to fixedly stare at her hand resting atop his.

"Sarah, I haven't done anything to upset you, have I?" As usual, once Chuck started talking, the words fell from him like water off a cliff, pouring from him at such a rapid pace that Sarah often wondered just how he was able to keep from drowning beneath them all. "I mean, I don't remember accusing you of anything lately, and I have been trying to stay in the car. I know things were a little tense while Carina was here, but…well, yeah, that wasn't my proudest moment, but you haven't said anything about it for the last several days, so I kind of thought we had moved past that. And I did say sorry. Not that that makes up for it all the way, but Ellie says it goes a long way, and—"

"Chuck." She was careful to keep her tone quiet, relaxed, even going so far as to put a bit of a smile into it. Not that it was hard. Usually, men who talked a lot annoyed her, but for some reason—maybe because his words actually meant something, because they conveyed what he meant to say instead of just filling up empty air with nothingness—Chuck's constant rambling amused her. Even, at times, relaxed her far more than anything else could.

"Sarah, I just…" Chuck set his corndog down and stared at it, avoiding her gaze. Never, Sarah knew, a good thing. "Remember after we landed that helicopter? You said that if I ever accused you again or compromised the Intersect's secrets that…well, that I'd have to go to Washington, or wherever it is you guys lock away people where no one will ever find them. I was just…well, I was thinking that I have left the car a couple times, and I did get kidnapped by La Ciudad, and then there was the whole thing with Carina—which I'm still sorry about, by the way."

Sarah felt a frown overtaking her features, and though she hadn't planned the expression, she chose not to wipe it away. "I'm not mad at you, Chuck. You've done incredibly well with this whole life that you never asked for and missions you never trained for. In fact, so well that nobody's mentioned putting you into protective custody for a while now. So what's brought all this on?"

"Well, it's kind of always in the back of my mind," he admitted with a wry grin, and Sarah wondered yet again how he could ever and always smile so easily even when so clearly upset. "But this morning, Casey said that it would be easier for everyone if I was in that bunker."

With an effort, Sarah strangled an aggravated sigh. Casey hadn't yet realized that he needed to throw away that stupid handbook—or its NSA equivalent—and treat Chuck like a person. Usually, Chuck let his gruffer handler's barbs slide right off his optimistic presence, but occasionally one of them sank deep. Apparently, this was one of them. Sarah could just imagine how the conversation had gone, too; Casey made no secret of the fact that he hated his current assignment.

"Is that true, Sarah?" Chuck asked, a forlorn note adorning his voice and turning his expression even more wrenching than usual. "Is everyone looking for reasons to lock me away? Are…are you?"

Sarah felt her stomach contract into a tight ball under the onslaught of his pleading, trusting gaze. She had known from the beginning of this assignment that Chuck saw her as his ally—had, in fact, cultivated that perception—but it only made these moments all the more painful. Even Bryce, with all his 'Mr. Anderson' charm, had never made her regret protocol more than a smile from Chuck or the way he'd gasp out her name when he was in trouble.

For all her lessons had helped her, Sarah concluded, she might just as well have skipped them to brush up on sci-fi literature or video game lingo. Because Chuck…Chuck was different. And though it was far too late for her to pretend she didn't care and actually ask for the reassignment she constantly recommended to herself, she thought that maybe it wasn't too late to unlearn everything she had been taught and use what she knew of Chuck to help him.

"You know what—let's take a walk." Sarah stood abruptly and took Chuck's hand in hers, drawing him instantly to his feet so that she had to look up at him. He stumbled against the table with his typical grace, self-consciously laughed at himself while making some remark about what Morgan would have said, and shyly looked down at their joined hands.

Sarah steadfastly kept her eyes straight ahead as she pulled him after her, allowing only the slightest twitch of her lips at his nervous conversational patter. She really shouldn't be leaving the Wienerlicious during her shift, but every angle of that store was covered by cameras and whatever she eventually replied to Chuck's still-hanging question, Sarah knew there was a strong possibility that they'd all be better off if the CIA or the NSA didn't catch wind of it.

Because as slow as Sarah had been to unlearn all the protocols so carefully drummed into her, she was absolutely certain the CIA would be even slower to unlearn it. And one thing she had learned in her short time here was that Chuck was rapidly becoming much more important to her than her job at the agency.

And that was one thing Sarah didn't think she'd ever be able to unlearn.

-C-

Her hand fit in his perfectly, Chuck couldn't help but notice. Jill's had been too small, slipping and sliding unless he kept an extra firm grip on it. Even Ellie's wasn't quite right, he had absently noted on the few occasions when she had taken his hand, usually to drag him to yet another store during the few times he foolishly weakened and allowed her to help him shop for clothes. But Sarah's….Sarah's fit as if it had been made for him.

He couldn't help but dart small sidelong glances down at their joined hands, swinging between them as they walked in a direction remarkable only in that it was away from the Buy More. Sarah was walking so close to him that occasionally their hands would brush past her thin skirt or bump into the side of his leg. He wondered if she was doing that on purpose to distract him. If she had taken his hand because she knew he wouldn't be able to keep his mind on the question that had seemed so burningly important only a moment ago. If the CIA had made certain they sent an agent that would match him so exactly in order to assure his cooperation.

No! He hurriedly wiped that thought away. Sarah had come because she wanted to fix Bryce's mistake, to prove that she wasn't rogue as her partner had been, to put right what he had broken.

And because the CIA had sent her.

Chuck felt suddenly sick, a queasy ball churning slowly in the pit of his stomach, similar in motion to the way the fiery lava in Mt. Doom had looked just before Frodo, Sam, and Gollum had destroyed the ring. He knew that with such certainty because he'd had a lot of time to think about it—he'd been getting this same queasy ball for a while now, starting with the moment his beautiful, incredible date had picked the lock of the Nerd Herder and started a car chase in reverse. The queasy feeling that had told him there was a reason why this amazing woman had wanted to date him. Why she continued to spend time with him. Why she smiled at him even when no one else was around.

"You think it's easy keeping you here in your cushy job, eating your seven-layer dip and ignoring what the rest of the world is doing?" Casey had half-snarled, half-taunted after grimacing to hear Chuck say he hadn't flashed on anything for the past couple days. "Even Walker knows it'd be easier for everyone involved to lock you away where the sun don't shine and make you flash on any intel real agents acquire—so you'd better start being useful, Intersect."

The words had hit Chuck hard, and their impact didn't seem to be lessening with either time or distance. From the moment he had heard Sarah and Casey arguing about what to do about his family and friends, Chuck had known his life was in jeopardy—even the car chases and guns pointed at him and the bomb ticking away seconds of his life hadn't scared him as much as thinking he'd be taken from Ellie and Morgan and Captain Awesome and all the other people he hesitated to call friends but would still miss. No, Chuck needed to be here. Ellie and Morgan needed him to be here. So he had stood up to the imposing NSA agent and frightening CIA agent, and he had won.

But that was when he had thought Sarah was on his side. He had thought she was working with him to keep him here. And technically, Casey hadn't said she wasn't. But Chuck couldn't help but feel that he was alone, the isolation all the more terrifying because he was still surrounded by people. He needed to believe that there was someone there with him, someone willing to fight for him, someone who'd back him up when Beckman or Graham tried to order him into a bunker. And, as hopelessly clingy as it might sound, he needed Sarah to be that person.

Only…he didn't want to force her to stay. He didn't want to be just another assignment. He wanted her to want to be there. Which might be a little silly or ridiculous considering the very nature of their relationship, but it was nonetheless what he wanted.

But how could he tell her all that?

"Sarah," he began just as she tilted her heard toward him and said, "Chuck, I don't want you in a bunker."

Chuck started violently and wondered if the CIA trained their agents to read minds in between shooting, throwing knives, and dancing the tango. "Really?" he asked when he could find his voice, then inwardly winced at the plaintive note evident in his tone.

"Really." Sarah met his eyes, but not too firmly, as she did when she was trying to hide something, just carefully, as she did when she wanted him to pay attention to what she was saying. "Chuck, you have a whole life here, family and friends that obviously care about you as much as you care about them. You deserve to get to be with them without having to worry about enemy agents or bomb threats or plots against your life."

Chuck glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. He was hyper-aware of her hand in his and desperately wished he could keep his palms from sweating when he was nervous. "That's the reason you don't want me locked up?"

As soon as the question was uttered, he folded his lips into his mouth to keep himself from saying more. Don't push her, he warned himself. His disastrous attempt at trying to get personal information from her was still fresh in his mind, its accompanying disappointment too raw for comfort.

Sarah's brow creased as she glanced up at him. "Well, professionally speaking, it's obvious that your friends and family are crucially important to you. I mean, clearly, you process and work much better when you have a strong support system."

The disappointment he had tried to avoid came crashing back in on him, ebbing and rising in tandem to the give and take of his foolish hope and Sarah's professionalism. "Right," he deflected with a grin, trying hard to hide his reaction. It was bad enough she knew how much he liked her; no need to make her pity him on top of it. "I mean, ol' Chuck Bartowski definitely needs as much support as possible."

"Because you care about people, Chuck." Sarah actually stopped to look up at him, and Chuck was taken aback by the fierceness sparking from her clear eyes. "And that's what makes you great. You're a good guy—you never asked for this life, yet you help us voluntarily even when it means giving up other things. The least we can give you in return is some protection."

The disappointment was crushed beneath his awe, and Chuck wondered—not for the first time—if Sarah knew how amazing she was. "You're a good person, Sarah," he said softly, noting that her eyes flicked away from his at that statement, "which is why you say that. But, selfishly speaking, wouldn't you rather be in some exotic locale with a daring mission and more gunplay or, I don't know, a knife fight or something, partnered with someone who actually speaks a language other than grunt-ese? I mean, isn't that more up your alley than wasting your time in sunny California working a low-income job, getting gawked at by high-school kids, and pretending to be the girlfriend of a professional nerd?"

Even while asking the question, he was trying to stop himself, more afraid of hearing the answer than of not getting one. But the question came tumbling out anyway, and now he could only brace himself for the high tide of disappointment sure to be coming.

Sarah tilted her head as she looked up at him. Her smile, Chuck quickly decided as he nearly walked into a signpost, was incredibly dangerous. "Being a spy isn't nearly as glamorous as you seem to think it is," she said casually. "We can spend six to twelve months just building a cover, or staking out a criminal, or establishing a mark's patterns, or going over intel. Then it's a night or two of bullets and sleeplessness and danger followed by far too much paperwork."

"Wait, so…I'm confused. What are you saying? Because I kind of got lost at the bullets part." Chuck mentally berated himself for an idiot before forming a stoic mask. He hoped it looked stoic, anyway, though he dismally supposed it was probably closer to nauseous trepidation.

Sarah pulled them to a halt and turned to face him full-on, which made Chuck swallow nervously. "I'm saying that I want to be here, Chuck. I chose to come here."

"Yeah, but it's your assignment," he pointed out. "I'm your assignment," he corrected, almost bitterly. That fact had been pounded into him, statement by briefing by cover-hand-holding by lie, until he could no longer even momentarily pretend otherwise.

"I came here on my own," she repeated. "Even when I was ordered back to Washington."

"Right. Cleaning up after Bryce." Chuck looked away, trying to decide if this hurt worse than being an assignment.

"This has nothing to do with Bryce, Chuck." Sarah took his free hand in hers, causing his eyes to fly back to hers. "This is about you."

"No, it isn't!" Chuck exclaimed, a month's worth of frustration pouring out of him at this slightest sign of understanding. "All I hear is 'the Intersect' or 'flash' or 'the computer' or 'asset.' Those aren't me, Sarah!"

"You are an asset to us, Chuck," she insisted, her right hand dropping his only to place it on his chin and move his gaze to her. "You, not just the Intersect."

"Right." Chuck tried to shrug it off, not wanting to venture into the realms of pathetic, trying to convince himself to stop while he was ahead, to stop before Sarah decided she had gone as far as her protocol would allow. "Lest we forget, I did manage to defuse a bomb."

"And catch La Ciudad and take down a terrorist group," Sarah added with a crooked smile that made his palms start to sweat again.

"And land a helicopter," he continued, then regretted it when Sarah's face became once more expressionless, a tiny crease in her brow. "Sarah, am I…" he began before he could think it through and realize there was just no diplomatic way to finish the question. He was well aware that with every word he spoke he tempted that onrush of bitter disappointment and hurt. "I just…well…seriously, though, I'm probably a terrible asset, right? I mean, most assets probably don't leave the car or accuse the people saving their lives of treason or give diamonds away to fast-talking DEA agents. Or do they?"

"Chuck, I don't know what you think 'asset' means, but the CIA and NSA don't cooperate for just anyone." Chuck couldn't look away from her, hanging on her every word, but her own eyes fell to his chest. She reached out and straightened his gray tie, her fingers lingering. "We protect those who are use—helpful in some way, those who can benefit us. Which makes you a…great…asset."

Chuck smiled, pleased by the meaning behind her simple words, by the emotion shining from her blue-blue eyes, by the way she hadn't yet let her hands fall back to her sides. It hadn't taken him long, after all, to realize that when Sarah couldn't say what she truly felt or thought, she would reach out to touch him in some cover-related way.

"Thanks," he said, managing to get the word out without breaking into a little jig of happiness. "I really didn't, I hope you know, intend for lunch to turn into a compliment-Chuck-Bartowski session, but…well, thanks. It's good to know you're part of my support system."

He wondered if she knew what he was really saying. Wondered if she knew that he wanted her to count herself among his closest friends and family. Wondered if she knew how much he thought of her. Wondered if the delighted expression in her eyes was more than just a play or a cover or his imagination.

Real or not, the expression passed too quickly. Sarah's eyes darted to meet his before flicking away again. "Chuck…I'm not really the best choice for that kind of thing. I mean…I'm not really as good a person as you think I am."

"What?" he exclaimed incredulously, the snippets he had caught of her in action by way of the Intersect not even registering anymore. "Of course you are! I mean, if it weren't for you, they already would have stashed me away in some Cold War relic! And my family—they wouldn't know where I was or what had happened to me. In fact, if it weren't for you, Casey probably would have killed me before a week was out. You've saved my life more times than I feel comfortable counting. And you help people, Sarah. Not just me, but a lot of people. You protect the country and help save the little guy. I mean, speaking as a little guy myself, I think I can safely assert that you are, in fact, a good person."

He didn't think he had convinced her, though he wasn't quite certain how she couldn't see just how great she was. But then, wasn't that unawareness of her greatest strengths part of her attractiveness, part of what made her so alluringly vulnerable? Regardless of whether she believed him or not, she smiled shyly up at him and Chuck thought his heart actually stopped for an instant.

"Thanks, Chuck," she said softly.

And though he wasn't quite certain what she was thanking him for, he chose not to question it too deeply. Just smiled back at her.

But of course, he wouldn't be a Bartowski if he could keep quiet, and so he found himself blurting, "So what about your support system? Don't you have one?"

Sarah stared at him, her face expressionless as it always was when she was taken aback.

Chuck would have kicked himself if he could. This was, quite possibly, the single longest conversation he had gotten to have with her—aside from their first not-so-real date—and he had gone and blown it with a personal question. And as he had so painstakingly, painfully learned throughout the past month, a personal question or too much honesty was always, always followed by an emotional slap as she hastily distanced herself.

Though he couldn't bring himself to pull his hand back from hers, he did turn and face the Buy More, eyeing it hopefully, wishing he were there already, safe from whatever too-businesslike thing Sarah would find to say to him. As havens went, it wasn't much, considering the fact that Casey worked there too, but it did offer a buffer between Sarah and his heart. Morgan would be there, more than willing to talk video games and sci-fi movies or trade stories from their eventful childhood. Jeff and Lester's peculiar habits would surely be enough to distract him momentarily. Big Mike might even dump enough work on him to make it impossible to dwell too long on Sarah's mile-thick, CIA-issued walls.

"Chuck." Sarah's voice was small, almost as inaudible as it had been when she whispered her middle name to his retreating back.

He didn't want to look at her—that always made it worse, he had learned—but there was something, some measure of fragility in her voice, that made him turn to face her. Inwardly, he braced himself, but outwardly, he smiled at her because…well, just because. Because he could. Because he wanted to. Because he had a feeling she had received far too few smiles in her life.

"A support system," she continued softly. "Agents aren't supposed to need them. I never had one before."

That was all she said, as if it answered his every question, as if that were all that could be said on the subject. As soon as she uttered those few words, she tightened her grip on his hand and pulled him into a walk back the way they had come. But if there was one thing that Chuck had learned over the past month, it was Sarah. He still couldn't bring himself to wake up every morning without wondering if everything that had happened to him since Bryce Larkin's email was a dream, and he didn't have a clue how to fight off any of the multitude of criminals all too willing to kidnap and threaten him, and he hadn't yet managed to translate more than a few of Casey's grunts, and he always managed to find himself spilling out of whatever car they had told him to stay in—but Sarah? Sarah he knew.

He knew that she was completely devoted to her job—not because of what it could give her, but because she believed it was the right thing to do. He knew that she was still hurting over Bryce's betrayal and death yet wouldn't allow that to stop her. He knew that she secretly wanted friends even though the spy life offered very bad samples of those. He knew that she liked wearing her hair down but usually wore it up because it was easier to fight without it in her eyes. He knew that she hated olives and liked extra pickles. And he knew that she never said exactly what she was feeling or thinking, that her actions spoke louder than what few words she did say.

And she had said 'before.' As if, he dared to think—to hope—meeting Chuck had divided her life into 'before' and 'after.' As if he had made things as different for her as she had for him. As if…as if he were her support system now.

Chuck followed Sarah in a daze, aware that he was rambling on about the stunt Jeff and Lester, with a little help from Morgan, had pulled that morning but hardly conscious of the words he was using save that they managed to make Sarah's lips curve up in the beginnings of a smile.

During the past month, Chuck had learned that his hopes for Sarah were doomed to always end in disappointment. That everything he wanted for them would eventually end in pain and loneliness. That their fake relationship would never develop beyond being a cover. That her professionalism and protocols meant more to her than he ever could.

But now, with Sarah's hand still in his, fitting her fingers between his in a way he was sure no other hand could manage, Chuck began to wonder if he might not need to unlearn everything he had been learning. And he wondered…was Sarah's support system nervous jokes and snatched lunch breaks with a nerd and teasing smiles and a family and friends made hers by extension and no olives and extra pickles?

Was he her support system?

A real grin wiped away every remaining bit of tension from his face as he turned to laugh at her laugh, and he tightened his grip on her hand, vaguely aware that his palms were no longer sweaty. Her eyes softened as she looked up at him; ten minutes ago, Chuck would have written it off as his deluded imagination. But now…now he erased everything he thought he knew and began learning anew everything he could about her.

Because if Sarah Walker needed him to keep her going, Chuck was determined that he would be there for her. And he would never, ever allow himself to erase the look in her eyes as her laugh turned into a soft smile for him and him alone.

One day, he promised them both silently. And for the first time since he had realized she had asked him out for God and country, Chuck allowed himself to believe that his hopes weren't unfounded.

And this time…this time, he wouldn't forget that.

The End