A/N: The readers have spoken. I will be serializing this story. Thank you for all your kind comments and reviews for the prologue of Never Was (I felt CVTMWNW was just a little too long of an acronym)
This story will be kinda AU'ish in many ways but then again, it won't be. That'll become clearer as time goes by.
I plan to release every two weeks, but I will here ask for your patience if I'm not always able to stick to that schedule.
Thank to michaelfmx for his excellent beta services. Any errors you find in this chapter are wholly my fault.
Don't own Chuck, et al. Having a lot of fun though.
PS Fasten you seat belts. We're in for a bit of a bumpy ride. (Misquoted, I know.)
CHUCK VERSUS THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS
When he wakes up, his first conscious thought is of her. It's hardly surprising, given that he can only recall a small handful of times in the last three years that he hasn't woken up thinking of her. For that matter, he's unsure of the last occasion that she didn't occupy his last thoughts before falling asleep. And of course, she's in his dreams as well, dreams he can usually recall the next morning and replay in his mind, smiling all the while.
But not today. He knows with a certainty that she was there, in his mind as he slept. But this time, there's only a hodgepodge of splintered images, lacking any semblance of clarity or sense.
His eyes still closed, he wonders, why so different today? What's changed?
Then, as clear if she was standing right beside him, he hears her say, "I'll be there when you wake up."
This startles him so, that his eyes involuntarily pop open, expecting to see her eyes, her smile.
He doesn't, and it's hard to contain his bitter disappointment. He must have imagined her words, for he knows that, whenever humanly possible, she keeps her promises.
He blinks his eyes a few times, trying to clear his vision. When was the last time he was awake? Then it comes to him. It had been at night. Or at least he thinks so. He does remember that he'd only been able to keep his eyes open for a few seconds, so he's not entirely sure. It's easy to tell that it's not night anymore, what with the sunlight pushing its way through the gaps in the Venetian blinds.
The other thing that's different is that he has no trouble staying awake now. In fact, he feels oddly energized. And curious, so he starts to take stock of his surroundings. Given all the wires and tubes connecting him to the various medical paraphernalia near his bed, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that he's in a hospital facility of some sort.
But exactly where and for how long, he has no idea. Or why. First and foremost, he'll need to concentrate on getting these questions answered. Then he'll be able to move on to more important issues, like seeing her again.
He doesn't feel any particular discomfort, so doesn't think he's been physically injured, although it's possible that drugs could be masking the pain. He raises his feet a little and is gratified to see the blanket move in response. So, both legs are there. That's good. He raises each arm in turn, wiggling his fingers in front of his face. Also good.
Licking his lips, he's suddenly struck by how thirsty he is, so he raises his head to see if there's any water nearby. As he does, he sees a woman walking towards him. She's in the shadows, but he can tell she's tall. There's a flash of blond hair and his heart leaps.
Then the woman comes fully into the light, and his joy vanishes as quickly as it came. It's an older woman, a nurse, judging by her scrubs. There is a passing similarity, but he chides himself for thinking, even for a moment, that it could be her.
She leans over him, a concerned look on her face.
"Can I get you anything?"
His voice sounds raspy, hoarse as if it hasn't been used for a while. "May I have some water please?"
Nodding, she quickly grabs a cup from the tray and, holding the straw to his lips, says, "Not too quickly or too much. Don't want you choking."
He nods in turn and, even though he's very thirsty, heeds her warning. After several seconds, he drops his head back and says, his voice much stronger, "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Are you comfortable? Do you want me to adjust the bed?"
"Yes, please. I'd like to sit up more if I could."
"Of course." She takes the controller and raises the head of the bed, then resettles the pillows behind him.
"Is that better?"
"Yes. Thank you." Smiling, he says, "The standard question in this situation is, 'Where am I?', but the answer to that seems pretty obvious." He goes on, "However, before I ask any further questions, I believe introductions are in order. My name is Chuck."
He offers his hand until he notices the device clipped to his finger.
She unclips it. "Won't hurt for a moment." Taking his hand, she says, "Karen."
"Pleased to meet you, Karen. I want you to know that I'm not usually the kind of guy who lets unfamiliar women see him sleeping."
He smiles again and the nurse chuckles as she reattaches the pulse monitor.
"No. I didn't think you were."
"Now that we're no longer strangers, perhaps you can tell me where I am, location wise?"
"You're in a jointly run NSA/CIA medical unit in Virginia."
"And you work for…?"
"CIA Medical Services."
Grinning, he says, "I don't want to sound like I doubt you, Karen, but how do I know that you aren't merely pretending to be one of the good guys? Maybe I've been kidnapped and brought to a secret base for some nefarious purpose. It wouldn't be the first time." He's not really serious, but there is a small part of him that wonders how she'll answer.
She grins back. "General Beckman," she pauses for a moment as if to gauge his reaction. He's puzzled. Why would she think he might not recognize the name? Putting that aside for now, he nods as she continues speaking, "has been contacted and will video conference with you within the hour. I presume that will be sufficient proof that I'm not part of some organization hell bent on world domination?"
"I'm a little confused, Karen. I could've sworn you said that you do work for the CIA."
This doesn't sink in for a moment but then she starts to laugh. Chuck joins in after a second or two.
"You're a funny guy, Chuck."
He gives her a rueful grin. "I tend to joke around when I'm nervous. Or scared. It's what I do when I'm about ready to freak out, which, trust me, is something you do not want to see, especially this early in our relationship. So, in order to protect you from that traumatizing experience, I'll need your help."
"Certainly. Fire away."
"Can you tell me what happened to me, why I'm here? Was I in an accident or something? All my body parts appear to be still attached and working properly but perhaps I'm missing something?"
"No, not an accident."
He makes no attempt to hide the relief in his voice. "OK, that's good. Was I sick? Wait. Am I sick?"
"Not sick either. I do know that you were brought to this part of the hospital after some sort of incident put you into a coma. That's all they told me."
Uncertain as that is, it's still better than the alternatives. "How long was I out?"
"About five days. You woke up early this morning, but for just a moment or two. You've slept for eight hours since then."
"I do remember waking up but it's all kind of hazy." He hesitates before asking, "Did I say anything?"
Chuck notices she avoids his gaze before answering, "No. Nothing at all. Like I said, you were only awake for a few seconds."
"You're sure?" He's almost positive he'd said something.
The nurse seems a little flustered. "Yes, I'm sure." She moves quickly to adjust his pillows once more, then stands back a couple of feet. "Are you hungry? You haven't had solid food for a long time, but I can get something light for you." The words come out in a bit of a rush, and it's easy to tell who the nervous one is now.
"Yes, I am. I don't suppose pancakes might be on the menu?" He smiles and sees the look of relief that crosses her face when he doesn't pursue his previous line of questioning.
"No. Not right now. Maybe in a few days when we get you back on your feet."
"OK, Karen. Whatever the doctor orders will be fine."
"Good, I'll be right back."
As she heads toward the door, he calls out to her, "Karen, just one more question. Did I have any visitors while I was out of it?"
This stops her in her tracks. She turns to face him, looking a little apprehensive.
"Visitors?" It's obvious she's stalling.
"Well, I haven't been here all the time, and there have been lots of doctors and others coming and going. I suppose some could have been visitors."
"The people I'm thinking of would have been hard to miss. Especially one of them. A young woman about your height. Blue eyes. Blond. Beautiful. Great smile. Looks a bit like you."
Then it suddenly hits him. Sarah. That's what he said last night. And just like that, he knows she wasn't only in his dreams. She'd been here, beside him, close, her voice low and sad. What she'd said and when she'd said it, he has no idea, but she had been here. There's not even a sliver of doubt in his mind, which makes Karen's next statement all the more puzzling.
"No, I don't believe I've seen anyone like that. I could ask the other nurses for you." She flushes a bit as she answers. One might think it was because of the implied compliment. But he knows differently. It's become quite clear that the nurse has not been entirely truthful for the last couple of minutes. It's also obvious that she's not doing so of her own volition, for it's easy to see how she hates it, how terrible she is at it.
Why? Why would they order her to lie to him? Getting some straight answers would be nice, but it's become quite apparent the nurse is not going to provide them. Still, having to lie to people is a dilemma with which he can certainly empathize, so this impels him to let her off the hook, at least for now. Besides, after what he's been through the last few years, it's actually a little refreshing to be around someone who's so easy to read.
"Thanks, Karen. I would appreciate that."
"You're welcome. I'll go and get your meal now." She says this as she walks quickly towards the door, plainly eager to get away from the discomfort his questions have caused her.
Chuck is convinced that clear broth should not really be considered as actual food, but nevertheless finishes the portion he'd been given. As he'd also done with the liquid-something-that-sorta-tasted-like-apple-juice and, of course, the ubiquitous Jello, green in this case.
As she comes to collect the tray, he says, "Karen, I would like to say that was very tasty but-"
She smirks. "But it's hospital food. I get it. I'll bring you something different next time."
The whole lying thing aside, he likes Karen, her laugh, her sense of humor, her genuine concern for him.
"Looking forward to it."
"Chuck, I did say different, not that it will actually be good."
"It couldn't be worse."
"Trust me. It could."
He chuckles a bit at this, the atmosphere in the room much lighter since he'd stopped questioning her. "The fact that I finished that," pointing to the tray in her hands, "obviously means I was very hungry."
She deposits the tray on a nearby cart and then turns back to him. Dryly, with no hint of a smile, she says, "Well, people in comas do have a tendency to ignore their nutritional needs."
He chuckles again.
"We managed to keep you hydrated intravenously, but we were getting perilously close to the feeding tube route."
Seeing his expression, she grins. "So you should. It's not a pleasant procedure. Be happy you woke up."
"Speaking of waking up. You said you were here when I first did, and here you are again. Don't you ever sleep?"
"Don't worry. I got some rest while you slept. The General has asked me to take special care of you, so I'll just take breaks when I can. I'll be staying close, sleeping at the hospital. Another nurse will cover the night shift."
"Won't your family miss you?"
"Don't have any nearby. Just a younger sister who lives up in Vancouver. How she can tolerate the rain is beyond me. But she's happy. Good husband. Nice kids."
"That's too bad."
"That you don't have a family of your own. I know this may sound presumptuous, knowing you as I do for all of an hour or so, but I can tell you're a good person. I bet you could make the right man very happy, and he you."
He can see she blushes a bit at this.
"Tried once, but it didn't take."
"Well, he obviously wasn't the right one."
She's silent for a couple of seconds. "How about you? Anyone special?"
He, in turn, is quiet for a moment or two. "Yes." He looks straight at her. "Her name is Sarah."
He waits for Karen's reaction to the name and does notice something in her eyes, some form of recognition but she quickly tries to mask it. Nodding, she waits for him to continue.
"We've worked together for a few years. We're close but it feels like there's something holding her back. Being around this business just complicates everything that should be easy, or at least, not as difficult as it is. We just can't seem to make that final connection."
"Hey. Don't give up." She smiles, "I know this may sound presumptuous, knowing you as I do for all of an hour or so," he chuckles, "but I can tell you're a good person. If I can see that after such a short period of time, I'm sure she knows as well."
"I hope so."
There's a slight hesitancy but then she leans in closer and whispers, "Something tells me you two are going to make it."
It's almost as if she is saying words she shouldn't, giving away some sort of secret. This only serves to further convince him that she knows much more than she's allowed to let on. He's tempted to try and get to the bottom of things right there and then, but before he can decide if he will or won't, their attention is captured by a chime from the phone in her pocket. She pulls it out and looks at the screen for a moment.
"General Beckman is ready for her video call. I'll get the tablet for you." After picking it up from a table near the door, she returns and hands it to him. "You can keep this nearby from now on. No password but you can change that if you want. The General will be on in a moment. She's asked me to wait outside. Just press the call button when you're finished."
"Welcome. See you in a bit."
Chuck flips open the cover, presses the power button and, swiping his finger, opens the home screen. Just as he does so, a request for a video call pops up. Upon pressing the "Accept" icon he's presented with the familiar image of General Diane Beckman, his boss.
"Agent Carmichael. It's good to see you awake. We were a little worried."
"Thank you, Ma'am. Nice to be back in the land of the living."
"Are they treating you well?"
"Well, I've only been awake for a little while, but so far so good. Food's awful, though."
She smiles a little (something he rarely sees). "Yes. I believe that's obligatory even in hospitals run by intelligence services."
It appears the pleasantries are over, for her expression becomes serious as she asks, "How much do you remember about what happened to you?"
"Everything's quite fuzzy, so not much, Ma'am. "
"Understandable. Do you recall you and your team coming to Washington?"
Suddenly, the memory, or at least part of it, is there. "Sarah and Casey were escorting me. I can't recall exactly what it was, but we were here to have something done with the Intersect. Is that right?"
"Yes. After the procedure, you failed to regain consciousness, so it became necessary for you to remain here."
"Excuse me, General. Can you tell me what was being done? What went wrong?"
"No. We'll need to conduct some tests before I can answer that for you." Her reply is authoritative, curt, but even so, Chuck can sense her evasiveness. About what, he's uncertain. Why not just tell him? He's finding Karen's, and now Beckman's behavior increasingly perplexing and frustrating. Well, if Beckman is not going to tell him anything, perhaps he can try an end around.
"General, now that I'm recovering, I would like to see Casey and Sarah, just to let them know I'm OK." He's sure that they, or at the very least, Sarah, will tell him the truth.
"That's not possible right now."
For a second, he's angry, but then panic abruptly takes its place. What if all of this caginess is there to hide some awful truth, something they don't want or don't know how to tell him?
Gripping the sides of the tablet tightly, he rushes out the words. "General, is everyone OK? Are my family and friends safe? Has anyone been injured or—" The thought that any of them could be hurt…or worse, abruptly chokes off his voice. The loss of Devon or Casey or Morgan would leave a gaping hole in his life. But what if it's his sister? Or even worse, Sarah? There's a flush of shame at this, that he places her even above Ellie, but he can't help it. It's simply the truth. As much as he loves the woman who raised him, Sarah is his hope. Everything good he sees for his future is tied up in her. If she's gone…
He suddenly finds it hard to breathe. He knows he's close to a full blown panic attack, but before it hits him, Beckman jumps in.
"No. Everyone you cared for in Burbank is fine."
He notices the odd phrasing of her reply, but his intense relief quickly pushes away the thought.
Then his anger, his frustration are back and very evident as he asks, "If they're all OK, why aren't they here right now? Why aren't you letting them visit me?"
"We need to run a number of tests before we allow any visitors. In two or three days, we'll reevaluate." He senses, again, that evasiveness in her words, sees it in her body language.
"General, you haven't answered my question."
"Not now, Agent Carmichael. I will personally visit you after the tests are completed. We will deal with matters then."
"Not now, Agent. Am I clear on this?" The words are firm, the expression stern.
He knows he's pushed as far as he can go, so he reluctantly concedes. "Yes, Ma'am."
"Good. I will see you in a few days." Her expression softens. "I know this is all very confusing, but I need you to trust me."
At this moment, that's pretty much the last thing he's inclined to do. Still, he answers, "Yes, Ma'am."
As she signs off, he drops the tablet into his lap, wondering what the hell is going on.
While he'd rested for the remainder of that day, for the next two, he'd been continually poked and prodded, both physically and mentally. He was X-rayed, MRI'd, and CAT scanned so many times that he lost count. Additionally, there had been a bunch of tests he had no idea how to identify. They'd taken so much blood that he marveled that his brain wasn't starved of oxygen. Each time Karen had carried out the procedure, she'd smiled apologetically and told him that she hoped this was the last time it would be needed.
Then there were the head shrinks who seemingly put him through every sort of psych test. Word association. Inkblots. Flash cards with a wide range of images. And so on, and so on.
It's all been so exhausting, that it's well into the second day of tests before he realizes he hasn't flashed once, even though many of the images should have triggered some sort of reaction.
Is the Intersect finally gone? He doesn't know, and certainly, none of the doctors had been of any assistance. Not one of them had offered even a single word, in fact, had flatly refused to answer any of his questions.
As he lies in bed that night, just before he falls asleep, he ponders what this might mean for his life. In the early days, they'd talked about this development a few times, always at his insistence. Sarah had never matched his enthusiasm on the subject, had always seemed apprehensive during their conversations. He'd been so focused on getting rid of this heaviness in his head, that he hadn't realized at first what it would likely mean for the two of them. But eventually, he came to understand the ramifications. He'd come to think that she was just as afraid of a probable separation as he was. That her feelings for him were much stronger than she'd ever let on.
Or at least he'd hoped so.
The next morning he awakens to a buzz of activity. Orderlies and nurses are unplugging the various machines around his bed and wheeling them away.
He catches Karen's eye and, as she approaches him, asks, "What's happening?"
"They've finished with their tests. The doctors have decided they don't need to monitor you any longer, so we're pulling the plug on everything."
Yawning, he replies, "I'm glad I'm not on life-support, otherwise that statement could take on an entirely different meaning."
She smiles at him. "Yes, I see your point. Got some other good news, too. After we finish with this, I'll bring those pancakes you asked for. Might even be able to scrounge up some bacon and scrambled eggs as well."
"Nurse Green, you're the best."
"Just rewarding you for being such a good patient. After breakfast, you'll probably want to shower and get into some regular clothes. We brought some in for you."
"Thanks for that. I didn't relish the idea of walking around in those hospital robes. Little breezy, if you get my drift. A shower sounds good as well. The whole 'Sponge Baths by Sven' thing was getting a little creepy."
She gently slaps him on the shoulder. "Hey, he's a great orderly. Be thankful that he does such a good job, otherwise, I'd probably have to stay upwind of you."
He raises his hands in surrender. "OK, OK. I give. Please thank him for me."
"I will. Now, on a more serious note, General Beckman will be here in two hours to speak with you. That's part of the reason I let them wake you up, to give you enough time to prepare."
Even though Chuck has been eagerly awaiting this meeting, now that the time is almost here, he's a little fearful. He's fairly certain that it's going to be bad news. Maybe they'll have no further use for him now that the Intersect is likely gone for good. The worst thing he can think of is that as a consequence of this, Sarah has already been reassigned, already somewhere halfway around the globe, never to be seen by him again.
Whatever's going on, he's determined to get answers this time. Even if those answers may break his heart.
"Thanks for the heads up, Karen. I appreciate you looking out for me."
A couple of hours later he feels like a human being once more. Fed, showered, shaved, dressed in jeans, a black t-shirt, and his namesake Chucks, he feels much more prepared to deal with the impending discussion with the General.
Walking around in his room (he'd strenuously refused the offered wheelchair), he finds himself a little weak, but otherwise discerns no ill effects from what he's gone through.
From across the room, he hears Karen's concerned voice. "Any dizziness?"
"Nope. Just a little tired." Spying two comfortable looking chairs around a table near the window, he heads for them. "Think I'll sit down for a while."
A moment later, there's a knock on the door just before it opens to admit General Beckman into the room.
Both Chuck and Karen rise from their chairs, but the General quickly waves for Chuck to sit once again, which he gratefully does.
Turning, she politely asks, "Nurse Green, could you leave us, please? Agent Carmichael and I need to have a private discussion."
"Certainly, Ma'am. I'll be right outside if the patient needs anything."
Chuck can hear Karen's slight emphasis on the word "patient", a gentle reminder to the General about his condition.
"Thank you, nurse. I'll keep that in mind."
As the door closes behind Karen, Beckman approaches Chuck, then sits in the chair opposite him.
"Agent Carmichael. It's good to see you looking so well."
"Thank you, Ma'am. I'm feeling much better."
Chuck has never known Beckman to be much of a small-talk kind of person, so isn't surprised when she gets right to business, just as she did during the video call.
"I imagine there are a lot of things you would like to have cleared up."
He nods. "Yes, Ma'am, there are. But is it OK with you if we drop the cover name? Now that we're in private, I would prefer to use Bartowski. Just seems a little less formal."
He's totally unprepared for the expression of undisguised concern that passes over her normally impassive face. Nor is he prepared for the sympathy he hears in her voice.
"Charles…Chuck. Before we go any further, there's something you must know. Something we'd thought you'd never have to face, at least not in this manner. However, things haven't worked out as we had hoped. So, after many consultations with the various medical experts, we've come to the conclusion that, if you are to have any chance of moving forward, it is imperative that you know the truth."
She brings her eyes to his.
"I need you to listen carefully. Very carefully." She pauses for a moment, then takes a deep breath. "The person you believe yourself to be does not truly exist and, in fact, never has. Charles Irving Bartowski is an identity you created and assumed when you first became the human Intersect three years ago."
A/N: I can hear you saying, "Whoa, man, what the heck are you doing?" (or some such). Trust me, this isn't even the biggest surprise to come in this story. But don't give up. Keep on reading, please. I believe you're going to like what's going to happen. One way or another.