Title: Protecting his whole self
Author : valeriebean
Rating: PG (but lots of angst)
Summary: Serious Chuck angst … what happens if you try to extract Chuck? Casey-centric narration. It isn't happy. Takes place after Chuck vs. the Marlin
Word Count: 4340 (8 pages at 12pt)
Notes: Spoilers through the Marlin. Comments welcomed and adored.

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Casey was glad the enemy agent was already on the roof when he arrived. It made his and Agent Walker's presence there easier to explain. As far as his superiors were concerned, he and Walker had split up to pursue the woman and intercepted the extraction team by happenstance. He'd taken to lying in his reports a lot more often these days. It tethered him to Agent Walker and it tethered him to Bartowski in a manner altogether unsafe. When the kill order came, he'd make sure to take out Bartowski quick and painless. He'd make sure the kid didn't even see it coming, because then he could avoid the screaming. He could avoid those wide brown eyes begging him for mercy and one last chance to say good-bye. Those eyes that so often looked to him for protection. The kid who had sought Casey out in his weakest moment lamenting Ilsa and still managed to see only strength. Chuck's strength was sourced in something Casey couldn't begin to understand, but feared he'd become a slave to if he didn't back out soon. He had to keep the kid at a distance. He had to keep Walker at a distance too. After he killed Chuck, he'd still have to look her in the eye and he knew she had a frightening store of womanly wrath locked and loaded.

Bartowski hadn't been doing so hot since the failed extraction. He kept up appearances during the day, but Casey listened in at night. He heard the long hours of sighing as Chuck failed to sleep and the frustrated turn to gaming at 3am when he'd given up on rest altogether. Casey noticed how meals were replaced with venti caramel macchiatos. He noticed how Chuck brushed off Morgan more often and had stopped coming to morning briefings. It certainly made the meetings run smoother, and there were fewer things the kid heard that freaked him out before work, but it worried Casey. He told CIA that it was her job as Chuck's friend to fix this, but every time she tried, Chuck would go into a ramble about his fear of being extracted again.

Then one day, it all calmed down. Chuck ate three real meals, washed the dishes after supper, did his laundry, and went to bed at a decent hour. Having not expected to have the night off early, Casey half-listened to the Bartowski's quiet apartment and paid extreme attention to the Maple Bonsai he was pruning. After an hour, he was satisfied with the silence and he went to bed.

-----

Casey wasn't surprised when Chuck didn't show for the morning briefing again. There was a new threat to security and the General faxed over a hundred pages of documents for the Intersect to peruse, so Casey would brief him during the car ride to work. They always carpooled on Wednesdays. The briefing ran long, so Agent Walker had to dash off immediately, leaving Casey alone to drag Bartowski out of bed. Ellie was probably already on his case or feeding him some kind of breakfast. She could be fooled about spy stuff, but she wasn't blind to her brother's moods. She knew when he was hurting and she knew when simple pancakes could help.

The air outside was far too warm for February, but it was one of those things that made Casey glad he'd left DC. He tapped on Chuck's window as a warning, then knocked on the front door. Devon answered, wearing nothing but those ridiculous blue boxers with the little horses on them.

"John," he said in surprise. "I thought you and Chuck already left."

"Hey, John." Ellie leaned over the counter and waved from the kitchen. "Did you need something."

"Just looking for your brother," John answered evenly, though he was getting a sinking feeling in his stomach. The two of them shrugged and looked helplessly at him, so he shrugged back nonchalantly and resisted the urge to tear through the house looking for Chuck. As soon as the door closed, he darted over to the window and peeked inside. The room was set in disarray like it normally was, with clothes piled up according to relative cleanness and games stacked on the desk in no particular order. Casey dialed Chuck's number, but the phone went straight to voice mail. He dashed back to his apartment and found the DVD he'd recorded the previous night. His mind whirred. If Chuck had been extracted, the General would've informed him this morning and not faxed a hundred classified documents.

Casey was so on edge, he could barely sit in his chair, but he pulled on the headphones and listened intently. Shortly before midnight, Bartowski's phone had rung and he'd answered it on the third ring. Of course, he'd get a call on the Nerd Herd after hours line the one day he'd managed to fall asleep at a decent hour. Casey tried not to be disgusted on Chuck's behalf, but he could never forgive the stupidity of people who didn't know how to set up their own equipment. After twenty minutes, Chuck arranged to meet the caller and handle the problem. Casey reviewed the tape, but Chuck had not repeated the address out loud. He looked out his window and for the first time noticed that the Nerd Herd car was not parked at its traditional curbside spot.

Swearing under his breath, Casey dialed the local office and got an APB out for that Nerd Herd vehicle. Then he requested a phone dump on the Nerd Herd phone to see if he could locate the caller. He waited impatiently for Devon and Ellie to leave for work, then climbed into the Bartowski's house and searched for any clues that might … be anything. A can of grape soda and the carefree placement of the game controller told Casey that Morgan had snuck in at some point that morning to play a game. Morgan was always disturbing things. Casey swore again, chastising himself for failure to intercept. Casey nearly jumped out of his skin as the phone in his pocket vibrated. Agent Walker! Maybe she'd heard something. Quickly, he answered the phone.

"Casey, where are you and Chuck? You were supposed to be at work half an hour ago."

"I know that," Casey returned threateningly. He hated when she tried bossing him around. "Bartowski's gone missing. Is his vehicle there?"

"I think I'd notice his car," she said sarcastically. He could hear the shuffling as she made excuses to her boss and ran out into the parking lot. With the Intersect missing, their cover lives were forfeit. "Do we have a timeline?"

"Nerd Herd call around midnight. Apparently he took the car and never came back."

"Do you have an address?"

"If he wrote it on something, there's no mark here. The local PD is looking for the car."

Casey looked around Chuck's room in defeat. There was nothing here.

-----

Sarah had never driven so fast as when she got the call saying Chuck's car was found – not even when those Guatemalan arms dealers were pursuing her and Bryce through the streets of Villa Nueva. Her car skidded across the streets, landing on the curb in a way that made the pedestrians scatter like a flock of pigeons. It was a car repair shop just north of Chinatown about three blocks from where they'd bought the sizzling shrimp. Her breath short, Sarah ran toward the vehicle desperately hoping for a clue to Chuck's whereabouts. Casey was only three skidding turns and twenty-two seconds behind her.

"You find anything?" he shouted eagerly, running up beside her.

Sarah stooped next to the car and looked inside. "No blood. One flat tire."

"Must've gotten a flat and had it towed," Casey reasoned, already dialing his phone to see what tow company may have done the job. The driver's side door was unlocked, so Sarah opened carefully and sat in the driver's seat, trying to see what Chuck may have seen in this spot.

"Why haven't you called," she murmured and pulled out her phone, punching the speed dial. The phone rang once, then picked up. She was so surprised, she couldn't stop the flood of words coming from her mouth. "Chuck? Chuck, where are you?"

"Hey, Sarah," Morgan's voice answered from the other side. "No Chuck left his phone this morning. I was going to bring it to him at work, but he's a no-show. I figured you and he were –"

"Morgan, quiet," she ordered curtly. "If you hear from Chuck, tell him to call me."

She didn't wait for an answer before hanging up; she just looked bitterly at Casey.

"He doesn't have his phone."

-----

It was ten hours later before the report came in on the phone dump. There had been no call made to that number at the specified time. Casey recovered the phone from Morgan and checked the settings, but there was no alarm set for that hour. Of course, such a thing would be easy for Chuck to un-program after the fact. The point was that Chuck had faked a twenty-minute phone conversation, then had disappeared without the phone. He hadn't taken any significant amount of food or clothing, he'd ditched the car (no company had record of towing him and the tire appeared slashed), and he'd cashed his last paycheck. Sarah listened to the fake phone conversation that Casey had recorded over and over, hoping to hear some hint or message from Chuck telling her where he was, but nothing came. The phone conversation made a kidnapping unlikely, or at least unrelated. But where ever Chuck was, he was alone and not safe.

-----

Ellie called the police the second day to report her brother's disappearance and did not take well to the news of the Nerd Herd car being found short one man. Containment became difficult because Ellie was insistent on a thorough investigation and the government had already been in full swing for 24 hours on a classified parallel investigation.

Casey didn't need to be wearing his headset to hear the anguished cry that emerged from the Bartowski apartment the afternoon of the third day. Knowing that Ellie was alone, he vaulted over the shrubbery and burst through the front door, weapon drawn, mind and body at full alert. He concealed his gun quickly when he heard no sounds of danger and he followed the sobbing into the laundry room. Ellie slumped on her knees in the midst of half-sorted laundry piles holding a piece of paper in trembling hands.

"What is it?" Casey whispered, kneeling next to her and taking the paper.

"I always check the pockets," she wept, falling against his shoulder. He patted her arm awkwardly. "He knows I always check the pockets."

Casey looked at the note scrawled in Chuck's sloppiest chicken scratch. All it said was "I love you, sis. Take care of Morgan for me."

The damn kid knew he was leaving! He knew!

"You don't think," Ellie sobbed and lost control of her voice. "You don't think it's a suicide note, do you?"

The kid had been pretty upset about the idea of extraction, but Casey didn't think Chuck had it in him to off himself. The anguish overwhelmed Ellie again and she cried out miserably against Casey's chest. There was nothing he could say to her, and she wouldn't have heard anyway.

-----

Casey and Sarah spent the evening with Devon, Morgan, and Ellie, playing the part of Chuck's friends and hoping more clues would reveal themselves. They all sat in silence on the couch while Ellie puttered around the house cleaning anything that looked like it might need cleaning, just to keep her hands busy. They'd long since given up telling her to sit down.

Casey eyed Morgan suspiciously as he spoke about Chuck as though the man were already gone from the world. Casey had never seen Morgan look so shell-shocked. Those kids were two of a kind, cut from the same block of cheese. Even if Chuck hadn't told Morgan anything, Casey figured Morgan was the key.

"Morgan, stop talking like he's dead," Ellie interrupted as she passed through the room, dragging Chuck's comforter behind her. She disappeared into the laundry closet, but she'd already given Casey the idea.

"Suppose he's not dead," Casey told Morgan. "Suppose he ran away. He got tired of this life and decided to set up some place new."

Morgan laughed half-heartedly, recognizing the question as something designed to cheer him up and rejecting it on that same premise. But Sarah caught on to Casey's idea and pushed a little.

"If you could run away and set up some place new, where would it be?" she asked him.

"Canada," Morgan said immediately. "I've always wanted to go."

"Do you think Chuck would go there, too?" Sarah asked wistfully and Casey tried hard not to laugh at her act.

Morgan laughed at her outright. "Heck no. Chuck loves his beaches. You can bet he'd stay on the coast. West coast. Some place warm. He likes watching the sunset over the water. (He's a hopeless romantic like that.) He'd go to Florida, probably. It has a west coast and the man has always had an unhealthy interest in CSI: Miami."

Casey exchanged a look with Sarah. They couldn't get out of there fast enough.

-----

The call to Florida was simple. They told the local offices to keep their eyes peeled for a lanky kid who was probably strolling the beaches at sunset and responded to the name Charles Carmichael. If spotted, they were to track but not engage. It was two weeks before the hit came in – St. Pete Beach. Wild horses could not have kept Casey and Sarah from hopping the first flight across the continent to find their rouge charge.

At sunset, they waited with a local NSA team for Chuck to make his appearance. The kid looked like he'd lost some weight, but his clothes were fresh and crisp, and he looked like he'd moved into a white collar job. The team that had been tracking him said he worked part time for a local engineering firm and was apparently paid well as a consultant. Well or not, Chuck looked like he'd aged a hundred years and carried the wait of all the world's misery in his eyes. He looked the same way Casey had felt when he'd lost Ilsa the first time – like his heart had been ripped free of the rest of him and plowed over with a freight train.

"I'll go in," Sarah whispered and Casey nodded. She was the soft one and she was the one Chuck would most likely respond to. Casey wasn't sure if Chuck saw her coming or if he'd decided to change direction of his own volition. But when Sarah called his name, Chuck started running. Barking off a few quick orders to the rest of the team, Casey headed Chuck off at the beach entrance and tackled him in the sand. Surprisingly, Chuck kicked and struggled, connecting to Casey's groin before dashing off again. Angry now, Casey rolled to his feet and chased Chuck down the beach with a limping gallop. Chuck wasn't looking for an escape now. He was running into the ocean. Dashing into the water, fighting the weak gulf coast waves, Casey kicked Chuck's knees so that he collapsed into the salty sea.

"No," Chuck cried, his voice gargling as water splashed into his mouth. Casey hauled Chuck over his shoulder, pulling the kid out of the water before he could drown. Chuck's cries were loud and incoherent, but now Casey was backed by a team of people holding Chuck down. Sarah tried desperately to hold Chuck's face and get him to talk, but Chuck would not stop screaming. He screamed all the way to the safe house and then for twenty minutes after until they finally got a doctor to come and give him a sedative. There were grumblings among the other agents as to why Chuck was so important. He couldn't reveal to any of them that Chuck was the Intersect. Hopefully, come morning, Bartowski would be calm enough to review that intel they'd gotten two weeks ago. Until the new computer was up and running, Chuck still had a job to do.

-----

The next morning, Chuck's eyes were open, but vacant. He blinked occasionally, his mouth hanging open, his features catatonically examining the air molecules two inches in front of his face. Every hour, he would close his eyes and leave them shut for the next ten minutes. He could hear and he could see, but he was choosing not to respond. Sarah sat next to him on the bed and asked him to look at the intel files. She held them up for him one at a time. Every now and then, Casey recognized the tell-tale signs of the Intersect flash, but Chuck said nothing. He wouldn't eat or drink.

By the third day, Chuck still was not talking and the doctor set up a feeding tube which Chuck very intentionally ripped out whenever no one was looking. There was talk of transferring him to another safe house or arranging different care options or eliminating care altogether. He was still the Intersect, but he'd ceased to function. Agent Walker had been called away on a few local missions and Casey thought wistfully of his neglected Bonsai collection. He'd tried everything he knew to snap Bartowski out of this slump. He'd tried threats; he'd tried negotiation. He'd recommended to the General that morning that they simply cut their losses and move one. The Intersect was useless now.

-----

The next afternoon, Casey's phone buzzed and he checked the ID. Why was Ellie calling him?

"Hello?"

"Hey, John, um, where are you? The BuyMore called and said you haven't been showing up."

"I was looking for Chuck," Casey answered, adopting his most neighborly voice. "I had a hunch."

"Yeah?" Ellie asked hopefully and he could tell he'd triggered a flood of tears. "Any luck?"

Casey bit his lip, looking at the hollow shell that was once Chuck Bartowski. Though his continued existence and presence was technically classified, Casey had another hunch about making Bartowski talk.

"Actually yes," he answered reservedly. "I was going to call you."

"You found him?!" Ellie squealed, her voice drowned by a crash as she dropped whatever she'd been doing on the floor. "John, where are you? Where is he?"

"We're in Florida," Casey answered. "Chuck isn't really fit to travel."

"Then I'll come to you. What airport are you near."

"No," Casey interrupted. He knew Ellie coming was a bad idea, but he wasn't sure if he was forbidding her because they were in a secure government location or because she'd die seeing her brother like this. "Stay where you are. I'll bring him back soon. But I think he could use the sound of your voice."

Casey crossed over to the bed and held the phone to Chuck's ear. Chuck swatted irritably at the dearth of sounds assaulting him as Ellie gushed over the phone, but eventually he gave up and closed his eyes. After a few minutes, it became clear that he wasn't responding, so Casey put the receiver back to his own ear, muttered a few consoling explanations to the sister, and signed off.

Leaving the phone in the charger, he went in search of breakfast. Casey didn't know much about how Chuck worked, but he figured Ellie would've gotten a response out of the kid if such a thing were still possible. Apparently it wasn't.

-----

Chuck was missing again. After he'd eaten, Casey went back to the room to make sure Chuck hadn't ripped out his feeding tube, but Chuck was gone, and so was Casey's phone. Grumbling a plethora of curses, Casey radioed Sarah to share the news and then told the computer lackey upstairs to put a trace on his phone. He ran outside to check for Chuck, but found nothing. Without his phone, he felt like he'd lost his tongue. Agent Walker drove by the house half a minute later and beckoned him into her car.

"Local PD says they picked up a man matching Chuck's description about two blocks from here. He's at the hospital," Sarah explained.

-----

The doctor treating Chuck had been a friend of Ellie's in medical school and had the same all-business manner when it came to treating her patient. None of that mattered as much as the fact that Chuck was sitting up in his hospital bed eating a bowl of applesauce. His eyes were a little less vacant and his hands moved deliberately both in maneuvering the spoon and reaching for the cup of red juice on the table.

Sarah rushed in, not sure if she wanted to berate him or gush gratefully over the fact that he was eating again. He didn't look at her or Casey when they entered, but Casey wasn't surprised by that. He retrieved his phone and checked the history. Apparently Chuck had swiped it and sent a text to Ellie with a few physical ailments, including that his throat hurt too much to talk. Ellie's response had been simple. 'Go to the hospital.' Casey smirked and pocketed his phone. He knew letting Ellie talk to Chuck was the right idea.

-----

They waited two more days for Chuck to look less malnourished before taking him home. If it weren't for the doctor being Ellie's old friend, Casey knew they would've had a much harder time keeping Ellie away. Every day, Chuck's presence of mind improved, but Casey was still waiting for a laugh – even a nervous laugh – to let him know the kid was okay. There was still the matter of the intel that they needed the Intersect to weigh in on, and Chuck had only offered a few words on the matter. He would text Ellie daily, but in conversation, all he ever said out loud was "I love you, sis."

Sarah and Casey flanked Chuck all the way through the airport, getting special clearance so he didn't have opportunity to break away at airport security. Casey escorted him to the men's room – they went to the companions restrooms so that no one would look at him funny for hovering. He didn't want Chuck to run. They bought mediocre food at an over-priced Burger King which Chuck didn't eat (and by rights, probably should've have given he was still in a state of recovery).

Once on the plane, Chuck started whining incoherently and hyperventilating and Casey had half a mind to knock him out. Sarah, being more benevolent, put an arm around him and spoke soothes into his ear. An hour into the flight, Sarah got up to wait for the lavatory and Chuck pressed his head numbly against the back of the chair and stared across Casey and out the window.

"Casey," Chuck said, his voice soft and gravelly. "Are you going to kill me?"

Casey raised his eyebrows, surprised to be addressed at all. "Not today."

"Don't let them take me," Chuck pleaded, choking dryly. "Please don't."

"That isn't up to me," Casey answered unsympathetically. "Is that why you tried to run?"

"It was practice. I had to see if I could live without them."

Casey nodded, figuring that 'them' referred to his friends and family.

"I can't do it, Casey. Even when I get to choose my own life and live well. I can't do it."

"It's amazing what you can do if you have no choice."

"Will you do me a favor?" Chuck asked, his head lolling sideways, his eyes looking directly at Casey with more intensity than he'd seen in weeks.

"If they try … again… if they try to extract me, will you kill me first?"

Casey's jaw tensed and he swallowed any emotional response he had to the request quickly. He answered neutrally and noncommittally. "I'll do what I have to."

-----

They were barely off the jetway and into the terminal when Ellie charged across the room and bowled Chuck to the ground, shouting his name with tearful elation. Chuck let himself be tackled and embraced his sister shakily. They stayed sitting on the red and blue carpet for nearly ten minutes as Ellie fussed and fawned, alternately checking Chuck for illness and injury and hugging him tight.

"Ellie," Chuck whispered as she smothered him for the umpteenth time. She backed off, her chest nearly caving at the sound of her own name. Chuck continued, "How did you get past security?"

"I bought a boarding pass, silly," she answered shakily, pulling him to his feet. "Are you okay?"

"I am now," Chuck answered weakly, wobbling on his feet, but using his sister for support. "Take me home."

Casey and Sarah trailed at a distance, letting the reunion occur. Ellie kept an arm around Chuck as they walked through the hallways toward the exit. Just outside the security line, Devon and Morgan waited anxiously, and as soon as Chuck saw them, he started running. It took a security guard to keep Morgan from crossing that forbidden line, and Chuck didn't even see the guard as he plowed into his best friend and gave him the biggest bear hug ever. Casey smoothed things over with the belligerent guard and nodded to Sarah to stick to Chuck's side during the reunion. They wouldn't all fit in one car on the way back anyway.

Morgan chattered incessantly, apologizing for thinking Chuck was dead, and declaring that he knew Chuck must've gone to Florida. Those two knew each other too well to hide from each other. The group was almost out the door before Chuck cracked his first smile. It gave Casey hope.

The Intersect wasn't just some machine that did the bidding of the government. Right now, the Intersect was Chuck. Casey wasn't quite sure what made Chuck tick, but he was getting an idea. Chuck was integrated into this environment and into this social group. Extracting Chuck was equivalent to disconnecting the computer from its power source. His mission was not just to protect the Intersect – it was to protect everything that made Chuck who he was. Without his friends and his family, Chuck was nothing.

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