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Title: Save You Later

Summary: Diverges at Ep. 1.13. What if the Fulcrum agent was never found and the government succeeded in taking Chuck to a bunker? Would Sarah rescue him like she promised?

Note: Not for those who dislike dark stories. Also, this is fairly long. You have been warned.

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"Chuck…I'll save you later."

The air was oppressive that night, laying slick fingers of perspiration on Chuck's skin, whispering of a storm. Behind them, the mechanical clatter of the helicopter rang out with its own urgency. It was time to go. Sarah held his gaze for a fraction of a second. Her eyes were bright, intensely blue under the gloss of tears. And then she was gone, disappearing over the edge of the building into the night. The cop-who-was-not-a-cop took him firmly by the shoulder and herded him into the copter. As they lifted off into a sky of black, churning clouds, the cop sighed audibly in what could have been relief or simply exhaustion. There was no conversation. Chuck closed his eyes to embed the image into his mind forever (just one more to add to the millions): the top of the building with its harsh red light, the press of the wind, the heartbreaking beauty of the woman with tears in her eyes for him. Who promised to save him…one day.

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In the long white days that follow and the dark ones after that, Chuck sometimes forgets his name. Memories of life before sometimes acquire soft, hazy edges, blur dreamlike in his mind with the nightmares. But Sarah's eyes and Sarah's promise he never forgets. Even when he no longer believes.

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Codename Mable: C.I.A. Holding Facility

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The first cell is bright and clean and spare like he imagined. No padding, though. And he does get a bed. It's irritatingly comfortable. Chuck has a hard time feeling like a victimized prisoner when sleeping in is such a luxurious experience. On the other hand, it is essentially the only experience of that type. Mabel, affectionate nickname for the facility by its affectionate inmates, is not a five star hotel or resort of any kind.

"It's a prison," one girl bluntly tells him over lunch. They haven't exchanged names. She'd cut him off when he started to introduce himself, and glanced quickly up at a security camera. Apparently it's against protocol to share personal details like, oh, names, for example. A Mabel veteran, this girl has been here nearly eleven years by her count.

At first Chuck disagrees with her assessment. "No cockroaches in the gruel," he says with a grin and a wave of his warm, crusty breadstick. "No romantic entanglements involving big guys named Bubba. My extraction guy told me they take us on field trips to the surface once in a while. Besides, doesn't the traditional model of a prison involve keeping people in, not out? Oh, and the beds, my God, the beds…"

The girl brushes aside his banter with a disbelieving stare and a laugh like dry leaves. "They won't let you go up ever. I've heard about you. You're a lifer. Just wait, new kid. No matter what kind of lockdown they put you in, it's prison. You'll understand."

And he does, soon.

They give him a few days to assimilate to the endless white walls and fluorescent lights that never shut off. Then one morning it begins. His new life.

"3X1243J." He blinks, head aching with sleep. Morning doesn't hold any particular meaning in a place where there was no sun, but it is definitely not time to be awake.

"Muhmmm," he mumbles.

"3X1243J. You're to come with me immediately for debriefing. Get up."

The voice outside his room is like Casey's, but without the human edge of black humor. Cold. Efficient. Demanding. Chuck is used to responding to that sort of voice, and habit pulls him reluctantly from the cocoon of blankets. He takes a few minutes to splash water on his face and change from one drab grey outfit into another, then lets himself out into the hall. The man waiting outside is tall and expressionless.

"Follow me," he says. Chuck follows.

The sleeping quarters are laid out exactly like the cells where Jill had been held. Walking past door after barred door, he can't shake the cafeteria girl's quietly despairing voice from his head.

You'll understand.

"So…I'm a number now. Is that the interior decorator's idea? Go along with the whole lack of personality theme? Because it's very impressive. Walls, lighting, uniforms, names even. A complete immersion experience. I feel so stripped of individuality that I almost called you comrade a second ago. True story."

The man looks back, still with the same set to his face. It may as well be carved in granite. "Your identity is a state secret, or you would not be here," he replies flatly. Chuck's tentative smile dies slowly. "Assets are to be addressed by identification number only. In the event that you divulge your name or other information about your person to an unauthorized individual, all fraternization will be immediately restricted. Understood?"

Chuck swallows. He nods shortly. And there is silence for the rest of the walk.

Silence becomes the defining feature of this life, sometimes unbearably intrusive, occasionally welcome. Predictably, his 'fraternization' privileges are removed very quickly. Laughing at a table or in the entertainment room or the gym, he lets slip one too many anecdotes and casual references to home. This is lesson number one. Laughter brings unpleasantness. And so Chuck learns not to laugh.

After the days of debriefing which amount to long, nightmarish interrogation sessions about Bryce Larkin, Orion and his handlers, he is set to his work of espionage encyclopedia. This is the setup at first: dentist chair in the middle of a white room, viewing goggles, some sort of windshield spray for his unblinking eyes, straps to make sure he doesn't slide off when his brain shut down as it occasionally does. The United States government is apparently hellbent on extracting their secrets as instantaneously as possible. The goggles spew hours of continuous images into his retinas, and the subvocal transcriber collects the continuous flashes that paralyze his body during all the hours. There are no breaks. Evil doesn't stop for lunch, and so neither does Chuck, taking his meals from the intravenous tubes. Most humiliating of all is the catheter. This is when the etching away of Chuck's identity as a human being begins in earnest.

Then there are the days of dentist chairs with needles instead of goggles. Scientists filter in and out, focused, excited gazes never meeting his own, always looking past his face as if it isn't here at all. As if his body is merely a casing for an exciting new toy. There is no Sarah to protect him anymore from powerful people without souls. No Casey to run gruff interference. In the bowels of a government bunker that doesn't exist, a badge and 'the greater good' are license for anything. The first time long silver needles make an appearance Chuck promptly passes out. The second time he has the presence of mind to let loose his patented girly scream, the dependable get-out-of-trouble signal. No one comes. And no one thinks to close his eyes before the instant effects of the sedative, and he watches them the entire time as they hover over him. He sees his own blood on white gloves, absently wiped onto strips of gauze hanging from metal tables. He walks back to his cell alone, unsteadily, vision blurred.

The third time, he only closes his eyes.

Eventually they realize that he has more data in his mind than could ever be catalogued by real-time stimulation and recording. Only Orion could make Chuck anything less than vital. When the white coats begin to treat him more gently, he comes to the gradual realization that they can no longer afford to use him up all at once. Which means his father is dead. He sobs alone in his cell without tears. Alone, because although a dozen set of eyes monitor him, none of them care even slightly. Tearless, because his tear ducts atrophied long ago.

He begins to have nosebleeds. Then recurring headaches. Then blackouts. Then one morning he stays in the comfortable bed all day because he doesn't wake up at all. With black magic and a cocktail of drugs that is illegal around the globe, they bring him out of that coma, and then the second. It's a little harder after that and they let him rest more. The first free day is confusing. He wakes up late and disoriented. Getting up slowly, he peers out through the barred window of his door into the hall. No Casey-bot waits to take him to his chair. A flashing update on the wall-screen informs him that he has free range of the areas previously off-limits. 3X1243J stares at it blankly. What would…Chuck…have done with a day of freedom? Video games, a weak memory whispers. That's not an option. One of the medical probes had played havoc with his depth perception, and his fine motor control is shaky at best, the way his hands tremble. Go for a walk. Sunshine. Something tells him that there will never be sunshine again. He goes for a walk anyway, silently wandering the corridors. Eventually he finds himself at the gym, sweating away all emotions on a cardio machine. He glances at a clock. A cold chill should have accompanied the realization that he had begun his workout at the precise same time he begins it every day, no conscious decision involved. But it didn't. After, he showers and walks around again.

Not long after he finds himself in the small white room with the dentist chair.

This is the moment when Chuck understands what the girl told him that day. The definition of prison is not a semantics game; not an argument of keeping in or keeping out. It's very simple. A prison makes you a prisoner. A prison takes away your power. A prison locks your mind.

The second lesson he learns in the cells is to remember Sarah's promise every day. Charles Bartowski's brain can hold worlds of information in the image of a flower. It is Chuck's own world that attaches itself to the memory of mournful blue eyes. When he holds onto Sarah, he holds onto life. Holds onto Ellie, to his father, to Morgan, to blue skies. Sarah's promise stops him from simply forgetting and burying the pain of a past that probably not be his future. It gives him hope.

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Codename Blackrock: Fulcrum Holding Facility

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The second cell is dark and dank like he imagined. The bed isn't nearly as comfortable. However, in a perverse irony of life, the bad guys are kinder to Chuck than the good guys were. For all the trouble they cause, they don't have nearly as many resources as the government. There are no more dentist chairs. Chuck gets to go on missions, sometimes. Just like the old days. It's the only way he's useful to them. They torture him first, of course. Chuck finds it oddly familiar. The blood, the pain, the sleep deprivation, the humiliation, the needles. He knows this drill. His mind flees, and his answers are as quick as his ragged vocal cords can produce. Fulcrum's Casey-bot learns that the C.I.A. has conveniently conditioned Chuck already. They stop torturing him then and teach him instead. He learns to defend himself and learns better ways to escape, and also learns ways to find a local Fulcrum agent if his handler goes down. This has happened on more than one occasion, Chuck independently finishing the mission and then turning himself in. Escaping does not occur to him. Where would he go?

Chuck does not think with any particular self-awareness anymore. So it's a surprise to him when a highly placed Fulcrum agent terrorizes him one night for suspected sabotage.

You were deliberately passive in the situation, Bartowski. We have your files. We know you. You are an initiator. Don't play games with us. You will regret it. Your sister's second child is on the way. We know that it's going to be a girl. Ellie doesn't yet. You see, we know everything about her, every detail of her life. Taking her down would be the easiest operation this organization ever engaged in. You fail us…you fail her.

This was when Chuck begins to think more actively about the promise.

He wasn't sure, but four years sounded right for how long it had been. Four years around the world and under its surface. Four years of slowly shifting landscapes in his mind, the Pangaea that was once Charles Bartowski drifting into shattered islands. Fulcrum is right. He is not performing well. A great deal of Chuck has gone to sleep and not woken up again. He doesn't know how to recover himself. He doesn't know if he wants to.

But he does know this: Ellie must be safe. Ellie must live and love and lavish that love on her children and one day grow wrinkles and gray hair. Ellie must not be hurt because of him. The thought is unbearable to him, and he sets it adrift in the serene unconscious depths where the Intersect lives. Instead, he thinks about escape. No Chuck, no threat to home. Escape is the key. About the time he decides this, Sarah Walker fulfills her promise to him.

The third lesson Chuck Bartowski learns in cells is that people don't always keep their promises in the way we expect. Months and years he waits for her to save him later. Later never comes. Not the way he had pictured. This is to say, the woman who called herself Sarah never walks into a cell and takes him away.

But she does save him.

There is a dark night with sultry, heavy air, touching him with slick fingers of perspiration. There is a building top with low red lights. There is a gunfight, and when the smoke clears, it is only Chuck who stands on top of the building, five thousand feet above the swirls and eddies of traffic. He wanders over to the edge. Looks down. His face stares back at him in the wide panes of sheet glass. He gazes without recognition. Chuck Bartowski had a face that almost shone with innocence, impulsiveness, warmth and joy. Bryce liked my face, he understood in a rare moment of irrelevant thought. He wanted to keep it like it was. A smile curved up his lips, stretching at old scar tissue. Knew he was gay for me.

Chuck.

He spins around, half expecting to see a beautiful girl with tears in her blue eyes. But it was nothing. Just old ghosts.

He looks back to the city below and grips the ledge tightly. The bricks are rough under his fingers. He can feel the whisper of a coming storm in the wind.

Chuck

I'll save you later.

And she has, he reflects as vaults onto the ledge. Sarah gave him hope. Hope saved his memories and kept his love for Ellie alive and awake through all the pain. Love gives him the courage and the clarity tonight to rescue himself forever.

Chuck closes his eyes and steps forward. The wind whistles in his ears, high and sonorous. It's almost the pitch he hears when the Intersect takes over his mind.

See ya, he murmurs.

And then there is nothing.

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End

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Disclaimer: don't own Chuck. However, if I did, I would bring it back for a third season. 