Written for a fic-exchange on livejournal for fic about long-term three-person relationships. The request was Chuck/Bryce/Ellie with a Vee relationship (no Chuck/Ellie).

Author's Notes: Set several months past the S2 finale; spoilers for same. AU where all this has happened: Ellie broke up with Awesome (for reasons that are not part of this story); Chuck got the Intersect removed but never got the new one; Stephen Bartowski decided that Intersect technology was a big danger to himself and his family so he invented and used a program that erases his own knowledge of the Intersect and all his related knowledge of advanced computer science (he is mentioned but does not appear in this story, but basically he is useless for Intersect-research purposes); and Bryce is still around, working as a spy.

Duck, you idiot, Chuck tells himself. His reflexes should be faster, but he's been so relaxed since becoming Intersect-free that instead of hitting the ground at the first shot, he turns his head to look where it's coming from. Yes, that's right — he stands there and looks. Like an amateur. And some part of his brain says, shit, as he wonders if this is going to be the mistake that kills him, just when he finally believed he was safe.

But then Chuck's face is on the hard wood floor of his and Ellie's home. And it's there fast. It does not feel good.

But Chuck can tell that it feels a lot better than being shot. Because after all those times with Sarah and Casey, Chuck had learned to recognize that safe, warm, incredibly ouchy feeling of being slammed to ground by a badass spy. And as someone lays on top of Chuck, pressing into Chuck's back — someone who is using his own body as armor for Chuck's as he shoots back at someone Chuck can't see — Chuck goes through the very short list of people who care enough to do it, and are good enough to do it that fast.

And it really is a short list.

Soft breasts pressing into his back? No. The smell of perfume? No. So — it's not Sarah.

And the body doesn't seem gigantic. And he's not grunting in annoyance. So — not Casey.

And that leaves either some random dude who cares way too much about an ex-Intersect or…

"Bryce," Chuck whispers as the shots stop briefly, with both sides seeming to need a reload.

"Wait here," Bryce's hot breath says in Chuck's ear, as he pulls out yet another handgun from yet another hidden holster and gets ready to go on the offensive. Chuck turns his head up from the floor and Bryce pauses just long enough to look into his eyes, as if to say, Don't worry, I'm here.

Or maybe the look says, It was nice knowing you.

With Bryce it was always hard to tell.

The first thing Bryce figured out about Chuck at Stanford was that Chuck meant it. The kind nature, the desire to help, the joy in discovering something new — whether about Boolean algebra, a classic video game, or the person you're with --- Chuck meant it all. All that sincerity that other people tried so hard to project? Chuck actually had it. And he didn't even realize how incredibly rare that made him.

And it didn't take long for Bryce to figure out that all that truth — that awkward, clumsy, bursting-with-excitement sincerity — came right from Chuck's capacity to love. Not just love as in pretty fluttery feelings, but the kind of love that makes you see the world differently, the kind of love where you look at a world full of deceit and exploitation and loss, and find hope in it away. The kind of love where Chuck genuinely was able to see the successes of others with as much happiness as if they were his own — that transforming love you read about in philosophy class, where you act on the belief that 'you are my other me.' The kind of love that nears excess, and seeps out, and makes you love everything, makes you feel genuine joy at a cool algorithm or a nice conversation about Klingon poetry. Bryce knew rationally that he should probably stop thinking about Chuck this way, that he was probably one of those lovesick dudes who thought that the object of his affection was the most coolest bestest ever. But the thing was, Bryce was pretty good about stepping back from his feelings and looking at things objectively. And even then, Chuck still came off as brimming and sweet and full of joy and faith in the world, and basically all the things that Bryce wouldn't ever have except with Chuck, his giddiness and delight spreading over to Bryce, like a virus he wasn't sorry he had.

And if that weren't enough, there was the way Chuck felt about his family. Who had basically been reduced to Ellie and his old friend Morgan. Chuck loved them far more than he loved himself, Bryce could see. And it wasn't just his decency or his joie de vivre that made him love so fiercely, it was this purity of devotion and an overwhelming rush of something that Bryce could see in his eyes when he talked about them.

And so when Chuck invited Bryce home for the holidays, saying casually, "You're family, too," Bryce could barely breathe. Because he could see no guile in Chuck, and he knew that though it had been so easy for Chuck to love him like family, it wasn't because it was a casual love. And as Bryce thought about how their relationship had grown in the brief months since they met, it became clear that Chuck was being utterly honest. Chuck had decided that Bryce was family, that Bryce was one of that tiny circle of loved ones.

And Bryce never thought of himself the same way after that.

Chuck hero-worshipped him, Bryce could tell. A lot more than Bryce deserved, certainly. But that was nothing compared to how Bryce adored Chuck. Bryce knew it was absurd, knew it was downright sickening the way his chest warmed over whenever he saw Chuck smile, which, thankfully, was often. Bryce knew it was the pathetic the way he could simultaneously laugh and get deliciously dirty ideas when Chuck did a mock-sexy dance, and though Bryce's favorite author claimed that you can't laugh and be aroused at the same time, Bryce knew differently. And yeah, Bryce knew it was stupid the way they would sometimes play with action figures like they were both little kids, but Bryce's trail of foster homes was hardly a childhood and Chuck's childhood (except for Ellie and Morgan) had been just a series of disappointments, and they were going to grab their damn happiness where they could.

And then there were those cheap-wine-soaked nights, the time of drunken confessions (which had to stop after Bryce's new 'job' junior year), the ones where Bryce would tell Chuck not to trust him, that Bryce had never had family and probably wasn't even capable of the kind of love that sprang so readily from the Bartowskis. That Bryce wasn't selfless like Chuck, that he wasn't even as nice as normal people are, and let's face it, normal people can be real bastards. Bryce tried to tell him that he would never be one of them, those people with families who knew how to share their life with other people. That maybe only a special few were capable of really, truly loving somebody besides themselves. And maybe — probably — Bryce had already missed his chance to become one of them.

Bryce, drunk and slurring and moist-eyed, would tell Chuck all this, plead with Chuck to leave, say that Chuck would be better off without him. And Chuck would kiss him, hard, and tell him, "No way. You're not getting rid of me that easily."

"You don't know what I'm really like, Chuck. You think I'm… something I'm not," Bryce would say. Even before Bryce was recruited, even before Bryce had experiential proof that he could beat or kick or kill for a cause he believed in, Bryce knew that about himself. That there was a hardness inside of him that made him different.

But Chuck would answer, "Yeah, I'm so very surprised to learn that you play things close to the vest, Bryce."

"I'm not someone you should…. I mean, I never want you to be like me."

Chuck's grin again. Warmth spreading, infectious, hovering in Bryce's chest when he's trying to stay on task. "Bryce, first of all, nobody could ever be like you. Second of all, ego much? When I say you're like my own personal superhero, I'm joking. Mostly. I mean, you obviously have Batman-ish qualities, but — okay, never mind, we'll talk about that some other time. And third, I damn well do know you. You're the guy who acts like a charming social butterfly when you really just want to hang in the room watching DS9. You're the cocky jerk who does whatever you want because you know you can, but it doesn't change the fact that you usually have good intentions. You're the guy that everyone thinks is too good for me, but you're sitting here, drunk, practically in my lap, whining that you're not good enough for me. Bryce, I do know you. And I love you anyway. So get over yourself. Because like I said, you're not getting rid of me that easy." And he would kiss Bryce again.

And that would be that. Chuck won a lot of arguments like that: a kiss, a smile, and a confident bet that Bryce didn't have it in him to tell Chuck to stop hoping for the best. Bryce was usually a lot better at spotting trouble, a lot better at manipulating the situation, and a whole lot better at eliminating his vulnerabilities.

Bryce knew that his love for Chuck was making him an idiot. But he was young and naive, and back then, he just didn't have it in him to care.

Chuck was worried for a minute.

Well, technically, more like two minutes.

Bryce had managed to draw the Fulcrum agents toward the kitchen in short order, but Chuck could tell by the sound of their shots that he was outnumbered. But then Bryce was running back toward Chuck, grabbing and pulling him to safety right before they were knocked down by an explosion. Not a huge one, but enough that after checking that Chuck was okay, Bryce was able to go back in and find the Fulcrum agents alive but knocked unconscious by the blast.

Bryce, it turned out, was more prepared for the firefight than Chuck was. Bryce had been tracking the Fulcrum agents in question, and when he saw they were headed toward Chuck's home, he raced to get there first. He put a small low-impact explosive in the oven and set it at a low temperature, knowing that it would cause a delayed blast that would give him enough time to push Fulcrum's agents into the kitchen with a little well-placed shooting.

Chuck was impressed. He was also thrilled to be alive, grateful that Bryce had saved him, and unlike in some less fortunate incidents in the past, relieved that nobody was killed, not even the bad guys -- which meant that Chuck wouldn't be spending the night dreaming about death gasps and blood dripping down his hands. It was hard for him to process all that while he was still choking on dust, but Chuck was mostly thinking about what it would be like to see Bryce, talk to him. They hadn't really talked about non-mission things in the brief time Bryce had come back, and they had never really had a chance to talk after Bryce finally came clean about his motives.

But backup arrived shortly after, and since Bryce was personally handling the Fulcrum agents, the agents, who had never met Chuck, shoved him in a van and brought him in for a 'briefing.'

Chuck didn't see Bryce until hours later, when Chuck was safe and sound (and bored) at the Agency's LA headquarters. He gave Bryce a big hug and a grin and said, "So Bryce Larkin is a big damn hero. What a surprise. Seriously, though, Bryce. Thank you."

But Chuck's smile faded when his gratitude was answered with the expression of a man who hasn't finished giving someone bad news.

"Chuck," he said softly, "We also had to bring Ellie in."

"What!" Chuck anxiously sprang toward him. "Is she okay? Was she hurt, was she-"

"She's fine! Chuck, she's fine, I promise. For now."

Chuck spoke frantically, angrily even, though Bryce could tell the anger wasn't directed at him. "What are you talking about, Bryce? Ellie is not part of this. That was a condition since I first got involved with all this, Bryce, that was the deal! This stuff NEVER touches Ellie."

Bryce couldn't recall seeing Chuck so livid, but knowing how he felt about his family, he wasn't really surprised. He answered, "Chuck, Fulcrum has made her part of this. She's fine for now, but the two of you will have to go in hiding."

"This is all my fault. Ellie shouldn't be part of this because of what we are. Wait, can't you just tell Fulcrum I'm not the Intersect any more?"

"They know that, Chuck. And actually, they're not going after Ellie to get to you."


"They've been continuing their own research on Intersect technology. They've made huge improvements. In fact, we believe that there's already a Fulcrum Intersect out there. But the intel we've gotten from the Fulcrum agents we captured at your house suggests that there have been a number of serious glitches. So first, they decided to go after your father."

"Is he-"

"He's fine, Chuck. He's being protected. Though with his recent, um, self-ignorancing, he can't really even understand his old work, much less expand on it. But with your father out of the picture, Fulcrum decided to go after you and Ellie."

"To convince my father to come out of hiding? Don't they know he-"

"We believe they know of his limitations, Chuck. And also, Beckman has your father under lock and key, just in case."

Chuck grimaced. "That's right. The old 'it's not imprisonment, it's protective custody' line."

Bryce winced, almost imperceptibly, at this. Clearly, it didn't fully register with Chuck that Bryce was about to take him and his sister into protective custody. But he continued, "Fulcrum knows that we won't let your father go no matter what, and that it wouldn't matter if we did. So they're looking for someone with a deep understanding of both neurobiology and information retrieval systems. Someone with a good chance of being as much of a genius as your dad."

"Good luck," Chuck muttered sarcastically. But at Bryce's raised eyebrow, he said, "No! They can't think that I — I mean I barely passed biochemistry and --oh…. Ellie."

Bryce nodded. "Chuck Bartowski. And Dr. Ellie Bartowski. The children of the brilliant scientist, whose recorded IQ's rival his. The two of you, together, they think would have the best shot at creating a fully controllable human-machine Intersect. That's what all our intel is telling us."

Chuck was silent for a moment, the shock setting in. He sat back down and put his head in his hands. But when Bryce put his hand on Chuck's shoulder, he looked up abruptly.

"Bryce, " Chuck said, looking up at him with a sense of need that reminded Bryce of how they were years ago, "You have to protect Ellie. Whatever it takes."

"We will, Chuck."

"Tell Beckman I'll trade. I'll work for them. I'll do whatever they want. Hell, they can Intersect me again if that's what it takes. But I want the fullest, best, most overboard protection for Ellie that she can get."

Bryce looked at Chuck's large brown eyes gazing up at him, trusting him to protect what he loved most. He promised, "You'll both be protected. I'll see to it myself."

Chuck smiled at Bryce then, and Bryce felt a pang of warmth. But it was accompanied by that anxious twist he got whenever Chuck smiled that adoring smile, as if Chuck were just positive that Bryce would be good and true and save the day.

But his thoughts were interrupted as Ellie rushed in to hug Chuck, colliding with her brother so hard it almost knocked Chuck out of his chair.

He embraced her back and asked, frantically, "Ellie, are you okay? I am so sorry about all this-"

"I heard someone shot at you! Are you-"

"I'm fine, I have to tell you-"

"They told me everything. About you, and dad, and the Intersect and Fulcrum and-"

"I am SO sorry I didn't tell you Ellie, I wanted to but-"

"It's okay, Chuck, I know you were just trying to protect me, and I just wish you had told me so you didn't have to go throught all that alone!"

"But now you're in danger and -"

"We'll get through this, Chuck. We'll get through this, just like always," she said and added with a smile, "That's what we've always done, you and me, sticking together. We can get through anything."

"And Bryce said he's going to protect us, Ellie," Chuck said, trying to make her feel better.

"Did he?" a voice said archly. Chuck turned to see Casey, looking at Larkin with amused disdain. Clearly, this was not something Bryce had cleared with anyone before promising.

But Chuck ignored this as he realized that not only was this the first time he had seen Casey in months but also that he was the one who brought Ellie in. Chuck walked up to him and gave him a grateful hug, which Casey tolerated with a mere eyeroll as he stood there motionless, not returning the sign of affection. No one was much surprised, except perhaps for the tolerance part.

"John picked me up at work and told me everything on the way over," Ellie said, returning to her breakneck-speed discussion with Chuck. "I can't believe all of you have been living secret lives."

Chuck turned back to her. "It was so hard not telling you, Ellie. Letting you think that I was refusing to move on with my life, and then not telling you why Dad left-"

"You did what you had to do, Chuck. And from what I hear, you were a hero. Not that that surprises me," Ellie said, beaming.

Chuck smiled, touched by her capacity to forgive him for all his secrets. But he still felt he had something to apologize for. He took a deep breath and slowly told her, "Ellie. I really did think I was protecting you. And I would have done anything to keep you happy and safe. But now you're part of this anyway, and I am so sorry."

"Chuck. If some greedy, power-mad psychopaths are trying to kidnap us to try and turn us into mad scientists, that is in no way your fault."

Chuck sighed. "But I should have told you. I kept telling myself that you were better off, that the last thing I wanted was for you to live in fear. I thought I could stop that world from touching you. But… I was wrong. The threat was real, it was literally at our doorstep, and you had a right to know. I thought I was protecting you, but I was actually putting you in more danger by not giving you all the information," he said, and then repeated softly, "You had a right to know."

Ellie smiled at him, and he understood that her smile meant everything he wanted it to. She knew that it had been hard for him to say, hard for Chuck to admit even to himself since nothing pained a Bartowski more than the thought that they might not be able to protect the other. And Ellie didn't contradict his conclusion that he had been wrong to think his silence would protect her. But it was obvious she didn't resent him for it.

Bryce watched, fascinated, as the two siblings unpacked years of secrets and lies in a few minutes, noting that they seemed to get past it like it was a spat over who got the last foot-long sub sandwich.

He never ceased to wonder at the Bartowskis.

But he also felt a stab of guilt. Because all the things Chuck just apologized to Ellie for, Bryce had also done to Chuck, but in a much more hurtful and dangerous way: making decisions about how to protect him without telling him; convincing himself that it was a kindness to keep someone in the dark; seeing his good intentions just put the one he loved in even more danger. Bryce knew he was lucky that Chuck was that rare kind of person who saw his own faults more readily than the faults of his friends.

But what Bryce should have been thinking of is that even if Chuck didn't harbor resentment, his protective older sister would. Apparently, it's easier for Ellie to forgive her sibling than, say, the guy who, until ten minutes ago, she believed was the man who got Chuck kicked out school and then stole his girlfriend. And somehow, it didn't seem that her new knowledge about spies and Intersects and geopolitics made her like him any better.

Because she turned to Bryce, then, and stood with folded arms and a look in her eyes that might have even given General Beckman pause. "So, " she gritted slowly, "Bryce Larkin. I hear you're not what you seem. Not that that should surprise anyone."

"I always had the best intentions for Chuck," Bryce assured her.

"Really? Because I heard you sent him a little birthday present that knocked him out, reprogrammed his brain without permission, turned his life upside down, and almost got him killed about thirty-five times. That's the kind of friend you've been, Bryce Larkin."

From behind, they could hear Casey grunt. A chuckle-like, amused grunt. And Bryce just stood there, lips thinning, not sure how to answer the anger in front of him. There had always been something about Ellie that made Bryce not want to mess with her, not want to argue.

But Chuck spoke up, "Bryce and I have talked to each other, and we've made our peace, Ellie. And he really did have good intentions. And I know he sent the Intersect to me because he has a lot of faith in me. Not to mention that an hour ago, he singlehandedly saved me from a whole Fulcrum team."

Ellie looked at Bryce then a little more softly. "Well, obviously, then… I owe you a thank you, Bryce," she reluctantly said, edge not quite gone from her voice.

"Any time," Bryce answered, and Ellie noticed how strongly he seemed to mean it. She wondered if this was genuine or if this projected sincerity was just a skill of Bryce-the-spy (formerly just Bryce-the-lie in her mind).

But then a phone rang, and the three turned to Casey as he pulled the ringing device out of his pocket and answered. After a few "Yes, ma'am's" and a frown he hung up.

"Underground cell with a concrete view?" Chuck asked tensely, ready to challenge them. Him alone would bad enough, but there was no way he would stand by as they tried to take Ellie away from her life.

"No," Casey said, "It's looks like Larkin gets his wish. Walker's tracking down a lead on the rumored Fulcrum Intersect, I'm going to track down the leads we got from the agents Larkin captured today, and you, Agent Larkin, get to baby-sit the idiot and his sister."

"Sounds good to this idiot," grinned Chuck. He hugged Ellie and whispered, "We're going to be fine, I promise." She answered with a smile, "As long as we're together, I'm not worried."

But as they hugged, Bryce noticed that a soon as neither sibling was able to see the other's face, Chuck and Ellie wore matching furrowed brows and worry-turned mouths. It was the Bartowski expression of doubt and fear, combined, it seemed, with the weight of wanting to be appear strong and brave for the sake of the other.

As Chuck and Ellie finished catching up on all the secrets about Chuck's time as the Intersect, and as Ellie — reluctant but realistic - agreed to take time away from her residency, the various agencies' teams got to work preparing for their missions. Shortly before they left, Casey pulled Bryce aside.

"Try not to fuck up, Larkin. I know that's a tall order for you, but there's a first time for anything."

Bryce smiled, rarely one to let anyone see what weighed on him, and replied, "What's the matter, Casey? Wait, do you actually care about Chuck and Ellie? You do realize that they are neither your car nor your gun?"

"We both know that you're ordered to kill them rather than let them fall into enemy hands, " Casey said, ignoring the jibe.

Bryce answered without reaction, "Of course."

Casey looked at him with narrowed eyes. He lowered his voice then and said, "Walker tells me you'll do a good job protecting them. But that you won't kill them. No matter what. You and Chuck being all buddy-buddy and all."

"I'll do my job," Bryce said evenly.

"You'll do whatever you damn well feel like doing, just like always. And then you'll say it was for all the right reasons."

"I don't know what you-"

"That's fine."

Bryce raised his eyebrows at Casey's unexpected comment. Walker must have had a bigger influence on Casey than he thought.

Casey continued, "I'm going to tell Beckman that I believe that you'll kill them if need be. Otherwise, she'll send someone else to hide them. But you make damn sure no one finds them."

Bryce looked at him strangely, but then just nodded.

"And make sure that you trust no one," Casey added, "The General's suspicious that there may be a leak, either CIA or NSA. Obviously, it's far more likely to be one of you guys. Since you guys are inferior to us in every way. But regardless, your assignment is to take the emergency cash and hide them somewhere out of the way. You won't have back up because you won't tell anyone where you are, except for the General herself. So it's just the three of you, laying low, not drawing attention to yourself. Think you can handle it, Larkin?"

"We'll manage to have a nice time without you, Casey," Bryce answered.

Casey just grunted again and walked away.