Bryce wouldn't tell them where they were going until they arrived. It was many long hours in the car, an old model with no GPS, bought with cash and false IDs.
"Is he always so secretive?" Ellie had asked
"You have no idea," Chuck said, and the words would have cut into Bryce but for the big smile Chuck had flashed at him.
They did the best to fill Ellie in during the long ride, not just on Fulcrum and Orion's work, but also on the basics: the importance of having an eye on the exits at all times, the fallback protocols in case something were to happen to Bryce. The fact that if Fulcrum caught them, they would spare no method to ensure their co-operation. During that portion of the conversation, Bryce spoke quietly and tactfully as Chuck stared out the window with his jaw clenched, possibly to avoid the thought of Ellie being captured. Possibly so Ellie wouldn't be able to read his face and see just how close Chuck had come to having that happen to him.
Ellie responded with less panic than most, Bryce noticed, and wasn't above wondering how much of it was part of her big-sister act. But Ellie seemed genuinely curious about the Intersect technology, asking a series of specific questions about how the techology rewrote neural pathways, what kinds of inhibitors had an effect on it, and the broader ramifications and possible applications of the technology. Soon, she and Chuck were talking about the Intersect technology with great curiosity. Bryce knew it was natural for them to want to know about the research that got them into this situation, to know more about their father's work, and even to just have something to think about instead of fear and anger and the loss of everything in their life but each other. But Bryce sat silently, hating the conversation, knowing that each smart point either made was just more proof that Fulcrum's plan was a good one, and therefore not one that would be given up on. He was relieved when the Bartowskis finally stopped talking and fell asleep, lulled by the sounds of their rickety old car and the crickets that surrounded them on the tiny backwoods road they were curving along.
Deep into the night, they finally arrived, Bryce gently waking each by grazing the back of his hand on their cheek. They stumbled into the cottage that was to serve as their safehouse and managed to make it up the stairs into the two bedrooms Bryce directed them to. Bryce was planning to sleep on the downstairs couch, but, feeling a bit paranoid, decided to sleep under the table in the upstairs hallway, gun in hand, just in case.
He awoke to the sound of Ellie admonishing, "Bryce Larkin! Is that where you spent the night!" He opened his eyes to see her standing over him, hands on her hips.
But Bryce didn't react. Because Bryce Larkin was a badass spy who had come back from the alleged dead four separate times. He was not going to feel like a sheepish child because he was doing his job.
And yet he was a little relieved to hear Chuck yell happily from his room, "Ellie! Bryce! Look at this!"
They ran in to see him and found Chuck gazing out at a sun rising over a small lake. The water had been obscured from the road by the thick line of trees, and Chuck and Ellie hadn't seen it coming in, but in the morning light, the lake spread glistening before them, full of reds and pinks and yellows. Wide brushtrokes across a wet surface, adorned by miniscule waves lacing across the water.
"This is so beautiful," Ellie said, standing right next to Chuck, the open window sending a light breeze through both their hair. Bryce stood a few feet back from them, saying, "Glad you like it. I'll shop today to get us stocked up, but then we won't be able to leave for a while. None of the other houses on the lake have any visitors this time of year, so we can go outside if we stay in back, out of sight of the road. But — that's it. You can't go anywhere else. I'm sorry."
Both Bartowskis turned back toward him, the sun behind them outlining their shapes. Ellie said with a grin, "This place is lovely, Bryce. I couldn't think of any place where I'd rather be held prisoner by my government without due process."
Chuck elbowed her then, and added, "And we can't think of anyone we'd rather have protecting us."
Bryce smiled, a tiny, almost reluctant smile. Chuck remembered then what he knew from college, that Bryce was actually a fairly solemn guy, the kind who gave big smiles to people he didn't care for, and saved the little, honest, world-worn smiles for the people he knew best. And then about twenty college memories came back to Chuck all at once, not like an Intersect flash, just the normal rush of associations and sensations you get when you stand face to face with a big part of who you are. And among the images, the memories — the feel of Bryce's hand along his thigh, or the time they almost got caught changing the statue of the university's founder so that it breathed and excreted flaming methane bubbles — there was a conversation Chuck remembered, more recent than the others. The one Bryce whispered in his ear when hw thought was about to die in Chuck's arms after sabotaging the new Intersect. The fantasy he had, and his regret that he would never be able to find the quiet life of solitude he always dreamed of.
"This is the place you told me about," Chuck said, softly.
Bryce looked at him and didn't deny it.
"Bryce, you can't give up your-"
Bryce cut him off, "I'm going into town to buy supplies right after I check the perimeter. We weren't followed, but I'm checking it every morning. It's no reason to worry, it's just a precaution."
Ellie and Chuck nodded as Bryce walked out, but he wasn't even out of earshot before he could hear Chuck explaining to Ellie that this was supposed to be Bryce's retirement plan. The one place that no one could connect to Bryce or any spy, the place that Bryce never even showed Sarah, the one place that would be isolated and safe enough for Bryce to disappear to. And Bryce was giving up his safety net, letting Chuck and Ellie and Beckman and probably some committee of CIA bureaucrats know about it, so Chuck and Ellie could be in 'protective custody' in a place that wouldn't be anything like a concrete bunker. And though Chuck wanted to talk Bryce out of it, the deed was done.
And so they did their best to follow the rules and not get too bored and to get along. Ellie was doing her best to forgive Bryce for all his past mistakes with Chuck, and all of them were trying to show small kindnesses toward one another to make the cottage feel a little more like a home and a little less like a security arrangement.
And it really was a nice place. A glorious sunrise over the lake and an astonishing sunset into the trees, every single day. Swimming and cooking and reading the books in Larkin's library, a fitting combination of contemporary international authors, classic science fiction, and even a few trashy romances that Bryce claimed were only there to fill out the shelves. But more than that, they spent their time talking. The three of them, talking and laughing, reminding one another of their younger versions, but also revealing bit by bit the people they had become. Chuck and Ellie, with their wavy hair and matching laughs, the dance of gleam in both their eyes when they were happy. With their conversations, more interesting and sweet and silly and affectionate than any Bryce had known in years. Chuck and Ellie, whose piercing intellects prevented their kindness from swelling into full-blown goody-two-shoes-ness.
Chuck and Ellie, the two people that Bryce wanted to protect far more than he had ever wanted anything.
And it wasn't long before Bryce started to sleep in Chuck's bed instead of the sofa. Bryce had thought that maybe their relationship would rekindle, hoped that maybe Chuck would feel some sort of gratitude or nostalgia, would maybe need some comfort or even just plain old sexual release. And of course, of all those options, Bryce was hoping for nostalgia, hoping that Chuck would also long for those moments in college, those years of tenderness and sweetness and discovery that barely even seemed like real life. Bryce made no outward show of it, but he was almost choking on his need for Chuck to feel that same nostalgia.
But that was all right. Because Bryce soon realized that what they had now was really nothing like what they had at Stanford. It was something entirely other than nostalgia.
Not worse. Not necessarily better, yet.
Chuck was a little more world-weary. A little more likely to respond with sarcasm instead of wide-eyed enthusiasm. But truthfully, Bryce liked the snark better. It wasn't mean — it was still Chuck, after all. But Bryce, though he didn't show it (he still never showed what he didn't have to), kind of liked that Chuck was all too willing now to call him on his shit.
And Chuck still loved to talk to him, about silly things like the 'sandwich-on-a-deserted-island' game he got from Morgan (though Bryce thought the best part of that story was the way Chuck used it to annoy Casey). And about smart things — computers or films or books - and Bryce was reminded of all those times in school when it felt like they were the only two who could keep up with each other, who could laugh and talk the night away and discuss matters weighty and light, with passion but no pretense. But now Chuck would also talk to him about like Fulcrum strategies to find them, and about what Walker and Beckman and Casey were likely doing about it. And Chuck would get a worried look, a fearful look even, but it would turn soon enough to a look of determination, with no prodding from Bryce necessary.
Sometimes, Bryce would think 'I knew it. I knew you could handle anything that gets thrown at you, Chuck.' But then Chuck would say, "Hey, why do you look so smug?" and Bryce would change the subject.
And of course, then there was how Chuck was in bed. Bryce doubted it was Walker's influence, though he didn't really want to ask. But Chuck was definitely different. He was more experienced, more sure, of course, but he was also more assertive. Not agressive, just a little more tumbling around on the bed, a little more pressure when he sucked marks into Bryce's torso, a little more confidence in his rhythm. A little laugh as Chuck flipped Bryce over so suddenly that Bryce had to make sure he didn't do an evasive move just on instinct. A little rugburn from when they faux-wrestled in the living room and Chuck decided it was silly to go all the way upstairs just to have sex. A little bite when Bryce put his seed-covered thumb against Chuck's lips after giving him a handjob. A little twisty jerk inside Bryce that made him come as close as he ever has to begging.
Just a bunch of little changes.
Just enough that Bryce started to realize that back at Stanford, he had always felt that Chuck was something delicate, something breakable.
And he still felt that way sometimes. Whenever he thought about Fulcrum finding Chuck and Ellie, he felt a surge of protective rage that made him want to just keep them in a glass case somewhere. Which, come to think of it, was practically was Bryce was doing.
But Bryce realized that he no longer felt like he was somehow dirtying Chuck just by being with him, like he was smearing Chuck by the proximity to his dark, half-deadened heart. And Bryce didn't even know he had felt this way at Stanford, or even that he had carried this for so many years, until he felt the relief of having the burden lifted.
Because Chuck wasn't a fragile little thing any more. And part of Bryce missed that impression he held in college, that being near Chuck was like touching wispy fibers of something gossamer and sweet. But part of Bryce knew that what he and Chuck had now was different. Firmer, and maybe more honest.
So Bryce knew that they weren't just recapturing what they had in college.
He knew they were building something else entirely.
Of course, that should have been a reminder to Bryce. That Bartowskis can't help but to build things.
But between the sex and the relative contentment, Bryce managed to go into their first big argument utterly blindsided.
"No. No chance. You would be giving Fulcrum exactly what they want," Bryce said to them, trying to keep his voice calm. No need to show panic.
Chuck responded, with actual calm, "Actually, no. We would be gaining what Fulcrum wants and giving it to the people fighting Fulcrum. Win-win. Except for Fulcrum. They lose. But us? Win-win."
"Bryce, we believe that with what you remember of Dad's work-" Ellie said.
"No!" he said, "You are not building a new Intersect!"
"Of course not, we don't have the materials," Chuck said.
"Or an adequate sample size of test subjects," Ellie added.
"We're just going to figure out how we might improve Intersect technology IF we ever got the chance."
"No! It's too dangerous!" Bryce said, amazed and deeply annoyed that he had to explain to these usually intelligent people why this was a terrible idea.
"To think about an interesting biological-technological challenge that has a huge impact on our lives?" Chuck asked.
Ellie added, "Not to mention the future of medicine?"
"And the future of user-oriented information systems?" Chuck put in.
"Yeah, why would anybody want to do that?" Ellie said, completing the sarcasm for the both of them. Bryce hated it when they did this, worked ridiculously well as a unit — against Bryce.
Bryce sighed. He hated the thought of scaring them. But they couldn't work on this. "Look, Chuck. Ellie. You know I care about you. And I understand, you're both brilliant and passionate and this is a boring place that has no outlet for your talents-"
"That's not what this is about. This is about us doing what we can to solve some very important problems. Between Chuck and you, we should remember enough to start piecing together how the technology works," Ellie stated.
Chuck added with a lascivious grin, "And the way you were reacting last night, Bryce, I'd say you know perfectly well what an excellent outlet I have for my many, many talents." Bryce should really have rolled his eyes at the sheer dorkiness of that statement, but for some reason, he didn't. He asked, "Why would you want to be involved with that again, Chuck?"
"Oh, I have ZERO desire to be Intersected again. But some people might like being all Intersecty, especially if we put in those enhancements my father was working on before he did his selective Total Recall schtick."
Ellie added, "And this technology could help a lot of people."
"The more you know, the more danger you're in," Bryce said, trying reasoning once again.
"Look, we've all been avoiding talking about this," Ellie said, "But if we get captured, we can't let these people use us to hurt anyone. And Bryce, you said yourself that they aren't go to take no for an answer. So if we know as much as we can about Intersect technology, we'll be able to make it seem like we're making progress doing what Fulcrum wants, but really we'll be inserting safety measures and stalling so that you'll be able to save us."
Bryce looked at them calmly, not letting his expression show how extraordinarily unlikely her scenario was, in which Fulcrum got them but Bryce was still alive. But despite his demeanor, Ellie responded to his silence by placing a hand on his arm gently. She said, "Bryce, none of us like to think about all the terrible things that can happen to us. But our knowledge is the only the thing Chuck and I have to fight back with. And I guarantee you, if Fulcrum takes us, we are fighting back the only way we know how."
Bryce sighed and his nostrils flared. "That's too risky. And Fulcrum'll be suspicious, they won't just give you free rein."
Chuck answered, "Which is exactly why we need to have a leg up. We need to be so far ahead that we can act like we're just figuring the technology out. But really we'll know enough to make it look like we're doing one thing when when we're doing another."
"Which requires a high level of expertise," Ellie added.
Bryce hated to admit it to himself. Loathed it, really. But they had a point.
And yet, despite the fact that Chuck had seen a good slice of the spy world, despite the fact that neither Chuck nor Ellie were clueless by any means, Bryce couldn't help thinking that they were in over their heads, and that Fulcrum would never fall for their deception. Because their whole plan, their whole line of reasoning, depended on the very Bartowski-ish assumption that even in a horrifically impossible situation, it would still be possible to do the right thing.
Bryce's voice went quiet, tight. He said, "First of all, you're assuming that you're excellent liars. Which, I can assure you, you're not. Second… If Fulcrum finds out that you're tricking them, you have no idea what they'll do."
"We know that they might kill us, Bryce. We know they might torture us, too," Chuck said, swallowing.
Bryce didn't let that image faze him. He would rather act like a total bastard if it made them see his point. He answered, "You guys are naive. Sorry, but you are. There won't be an 'us.' The first thing they'll do is use you against each other. It's plain as day you're each other's weakness, and my business is all about using people's weaknesses. Maybe you can withstand torture, Chuck, but stand there and tell me that you're going to stick to your clever plan when they're torturing Ellie right in front of you. Or worse, in the next room, so you can hear her and have to imagine. Same goes for you, Ellie. If Fulcrum gets you, you do what they tell you. You pretend that you're capable of being bought, pretend that you want to develop tech for them more than anything. And always make sure there's some glitch to fix, or some new superior version you're developing, so you're never expendable. That's what you should do. Survive at any cost. Someone will come for you eventually, so just give them whatever they want and stay alive. That's all you do, get it?"
Bryce knew that it would be hard for them to hear, but they needed to hear it. His voice took on a hard edge as he finished his instructions, so they knew that the conversation was now over.
Except it wasn't.
Ellie and Chuck looked at each other, and then Chuck turned to him and said, "Bryce, we're not going to help Fulcrum hurt people."
"You won't have a choice, Chuck."
"Bryce, you've sacrificed a lot to make sure that Fulcrum wouldn't get this technology. And don't act like if you were captured, you would just go along, waiting to be rescued."
"That's different," Bryce said.
"Why, because you're Bryce Larkin, the rules don't apply?"
"Chuck, you have a family to protect!" Bryce answered.
"And you don't?" Ellie said, genuinely taken aback, "You don't think of us as family?"
"He didn't mean it like that," Chuck assured her, giving a quick look at Bryce. Bryce shoved down the pressure in his chest, telling himself that Chuck was just defending him on instinct. No reason to get crazy and pathetic about the fact that Chuck trusted him. Chuck trusted everyone, right?
Ellie continued, "Fine. But still, we're connected to the Intersect, through Chuck and our father and you. It's our responsibility to make sure it's used for the right reasons. Don't tell us to betray our country and our world and our beliefs when you wouldn't."
Bryce grimaced. Yes, despite all his cynicism, Bryce took comfort in the fact that his work — his bloody, morally gray at best, ruthless work — served a greater good. He wasn't jingoistic like Casey or Beckman, but there was a reason he was willing to give his life for his job. And yes, Bryce knew that although he had been falsely accused of being a rogue spy, a traitor, and all manner of things, the closest he came to that was right now, as he told Chuck and Ellie to stay alive even if it meant doing whatever Fulcrum asked.
Bryce knew he should feel guilty.
He didn't. He told them the first thing he thought of that would convince them.
"Chuck. Ellie. We'll find you if you stall long enough. And you'll tell us what we need to know to counter whatever technology you developed for Fulcrum. And you — both of you — alive and well is exactly what our side would need to develop the technology to fight them. You would be our only hope."
Ellie sighed. "Look, truthfully, I don't know for sure how I would act in that situation. I would like to think I would be noble, but I can't be sure. So we'll compromise. If Fulcrum ever takes us, we will assess things then and decide what we will do, giving full consideration to what you just said. All right?"
Bryce sighed and nodded. That was the best he was going to get.
"But we all agree that Ellie and I should help the government improve its own Intersect technology," Chuck added, him and Ellie giving Bryce near identical pleased smiles.
Bryce closed his eyes in worry. And also, to be honest, annoyance. Because he had totally walked into that one.
"I'm not okay with this," Bryce said..
"We understand," Chuck answered, "But you're totally outvoted." He slapped Bryce cheerfully on the shoulder and informed them that he would be right back, that he had to get one of the few science books in Bryce's library, an old Stanford textbook Bryce had save for — he thought — largely sentimental reasons. When he was alone with Ellie, however, he noticed her looking at him curiously, as if she wanted to tell him something.
He tried to make it easy on her. "Sorry about earlier. If I was insensitive talking about… what might happen to you two."
"You were tactfully vague," she assured him, then added, "And I don't need to be shielded from the truth. There's that saying about knowledge and power, you know."
She hesitated. She said then, almost nervously, "You were right. About what would happen if we were captured. Because I would do anything to protect my brother. I don't know that I would think the rest of the world mattered, where family is concerned." She scanned his expression then, waiting for surprise or judgment or horror.
There wasn't any.
He just answered, "I won't let them find you two. You're safe here."
Ellie nodded and smiled. She looked comforted by his words. But then she added, "We can't let them hurt Chuck. Promise me you'll do anything it takes to protect Chuck. Even if… even if it's the kind of thing you won't be able to tell Chuck you did."
"Promise," he said, easily.
Chuck walked back in then with his find and Ellie was all smiles again, and soon they were trying to work up some preliminary diagrams. Bryce watched them as they practically chewed on their newfound challenge, finding thrill in the sense of discovery even as the serious ramifications of it tamped their joy. Thinking it over again, this time looking at how quickly they were explaining their respective expertises to each other, their plan made sense, Bryce had to admit. Maybe Bryce was letting his feelings cloud his judgment; maybe he just didn't want them to study the Intersect because for the past several years, Bryce had associated it with Bartowskis in danger. Maybe he was cynical enough that he feared them being used for bad purposes by Beckman. Or maybe he was still holding on to some fantasy that he could stand between the Bartowskis and the real world, a bulwark that couldn't be overcome.
But truthfully, knowledge of the Intersect might help them survive. IF it didn't get them killed. And it really was a waste to let minds like Chuck and Ellie go to waste. He enjoyed watching them think and problem-solve, their ideas coming quickly, lighting up their faces, each impressed with the other's astuteness or creativity. It was like the old days, watching awed and entranced as Orion worked, except less obsessive determination and more, well, sexy gorgeous determination.
Chuck and Ellie really were a lot alike.
Though, after his recent conversation, he was starting to wonder if maybe Ellie was a lot more like Bryce than she let on.
Things are nice at the cottage. Chuck and Ellie continue their rather resourceful study of Intersect-related things, using nothing but memories, a few science books, and their own extensive knowledge of all things brain and computer. Bryce learns to stop making faces when they do.
Chuck and Bryce continue their exploration of each other's bodies. They spend a lot of time together, but when they're not literally groping each other, they spend most of their time with Ellie. Chuck worries about her, asks Bryce if he thinks she is handling it well — the fear, the isolation, the fact that she had to leave her job and her friends and her life behind. Sometimes Ellie comes to Bryce and asks the same thing about Chuck.
The three of them continue to talk about matters serious and silly, and though it is soon too cold to swim, they read and think and enjoy each other's company.
They think of new and exciting ways to cook meals made only from pantry ingredients.
They sit early in the morning on the back porch stairs, the three of them covered in one large soft blanket, and never get sick of the sunrises.
They re-enact scenes from their favorite movies, and they are forever scarred by the image of Chuck in a homemade Princess Leia bikini. Though Bryce didn't look all that scarred.
At dinner, Ellie tells Bryce embarrassing stories about Chuck as a child, and Chuck retaliates with a few stories of his own. The light from the kitchen window was darkening into late evening, and they laughed together in the dim light of the sole bulb above the table, smiles and cringes and affectionate anger becoming a sequence of photograph-like images, as their exaggerated storytelling gestures took them in and out of the light. Bryce did his best to remember each expression of theirs, each guffaw or a half-joking scowl, bright and warm and outlined in shadow; he did his best to hook the image in his mind, saving it for a future time when he might be desperate for a happy memory. He always did this whenever he was really enjoying someone's company: thinking ahead to the time of longing, to the certainty that some day the closeness would be lost.
He knew Chuck and Ellie didn't think of things like that. They were abandoned as children, let down by so many people in their lives - including Bryce- and yet they still didn't think of people as temporary allies, as abandoners-to-be.
They certainly didn't think of Bryce that way, he could tell. They were expecting Bryce to stick around in their lives, even if they were ever able to get Fulcrum off their trail. Ellie had stopped thinking of Bryce with suspicion, letting that Bartowski open-heartedness get the best of her, and Chuck of course had long since forgiven him for everything that happened. They made no secret of the fact that Bryce, once again, was considered part of the family. And Bryce loved them for it, he really did. But he still wasn't sure if that was a good thing.
Bryce hid his worries well, though. As always. And they laughed through dinner and coffee and the rock-hard cookies that Chuck had baked that he claimed qualified as dessert. And the wave of affection Bryce felt for both of them was dangerously distracting, and he had to remind himself to keep an eye on the room's entry points, just in case.
Normally, he wouldn't need to remind himself.
Finally, after the cookies were officially retitled projectile weapons and the coffee was cold and thick, Ellie pushed away from the table, announcing that she was going to see if she could keep the hot water going long enough for a nice bath before she went to bed. She left them with a smile, probably assuming that the two men would want their privacy. But Bryce couldn't help but watch her leave and gracefully walk up the stairs, imagining the hot water against her skin in the bathtub, the glisten on her face as it was surrounded by steam.
When he turned back to Chuck, he almost succeeded at not looking guilty. But Chuck was able to read him apparently, because he spoke, "It's okay, Bryce."
Bryce made a mental note to make sure that living with the Bartowskis didn't turn him into a more honest — and therefore less competent — spy or protector. But he answered Chuck, "I didn't mean anything by it."
Chuck gave him a kind of amused smile, the rare kind that managed to disconcert Bryce. As if Bryce were hopelessly prim.
And he said, "Bryce. It's okay if you like Ellie. Ellie and I don't keep things from each other."
Bryce stared at him, uncertain, until Chuck's expression made it clear that he meant exactly what Bryce thought he had meant.
Chuck continued, gently, "Sorry if that feels weird to you, Bryce. But Ellie and I — we trust each other, way beyond the point of jealousy. And if you want to be with Ellie, you should. Because the three of us, we're together here, making the best out of what is -- let's face it — a crappy and scary situation. And if you can bring Ellie a little happiness and comfort? I would be happy. Just like she's happy for me."
Bryce was rather surprised.
But he should have been astounded. Stupefied. But instead he was just…
But he had to verify (like all good spies do). He asked, using his all his knowledge of Chuck and of human behavior more generally to make sure Chuck wasn't just saying this because he thought Bryce wanted to hear it, or because he wanted to sacrifice something for Ellie, "Are you sure? I mean, can you honestly tell me that it wouldn't bother you at all if I were with Ellie tonight?"
Chuck gave him that amused look again. "Well, she's my sister, Bryce. Which means I don't want to see it or hear about it. But I definitely won't be bothered or upset or anything. I trust you to treat her right. And, well, not to make you sound like a piece of meat or anything, but when I have something really great, I want to share it." Chuck smiled at him, almost embarrassed to confess how great he thought Bryce was.
Of all things to find embarrassing, Bryce thought to himself. But he could see no deception in Chuck. And Chuck was really not that great a liar.
"You should go to her," Chuck said softly. "It would make me feel a lot better than me being happy while she's alone."
Bryce stared at him, looking for even a hint of fear, some signal that Chuck secretly desired that Bryce should refuse and stay with Chuck and Chuck alone. But Bryce didn't find any of that. He just saw confidence and trust and hope. All those things that Chuck had so much of and Bryce had so little.
But Bryce decided he could trust what Chuck was saying this time. He kissed Chuck on the lips and headed upstairs to knock on the bathroom door.
Possessiveness is for people who have the luxury of keeping precious things all to themselves, the Bartowskis knew. For people who are used to having enough to go around.
For people who had so much that they never really had to choose between people and things. For people who had lots of family, so it didn't matter if you hurt one or two relationships over something petty.
When they were kids, there was the incident of the cereal box. The box sat, almost but not quite empty, on their kitchen counter for two months, holding an exceptionally cool toy prize at the bottom. Ellie wouldn't finish the box because she wanted Chuck to get the prize, instead having toast or even crackers with peanut butter instead. Chuck, of course, was doing the same for Ellie. And no one could put cereal on the grocery list since they never actually finished that box.
When they finally figured it out, Ellie had laughed and poured the remnants of stale cereal into one bowl, poured the milk, and put two spoons in it. She handed Chuck the Thundercats figurine and said, "Look at our cool new toy."
And it was for the best that they remembered this. Because when self-sacrificing people never learn to share, all they do is deprive each other. It made more sense, really, to just stop thinking of things as his or hers. Just theirs. And they kept thinking like that, even into adulthood.
Chuck wasn't even all that sure that it was natural for property to belong to just one person. They were just things, after all.
But sharing wasn't just about things, as they found out. Like when Ellie's first boyfriend woke up next to Chuck on their living room floor after a night of playing videogames and drinking beer. And maybe partaking in a few drunken kisses. He and Chuck both felt terrible, and Chuck confessed right away, to the mortification of the boyfriend.
Ellie was mostly angry that they were drinking underaged.
Years later, Awesome, though 'mostly straight,' would often kiss Chuck good night before heading off to bed. Or even let Chuck snuggle against his shoulder when they fell asleep watching a movie. Awesome felt very secure expressing affection toward other men, though he wasn't quite Awesome enough to actually sleep with Chuck. Similarly, Sarah, whom Ellie had always liked, had kept her cover perfectly as Ellie would sometimes pull her into her lap, giggling as if now that Sarah were dating Chuck, that made them some combination of sisters and girlfriends.
And even though they were capable of normal amounts of jealousy toward others, Chuck and Ellie could never quite manage to feel jealousy toward each other. It would be like being jealous of oneself.
And besides, they didn't have the luxury of not sharing. Because separating the world into "Chuck's" and "Ellie's" would have gone against everything they believed about what it means to love and be loved.
The rest of the world wouldn't understand, of course. But the rest of the world didn't necessarily matter where family was concerned.
"I know Chuck probably asked you to come up here," Ellie said, her hand holding the towel around her chest. Her hair was already pinned up in preparation for her bath, and Bryce was surprised at how much her near-nudity was affecting him.
"He gave his okay," Bryce answered, "But it's not like I'm reluctant or anything." He grinned seductively at her, only to have his comment ignored. The Bartowskis seemed to like him despite his charm rather than because of it.
Ellie continued, "It's not like a buy-one-get-one-free thing. I mean, don't feel that — I mean, if you don't want to-"
"Don't want to? I've wanted this since.." Bryce tried to think of the first moment.
Ellie seemed genuinely surprised. "Since when?"
"Since Thanksgiving of freshman year," Bryce answered, honestly, a little surprised at the answer himself. "You were beyond off limits, though. I would never have hurt Chuck that way, though."
"But you did end up hurting Chuck."
Bryce nodded. He wasn't about to argue with something that had unfortunately turned out to be very true.
"But you were protecting him," Ellie added softly, the first time she acknowledged it out loud. "Because you would do anything to protect what you love…..I understand what that's like."
"I would rather Chuck hate me than have something terrible happen to him," Bryce said, "But I should have given it more thought. I should have found a way."
"Yes. I'm not going to pretend to think otherwise. But I know that you were trying. And you probably did save his life. More than once, actually. And… if Chuck can forgive, so can I."
Bryce smiled. "Thanks. That mean a lot. But not hating me isn't the same as liking me, and if you … I mean, if you want me to leave-"
"I don't want that," she said softly.
He leaned in and touched her cheek with his palm gently. She didn't back away. He moved to kiss her and stopped before their lips met; Ellie leaned up and brought them together. Ellie tasted sweet and full of need, her tongue pressing into his mouth in timid swipes, so unlike Chuck's frantic heat. Soon, though, Bryce was returning her kiss, moving his hands up and down her waist, gently feeling the curve of her feminine hip under his hand.
When she moaned lightly at his touch, though, he felt a surge of desire that told him that if he had questions for her, he should ask them now or never. He stood back, scanning her expression for some sign that this wasn't what she really wanted, that he was treating Ellie with less than the care that she should have.
"Are you sure?" he asked, "This isn't because you think Chuck wants this?"
She gave him a vaguely amused look, as she held up her now-disheveled towel. "Chuck would never be happy that I did something I didn't want to," she said, as if he were hopelessly naive.
Bryce smiled. That was true enough. But he had to ask one more thing, something that he never had to ask Chuck due to their long and enjoyably torrid relationship. "Ellie, you know that I'll protect you two no matter what. Not just because it's my job, or even because it's for the good of the country, though that would certainly be reason enough. Seriously, you could turn me down, call me a moron, and hit me on the head with one of Chuck's cookies, and I would still lay down my life for you two. So don't think you need to … do anything for me to take care of Chuck."
She smiled. "I don't think that, Bryce. If I for one second thought you were the kind of man who took sex for granted, I would never let you near my brother, would I?"
Bryce exhaled, and didn't even realized how relieved he was. Ellie thought Bryce was good enough to be with them. Both of them. And though some part of Bryce wondered if Ellie was right to trust him that much, he was grateful.
Ellie gestured then toward the bathtub and sat on its ledge. "Water's probably still warm. Join me?" she said, and the hint of nervousness in her eyes just added to her charm. Bryce smiled and started slowly taking off his clothes as she sat watching. As they slid in the tub, Bryce sat behind her, legs wide so she could sit between them. He ran his hands along her back, water smoothing the glide of his fingers along her skin, and leaned close to kiss her shoulder. Her hair smelled of wind and sugar and jasmine shampoo, and her loosely bundled curls had a few fallen strands that clung to the nape of her neck. As she shifted backward to rest her body against his, her body rubbed against his erection.
"Is this all right?" Ellie asked, and he wasn't really sure if it was an innocent question or not.
But he just answered, "You were right. Water's plenty warm."
It turned out not to be that complicated.
Bryce would kiss them both, closer person first, when he sat down at the table for breakfast, receiving matching "Hey, sweetie"s in return. No jealous stares, barely even any notice at all except for the occasional smile, one sibling looking happy for the other.
They would all snuggle together on the back porch and watch the breeze move across the lake, just a little more close and comfortable than they did before.
They would give him flirtatious looks once in a while, lascivious looks really, that would send a charge through Bryce's body that he should really be too worldly to be affected by. That's what he told himself, anyway, as they smirked whenever their lusty glances had him crossing his legs uncomfortably.
They fell into an easy pattern with little negotiation, each Bartowski communicating their wants readily, as if it were no great thing to expose what you needed from the people around you.
Bryce would have sex with Chuck every night and sleep in his bed. Or sometimes, if they didn't make it to the bed, on the floor. Once on the sand by the lake, but that proved too chilly to make a habit.
Ellie liked having a bed to herself. She also preferred sex in the morning.
Chuck and Ellie sometimes joked about Bryce's recuperative powers, teasingly-but-not asking if they were working him too hard. He assured them that he was happy with everything about them.
Which was true.
He left out the fact that this was actually the first relationship he's ever been in that didn't make him constantly want more sex than he felt comfortable asking for. He didn't want them to think he was some kind of sex fiend.
Not that they would have minded.
Sometimes when Bryce would walk into a room he would be greeted by two gorgeous pairs of eyes looking at him guiltily. He knew that they were talking about how he was in bed. Even if their faces didn't give it away — which they did — Bryce would have caught on when any especially excellent response from Bryce's body resulted in the other sibling soon trying the same thing. He would have accused them of trading classified secrets, but he didn't truthfully mind this particular use of information exchange.
Chuck and Ellie of course also continued their Intersect research, and they were now at the stage where they would probably be able to advance any technology they actually got their hands on. Turned out they were chips off the old block, just like Fulcrum thought. Also turned out that collaboration yields way faster results than unhappy geniuses working alone and under duress.
Overall, the three of them lived relatively placid lives.
Okay, they live absurdly, sickeningly picturesque lives. A cross between 50's-sitcom perfection and sweetness and sweetness and laughter, and a bohemian maelstrom of creative endeavor and sharp wit and highly imaginative sex. All in a gorgeous setting. With no one and nothing from the outside world to bother them.
Until the outside world came. With bullets.
Chuck was never that good at biology. But he liked studying evolution. Some people thought evolution was a callous way of looking at humanity, like it stripped the species' existence down to killing weaker beings and having lots of meaningless sex just to propogate one's genes. Chuck thought it told a different story, about people coming together in communities to gather food and to share it, to protect one another, to literally keep the home fires burning. And reproduction was just this incredibly cool thing that gave life, and created families, and made sure there was always a selective pressure for people falling in love and having great sex and clinging to each other tight as they could.
It wasn't just because he was young and horny that he decided that love and life were the same thing. His biology textbook totally supported it.
Chuck remembered this often, at odd times. Like all those times when his life was hanging by a thread, and he really wasn't sure if he would be able to think clearly, or stay conscious, or hang on to the ledge, or whatever else he had to do to survive. And then he would think of someone he loved, and he would find what he needed to live another day. And then, when the shock wore off, he would look around and see squirrels chasing each other in a raunchy comedy of manners, or dandelion seeds floating across the grass looking for pollination, and suddenly he would remember. Evolution. Love and life.
He hadn't thought about it since Bryce broke his heart senior year of Stanford. But when he found himself facing death on a regular basis, when he found himself having to trust his own judgment and smarts and principles once more, he started also to think about evolution again. He started to remember that survival of the fittest was too simple a slogan to describe how human beings change from one thing to another.
It was weird, he knew. And possibly not even correct. He was never that good at biology.
Bryce almost freezes. The thought of losing them petrifies him for a split second.
But then he rejects it, that possibility that he would let his feelings destroy them. They grabbed one another and slammed on the floor, and Bryce took his gun out of his ankle holster to return fire.
Chuck raised an eyebrow at Ellie, as if to say, 'Now aren't you sorry you made fun of him for wearing a gun while we made brownies?'
But soon Bryce was running for below the sink, where he opened the cupboard to reveal a series of buttons. It appeared that Bryce was doing more than checking the perimeter all those times when Chuck and Ellie were busy talking Intersect. Chuck was certain at least one of those buttons would call for backup, but was surprised to find that most of the buttons caused a series of near-deafening explosions in the yard. Then there was a long silence.
All three of them stayed close to the ground, as Bryce gestured at them to wait quietly while he checked outside to see if they really were in the clear. They lay there on the cold floor strewn with shards of every possible material, trying not to think about what might be keeping Bryce, holding each other's hands but afraid to say anything. With their free hands they grabbed pieces of metal and glass, knowing they would be poor defenses but having no other close enough to reach.
Finally, Bryce returned. He kneeled and whispered to them, "I didn't find anyone who's still a threat, but with all the dust from the explosions, I wasn't able to do a thorough search. We should try to get to the car."
He led them there, keeping them low to the ground, going first but looking back often.
There were almost at the car when the Fulcrum agent grabbed Ellie.
He was bloodied and limping, likely from Bryce's little fiery presents, but he had a gun pointed at her head and his arm around her neck in no time flat. He held her right in front of him and smirked as it became clear that Bryce could aim at him but couldn't safely shoot.
He sneered at Chuck, "I know who you are. Knock out your guard and come with me or your sister's dead."
Chuck didn't look at Ellie or Bryce as he answered, "You don't want to hurt her. She's valuable. And so am I, if you make me a better deal than the government did."
"You're in no position to bargain!" he snarled.
"I think I am," Chuck said, doing his best to sound smug and sure.
The Fulcrum agent looked more enraged than impressed. He yelled, "I don't know what you think you'll get by stalling but- Aauuugghhhhh!!"
Ellie, it turned out, still had some sharp metal in her hand. And when Chuck managed to distract her captor's attention, she brought it up hard, right into his shoulder, cutting deep into the brachial plexus, making him unable to move his arm. She slid down just enough for Bryce to shoot him and ran toward them as soon as she felt the man fall behind her.
They got in the car and headed out, using no headlights on the dark winding road. When they reached the gas station a few miles up, they were greeted by a fleet of Towncars and an NSA helicopter. Backup indeed, Chuck noted mentally. They were hustled into the chopper and told that they would be kept in a secure facility until 'the threat is neutralized,' as General Beckman explained over the comm device during the ten seconds she actually spend on them.
The three of them glanced at each other, and Bryce, reluctantly, was the first to speak. "I could protect you two better in a real facility. But it won't be easy convincing them that it's safe to let you back out."
"I don't think the General was giving us a choice," Chuck said.
Bryce looked conflicted for a moment, and Ellie and Chuck could tell that he was thinking about going rogue for real, about taking them somewhere before they could be put underground.
"No," the Bartowskis said in unison.
Bryce sighed. "I would. But honestly, after tonight, I'm not sure if I can protect you when Fulcrum is so eager for you."
Chuck answered, softly, "Look, Bryce, I know I said that I was terrified to be shoved in a bunker somewhere. But if I have Ellie and I have you, and we can work actively on ways to take Fulcrum down, then I can handle it. The sunrises and the fresh air and the woods were amazing, but they weren't what made the cottage so great. Oh, and sorry we got your retirement plan blown up, by the way."
Bryce smiled. "Look, I'm not going to become your imprisoner no matter what. Say the word, and I break you out." The comment got a weird look from the NSA co-pilot.
But Ellie answered, "We want to keep you safe as much as you want to keep us safe, Bryce. We'll go. In fact, it'll be useful to have actual computers and lab equipment for our research."
"And I'll teach you guys more about self-defense," Bryce said. "I should have been all along, but I just wanted you to feel like.."
"Like we were being taken care of?" Chuck asked, not quite happy with the sentiment.
Bryce shrugged an apology. "Not that you guys aren't amazing. I was seriously impressed, I have to say."
"I know," Ellie said, "You were so calm, Chuck, tricking that guy into thinking you were trying to deal."
"Definitely. And you're no slouch in the stabbing department, Ellie," Bryce said. He really was damn impressed with them. But then, when wasn't he?
Ellie seemed not to take it as a compliment though, since her face fell. Bryce wanted to kick himself, but Chuck lightened the conversation by saying, "Oh, believe me, as someone who has known her my whole life, you should never, ever piss Ellie off."
"Oh, shut up!" Ellie said playfully.
"I call 'em like I see 'em," Chuck answered with a smile, "And by the way, Bryce, way to go with the stealth defenses. I had no idea we were living on a shell range all this time."
Ellie smiled, "Seriously, Bryce. You were amazing. You're taking care of us just fine."
Bryce leaned back in his seat a little. "Back at you," he said, and they knew he meant it for them both.
Medicine had not been what Ellie had expected. It had been hard not to become cynical, at seeing administrators make decisions based on who had insurance or who donated to the hospital, seeing other doctors who seemed to have lost over the years their capacity to feel compassion for patients, seeing patients who were dead set on destroying themselves regardless of what any doctor would say, seeing patients's health disintegrate and know that an understaffed floor couldn't be counted on to keep a close enough eye. She was naive, perhaps, but she really believed that being a doctor would be about giving a warm and comforting hand as you used your knowledge to heal the ailments of the body. She thought it was about loving strangers as yourself, about caring for the sick and needy.
And it was. Sometimes.
But sometimes it was about tough choices, like rejecting someone from a donor recipient list. Or sometimes it was about hardening yourself to give someone really bad news. Sometimes it was about fighting for patients against the very mentors she so badly wanted to look up to. And sometimes it was about sucking it up and doing what you're told, even when it makes you want to shove a stethoscope up your boss' orifices.
She still loved being a doctor. Not every day. But overall, she felt a deeper satisfaction helping someone than she did doing anything else. And every day she was challenged to learn something new, sometimes about medicine and sometimes about herself. So she missed it. But she understood why it was necessary to leave it for the time being.
Because Ellie would do anything to protect Chuck.
And though she sometimes wondered if medicine had hardened her, made a little less idealistic or hopeful, she knew that it was actually Mother's day that got there first. On that day, Ellie decided that there were only a few people you could count on, and that those were the ones who mattered. And she would try to be a good person and be kind to everyone, as much as she could. But really, only family mattered. Not her mother or father, but her real family. Chuck.
Ellie decided she would take care of Chuck no matter what. Right and wrong? They came second.
And that was a horrible thing to think, Ellie knew. But she thought it anyway.
And soon she was forging documents that gave her custody of Chuck. And when a representative of Protective Services balked, she came back a day later, snuck a harmless chemical in his coffee that would make him test positive for drugs on a urine test, and told him that there would be an anonymous tip that he was user unless he became more agreeable.
And it worked. Ellie was astounded that it worked. She had never caused trouble, ever. She had always been terrified to talk in class lest a teacher or professor glare at her. She was the only person she knew who actually went the exact speed limit.
But she didn't have a choice. Chuck was still a minor, and she would do whatever was necessary to hold on to the family she had left.
This was the first time it occurred to Ellie that love and morality didn't really mix all that well. She felt guilty for what she did, and scared that her misdeed might someday blow up in her face, and so she tried her best to keep on the straight and narrow, to be a model sibling/guardian. But there was always a part of her that knew that she would put Chuck above anything.
When Bryce had ruined Chuck's life — as she saw it at the time - Ellie was mostly angry that Chuck was less willing to trust other people. Or even to trust himself.
Ellie hated seeing Chuck choose fear over trust. She hated seeing Chuck hardened, disillusioned.
She had accepted a hard disillusionment for herself. But she always told herself it was okay if it was to protect her family, the life they had. For Chuck to lose that innocence, that belief that the world might still unfold before him, the openness to people and experiences and new love — it was a waste. A horrible waste.
And Ellie has never been a big fan of wasting what you have. Your time, your talents, your love — you get what you get, and then you use it. That's the whole point. She never gave a damn about Chuck having a big income and an impressive job. But she was terrified that he was going to waste his time, waste his gifts, because he couldn't see how amazing he was. And refusing to even try because you're afraid of failure? At the time, Ellie thought that was the biggest waste of talent she had ever seen. It was why she urged Chuck to pursue Sarah and new jobs and travelling, even when she hated the tone her voice took on. It was why it took downright heroics on Bryce's part to get her to forgive Bryce for what he did to Chuck at Stanford.
But Ellie had a different perspective now. Because nothing would worse than to let Chuck fall into the hands of those who would twist his talents into something monstrous, Ellie knew now. Fulcrum threatened more than just their physical safety, Ellie knew. Because Chuck could never live with himself if he helped Fulcrum kill who-knows-how-many innocent people. Chuck would never be able to live with that much death on his head, following him like a cloud of dust
Ellie, on the other hand, has seen more death than Chuck has. Even with his spy experience, she has seen more, has literally been elbows deep in blood and entrails while the patient convulsed and flailed. She has seen death by gunshot, death by stabbing, death by countless diseases and injuries, and plenty of slow deaths, too. Painful ones and painless ones. Two patients dying alongside each other after shooting each other, using their last breaths to curse each other's mothers. People — of all ages — leaving this earth right in front of their families. Death by heroin overdose, death by animal mauling, death by axe handle even.
They had told her in med school that she would get used to it. That she would learn to see life and death as part of a great cycle.
She saw horrible loss after horrible loss.
She knew what death was.
She knew what killing someone meant — what it meant in terms of their heart, their breath, their brain function. Death of the body, death of the organ, death of the cells. Chemical reactions that comprise life and love and a person, being replaced by other chemical reactions, ones that most people call 'rotting .'
And Ellie had lost most of these patients because they were unsaveable. But a couple of times, it was because of her mistake. And after, she bore these mistakes always, thinking of those names and faces, those loved ones, those things that the patients would never get a chance to do.
It made her sick just thinking about it, even now.
But she never told Chuck, never wanted him to have to worry about matters of life and death. She saw the irony, now. But even knowing death as intimately as only doctors do, having studied their chief rival for so many years, Ellie found she was still capable of thinking of death in a new way.
She was thinking about killing. The people who came after Chuck. The people who might come after him still.
The man who grabbed her and tried to use her to destroy Chuck.
It was within her legal rights to hurt him, and within her moral rights too, almost anyone would say. And though she had sworn to do no harm, that her hard-gained knowledge would only be used to heal, she couldn't help but think about all the ways she should use her medical training to her advantage if the opportunity should arise.
Ellie had stabbed him in the shoulder. Because his shoulder was open.
Her first thought was to go for the jugular, but the angle was all wrong. So she went for the nerve cluster instead. It didn't even take her a second to decide.
Ellie is a doctor. A good one.
Ellie knows that human life is not to be wasted. But she knows that it often is.
Ellie knows she would do anything to make sure it's not Chuck's life that is thrown away.
She should be scared by this. She should be horrified with herself, she should be questioning her morality, even her identity, to find out why she's capable of thinking such thoughts.
But she stopped believing long ago that love makes you a better person.
It turns out not to be that complicated. There were less pleasantries at the bunker, and smaller beds. But fresher food. And, of course, state-of-the-art technology to play with, as well as a large set of files describing recently acquired intel on known and alleged Intersect research, including the infamous 'Fulcrum Intersect.'
They're not bored. They don't even feel that trapped. Chuck and Ellie's thoughts become full-on groundbreaking research. With a few NSA-stored documents, it doesn't take long to figure out how Orion added combat skills and languages to the Intersect. They do the same, making sure to put in plenty of tactical planning skills, eye-muscle coordination, and perfect aim.
Ellie thinks that they should also add enhanced sensory skills for information gathering, like a sense of smell that can trail someone, or hearing that can hear faraway sounds or even filter out specific sounds from a recording. They figure out how to do that, and they call it 'Smell-o-vision' and 'Mad DJ Skillz.'
Chuck thinks the new Intersect would like the ability to turn off the Intersect when desired, and also, to program in a 'Self-destruct' word that will allow the person to permanently erase all Intersect images in case of capture. They figure out how to do that, too, and they call them the "Do-Not-Disturb sign' and the 'I-got-Kenobi'd.'
Chuck again asserts that he only wants to deal with the Intersect from the planning side of things. Bryce volunteers to be the new Intersect, reminding them that he planned to be it all along, that he had been connected to Intersect research longer than either of them, and they agree to it, even though they quietly change their plans from triple-checking to octuple-checking all the safety precautions.
They sometimes try to figure out how the cottage was taken from them. They know there was a leak, and since Bryce told only Beckman, it must be someone that she told.
They read about the Fulcrum Intersect and get worried. Sarah does well getting information but still can't find out who the Fulcrum Intersect is. She sends them new intel often, though. One report says that the Fulcrum Intersect works by a neck implant that releases chemicals to make the brain more receptive. Another tells them that the Fulcrum Intersect is full of problems and they're more than minor bugs — whoever it was was in serious danger of lasting damage. They discover later that the Fulcrum Intersect probably has the strength of a meth-head since the 'enhancements' allow the ability to adrenaline at will. And worst of all, they find that the Fulcrum Intersect likely takes over the will of the person who has it, overriding their ability to make choices at key moments.
So if they fixed their technical problems, Fulcrum would have a way to take over any person's mind and will they wanted.
Chuck and Ellie speculate aloud about how the Fulcrum Intersect probably works, where it probably deviates from Orion's. They all speculate silently that leak might very well be the Fulcrum Intersect.
Bryce calls the General and tells them that it would be safer to move the assets.
The General must be as freaked out as they are because she agrees.
Not trusting anyone else, the General sends Casey to move them, and he grumbles as he helps them load of their blueprints, notes, and scientific equipment. It's not until they're all packed that Casey suddenly whales on Bryce with the strength of 20 men.
He turns toward Chuck then, and if Chuck thought he was scary before — well, this was a totally different level of scary Casey. But they had all gotten used to carrying weapons wherever they went, and Chuck managed to Taser Casey before Casey could even realize what Chuck was holding. Apparently, Casey wasn't expecting much of a fight from Chuck.
They check on Bryce, who is all right but angry at himself. When Casey stirs, Ellie pulls out a medical bag from the many boxes and starts injecting Casey with some things that would fell an elephant. They tie him up and wait for him to wake.
It happens faster than it should.
Bryce kept a gun pointed at Casey's head as he slowly groaned himself awake.
Realizing where he was suddenly, and noticing the ropes that held him to the chair, Casey's head jerked up. "Why do I have control now?" he asked, bewildered.
"I drugged you," Ellie said.
Casey spoke quickly, with the fear of man who might lose dominion over his own body at any moment, "It's an Enemy Intersect, I can't control -"
"We know, Casey, and we're working on it. You're going to be fine," Chuck assured him, moving forward to greet him now that Casey wasn't in what Chuck had already termed 'Bwahaha mode.' But Bryce and Ellie both tensed up and Bryce grabbed Chuck's shoulder to keep him on the safe side of the room, away from Casey, just in case.
"Listen to me, Bartowski!" Casey shouted, "This isn't just information loaded into my brain. It's a full-on brainfucking colonization of — well, me! It will find a way to break out of here, it will find a way to kill Larkin, and it will find a way to kidnap the two of you! You have to kill me while you have the chance."
"No!" Chuck said, even as he flinched at the thought, "Forget it, Casey, we're not doing that!"
"Chuck!" Casey said, desperately, "Do you want to become Fulcrum's Happy Homicide Helper? To be their prisoner and torturee? Because that's what's happening if the drugs wear off. And believe me, I've tried to kill myself, but every time I attempt it, the Fulcrum Intersect kicks in and takes over. You doing your fucking duty is my only option. And you know things are desperate if I've been lowered enough to ask an idiot like you for something."
"We beat you once, we can beat you again," Chuck said, trying hard not to think about possibilities Casey just brought up.
Casey's face was turning red with rage, "This THING in my head has made me a traitor to my country, Chuck! It is using me to hurt you and hurt this country! After all the times I saved your sorry ass, you OWE me the dignity of an honorable death!!!"
"We are not going to murder you Casey!" Chuck shouted, equally angry now.
Casey clenched his jaw, and then with a barely controlled voice said, "Fine. It doesn't matter. Larkin knows I'm right, and he'll do it whether you want him to or not."
"No, he won't-" Chuck said, but stopped when he looked back toward Bryce. He was expecting agreement, for Bryce to be rolling his eyes at Casey's stubborn refusal to let them help him. Instead, Chuck just saw Bryce's look of grim resignation.
"No. No. We can't, Bryce," Chuck said.
"Chuck," Bryce said evenly, "If Casey is willing to give his life for his country -"
"No! That means in a firefight or on a mission. Not us executing him while he's tied to a chair!"
"Listen, Larkin," Casey growled, "We both know this is the right choice. Hell, when I shot you, I sure didn't go and ask Chuck if I could pretty please defend my country."
"We could keep drugging you until we figure out a way to save you," Chuck told him.
"People build tolerance to drugs, idiot. And the Fulcrum 'enhancements' help my brain filter out drugs way faster than any normal doofus, " Casey said, "And by the way, Chuck, if I got to kill you for national security reasons, I'd be thrilled."
Chuck responded with a look of mock-admonishment, "Now, Casey, we both know that's not true."
"Dammit, Chuck, take this fucking seriously!" Casey yelled. "Or maybe you secretly want Bryce dead. For all he did to you. Maybe that's why you're going to let yourself get taken, that's why you're going to let Fulcrum put electrodes all over Ellie's body to get you to co-operate, that's why-"
"Enough!" Ellie shouted, "John, stop trying to act like an ass so we'll kill you! That's not how we're going to make a decision."
"Ellie's on my side, right?" Chuck said, looking pleadingly at Bryce and waiting for Ellie's confirmation.
It didn't come.
"Ellie?" Chuck asked again.
"It's horrible to even think, Chuck," she said, "But…"
"No! Ellie. Come on, you can't be-"
"Chuck," Bryce interrupted, "Let me do this. You won't have to even see it."
Chuck stood looking astounded. Bryce never wanted Chuck to look at him like that. Appalled by the fact that Bryce had an emptiness inside of him that allowed him to be a little too good at his job and not quite good enough at anything else.
And as Chuck turned to Ellie to continue his argument, Bryce wondered briefly if that would be the moment when Chuck gave up on Bryce.
"Ellie," Chuck said, "You have to know that this is wrong."
"It's wrong, Chuck, but if there's no other choice-"
"There's always a choice!"
"No, there isn't," she said, "Not always!"
And Chuck stopped for a moment. Ellie had never said anything even remotely like that to him. Ellie, of all people, believed that each person makes their own life. And that it's never okay to let other people make your life for you.
And Chuck needed Ellie to remember that. He continued, "Ellie, we're talking about killing Casey. Casey, who saved my life. Casey, who is our friend. And a human being. A truly decent human being."
"I object to both the 'friend' and the 'decent' part of that argument," Casey said, "And also to the fact it is entirely stupid that my last words are going to have to be 'Just knock Chuck out and kill me already.' That said, however: Larkin! Just knock Chuck out and kill me already!!!"
Chuck moved swiftly in front of Casey, holding up his hands as if that gesture could slow Bryce. And Bryce knew it was pathetic that he was putting off the inevitable in the hopes of being able to do this without having Chuck resent him forever. But he needed to try. He didn't move toward Casey yet, just turned to Ellie, who remained on Bryce's side of the room. If anyone could convince to Chuck — to forgive, if not to give permission — it would be her. And he knew Ellie would understand why this had to be done. She had spent her whole life trying to take care of Chuck.
"Ellie, you said that I should protect Chuck by any means necessary," he said.
"At least Ellie has some sense," Casey muttered.
"Shut up, Casey!" Chuck said, getting desperate. He hated going against Ellie, but to kill Casey? Ellie couldn't really want that.
"Ellie," Bryce continued, "You know this is necessary. It's a tough choice, but I know you can make tough choices."
"Ellie," Chuck said, "We can deprogram him, take the implant out, whatever."
"We don't know how long it will take, Chuck," she said, conflicted, "If we can't do it before he goes all super-effective killer mode-"
Chuck continued, "So we're talking about killing Casey because we're afraid to fail? Because we would rather take his life than believe in ourselves enough to say that we can save him."
"Okay, I would rather be shot than saved by a nerd who jizzes at the sight of a lady Klingon," Casey said.
"Shut up, Casey, we're not shooting you!" Chuck yelled.
Casey yelled back, "Tell me to shut up one more time, Bartowski, and I'll crush you like a bug even with no prodding from the Fulcrum implant!"
Chuck ignored him and said, again, "Ellie, please. Give Casey a chance. Please."
"Ellie," Bryce said, giving Chuck a guilty look, from which Chuck realized that Bryce was about to be that manipulative spyguy he could be when he wanted his way, "You and Chuck are really good people. The best I know. And I want you to think about what you said to me. That day you made me promise to choose Chuck over everything else."
"I remember," she said.
Bryce continued, "And I know that if someone turned you into a monster that was going to destroy Chuck, you would rather die than let that happen."
Ellie nodded, slowly.
Bryce said, "And so would I. And Chuck would do that for either of us. And if Casey is willing to do that for us, and for all the innocents who would be hurt by Fulcrum, is it right for us to force him to continue to be Fulcrum's weapon? When he would rather die than let his body be used like that? Do you really think that's right?"
Ellie stared, her face unreadable. Chuck did not like how this was going.
"And Ellie," Bryce added, "Do you want to find yourself watching Chuck get tortured and wonder if you could have stopped it right now, right here? Would you rather make him happy with you or would you rather protect him?"
"That's not the situation, Ellie," Chuck said.
"No. I've heard enough," Ellie said. Chuck braced himself for her to side with Bryce, wondering how the hell he was going to win this argument. Bryce probably would knock Chuck out and shoot Casey if he knew that Chuck wouldn't be able to put all the blame on him alone. Chuck flinches as Ellie walked toward him and Casey then, slowly but with determination.
But when she arrives, she turns around, facing Bryce, her body a second shield for Casey's alongside Chuck.
"Chuck's right," Ellie said, eyes blazing as she stood looking at Bryce. Now both siblings were standing between him and Casey, both their arms crossed, and both with the same determined look on their faces.
"All Bartowskis are idiots," Casey muttered from behind them, again to be ignored.
"Ellie, you know we have to protect Chuck," Bryce pleaded, thrown off-guard by Ellie's reaction, "You said it a thousand times, that our only job now is to protect Chuck. You said that we would do anything we had to do to protect him!!!"
"And I still believe that," Ellie said, "But right now, Chuck doesn't need us to protect him. Right now …. " She paused and took a breath, struggling but still obviously set in her decision. "Right now, Chuck is the one who's protecting us. He's protecting us from becoming just like what we're trying to fight. So he doesn't need me to be his protector. He needs me to be his ally." She looked at Chuck then and he grinned at her, beaming with gratitude, and then both Bartowskis gave Bryce a practically identical stubborn look.
"He's saying that we can't murder John just because we're afraid we won't succeed at saving him," Ellie continued, "And he's right. And don't even think about saying that it's your decision, Bryce. We're in this together. You may be the spy, but you're not the lone protector. We all share that responsibility, to protect one another, just like we all share the risks. And we're not going to let those risks take from us who we are."
Bryce hesitated and then answered softly, seemingly more in confession than rebuttal, "Killing a good man to protect the greater good… it's not taking my identity from me. That actually is who I am."
He was expecting looks of astonishment and betrayal from them. Ellie and Chuck just glanced at each other, however, looking unfazed and even a bit amused that they even had to explain it.
Chuck answered for both of them, "That's who you were. But now we share the responsibilities and the dangers and everything else. It's not like the easy wholesome stuff is our job and the horrible deeds are your job. We're in it together, and we decide together. And sorry, buddy, but on this one, you're outvoted."
"This family is insane!" Casey yelled, flailing around in his chair just outside of where Bryce could see.
Chuck grinned at Ellie as he glanced back. "Casey's adorable when he's mad, isn't he?"
Ellie rolled her eyes with a look of annoyance that only a sibling could give.
And Bryce, despite his every effort, had to smile.
And he knew he would never win this fight. But he smiled anyway, even through his fear.
And he watched as the Bartowskis eagerly went to examine the implant in Casey's neck, much to Casey's chagrin.
Chuck and Ellie refrain from saying "I told you so." Bryce is grateful things turned out well. Casey thanks them for getting the Intersect out of him, but still seems oddly resentful that they had refused to shoot him.
It turns out that removing the implant was only the first part. They had to study what was coded as the kind of situation that would engage the Fulcrum Intersect, while Casey was hooked up to an fMRI. They had to work backwards to reconstruct how they had made their Intersect (stealing from Orion and then half-competently expanding the research), why it only worked sporadically (they didn't think to compensate for the natural change in the human brain that occurs whenever people learn something new), whether Casey would suffer permanent damage (no), and how to neutralize it to remove the mind controls and information Fulcrum had put into Casey's brain. The last one takes the longest, but they finally figure it out. Along the way, they also manage to discover a few decent pieces of Fulcrum technology that would make it even faster and less faint-inducing to Intersect someone. They suspect Fulcrum cared more about the speed than the fainting.
But while they are busy saving Casey, they should have kept a closer eye on the implant, which is now sitting in a box in a drawer. They had scanned it for tracking devices, of course. They just didn't keep scanning it every day. Otherwise, they would notice when the traceable signal activates.
This time, the first sign of attack is a long whistle that Bryce and Casey immediately recognize as a handheld missile launcher. The hit is to the far corner, but they all hit the floor anyway.
But this time, there is more than a kitchen sink to fight back with. As Bryce and Casey grab some heavy ordnance, Chuck and Ellie say, "Let us help." Bryce tries to think of a way to convince them to go to the panic room and wait. Casey grabs both of them and carries them into the panic room, slams the door on them, and heads out. Bryce thinks that was kind of rude, but nevertheless nods at Casey and tells him, "Thanks." Casey just grunts in reply.
They felt a little annoyed at being thrown into the room like that. But they understood it was done in good intentions.
They also understood that was obviously a small army out there against just Bryce and Casey.
And of course, they had their secrets that even Bryce didn't know. Like that fact that Chuck and Ellie knew the emergency release code for every single room in the place.
But they didn't have a lot of options. And from the security cameras they could see that while Bryce and Casey had done impressively well at keeping them from storming the building, they were pretty much hopelessly pinned down now.
So they look at each other, and they thought about losing the man they were in love with, and about losing Casey, who had risked his life for them so often as well. And the decided wordlessly to run toward their untested Intersect prototype.
Chuck swallowed as he quickly set it up on the big screen. He tried not to think about having this thing invading his head again. It didn't matter when so much was at stake.
But Ellie noticed. And though she was just as frantic to help Bryce and Casey, she took a second to ask.
"Are you sure you want this, Chuck?"
"We don't have a choice."
"There's always a choice," she said, giving him a look.
He understood it. "No. Ellie, I can't ask you to take the Intersect. I would never ask you to make that sacrifice for me."
"First of all, Chuck, I have as much a right to sacrifice for our family as you do. Second, who says it's a sacrifice? You hated it, Bryce thinks he would like it. I'm curious to see what it's like."
"Ellie, you're saying that to protect me-"
"No! Look at me and trust me that I respect you enough to be honest. After all this, trust that. I have wanted to know what being the Intersect would be like since we first started researching it, but Bryce had first dibs. And if you wanted it as badly as I do, I would step aside and let you have it and be happy for you. But you don't want it, and I do, so stop watching out for me, and remember that this is us. Our family. And even if I'm the one with Intersect, it'll still be something that we both carry and that we both use. I promise, Chuck. I'm not saying it for your sake. I want this."
Chuck looked at her and saw her passion and her honesty. And he knew that this was no time to repeat the incident of the cereal box, not when lives were on the line. So he nodded, started the program, and turned away as Ellie stared up at the rapid fire images that swept across the screen.
After, Chuck turned around, worried that if the changes didn't work, he'd have to catch her as she fell.
She didn't fall. She just stood there for a second, dazed, and said, "Wow."
But then she was moving, and fast. Faster than Bryce even. And as she glanced at the monitors for the outside cameras and grabbed a good amount of gear, she handed Chuck a grenade-shooter and told him to create a distraction.
When it was all over, General Beckman stood in front of them, and though they were all looking down at her, it felt somehow like they were looking up. "I commend you, Chuck and Ellie Bartowski, for your service to your country. Colonel Casey, Agents Walker and Larkin, you also have made your country proud."
They murmured their thanks and waited for what was, essentially, the verdict. Casey, once his de-Intersected mind started to heal, realized he had retained some valuable information about Fulcrum operations, and they estimated that Fulcrum would fall entirely in a matter of months if not weeks. Ellie had managed to subdue their attackers with no fatalities, which yielded several Fulcrum agents who might give up their bosses now that Fulcrum was weakened. But none of this would stop the General from locking Chuck and Ellie away somewhere if that's what she thought was best.
But then they saw it. The tiniest of smiles on the General's mouth.
"Agent Walker. You will be up for promotion soon enough. Consider your chances excellent."
"Thank you, General Beckman," she said.
"Colonel Casey. Through no fault of your own, you were imprisoned in a Fulcrum-controlled body. And yes, it was your body, but still. Every action you could possibly hope to control was done with honor and courage. Your situation is thus much like Agent Walker's."
"Thank you, General," he said, surprised.
"Ms. Bartowski," she said, "You will have the option of keeping the Intersect or having it removed. You and Mr. Bartowski will have the option of removing the sensitive information from your memories using Orion's program, but it is your choice. Alternately, you will have the opportunity to work as scientific consultants to the Department of Defense research and development programs. But again, your choice. Regardless of your decisions, however, you will both remain under an agent's protection, due to the possibility of future danger. Otherwise, you will be permitted to return to your previous lives. And on a related note, Agent Larkin, I must refuse your request for retirement. I hereby assign you indefinitely as the agent in charge of the safety of these two assets."
"Yes, ma'am," they said, glancing at each other in relief.
The General paused and said, "I don't know how you did it. But the world is better off because you did. Your country thanks you," and briskly walked off, gesturing for Casey and Sarah to follow her.
Bryce, Chuck, and Ellie hugged for a long time then, gripping each other tight, breathing each other in. They knew that each breath was a testament to how close they had come to death that day, and how astounding it was that they survived.
And how they couldn't have done it without one another.
Finally, it was Bryce who spoke, leaning back to create a few inches of space between him and them. He would always be a spy, and a spy had to verify. "Guys, you know if you don't want this — I mean, you've basically been stuck with me, and I understand there were no promises. If you want to go back to your normal life, I can get someone else to protect you. You'll still be safe, I make sure of it. I'll make them give you a whole team, if need be."
"A team?" Ellie said with a giggle, "Exactly how much sex do you think we need?"
"Dude, you are so not getting away from us that easily," Chuck said with a grin, but then hesitated, "I mean, as long as you want to stay with us."
Bryce smiled, small and sincere. "Of course I do."
Chuck looked at Ellie then and said, "Okay, who votes that Bryce stops worrying about us and starts focusing on enjoying our highly entertaining company?" The siblings' hands went up in unison.
Bryce laughed and leaned back into his lovers' arms. He realized that he was probably going to spend a large portion of his future getting outvoted.
Chuck did occasional consulting for the DOD, but once Fulcrum was eradicated, he put most of his time into working with Ellie to find new applications of intersect technology. Their discoveries ranged from methods to heal brain-damage-related memory loss, to alternate treatments for a variety of disorders that used to require a lifetime of medication, to an information-bundling program that revolutionized handheld technology and allowed tiny portable computers to be sold for a few dollars apiece. Chuck also founded his own Internet startup, a free website that allowed users to easily create their own videogames, complete with awesome Lucas-level graphics, innovative player-machine interfaces, and, if desired, a soundtrack by Jeffster.
Ellie decided to both keep the Intersect and return to medicine, in addition to her work with Chuck. Her Intersect skills helped her to develop new diagnostic techniques that rely on details of sound and smell, and she used her new-found clout to start a free clinic that made sure every patient was given the medical, emotional, and financial support they needed to heal.
They frequently saw their old friends, Morgan and Anna, who had moved back to California after it became clear that Morgan's career as a beginning chef was far less profitable than Anna's recently discovered talent as a world-champion competitive sushi-eater. Morgan quit his job to become Anna's full time coach, and they came over most weekends and every holiday.
John Casey eventually became a 4-star General. He liked to play with the stars when no one was looking.
Sarah Walker continued her successful career with the CIA and was given a record number of Congressional commendations for her work. She eventually started an innovative security community designed to provide the institutional support to allow intelligence workers to lead 'normal' lives and establish lasting personal attachments.
General Beckman eventually became the Secretary of Defense. She was considered one of the most respected voices in the District, despite her controversial position about pre-emptive actions on Sweden.
Orion got bored and decided to re-learn all that he once knew, often by consulting his children. He also frequently visited his children and his son-in-law just to spend time with them.
And Bryce Larkin, as always, was good at his job. He protected Chuck and Ellie, first from Fulcrum and then from the low-level thugs hired by the companies who would no longer be able to profit off of the things the Bartowskis' discoveries made accessible to all . He did occasional side jobs, mostly for the adrenaline rush. But mostly he just learned, for the first time, to be happy. Because it turned out that he was capable of having a family after all.