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breathing by numbers

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Training sucks.

"Ow," Chuck says. He's lost count of how many times he's said that today, but each one has been more heartfelt than the last.

Casey, the heartless bastard, just smirks more with every grimace. "You're flabby and weak, Bartowski," he barks, and that's it, that's enough. That's the straw that breaks the camel's back, the whatever it is that makes the worm turn.

Which might make Chuck the worm, but he's a ninja, Kung Fu fighting worm.

Two well-placed kicks, a somersault and a flashy thing with the hand he hasn't learned the name for yet, and Casey is flat on his back, Chuck's boot on his chest. Casey's eyes narrow, and no doubt Chuck will pay for the move in his next training session, but for now it's satisfying. Very satisfying. And he lets it show in the wide grin he gives Casey.

Casey doesn't grin back.

There's a soft clapping behind him. Sarah, no doubt, but Chuck doesn't turn around. He's learned not to turn his back on Casey, even in training. A semi-permanent bruise on his tailbone taught him that; it was difficult to avoid explaining to Ellie why he couldn't sit down for meals for a week. He thinks she might have gotten the impression that Sarah and he had been experimenting. With toys. Which is not something he wants his sister ever thinking about, apart from the fact that it wasn't true.

"Doesn't count," Casey growls when Chuck lets him up. "You can't get by on flashy Intersect skills alone."

Chuck doesn't see why not, but they've had this conversation before, and Sarah agrees with Casey, and so does the General, and even Captain Awesome agrees, so Chuck's well and truly out-numbered. He puts up his fists and prepares to fight again.

"Not like that, Bartowski," Casey orders, and sets about showing him how it should be done.

*

Morgan emails, texts, and IMs every day, and they follow each other's Twitter. Chuck sends the occasional photo, him and his dad in their new apartment, him in front of the Volk building on his first day at his new fake job, Ellie and Awesome looking incredibly in love; Morgan sends pictures of him and Anna hanging curtains in their new apartment, a close up of the sunburn on his knees, his latest culinary attempts, and a whole host of other, frequently unidentifiable, photos. Morgan always adds a note to say he's not cut off his fingers yet, which Chuck finds oddly reassuring.

Chuck misses him, but he's proud of him. Morgan's living his dream, and that's all Chuck ever wanted for him.

*

This is the life Chuck's chosen.

He has both a fake job (as an analyst) and a real one (as a spy); Ellie's happy because he's making something of his life, and he's glad he's not trying to juggle two real jobs and a fake girlfriend. His apartment is nice. Nothing fancy - he spent most of his two year earnings as the Intersect on Ellie's wedding, which is one thing in his life he'll never regret - but it's big enough for him and his dad. He puts up Yakuza Prep and Tron and Y: The Last Man posters on his bedroom wall, Ellie gives him potted plants that he forgets to water, and there's pancake mix in the cupboard. Some mornings his dad makes pancakes before they head off to work together. It feels like home.

This is the life he's chosen.

He goes on missions now.

And he doesn't get to be left behind in the car any more.

He's Agent Charles Irwin Bartowski, and even if he's become everything his father and everything Bryce tried to save him from, at least this time it's his choice.

*

There's no funeral service for Bryce. There can't be - they've had one already, and while one funeral without a body is unfortunate, two just looks careless.

Chuck has to do something, though, so he takes a weekend in May and flies up to Connecticut. He tells Sarah where he's going, because they're still friends and she misses Bryce too. She doesn't say anything, just gives him a lift to the airport and kisses him on the cheek when she drops him off.

The cemetery is on the sunny side of a hill, and Bryce's grave is in a shady spot between two old oak trees. It seems more fitting than the slightly gaudy, palm tree surroundings of his other grave. There's no name on the headstone, of course, but Chuck's done his research, so he finds it easily.

He stopped on the way and bought flowers from a gas station, the last bunch of white tulips. There's no vase, so he lays them under the headstone. He has no idea if Bryce even liked tulips - he knows so much about Bryce, and so little - but it's the thought that counts. It makes the grave look visited, cared for.

Chuck closes his eyes a moment and bites his lip; he cares and it hurts.

A deep breath, and he can open his eyes again.

"Hey, buddy," he says, and sits cross-legged by the side of the headstone. Not on the grave itself, because that seems disrespectful, even though Chuck knows the coffin is empty.

"Bet you're not too thrilled that I activated the Intersect before I destroyed the cube. But you know me, not too good at following orders. Dad's still pissed, but I think he understands too. I still can't believe you and Dad knew each other all this time."

"Thrilled? No. But I'm not surprised. I knew you had it in you to make that choice." Bryce sounds proud. "If there's ever a person I can count on to make the right choice, it's you."

A few strange things have happened since Chuck's had the Intersect 2.0 installed, but this has to be the weirdest. It's one thing him sitting by a grave talking to Bryce, but Bryce talking back. Bryce sounding so familiar, so close, so real that if Chuck were to turn around—

Which he does, slowly, because if he's wrong. If he's wrong he doesn't think he can bear it.

"Bryce," he says. "Hi." Because, really, what do you say to your best friend who's apparently come back from the dead. Again. Besides, if Chuck says anything more he thinks his voice will crack or he'll say something incredibly embarrassing, and hell, he doesn't care if he does, because this is Bryce, and he's alive and—

He jumps up and hugs him. Hugs Bryce tight and feels him warm and breathing.

"I'm not even gonna ask," he says eventually, when he thinks he can let go a little. Not completely, but enough to at least let Bryce breathe.

"Good thing, it's a long story."

"How'd you find me?"

Bryce motions to the watch Chuck's wearing. Of course. Figures Bryce would find a way to use it.

"Does anyone else know you're alive?" What Chuck means is does Sarah know, but he can't ask that, because if she knew and didn't tell him—

Bryce shakes his head. "I wanted to find you first," he says. "And when I saw where you were, well—"

Chuck swallows. Bryce is alive. This is real. And he is damn well not going to cry, because he still has his man parts, despite Casey's frequent assertions to the contrary.

"Man," he says, and just rests his head on Bryce's shoulder, because even if he's not going to go all weepy, it's a lot to take in. It's the best thing that's happened since he managed to give Ellie her dream wedding.

*

Chuck's got a hotel reservation, and his flight's not until tomorrow, and Bryce doesn't officially exist, so it's not like his plans can't be put off for a day. So they go back to Chuck's hotel room, and empty out the mini bar.

Chuck has voice messages from Ellie and Sarah on his phone, and two texts from Morgan (one's asking Chuck's opinion about whether he should use striped marlin or shortbill spearfish in a demonstration dish he's preparing, and the other asking for help with an engagement present for Big Mike and his mom, because apparently Morgan still believes Chuck is an authority on everything), but he doesn't answer them. Not now. He feels as though he's breathing by numbers, one, two, three, and he has to keep counting to keep remembering to do it. He has to keep breathing, because Bryce is here, and he has to have every moment of time with him that he can, because Bryce comes and he goes, lives and dies—

"Chuck?!" Bryce is calling him, and he's holding a brown paper bag to Chuck's mouth, and apparently Chuck is hyperventilating, which is a little embarrassing seeing as he's officially a spy now, a Kung Fu knowing spy, who carries a gun (a tranquilizer gun, but still, it's a gun).

One, two, three. Chuck counts slower and slower, and it's okay, the room's getting back to normal now, only spinning a little when he forgets to count slow enough.

He's on his bed, and when he manages to sit up straight Bryce is still there, right beside him, holding the paper bag like he doesn't know what to do with it any more. Chuck doesn't think he's ever seen Bryce looking like he doesn't know what to do. So he takes charge. Tonight's mission: get drunk. Together, the two of them, drunk until they can forget for a while that The Ring is out there, and must have had Bryce captive, and—

Damn. He has to ask.

"When I saw you being dragged off, I thought you were dead," he says, because sometimes it's best to work up to asking, even if it's Bryce. Especially if it's Bryce, because Bryce lies to him, has lied to him and no doubt will lie to him again some day, and even though Chuck wants to trust him more than anyone other than his dad, and knows he's one of the good guys, he still needs to make sure that he gets the truth this time.

"Not dead. Just blacked out. Gut wounds are damn painful."

Chuck remembers. He can remember every grimace Bryce made in the Intersect room. Remembers clutching Bryce's ankle and willing him to hold on to life.

"And then? The Ring agent that took you?" Dragged him away, and there's a painful clench in Chuck's gut as he remembers seeing that, not being able to do a thing for him. Thinking he was dead and it was too late.

Bryce shrugs. He opens a mini bottle of whisky and knocks it back. "And then I woke up. Strapped down and patched up. Apparently I was more valuable to them alive than dead, especially after they lost the Intersect cube."

"And you escaped," Chuck prompts.

Bryce huffs a small laugh. "They didn't let me go and hope I'd lead them to you, if that's what you're thinking."

"I know you wouldn't," Chuck says quickly, because he does, and it's important Bryce knows that. Knows Chuck trusts him.

"They moved me, eventually. Best time to escape is always just before you reach your new destination - guards relax, think they're clear, start to plan what they're going to do that evening." Chuck stores this piece of advice for future reference. "So I got away."

"And came here."

"I have a couple of lock boxes around the country, so I hit up one of those first. But then, yeah, I came here."

Bryce makes it sound so easy. He's always been able to make anything sound easy.

"I'm glad," Chuck says, and doesn't care that he sounds maudlin enough to have drunk half the minibar already, even though he hasn't actually touched it.

"Me too," and Bryce sounds kinda maudlin too, so that's alright. "Don't suppose you brought any games with you?" he asks hopefully.

Chuck grins. "Of course."

*

Bryce kicks Chuck's ass at Call of Duty 4, and Chuck beats him at Infamy, though that's only because he's got an advance copy from Volk and Bryce has never played it before. Chuck knows he's good, but Bryce is better. Always has been, and sometimes it's been hard dealing with that, but somehow it doesn't matter, not when Bryce keeps coming back for him.

They play until they're slumped on the floor, leaning against each other just to stay upright. And then they play some more, because they've never known when to stop. They played games the night before every major exam they ever had, took them bleary-eyed and over-caffeinated, and still aced them all. It's what they do, who they are, and Chuck loves who they are.

Chuck loves Bryce.

It's not just a middle-of-the-night, exhausted-by-games sort of revelation.

He's known for years, since a few days after they met. It's been a quiet thing in the base of his skull ever since, a twist to the gut whenever something bad's happened to Bryce, a sharp pain he didn't think would ever dull when Bryce got him kicked out of Stanford.

He thinks Bryce probably loves him too. At least as a buddy, probably more. Hopefully more. But it's nothing they've ever spoken about, not least because there's been Jill and Sarah and Bryce dying (twice), and other little complications that have gotten in the way.

"So," Chuck says eventually, when the controls are on the floor in front of them and the screen's dead. He isn't really sure if either of them are actually awake or not, but he's talking, so that's close enough. "Got any plans?" It's the big question and you're not supposed to ask big questions when you're both skirting the edge of sober and falling over the line of sleep. They don't follow the rules though, him and Bryce.

Bryce shrugs. Chuck can feel the movement against his shoulders and see the faint reflection in the TV screen. "Burbank," he says, as though that's a plan, and, come to think of it, it is: Chuck's in Burbank.

Chuck approves of the plan, so he high-fives Bryce, only that's an awkward kind of move to pull off when you're on the floor next to each other and not completely sober, even if you do know Kung Fu. He ends up jabbing Bryce in the ribs, hard enough that Bryce makes a startled oomph. Chuck would apologize, but he's face-planted on Bryce's chest, and he'll just get a mouthful of his shirt if he tries to talk. He'd move instead, but he's not entirely sure he wants to. It's oddly comfortable for such a potentially uncomfortable position.

"Buddy?"

Chuck wants to say no. He wants to tell Bryce they're not just buddies, not with all they've gone through and inexplicably survived. Instead, he lifts his head, smiles goofily up at Bryce, and goes for the cliché. "Carpe diem," he says, and kisses Bryce.

It's awkward and kind of sloppy, and Chuck's supposed to be turning into a spy, a real one, who's cool under pressure and most definitely doesn't have to start shaking his hand in the middle of a kiss because he's got pins and needles. But this is Bryce, and he's got looks and finesse enough for both of them, and he doesn't seem to mind that Chuck's being hopelessly Chuck and totally unsmooth.

"You could just say you're happy I'm alive," Bryce says eventually, when Chuck's more just leaning against him than actively kissing him.

"Yeah, could have," Chuck agrees. "But then that would be understating the matter to an incredible degree, whereas this pretty much sums up how I feel about you being alive. And here."

Bryce goes quiet for long enough that Chuck starts to wonder. He tries to work out a dignified way of moving back and giving Bryce some space, but ends up shuffling along on one elbow, which works on the giving space side of things but completely fails on the dignified part.

"What are you doing, Chuck?" Bryce sounds as though he's trying not to laugh, which Chuck guesses is fair enough.

"Um, giving you some space?" Chuck hazards. He's assuming Bryce is asking about the odd shuffling thing Chuck's got going, rather than the bigger picture. But maybe he is talking about the bigger picture. "Or kissing you. Depending what you meant by the question."

"Oh, I got the kissing part all right. I was just wondering why you were moving away. It's hard to undress someone when they're shifting away from you. Not impossible, obviously, but less appealing."

"You want to undress me?" Chuck asks blankly.

Bryce doesn't hesitate. "Seems like a good next step to me." Then he pauses, and for the first time Chuck sees uncertainty. "Unless. Unless there's someone else?"

"Sarah?" Chuck shakes his head. Sometimes even things that feel perfect aren't meant to be. In another life, maybe they'd be married with 1.4 children and a Prius. In another life, one Chuck had not so long ago, that was his dream. But dreams change and what used to be important isn't.

"She's an amazing woman," Bryce says softly.

Chuck pictures her almost like he's flashing, a whole array of moments when she's saved his life and managed to look incredibly sexy doing it. And then he pictures Bryce, and it's all that and more. "Yeah, she is. But—"

"I was hoping there'd be a but."

"Yeah, there's a but. You."

"I'm the but?" Bryce says, and it sounds so ridiculous Chuck has to grin and Bryce does too, and then they're laughing, and for a while it's like the clock's been turned back and they're young and careless and happy. And then the bubble of laughter bursts, and they're not young and careless anymore, but Chuck's still happy, still exactly where he wants to be. He can't help but smile, bigger and bigger until he feels like he's glowing with it, but that's alright because Bryce looks just as happy.

It's all clumsy and either too fast or too slow from there because they're tired and impatient and not entirely sober, and both trying to be in charge and in the process Chuck's shirt gets ripped at the seams - "Damn, I liked that shirt." "You're a spy, you can afford another." "Yeah, not quite gotten used to my new pay checks." - and Chuck elbows Bryce in the stomach and Bryce lets out this little oomph sound and Chuck panics that he's hurt him, that he's not well enough for this yet, but it turns out Bryce is fit enough to do just about anything.

And he does.

*

The flight next day is quiet. Bryce sleeps for most of it, and Chuck has to remember that only a few weeks ago he had a hole in his gut and nearly bled to death, or he'd wake him up so they don't waste any of their time together. Chuck's smart enough to know it isn't going to be Bryce and Chuck forever, that once they land Bryce is going to have to make decisions, and maybe they'll include Chuck and maybe they won't. Because Bryce might have said Burbank was his plan, but Chuck didn't ask him for how long. So he just watches Bryce sleep, which is kind of creepy, really, but he can't help himself. Can't take his eyes off Bryce, even when the air stewardess comes around with those little spicy rice snacks Chuck likes so much, so he ends up covered in crumbs and brushing himself off when Bryce wakes up.

The landing is routine too. Everything's routine and surface-normal until they're nearly out the door of the airport terminal and Chuck flashes on a guy. He sees a prison cell, a doctor with a hypodermic needle, a row of body bags, a tattoo, and a list of aliases all belonging to one man. Ed Ferlinghetti.

He freezes for a second - that's a glitch in the Intersect he'd really like his dad to fix - before he nudges Bryce. "Ring agent. Two o'clock and closing," he whispers. It sounds like one of their games, back at Stanford, but this is far too real. "And I'm gonna guess the three other scary looking guys in suits aren't scout leaders."

"Fuck," Bryce says, heartfelt. Neither of them are armed. "Not scout leaders unless scout leaders pack weapons. Okay, keep walking. It'll be far too obvious if we suddenly change direction."

"That's your plan?" Chuck hisses.

"Well, that and hope the upgrades Orion made to the Intersect kick in."

"Oh, those, yeah. They kind of have already. Pretty nifty."

Chuck can see the wry grin on Bryce's face out of the corner of his eye. "Good," he says, and Chuck feels good, because he's not just going to be a liability if it comes to a fight. Though he's crossing his fingers - he'd cross his toes too if he had that sort of dexterity - that it isn't going to come to a fight.

They're walking still, Bryce edging them a few slow degrees to the left, nothing too obvious. Chuck follows his lead.

"They won't try anything in the open, right?" Chuck asks, but he knows that's wishful thinking. This is The Ring. They're powerful enough that they don't care. They could probably shoot Bryce and Chuck in the middle of a crowded airport terminal and just walk out. He gulps. "This is one of those days I miss working at the Buy More," he says plaintively. He feels a wave of nostalgia for the days when dealing with Jeff taking upskirt pictures and showing them in the screening room while Lester charged for admission was the worst of his worries.

"Hang in there," Bryce says. And that's when it happens.

It's subtle. No pulling of guns or barking orders. Just a flicker of a look on Ferlinghetti's face, from Bryce to Chuck and back to Bryce again, but it's enough. He recognizes Bryce.

"We've been made," Bryce says, not bothering to whisper.

"I suppose it's too late to suggest we should have traveled in disguise?" Chuck sighs.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen," one of the agents says. He's wearing a black tie. Agent Black, Chuck decides to call him. Just in his head. "What a pleasant surprise. You've saved us so much work."

"You missed me," Bryce says lightly. There's a tightness in the muscles of his neck that wasn't there before, though he sounds as calm as ever. "I'm touched."

"Of course we missed you." Ferlinghetti's smile is ugly.

"Well, this little reunion is very moving, but you know what it's like, just got back into town, places to be, no time to stop and chat." Chuck smiles brightly and hopes he doesn't look as nervous as he feels. He takes a step backwards, only to feel a hand on his arm.

And something hard pressing in the small of his back. Chuck doesn't need to call on his spy training to work out that the agent behind him isn't just pleased to see him.

He manages a glance at Bryce, who gives him a quick, sharp nod. Go along with it for now. They can still communicate with the faintest expression, just like always.

They're herded towards a doorway off the main concourse. One of the guys has an arm slung around Bryce, like they're old friends, and Chuck realizes he's more angry than scared. He's furious, actually, that this perfect twenty-four hours is being ruined, that Bryce has a gun on him when he's already been shot far too many times for one life, and that some slimy, evil, traitorous bad guy is acting like he's Bryce's best friend.

He's never felt exactly this kind of anger and indignation before, but he's going to make it work for him. When it's time.

The door they go through is marked staff only and locked, but Agent Black punches in numbers without hesitating. They know exactly what they're doing.

They turn left through the door, along one corridor, narrow enough that Chuck gets pushed ahead of Bryce, then right into a wider corridor, windows along one side that overlook the tarmac.

Chuck tries not to groan when he sees a security guard heading their way. There's no way one guard, with meager training, is going to be any use against four highly trained agents, so all Chuck can do is hope the man doesn't challenge them.

They're almost clear, and Chuck's just letting out his breath again, when the guard gets too observant.

"Hey," he calls out, and reaches for his gun. He doesn't make it. There's a soft pfft (silencers, Chuck thinks with the part of his brain that isn't reeling at watching a man get shot), and the guard's on the ground, motionless.

They leave him there.

Chuck swallows. This isn't the time to panic.

He steals another quick glance at Bryce, who's back alongside him. Bryce returns the look, sad and sorry and angry, and Chuck knows he's feeling all that for him, that Bryce would do anything to spare Chuck from this. That's typical Bryce, wanting to protect Chuck, no matter what.

Except now it's different, because Chuck wants to protect Bryce too, and Chuck's capable of it. Okay, so even with the Intersect inside his head, he's never going to be the spy Bryce is, but he knows eight different styles of Kung Fu, and a whole lot of other things too, and more importantly he'd do anything for Bryce.

There's a double door ahead of them, leading out onto the tarmac. Chuck can see a small plane not too far away, and it doesn't take the powers of the Intersect to work out that's where they're being taken.

Bryce coughs, and mutters a couple of words. "Hur, ghob."

"SuH." Chuck nods, and gets a dig in the ribs for it.

"Keep moving," Agent Black demands. Chuck stumbles more than he needs to, makes himself look clumsy and scared.

Two steps outside, one barely perceptible nod, and they both drop, Chuck to the left and Bryce to the right. Two guns go off - the ones that a second earlier were digging in their backs - but they both miss.

They fight in unison, mirror images of each other. One sharp kick and the guns are on the ground, both agents holding their arms in agony. A turn, and they're each facing another agent, Chuck up against Agent Black and Bryce against Ferlinghetti, and now everything starts to move too fast and furious for Chuck to keep an eye on Bryce. The element of surprise is over, and they're fighting for their lives, in close, fists to the gut and kicks to their legs and Chuck's hurting in places he never knew could feel pain. They shout instructions to each other in Klingon, and Chuck thinks it's going their way, they're both getting the better of their opponents, when there's a shot fired.

Bryce falters, but doesn't stop.

Chuck doesn't have time to look for blood, though he wants nothing more than to run to Bryce and make sure he's okay. Because Bryce dying now, when he's just come back, that's not acceptable.

It's a woman holding the gun, but Chuck's not going to underestimate her just because she looks like she might make hundred pounds if she wore boots. She's closing in, hasn't shot again yet, because they're all moving too fast and no matter how good she is with a gun, she's not going to risk firing into the melee again. But it's one more person on the wrong side, and the other agents might be injured, but they're not out of commission, and if he and Bryce don't finish this up soon, they're going to be shoved on a plane and taken who the hell knows where.

"Damn, I wish Sarah were here," Chuck gasps, because no matter how much Casey curses him, he still likes to talk when he's fighting.

But that's okay, because a booted foot appears by his side and catches Agent Black in the chin.

It's Sarah.

"Wow. Gotta try that again," he says, between somersaulting over Agent Black and landing a punch.

Sarah grins. Doesn't even question Bryce being back, and Chuck loves that about her, that she's so calm in any situation, however crazy.

"I was going to pick you up," she says.

And then it's a perfect sequence of moves, the three of them fighting together like they've done this a million times before. He mirrors moves Bryce makes, and Sarah echoes them effortlessly, and Chuck can't help thinking, with the little portion of his brain that isn't full of oh my god, fight, that he'd love to be watching this, seeing the three of them fighting together, because he bets it looks amazing.

And then it's all over. No more bad guys standing, just a circle of prone bodies surrounding the three of them, some silent, some groaning feebly. Sarah's got her cell out already, talking into it rapidly as she checks on all the bodies.

"Are you okay?" Chuck asks, and reaches for Bryce's arm. There's a bullet hole in his sleeve, and blood, and—

"Winged me," Bryce says quickly, and Chuck remembers to breath again. "You know I'm staying, right?" Bryce asks, soft enough that it's just for Chuck's ears.

"I, uh. I dunno," Chuck says honestly. "Are you?" he asks, and he tries to keep the hope out of his voice, but he doesn't think he manages.

"Yeah. This time, I am."

Chuck bends over, hands on his thighs, and tries to breath. Every muscle aches, and he must be covered in bruises, but they're still alive, the people he cares about are all alive, and he's the guy who does this, who fights bad guys and then goes home at the end of the day with one of the good guys.

He looks up at Bryce. "Welcome home," he says.