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every home was like alcatraz

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In college, sex was easy. Uncomplicated.

Tri Kappa keggers. Pledge week. Naked mile runs. Strip poker with Sigma Phi.

Bryce had it all.

Had his future laid out before him and Chuck Bartowski laid out beneath him.

--

It's three weeks into the first semester.

They meet on campus, football and C++. Chuck smiles, mentions Zork. Bryce laughs, mentions EverQuest. Mentions Jill. Chuck's attention is his.

Bryce says he'll introduce them. Chuck fumbles, wide arms stuffed with books for classes that Bryce is in. Chuck's awed disbelief holds Bryce's interest.

Conner and Jacob tell him that Jill went back to her room. Chuck eagerly trails, nervous and gushing.

He seems half in love and he hasn't even met her yet.

Bryce is intrigued, wonders if it's really that easy.

--

Bryce lives on the third floor. Students are still unpacking. Boxes are piled up like a bad Tetris game.

Jill's door is open and has a dry erase board nailed to it. Not here, pwning newbs is written in bright green marker. Her roommate, Angie, is sitting crossed legged, on the floor, playing Silent Hill.

Bryce knocks. "Yo."

Angie doesn't look up. "What up, Larkin?"

"Jill around?"

"Nah, she's in class, dude. Fuck." Her screen goes black. Game over. "Who's the stick?"

Chuck blinks, startled. "Stick?"

Bryce laughs. "This is Chuck. Just met him. Wanted to introduce him to Jill."

Angie laughs. "Bryce Larkin, international stray cat collector."

Bryce nudges Chuck's shoulder. "But I don't take them all home with me, now do I?"

--

Bryce has a class at quarter past eight. Chuck's in the same class. They hang out in Bryce's room until they have to walk to the computer engineering building.

They're both scholarship kids, Bryce for athletics, Chuck for academics, engineering majors. Chuck wants to own his own software company. Bryce wants to be an accountant.

"Super, you can work for me. Be there when I make my first billion." Chuck's smile reaches his eyes. They've spent three hours talking about nothing.

Bryce isn't used to that.

"Tell me about this Zork thing," he brings up on the way to class.

Chuck begins talking, animated. He uses his hands, expresses himself. He backtracks often, gets swept up in side-stories.

Bryce likes listening to Chuck talk. He lets him.

--

Chuck surprises Bryce the next morning. He's outside Bryce's door, hands shoved deep in his pockets. Bryce's on his way back from track practice. They run every morning before seven a.m.

Bryce is half asleep, but still managed to outrun the entire team.

"Hey!" Chuck bounces on the balls of his feet. "I know showing up here is a little weird, but I had a few hours to kill before class and I don't really know-know anyone here, so I was wondering if you—"

"Yeah," Bryce interrupts. "Just gimmie ten to shower."

"Super, I'll just wait, uhh, I'll just keep stand—"

"Get in, Chuck."

--

Having Chuck in his life feels odd, comfortable. Their common interests have them unified. They like old videogames, 70s crime movies. Science fiction. Bryce loves Star Trek; Chuck loves Star Wars.

Chuck promises to learn Klingon; Bryce watches Episode I. Bryce corrects his pronunciation, Chuck apologizes for Geroge Lucas. Chuck waits for him after track practice and Bryce takes a forty minutes detour to walk with Chuck to his dorms.

To Bryce it feels inevitable, like gravity.

--

There's something different about Chuck, something that Bryce can't pinpoint immediately.

It makes Chuck intriguing, fascinating. Something Bryce wants to further experiment with. He's too nice a guy to be completely genuine.

Bryce wants to be there when he cracks Chuck open, lets it all spill out.

--

It takes a week and two days for Chuck to finally meet Jill. They're in the same economics class.

Jill's bag breaks, her books spill out. Chuck rushes in to save the day. Jill winds up with a bump on her head and Chuck's number stored in her phone.

Bryce likes Jill. She's into Animé and comic books and knows Elvish. She always wears her long brown hair in a high ponytail and pushes her bangs behind her ears. She has bright pink glasses and a tongue ring with a neon yellow ball.

She's sarcastic, sharp. Unapologetic and funny. They all eat lunch in the cafeteria after they spend the afternoon cheering for Bryce at his meet. She orders a cheeseburger and fries and makes fun of the bandages on Chuck's fingers.

"Nintendo is a serious health risk! Ask my sister, she's in med school."

"Whatever, newb. Pass the vinegar." She winks. Chuck smile touches his eyes.

Bryce's eye twitches. He feels jilted.

--

They grow closer as the weeks drag on. Midterms have Bryce and Chuck's heads pressed together in the library. Chuck helps him with the more complicated problems, the ones he missed sleeping in or for track meets.

"One more, buddy. We're almost done." Chuck remains optimistic. Bryce is perpetually amazed with how much information Chuck can remember off the top of his head. Phone numbers, calc equations, Python coding, birthdays.

After their last exam, Bryce's track friends drag him to a pub. Bryce drags Chuck. He texts Jill, tells her he'll have him back in one piece.

Get him smashed, Larkin she texts back. Bryce considers it a carte blanche. "It's what Jill wants." He shows Chuck the message whenever he pushes a shot towards him.

Somewhere between the beer pong and the beer bong, Bryce pulls Chuck out of the pub by the collar of his shirt. They hold each other up as they bump into walls and set off car alarms.

When Bryce wakes up the next morning, he and Chuck are in a baseball diamond, passed out against home plate. Chuck's hand is against his lower back. Bryce's fingers are tangled in Chuck's hair.

Chuck is already awake.

He's looking right at Bryce.

--

Jill and Chuck go to San Francisco for a weekend. Time alone.

Angie tells Bryce that Jill spent the Friday buying lingerie, The Cure's Disintegration and the 1978 Battlestar Galactica.

"Had it not been for the lingerie part, I would swear she's gonna fuck him this weekend."

Bryce laughs because she does.

He skips out on movie night and doesn't leave his room until Chuck gets back.

--

Bryce realizes things aren't ok three days before the end of the first year.

He's in Chuck's room, across his bed, calculus book lying open on his chest.

He's watching them.

Jill has Chuck between her legs, her chin on his head. She's quizzing him, braiding his curls with purple elastics from Angie's braces.

Every right answer has Jill kissing him, cheering. Chuck's lips are smeared with her chapstick. He's smiling, whispering to her, has her giggling.

Bryce realizes he's been clenching his jaw when Jill asks him what time it is and talking hurts. "Half past."

"Shit, I gotta get going." Jill groans, detangles herself from Chuck.

Chuck moans as he stands. "But how else am I gonna learn all this without you quizzing me?"

"Well, I guess you're failing." She hip checks Chuck. "You coming, Bryce?"

He wants to stay. He wants her to leave.

"I think Bryce is sticking around. I foresee a long night of antiderivatives and differentials." Chuck smiles as he pulls the elastics out of his hair.

"Gross. Call me after, ok?" Jill pulls on Chuck's red hoodie. Her hair sticks up from the static. Chuck brushes it down and kisses her forehead.

"Absolutely."

Bryce gets up, hugs her at the door, waits for Chuck to kiss her goodnight.

When the door closes, Bryce fists Chuck's shirt, yanks him hard, kisses him.

Chuck kisses back.

--

They try to talk about it.

Chuck ends up on the floor, Bryce ends up with Chuck's tongue in his mouth.

Belt buckles are unhooked, zippers pushed down. Bryce's fingers slide under the elastic of Chuck's boxers, skim wiry curls. He's torn between devouring Chuck's mouth, needing more contact.

Chuck whimpers, dick filling out thickly. His hand cups the back of Bryce's head, forces more pressure, rubs up, slides the hard outline of his cock against Bryce's, takes.

Bryce almost loses it. Messy, graceless. Chuck's cell suddenly rings, plays What is Love?.

Jill.

Twenty minutes later, they find themselves drinking lukewarm coke and eating pizza in Jill's dorm. They're on opposite sides of the couch.

--

It happens after the end of the first year. Pats on the back, handshakes, see you laters. Students pile into plains, trains and automobiles, head home.

Bryce takes the latest flight possible. It corresponds to the time stamped on Chuck's train ticket. Jill's already in Vermont, Angie in New York. They're in Chuck's room as Dave, his roommate, drags his luggage out the door.

Chuck's sitting on his half packed suitcase. He's avoiding Bryce's eyes, keeps talking. Nervous chatter; filler to keep sound in the room. He gets up, starts aimlessly picking up trinkets, puts them right back down.

"Are we ever gonna talk-talk about, y'know, this?" Chuck waves at the space between them, sounds mildly hysterical. He passes a hand through his hair, makes it stick up.

Bryce licks his lips.

It's quick. Bryce is up, body close to Chuck's, pushes him against the wall. He slides his knee between Chuck's legs, hooks his hands around Chuck's neck, tests a hypothesis. Experimentation.

Bryce learns Chuck has a sensitive back, that he likes it when Bryce bites his neck. He learns that Chuck's stomach flutters at the slightest touch, that he growls when jerked off quickly.

Bryce learns that twisting right under Chuck's crown has him buckling, that his come tastes like black licorice, that he loves the way Chuck says his name like he's dying.

The next morning, Chuck's on a train to Los Angeles, Bryce on a plane to Connecticut.

Bryce doesn't brush his teeth. Tastes like Chuck the entire way home.

--

Bryce spends the break fantasizing.

The separation makes the need gnaw at his insides, makes him feel empty.

He's tense, filled with reckless energy, energy he puts into running. He beats his old records, runs ten miles in thirty-one minutes, flat.

--

Third semesters begins.

Bryce's old roommate transferred to Columbia law. He scans the dorm list, spots Chuck's name, wonders how long it'll take to have Chuck in his bed.

Jill calls him as he's leaving the registrar's office. Bryce hears laughter in the background. Chuck.

"My room. ASAP. Bring beverage."

He obeys. He shows up with a six-pack. Chuck's sprawled out across Jill's bed, sits up swiftly when he spots Bryce.

Chuck smiles, crooked, bashful. Bryce wants to take him right there.

"Larkin!" Jill charges at him, wraps her arms around him tightly. Squeezes. Dating Chuck or not, Bryce really likes Jill.

When she pulls away, Bryce is stunned. If anything, the summer's made her more beautiful. Shorter hair, fading tan, new glasses. She looks like a punk-rock version of Zelda.

She talks about her vacation as she pulls out gifts from her suitcase. Nothing's wrapped because she says she's awful at it. There's Stargate for Angie. The collectors edition of The Watchmen for Bryce. Quake III for Chuck.

"Oh, I fucking love you," Chuck mumbles, holds the game with two hands, delicate like China. Jill laughs, drops into his lap, kisses him.

"You fucking better." She kisses him again. Keeps kissing him. Chuck drags his hand up her back, cups the back of her head.

"We best give the lovebirds some time to… catch up." Angie tugs Bryce out of the room, shuts the door behind her.

When Angie ducks into the bathroom, Bryce comes close to putting his fist through a wall.

--

"Dave dropped out." Chuck is lying on Jill's floor. Angie's using his thigh as a pillow while she plays her GameBoy. "His dad had a stroke or something, so he's taking care of him."

"Jesus, that's awful," Jill says. Bryce's head is in her lap and she's combing his hair. Jill likes his hair a lot. She says she would trade hair in a second.

"Connor moved out, too." Bryce looks down, Chuck looks up. Their eyes meet.

"Ooh! You two have to move in together!" Jill slaps Bryce's shoulder repeatedly, enthusiastically. "Imagine how fucking awesome that would be!"

It takes two days of paperwork and oaths.

Bryce has Chuck screaming out his name on day three.

--

It takes a month of living together for Bryce to realize Jill has always been a tactical error.

She begins to sleepover every Wednesday night, cozies herself in Chuck's bed and falls asleep with his arms around her shoulders. She leaves the room smelling like pink grapefruit and cherry lipchap.

The sex feels uncomfortable afterward—their cheating apparent until the smell of Jill's perfume disappears. Bryce knows how difficult it is for Chuck. Knows that Chuck's a good guy. Knows that he doesn't want to hurt Jill.

Bryce knows that Chuck loves her—that they'll get hitched after Stanford and pop out two or three kids that Chuck'll spoil rotten. He knows that when Chuck looks back on college, Bryce will be a fond memory, a good story to tell Jill on their thirtieth anniversary.

Bryce also knows that he isn't a good guy like Chuck. Until he proposes to Jill, he's free game. Bryce is good at games. Doesn't accept second place, losing.

--

Chuck becomes an addiction Bryce can't shake.

He wakes up in Chuck's bed, with Chuck's legs hooked around his. With his fingers twisted in his hair. Bryce always wakes up first.

There's one morning where Bryce wakes to Chuck's mouth on his nipple, to Chuck's sharp teeth nipping.

"Mornin'" Chuck mutters, licks at Bryce's clavicle.

Bryce's throat clenches. Chuck looks up through the fringe of his eyelashes, smirks, dips his head, slides his body across Bryce's.

Bryce fists his headboard when Chuck's mouth opens around his cock. Bites down on his hand when Chuck nervously sucks; shakes through the entire blowjob.

--

Bryce begins to suspect Jill knows about them.

It's little clues dropped here and there. A prolonged look. An extra kiss or two. The way she'd drop by more and more unexpectedly. She brought over donuts at three a.m., fifteen minutes after Bryce'd fucked Chuck over their desk.

She walked over the spilled pens and paper, smiled as if she was oblivious to the Chuck shaped gap on the desk, to how thick the air was.

That night, while Chuck slept, Jill and Bryce stared at each other. Bryce noticed the hard lines around her eyes, the tightness in her lips.

Bryce is certain Jill noticed the same look mirrored back at her.

--

Bryce used to find himself when he was running.

He felt like his body wasn't his, was being used by a higher power. The way the wind felt ripping across his body, the way his legs felt weightless. It was like flying at low altitudes—like he'd be able to take off at any second.

It was liberating.

After track meets, he felt invincible, incredible. His body pulsed, his muscles twitching. He lost himself on the track, would only know if he won when he saw Chuck in the stands, hollering and clapping.

The way Bryce feels about Chuck is the way he feels when he's running.

He wants to tell Chuck, wants him to know. Needs him to know.

Whenever he sees Jill and Chuck kiss, that need shrivels.

--

Angie starts dating a guy named Hunter.

He's a drama major who poses nude for Angie's drawing class. He doesn't like videogames and listens to Indian techno music, but gets along with everyone.

Bryce begins to feel like a fifth wheel.

He starts to go on dates, brings them to their board game and movie nights, has them back in their dorms by one. Through trial and error, he finds one girl, Sophie, that he brings over a few times.

There's a moment when Bryce thinks, she might be the one, but then Sophie and Chuck get paired up for Pictionary. Staring at them, together, the entire night, Bryce realizes that everyone else pales in comparison.

--

Winter break. Chuck and Jill head to Vermont. Jill's mom wants to meet Chuck.

Chuck is excited, nervous. He spends hours with Jill, planning, laughing. Bryce is there to see it all.

He tries to block them out, to focus on schoolwork on readings. He reads the same page over and over until he knows the formula by heart.

On the night before their trip, Jill stops by for an hour. She reminds Chuck about the bus times and flight schedules. Chuck smiles and rubs her shoulders. Laughs away her anxiety.

When she leaves, she pauses by the door, stands on her tiptoes, wraps her arms around Chuck's shoulders and kisses him. "I love you."

Chuck breaks out into a grin, dips his head to kiss her, says, "I love you, too."

It's the first time Bryce has ever heard Chuck say it like he means it.

It stings.

--

Bryce spends the break in the school gym, works with weights and machines. There's a brunette from the cheerleading squad that flirts with him everyday. She's busty, petite. Has full lips that she covers with shimmery pink lipstick, wears short shorts and tank tops and asks him to help her stretch.

Her name is Isabella. She's Italian and wears a strong perfume that Bryce sort of likes. She tells him that his body is perfect, that he's gorgeous, that she wants him. It used to be easy for Bryce. He was once capable of responding to this sort of advance. Since Chuck, he feels clumsy, out of practice.

They fuck only once. The way her body twists leaves Bryce in awe, envious. Two days later, Bryce finds himself on the tumbling mat, has the cheerleading coach's strong hand on his lower back, has him bending in ways that leave him aching for hours.

He's a quick study, masters the basics, moves to the complicated choreography within a week. He has the lower body strength and exercises his upper.

When February rolls round, Bryce finds himself on the gymnastics team.

--

Gymnastics give Bryce an outlet. Running becomes repetitive, circles and circles that never lead anywhere. Bryce eventually ends up running into his problems over and over again.

The gymnastics coach gives him the keys to the equipment, lets him practice after hours. Bryce needs it, needs the adrenaline and the grueling pain that comes with success.

It's late at night and he's in the middle of a tumbling act when he hears clapping.

He turns, startled. Chuck's leaning against the door. He looks angry. His shoulders are tight. Bryce is about to speak when Chuck cuts him off.

"Why are you avoiding me?"

"'m not avoiding you." Bryce picks his words carefully. Chuck rubs at the bridge of his nose, pushes off the door. Walks toward Bryce.

"Like hell you aren't," Chuck spits, vicious. "I've been back for almost a month and this is the longest we've spoken."

"Been busy, Bartowski. Training."

Chuck flinches. "That how we're gonna play this now? Really?"

Bryce snaps. "What the fuck do you want me to say? Huh?"

Chuck laughs. Bitter, to himself. "Christ, I don't care anymore. Just forget it."

He takes exactly one step before Bryce charges him, tackles him around his knees. Chuck's shirt is off by the time he hits the floor, his legs wrapped around Bryce's shoulders, hands squeezing at each other's faces.

The sex is raw, vengeful. Bryce claws down Chuck's spine, Chuck leaves bite marks all across Bryce's shoulders. Bryce falls asleep inside Chuck, wakes to Chuck mouthing his neck, fucks him twice more before hitting the showers and wiping the come off the floor.

--

When fourth semester ends, Chuck agrees to spend half the summer in Connecticut.

Chuck meets Bryce's mom, his younger sister, Anne. They both love him; dote on him. His charm has Bryce's mom shoveling extra spoonfuls of mashed potatoes onto his plate and his quirkiness has Anne fixing her hair and makeup before every meal.

Bryce grins extra wide when he has Chuck going down on him in his childhood bed, enjoys the rush of being caught, the excitement. Chuck surprises him one night when he wraps one of Bryce's old high school ties around his mouth and sinks down on his cock.

Bryce comes before Chuck can move.

--

They eat pancakes in Bryce's room, fingers sticky with syrup and blueberry jam.

Chuck starts to wear hats everywhere, pulls them over thick curls, manages to get maple syrup in his hair, on his neck.

Bryce's favorite part of breakfast is licking Chuck clean.

--

Bryce lives in the country near an apple orchard. There's a barn three miles away that makes the applesauce that Chuck has become addicted to. Whenever they're bored, they hike over, climb up the northern silo, break in, and drink beer in the loft.

Chuck's gotten into a bad habit of calling him Clark Kent.

"You can retire the Superman jokes, any day now." Bryce groans. The breeze feels nice against his sunburnt skin. He presses the bottom of his beer bottle against his forehead and lets the water drip past his ears.

Chuck laughs. He's stretched out over some hay, arms folded under his head. "No problem, sure. I just wasn't aware that, you know, Clark Kent was on a gymnastics scholarship, is all."

Bryce swallows his beer, rolls over, onto Chuck, climbs on top. "I thought you liked that."

--

It's 2002. Year of the Greeks. They pledge Gamma Delta Phi.

All throughout initiation, they pretend to not know each other. It's a running joke to see who can last the longest without slipping.

Bryce always wins.

By luck of the draw, they end up as roommates. They dismantle their dorm room and reassemble it in their fraternity. Jill takes pictures as everyone inhales the dust left from the previous owners.

When Jill leaves, Bryce helps Chuck hang his TRON poster above his bed. Chuck's the one that drags him down on the clean sheets, nuzzles his neck, has his hand down Bryce's pants.

"Under Jeff Bridges? Pretty bold, Bartowski."

Chuck smirks. "He likes to watch."

--

They're at a Tri Kappa kegger. Bryce is half passed out on a couch. He has a red plastic cup duct taped to his left hand that's still filled with beer. He vaguely sees Chuck at the pool tables, sees a blur pass in front of him that collapses at his side.

"'m tir'd," Jill slurs, head falling against Bryce's shoulder. Her hair sticks to his neck. It's uncomfortable. She smells like the cranberry juice she'd been mixing with her vodka all night.

"M'too," Bryce tries to reassure. His tongue is sloppy, his words compressed. He awkwardly pats her knee with his taped hand, sloshes beer all over her blue dress. Jill giggles.

"Y'ur hair's nice. Love y'ur hair." She palms the back of his head. "I wanna… I want… y'ur hair. Want y'u."

Bryce laughs, passes out. He wakes up with Jill's head in his lap and her fingers intertwined with his.

--

Bryce meets Jessica the night Chuck and Jill have their first major fight.

Jill storms out of their dorm, brushes past the two of them as they enter.

When Bryce sees Chuck, he's sitting at the edge of his bed, looking at the floor. Jessica tells him she'll call him later, kisses his cheek as she presses her number into his hand. When she leaves, she shuts the door.

"What happened?" Bryce is unprepared for this scenario.

"She asked me if I still loved her." Chuck scoffs as he lies down, looks at the ceiling.

"And?"

"And I said I didn't know anymore."

"Wow."

"Ya," Chuck laughs, self-depreciating. "Just… I dunno. C'mere and fuck me."

--

Jill has always been their pink elephant.

Bryce knows deep down just how devoted Chuck is to her, how much he truly loves her. He's not stupid enough to think that what he and Chuck have can be compared. He knows that it's real and it's theirs and that's what makes it important to the both of them.

When push came to shove, Bryce knew that Jill would come first, would always win. There's always been a countdown to Chuck realizing this himself.

Chuck hasn't been keeping track, but Bryce has.

--

Jill is waiting for him at the entrance to the fraternity on the one day she knows Chuck sleeps in.

"How is he?" her voice is scratchy, pained. Her hair's a mess and her clothes are rumpled.

"He loves you." Bryce recites. "He might not say it, but he feels it."

Jill cracks a tiny smile. She throws her arms around Bryce, squeezes tight. Holds on a little longer than necessary. Bryce gets a bad feeling in his gut, something rotten.

When Jill pulls away, her fingers skim his hair. She clears her throat as she turns on her heel, shoves her hands in her pockets and walks back to her dorm.

--

He calls Jessica two hours before Chuck and Jill get back together. He invites her to see a movie, dinner.

He tries to ignore the churning in his belly, the uneasiness. Jessica asks him questions to which he responds mechanically, dull. It's a horrible date, all Bryce's fault.

He walks Jessica back to her room, apologizes. Jessica laughs, waves her hand dismissively.

"The interview was everything I was anticipating, Mr. Larkin." Bryce quirks an eyebrow. Jessica rifles through her purse, pulls out a business card. "It'd be in your best interest to show up for a counseling meeting with Professor Fleming."

Bryce is confused. Jessica shuts the door. The card has Professor Fleming's name on it, his office hours. 1-2 p.m. Thursday is circled with a red pen.

Bryce keeps the card hidden in his wallet. When he gets in, he sees Jill fast asleep in Chuck's arms.

"How'd it go?"

He doesn't tell Chuck anything.

--

Thursday, 12:50 p.m. Bryce is sitting in an uncomfortable chair outside Professor Fleming's office. The secretary ushers him inside after Fleming buzzes him in.

"Mr. Larkin! Sit, sit!" Fleming smiles widely, shows his teeth. Bryce wonders why the hell he's even there. The second he sits, Fleming's face turns stony, intimidating.

He tells Bryce he's a CIA recruiter; that the CIA wants Bryce to join. Bryce is caught between disbelief and awe. He laughs because he doesn't know what else to do with his mouth.

He tells Bryce that he wants him to be a spy.

"Your athletic prowess is incredible, Mr. Larkin. Speed. Agility. Flexibility. You possess it all. You would be an incredible asset to our government, our country."

Travel, espionage, gun fights. Terrorists and drug smugglers and weapons dealers. He'd get to face off against real life Dr. No's and Goldfingers. He signs on the dotted line, shakes Fleming's hand, feels empowered.

It's only when he's back in the dorm and sees Chuck playing Donkey Kong that he realizes what he's done.

--

Bryce learns how to balance schoolwork and missions, track meets and arms deals, a full course load with torture techniques.

He learns how to speak German, Spanish and French. He's shown how to break a man's neck in three places, about the pressure points on the human body, how to shoot an assault rifle, to win in a swordfight, three types of self defense.

How to kill without leaving any traces of foul play.

His first mission is to Norway to intercept stolen data from a mole in the agency. He gets a taste of the fast life, the danger. On his second night there, there's a gunfight outside his hotel. He gets nicked on the arm and shoots three men dead.

He's gone for five days.

--

Whenever he has to go overseas, Bryce tells Chuck he has a gymnastics competition.

He can tell that Chuck doesn't believe him, but Chuck never questions him. It's good, since there are times when Bryce can't explain why he has a fresh row of stitches on his leg, the bruises on his arms. The black eyes and swollen lips from being a second too slow.

Whenever he's gone longer than a week, the CIA sends Chuck an e-mail with the name of some girl in it and vague reassurance that Bryce's safe and living up the college experience.

After a while, Bryce confuses the names of the fake girls, calls Melissa: Tiffany and Amber: Claire. He develops a reputation on the track and gymnastics teams.

The CIA loves it.

Bryce regrets his decision whenever he has Chuck look at him with disappointed eyes.

--

There's one and only one time where Bryce almost slips, tells Chuck about his second life.

They're in the quad, walking back from a class. It's late, jet black outside. The lamps cast fuzzy projections of light on the walkways. Chuck and Bryce are shoulder to shoulder, walking in time with each other.

Bryce knows Chuck wants to say something. He's clenching his jaw. He jostles him lightly, smiles. "Spill it, Bartowski."

Chuck lets out a relieved puff of air. "It's nothing, really. Just like, I know you've been," he pauses, "busy lately. And we haven't, exactly, I mean—"

Bryce frowns, interrupts. "It's not like that, man. Honest."

"No, no, you don’t have to explain to me," Chuck says hastily, defensively. "I mean, I get it. It's fine. It's cool. Things are cool."

"Chuck—"

"It's just, things have been going really well with me and Jill lately. Really well, y'know?" Chuck swallows thickly, inhales shakily. Bryce already knows where this is going. "And like, I know we're still young and all, but I really think this is it, and—"

Bryce stops walking.

"—I'm thinking about asking her to marry me after graduation."

--

Chuck ends up in Fleming's class when he realizes he has electives to fill.

Bryce is weary the whole time, tries to get him to swap into Renaissance Paintings with him, but Chuck is adamant. Says that Fleming's class conflicts less with Jill's waitressing job.

More and more, Bryce feels himself pulling apart from Chuck, feels the connection weakening. It's a solid pain in his chest, one that constricts and suffocates him. He hasn't touched Chuck in months.

Hasn't touched anyone else in almost two years.

--

Angie and Jill decide to spend a weekend at a spa. They've been saving up and someone gave them 40% off coupons.

Bryce doesn't even wait for the car to pull all the way out before his hand is on Chuck's lower back, fingers squeezing sharply. A tremor runs down Chuck's spine.

It's a dash to the room, Bryce harder than he's ever been. He pushes Chuck to the bed, misses, has him hit the floor with a thud. Chuck doesn't mind, grabs him and pulls him down.

They fall together easily, a clean fracture repairing itself. They greedily grab, have their fingers caught in belt buckles and buttons. Bryce feels completely alive, has his cake and is devouring it, too.

"In my desk," Chuck pants against his chest, "under my coding book."

Bryce nods, leans up, pulls open the drawer, tosses papers and pencils until his fingers close around a familiar object. Their lube, a condom. Chuck kept it all. He laughs and Chuck follows along, bashful and excited.

Bryce's cell rings. He's too slow and Chuck snatches it, puts a finger to his grinning lips, clears his throat, and does his best imitation of Bryce's voice. Bryce rolls his eyes.

"Hello. What? Toga party?"

Bryce rolls off Chuck, groans. "I gotta go. I—fuck, I'll be back, I promise. I—fucking shit—I'll explain later."

He's out the door before he can see the shocked expression on Chuck's face.

--

The beginning of the end starts with a phone call.

Chuck was in a rush that morning, forgot his cell in the charger by his bed. Bryce skips class to catch up on a manila envelope stuffed with floor plans of an embassy in Uruguay.

Chuck's cell buzzes every thirty minutes, drives Bryce crazy. The fifth time calling, Bryce slams his papers to one side of his bed, gets up, answers.

"Mr. Charles Bartowski?" The voice is familiar.

"Speaking."

"I'm calling on behalf of Professor George Fleming. It is in regards to your performance in his class. It would be in your best interest to speak to him."

Bryce's blood runs cold. The familiar phrase. "Can I schedule an appointment with you?"

"Absolutely. Thursday at one p.m.?"

"I'll be there."

--

Destroying four years of friendship should be harder.

He makes a deal with Fleming, feels a part of him dying in the process. Cheating gets Chuck suspended, selling stolen tests gets him expelled. He tells Felming to alert the Dean. Fleming calls Chuck and tells him to meet him.

Jill becomes the linchpin. He shows up at her dorm, recites some hackneyed lines, has her doe eyed and pliant in fifteen minutes.

Seducing her should be harder.

Afterward, he crawls out of her bed, gathers his clothes, and makes a beeline to Chuck.

--

It's without warning, desperate.

Chuck senses it, lets Bryce work it out. He fucks him until Chuck begs for a break, until his dick throbs in agony. He doesn't stop touching Chuck, takes it all in, absorbs it.

"I'm so sorry," he repeats over and over.

"Don't be," Chuck weakly laughs, drowsy, sleepy. "That was awesome."

Bryce doesn't sleep. He leaves before Chuck gets up, runs around the school track for an hour, wants to scream.

--

The last time he ever sees Chuck, Bryce tells him he brought it upon himself. Lets him leave. Tries to act indifferent.

He realizes he'll never see Chuck again.

He hopes his country is worth it.