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Chaos fic: The Illusion of Control 1/2

August 31st, 2012 (07:28 am)
sick

feeling: sick

Title: The Illusion of Control

Disclaimer: I do not own Chaos.

A/N: I wrote this fic quite some time ago, but just recently postfallen was nice enough to give it a beta for me. This is mostly gratuitous Billy h/c of the most schmoopy variety. So if that’s your thing, I hope you enjoy :) Any remaining mistakes are because I seriously cannot type. Split in two to make LJ happy.

Summary: Michael had planned too many successful missions, had brought his operatives through so much worse to lose one in a hospital to a run of the mill illness.



-o-

It started with a sneeze.

Michael was honed and trained, fully committed to tracing every detail. He considered this a necessity to his job, to ensure his own survival and the well being of his team. Everything was a clue and every element existed to be understood and therefore controlled. Knowledge was power, and without complete intelligence on any given situation he was vulnerable to a multitude of weaknesses and dangers.

Billy called it being a paranoid bastard; Fay cited it as part of their irreconcilable differences.

For Michael, though, there didn’t seem to be any other feasible way to live.

A sneeze was nothing entirely unusual, of course. Working in a controlled space did lend itself to certain allergies, and with so many people in one building colds and other ailments frequently made the rounds. Still, Michael was keenly aware of such things, especially when they occurred within the safe confines of the ODS office.

From his station at his desk, Michael could see Billy wiping absently at his nose before shifting in his seat and getting back to work without missing more than a beat.

Michael watched him a minute more, watched him make a few marks on a piece of paper before pulling a fresh page from the mess on his desk.

His eyes traveled to Rick, who was astutely typing, and then to Casey, who seemed to be reading a briefing.

The sneeze notwithstanding, the status quo was still maintained and achieved, with nothing suggesting any deviation from the normal that required his immediate or delayed attentions.

Satisfied, he went back to his work.

-o-

Then, Billy sneezed again.

Not right away, but less than an hour later, according to Michael’s internal clock. This time, everyone looked. Rick in vague concern; Casey in critical assessment.

Billy snuffled, wiping his nose sloppily on the back of his hand, but didn’t look up at the team.

Rick got back to work. Casey glanced at Michael. Michael’s gaze lingered on Billy a moment more, considering the possibilities.

Several seconds passed, however, and sometimes a sneeze was just a sneeze.

-o-

Sometimes, though, a sneeze was more than a sneeze.

When the third sneeze came less than twenty minutes later, Michael had to take note. Because two sneezes could be written off as coincidence or chance. A stray particle in the air, an errant tickle.

But three sneezes were beginning to seem more than a little suspicious.

Billy still didn’t seem fazed, wiping his nose without discretion, but Casey stared at him in earnest.

“If you’re going to continue with such behavior, I’m going to have to ask you to keep yourself pointed in the opposite direction,” Casey snarked. “Because I do not wish to be infected by your wayward germs.”

Billy looked up, his brow creased. “What?”

“The sneeze,” Casey said purposefully. “You need to control your sneezing.”

Billy frowned. “I hardly even noticed.”

“Well, we did,” Casey said. “So get it together or face expulsion from this office.”

Billy rolled his eyes. “Honestly, Casey, your concern is very touching, but it’s just a sneeze.”

Casey glowered but got back to work, and Michael watched Billy a minute longer, wishing that much were true.

“Still,” Michael said. “If you’re getting sick—”

Billy sighed in exasperation. “I’m fine,” he said.

Michael continued to look at him, dubious.

“Really,” Billy said, holding up a hand earnestly. “On my honor.”

“You’re a spy,” Casey said. “You don’t really have much honor.”

“Eh, close enough,” Billy said, and he smiled broadly, inclining his head. “A few sneezes never hurt anyone.”

-o-

A few sneezes may not have hurt anyone, but a few more sneezes coupled with a growing number of coughs were beginning to paint a picture that Michael didn’t really care for.

Because sneezing and coughing, especially with the growing sounds of congestion associated with both, highly indicated that Billy was getting sick.

It wasn’t that Michael begrudged his team from illness – it happened to the best of them, regardless of precautions. It was an invariable field risk, and though Michael tended to ward his off with an excessive use of hand sanitizer, he knew that Billy showed no such compunction to his overall health. That was to be expected, Michael supposed, because the man could complete any undercover mission but he couldn’t manage to pick up after himself, so expecting him to maintain the utmost in health standards was probably expecting too much.

And with all the traveling and all the people and all the close contact the ODS had in any given day, germs were invariably going to spread.

Still, that didn’t mean that Michael had to like it.

Because a sick teammate was a compromised teammate. A cold was innocuous in most situations, but it still created momentary hesitations and split second distractions that could be perilous in the field.

This increased the risk of failure, which not only compromised the mission, but the well being of everyone involved.

In short, being sick was a common weakness, but even common weaknesses were hard to endure in a line of work where life and death teetered on the brink alongside national security.

More than that, if Billy was sick that made it more likely for Michael to get sick. And Michael hated being sick.

So when Billy sneezed again, followed by a series of hacking coughs, all he could do was wince and pull himself closer to his desk, trying to figure out the best way to deal with this developing problem.

-o-

Michael was wary of Billy’s now-certain illness.

Rick showed a bit more compassion, offering him the box of tissues from his desk.

Casey, however, seemed to take certain pleasure in it.

Despite his earlier concerns, Casey seemed to embrace the sniffling and hacking as an opportunity for jest. This was to be expected, of course; Casey and Billy rarely passed up opportunities to poke fun at one another, regardless of circumstance or peril involved. It was part of their working relationship, and often a means of diffusing otherwise tense situations. This was why Michael tolerated it as well as he did. He understood the implicit need operatives had to cope with situations in which their lives were at stake.

But sometimes, they just really enjoyed it.

And Casey seemed to be enjoying it now.

“You know,” Casey said, while Billy mopped up his snot after another sneeze. “You should save that type of offense for the field. You’d probably have better success by sneezing on your opponents than engaging them in hand to hand combat.”

Billy sniffled hard before wadding up the tissue and throwing it in his trashcan. “Just because you are afraid of natural bodily functions doesn’t mean that the rest of the world shares your irrational fear,” Billy quipped back. The words were spirited, but thoroughly hindered by the nasally sound of Billy’s voice, which had gotten increasingly worse throughout the day.

“Many experts believe that germ warfare is the next major advancement in military combat,” Rick offered, a small twinkle in his eye.

Casey snorted.

Billy looked at Rick in disappointment. “You’re going to ally yourself with him?” he asked. “After all I’ve done for you?”

Rick looked sheepish.

“He’s a bright kid,” Casey said with an easy shrug. “He understands Darwinism. If only the fit survive, then relying on a sniveling Scotsman certainly isn’t going to do him much good.”

Billy glowers. “A runny nose does not impede my usefulness to the team,” he said with such vigor that Michael might have been inclined to believe him.

At least, until Billy followed it up with a series of sneezes that had them all turning away in disgust as he grappled desperately for the nearest tissue to contain the deluge.

-o-

By the time Michael got into Billy’s car that night, the Scot looked decidedly worse for wear. His pallor was slightly pale, the circles under his eyes making him look somewhat haggard. And even as he put the car into gear to take them back home, his attempts at conversation were strained, muted by his intermittent coughs and sneezes.

Billy even drove with more reserve than usual. He didn’t speed and not one traffic law was violated.

Which meant that all joking aside, Billy really didn’t feel very well.

When Billy pulled up to Michael’s place, Michael found himself lingering in the car. “You know, you have sick days for a reason,” Michael said by way of suggestion.

Billy rolled his eyes. “Oh, come now,” he returned in exasperation. “You, too?”

“I’m just saying,” Michael returned with a shrug.

Billy looked at him plainly. “In my many years of service for the Brits and the CIA, I have not indulged such things unless absolutely necessary,” he said. “Besides, our scrape in Tunisia used up a great many of them.”

It was true, mostly. But it was also a facade. Because spies didn’t like to show weakness, not even to each other.

Especially to each other.

But Billy’s pride could only be humored so far as his health was in order. “You’re no good to anyone if you’re sick,” Michael said.

“I promise to take proper care of myself tonight,” Billy said quite seriously. “Some vitamin C and some rest, and I’m sure things will be looking up in the morning.”

Michael was doubtful but Billy managed to hold his gaze without sneezing, so he inclined his head and opened the door. “Okay,” he said, climbing out. He leaned down to give Billy one last look. “But make sure you feel better.”

Billy flashed a smile. “It’s good to know you care.”

Michael snorted. “I just can’t have you infecting my entire team.”

Billy rolled his eyes as Michael shut the door. Michael watched as Billy backed out, steering the car expertly even while sneezing once again.

Sighing, Michael made his way inside, reminding himself that there was only so much he could control. Billy was a grown man and Michael had to trust that.

-o-

The next day, Billy did seem better. He coughed less and his sneezes were more controlled. Casey still treated him as if he was harboring the plague, but Billy hardly seemed to notice.

In fact, Billy was strangely productive. With the lack of sneezing, there were also no jokes and stories. Just work.

Michael could attribute this to Billy being tired – because the Scot did look duly exhausted. His face was paler today, lines drawn a bit more deeply than normal. He had told Michael that he’d slept fine the prior night, but there was little evidence to support such a fact.

More than that, Billy was not inclined to get more serious when tired. To the contrary, Billy had always shown a penchant toward silliness when sleep deprivation set in. The longer the stakeout, the more verbose Billy became.

This made Michael conclude that Billy was not feeling as well as he claimed he was. The decline in sneezing and coughing was something of a plus, Michael supposed, but he was also getting the sneaking suspicions that Billy was just hiding it better. The occasional grimaces could be a stifled sneeze and the methodical trips to the bathroom could easily accommodate a coughing fit as needed.

In reality, this was probably to be expected. After the ribbing and concern from yesterday, it would be in Billy’s nature to deflect. He could take jokes as readily as anyone on the team, but Michael was certain that Billy didn’t want to sit on the sidelines while the team worked on their next case. Because an illness would understandably sideline Billy, and it wasn’t the jokes Billy would struggle to endure; it was the possibility that the team might be in the field and he might not be with them to provide the support they needed.

That was the way they all thought, really, and Michael had never been able to discourage it, mostly because it was his own personal philosophy as well. Protecting his team was forefront in his mind, and the greatest risk he could leave them exposed to was not being there at all. Because if he wasn’t there he couldn’t control anything else, and such feelings of helplessness were not things Michael relished.

So Michael understood Billy’s efforts.

It still made him wary. Because while having Billy around would provide them with an extra man, having a man sick in the field provided a whole new host of uncertainties that Michael had to account for.

Still, Billy wasn’t making it easy. Without any solid indication that Billy was getting worse, Michael had no way of forcing his operative into submission.

And Michael couldn’t deny that it was possible he was overreacting. Fay did have cause to divorce him and Billy had certainly never been wrong to call him a paranoid bastard.

But when Billy passed on lunch, Michael knew his uncertainties were more than somewhat justified.

In fact, it stopped everyone cold.

“You’re passing on lunch?” Casey asked in pure incredulity.

Billy shrugged innocently. “Is that so hard to believe?”

“Frankly, yes,” Casey said. “I have never seen you willingly pass on an opportunity to engage both in pointless conversation and empty calories.”

Billy shook his head. “The concern is quite touching,” he said. “But I brought everything I need today.”

They all stared.

“You brought a thermos,” Rick said finally.

“Indeed,” Billy said. “Filled to the brim with my mother’s recipe for chicken soup, which I do believe you Americans believe is the cure to all ailments.”

There was actually something practical about that, which was why Michael immediately felt his concern heighten.

Sighing, Billy said, “Really, mates, I’m just fine. The clogging of my nose has just seriously impeded my taste buds and watching others engaged in the festivities of joyful eating is more cruel than not today.”

It was a rationale that Casey and Rick seemed ready to accept. Even Michael couldn’t find grounds to fault it.

“Fine,” Casey said, sulking a little. “But if you breathe near my desk—”

Billy waved his hand in the air. “I know, I know,” he said. “I can expect due peril upon your immediate return.”

Rick chuckled and followed Casey as he left. Michael gave Billy one last look, trying to look for anything in his disposition to make him stay. But Billy stayed at his desk, busily opening his thermos while Michael left the room.

-o-

The conversation in the break room was especially lively. Casey engaged in a debate with Rick about the best ways to break someone’s arm and Blanke stopped by to share the latest gossip and all things considered, it was about as good as a lunch could get.

Which was why Michael’s inability to enjoy it was so perplexing.

But he couldn’t. No matter how hard he tried, he kept thinking about Billy. He was going over it in his head, trying to figure out what he was missing. Billy was under the weather – no one had or would deny that – but it was more. Billy was skipping lunch and no matter what excuses he gave, that just wasn’t normal.

Billy just wasn’t normal. What had happened to the cough and the runny nose? Why did he look worse today than yesterday?

Michael was missing something. Or rather, he was looking something right in the face but not quite able to put a name to it. But what was certain was that Michael couldn’t sit in the break room and enjoy his lunch while Billy’s mysterious illness and so-called rapid recovery were still issues to contend with.

They had too much going on for that. Their latest mission was almost a go, once final approval came in from Higgins. Michael needed to be checking things off his list, not adding new things to worry about. He needed to be finding good aliases and milking his contacts, not worrying about Billy’s cold.

Which mean he couldn’t put this off. For him, for Billy, for the team.

Excusing himself, Michael left his lunch unfinished and made his way back to the office.

He didn’t even have to open the door to know something was wrong. Everything was off. It was the quiet in the room, the way nothing moved. It was too still, too peaceful. The silence hit Michael before anything else, so when he opened the door, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Somehow, it was anyway.

Because Billy was at his desk, just where they left him. The lid to the thermos was open, steam still rising from the container. Nothing else had changed; nothing was different, except Billy.

Billy was slumped over, long arms resting over the cluttered paperwork. His head was laid down, lolling on his arm. His closed eyes were something of a concern, but the audible wheezing through his open mouth was even more pressing.

It took all of Michael’s self control not to show his panic, but that couldn’t control the spike of fear that roiled through his gut. Instead, he took fast but measured steps to Billy’s side, placing an arm on the Scot’s shoulder as he kneeled down in front of him.

“Billy?” he asked, squeezing gently. “Billy.”

The Scotsman stirred slightly, his harsh breathing stuttering as his eyelids fluttered.

“Billy,” Michael said again, both coaxing and demanding.

This time, Billy’s eyes opened just enough for Michael to see them clearly. The normal radiant blue was cloudy somehow, and Billy seemed to be having trouble focusing.

Frowning, Michael reached his hand up, pressing it against Billy’s forehead. “You have a fever,” he murmured, too aware of the heat coming from the other operative. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

To Michael’s surprise, Billy actually smiled although he didn’t try to move. “The Tylenol had been doing the trick,” he said, voice breathy as he spoke.

Michael frowned. “How long have you been taking it?”

Billy seemed to shrug, his head twitching slightly in uncertainty. “On and off for a bit now,” he said. He let his eyes drift closed again. “Thought I was getting better.”

At that, Michael snorted. “Yeah, well, it certainly doesn’t seem that way,” he said, getting to his feet and bringing Billy with him.

It took some maneuvering to ease his way under Billy’s arm and as he bought the Scot to his feet, Billy’s brow furrowed. “Where are we going?” he mumbled, and his accent was almost too thick to make out the words.

Michael still understood. “Home,” he said curtly as he tried to steady Billy. “Looks like you earned yourself a sick day after all.”

Billy’s expression fell further as he tried to prop himself up better and find his legs. “You really think that’s necessary?” he asked, before promptly sneezing. The sneeze led to a cough, which seemed to rip deep through Billy’s chest in painful, rattling hacks.

Michael made a face. “Yes,” he said, as a matter of fact. “I do.”

Coughing controlled, Billy straightened slightly but his expression was one of defeat. “Well,” he said, still taking gasping, labored breaths. “Who I am to argue with our fearless leader?”

Laughing slightly, Michael shook his head as he started to lead Billy toward the door.

-o-

On the way out, Billy seemed to rally his strength. By the time they were in the corridor he was walking upright, smiling and nodding at people as they passed. Michael thought this might be a good sign until Billy practically collapsed into the passenger’s seat of Michael’s rundown Taurus.

As Michael sat down in the driver’s seat, he eyed his teammate skeptically. Billy was visibly sweating now, slumped back against the seat and heaving breaths that still came with noticeable effort. But his eyes were open and looking at Michael wearily. “It’s not polite to stare,” he quipped lightly.

“It’s also not polite to sweat your germs all over my car,” Michael sniped back, hoping that his grating tone belied his concern.

Billy smiled. “I’ll try to control my breathing,” he said, and then his body was rattled with a cough, which he seemed to reign in as best he can.

The effort still left him pale and shaky.

Michael frowned and started the car. “You do that,” he said, trying to look annoyed as he pulled out of his parking spot, a wary eye on Billy the entire time.

-o-

At Billy’s place, the Scot was already dozing lightly. When Michael cut the engine, Billy blinked blearily before trying to sit up in his seat nonchalantly.

“Smooth driving today,” Billy said, ghosting a smile as he undid his seat belt.

Michael was usually a pretty decent driver, but Michael was pretty certain that he could have been speeding around every corner and Billy wouldn’t have been roused, given how miserable he looked.

Opening the door, Billy nodded at Michael. “Thank you for the ride,” he said. “I will try to improve my health by tomorrow.”

Michael rolled his eyes, opening his own door and climbing out. He made it around to the other side before Billy could even stand up.

Billy squinted up at him. “Valet service?” he asked.

Michael sighed, extending his hand. “I just don’t want you collapsing before you even get inside.”

Snorting, Billy pushed to his feet but didn’t object when Michael put a steadying hand on his arm. Moving stiffly, Billy stepped away from the door and met Michael’s eyes knowingly. “That would appear to speak poorly of my CIA training, I suppose.”

Michael lifted his chin. The falsities were comforting, even if they didn’t fool either of them.

Keeping a hand on Billy’s arm, Michael inclined his head toward the door. “So you think you can move, or am I going to have to carry you?”

Billy smirked, but didn’t argue as they made their way inside.

-o-

Inside, Michael watched as Billy deposited himself on the couch. He sank into it, his body going limp almost immediately as he breathed heavily from their short trek.

Michael hesitated, eyeing the place uncertainly. He had been in Billy’s place before, though he never made a point to be a frequent guest. It wasn’t that the ODS members weren’t friends in their off hours, but spies were inherently private people and none of them seemed overly eager to invite each other back into their personal spaces.

Besides, Billy’s housekeeping skills were less than stellar. In fact, as Michael stood there he had to wonder how Billy tolerated it at all. Laundry was strewn everywhere – steeped in corners and lying haphazardly over furniture. There was no way to tell what was clean or what was dirty, and there was no indication that the difference mattered to Billy at all.

The dirty dishes weren’t much better. Chip bags and candy wrappers were scattered at random. The kitchenette was hardly recognizable, with stacks of paper plates and wadded up napkins obscuring any possible cooking equipment that might lurk underneath. It wasn’t clear if Billy had cooked for himself any time in the last two years, something Michael might contend wasn’t helping Billy stay healthy.

All things considered, it wasn’t exactly a hospitable place, much less a home. If he let himself think about it, it might bother him that Billy lived this way – so alone and isolated – in a place half the size of Michael’s. It was no kind of life, really. And it certainly wasn’t a good place for rest and recovery.

In fact, Michael wasn’t sure he could trust Billy here at all. He somewhat doubted he’d find anything healthy in the fridge and though Billy had claimed to be controlling the fever with Tylenol, Michael was increasingly skeptical that Billy had any adequate supplies to get him through the worst of this.

More than that, if Billy got up in his exhausted condition, there was a high probability he’d break his neck tripping on something while walking to the bathroom to relieve himself.

Which meant that there was just one logical conclusion: he had to stay.

It could have been viewed as overly sentimental, but Michael was a practical man. Billy needed someone to at least make sure he got settled and taken care of, just for the afternoon. Michael could clean up a bit, make sure Billy was properly stocked, then leave the other man to fend for himself.

Mind made up, he walked around to the front of the couch, shaking his head. “No wonder you’re sick,” he said sarcastically. “This place should be condemned.”

He expected a witty reply, but the only sound was Billy’s labored breathing as it evened out. Billy, still seated on the couch, was already asleep, eyes closed and jaw slack even as his cheeks were starting to show signs of the fever.

Sighing, Michael sat down heavily in one of the armchairs. “Well,” he said, settling himself in. “At least this way I know you won’t argue with me for once.”

-o-

Billy slept. His breathing was somewhat easier in oblivion but it was still harsh and strained. He snuffled a little on the couch periodically, but he didn’t open his eyes.

Michael made himself useful. After making a quick run to the grocery store to supplement Billy’s pathetic supply of food and drink, he settled in to organize. The entire place was too much of a mess to really do a lot about, but he cleared a path to the bathroom and emptied off the couch as best he could.

He cleaned the bathroom for his own benefit – just being in there made him feel scurvy – and he spent some time going through the things on Billy’s counters just so he could put the fresh groceries away.

In the bedroom, he held his nose while he pushed the piles of junk off of Billy’s bed and he managed to find an extra pair of sheets that looked cleaner than the set already on the bed. It was monotonous work, but nothing Michael hadn’t been doing for himself for years. He didn’t mind housework overall – life was in the details and sometimes that meant getting his hands dirty with the trivial tasks of laundry and housekeeping.

It was a lesson that Michael had learned, especially after Fay.

It was also a lesson that Billy had apparently yet to master. Though the Scotsman was a jack of all trades in the field, he was clearly a novice at all things homebound.

But if Michael wanted Billy to get back on his feet, he needed to help clean up just a little bit. With all the filth, Billy was just as prone to succumb to a secondary infection and Michael had no desire to find a replacement for Billy any time soon.

All that took the better part of the afternoon, and he spent the rest of it on the phone with Casey, who was less than thrilled about being ditched and left alone with Rick. Still, Casey could cover for him with Higgins and, more importantly, he could continue to organize the case file on their latest mission.

Which, if Michael’s mother henning was even remotely successful, they might still all be able to go on.

When he was finished, Michael made himself comfortable on the chair and watched Billy anew. The Scottish operative was still asleep. Michael glanced at his watch and frowned. No wonder Billy had almost passed out at the office.

Even now, Billy didn’t exactly look rested. His features were a bit waxen with the sweat, the flush of a fever more evident than before. His arms were slack at his sides, head leaned back while he slept. It actually looked more than a little uncomfortable, and no matter how much Billy probably needed the rest, Michael didn’t think such a position would ultimately do Billy much good.

Besides, Billy hadn’t eaten lunch and, while he knew Billy enjoyed a hearty breakfast, somehow he doubted that this morning he’d indulged in anything more than the cup of coffee he’d sipped meagerly on the commute in.

Which meant it was time for Billy to eat. After that, he could get Billy settled someplace more comfortable after plying him with liquids and the full range of over the counter drugs Michael had bought.

Leaning forward, Michael sighed. He looked steadily at the Scot and called, “Billy.”

Billy twitched in his sleep but didn’t stir.

“Billy,” Michael called again, louder this time. “I know you’re enjoying your beauty sleep, but it’s time to wake up.”

At that, Billy’s head rolled, brow creasing. He seemed ready to settle back into sleep, but Michael shook his head.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m not here for my own edification, so you better wake up.”

The order in his voice was gentle but still noticeable. At least, it was enough to make Billy’s eyes flutter, his head turning toward Michael as he looked blearily around the room. “Michael,” he said, and his voice sounded worse than before, garbled with congestion. “Am I safe in assuming that this is real and not some strange nightmare that I do not wish to see progress?”

Michael’s face twisted at the notion. “I certainly hope not,” he said. “Trust me when I say the reality is bad enough.”

Billy seemed to process that, his eyes roaming around the room again, this time with more clarity. “You’ve cleaned,” he said, clearly surprised even though his voice was still weak.

Michael snorted. “Not that it did much good.”

Billy blinked a few times, as if to clear his head. “Funny,” he murmured. “I’d forgotten the carpet was green.”

It was hard to tell if it was a joke or an actual realization because Billy followed it up promptly by hacking harshly, the effort bending his body so he nearly fell off the couch. Michael sat primed, ready to move if that were the case, but Billy pulled himself together, curling up miserably on the couch before turning sleepy eyes back to Michael.

“As much as I’d love to play host for a bit, I think sleep might be more beneficial,” he said, his eyes already drooping.

Michael shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Sleep is important, yes, but if you don’t eat something, you’re not going to get better.”

Billy looked at him through heavy lids, appearing truly miserable even as he tried to smile. “I really can’t say I’m hungry.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Michael said, getting to his feet and moving toward the kitchen.

Billy tracked him with his eyes, head rolling a little to follow his progress. “I assure you, I’ll eat next time I wake up.”

How Billy actually managed to sound so sincere while breathing so heavily was beyond Michael, but he had learned years ago never to question the Scot’s prowess when it came to charming to get his way. Usually Michael condoned such behaviors – they proved invaluable in the field – but when they were tried on him it simply made him roll his eyes.

“Better yet,” Michael said, pulling out one of the soup cans he’d bought and rustling around for one of the pots he’d cleaned earlier. “You can eat now, then go back to sleep, and then eat again when you wake up, like a normal person.”

Billy looked at him quizzically. “Since when do we do normal?”

Michael grunted, popping the lid off the can with a shake of his head. “Since you succumbed to the common cold, just like any schmuck off the street.”

“All the more reason for me to fend for myself,” Billy countered, pausing briefly to sneeze. He wiped at his nose and swallowed with difficulty. “That is what normal people do.”

Dumping the contents of the can into the pot, Michael finagled the control on the stove to start the burner. “Yes, well, normal people also don’t have a mission overseas slated for next week,” he said. “It’s a four man job and while Blanke would volunteer to go, I’d really prefer you.”

“I do have decidedly better stories for stakeouts,” Billy agreed.

Turning around, Michael gave Billy a look. “But somewhat less savory personal hygiene habits.”

“I’ve never had any complaints,” Billy mumbled a bit, looking around at his offended apartment forlornly.

“That’s because you never invite anyone in.”

Billy sneezed again, following it up with a round of coughing. When he was done, he squinted over at Michael with a grimace on his face. “You may have a point there,” he said as he propped himself back up. “But really, Michael, I’m fine.”

Michael laughed outright. “Have you seen yourself today?”

Billy gave him a sheepish look. “I haven’t much had the energy.”

“Because you look like death warmed over,” Michael said with finality. “So I’m staying until you are properly cared for and I can trust you not to drown in your own fluids or starve to death on that couch.”

Normally, Billy would probably try to fight it even further. Michael was known as the stubborn one of the group, but Billy could be just as staunch in his efforts to get his way, even if he was usually more subtle and diplomatic about it.

But today it was clear Billy simply didn’t have the energy.

Instead, he sighed. “Right, then,” he said, letting his head drop back against the couch. “I suppose it won’t kill me to sit back and witness Michael Dorset, the happy homemaker.”

Michael snorted at that. “If living in this mess hasn’t killed you,” he said with more than a hint of sarcasm, “then I’m pretty sure nothing will.”

-o-

Billy stayed awake long enough to eat and Michael was pleased that the small amount of food he managed to stomach seemed to do him some good. After dinner, he cleaned himself up a bit, changing into a pair of sweats before moving tiredly toward the bedroom.

Michael watched him carefully from his seat at what appeared to be Billy’s dining set. Billy was still pale with a flush of red in his cheeks, but being upright made him somewhat chipper again, even if his sunny attempts at conversations were interrupted by occasional bouts of vicious coughing and sneezing.

Still, Michael was hoping that it was a corner being turned.

Lingering in the doorway, Billy looked back. “Well, as much fun as it’s been, I think I’m about ready for more sleep,” he said. Then he inclined his head. “If that meets with your approval of course.”

“Did you take your medicine?”

Billy nodded. “Right down the gullet, as instructed.”

“Good,” Michael said, nodding his approval. “Then sleep is definitely in order.”

Billy seemed relieved. “Wonderful,” he said. “I would say I’d see you in the morning, but—”

“But you have sick days for a reason,” Michael reminded him. “I need you 100 percent next week. No questions asked.”

Again, Billy nodded seriously. “100 percent,” he agreed. “I will do my best not to let you down.”

Michael grinned a little, because Billy’s buoyancy, even while sounding like he was talking through sandpaper, was downright infectious.

At least, Michael hoped that was the only thing that was infectious.

“So I trust you can see yourself out?” Billy asked.

Michael lifted his eyebrows. “Are you sure you’ll be okay here alone?”

Billy gave him a look. “I’m a grown man,” he began. “I can—”

His defense was cut short, lost in a garbled cough that nearly had him keeling over at the waist. Michael was about to go help him when the Scot finally got it under control, standing back up warily with red, wet eyes.

Michael quirked his lips into a sardonic smile. “You were saying.”

Billy smiled meagerly. “The couch is quite comfortable.”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Get some rest,” he said.

Billy nodded vaguely, moving his way cautiously into the bedroom. “The same to you,” he called back.

As Billy disappeared inside, Michael sighed, eyeing the small room again. Shaking his head, he listened to Billy falling heavily on the bed, waiting only a few seconds before the labor breathing became snores.

Settling back in his chair for a long night ahead, somehow Michael doubted whether he’d get much rest at all.

-o-

Michael watched TV for a bit. What Billy’s place lacked in charm and other amenities, it seemed to make up for with ample television choices. While it did provide satisfactory entertainment for the evening, Michael had to admit that it made him feel a little sad thinking of how this actually could be Billy’s life.

He probably should have planned ahead and brought his laptop, but he managed to check a few emails on his phone. His own evenings weren’t exactly exciting times, but usually they were more productive. He always took his work home with him – which was easier now that Fay wasn’t there to complain about it – kand when he wasn’t organizing a current case he was pulling intel from internet and email sources to make something new.

The best spies seemed to live the dreariest lives. It ran counter to the common misconceptions and over-glorifications of the job. Yes, there was exotic travel and unique locales, but mostly when a spy was off duty they had a crappy home to go home to, and usually very few people to share off hours with. There had been a time when Michael had believed that his fate might prove otherwise, but Fay’s unceremonious divorcing of him had been a harsh reminder to the contrary.

That could be depressing, or it could be a source of strength. Off hours didn’t have to be off hours, and he knew that Casey spent his training harder and priming his senses. Even Billy, who had all the appearances of a slob, spent ample time in his off hours going over his cases and working his assets to get the job done. Rick hadn’t figured that out yet – at least, he hadn’t been forced to. And maybe he would be lucky and would never have to.

Sighing, Michael looked around Billy’s place and knew that luck for spies was usually reserved for the field. In real life, they had to take the punches just like everyone else.

Still, sometime after the nightly news, Michael drifted off to sleep, propped up in one of the easy chairs with his stocking feet on the coffee table. When he woke, his watch read 2:33.

Sitting up, Michael grimaced as his neck protested. He was too old to sleep in chairs; it was remarkable that Billy could tolerate it at all. More than that, he had a funny taste in his mouth from failing to brush his teeth and his bladder was uncomfortably full from the beer he nabbed from Billy’s fridge. The Scot hadn’t had anything resembling milk or juice, but there had been alcohol aplenty to choose from.

With a sigh, he forced himself up, ignoring the popping of his knees as he made his way toward the bathroom. The harsh glow of fluorescent lights brought him more to his senses, and when he was done relieving himself and washing up, he made his way back out to the main room.

It still wasn’t a very encouraging sight. And not just for the livelihood of Billy’s off hours. Michael wasn’t sure how much rest he was going to get. The couch might have been comfortable, but it was also covered with Billy’s germs and, as a paranoid bastard, Michael knew that just being in this cesspool was enough of a risk.

Which left the armchair again.

The thought of it made his neck hurt and he sighed again. Billy owed him. A lot.

Speaking of Billy, he hadn’t heard a twitch from the man since he’d gone to bed hours ago. Glancing again at his watch, it was well past time for another dose of medicine for Billy. Yes, Michael could let him sleep it off, but only if the fever was still in check.

Which meant he would have to check on Billy.

It wasn’t at the top of his list of exciting things to do, but spies often had to do unsavory things. And more than that, Billy was his friend. If Billy was too ill to take care of himself, then it was in Michael’s best interest to make sure it still got done somehow.

Curious, he edged closer to Billy’s room. The door was still partially open, unmoved from when Billy had entered there after their dinner. Pushing it open, he stepped inside slightly, straining to see in the darkness.

At first, he couldn’t make out much in the dark. But he could definitely hear something.

The rough, grating sound was punctuated with an occasional whistle. Michael frowned, wondering if Billy’s HVAC system was acting up.

But it was different from that. It was labored and inconsistent but still somehow rhythmic. Like breathing. Breathing under duress, but still breathing.

Then Michael realized it was breathing.

With that knowledge, Michael’s eyes finally focused in the dimness. He could just make out Billy’s form on the bed, turned face up as the Scot’s chest rose and fell in dramatic turns.

At first, it didn’t make sense. Michael had pieces of the puzzle but he couldn’t figure out how they went together. The sound seemed disconnected from the image, because if Michael put them together, then it wasn’t a good picture.

In fact, it was a pretty damn scary picture. Because anyone breathing like that was in trouble. A lot of trouble. Michael knew because he’d seen it before. He’d heard that kind of breathing out of people before they died. He’d heard it as life faded and death set in. He recognized it as death throes. He knew.

And for a second, Michael forgot who he was. He forgot that he was a spy, that he was trained, that he was prepared. All he could think was that his teammate, his friend was lying on that bed, struggling to breathe. All he could feel was fear that each labored breath might be the last.

But Michael was a spy. He was trained and he was prepared. The fact that Billy was his teammate, his friend – only made those facts more important.

More important than ever, because this wasn’t an asset or a mark. This wasn’t a bad guy or a fellow spy. This was Billy, and Michael had to do something to fix it.

Flicking on the light, Michael moved forward, scaling the distance to Billy’s bed in two short steps. Billy didn’t seem to notice the sudden flood of light, and as Michael approached, it was clear why. Billy was covered partially with a sheet, and his cheeks were flushed bright red, sweat breaking out on his forehead and over his lips. His shirt was visibly damp, his hair stuck to his head in awkward clumps. His entire body was tense, bucking slightly with each breath. The strained sounds sounded worse close up – desperate and dwindling – and Billy’s open lips were shaded slightly blue.

A hand to Billy’s head confirmed what Michael already knew: Billy’s fever was getting worse. Much worse. Probably pushing 104 or more, if Michael had to guess. Frowning, Michael put his ear to Billy’s chest, listening carefully as Billy’s congested lungs struggled to keep working as his heart pounded ferociously to compensate for the extra effort.

Sitting back up, Michael felt numb. This was more than a quick fix of Tylenol and vitamin C. At this rate, Billy would be lucky to make the night.

It didn’t seem possible. It had started as a sneeze, something totally innocuous. And now, here they were not even two days later, with Billy slowly suffocating in his own bed.

Unless Michael did something about it.

And Michael had to do something about it. Because Michael was a spy and Billy was his friend. In the field, Michael would hatch a plan, negotiate for what he needed. He would break laws and smuggle in medication and doctors. He’d use aliases and break covers and do what he needed to do.

Here, though, at home, there was nothing to do. Nothing but accept the inevitable loss of control and call 9-1-1.

It felt like failure and hope all at once when he pulled a phone out of his pocket, dialing the numbers with one hand, keeping the other hand steady on Billy’s shoulder as the call went through.

“Just hold on,” Michael said to Billy quietly, squeezing slightly. “I’ll take care of this if you just hold on.”

Michael’s only response was a grating breath before the 9-1-1 operator answered.

NEXT