?

Log in

No account? Create an account
do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: The Illusion of Control 2/2

August 31st, 2012 (07:32 am)
cranky

feeling: cranky

Notes and whatnot in part one.


-o-

If calling 9-1-1 was Michael’s loss of control, waiting for help to arrive was nothing short of torture. And that wasn’t an allusion Michael made lightly. He’d been tortured before in a whole host of ways. Physical impairment and psychological trauma – and sitting idly next to Billy’s bed while he waited for help to arrive ranked right up there with the worst experiences of his life. Because torture wasn’t so much about the devices being used for the purposes of infliction. It was about a loss of control, about being deprived of self determination until it threatens to break the very soul.

In all other instances of torture, Michael had never been tempted to give in.

Tonight, on the other hand – it was all Michael could do to hold on.

He rolled Billy on his side, trying to position Billy’s head to open the airway as best he could. If the harsh breathing eased it was only slightly, and Michael was left with no other recourse than to wipe away the sweat dripping into Billy’s eyes and watch as the other man trembled slightly.

It still didn’t make sense. A cold didn’t progress this quickly. Even the flu wasn’t prone to developing from a simple runny nose into full-fledged breathing impairment on this time scale. Because Billy wasn’t just sick – he was practically drowning in his own fluids, and Michael tried to think of all the ways that could have happened.

Of course, it might not be illness. Sitting there, keeping a hand on Billy’s head, Michael knew such a dramatic drop off in health could be directly related to their job. Mentally, Michael went over the options. An unknown illness, maybe some kind of parasite, picked up from some of their travels. It was also possible that it was a foreign contaminate, something he’d been exposed to while in the field.

Or poison for that matter. Maybe delivered overseas, maybe right here in the United States.

It was impossible to say – not without some research. He’d have to check their travel logs, go over what contacts Billy had had there and in the States. He’d have to check mail and deliveries, see if anyone out of the normal had had contact with Billy. They all had enemies – so that was possible – though Michael wasn’t aware of any recent threats directly against Billy’s life that could be playing out this way.

There were almost more options than Michael wanted to admit, but it was still something to consider. Something to pursue. They would figure this out.

Michael kept his eyes trained on Billy, whose ashen face was looking worse by the second.

They had to.

-o-

It happened quickly after that. The paramedics were efficient, and Michael made himself useful enough to secure a ride with them to the hospital. From there, he told the doctors what he knew while Billy was rolled into the bright examination room and promptly stripped. As the nurses set up monitors and checked his IVs, Michael was politely but firmly shown to the waiting room.

Michael wanted to protest, but he couldn’t. He had no leverage here. He didn’t even have a cover. He was just Michael Dorset, and Billy Collins was his friend. Michael would have to wait, just like everyone else.

Sitting slumped in the waiting room, Michael went over it again. He went over the sneeze and the cough, the sleepiness and the lack of appetite. He thought about Billy’s weary face and the labored sounds of his breathing.

Michael was missing something in all of this – missing something big.

What, he wasn’t sure, but he was sure that he would figure it out.

For Billy’s sake – for his own – he would figure it out.

-o-

It was the middle of the night, but Michael called Casey anyway. The other operative didn’t particularly sound surprised to hear from him, but when Michael said it was about Billy, his tone changed.

“You mean, he’s actually sick?” Casey asked, and his voice was tinged with an annoyance. Michael knew Casey well enough to know the uncomfortable fear it was hiding.

“Pretty bad,” Michael confirmed. “I’m still waiting to hear what the doctors say.”

Casey grunted. “Which is why you’re calling me,” he presumed.

“Something about this doesn’t feel right,” Michael said. “It came on too quickly.”

“So you’re thinking there’s something besides the common cold behind this,” Casey said knowingly.

“I want you to pull our recent case files, go over anything that may indicate an outside contaminate,” Michael instructed. “If that doesn’t flag anything, turn your eyes to Billy’s contacts within the last week, see if there was anything out of the normal.”

“I’ll tap Rick on this, too,” Casey said. “But it would help to know what kind of illness or toxin we’re dealing with.”

“I’ll call when I hear something new,” Michael promised.

Then, Casey hesitated. “How bad was he?”

The question was quiet, more vulnerable than the rest. Michael sighed, rubbing his hand over his forehead. “Not great,” he admitted, remembering the sound of Billy’s breathing, the colorless hue of the Scot’s face.

There was another small moment of silence before Casey seemed to pull himself together. “Well, Billy does like to make things extra dramatic for us,” he said with a levity that was entirely forced.

At that, Michael laughs. “Yeah,” he said. “He does.”

“And he always pulls through,” Casey added. “Sometimes at the last minute, but he always pulls through.”

Without any other formalities, Casey hung up. Michael closed his eyes, phone still pressed to his ear. “I hope so,” he whispered into the disconnected call. “I really hope so.”

-o-

In the waiting room, Michael looked idle, but he kept his mind going. He had mentally recounted the last few weeks for his own anxiety, so when the doctor came out, he was actually surprised.

And not just because he had been so lost in thought, but because it had only been a few hours. He had expected an update, maybe, but any kind of diagnosis would probably take longer. The doctors would have to rule out the traditional illnesses and normal factors before coming to alternative conclusions.

Still, when the man asked him to come aside, Michael was more than ready to comply. The man was about his age, maybe a little younger, and he offered Michael a tired smile. “Well, for now Mr. Collins has been stabilized,” he explained after the introductions were done. “We’ve transferred him up to a room for further treatment and monitoring.”

Michael nodded patiently. “Have you figured out what’s wrong with him?”

The man collected a breath. “We still have some lab work we’re waiting on, but the chest x-ray was pretty clear,” he said. “Mr. Collins is suffering from the onset of pneumonia.”

Michael stared, trying to process this. The words were simple – and Michael had been pre-med, so he knew better than most what they meant – but it still didn’t come close to making sense. Because pneumonia was a naturally occurring illness. It wasn’t contrived by terrorists and transmitted by way of revenge. It wasn’t contracted in obscure destinations and it certainly wasn’t something they could uncover in any covert research.

It was just pneumonia. Not quite a run of the mill illness, but one that commonly afflicted people all around the world.

It was normal.

Completely normal.

Michael was still having trouble coping with that when the doctor continued. “It looks like he’s been fending off the effects of a cold for weeks now,” he said. “It’s pretty common, especially in people that are normally healthy. They can downplay the effects of the cold, but without treatment, sometimes the infection just gets worse and develops into a much more severe case.”

Which meant that it hadn’t started with a sneeze. Michael wasn’t sure when it had started, but it had been long before that. Days, maybe weeks.

Michael tried to deal with that, tried to understand it. He reconsidered the missions, all the hours of airtime they’d log. He thought about Billy being tired, propping himself with extra coffee and a few clever quips. It hadn’t seemed that unusual...

Michael hadn’t thought.

Therein was the problem. Michael hadn’t thought, and he should have.

The doctor was nodding. “We’ve got him on an aggressive round of antibiotics, which he seems to be responding to at the moment,” he continued. “Time will tell, of course. He seems to be young and in overall good health, which are points in his favor, but I do wish we’d seen him before he got to this point.”

The doctor’s smile was apologetic, and Michael forced himself to swallow hard.

“I can have a nurse show you up to the room,” he offered.

And Michael nodded absently, even if he’d really stopped listening. Because the diagnosis was simple, but the realization it brought was cold and stark.

Billy had been fighting off illness for weeks, and Michael hadn’t noticed until two days ago.

It was a hard fact to swallow – not just that Billy let it go on so long, because they were spies and while they weren’t so stupid to think themselves invincible they were still proud enough to think they could handle a cold – that Michael hadn’t seen it coming. All his planning and all his plotting, all his keen observations and critical calculations – and Michael hadn’t seen this coming.

In all of Michael’s failures – and he’d seen many in his career – none of them had hurt quite like this.

-o-

In Billy’s room, Michael felt out of place. He had sat with Billy at his apartment, and he had done bedside vigils more often than he cared to remember, but somehow, this one was different.

Billy seemed to know it, too. He roused slightly when Michael came in, smiling up at him wearily as Michael approached the bed.

“I certainly managed to muddle things up this time, didn’t I?” he quipped softly.

Michael forced a smile, but it felt hollow. Because this was more than a muddle. While Billy’s breathing seemed to be marginally improved thanks to the nasal cannula, his face was still pale, the fever still burning clearly in his cheeks and eyes. The IVs and monitors were there to help Billy, and Michael understood that, but it was still unsettling to think that Billy needed that kind of assistance.

It made Billy seem weak, vulnerable. And if someone in his team was vulnerable, Michael was more so.

“You should have told us sooner you didn’t feel well,” Michael chastised lightly.

Billy shrugged a little, his eyelids still at half mast. “In my defense, after handling international criminals and terrorists, I thought I could tackle the effects of a lingering cold.”

There was truth to that, which was why Michael’s criticism didn’t have any bite to begin with. “You don’t have to hide things from us,” he told Billy gently, holding the other man’s gaze. “We’re there for each other, in the field and out.”

Billy nodded, swallowing with decided effort. “I know, I—”

His voice cut off, strangled by a round of coughing that didn’t seem ready to stop. Michael moved closer, a supporting hand on Billy’s shoulder, until it passed.

Michael eased Billy back, and the Scot looked up at him, his face red and spent.

“We can talk about it later,” Michael said. “When you’re feeling a little better.”

Billy nodded in weary agreement, his eyes already fluttering closed as he gave back in to sleep. It wasn’t much of an escape, Michael knew, because even if the tremors had subsided somewhat since his admission to the hospital, Billy’s labored breathing persisted even in sleep. But it was all Billy would get, and Michael would not begrudge him that.

Sitting down next to the bed, Michael tried to settle in with the cold knowledge that he wouldn’t even have that much of an escape, not until all of this was over.

-o-

When Casey showed up with Rick in the morning, Michael had fallen asleep. He eased his way out of Billy’s room to avoid waking him before turning to his other two teammates.

Casey was managing to control his worry, but it was evident on Rick’s face. “How is he?”

Michael rubbed a hand over his face, trying to shake the lingering effects of his nap. “Stable but serious,” he reported.

“Any word on what’s causing it?” Casey asked next.

Michael’s stomach twisted. Although falling asleep was a convenient excuse for not calling, Michael couldn’t deny that he had just wanted to avoid this conversation all together. While he had to accept his own shortcomings in gauging Billy’s well being, it was not so easy to admit that, not even to people he trusted like Casey and Rick.

Rick’s face went white. “Just how bad is it? A toxin?”

Michael just shook his head. “Pneumonia.”

Both Casey and Rick stared at him. “That’s a common secondary condition,” Casey said slowly, as if trying to build a new case. “Brought on by—”

“A cold,” Michael supplied for him. “The doctor said that Billy has probably been fighting the symptoms for weeks and it finally caught up with him. With all the traveling we’ve done, it’s more than somewhat plausible.”

Rick frowned, shaking his head. “But we would have seen it coming.”

“We didn’t,” Michael said simply.

Casey grimaced. “Despite appearances, Billy can be a very effective covert operative when he puts his mind to it,” he said.

“But how do you hide pneumonia?” Rick asked.

Casey looked at him, plaintively. “After six years, I still only have a working knowledge of what happened to Billy before he got deported,” he said. “Billy’s prowess at subterfuge only escalates the more personal it is.”

“We still should have seen something,” Rick continued to protest.

They were both right, which was the main problem. Billy was good at hiding things, which was why Michael should have not taken everything for granted. As team leader, it was his responsibility to know, even when his teammates were less than willing to expose themselves. He had to know because ignorance could cost them everything.

It could cost them Billy.

He shook his head. “And we still didn’t,” Michael said flatly. “We can’t change that now. We can only resolve to be better in the future and provide Billy the support he needs now. Is that understood?”

Michael hadn’t intended it to be an order, but Rick and Casey received the instruction with all due severity.

Sighing, Michael looked over his shoulder. “He’s resting now,” he continued before looking back at the rest of his team. “And it’ll take a little creative finagling with Higgins—”

“But we’ll be here for him,” Casey interjected, his bland voice brokering no room for argument.

Rick nodded resolutely. “As long as it takes.”

Their attitude was encouraging. Billy would need that as his body fought of the infection.

Michael just didn’t want to admit how much he needed it, too.

-o-

Spies were good at spinning lies, at creating deceptions so thorough that no one usually dared to question them. They lied to everyone – from friends and relatives to terrorists and criminals.

Over the years, Michael had gotten used to it, even found some comfort in it. Creating a false identity was often easier than having to deal with his own when in public situations.

But no amount of time had made it easier to lie to himself. The harsh truth was something Michael couldn’t run from, no matter what cheap cliches he traded with Casey and Rick, no matter what constant encouragement he joked about with Billy.

The simple fact was that Billy wasn’t getting better. Michael could see the hints of it now, clearly laid out as if he should have seen them all along. Though the Scot spent most of his time sleeping, his waking periods were punctuated with gentle rounds of banter. But the familiar repartee was couched in reservation because Billy was trying to avoid exacerbating his congested lungs. When the whooping coughs couldn’t be contained, he finished them with a meager smile and a simple drink of water.

The fever was holding steady, as well. Michael watched carefully as the doctors continued their rounds of antibiotics, but Billy’s fever refused to fall. The slow burn was moderately controlled, Michael knew, but the subtle taxing on Billy’s body was noticeable when Michael watched for the signs. The way he didn’t move in bed, even when talking. The way he slept just a few minutes longer each time.

And his breathing wasn’t getting better. The thick congestion was easily heard and though Billy seemed to suppress it when he was awake, the drowning push and pull was hard to ignore when he was sleeping.

The doctors said that Billy was fighting, that he was holding his own. That he wasn’t getting worse.

It was a truth perhaps, but the flip side was just as salient: Billy wasn’t getting better.

Medication and companionship and positive encouragement, and Billy wasn’t getting better.

It was a helplessness Michael didn’t know how to deal with, one that he barely could bring himself to acknowledge. They were too good to let this happen. Billy had battled too many things and too many people to go down like this. 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.

Except that wasn’t true. Michael pretended like it was, but it wasn’t. Billy was mortal – his body fragile and breakable. Michael was human – prone to missing the things right in front of his face.

Michael could see it now. Could see it in Billy’s haggard face in the bed, could hear it in the steady beeping of his heart monitor.

After two days, Michael lost track of how much time he’d spent there. Casey and Rick took their turns, but Michael couldn’t leave. Not until this was over.

“You look horrible, you know,” Billy said.

Startled, Michael broke from his reverie, focusing on the Scot. “What?”

Billy nodded, lifting his chin just slightly. “You look horrible.”

Michael scoffed. “Clearly you haven’t seen a mirror lately.”

Billy managed a small smile as he sucked in a strained gulp of air. “Common deflection tool,” he replied. “A truth for another truth. Still doesn’t change the fact.”

Michael lifted his eyebrows. “Spoken by someone who knows.”

“Self-flagellation is something I understand,” Billy continued with a slow nod. His fever bright eyes stayed resolved on Michael. “But sometimes there’s only so much you can question.”

It wasn’t surprising that Billy could see it in him, no more than it was surprising that this was a topic Billy knew a lot about. Billy’s past was something he didn’t talk about freely, something he avoided and downplayed as best he could. But it still defined Billy, more than anything, and it was his own failures – both perceived and real – that made him adopt the persona he did.

Still, it was stark advice at a time like this. Its comfort was lost because Michael understood that the timing was wrong. Billy was comforting him for something he had no say in. Billy didn’t talk like that unless things were dire.

Michael felt his stomach churn and he leaned forward. “Sometimes the questions are important,” he told Billy. “Sometimes they keep us fighting.”

Billy’s smile was barely there, his breathing reaching a new pitch. Still, he kept his eyes open, refusing to break eye contact with Michael. “Sometimes—” he began, but his breathing hitched again. His back arched as he worked harder for air. “Sometimes—”

This time his voice was cut off with a strangled mess and Billy’s whole body began to tremble in earnest with the exertion. Michael was on his feet, next to Billy, trying to figure out something, anything—

And then Billy’s eyes rolled back—

And the monitor wailed.

Michael looked up, shocked. He knew what that meant – he knew—

Suddenly there was a nurse, and then another. Their voices were urgent, controlled. Pushing Michael back, they dropped Billy’s bed flat.

A doctor came in, and another. The sheet on Billy’s bed was stripped away, his gown cut open. One doctor pressed on Billy’s chest while the other threaded a tube down his throat.

The action stilled and paddles were applied.

Billy arched off the table, then went limp again.

Michael stared, tried to understand, tried to—

The paddles were applied again, but this time when Billy’s body jerked on the gurney, the beeping started again.

The doctors pulled back, continuing their work as a nurse squeezed air into Billy’s lungs.

Michael just stood there, just stood watching, listening for each beep, watching for each movement of Billy’s chest until he could convince himself that Billy was still alive.

-o-

In the hallway, Michael could barely think.

The doctor was explaining the situation, telling him that Billy was alive – for now. “The strain on his body is getting to be too much,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can.”

Michael had no reason to doubt him. But a doctor was limited. No amount of knowledge or skill or equipment could control every outcome. Nothing could save every patient.

This doctor had surely made his peace with that. After years in health services, that much was a given.

But after years in the CIA, such acceptance was something Michael had never allowed for himself.

He hated to think it might be forced on him now.

-o-

When Casey and Rick showed up a short time later, Michael could hardly find his voice. Billy had been transferred to the ICU for more critical care and for Michael it was one failure too many. Casey and Rick had questions and concern, but all Michael could feel was the weight of blame resting heavily on his shoulders.

He had to leave.

He couldn’t stay, sitting idly by Billy’s bedside, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. He wasn’t doing any good here. There was nothing he could do; he was useless.

With Billy now sedated, he couldn’t even offer a friendly smile or a round of encouragement.

It wasn’t in Michael’s nature to quit. But it also wasn’t in his nature to be so helpless.

Excusing himself, he got in his car, which Casey had dropped off for him a few days earlier. He got in and held the wheel tight. He started the engine, pulled out of the hospital’s lot and just kept going.

When he ended up at Fay’s, he was surprised. While he had made a point to keep an eye on her – no matter what she thought, she was vulnerable living alone – he had not exactly been a welcomed guest of hers. But really, it wasn’t as much of a surprise as he probably let it be. Michael’s circle of friends didn’t expand beyond the people he trusted with his life back at the Agency, and family was a difficult to broach subject for someone who spent most of his life obtaining and perpetuating lies and aliases. Fay had been his one shot at normal, his one chance at being real.

He’d blown it with her – all the reasons were things he couldn’t even count anymore – but she was still that perfect connection he wished he had. It was love and it was need, and she could divorce him and take him for everything he had, and he would always be drawn back because she was the only one who had seen through him and loved him anyway.

At least, for a while. She had made it perfectly clear that she had no interest in a relationship, and Michael had never been able to talk her into anything she didn’t want to give in to anyway.

She would be mad to see him here. She might even make a scene, something that she couldn’t do at work but Michael knew from experience she was quite skilled at. It wasn’t like he had any right to her. She’d loved him and he hadn’t known how to show it back. For his absences, for his priorities, for his paranoia, he should have seen it coming, but the divorce papers had been the biggest shock of his life.

Funny, how that seemed to be the painfully new and recurring theme of his life.

Still, parked outside, it was increasingly clear to him that he didn’t have much left to lose. His pride was something he was pretty sure he’d forsake, and what he had left of his team and leadership skills was languishing back that the hospital, where he’d fled it all like a coward.

And really, that was what he needed to get out of the car. Not his strength or his pride, but his humility and desperation.

When Fay answered the door, her surprise turned quickly to annoyance. “Do we need to redefine the parameters of divorce?” she said coolly.

Michael didn’t budge. He had no comeback, no witty reply. It was harder than he’d thought it’d be to stand there, to stand anywhere. Billy could be dying and Michael was a coward and there was nothing he could do.

Fay’s expression faltered somewhat, though she clearly was trying not to let it show. “Is something wrong or are you just going to stand there?”

Collecting a breath, Michael tried to smile, tried to find his voice. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

At that, Fay frowned. “Michael—”

“I know I shouldn’t bother you, but...” His voice trailed off. He didn’t have anywhere else to go. He didn’t have anyone else to talk to.

She sighed, a little wary, but stepped back, opening the door farther. She offered no other invitation, but she didn’t need to. After all this time, they still understood each other, even when they didn’t want to admit it.

Michael followed her inside, almost relieved for once not to lead.

-o-

She poured him a glass of wine and settled on the armchair. Once inside, Michael had sat heavily on her couch and hadn’t figured out how to move. The conversation was sparse, but his monosyllabic answers were still enough for her to understand.

“I didn’t realize it was that bad,” she said, curling up a bit in her seat. She was in her pajamas, a pair Michael didn’t recognize, and he tried not to add that to the tally of things he’d neglected to notice.

He nodded stiffly. “That antibiotics aren’t doing enough,” he said, remembering the banal sympathy in the doctor’s eyes as he’d explained it. To him, Billy was just another patient. To Michael, it was so much more.

Fay nodded, her concern evident. The divorce still left her bitter about some things, but Michael had always loved her for her smart compassion. “He’s getting the best care he could,” she told him.

“He would be better off if we’d caught it early,” Michael replied, shaking his head. The glass in his hand was still mostly full, and he couldn’t even look at Fay.

Fay swallowed a sip and smiled lightly. “Yes, well, over the years I’ve come to know that members of the ODS to purposefully ignore personal safety at all costs,” she said. “Billy’s no different from the rest of you.”

“I know,” Michael said, because that wasn’t the sticking point. “But I should have seen it, even if he didn’t want me to.”

Scoffing, she shook her head. “You’re not a superhero, Michael,” she told him simply. “Even if you think you are.”

“But I’m in charge,” Michael said, his eyes turning to Fay with determination now. “It’s my job to know. It’s my job to watch out for them.”

At that, she snorted a small laugh of incredulity. “Only you would think it’s your responsibility to prevent someone else from getting pneumonia,” she said.

“Their safety is my job,” Michael insisted.

“And Billy’s a grown man, fully capable of making his own decisions,” she said back with equal force. “More than that, he’s a spy. After six years on your team, you don’t think he’s learned a thing or two about deception? He didn’t want you to know.”

Michael’s brow furrowed. “So it’s his fault?”

She sighed, rolling her eyes. “It’s no one fault. It’s pneumonia. It happens,” she explained. She paused shaking her head. “You can’t control everything, Michael. I’ve told you that before, but you haven’t listened to me yet. Maybe it’s about time you started to.”

She made sense. Fay always made sense. That was why he’d accepted her divorce papers and all the terms she put on them. Because she’d been right about the majority of their marriage, and Michael had taken comfort in knowing that he could at least see that much even if he couldn’t talk her out of it.

And part of him knew she was right now. He didn’t want to admit it – it almost hurt to think about it – but it wasn’t his fault. Casey and Rick didn’t blame him, and Billy would never even think it.

But admitting that he wasn’t at fault meant admitting he couldn’t change the outcome. It meant accepting that Billy’s fate wasn’t up to him, that Billy could live or die and all Michael could do was sit back and watch.

It was as freeing as it was condemning.

Fay settled back deeper into her chair with a small toss of her hair. “I don’t know why you’re so worried anyway,” she said, looking at him knowingly. “Billy’s just as stubborn as you are, so that has to be working in his favor.”

And even though it hurt, Michael laughed, ducking his head and hoping it was true.

-o-

Michael went back to the hospital. It was probably inevitable – Michael wasn’t a quitter – but he still had to swallow hard against the uncertainty in his throat as he approached.

He could face danger as a team leader. He could enter peril as a national hero.

But as nothing more than a friend, a mere human – his courage faltered.

Faltered, but didn’t break. Because he couldn’t give in to that. Not now. Not when his team needed him most – not when Billy needed him most. Not to be the team leader, not to be the hero.

To be the friend.

He couldn’t control the outcome, but he still had to face it, no matter what.

-o-

Rick looked positively relieved to see him. He and Casey had taken turns in Michael’s absence. Only a few hours had passed, but the abrupt departure had clearly bothered the younger operative.

Michael smiled at him, a hand on his shoulder. “You need to relax,” he said. “Get something to eat. You look like you haven’t taken care of yourself very well.”

Rick frowned. “I was researching leads, and then when I found out he’d taken a turn for the worse—”

Michael nodded. “You forgot,” he said. “It’s perfectly natural. And I respect the concern you have for your teammate, but we all need to be at peak capacity.”

Rick’s expression was pinched and grim.

Michael smiled. “I already have one agent down,” he reminded Rick. “Let’s not make it two. Especially since Billy would bemoan the lost opportunity to mother hen you properly. Once he’s recovered, you can have your turn, I promise.”

It was forced humor, but Rick still laughed. Finally, he breathed deeply and nodded. “Okay,” he said. “The cafeteria couldn’t hurt. Casey’s—”

Michael inclined his head. “I’ll take care of Casey,” he promised.

Rick nodded again, hesitating only once before walking away. He watched Rick go, watched him disappear into the halls. He gathered another breath of his own and muttered, “I’ll do whatever I can to take care of all of you.”

-o-

Rick was easy to convince; Casey proved himself more cantankerous. The seasoned operative liked to project a gruff exterior, but situations of peril amongst his teammates struck at Casey deeper than anyone might expect. Michael had seen the fear in Casey’s eyes before – a look of helpless panic, barely held at bay – and when he entered Billy’s ICU room, he saw it again.

Casey shifted in his seat, trying to regard Michael with cool indifference. From the doorway, Michael narrowed his eyes and jerked his head back in silent command.

For a moment, Casey scowled, shaking his head.

Michael repeated his motion, more insistently this time.

Casey sighed audibly before getting up. He cast one look at Billy before following Michael into the hall.

When the door was safely shut behind them, Michael nodded. “Why don’t you go take a break?” he suggested.

Casey snorted. “You mean like your little unexpected departure not too long ago?”

Michael couldn’t deny it. Casey had been on his team long enough that they could read each other flawlessly. Usually that worked in their favor.

Sometimes, however, it made things uncomfortable. Michael lifted his chin. “I had some personal business to attend to.”

“Personal business that was more important than Billy’s well being?” Casey asked dubiously.

Michael worked not to flinch, but the accusation had merit. Casey wouldn’t resent giving Michael some space most of the time, but with one of their own in such a state Michael’s departure was nearly unforgivable for someone like Casey. Casey believed in persistence and dedication, no matter what obstacle; bailing out when things got tough, leaving without a plan – they were unthinkables.

So Casey was right to doubt him.

But Michael was right to stand firm. “My men always come first,” he said, meeting Casey’s critical glare with defiance.

“So you left because?” Casey prompted.

“Because I needed to,” Michael replied. “I’m not proud of it, but I’m back now. I’m back and I’m not leaving.”

Casey remained skeptical. “That’s a nice sentiment—”

Michael didn’t waver. “I’m here now,” he said, firmly now because he believed it himself. “For better or for worse, I’m here and will be until we all leave this hospital.”

Casey watched him carefully, his caution still evident. “That’s good,” he said finally with a slow appraising nod.

“Good,” Michael returned. “So now maybe you’d like to go make sure Rick’s doing okay. I sent him to the cafeteria, but he seemed pretty shaky.”

“It’s new territory for him,” Casey said.

“New territory for all of us,” Michael added.

Casey tilted his head in tacit agreement. He looked ready to move but then he hesitated. This time, when he looked at Michael, the anger and accusation were gone. There was only hollow uncertainty. “If anything happens—”

Michael nodded back. “I’ll call you, right away,” he promised.

It wasn’t much of a promise, but it was the one Casey needed. He nodded one last time before moving down the hallway.

Michael watched him go and then sighed, looking back at Billy’s room. Two down, one to go. And this would be the hardest of them all.

-o-

Back inside Billy’s room, Michael took a breath and looked at Billy. In truth, he didn’t look all that different. His face was still whitewashed and drawn, the fever in his cheeks burning bright. This time, however, the ventilator is taped in place, the strips pressed down over his upper lip to hold the tube as it strung from Billy’s mouth to the machine on his left.

Billy looked smaller somehow, a lesser version of himself. On a normal day, Billy’s personality was larger than life, effervescent and effusive. But with his buoyant cheerfulness stripped away, Michael could see Billy at his core. Lost and hurting, isolated and lonely.

But not alone. Billy had been forced from his country, had been humiliated and demeaned, but he was stronger than that. He had taken that failure and turned it into a second chance here at the Agency. He couldn’t go home to see his family, but he had forged new bonds here. And even if Billy didn’t know how to admit that, the rest of them knew it. They would prove it to him by standing firm here for Billy, no matter what.

So Michael couldn’t protect Billy from everything, but he could support Billy to help him get through it. No matter what.

Sighing, he chewed his lips, working to keep the emotions at bay. It was still a hard fact to accept – that this was all he had to offer.

But he wanted Billy to understand; he needed Billy to understand.

“I’m sorry,” he said finally, his voice wavering just slightly. He took another breath, jaw tight as he continued. “I wish I had seen this coming.”

Billy didn’t stir, the ventilator swooshing as the heart monitor beeped.

Michael wet his lips, frowning. “But I didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t see it, and I’m sorry.”

The admission was hard to make, the words almost sticking in his throat. But Billy showed no sign of movement, his long, still body unmoving under the sheet.

This time, Michael’s breath was ragged. “The fact is, I want to control this, but I can’t,” he said flatly, his own failure feeling heavy on his shoulders. “And the really unsettling part is that maybe you can’t either.”

The room remained silent, the stillness lingering.

Michael made himself go on. “But you’ll keep fighting,” he said, and he stated it as fact, because he knew it to be true. “You’ll keep fighting until the end, and my promise to you is that I will be here, every step of the way. We all will. I can’t promise to protect you or anyone else all the time, but I will never leave you behind.”

The words resonated, dissipating in the hum of machinery.

Michael swallowed, looking intently at Billy, hoping that the Scot could hear him. “That’s the only thing I can control,” he said, shrugging his shoulders a little. “I just hope it’s enough.”

Billy didn’t move, pale face slack, fever still holding high.

But Michael didn’t move; didn’t dare. Because if this was all he had to offer, then he had to offer it steadfastly and resolutely. Not wavering.

It had to be enough.

-o-

Michael didn’t keep track of the time. Minutes were hours; hours were days. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Michael kept his post, staying by Billy’s side, watching and waiting, no matter what outcome there might be.

He talked to Billy. He patted Rick on the shoulder. He held Casey’s eyes. He did what he needed to do and took control over the only things he could.

Billy’s struggles continued. His fever raged and his lungs fought hard. When his fever finally broke, they were all exhausted with the effort.

When Billy finally opened his eyes, it was a victory for all of them.

Michael leaned over him, one hand steady on his arm, eyes looking steadily down. At first, Billy’s eyes were clouded, dulled with sedation and the lingering effects of the illness. But when they locked on Michael, recognition flashed.

Michael smiled. “Welcome back.”

Billy’s eyes widened a little, his chest hitching in panic. Weak as he was, it was clear that Billy was still aware of the ventilator, but not well enough to know it was there to save his life.

Tightening his grip on Billy’s arm, Michael kept his gaze focused. “You’re okay,” he said. “You can’t fight the ventilator until you’re just a little stronger, okay?”

It took a moment, but Billy’s franticness eased. His eyes were still wide, his body trembling slightly, as he visibly tried to relax.

Michael didn’t dare waver, but instead smiled again. “We’ll be here until it’s over,” he promised.

Slowly, Billy nodded. There was still a hint of fear in his eyes, but no more questioning. And even without speaking, Billy’s look alone communicated how grateful he was.

Michael would have liked to have heard Billy’s voice, would have liked to make sure that everything was really okay, but Michael knew that Billy still had some recovery time ahead of him. Besides, if Billy couldn’t talk, he couldn’t ask questions.

If no one asked any questions about the last few days, then none of them had to lie about it. None of them had to skirt around how scared they’d been, or how close this had come. Sometimes the greatest truths – the ones that actually matter – come in nothing more than the solidarity of their silences. It was how they were strongest; it was their last resource when everything else had failed.

Just being there.

Michael would not forget that – not now, not ever. He would never falter in that, never let himself hesitate. Sometimes it was all they had. The rest of the time it was still their greatest asset.

Michael squeezed Billy’s arm anew, even as Billy’s eyes began to drift closed again. It wasn’t clear to Michael what would happen next, but he knew that no matter what, he’d be there to see it through.

-o-

The ending was no more dramatic than the beginning. However, if Michael missed out on the slow build to this crisis, he was ever more attuned to the uneventful denouement.

Billy’s vitals bounced back; the doctors reduced his medication and removed the breathing tube. His latest chest x-rays confirmed what everyone knew: Billy was beating the pneumonia.

Rick beamed steadily at the news, seeming to glow with every visit he made. Casey tried hard not to show any change in emotion, but there was a relaxed slouch to his posture as he chatted with Billy during his recovery.

Billy acted as if nothing had happened; smirked and joked as though his recovery had never been anything but certain. To be sure, none of them talked about how close it had come or what the other outcomes might have been. But Billy knew better than the rest of them just how difficult it had been, and Michael could see the struggles the Scot refused to acknowledge as he stifled coughs and fought sleep to enjoy visiting hours with his team.

Michael sat back and watched, enjoying it for what it is. Sometimes, in all his plotting and planning, he was pretty sure that he missed the thing that mattered most.

He didn’t miss it now, and he would never let himself neglect it. This team – was his family. Michael couldn’t make a marriage work, but he knew how to be loyal to his friends. Part of him didn’t like that such a commitment came with restrictions and limitations – that he couldn’t control everything about them.

But the benefits...

Michael was pretty certain the benefits were worth it.

The light in Rick’s eyes. The amused smirk on Casey’s face. And the ever-jovial lilt of Billy’s accent.

“I’m flattered, really,” Billy explained. “But I can fend for myself quite well here without you. They do have an entire medical staff on call at all times should I feel as though I’m suffering.”

Casey snorted. “Maybe we’re trying to protect the staff from you.”

Billy feigned hurt. “The staff loves me,” he contended.

“Yeah, and maybe that’s the problem,” Rick said. “You haven’t exactly been telling them about any lingering issues you’re having.”

Indignant, Billy shook his head. “I have no lingering issues,” he said. “I feel entirely healthy and fit.”

Michael had to admit, Billy was pretty convincing. The staunch turn of his shoulders, the lift in his chin.

At least, it would have been convincing if he hadn’t followed up his bold proclamation with a volley of sneezes.

They were strong, but not like before. When he was done, he wiped his nose, looking up sheepishly at the group.

“You were saying?” Michael asked with a smirk.

Properly chagrined, Billy ducked his head, smiling in embarrassment. “Well, I feel entirely healthier,” he amended. “And I am quite confident that I will be right as rain in no time.”

Billy had a penchant for exaggeration – especially on things like this – but this time, Michael knew he was right. Because if this started with a sneeze, then maybe it could end with one, too. After all, with all that had happened, that was really all there was left. A lingering case of the sniffles and a productive cough – the only signs of the near-peril they’d barely escaped.

But they had escaped, and that mattered. Billy’s color was returning, and even if he looked somewhat worse for wear, there was a fresh vibrancy in his voice, and when he spoke, his inflection was colorful, increasingly punctuated with polished hand motions.

Michael couldn’t control that, but he certainly could appreciate it.

Leaning back, Michael stretched his legs in front of him. In the chairs next to him, Rick smiled broadly and Casey crossed his arms contently across his chest. Billy was smiling at them from the hospital bed, hair in disarray but eyes bright and clear.

“I’m sure you will,” Michael agreed. Just like they all would be.

Comments

Posted by: blackdog_lz (blackdog_lz)
Posted at: September 2nd, 2012 05:21 pm (UTC)
Coffee

Pneumonia is a nasty, nasty thing. And I really like how you described the rapid descent.

Michael's controlled panic is also a thing of beauty :)

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: September 8th, 2012 03:07 am (UTC)
billy knows

I'm glad I captured it okay! I'm thankful to say I have no personal experience :)

I always love messing with Michael's sense of control.

Thank you!

2 Read Comments