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Chaos fic: The Ghosts that We Knew (1/2)

September 1st, 2014 (07:39 pm)
excited

feeling: excited

Title: The Ghosts That We Knew

Disclaimer: I do not own Chaos.

A/N: Beta with thanks to sockie1000. I recall someone requesting a fic that centered more on Higgins, though I admit, I can’t remember who anymore.

Summary: Some secrets were worth dying for. Others, Higgins decided, really weren’t.



-o-

Coming home was never something Higgins took for granted. After years in the field, he’d learned to appreciate that he got to come home at all. Now that he was in charge of Clandestine Operations, it was even harder to leave the office, knowing that he had all the comforts of home when he had operatives throughout the world who went without. The irony was never lost on him.

It was also no wonder that he didn’t have much to come home to. His wife had left him years ago, before he ever took the promotion into management, and his small, tidy home in Virginia didn’t reflect much of anything except practicality. It was sparsely accommodated -- any relics he might want to display were top secret anyway -- and after years of trying not to have his picture taken, the idea of photographic memorabilia was just too strange.

Besides, he had few people to remember. He didn’t talk to his ex-wife, and they’d never had any children. His parents were dead, and his brother lived in upstate New York. Higgins had known from the start that a family and spywork weren’t compatible. It had just taken him awhile -- and divorce papers -- to figure that out.

Not that it mattered now. He didn’t really have any regrets. He’d joined the CIA as a patriot, to serve his country and promote the greater good. In all that had changed, that much had stayed the same.

But other things had changed. The world had changed; the demands of the job had changed. When he’d been young, he’d believed in subverting the rules to get ahead. Now it seemed like the rules were the only things keeping it all together. That was the benefit of seeing the bigger picture.

Not that his operatives usually appreciated that.

Sighing, Higgins parked his car in his garage, climbing out and grabbing his briefcase. He always valued coming home, but that rarely meant that his work was done. Just because he left the office didn’t mean that spywork suddenly came to a halt. He spent most of his free hours reading files and drawing up reports. The only difference was that he got to take off his suit and tie, and put his socked feet up on the ottoman while listening to classical music in the background.

It wasn’t much, but it was how he unwound.

And tonight, he needed to unwind. He’d had one op nearly go off the rails iin South Sudan. Another needed emergency funding and additional personnel in the heart of Afghanistan. The White House was breathing down his neck about impending threats from terror blocs in the Middle East, and he had a reporter calling continually for information about an operation that had failed three years ago that they weren’t ready to claim just yet.

And that didn’t even get him started on the ODS.

With their latest antics, Higgins was cleaning up a string of messes across southeast Asia, and they were already poking for him to approve another, even more dangerous mission to the same region. He was fairly certain they were attempting to negotiate with some sort of subterfuge, but he’d simply been too busy to stop them. But he could see it in Dorset’s eyes. The bastard was good, but he didn’t realize that Higgins had been there and done that. In fact, Dorset was just beginning to approach Higgins’ own history of duplicity within the agency.

Which was why he couldn’t stand the man. He was a bastard, through and through, and if anyone knew bastards, it was Higgins. It took one to know one, and Dorset was still too narrow minded to realize that chaos wasn’t the answer.

Spywork was an intricate symphony, not an improvised showing of whatever instruments showed up. It had taken him years to discern the difference, and he was tired of some renegade unit adding in dissonant notes when he tried so hard to prime it otherwise.

There was room for only one person with a God Complex, and that person was Higgins.

He closed the garage door, locking the door to the house behind him as he flicked on the light. His kitchen was small and outdated, but it was sparkling clean. He set down his briefcase, going to the fridge and grabbing his water pitcher. He poured himself a glass before selecting one of the frozen trays of food from the freezer. He made them a week in advance. Simple and practical.

Easy.

He started the oven, taking long drinks before checking the messages on his personal machine. There was one telemarketing call and a reminder about his dentist appointment. But nothing else.

Taking off his coat, he loosened his tie, going back to put in the casserole tray as the oven reached its preheating goal. Higgins set the timer before snagging his briefcase and going out to the small living area. Sitting down heavily, he opened the briefcase, sighing as he picked up the top file.

From the ODS. It was their mission proposal. The next file was their report from the one they’d just got back from. Pursing his lips, Higgins put his feet up and picked up his pen, starting through the fine print again, trying to read between the lines. As far as the ODS went, it was a fairly cognizant request, which was why Higgins was fairly certain there was much, much more to the story.

He should charge the ODS overtime, for all the extra work they caused him. Not to mention the sleepless nights when they were in the field, worrying about an international incident.

Or that they wouldn’t come home at all.

If they weren’t so damn good…

But they were that damn good, and adding Martinez into the mix had only made them better. But they were dangerous. They walked that fine line between heroics and disaster. It was only a matter of time, and Higgins didn’t want to oversee the addition of four more stars on the wall.

They didn’t see it like that. They didn’t see how all the pieces worked together. They didn’t see the big picture, not even Dorset, for all his capabilities. They probably would never see it until it was too damn late.

The timer dinged, and Higgins looked up, surprised that so much time had gone by. Putting his files aside, he got up and went to the kitchen. He checked the casserole, found it bubbling, and turned off the heat. He closed the oven door, standing to get out a plate and fork when suddenly the doorbell rang.

Higgins stopped, cocking his head. That was unexpected, to say the least. He knew his neighbors -- it was his business to know everything about everyone on the street and have a general sense of any potential red flags within three miles. The neighborhood was quiet, and people had learned long ago that he would never buy anything from solicitors. Even the children had stopped trying to sell him Girl Scout cookies and magazines from school.

That said, he was a good neighbor otherwise. He kept his place clean and proper, and he was the one who had caught the vandals down the street just last year. People smiled and waved at him, and he smiled and waved back. He knew that it was a fine line to walk, being friendly and being careful. Too many spies were too reclusive, which was just as suspicious as anything else. Anyone who knew Higgins thought him utterly plain and forgettable.

No one would believe half the things he’d done in his career.

That was the point, of course.

Which was why no one would be ringing his doorbell. He glanced at the clock -- especially at this hour.

The doorbell rang again, followed by pounding.

His dinner forgotten, Higgins moved through the kitchen, sneaking along the hallway to the front door. He’d had the front door replaced with a reinforced one when he moved in and he’d made sure that there were no windows for a clear shot down the entryway, so at least that much was secure.

Still, he paused at the hall closet, moving the coats aside before tapping in the passcode. The lock opened. He retrieved his gun.

Conscious of the floorboards, he kept walking until he reached the door. There was more pounding and a muffled call. Higgins narrowed his eyes, tapping on the video surveillance feed to the front.

And frowned.

Easing his stance, he kept his gun in his hand but pointed down while he unlocked the door.

“Collins?” he asked, staring angrily at the man standing on his front stoop.

Collins blinked, looking visibly relieved. “Thank God.”

“I wouldn’t thank him yet,” Higgins snapped. “You can’t be here. How do you even know where I live? Do you know how many protocols you’ve violated just by knowing my address? Much less showing up? Of all the stupid, irresponsible and reckless--”

Billy wet his lips, swallowing with obvious difficulties. “I didn’t know your address,” he said, a little breathlessly. “But someone else does.”

Higgins’ brow creased. “What are you rambling about--?”

Billy shook his head. “They’re coming after you,” he blurted, the words seeming to tumble out. He pitched forward a bit, a pained expression on his face.

“Who?” Higgins demanded.

Collins looked sickly, sweat beading on his brow. “Operation Throwback,” he said. “They’re coming for you.”

Higgins’ stomach churned. “And how can you be sure of that?”

“Because,” Billy said, blinking rapidly as his face went deathly pale. “They already came after me.”

Before Higgins could ask another question, before he could gather his thoughts to make heads or tails of what Collins was trying to tell him, the other man went limp, slumping toward the ground. It was all Higgins could do to catch him, grimacing as he looked worriedly up and down the street where quiet street lights winked in the darkness.

He looked down at Collins again, half-dragging on the ground, skin cool and clammy under Higgins touch.

Operation Throwback. Collins had to be wrong about that; there was no way…

Even so, standing here with an unconscious man in the open was an invitation for trouble. He didn’t want the neighbors prying any more than he wanted a trained assassin to have a good line of vision.

Higgins set his jaw, promptly dragging Collins inside.

So much for a quiet night in.

-o-

Higgins had taken the promotion into management years ago, and he’d never once regretted giving up field work. In truth, he didn’t miss it. He didn’t crave world travel, and he didn’t need to have his hands dirty to feel like he was doing something important and valuable in the world. He didn’t miss having an alias or trying to remember what timezone he was in. He didn’t miss memorizing a cover story, or trying to charm some criminal to trust him.

Not that it had been easy to let it go, necessary. Some habits died hard, but Higgins had had no qualms learning how to live a more normal life.

None of that mattered, though. Because a field agent was always a field agent. Higgins hadn’t gone in the field in years, but when the field came to him --

Well, he found himself more than ready.

Collins was tall, and he certainly looked lanky, but body mass was already surprisingly heavy. And with Collins being unconscious, it was a dead, unwieldy weight.

Not dead, Higgins corrected him as he wrapped arm around Collins’ chest, tucking his gun into the waist of his pants. Awkwardly, he used his now-free hand to slam the door shut and lock it. He glanced down, seeing Collins’ pale features before re-activating the security system.

It all came back. Old habits didn’t die hard.

They simply didn’t die at all.

The living room was the most logical place to take Collins, given that it had a couch, but it also had windows. Higgins didn’t trust the world on the best of days, and when an operative showed up and passed out on his front porch, he was even less inclined.

Accordingly, he dragged Collins back toward the kitchen. There were windows there, too, but they were smaller and more obscured by the foliage in the backyard. It would be significantly more difficult to get a clear angle from back there. Ideally, he’d take Collins downstairs.

No, ideally the man wouldn’t be here at all, but there was clearly nothing ideal about this.

Grunting, Higgins hauled Billy to the closest kitchen chair, dropping the other man unceremoniously into it while just barely keeping him from slumping onto the floor. Propping him up with one hand, Higgins wanted to reach for his gun with the other. But he couldn’t hold Collins upright, keep his gun and figure out what was actually wrong with the other man.

Just his luck, Collins was coming to again. His head lolled forward and then back, and his eyelids fluttered in time for Higgins to glare.

Billy’s forehead creased. “Did I pass out?”

“How else do you think you earned an invitation inside?” he growled.

“I don’t recall that,” Billy mumbled groggily.

Higgins pressed his lips together, looking down from Billy’s face. The Scotsman was still in his suit, which looked disheveled but not particularly out of order. When he peeled it back, though--

He hissed, his jaw setting grimly as he saw the dark splotch on the vest in Billy’s rumpled three-piece suit. “You’ve been shot,” he said curtly.

Billy nodded. “Aye,” he said tiredly. “That would be why I don’t remember.”

Hastily, Higgins ripped the vest and shirt open, grabbing a dishtowel from the counter to press to the wound. “I’m not in the mood for games, Operative Collins.”

Billy squirmed, obviously in pain as Higgins applied pressure. “Trust me, I’m not either,” he said between clenched teeth. “Is that a stand mixer on your countertop?”

Higgins glanced back. “Yes--”

“Why do you have a stand mixer?” Billy asked.

“For mixing,” Higgins countered in annoyance. “It’s good for cookies.”

Billy looked truly perplexed. “You make cookies?”

“It isn’t any of your damn business what I do,” Higgins snapped, keeping the pressure steady. “You’re not even supposed to be here.”

Billy nodded tautly, his face drawn with pain. “Well, now that I know you make cookies--”

“Collins,” Higgins snapped, pressing just a bit harder into his flesh. “Why are you here?”

Collins went stiff, face draining even whiter. The humor was gone, and he looked gravely at Higgins. “We’ve been made,” he said. “A pair of them, at my flat. Tried to ambush me when I got home.”

“Tried?” Higgins asked. “I think they succeeded.”

Billy’s face was serious. “I’m still alive,” he reminded Higgins shortly. “They’re not.”

“Are you sure?” Higgins asked. “Do you know you haven’t been followed?”

Billy grunted. “Why do you think it took me so long to get here?”

“And you didn’t tell anyone?” Higgins asked skeptically. “I know how the ODS is--”

“And I know the consequences of Operation Throwback,” he hissed. “As if I’d want to involve my team--”

“So you led them to me?” Higgins asked incredulously.

“They already knew about you,” Billy said.

Higgins shook his head. “That’s impossible.”

Billy heaved for air, lifting a hand and groping for his pocket. He pulled out a crumpled, blood-stained piece of paper. “Then how do you explain this?”

The ink was smeared and part of it was soaked with red. But the scrawled message was unmistakable.

H.J. Higgins
334 Redmond Lane

That was his name.

That was his address.

His stomach dropped and his hands went cold.

“They came to kill me,” Billy said. “And they’re coming for you next.”

-o-

For a moment, Higgins indulged in his dread. After a long career, he’d made enemies and lots of them. He’d never ruled out the possibility that that would come back to haunt him. He’d never thought himself immune to the risk. He’d thought about what it would be like to walk into an ambush, to get shot stepping out his front door, to disappear one day and just never come back.

It happened.

It was happening.

Then the moment passed, and Higgins remembered why he’d survived all these years in the Agency. It wasn’t just luck, though he wasn’t so stupid as to think that wasn’t part of it. But it was skill, too.

Higgins was good at his job -- and not just the paperwork and the planning.

Higgins was good at his job.

Without another moment’s hesitation, Higgins nodded curtly to Billy’s wound. “Keep on the pressure.”

Billy’s eyes widened. “But, what--”

Higgins ignored him, getting to his feet and quickly drawing all the curtains in his house. He made sure he had his work phone before opening a cabinet and collecting his other phones and putting them in his pocket. Swiftly, he killed the lights in the living room, picking up the papers from the couch and bringing them back to the kitchen. He tucked them neatly along with the phones into his briefcase before closing it up.

Billy watched him, looking confused. “We going somewhere?”

Higgins harrumphed. “Unless you’d like to stay here and die.”

“Where can we go, though?” Billy asked. “The operational clearance level on this mission -- the CIA--”

“Would be able to do nothing,” Higgins confirmed. “We disavowed all knowledge of Operation Throwback.”

“But you’re the director,” Billy pointed out.

“And if a support request came by my desk regarding this very circumstance, I would deny it every time,” Higgins replied, matter of fact.

“So you’d literally sign your own death warrant,” Billy said. He groaned. “And this is the help I get. I would have been better off calling the ODS--”

“That would be the last thing to do,” Higgins snapped.

“They’d come at least,” Billy argued. “They wouldn’t leave me to die.”

“I don’t particularly like you, Operative Collins, and I don’t particularly like the way you do your job,” he said. “I think you’re cavalier and reckless; I think you take unnecessary risks thoughtlessly and have far too narrow of a viewpoint.”

Billy’s discomfort turned almost to fear. “Is this a pep talk? Or merely a goodbye?”

Higgins grimaced, moving toward the door to the basement and typing in the passcode. “Neither,” he said, looking back at Collins. “It’s a fact. Just like the fact that I may not risk the Agency on this kind of mission, but I would never leave an agent in the cold unless I had absolutely no choice.”

Collins swallowed. “You won’t call the CIA; you won’t call the ODS,” he said, voice wavering just a little. “What choice do you have?”

Higgins gestured to the open door. “Come with me,” he said. “And find out.”

Billy looked skeptical.

Higgins sighed in annoyance. “Or you can stay here and die. Your choice.”

Billy paled. “I’ll take the not dying option, please.”

Higgins rolled his eyes. “I thought so.”

-o-

It was frustratingly slow getting Collins into the basement. For all his snark, the Scotsman was clearly hurting, and Higgins had people who attended to these kinds of things. He could appreciate patience, but that never meant he liked it. That was one advantage to being director: he had so many missions going on that if one required patience, another was always reaching its pinnacle.

No such luck now. It was just him, an injured Collins, and a probable strike force descending on his location.

And he had to slow down to make sure Collins didn’t trip and break his neck on the way down the stairs.

By the time they got to the bottom, Collins was lagging badly and Higgins was starting to sweat from the exertion. He let Billy sit on the bottom step as he hurried across the washing machine to the far wall.

At least, it looked like the far wall. He’d had it specially constructed, splitting the basement into two. The facade was aged and covered with hooks and shelves, designed to look like storage. But when he moved on of the tarps, he felt along the seams until the control panel popped free. He typed his passcode into the pad, waiting for it to buzz before the panel slid away and the back door opened.

“Collins,” Higgins said, calling back. “Can you--?”

Billy nodded, staggering to his feet. He limped his way over, his hand soaked with blood as he tried in vain to stem the flow of blood. “Storm shelter?” he asked. “Because I’m not sure we need to be worried about tornados.”

“Tornados wouldn’t touch us in here,” Higgins said, holding the first door open as Billy limped the rest of the way inside. Higgins followed close, letting the doors slide shut behind them, each one locking with a hiss as the interior lighting flickered on. It wasn’t a big room, but it was big enough. There was a small bed and a tiny bathroom, tucked into one corner. There was a counter and a heating plate with a well stocked cabinet overtop. The wardrobe was stocked with clothing and other basics.

The other wall had a series of cabinets and monitors, showing the house at all angles, giving him access to shift the cameras and assess the premises as necessary. Then, neatly stocked on the wall, Higgins had his collection of guns, knives and other weapons, with a plethora of ammunition catalogued neatly in another cabinet.

Billy stopped, mouth open and eyes wide.

Higgins strode past him stiffly, tapping on the control system to get a live feed of the house above. He glanced back, smiling smugly at Collins. “What? You’ve never seen a panic room before?”

“Not like this,” Billy admitted dumbly.

“I admit, I don’t like the name,” Higgins said. “I didn’t build this for panic. I built this for control and calm, the very antithesis of panic.”

Billy blinked.

Higgins chuckled, standing up straight and crossing his arms. “The ODS isn’t the first team of paranoid bastards,” he said knowingly. He tilted his head. “They’re not even the best.”

Billy Collins, for once, had no reply.

-o-

With the room secure, Higgins proceeded to check the perimeter. All cameras indicated nothing was amiss, and he double checked the feeds twice, just to be sure. When he finally turned around, he saw Billy lowering himself awkwardly to one of the chairs, face blanched and grimacing.

Higgins drew a breath and reminded himself to prioritize. With no immediate threat, he had to handle secondary concerns.

And Collins’ wound probably wasn’t as secondary as Higgins wanted to think.

“Come on,” Higgins said with a sigh.

Billy looked up at him. “Hm?”

“You’re still bleeding,” Higgins said.

“Well, I’m trying not to,” Billy offered.

Higgins rolled his eyes. “It might help if we actually looked at the wound.”

Billy opened his mouth to protest.

Higgins glared at him. “I was in the field for many years,” he said. “I’m not a field medic, but I know a thing or two about first aid.”

“I don’t want to be an imposition--” Billy started.

“You already showed up on my doorstep bleeding, telling me that a hit team is about to come after me,” Higgins said tersely. “I think we’re past the point of being an imposition.”

Billy’s cheeks flushed red.

“Besides,” Higgins said, reaching down to help hoist Billy out of the chair. “We may be here awhile. I’d prefer to keep you alive.”

Billy stifled a grunt as he got to his feet, listing heavily against Higgins. “I wasn’t aware you cared, sir.”

“It’s not personal,” Higgins assured him. “The paperwork would be a mess.”

A laugh caught in Billy’s throat, though it tapered off with a cough. “Glad to see where your priorities are.”

Priorities, Higgins reminded himself, helping Collins over to the cot before easing the man down. An injured operative, a mission from his past, and a home he set up for defense.

He certainly had his priorities.

“Stay there,” Higgins muttered, turning toward the cabinets. “And try not to mess up the sheets. I only have two pairs.”

-o-

By the time Higgins had gathered his first aid supplies, Billy was trying to peel away the layers of soiled clothes, tilting his head up to look at the wound. Higgins ground his teeth together, pushing Collins back to the cot by his shoulders.

“But--” Billy started.

Higgins gave him a stern look, settling on one of the chairs he’d dragged up to the cot’s side.

Billy sank back sheepishly.

Mollified, Higgins turned back to the wound, neatly placing the bloodied pieces on the chair next to him. Under the bright lights of the panic room, it was easier to see the damage. There was a bullet wound, torn through Billy’s side. It was low and to the right, too far out of the way to have hit anything vital.

Diligently, Higgins braced Collins, lifting him slightly to see if there was an exit wound, running his hand along the unmarred flesh.

When he lowered Collins back down, he tried not to flinch under Billy’s relentless gaze.

“How bad is it?” Collins asked, voice wavering just so.

Higgins considered a lie, because he certainly wasn’t opposed to them when necessary. Spies did what needed to be done, and the only moral code could be defined on what lines they wouldn’t cross. There were surprisingly few in Higgins career, and lying certainly didn’t make that list.

But he also wasn’t heartless, at least not without reason. Some tactics were acceptable if the ends justified the means. Higgins preferred honesty to deceit; order to chaos. When all factors were equal, he would tell the truth.

“Bullet’s still inside,” Higgins reported. “I don’t think it’s a serious wound, though, if the bullet can be taken out quickly.”

Billy’s brows knitted together. “You’re not--”

“No,” Higgins said, picking up the antiseptic. “We’ll flush it out and bandage it up and get you to a doctor as soon as possible.”

Billy looked a little relieved. “I can live with that,” he mused, settling back more comfortably on the pillow. “Literally.”

That was an overly simplistic view of things. They were, after all, still stuck in a panic room with the threat of likely assassination waiting from them if they left. Collins’ wound was treatable, but only if they could get treatment.

In his hesitation, Billy started to even his breathing. “I must say, I am impressed,” he said. “I’m afraid I haven’t given you enough credit.”

Higgins pursed his lips, pouring antiseptic onto a piece of gauze before starting to dab at the skin around the bullet hole. “You don’t get where I am at the Agency without taking precautions.”

“Upstairs it’s all stand mixers and cookies,” Billy said, wincing as Higgins started to flush out the wound. “But down here, you’ve got a set up that would make Michael Dorset jealous.”

“Well, Dorset hasn’t had quite as many missions as I have,” Higgins said, pouring on more antiseptic. “And after Operation Throwback--”

Billy stiffened, face contorting in pain. “I thought we’d agreed not to talk about that.”

“I ordered you not to talk about it,” Higgins reminded him. “But in the present situation, I think we don’t have much choice.”

Collins squirmed as Higgins cleaned more thoroughly. He gasped, his breathing picking up its pace again. “After all this time, I thought maybe we’d got lucky.”

Higgins set his face grimly, picking up a fresh bandage and pressing it down firmly. “Hope is a dangerous thing,” he said. “It makes you vulnerable.”

Billy raised his eyebrows. “And now you sound like Casey Malick.”

“I told you, Collins,” Higgins said, taping down the bandage. “Your team isn’t the first group of bastards in the Agency.”

“I’m starting to see that,” Billy said, sounding genuinely impressed.

“Good,” Higgins said. “Then maybe you’ll stop giving me such a hard time.”

“If we survive this,” Billy said. “I think I may give you anything you want.”

If they survived this.

Higgins didn’t say anything, but he might just give Collins anything he wanted, too.

-o-

If this mission file came across his desk, Higgins probably would have rejected it outright. There wasn’t enough to go on; there were too many risks. There wasn’t enough to be gained from anything dealing with such an operation. Someone should pull the plug, take any losses and just move on.

Living it, however, he didn’t have much choice.

Collins was here, shot and bleeding; Higgins had opened up his panic room. After all these years, it was time to face this head on.

Which meant he had to establish was this was in the first place. First impressions were not always correct; second impulses were not always worth validating. There was nothing obvious in the world of spies, and Higgins was too good at what he did to not start analyzing this objectively.

“Okay,” he said as Collins sat himself up gingerly on the cot. “Tell me about the ambush.”

Billy’s complexion was still too pale, and the sweat on his forehead wasn’t a good sign. Higgins had debated about getting supplies for an IV in his room but had ultimately decided against it. He’d reasoned he’d never be able to start one on himself anyway. He hadn’t counted on being stuck with someone else down here.

He hadn’t counted on a lot of things.

Injured as he was, Billy drew himself together respectably -- and for that Higgins was somewhat relieved. He knew Collins’ antics well, but the man did know when to play things straight most of the time.

Most days, Higgins might count himself lucky.

Today, though -- Higgins was just going to listen.

“They were utterly average in build and look, clearly Western but without hearing them speak, I couldn’t say if they were American or European,” Collins said. “They were dressed to blend in, though. No telling features; nondescript clothing; two normal looking blokes.”

“Except for the part where they were trying to kill you,” Higgins mused darkly.

Billy cracked a smile, his flippancy proving to be irrepressible and ever badly-timed. “Malick might say that’s another defining feature of normal.”

“Still not very helpful,” Higgins said, working to keep his anger in check. The ODS had always known how to press his buttons, each in their own unique way. Dorset with his deceit; Malick with his flagrant disrespect; Martinez with his earnest defiance.

And Collins with his ill-placed and inappropriate humor.

“Right,” Collins said, sobering somewhat and Higgins felt the tension in his own shoulders unfurl just slightly as the Scotsman continued. “They were both armed, but again, nothing special about those. I checked them, but I couldn’t find anything to trace them by, even if I had the time.”

“Make and model?”

“I told you, they were nondescript,” Billy reported. “The kind every common criminal carries, though these two did have silencers. They made no attempt to capture or torture; simply went for the kill.”

“How can we be sure they were experts?” Higgins asked, probing the account deeper. Collins never was very good in debriefs, and he treated reports like creative writing exercises. Higgins was insidiously good at reading between the lines. “Two trained killed and they only got a shot off in your side.”

Billy scoffed, and he sounded genuinely offended. “You would have preferred me to be dead?”

“I’m only pointing out the obvious,” Higgins said. “The odds were in their favor. This isn’t a question of your talent, Mr. Collins; it is merely a realistic assessment of your attackers’ qualities.”

Billy sighed, his humor fading. “Dumb luck,” he admitted. “I’d realized that I forgotten my travel mug in Michael’s car. I paused to pull out my mobile when I saw the hint of a shadow. I dodged the first shot and took down the first attacker behind the door. During the squabble, the second came out and took a shot, which killed the first attacker. In his surprise, I followed up on him. We wrestled for the gun, and it went off. When I fell to the side, I found the first attacker’s gun and was just fast enough.”

“That’s still no indication of why they were there,” Higgins said. “They had nothing on them?”

“I searched their pockets,” Billy said. “No identification, fake or otherwise. One of them had the names and addresses, though. Mine and yours, nothing else.”

Higgins stared, waiting. “And that’s it? That’s where we’ve gotten a massive attack conspiracy from?”

Billy frowned. “What else could it be?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Higgins said. “Try any other ODS mission. You’ve made your share of enemies, Mr. Collins.”

“But none of them tie back to you,” Billy insisted.

“They all tie back to me,” Higgins said curtly.

“But who else would have access to your identification? We both have cover identities,” Billy said. “Either we have a massive current leak or it’s from Operation Throwback. There’s simply no other way we could ever be linked.”

Higgins thought a moment. Collins had a point, but Higgins didn’t like it. And it seemed paranoid; to think that after all this time, the past had finally caught up with them. “Coincidence?” he ventured.

Collins gave him a look. “In our line of work?”

Higgins sighed. There were other options, of course. But none made as much sense as Collins’ theory. Higgins went to great pains to maintain his anonymity; it protected him and his assets. A handler who made obvious ties to an asset was a bad handler, and Higgins hadn’t gotten this far making amateur decisions.

Besides, he’d always been expecting this. It was a large reason he’d built this room to begin with.

Preparation was not the same as execution, though. Given the circumstances, that might not be the best choice of words.

“Okay,” Higgins said again, taking another deep breath. “So if this is about Operation Throwback, then we need to figure out who was behind the attack. Is there anything else you remember?”

Billy shook his head. “There was nothing to remember,” he said. “These two were professionals. They weren’t even carrying mobiles, so there was nothing to trace. They probably had a vehicle nearby, but I didn’t really have the time or energy to search.”

Higgins bit back a comment of derision. Frustration wouldn’t help them now. “It couldn’t have been any of the marks,” he said. “The operation was blown before we ever established a presence.”

“Besides, haven’t we monitored their progress remotely?” Billy asked.

“Yes,” Higgins said. “And there’s been no chatter of anything. Ordering a hit now would be highly improbable and downright suicidal.”

“Then who?” Billy asked. “Everyone else was an ally.”

“Yes,” Higgins said grimly. “The best intelligence operatives from the CIA, MI6, French Intelligence and German intelligence.”

“The only mission of its kind,” Billy chimed in with a small smile.

“And they’re all dead,” Higgins said. “Except you.”

The color drained even more from Billy’s face. “You think one of our allies ordered the hit?”

“Not officially,” Higgins said. “But every agency lost something, and not every agency carried the same weight of responsibility.”

“But we never did suss out what went wrong, did we?” Billy asked.

Higgins pressed his lips together, hesitating just for a moment.

Billy’s jaw dropped. “You do know,” he said. “And you never told us--”

“I did what I thought prudent to protect international alliances,” Higgins said.

“Well, fat lot of good that’s done,” Billy said petulantly.

“There are more factors at play than you know,” Higgins told him sternly.

“Oh, I think I know them pretty well,” Billy shot back. “I’m the one with a hole in my side!”

“Typical,” Higgins said. “Short sighted and selfish--”

“I came here to warn you,” Billy argued.

Higgins’ temper flared. He worked hard to keep himself in order, but he had his breaking points. “And you could have just made it worse!”

Billy’s face was flushed red again. “I don’t know how it could be worse--”

Before Collins could finish, there was a beep and then a buzz. Another beep sounded when Higgins realized what was happening.

On his feet, he scrambled across the room to the monitors. He flicked one to another. The main feed outside was down. He switched to the secondary line when he saw a team of four men, touting guns before the second line went dead.

Higgins’ stomach flipped, and he could feel a slight tremor start up in his hands. When he was younger, it wouldn’t have mattered but he was feeling his age now more than ever. He’d been out of the field too long; he was too old for this.

“Well,” he said, looking back to where Billy was still on the bed, watching him with wide, worried eyes. “It looks like it just got worse after all.”

-o-

Experts, no doubt. Higgins flicked from one feed to the next, watching as the attackers meticulously found and dismantled each one.

Collins was also right about their appearance. They were completely nondescript; even if none of them were wearing masks, there was nothing distinguishing about their appearances from the scant views Higgins gleaned. Average weight; average build; brown hair and European complexions. Determining their origin was impossible, even as the lman disarming the last camera flashed him a grin and a wink.

Experts.

They were also well armed. Collins had reported handguns, and they had those in excess. Two of the men were carrying more serious firepower, but it wasn’t anything that was actually difficult to buy in the United States. They weren’t even particularly difficult to use, and the rest of their gear looked like nothing special.

In fact, they weren’t hardly wearing gear. No earwigs; no bullet proof vests. They were wearing street clothes, and there was nothing remarkable about them. If Higgins had seen them walking down the street, he would have let them pass without a second thought.

But their training was anything but typical. None of them seemed nervous, and hired guns walking into a potential firefight tended to give away some sense of agitation. And these men knew exactly where to look for security feeds -- and they knew exactly what to do to disable them.

Paired with the fact that they knew Higgins name and address, he could only further corroborate Collins’ conclusion that this was a fairly professional -- and likely expensive and personal -- hit.

Standing over the monitors intently, he barely heard Collins get up from the bed until the other man was right behind him. “Five men,” he said. “They only sent two for me. I think I’m insulted.”

Higgins checked the feeds again, finding them all blank now. “You may not know it, but I have built up quite a reputation in my time,” he said.

“Oh, you have a reputation,” Billy agreed. “I just never thought it was one that warranted five assassins.

“If it makes you feel any better, it could be more about the nature of my role within the Agency,” Higgins said, experimenting with a few of the redundancy power up routines.

“But five!” Billy said.

Higgins huffed, turning toward him. “Your deflection may be welcome when with the ODS, but I see no need for it here,” he said. “We have a serious situation to attend to. As you’ve mentioned many times now, there are five assassins out there and they’ve already systematically taken out the rest of my security system.”

“I don’t suppose that means the police will be storming the place any time soon,” Billy said, sounding vaguely hopeful.

Higgins didn’t even crack a smile. “I have emergency contact capabilities down here, but any help from local police would compromise both of us badly,” he explained.

“And we’re still not calling the CIA--”

“Because Operation Throwback is a dead end,” Higgins said decisively. “We disavowed all knowledge years ago, and any interference from the CIA will only confirm to out assassins that we deserve whatever interpretation of justice they deem fit.”

“But if they’re all dead or locked up--”

“They have a backer, no doubt,” Higgins said. “An operation this size? Someone isn’t getting their hands dirty.”

“Well, then your solution is what exactly?”

That was the first relevant question Collins had asked all night. It was more than relevant; it was the same one Higgins had been considering since he’d locked them in down here. “To be frank, I’m not sure I need one,” he said. He gestured to the room. “This panic room is custom designed and expertly made. The walls are impenetrable--”

“Nothing is impenetrable,” Billy pointed out.

“If they wanted to take days, perhaps,” Higgins conceded. “The the door can’t be blasted off or lifted off its hinges; the security pad can’t be breached without advanced hacking. Any method of penetration would last over twelve hours.”

“Well, they seem content to wait,” Billy ventured.

Higgins smiled. “Only if they want to be caught,” he said. “In 12 hours, I will have failed to check in with the office. At which point, my office is instructed to check my whereabout using covert means. Once they see that the house is under siege, local authorities will be brought in. Our bad guys may be willing to take their risks at night, but I wouldn’t expect them to start a firefight in broad daylight.”

“So maybe we should call the authorities now,” Billy suggested again, grimacing as he adjusted his stance and placed a steadying hand on his side.

“They still have the dark in their favor,” Higgins said. “And they’d surely know that they’d have tripped the CIA’s radar, and even if we don’t want an open operation, if this attack lingers, the CIA would have the means to start assembling a covert strike or at least assessing information about the attackers to trace their source.”

Billy sighed heavily, looking simply too tired to think anymore. “So you reckon we wait it out?” he asked.

Higgins shrugged. “I’m not sure there’s a better option that doesn’t involve risking our safety, the safety of local authorities or the sanctity of the operation.”

“Unless they just plant a bomb and blow us all to hell,” Billy said dismissively.

“Any blast strong enough to level this panic room would have to be strong enough to take out most of the neighborhood,” Higgins said. “If this is a targeted strike from an ally, they aren’t going to risk collateral damage -- no matter how valuable the prize may be for them.”

“So you’re saying that we’re perfectly safe,” Billy said, struggling to put the dots together. His forehead was visibly damp now and his back was curved in a clear sign of pain.

Higgins drew himself taller, giving an assured nod. “It is the safest possible place to be.”

That was when he smelled...something.

He stopped, cocking his head. When he looked at Billy, Collins’ brow furrowed. Then, his eyes widened.

Higgins sniffed again, and the realization was numbing.

“Is that…?” Billy started to ask, using one hand to steady himself on a chair.

“Smoke,” Higgins concluded for him. “That’s smoke.”

The safest possible place, as it turned out, wasn’t safe enough.

-o-

Higgins liked reports. He liked documented proof. He liked to have everything in order. He tried to create internal paper trails because in a line of work where lying was to be expected, he wanted to be above reproach.

That was what made it work. That was his role as the head of covert affairs. He had to balance out the duplicity of his operatives with a clarity of truth in case things should ever be called into a account.

It was consequently why he didn’t much like the ODS. They made his job harder because they did things off book. It wasn’t that he didn’t see the results, but he saw all the potential fallout. They could pretend like that didn’t matter.

He never had that luxury.

Higgins, so it seemed, had no luxuries. In the office, people derided him as a pencil pusher.

Now, in the field, Collins looked nearly apoplectic at the thought of improvising.

Fortunately, Higgins knew how to improvise. He liked reports, but he knew how to do things on the fly. If he didn’t, he’d be dead.

Which was what he was hoping to avoid now.

Concerned, he strode over to the ventilation shaft, noting how smoke was already starting to billow through. Promptly, he opened one of the cabinets and pulled out an electric screwdriver to start taking off the reinforced screws to pull the panel off.

“You have an electric screwdriver but an unprotected ventilation system?” Billy asked incredulously. “Seems a bit uneven to me.”

Higgins worked on the next screw, grunting as it came loose. “The ventilation system is protected,” he muttered. “It’s entirely separate from any other duct in the house and surrounded by an impenetrable shield. The opening is so finely grated that only air can get through.”

“Air and other gases,” Billy pointed out. “I mean, you think bad guys haven’t heard of smoking people out?”

“Of course they have.” Higgins snapped, pulling the last screw free and manhandling the iron mesh off the wall as more smoke poured through. “That was why I hid the intake and exhaust valves. You’d have to be--”

He faltered.

Billy finished for him, “--an expert.”

Higgins chewed his lip, swatting at the smoke and poking his head through the duct. The smoke was thicker there, and starting to come faster. Grimly, Higgins set the grate aside. “They must be using a blower.”

“Can we seal it off?” Billy asked, standing even more shakily than before. His face was ashen in the growing haze.

“We’d cut off our oxygen, too,” Higgins said. “A room this size with no active air intake--”

Billy grimaced. “We’d be dead before morning.”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Higgins reported.

There was an uncomfortable silence before Billy laughed hysterically, staggering over to the other chair and sitting in it heavily.

“You care to let me in on the joke, Operative Collins?” Higgins asked tersely.

Billy’s laughs tapered off, and he lifted his pale face, running a hand over his mouth. “I survived the first mission and all these years at the CIA,” he said. “I survived an assassination attempt and am going to be smoked to death. Just seems a bit anticlimactic, don’t you think? All the firefights, all the knife fights, all the vicious hand to hand -- and I’m going to die in a panic room? With the Director of Covert Operations no less!”

Collins’ voice pitched unnaturally, and it was hard to tell if it was the blood loss or sheer exhaustion. He didn’t particularly agree with Collins’ methods most of the time, but he didn’t doubt the man had a certain finesse under pressure.

Billy laughed again. “Well, at least they always told us that smoking was dangerous!”

Then again, perhaps Dorset and Malick had finesse. He wasn’t sure what the hell Collins had.

Except a gunshot wound.

Higgins forced out a breath and strove for calm. “We need to come up with a plan.”

“Oh,” Billy said with an indignant snort. “Like your plan to come down here in the first place?”

Higgins set his jaw firmly, feeling his tension start to ratchet up a few notches. Assassins were one thing; overt insubordination in the face of danger was entirely another. “And what was your plan? Come over and bleed to death? Because I’m not seeing much actual thought in your actions tonight.”

Billy glared. “I saved your life!”

“And I arguably saved yours by letting you inside and dragging you downstairs,” Higgins said.

“I could have gone to ground,” Billy objected. “No one would have found me.”

“So you’d just run away and save your own backside,” Higgins said with a hint of disgust. “Seems like that’s all you know how to do.”

Billy’s jaw twitched, his eyes wide and glassy. “You know that’s not what happened.”

“Do I?” Higgins asked. “All I know is that you are more trouble than you’re worth.”

“Then why did you even bother?” Billy asked sharply. “Why give me asylum all those years ago?”

“I had no choice,” Higgins snapped.

“There’s always a choice!” Billy shot back, his voice raw with emotion and pain.

Higgins’ mouth opened.

Then he stopped.

A choice.

They could stay here and die.

But that was only one choice.

He nodded thoughtfully. “You may be right about that.”

Billy shut his mouth, perplexed. “Wait, what?”

Higgins nodded again, the idea building in the back of his consciousness. “A choice,” he said, his confidence gaining as the hint of a smile passed over his face. “There’s always a choice.”

“Um,” Billy said. “Why do I feel like I’m not going to like this?”

“Do you trust me?” Higgins asked.

Billy raised his eyebrows.

“Nevermind,” Higgins muttered. “But tonight, I need you to trust me.”

Billy wet his lips, his frame starting to shake more noticeably. “And if I say no?”

“Then you can stay here and die,” Higgins said. If it was blunt, it was also true, and Higgins had no time or patience for coddling.

“And the alternative?” Billy hedged. He looked younger somehow, maybe with the toll of his injury or just the uncertainty on his face; he looked like the battle-weary recruit he’d taken in from MI6 all those years ago.

Not so much had changed, it seemed.

But just enough, perhaps, to make this end up better than it did before -- for both of them.

Higgins smiled. “Just like you said,” he replied, because his was a job of certainty and clarity. His position did not just entitle him authority, but it demanded it from him. And he was, in the end, damn good at his job. “A choice.”

-o-

Higgins made lots of choices. He made choices for the good of the Agency and for the good of the American public. He made choices that protected innocent people and brought criminals to justice. He made choices that had far reaches consequences, almost more than anyone could imagine.

Sometimes he made choices to protect operatives.

Sometimes he made choices that put them in danger.

He made choices that saved lives.

He made choices that cost lives.

Years ago, he’d made a choice to send a mission forward and nearly every player involved ended up dead. Then he’d made the choice to protect the last member of that team, to take him in when everyone else thought he was toxic.

Higgins made that choice, and he’d doubted it some but never quite regretted it.

Today, however, it was time to make a different choice.

-o-

Collins didn’t like the choice, but he was in no position to fight it either.

Not when Higgins dragged him up the stairs, not when Higgins turned on the kitchen light and backed into the corner, gun pointed out with Billy as his human shield.

In this defensive position, he could feel Billy’s clammy skin beneath his touch, his fluttery heartbeat easy to detect. He was breathing too shallowly, trembling against Higgins even as he adjusted his grip to hold Collins tighter. It might have been the slow decline from the injury; maybe it was fear.

The truth, in this case, was not important.

What was important was the four armed men, with their guns trained on Higgins.

One of them tilted his head, smirking. “I’m not sure I understand your choice here,” he said.

With a few words, Higgins could trace the accent. German.

That was probably to be expected.

He swallowed lifted his head. “I came up to talk.”

The man quirked his eyebrows. “You came up because of the smoke in your panic room.”

“Yes,” Higgins said, smiling a little. Billy shifted in his grip, his breathing turning noisy. Higgins didn’t flinch. “That was impressive.”

“Your forethought presented something of a challenge,” the man continued. “I expected less, I’m afraid, all things considered.”

Higgins flattened his mouth. “We are more than one failed mission.”

The man narrowed his eyes in response. “Easy to say when you survived.”

“And what is it to you?” Higgins asked. “You weren’t there.”

“My motives and my employer are my business,” the man replied.

“And what is your mission?” Higgins asked. “Because this is a pretty poor assassination attempt?”

“I admit, I am displeased to see the outcome of my cohorts,” he said. “I take it that this is Billy Collins?”

Billy grunted at the sound of his name. Higgins jerked him closer and steadied his aim, even as the other men all tweaked their aim directly on Higgins’ head. “The lone survivor,” he confirmed. “He lives up to his name. For now.”

“I do not know why you think his presence matters to us,” the man said. “Killing him was always part of the plan.”

“And killing me?” Higgins asked. “Why haven’t you killed me yet?”

“If we wanted you dead, we would have barricaded the panic room,” the man said.

“So what do you want?” Higgins asked, keeping himself steady and erect.

“The truth,” the man replied.

“You know the truth, I presume,” Higgins said.

“Yes,” the man said. “But no one else does. For years, this burden has been carried, these losses have been attributed to the wrong places. You protected yourself at the expense of those who called you friend.”

“I couldn’t say anything, even if I wanted to,” Higgins said. “It is classified--”

“Which is nothing more than a man made distinction,” the man broke in. “You can tell anyone any time you please.”

“My employer--”

“The CIA would blacklist you,” the man confirmed. “You would become a pariah. You could face prosecution. And then you would know the hardship endured by those you left out to dry during the mission that started this.”

Higgins shrugged one shoulder, feeling Billy start to sag against him more. His consciousness was fleeting; Higgins was running out of time. “Do you know what started this? Do you really?”

“I know many German operatives lost their lives,” the man said. “And many more lost their positions thanks to faulty intelligence from the Americans.”

“It was never that simple,” Higgins said.

The man stepped forward. “Your excuses are meaningless.”

“You came for the truth,” Higgins said. “So let me tell you the truth.”

“You are wasting my time--”

“The mission was my idea,” Higgins said. “It was my team that found the first strands of intelligence regarding homegrown terror organizations. When we found links back to the UK, they informed us of links across Europe with the center located in Germany. All the chatter suggested something big was coming, and we didn’t want to wait to find out. The British wanted to go in alone. I was the one who insisted we bring in our allies. I thought it would be a win for everyone; I thought it’d be safer.”

The man sneered. “Safer? It was a bloodbath.”

“There were oversights I couldn’t account for,” he said. “I sent my operatives in to that same bloodbath. If I had known--”

“You still made the choice--”

“We all made the choice,” Higgins said as Billy shifted his stance slightly, whimpering. “We all had the same intelligence. We all crosschecked the sources. We all agreed.”

“Everyone died; everyone lost their position,” the man said, stepping even closer. “Except you. That is convenient.”

Higgins pursed his lips, tugging Collins slightly in response. “And some green kid from the UK,” he said, tipping the gun slightly toward Billy. “This stupid kid. He was never one of mine.”

“Then why have you been protecting him?” the man asked.

“Because he’s a loose end,” Higgins said. “There’s more than one way to tie up a loose end. Some people like murder, but I find that rather preemptive.”

The man hesitated. “What do you mean?”

“Meaning, I always thought he could be useful,” Higgins explained in exasperation. “And you almost ruined our best out.”

The man said nothing, regarding Higgins cautiously.

Higgins shook Billy slightly, eliciting a yelp. “A fall guy,” he said. “You want someone to bear the face of the shame, well here he is.”

“Well that is convenient,” the man said, sounding bemused. But then he edged even closer as the other men tensed. “But it lets you abdicate responsibility. I have been hired to punish both of you.”

Higgins’ heart skipped a beat. The palms of his hands were sweating; his arm was starting to tremble.

He was too damn old for this.

Choices.

All these years.

Just a few more minutes.

“I’m sure we can work something,” Higgins said with a disarming smile. “Perhaps you’d like to take him? Consider it a down payment?”

The man frowned. “What?”

Higgins held his breath; waiting. His sense of timing used to be better when he was younger. His instincts had been stronger. Maybe he was stupid to try this; maybe he was nothing more than a washed up old man. A bureaucrat who used to be a good operative. Now he was no different than Ray Bishop except people still counted on him.

He was still responsible for everything.

His choices mattered.

His choices.

He exhaled and loosened his grip, lifting his hands with a smirk. “I always knew Collins would be good for something.”

Billy took one step before faltering, staggering forward and stumbling to his knees. The man responded in surprise, stepping back to avoid getting hit. As Collins toppled further, his knees giving out, the tension in the room shifted and Higgins fired once, taking out the man with a clean shot to the chest, before dropping down as gunfire broke out.

The first shot splintered the wall above him.

The next broke through the windows and came from the now open doors. The gunmen scattered when the realized their position had been compromised, and the chaotic firing was too furious to further identify.

Instead, Higgins drew himself into a defensive position, knocking over the small table and barricading himself behind it. Glancing past the dead man, he reached out and pulled Collins with him, covering the injured man with his body and pressing them both against the wall as the gunfire continued to explode.

After the failed mission, Higgins had stopped taking chances; he’d stopped giving up control.

But this mission had never ended. So much of Higgins control had been an illusion. Because there was only so much one person could do. Sometimes it worked out.

Sometimes it didn’t.

He closed his eyes, holding Collins tight as he tried to make himself smaller. Head of Covert Operations -- his distinction meant nothing now. A bullet could kill him just like it could any man. Without his desk, without his paperwork, without his protocols, he realized he didn’t really have much else.

All he could do was make the best choices possible -- and hope for the best.

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