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

September 1st, 2014 (07:41 pm)
enthralled

feeling: enthralled

Split for LJ. Part One has notes and etc.



-o-

When the gunfire stopped, Higgins allowed himself to breathe. The sound was still ringing in his ears, and his heartbeat was roaring with adrenaline. If he’d ever missed the field, this little jaunt was a quick cure for that.

Assuming it didn’t kill him.

Blinking, Higgins realized his eyes were open. More than that, he was still alive.

And he wasn’t shot.

Looking down, everything appeared intact and there was nothing more than the makings of a headache and the unsettled feeling of an adrenaline crash to suggest that anything had happened at all.

Then he looked around. That was a conclusion he’d reached too soon.

Because looking around his kitchen, there was plenty of evidence that a lot had happened. The body of the leader was a short distance away, still and bleeding. He could see another body slumped against the wall and one with his feet sticking out from the hallway. There was a hand flailed out from behind the island, and there were several visible puddles of blood on his linoleum.

Then, of course, there were the bullet holes -- everywhere.

His table was a splintered mess, and his chairs were knocked over and broken. The cabinets were lost causes, and he could see his dishes, broken and scattered about. His countertop was marred and his backsplash was shattered. Even his appliances were riddled, and the walls were mostly destroyed.

To say the damage was extensive was putting it mildly.

And Higgins, without a scratch on him.

Then he looked down, where Collins was still tucked tightly into a ball on the floor. Swallowing, Higgins refused to call it fear as he rolled the other man over, pulling him away from the wall and laying him out on his back. The Scotsman was ghostly white now, his forehead clammy to the touch. He was breathing noisily, the shallow rattles a clear indication that his condition was deteriorating.

A quick examination revealed that he had received no further injuries -- but his bandage was bloody and with his other obvious symptoms, Collins was going into shock.

Behind him, someone cursed.

Higgins didn’t even turn around. “I assume you’ve called emergency personnel,” he said flatly, reaching for a stray placement to ball up and press into the wound.

Michael Dorset came to his knees next to him. “Martinez has them on the line.”

There was more movement behind him. “Area is secure,” Malick called.

Higgins glanced back. “Did you check the--”

“We got the guy in the attic,” Malick confirmed. “You had quite the infestation.”

Higgins worked his jaw, turning his eyes back to Collins. “I am aware.”

“This isn’t from the firefight,” Michael observed, nodding toward Billy.

“No,” Higgins replied, keeping his arms steady as Collins laid still beneath his touch. “This was from the assassination attempt at his house.”

To Dorset’s credit, he didn’t flinch at the revelation. “And Billy didn’t call us until now?”

“He didn’t call you at all,” Higgins replied tersely. “That was my call.”

Michael narrowed his eyes. “I usually don’t like to admit this, but I’m not sure I follow.”

Higgins sighed, too tired and too frayed to put up much of a defense or to even capitalize on Dorset’s unprecedented weakness. But the fact was that he’d almost died tonight. His past had caught up with him and attacked him in a personal and to the point manner. Higgins kept a lot of secrets, but none had haunted him like this.

He looked at Collins, and he could still see the kid MI6 kicked out. No one else had wanted him -- Higgins hadn’t wanted him -- but it’d been his responsibility.

It still was.

“There are many things you don’t know about Billy Collins,” he said finally, lifting his gaze to meet Michael’s. “And there are even more that you don’t know about me.”

Michael wanted to ask, but he was smart enough to know that there were answers he wasn’t going to get. Instead, he nodded. “You’re lucky we came, then,” he said.

“An SOS from Collins’ phone?” Higgins asked with an arched eyebrow. “There were many lucky things tonight, but your response wasn’t one of them.”

“How can you be so sure?” Michael asked, cagey.

“Because I happen to know a lot more about Billy Collins than you do,” he said. A wry smile played on his lips. “And he always has an out.”

Michael looked somewhat impressed. “You really do know something about it,” he said. “All these years, I thought you were trying to know him as little as possible.”

“It’s my job,” Higgins said, eyes on Collins again. “It’s always been my job.”

In the distance, he heard sirens.

“Ambulance is almost here,” Martinez called, coming into the kitchen. “Is Billy--”

“Down,” Michael confirmed.

“Bad?” Malick asked.

“When does Billy ever do anything halfway?” Michael replied.

Martinez muttered what sounded like the start of a prayer. “Do we, um, have a cover story?”

“Not my area of expertise,” Malick said.

Higgins looked to Dorset.

Dorset looked at Billy. “That’s my job,” he said, getting to his feet and leaving Higgins with Billy. “Martinez, I want you to sneak out and meet Billy at the hospital. The fewer people we have here when the authorities arrive the better. Malick, follow my lead.”

“But--” Martinez started.

“No buts,” Dorset snapped.

Higgins kept his eyes on Billy, and let Dorset determine the rest. Higgins was used to being in control, but all of his energy was going into keep Collins alive. He didn’t have the ability to do anything else.

Normally that would bother him. It would grate on his nerves and test his thinning patience.

Tonight, though, Higgins would take what he could get.

-o-

The ambulance arrived first, with a firetruck not far behind. In many ways, Higgins was relieved that he was still putting pressure on Collins’ wound. When he finally let go and saw the cops start to crawl through his home, it made him feel twitchy.

He had a great deal of respect for law enforcement officers. They were necessary and important players in society.

They were also overly armed, poorly informed and generally lacked sufficient training. And a great deal too many of them had an over-inflated sense of their capabilities, which Higgins found tedious.

And now they were in his home.

Taking pictures.

Collecting evidence.

Higgins didn’t have much fear about legal ramifications -- whatever story Dorset came up with, the Agency would provide enough information to corroborate it -- but it was an inconvenience. From Collins to assassins to the cops, Higgins had had more than his share of that tonight.

As one of the cops approached him, Michael came up behind him and patted him on the shoulder. “Are you riding with Billy?”

It was an odd question, and Higgins first response was to reject the idea. It was too sentimental, and Higgins already had enough blood on his hands. He did his work from an office. He did paperwork and sent flowers.

He didn’t make hospital visits.

The cop had out his notebook, and he was eyeing Higgins expectantly.

Michael inclined his head knowingly.

And Higgins understood. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I certainly am.”

The cop frowned. “Sir, I need a statement--”

“Can we do it at the hospital?” Higgins asked. He feigned shock. “I am feeling a bit woozy.”

The cop wanted to argue, but Higgins knew how he appeared. An old man who lived alone. His house had been terrorized; he’d been attacked. Bloodied and rumpled, Higgins made a compelling case for compassion.

This was another reason why cops were to be pitied. Sometimes they put people first.

The cop nodded sympathetically. “Okay, but I’m going to need a statement--”

“You can start with me,” Dorset said, sidestepping around Higgins. “I saw everything.”

For the first time in his life, Higgins was grateful for Michael Dorset.

-o-

Grateful for the escape as he was, Higgins didn’t realize its full implications until he was crammed inside the back of an ambulance with Billy Collins on a stretcher. The medics had already cut away Billy’s shirt, removing the soiled bandage and replacing it with a new one. He was wearing an oxygen mask, and there were monitors attached to his chest to measure his vital signs.

To the point, Collins was alive. Given that that had been one of his main goals of the evening, Higgins should have felt some sense of relief.

The emotion roiling in his gut, though, felt like anything but. The years of hidden truths; all the facts he’d obfuscated. All the lives that had been lost, and Billy Collins was still alive. If Higgins was responsible for that, he was equally responsible for that fact that he nearly died in the first place.

He dropped his head to hands; he could still remember when the support team arrived and relayed the body count. So many agents. Failures happened, but not like that.

Higgins looked up again, studying Collins’ face.

They shouldn’t happen like that.

The medic adjust a monitor, then made a note. He looked at Higgins with a banal smile. “What’s your relationship?” he asked, nodding toward Billy.

Higgins’ voice stuck in his throat. A simple question, perhaps, but it didn’t have a simple answer. He was Collins’ boss, not that he could say that out loud. And at this point, did it even do it justice? Did it even capture what he’d done for Billy after MI6 had let him go? Did it come close to representing the role Higgins had played in nearly ending his life while harpooning his career?

Billy Collins wasn’t an operative. He wasn’t an employee. He wasn’t even a friend.

He breathed out, massaging his temples. “He’s my responsibility,” he answered, because sometimes the truth was worth speaking.

Sometimes the truth was the only thing left.

-o-

When they arrived at the hospital, it was a palpable relief. Collins’ vitals had stayed stable if weak, and Higgins had no reason to doubt the capabilities of the medical staff. Higgins knew how to delegate; this was one of those times.

As he made his way wearily the the waiting room, however, he found himself at a loss. A lot had happened -- too much perhaps -- and Higgins was supposed to have a plan. He was supposed to know exactly what to do and exactly how to do it.

But Higgins didn’t have any plans. He had no solutions; he had no answers.

His hands, covered in blood, were empty, and his mind, tired and overworked, was blank. His body ached; he felt old.

After decades in the Agency, Higgins wasn’t used to feeling useless. He rarely felt confined by the limitations of civilians. Most spies had God complexes, and Higgins’ was more acute than most.

It was also a fallacy.

He should have figured that out years ago, but spies didn’t like to admit defeat. And Higgins was out of the field, but that had never changed.

As he shuffled aimlessly through the halls, he almost ran into Martinez before he recognized the younger man.

“Is he okay?” Martinez asked, his dark eyes intense and lines of worry creasing his forehead.

Higgins frowned. “Collins?”

Rick’s eyes widened. “Is someone else hurt?”

“Only the assailants back at my home,” Higgins conceded.

Martinez nodded expectantly. “So, Billy--”

“Is alive,” Higgins informed him wearily. “His vitals were stable and the wound shouldn’t be fatal.”

“Did the doctor tell you that?” Martinez asked.

Higgins pinned him with a tired look. “I realize you’ve only seen me behind my desk, Mr. Martinez, but please remember that I did spend quite a bit of time in the field.”

“I know, but--”

“If the wound were inherently life threatening, Collins would be dead by now,” he reported, matter of fact. “Granted, he’s gone without treatment and lost a lot of blood--”

Martinez paled.

“But I suspect he’ll be fine,” Higgins finished, emphasizing the last point.

“You’re sure?” Rick asked, his voice threatening to break. “I mean, you’re pretty sure?”

Higgins sighed. Martinez was young; he was green. Higgins didn’t have much patience for inexperience, and he found patriotism to be a trait that could be exploited. Martinez had defied him and backed his team, which made him an unreliable mole but probably an acceptable operative. Higgins was too busy to hold a personal grudge, and he always took some comfort in the fact that Martinez’s defiance would be grounded in honesty.

This wasn’t about that, though. This wasn’t office politics. Most of the time, Higgins couldn’t avoid that, but sometimes he had to overlook it entirely. That was what kept him human, even while trying to control the fates of nations.

“I realize you are new to this team, Mr. Martinez,” Higgins began. “But let me assure you in no uncertain terms that they do not quit. They do not give up. Billy Collins more than the rest. It is his worst quality sometimes, but it’s also his best.”

A smile started to tug at Rick’s lips, something like gratitude shining in his eyes. “Are you going to wait?”

“No,” Higgins said. “I think it’s time for me to get back to work.”

“But Billy--”

“Is in good hands,” Higgins said. “That is why you’re here, am I correct?”

“Well, yeah--”

“Besides,” Higgins said. “I have a feeling that I need to avoid the police a little longer until I can confirm the cover story with Dorset.”

Rick nodded slightly. “So back to work then? Just like that?”

Higgins offered an avuncular smile. “It’s always been about work,” he said, starting to move around Martinez.

Martinez turned. “Are you going to tell me what really happened back there? Why those men were there to kill you?”

Higgins paused. He inclined his head. “Give Mr. Collins my regard when he wakes,” he said instead of answering the question. “You will have tomorrow off, of course, but I will expect the ODS to start limiting their shifts in the hospital after that.”

Rick’s mouth fell open.

Higgins smirked, tipping his head once more before turning and continuing toward the exit.

-o-

Once he got outside, it occurred to him that he had no means of getting home. He’d ridden in the ambulance, and he hadn’t had the forethought to arrange for someone to pick him up. He should have demanded keys from Martinez, but he was proud enough of his exit that he didn’t plan on messing it up by going back and groveling to a rookie operative.

Twenty years ago, he would have walked back. It wasn’t that Higgins doubted he was capable of the distance, but it hardly seemed like a prudent use of his time. It was late; he was tired. He was also a material witness in what was surely now an active homicide case, and there was always the possibility that he was still on a hit list somewhere.

So a slow, leisurely walk in the dark probably wasn’t the best way to go.

Forty years ago, when he was new and eager, he might have just borrowed a car. It wasn’t exactly legal, but he knew how to go about it without exactly getting caught. No harm, no foul.

But then, he’d been young and foolish back then. He’d had years to learn that right and wrong were not merely random dictates designed to make life more complicated. They were the inconveniences that kept life together at all. That was his job now. To make order from the chaos.

No easy task, that much was certain, but he’d always thought it noble.

He looked down at his blood-stained hands.

He didn’t know exactly what it felt like now.

As a younger man, he’d had exit strategies and backup plans. He hadn’t been so unlike Collins, always ready with an out, apt to land on his feet regardless. Some people would think he’d just lost his touch, and Higgins couldn’t deny that the years had eroded some of it away. That was the nature of getting older, after all.

But it was more than that. Higgins had given it up, traded it in. He’d moved from the field to an office, and the more entrenched he became, the more he realized that he couldn’t just leave. People counted on him; entire programs depended on him. He had a role, and if he left, there would be nothing but chaos in his wake.

No, for Higgins, there was just one thing left to do.

He had to go home.

-o-

He had the cab drop him off a few blocks from home. It wasn’t that he was trying to avoid his obvious responsibilities, but a little discretion always went a long way. He still didn’t know exactly what cover story he was supposed to tell, and while he had some Agency resources at his disposal to bail him out if needed, his intent had always been to keep this off the books.

Which was why he needed Michael Dorset.

When he approached, he still saw the flash of lights. The area was still swarming with cops and they had forgone ambulances, calling the ME’s office instead.

Higgins sighed.

“Not going to say hi?”

Higgins cast a wary eye toward the light pole, where Michael Dorset was standing with a cigarette. “I didn’t realized you smoked,” he mused.

Dorset shrugged, flicking the small stick while ash fell away. “Terrible for your health,” he agreed. “But a great way to get permission to leave a crime scene.”

Higgins offered up a weary if knowing smile. “I’ll bet they’re having a field day,” he mused.

“It’s going to make headlines tomorrow,” Michael said. “Not much I can do about that.”

Grimacing, Higgins rubbed the back of his neck. “How bad?”

“Bad,” Dorset confirmed. But then he shrugged. “It could have been worse.”

“Oh?” he asked.

“Malick got the panic room closed before the cops could find it,” Dorset reported.

“That still won’t minimize the questions surrounding the body count,” Higgins countered.

“True, but thankfully no one knows you work for the CIA,” Dorset said knowingly. “According to all official reports, H.J. Higgins is a museum curator. I’m willing to bet that when they finally run the prints off our little welcoming committee, that they’re going to come up with hits in the Interpol database for art theft and fraud.”

Higgins narrowed his eyes. “And how can we bet on that?”

“Criminals,” Michael said with a shrug. “And I’ve got a few favors I can pull in.”

It was duplicitous and underhanded. It was using all the right resources for all the wrong reasons. It was exactly what the ODS would do, and Higgins would call them out on it every single time.

Except this one.

Because he couldn’t. Drawing his lips together, he breathed heavily through his nose. “The cops are buying your theory?”

“That our perps broke in to blackmail you into help them steal art?” Dorset asked. “It’s far fetched, but there’s no other plausible reason for four armed men to break into the home of a museum curator with an impeccable record.”

Higgins looked uncertain.

Michael tossed his cigarette on the ground, grinding it with his toe. “You’re lucky that you had friends over for dinner,” he said.

“And the bodies at Collins’ apartment?” Higgins asked.

“Well, that depends,” Michael said. “The CIA doesn’t have authority to operate within US borders.”

Higgins sighed. “Are you really suggesting that we tamper with a crime scene?”

“I’m saying that moving those bodies to a neutral location and calling in a tip can easily set it up to make it look like an internal hit job from our friends here,” Dorset said. “Unless you want the cops to dig into your connection with Billy and why we lied and said he was shot here.”

Michael raised his eyebrows. “Contrary to your belief, I don’t like death, lies and chaos,” he said. “I just know they have their place from time to time.”

“Yes,” Higgins muttered. “I suppose they do.”

There was a lapse in the conversation, and Michael seemed to hesitate. “You know, I’m doing you a favor.”

Higgins was not surprised by the statement. “You came for Collins.”

“And you don’t think we would have come for you?” Dorset asked.

It was something he hadn’t considered, in all honesty. It was something that he’d never consider doing. If it’d been him, he would have probably opted to go down with the ship, as it were. But it hadn’t been just him. Spies didn’t trust each other; it simply wasn’t inherent to their nature. That was another way in which the ODS defied all Agency norms -- they trusted each other implicitly.

Higgins would never admit it, but sometimes he envied them that. It was what made them as good as they were. It was why he’d hoped Martinez could be an easy ploy to divide them. He had been there once, but it had fallen apart. Maybe it had been Ray Bishop’s overconfidence; maybe it had been the natural fraying of tensions as time went on. Maybe Higgins had gotten too controlling, but teams didn’t stay together indefinitely.

He wondered if this current incarnation of the ODS would defy the odds.

He wondered if he wanted them to.

Finally, Higgins shook his head. “Tell me what you want, Dorset,” he said flatly. “But let me warn you, your capacity to blackmail me does not exist, not without taking Collins down too.”

“That’s the point,” Dorset said. “Billy. Why was he here?”

Higgins stopped at that, because it was a facet of the situation he had not truly appreciated until now. He’d been the one to take Collins in at the CIA, which made him privy to his full personnel file. He’d had most of it redacted for all obvious reasons, and he’d never told a soul.

He’d trusted Collins to keep it quiet, too, but he’d never considered how much the ODS knew about Billy’s past. Everyone knew he was ex-MI6 -- how could they not, with how Collins prattled on -- but the official story had never been breached. There were rumors, and Higgins had heard them all, and none of them were close.

But within a team like the ODS, secrets were a different thing. And Dorset didn’t take well to unknown entities. Surely he’d pieced some things together, although there were enough details that had been destroyed to make the big picture impossible.

In this, it was a secret between himself and Collins. It made them two unlikely allies.

“He’s my operative,” Higgins said finally. “Like you said, I’d extend the same favor to any of you--”

Michael shook his head. “No,” he said. “You don’t take in strays. And there’s more to this. We can give the cops a bad cover story, but I know better. You and Billy are connected in this. I don’t know if it’s his mess or yours or both, but there’s more to this.”

“You’re right,” Higgins said. “I don’t take in strays. So ask yourself, why would I grant asylum to a MI6 washout as one of my first duties as new Director?”

“You wanted somebody who owed you a favor?”

Higgins smiled ruefully. “More like I owed someone a favor.”

“MI6?”

“MI6 didn’t care about Collins,” Higgins said, short and bitter. “They were going to cut him loose and hang him out to dry.”

Michael frowned. “So--”

“So I owed Collins the favor,” he said, slow and certain. “The reasons why are not your concern, but trust me when I say that what happened to Billy Collins -- and a lot of other good men and women -- was partially my fault. And I couldn’t make it up to the rest of them, but I could make it up to him.”

Dorset took this in, finally nodding. “And now?”

“And now,” Higgins said wearily. “I’m ready to go home. Unless you had some further bargaining chip you wanted to wager?”

Dorset made a face. “Nah.”

Higgins feigned surprise. “This is probably your one chance.”

“You took care of Billy,” Dorset said. “I think we can call it even.”

Higgins watched the other man, looking for a trace of malice or deceit. There was both, of course, but they were spies. It was to be expected. He didn’t trust Michael Dorset with everything, and he suspected he’d pay for this in some way down the line, but he trusted Dorset with this much.

Because Dorset trusted him with Collins.

There were few things Michael would lay down for but his team was one of them.

“Very well,” Higgins said. “It seems we’re on the same side for once.”

Michael chuckled. “I think we’re on the same side more often than not.”

“Yes,” Higgins said grimly. “But I’d rather that not be a known fact.”

Michael grinned. “Agreed.”

“So,” Higgins said. “Shall we?”

Michael gestured before him. “After you. It is your home, after all.”

Higgins made a face, trudging toward the police barricade. “At least it used to be.”

-o-

It wasn’t much of a cover story, but Higgins had been a spy for a long time. He’d made do with less. The cops asked every question imaginable; Higgins always had an answer. Dorset laid a foundation; Higgins built an entire house so perfectly logical and complex that it would never fall.

By the dawn, the cops had finished their questions and apologized, telling Higgins that he couldn’t stay here for a week or so, until the crime scene was cleared. They didn’t expect any complications; it seemed straightforward enough. Self-defense, and no DA in the world would look to pursue charges otherwise.

“We will need you to stay in town,” one of the cops said sympathetically. “Just until we get things finalized.”

Higgins forced a smile. “Of course,” he said. “Where else would I go?”

-o-

With a small suitcase of clothing and personal items, Higgins found himself on the curb of his own home. The neighbors were milling about conspicuously now; they’d been telling stories for hours already.

Sighing, Higgins wearily contemplated his options.

“You need someplace to stay?” Dorset asked. He’d been forced to stay around all night, even after Malick had agreed to go to the police station for questioning.

Higgins gave him a look. “Somehow I don’t think you’re offering a spare room,” he said. “Besides, I don’t think you have one to spare. Didn’t Ms. Carson sell your house?”

Michael didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, thanks for that, by the way,” Dorset said with a wry smile. “Just when I was starting to think you may not be all bad.”

Higgins shook his head. “Very few people are ever all bad,” he said. “We are on the same side.”

“Seems like I should be the one reminding you of that,” Dorset said. He paused. “You were impressive.”

Higgins arched an eyebrow. “You didn’t think I survived this long on the Agency without a bit of talent, did you?”

Dorset shrugged. “There are many ways to succeed as a spy.”

“No,” Higgins replied. “There’s really not. The good ones are all the same in the end.”

Dorset looked skeptical.

“Give it time,” Higgins advised. “And then talk to me in 20 years, and we’ll see where you’re at.”

“Doesn’t change right now, though,” Dorset said. “Do you need a ride?”

Higgins looked at Michael, and for once there was no sign of ulterior motives. There was a semblance of respect there, not that he’d admit it.

Not that Higgins would admit that maybe it was mutual. Friends didn’t get very far in the spy game. Rivals, on the other hand.

Higgins shook his head. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“You think I should go in today?” Dorset asked.

“Collins,” Higgins said. “Martinez on his own at the hospital. And aren’t you technically the next of kin?”

Michael paled somewhat, swallowing hard. “I never did thank you--” he started awkwardly. “For saving Billy’s life.”

“Yes,” Higgins said. “Believe me, you did.”

Dorset considered that. Most tellingly, he didn’t disagree.

“Now go,” Higgins said brusquely. “If I see any of the ODS for the next week, believe me, it will be far, far too soon.”

Michael’s face twisted into a small, secretive grin. Only, for once, this was a secret they would share. “Yes, sir.”

-o-

Higgins didn’t have any family in the area. He didn’t have any actual friends. There were certainly subordinates he could infringe himself upon, but he saw no reason to act desperate.

Because, yes, his home was a crime scene. It was true, assassins had dredged up his past and very nearly killed him. Higgins had done more field work in one night than he had in the past ten years. He had no place to stay and barely more than the clothes on his back.

But he wasn’t desperate.

The head of Covert Operations was never desperate.

Instead, he called a cab and went in to the office. He used a private bathroom to shower and change, shaving and brushing his teeth before neatly adjusting the extra suit he’d been permitted to take from his home. By the time he was behind his desk, nursing a cup of coffee, the morning was in full swing at the Agency -- and no one was any the wiser.

His assistant shuffled papers across his desk. A stack of mission reports needed to be finalized. His calendar was full of appointments, with congressional aides, department heads and a few operatives looking to pitch their latest intel. He had a few international calls and a number of other pressing items to attend to.

He filled out the paperwork for the ODS, granting them emergency time off. For Collins, he drew up a medical compensation form. When it asked for an operations number, Higgins left it blank.

“But sir--” his aide had said, somewhat frantic.

Higgins waved his hand. “It’s fine.”

“But the operations number--”

“I said, it’s fine,” Higgins replied.

“But we can’t--”

Higgins looked up at him, glaring. “I’m the head of covert operations,” he said. “This time, I say we can. Do you understand?”

The aide stood, mouth open, shell shocked. He gathered the papers, tucking them into his folder. “Anything else, sir?”

He forced a smile. “If there is, I’m sure I’ll let you know.”

-o-

The day was frustratingly normal. There was a crisis overseas, and he had to pull the plug on an operation. He greenlit another in Asia, and ordered the reshuffling of a spy network in Lebanon. He got a few angry phone calls. He got a few thankful ones.

Then, got a call from his boss. “I hear there was an incident.”

“It’s taken care of,” he replied.

“Are you certain?”

Higgins grimaced, tapping his pen on his desk. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I’ve got my best team working on it.”

“If anything about this goes public…”

“I know.”

“We can’t have any liability.”

Higgins pressed his lips together. “I know.”

“Clean it up, then,” came the warning. “I told you years ago, I never wanted to hear about this again.”

“I can assure you, you won’t.”

There was a pause. “Very good,” he said. “I am glad to hear that you’re okay. An entire team of assassins?”

“Well, sir,” Higgins said. “I had some help.”

“You’ve always been too modest, Higgins. It may be your biggest flaw.”

The call disconnected, and Higgins hung up the phone carefully. “Somehow,” he said to himself. “I seriously doubt that.”

-o-

That was how it was, though. Successes were rarely celebrated. Failures were marked as lessons to learn from. The only second chances were the ones you made for yourself. It was hard, but true. Higgins didn’t make those rules; he could only abide by them the best way possible.

Somewhere, people died and operations failed, but for tonight, all of Higgins’ operatives would be safe and sound.

Higgins chewed his lip, glancing at the clock.

At least, he hoped they would be.

-o-

Before she left, Fay put a newspaper on his desk. “You’re really not going to talk about this?”

Higgins glanced down. The headline was on the third page. Art Curator Attacked; Defends Property.

He looked up at her. “Why would I?”

“It says you killed four men,” Fay pointed out. “Everyone knows that’s not a coincidence.”

Higgins gave her a banal smile. “Then everyone should also know that details will not be forthcoming.”

“Three members of the ODS are identified as your house guests,” Fay said, more insistent now. “And Collins is in the hospital.”

Higgins sighed. “Really, Ms. Carson, I thought you to be better than this.”

“It’s a legitimate question,” she argued.

“And it has a legitimate answer,” Higgins assured her.

“But no one gets to know,” Fay said.

“Some secrets are worth dying for,” Higgins confirmed. He hesitated. “Have you heard from Dorset about Collins’ condition?”

Fay collected her paper, studying him. “He’s alive,” she said. “Critical but stable. They think if he makes it through the night, he’ll be okay.”

Higgins refused to show any hint of relief. That wasn’t his place -- not as far as Ms. Carson was concerned. “Then, I think that’s what matters now,” he said decidedly. “Don’t you?”

She narrowed her gaze, but nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Because Higgins was right. As per usual, his reasoning was flawless and expertly delineated.

Watching her go, he just wished that meant as much as it used to.

-o-

He worked late, which wasn’t really all that unusual. He was one of the last to clock out, leaving the building as the nighttime shift was doing its second rotation. He inclined his head, suddenly grateful for the Agency car he’d been allowed to borrow for the night. It wasn’t his, but it wasn’t as humiliating as calling a taxi.

Still, that night he checked himself into a motel. It was too cheap probably, but it had decent defensibility and with roadside access, it wasn’t a death trap at least.

He was being paranoid -- obviously -- but not without reason. And after last night, he figured he was entitled to indulge his gnawing doubts a bit more than usual. He puttered around, checking the windows and re-locking the door. Settling on the bed, he ate his takeout from the box, washing it down with a bottle of water. He considered turning on the TV, but he didn’t want the noise and the lights to distract him.

Not that there was anything else to do. He’d only brought a few sparse papers home -- things he couldn’t be without -- but other than that, he hadn’t deemed anything an acceptable security risk. That meant he had all night alone in a musty motel room, just him and...nothing. A few cable channels, room service, and a hot shower.

It was no way to live, not long term.

He didn’t know how Collins did it.

The thought made him pause, his gut twisting almost guiltily. He was the one who had given Collins a second chance, but he hadn’t given the man much more than that to build a life on. After all these years, Collins was still living in a crappy motel room. Though the former MI6 agent would always call it a personal choice, Higgins knew that personal choices weren’t always choices. Sometimes they were the lesser of two evils.

Collins had to suspect his past would come back to get him, either from an assassin at his door or another deportation notice in his mailbox. Higgins always liked to think he’d done right by Collins, but now he wasn’t so sure.

After yesterday, Higgins wasn’t really sure of anything.

Sighing, he put down his food and glanced at the clock. It had been nearly 24 hours. Aside from his one update from Ms. Carson, Higgins hadn’t checked in with the ODS at all. They would understand, most certainly -- more than anyone else. Too many phones calls -- leaving any kind of record -- would only lead to more suspicion.

Yet, one call…

It would be a minor risk, but at this point, it probably didn’t matter. There was indulging paranoia and then there was doing the right thing. That was how this began, didn’t it? Higgins became a spy to do the right thing; he became director to do the better thing. He took Collins in because it had been right and he hadn’t turned him away last night because it was good.
One phone call.

Plucking his phone off the bedside table, Higgins scrolled until he found the number. Dorset answered after one ring.

“I assume everything is in order?” Higgins asked without any word of greeting.

Dorset, as expected, didn’t need any explanation. “The crime scene has been squared away,” he said. “We got lucky on a few of the perps, and we only had to embellish their wanted records slightly on Interpol. I am curious who they really work for--”

“Forward the information, sealed, to my office,” Higgins said. “And I will make sure their boss is never a problem again.”

“If you need help--” Dorset ventured, not entirely altruistically.

Higgins knew better than to reject the offer outright. “Then I’ll know who to call,” he replied shortly. Then, he paused. “And Collins’ condition. Is he--”

“Better,” Michael said. “Woke up this evening. Still pretty out of it, but it looks good.”

It looked good. An optimistic prognosis.

They would put this behind them. They would move on.

After all these years, it might finally be over.

Higgins wasn’t one for home, but he couldn’t deny himself this.

“Very good,” he said, prim and matter of fact. “I assume you’ll call me if there are any complications.”

“With Billy, or the mission?”

“Like I said,” Higgins said again. “Any complications.”

“Understood,” Michael replies. “And you’ll call me if any...complications arise?”

“In our line of work?” Higgins asked wryly.

Michael chuckled. “I think you know what I mean.”

“For once,” Higgins said congenially, “I think maybe I do.”

-o-

Higgins didn’t sleep that night. It wasn’t because he was scared; it wasn’t because he had flashbacks to the night before or jerked awake every time he nodded off with his heart pounding.

No, it was entirely practical.

He used his burner phone and called MI6. Then, he called Germany. It took some time, and he called in a few favors, but when he got all parties on the line, he explained everything. From the start to the finish, in detail he had never given before, not to anyone. He’d hardly even admitted it to himself.

It had been a mistake, and it had been his fault even if he’d done nothing wrong. He owed people apologies, and he would give that freely since he could give nothing else. Because his faults had consequences, but they did not warrant his life.

And they didn’t warrant the life of the one operative that got lucky enough just to survive.

Higgins made that clearer than the rest. This had to be over. They’d lived with this skeleton in the closet; this ghost had haunted them all. It was time to clear everything out and exorcise the demons.

In short, it was time to move on.

Not everyone agreed with him, but Higgins wasn’t a pushover. He hadn’t made it this far caving to everyone who disagreed -- even vehemently -- with him. When he was right, he didn’t back down.

There were angry words; there were threats. There was talk of a public apology, and Higgins wasn’t opposed to falling on his sword, but it wouldn’t bring anyone back. It would only put people at risk to assuage a few hurt feelings.

Some secrets were worth dying for.

Others, Higgins decided, really weren’t.

“It’s over, gentlemen,” Higgins said. “We should let the dead rest in peace, knowing they died honorably no matter what compromises were made.”

And the living -- well, they would finally live.

-o-

That was that.

Higgins wasn’t one to linger -- he didn’t have the time or energy, and regret was an impractical trait to harbor in his line of work. There were good decisions and bad ones; there were positive outcomes and less than positive ones. He didn’t always get what he wanted, but he made peace with that and did the best he could with whatever he had left.

The cops closed the case, and the DA declined to press charges. It was self defense; even among all the lies, that much was abundantly clear. He moved back home and started to pick up the pieces. He patched the holes in the walls and took stock of his broken dishes. He ordered new appliances and got a few quotes on cabinetry. It took some time to fix his security system, and he started looking in to advanced ventilation systems while meticulously restocking his panic room.

He made contact with some of his assets, putting in a word to listen to chatter from Europe, just in case. The ODS, sans Collins, was back at work, starting quietly where they’d left off. One of his bosses conducted a formal internal review -- standard procedure, in these cases -- but the results were redacted and labeled top secret.

“I hope we won’t be hearing any more about this?” was the only lingering question.

Higgins forced a smile. “Not if I can help it.”

-o-

Higgins checked and double checked. He bought the parts to start remodeling his kitchen, thankful that his microwave still worked. There were more missions to clear; there was more intelligence to process.

Life went on.

Higgins needed to let go.

But there was one thing he had to do -- and it was only eight years overdue.

-o-

He thought about inviting Collins over. He considered sneaking into his motel room and checking up on him. He entertained the notion of setting up remote surveillance to watch for an opportune moment.

Finally, though, he decided to keep it simple.

He walked right up to the door and knocked.

To say that Collins was surprised would be an understatement. Clad in sweatpants and a t-shirt, Collins looked a mess with his hair all over the place. He still looked a bit pale, but he was upright and hardy looking, even as he tried not to show his shock. “Director,” he fumbled. “I’m used to being called to the principal’s office, but this is the first time the principal has called himself to mine.”

Higgins forced a smile. “Yes, well, we’ve had many firsts recently, haven’t we?”

Billy scratched the back of his neck. “I reckon so,” he said. “Most of them not good.”

Higgins sighed. “All the same,” he said, glancing anxiously down the hallway. “Are you going to invite me inside?”

“Right,” Collins said, stepping back from the door. “Though I have to say I wasn’t expecting company…”

The place was a mess. Clothing was thrown about and dirty wrappers were gathered on every surface. Empty bottles and dirty cups were strewn precariously about, and there were open books laid forgotten in every remaining nook and cranny.

It was disgusting.

And to think, this was the operative who had survived so much. There was no accounting for luck.

Collins shifted awkwardly on his feet, clearing his throat. “Like I said, I wasn’t expecting company.”

Higgins forced himself to avoid further disparaging thoughts. The personal lives of his operatives were very little of his concern as long as they produced results.

And given that Collins was still alive, the state of his motel room was really of a lesser priority.

“I’m glad to see that you’re recovering well,” he said instead, hoping that he sounded genuine.

Billy pursed his lips, nodding somewhat. “All the reports are positive,” he said with an air of contrived joviality.

Higgins found that somewhat reassuring. It was good to know that this was as awkward for Collins as it was for him. Though it didn’t change the fact that this was Higgins’ visit; he was the superior here; the ball, so to speak, was completely in his court.

Higgins wasn’t scared of much, and he wouldn’t be cowed by this. “I didn’t come to make idle chitchat,” he said.

“That’s good,” Billy said. “But it does beg the question--”

“All these years, you never asked me about what really happened,” Higgins said abruptly.

Billy regarded him uncertainly. “I was there,” he said. “I know what happened.”

Higgins breathed evenly. “But you don’t know why?”

Arching an eyebrow, Billy looked skeptical. “I always thought it was bad luck,” he admitted. “Probably mine. Seemed like everything was a go, and then I walked in the room and the whole damn thing fell apart.”

“It was,” Higgins confirmed. “But not yours. Or anyone else in the field that day.”

Billy didn’t say anything. His expression was guarded, but not well enough to hide the guilt he’d clearly been harboring. Survivor’s guilt; the hard truth of being the last man standing.

The only man standing.

Higgins sighed. “We vetted every member of the field team after the fact,” he explained. “We went over every portion of the mission. No one did anything wrong. You were all perfect, right until the very end.”

“So what happened, then?” Collins hedged quietly.

“The intelligence was compromised,” he said, more plainly than he’d ever admitted before. “When we couldn’t find any reason for the mission to have failed, we looked at its conception. I discovered that the intelligence I recovered was falsified. It was a well laid trap that was perfectly executed.”

Collins almost flinched.

Higgins didn’t let himself stop. He’d apologized to his counterparts. He could do nothing for those who had died. He owed Collins this. “It was a complicated triple cross, which is why the CIA didn’t realize it was falsified. When we shared the intelligence with MI6, they double-checked us and also agreed that it was legitimate. After that, we kept our sources private and approached other Agencies for their cooperation. They took our word for it, after we talked them into it. We convinced them to do this mission,” he said somberly. “We convinced them to send in their best agents to die.”

Now, Billy was gaping. “And you didn’t think to tell anyone?” he asked. “All these years, I’d thought I’d messed up. That I’d missed something--”

“Any admission would wreak havoc with Agency ties,” Higgins said. “We decided that the truth would do more harm than good. As it stood, we shared responsibility, and that let us uphold our partnerships undaunted and even more resolved in the aftermath of tragedy.”

It was the party line, one that Higgins had told himself every night for so many years. He kept hoping the longer he preached it, the more he’d believe it.

Standing there, looking at Collins, it seemed almost farcical. Higgins always put the greater good first, which was so much easier when he was safely tucked away in his office.

Here, he had to face the consequences.

“It was the best choice for national security,” Higgins said. He gathered a breath. “That didn’t make it the right one.”

Collins’ countenance flickered, but he kept his mouth clamped shut, as if he didn’t trust himself to speak.

“My counterpart at MI6 was just as keen to keep this entire ordeal covered up as I was, considering his much closer relationships to our European partners,” Higgins said. “He thought burning you was the most effective way to bury the issue. He believed keeping you active would appear suspicious, and that cutting you loose would be a more effective way of scapegoating you without saying anything at all.”

The revelation reflected surprise on Collins’ face. He shook his head. “The bastards let me take the fall,” he realized. “I followed all my orders, and they burned me. All these years I’ve felt guilty…”

“And that was the point,” Higgins said. “I argued the point -- vehemently -- but my opinion was disregarded. I was told that if I felt so bad about it, I could take you in.” He shrugged. “So I did.”

Billy scoffed. “You’re saying it was entirely altruistic?”

“Not entirely, no,” Higgins said. “I didn’t like the idea of a loose end out there. Burned spies rarely end up in reputable lines of work.”

Billy’s face twisted in disgust. “And this is supposed to make me feel better?”

“One reason isn’t the only reason,” Higgins said tautly. “Not even the main reason. Too many men and women lost their lives in that mission, and I didn’t do that, but I didn’t stop it either. It was my responsibility, and I wasn’t going to let the only one who got lucky enough to survive to suffer worse for his fate. You’re a pain in the ass, Collins, but you didn’t deserve that.”

Billy appeared to think about that, still trying to make sense of the overload of information. “That sounds well and good,” he said finally. “But you’ve hardly treated me like a valued member of the team--”

“I was going to liquidate the ODS when I brought you to the CIA,” he said. “But there was no other division for you, so I put you there until I could figure out a more permanent solution. But the you were so good at it. Dorset is an excellent planner, and Malick can fight, but you--” Higgins shook his head. “You have the kind of damn luck that spies need. That this Agency needs. You made the ODS work. And they made you work. I regret many things from my years in service, but giving you amnesty has never -- not even once -- been one of them.”

Collins listened. He was usually quick with replies, but Higgins had him out of his element. More than that, Higgins had him at his core. These were things Collins had willingly told no one, just like these were secrets Higgins had kept to himself for so many years. They were an unlikely duo, but for the moment, there was something profoundly important between them. A salient truth that had changed both their lives.

“I always expected you to show up on my door, honestly,” Higgins said. “I just never figured you’d come to save my life.”

“I think maybe the truth scared me,” Collins said thickly.

Higgins managed a smile. “Not as much as it scared me.”

At that, Collins chuckled and the tension eased just enough. “Well that’s a relief,” he said. “Though I did just spend the last seven years thinking I was a bad luck charm.”

“Which would explain some of your more reckless behavior,” Higgins mused. “I always thought it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“I didn’t have much to lose!” Billy said. “Or so I thought. Now I’m starting to question some of my more unconventional mission decisions.”

“Better late than never, I suppose,” Higgins said wryly.

Billy nodded, still smiling. The he tilted his head. “And we’re sure this is over?” he asked. “The men at my flat; the men who raided your house -- they have an employer--”

“Yes,” Higgins said. “Who won’t be bother us anymore.”

“You’re certain?” Billy asked. He was trying to sound discerning, but Higgins could note the traces of fear.

Full disclosure wasn’t in Higgins’ nature. This time, though, he was going to make an exception. “I made some phone calls and talked to a few old friends,” he said. “We can’t guarantee all the variables, of course, but I feel safe in saying that the source of the problem has been neutralized.”

“And you trust that?”

Higgins smiled. “Of course not,” he said. “Which is why I reminded my old friends that I had new friends in very high places. Such as the head of German intelligence who would take very poorly to knowing a former colleague was tapping their services for personal vendettas, especially against current and respected allies.”

Humor glinted in Billy’s eyes. “Blackmail, then.”

“Only among friends,” Higgins assured him.

“Friends,” Collins said thoughtfully, rocking back on his heels slightly. “You reckon that’s what we are now? Given our shared history of near-death experiences.”

Higgins sighed.

“In fact, we might even be closer than that!” Billy said, his enthusiasm starting to build. “I mean, I did see inside your panic room, and I have hazy memories of you diving on top of me--”

“It was a professional--”

Collins gave him a look. “It’s because you care,” he said, matter of fact and annoying as hell. “You care about me. All your posturing, all your threats -- and you’re a softie inside.”

Higgins narrowed his eyes. “It’s never too late for regret--”

“Nonsense!” Billy crowed. “I mean, you should stay! Kick back on the couch! Break out a beer! Watch a game!”

“You do realize I am still your superior with all the control over your fate?” he asked warningly.

Billy grinned. “A fate you would see be successful.”

“From a distance,” Higgins said. “No one is to know about this. And you and I are never to speak of it again.”

Collins blinked with feigned innocence. “So I can’t tell others of your undying heroics? Your declarations of support?”

“Not if you wish to continue working for the CIA,” Higgins told him.

“So I take it you won’t be staying, then.”

“No,” Higgins said, seizing the opportunity for an exit. He turned back, hesitating slightly. “All levity aside, I am glad that you have suffered no irreparable damage from…everything.”

Billy waved his hand through the air. “Well,” he said, shrugging somewhat. “The same to you.”

Higgins considered this, inclined his head and then opened the door. When it closed behind him, he didn’t look back, but kept walking down the hall. If there was a first for everything, there was also a last. Higgins was just glad that this visit would constitute both.

There was a reason, after all, that Higgins preferred closed case files rather than open ones. It let him go home with no strings attached.

After all this time, he was more than ready for that.