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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: Not-So-Secret Identities (4/9)

December 28th, 2015 (02:38 pm)
annoyed

feeling: annoyed

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN
PART EIGHT
PART NINE



-o-

After several blocks, Billy begins to suspect that Casey could give Michael a run for his money on the paranoia front. They have circle around a half dozen times, and the convoluted trail has made the would-be short walk interminably long. Billy is not only turned around but he’s downright exhausted. Casey at least ate something at McDonalds; Billy is working on the two cups of coffee and bowl of cereal he ate this morning.

That’s not even the most disconcerting part.

No, the disconcerting part is why. Casey can be prone to paranoia, but not without reason. He’s a realist in the most basic sense of the word. He would always use appropriate safety measures, but creating a circuitous route on his day off? At home?

Is a sign that Casey thinks something is wrong, too.

This, Billy realizes, makes the most sense of everything. Michael is being high strung and dictatorial because he believes there is a mole in the CIA. Rick is too eager too please because he suspects something is amiss within the team. And Billy himself is going above and beyond the call of duty because he knows something isn’t quite right.

So it is only natural that Casey would share these reservations. He could have the same intel that Michael has -- or something entirely different. It could be the reason he wanted to go to Nigeria; just as much as Michael wants to go to Italy.

He breathes a curse to himself, wondering if Rick had been right. Sharing intel could have spared Billy this entire day.

Billy glances at the GPS and follows Casey down another street, hesitating for a moment. The GPS tracker isn’t moving anymore.

He pulls up the map and notes that it’s stop at a corner -- with a shoe store and a take out deli. Casey could be enjoying the ambiance; or maybe he needs shoes. It’s even possible he’s still hungry.

But he’s not moving.

At all.

Concerned, Billy moves forward again, rounding faster than he had before. He comes to the corner, but there’s no sign of Casey.

The traffic moves; the pedestrians walk. Billy looks in the deli, he even checks the shoe store.

Nothing.

Perplexed, Billy checks his phone again. He’s right on top of the dot now. Casey’s here.

Casey’s right here.

Turning, Billy scans again, more critically this time. The bus stop; the gathering of men on the stoops. Two girls laughing; a man walking his dog.

Then, Billy sees it.

A shoe.

It’s at the edge of the alley, lined up perfectly. Billy recognizes it immediately, the size, the color, the varnished scuff on the right side.

It’s Casey’s shoe.

Billy hesitates, but his worry outweighs his discontent. Something is wrong, and Billy is more concerned about Casey’s well being than he is anything else.

Bending over, he picks up the shoe.

That’s when he sees the sole, peeled back. The tracker is exposed.

Billy’s stomach drops.

He’s not the only one trailing Casey.

Hell, it’s not like GPS trackers are even particularly secure. Anyone can hack into the right frequency, and if someone has been following Casey, then it wouldn’t be hard to get a hit on the signal.

Instead of protecting his team, Billy may have just led the bad guys right to him.

-o-

Billy is armed with the best of intentions.

And a shoe.

Needless to say, he’s aware that he’s at a stark disadvantages, especially since anyone able to take down Casey Malick is already a formidable foe. That is all the more reason, however, for Billy not to delay. If Casey has been compromised -- and it’s Billy’s fault -- he can’t let the trail go cold.

It’s a bit of an assumption to check the alley, but it’s the only thing that makes sense. It’s broad daylight in a public space -- there’s no feasible way to take someone down without attracting attention, which is why it’s likely that whoever orchestrated this chose the alley intentionally.

Still, as Billy travels further down, he sees no signs of a struggle. There’s nothing much there to disturb, this much is true, but there’s no scuffs, no recent markings. Not a hint of blood or anything else suspicious.

The alley isn’t clean, but it’s also so dirty that Billy knows that makeshift forensic work simply isn’t going to cut it.

He glances up the alley again before turning his gaze the other way. Busy streets on either side -- is it possible that they took a car? Loaded Casey up and took off?

It would explain the lack of evidence and the quick departure -- also how someone could go missing, sans one shoe, in the plain of day.

Turning in a circle, Billy realizes quickly that he’s in over his head. He has limited means and resources, and frankly, if this is a rescue operation, then he can’t do it alone. Pulling out his phone, he picks Michael’s number.

It’s time for them to work together.

For Casey’s sake.

But before he can push the button, he sees a whir of movement. Startled, Billy starts to turn but someone grabs his arm, spinning him around. Before he has a chance to catch his breath, he’s shoved face first into a wall. His ribs crunch painfully, but it’s the torque on his arm that has his immediate attention. It’s wrenching -- but not quite broken -- expertly placed on the maximum pressure point to ensure his complete immobilization.

He gasps, working to keep his feet steady and avoid breaking his arm. His face is pressed against the brick facade of the building, and as he struggles to turn his head around enough to see, he’s greeted by the most unpleasant sight.

The barrel of a gun with the safety off.

Pointed right at his temple.

-o-

So, Billy thinks, trying to catch his breath without bucking his head against the barrel of the gun, this is bad.

He’s spent his day off traipsing all around the city, trying to find answers and salvage something of his team, and now he’s been attacked at gunpoint and is very likely about to turn up dead on the six o’clock news.

Not a very austere ending to his story.

And worse, he may never know why.

Craning his head just a little, he wants to at least know who.

He catches a glimpse and his breathing stops cold. He all but gapes, a tingle going down his spine. It could be relief; it could be fear.

It’s all couched in abject confusion.

Because he recognizes the man.

He knows him.

At least, he thought he did.

He lets out a heavy breath, because this all just got worse. With effort, he manages to croak, “Casey?”


-o-

It’s possible that Billy’s delusional. That the lack of food and the surging adrenaline has made him actually go bonkers.

Hell, it’s entirely possible that Billy’s already dead, that he took a bullet to the brain when he entered this alley and this is all part of Billy’s descent into the afterlife, wherever it may take him.

That would at least be interesting, if somewhat disappointing.

Any of those options would at least make more sense than this.

Being attacked and held at gunpoint -- being lured into a trap no less -- by his teammate, his friend.

Standing here with a gun to his head by Casey.

There’s several long, tense moments, and Billy’s still not sure what the hell is going on, but he can feel his heart pounding in his chest and the flush of blood draining from his head. “Casey,” he says. “Something you want to tell me now, mate?”

It’s probably not the most appropriate time for a joke, but Billy figures, what’s the worst that could happen?

Casey’s face is grim, expression like stone. “I could ask you the same thing.”

“I’m not the one holding the gun,” Billy points out.

“But you are the one who put a tracker in my shoe,” Casey half snarls, pressing the gun a little more firmly to his head.

Billy winces. “I’ll grant you, that would be a bit suspicious--”

“You think?” Casey asks.

“But you’re the one running around, falsifying reports,” Billy counters. “Not to mention holding people at gunpoint!”

Casey steps even closer, leaning into Billy ear. “I told you, it’s not what you think.”

Billy lets out a sharp, bitter laugh. “I’m not sure what I think anymore,” he says, trying to keep from jarring his arm. “I came out here to prove you innocent.”

“Innocent?” Casey asks. “Of what?”

“Of anything, damned if I know,” Billy says. “Because Michael thinks the Agency is compromised, and Rick thinks the team is falling apart, and I kept telling everyone that your secrets would never hurt us, and--”

Billy stops as the realization dawns on him.

“Oh,” he says, eyes going wide. His heart starts to hammer faster. The shoes in the alley; the man at the fast food restaurant. Casey’s not being followed against his will. Casey’s being followed by his consent. “It’s you.”

Casey doesn’t say anything, expression unwavering.

Billy’s palms are starting to sweat now. “It’s you,” he says again with more conviction now. The gun has slipped just enough for him to get a better look at Casey. “You’re the mole; you’re the leak.”

Casey’s gaze is hard and unyielding.

Billy thinks he may actually throw up. Casey set the shoes to trap him; Casey left the napkin for the man. The fast food restaurants -- they’re drop offs. Falsifying reports; going off book; all small pieces of a greater, far more sinister whole. “You’re a double agent.”

Casey purses his lips. “I wish you hadn’t found that out.”

It’s not a denial, not that Billy had been expecting one. Still, the frankness of it sends his heart into his stomach. It’s only now that Billy realizes that the accusation alone might have sealed his fate. He forces himself to swallow hard. “Sort of hard to pretend otherwise now, don’t you think?”

Casey sighs, but the gun is still pointed directly at Billy’s head. “I know,” he says. “But I like you.”

“Well, that’s reassuring--”

“And I don’t want to have to kill you,” Casey continues.

“Ah,” Billy says with a nervous chuckle. He squirms a little, but there’s nowhere to go. “Then, I don’t know. Maybe don’t kill me, then?”

Casey presses the gun closer again, adjusting his grip a little bit tighter on Billy’s arm. “You know that’s not how it works.”

“Actually, to be fair,” Billy hems. “I don’t have any idea how it works. Outside of spy novels and all, this is new territory for me.”

“Well, let’s just say that the people I work with won’t be thrilled by someone knowing my cover,” Casey says.

“I’m good at keeping secrets,” Billy offers.

Casey tilts his head in disappointment. “You can’t think you’re the only one who knows how to surveil,” he says. “And they do it better.

“Well, to be fair, this wasn’t an official op,” Billy says. “I’m sure we can still find a way--”

Casey presses the gun against his head this time. “If you walk out of this alley, then I’m dead.”

There’s no question that Casey is serious. Casey’s position is just as precarious as Billy’s, which is an enlightening revelation. It’s not just that Casey is a double agent; he’s a double agent with mixed motivations. He doesn’t want to kill Billy.

If he did, they wouldn’t be having this conversation.

No, Casey wants an out just as much as Billy does. Maybe more so.

The gun pokes harder into his temple, and Billy amends that thought. Almost as much as he does.

Billy can work with that.

At this point, what does he have to lose.

He clears his throat, cautious and careful. “Maybe not,” he says with another nervous laugh.

Casey does not look amused.

Billy wets his lips. “I mean, maybe we could work together.”

It’s a startling if vague proposition, and quite frankly, Billy has no idea exactly what implications it might have. He doesn’t know if it’s a smart idea or if he even wants to ally himself with Casey, but his instincts tell him that it’s not a bad choice.

Considering it’s the only one that doesn’t end with Billy dying here.

“You and I,” he says. “We do make a good team.”

Casey’s eyes narrow, his grip on Billy’s arm still steadfast. “Why would I do that?”

“Because you don’t want to kill me,” he ventures. “Because you’re meeting in fast food restaurants and looking for wires in your shoes. This isn’t the job you signed up for, is it?”

He’s making bold proclamations that he has little, if any, evidence to support. But Billy’s good at reading people -- at least, he hopes he is.

Casey’s jaw works.

“You don’t like the game you’re playing,” Billy continues, trying to shift but finding the pressure on his arm too extensive. “So play a different one. You’re already double crossing people, so what’s one more turn?”

“It wouldn’t be easy,” Casey says. “And it’s not safe.”

Billy lets out a hoarse chuckle. “And it is now?”

“It could cost us both our careers,” he says. “Maybe our lives.”

“All things considered,” Billy says. “I still like the fact that I’d have a chance.”

“You’re still assuming I want to pick the CIA over my other employers,” Casey says.

“I’m assuming that your loyalty isn’t as certain as you’d like it to be,” Billy says. “Or you would have pulled that trigger a long time ago.”

Casey can’t deny that even though his expression makes it clear he wants to. “This isn’t black and white,” he says. “And nothing I feel and nothing you say changes the fact that you’re the expendable one here. You’d be acceptable, if regrettable, collateral damage.”

It’s a clinical observation, and Billy’s heart stutters as his stomach clenches. It takes all he has to keep himself steady, neck still twisted to look the man he considers a friend in the eye over the gun. “So you’ll be pulling that trigger then?”

It’s a challenge; an ultimatum.

It’s the line in the sand that neither of them wants to cross.

It could be his salvation.

Or it could be his death sentence.

For a second, Casey’s face goes blank and Billy dares to hope.

Then, something settled comes over the other man.

Before Billy can think anything else, a gunshot rings in his ears.

-o-

That’s it, Billy thinks to himself.

That’s the end of the story, that’s all there is to write.

Real life is never like in the books or movies; sometimes the hero dies. Sometimes there’s no closure. Sometimes the end is the thing you never see coming.

That’s it, a gunshot in a back alley, betrayed and forsaken.

He hopes, at least, that someone will find his body, though with Casey, Billy can’t be sure.

It was quick, though, because Billy didn’t even feel any pain. Hell, if he doesn’t know any better, he might think he’s still in the alley.

That’s not possible, though.

There’s no way Casey could miss a shot, point blank.

Ears ringing, Billy is vaguely aware that the pressure is gone. He’s being turned, blinking up toward the light.

Right into Casey’s face.

Billy frowns. “But I--”

His ears are ringing, and there’s a burning sensation on his cheek. Casey glowers in utter annoyance. “Yeah, yeah,” he mutters. “Just remember that I didn’t kill you, okay?”

“Remember it for what?” Billy asks dumbly, still too stunned to process this.

“For this,” Casey says as he curls a fist and drives it hard into Billy’s temple.

This time, Billy is unconscious before he hits the ground.

-o-

In a lot of ways, Billy expects that to be the end of the story.

He’s more than a little relieved when it’s not.

Still, he comes to with a splitting headache and a deep sense of disorientation. He’s entirely off kilter, and the smell of salt water fills his nose, and Billy very nearly panics just for a moment.

Before Casey’s voice cuts through the haze. “I’d stay still, if I were you.”

Blinking several times, Billy starts to make sense of a few things. He’s on the ground, propped up against a rather uncomfortable crate. He’s in a warehouse -- mostly abandoned by the looks of it, what with the windows mostly broken or boarded up. There are hints of sunlight filtering through, which means it’s still daylight, and if the salt air is any indication, he’s been out long enough to be transported all the way to the ocean.

Casey, for his part, is seated on a chair, studying him.

Billy sits himself more upright, nursing his wounded pride. “Why’s that?” he asks jadedly. “Because you’ll kill me?”

Casey is not bothered by the traces of accusation in his voice. This is disappointing to Billy; he’s not trying to be subtle.

“Because anyone watching us will think I already did,” Casey tells him.

This is hardly reassuring. “Your other employers?”

“I wouldn’t call them employers, per se,” Casey says.

Billy arches an eyebrow and regrets it -- his face is swollen from where Casey hit him.

Casey shrugs. “Partners, really.”

Billy scoffs. “If they’re tailing you, they don’t sound like any kind of partner you need.”

“Says the man who put a GPS tracker in my shoe,” Casey reminds him.

Billy is only mildly chagrined. All things considered, he’s hardly the bad guy here. “So who are they?” he asks. “Your partners. Are they Russians?”

Casey actually looks offended. “You know how I feel about Russians.”

“The Chinese, then?”

“I would never work for a communist country,” Casey tells him pointedly.

Billy sighs. “So who, then? Someone in the Middle East?”

“You’re thinking too small.”

“You’re a double agent,” Billy half hisses. “How much bigger do you want this to be?”

“I’m not a double agent in the plainest sense of the word,” Casey says. “I’m not betraying the American government to any other singular entity.”

Billy rubs his head. “It could be the concussion you gave me, but I don’t follow.”

Casey sighs, sitting forward. “I work for an international coalition of sorts,” he says. “Like NATO, but set in the spy world.”

Billy can only blink.

“We rely on the best operatives in all countries around the world, sharing intel and resources in order to retain a big picture view,” he explains. “Every country has its own biases. By sharing the intel, we can gain a larger perspective.”

Billy shakes his head. “To what benefit?”

“Our mutual benefit,” Casey says. “We respect that every member has its own interests, and we pool our resources to create the general good.”

“That sounds lovely,” Billy says. “And woefully naive.”

“Ten years,” Casey says. “It’s been in operation ten years with a lot of success.”

“But who gets to decide?”

“That’s the beauty of it,” Casey says. “We all know too many secrets. If we use something to destroy each other, the others have more than enough to take us down in turn. We all practice with that to keep us in check.”

“So a nuclear option,” Billy says. “Since that’s worked so well for the world.”

“We’re not governments,” Casey replies. “It works better than you think.”

“Right,” Billy says. “Which is why you’re threatening to kill me?”

At that, Casey’s expression falls. “That’s the problem,” he says. “Something...changed.”

“Imagine that,” Billy comments wryly. “Is that why you insisted we go to Nigeria?”

“No,” Casey says. “I went to Nigeria to figure out if my organization has been betrayed.”

“Oh, well that’s ironic,” Billy says. “Betrayer being betrayed.”

Casey’s brow darkens. “I haven’t betrayed you.”

“You did just knock me out in an alley and drag me to a warehouse,” Billy says. “Probably in a trunk. You put me in the trunk, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, to save your life,” Casey says. “You were being followed.”

“I was not--

“You were,” Casey says. “Because I’m being followed.”

Billy frowns. “That lot at the fast food restaurant?”

“No, he was one of the good ones,” Casey says. “But there are others.”

“That’s a bit vague--”

“I can’t say for sure,” Casey admits.

“Then how can you know?”

Casey gives him a look of incredulity. “When you work for two spy agencies, you know.”

Billy sighs. “If you suspect something, then why can’t you just go to your group and demand answers? Threaten the nuclear option?”

“The same reason Michael has confessed to Rick and me about the mole he suspects,” Casey says. “The same reason you’ve been following me to fast food restaurants.”

This time, Billy is duly chagrined.

“Anyway, they’ll see me dump a heavy bag into the waterfront,” Casey continues. “It should buy us some time.”

Billy is confused now. “Some time for what?”

“Some time to figure out what we’re going to do next,” Casey says, matter of fact. “I don’t want to kill you, so I’m going to have to use you.”

Billy isn’t so sure he likes the sound of that. “Use me for what exactly?”

“What you’ve been doing all along, of course,” Casey says, starting to grin. “Routing a mole.”

-o-

Being spies and all that, it’s probably not so surprising that this all comes back to espionage. It’s like they say, after all. Every fictional tale starts with a kernel of truth. James Bond can’t have it all wrong. They may not get to drink scotch in ice palaces or find a woman coated in gold, but back stabbing and double talk are all part of the game.

All that aside, Billy’s having some trouble with this one.

Maybe it’s the fact that they’re alone in a dingy warehouse without the input of Michael, Rick or, heaven forbid, even Higgins. Maybe it’s the fact that Billy’s got a throbbing headache because Casey knocked him out cold. Maybe it’s the fact that while he’s been following Casey, someone has been following him. Maybe it’s the fact that Billy’s been as wrong as he has been right, and for the first time in a long time, he’s a bit afraid how this story will actually turn out.

He’s been here before, after all.

He’s been at the crux of a decision, one that asks him to choose between the safe and the right, the approved and the necessary. Last time, it got him deported.

This time--

Well, he’s not sure he wants to know.

“I thought you were the mole,” Billy says finally, but his voice falls flat instead of carrying the intent of accusation.

“At the CIA, sure,” Casey says with a nonchalant shrug. “But I’m not the dangerous mole.”

“The fellow following me--”

“Us,” Casey corrects. “He’s been onto me longer than you have.”

Billy furrows his brow. “How can you be sure he’s a mole, then? Maybe he’s just tapped into your organization and is tracking you to learn more.”

Casey is already shaking his head. “I would have suspected the same expect there have been too many things happen,” he explains. “Too many instances where drop points have been tampered with. Too many private conversations have revealed intelligence that is later compromised. Once or twice -- it’s coincidence.”

“How long has this been going on?” Billy asks.

“I first noticed a few things about a year ago,” Casey says. “It’s become more frequent and more subtle since then. And not just after the fact. Sometimes missions are compromised before I even start them.”

“So someone has to have the inside track,” Billy says with a slow nod. “And I don’t suppose you can ask around.”

“We’ve always relied on our own internal checks and balances to keep each other in line,” he explains. “We lack the centralization for an internal investigation.”

“Which is why you’ve been passing notes at fast food restaurants?” Billy surmises.

Casey almost smiles. “Partly,” he says. “And I’ve wanted to see if I could draw them out.”

“That’s why they’re so obvious,” Billy realizes. “You’re trying to be followed.”

“That and French fries actually do taste pretty good,” Casey says wryly.

Billy lets out a breath and shakes his head. “And me?”

Casey’s smile falls. “You were...unexpected,” he admits. “I kept hoping you’d stop, get tired--”

“You were acting all kinds of suspicious!” Billy objects. “Michael or Rick -- one of them was going to turn you in if I didn’t start to come up with a better explanation.”

“Admittedly, I did overplay my hand at work,” Casey says.

“Overplayed?” Billy asks, voice hitching somewhat. “You grounded Michael’s mission with shoddy paperwork. You weren’t even trying.

Casey glares. “To be fair, I have been trying to unfurl a massive international spy conspiracy that could threaten the safety of every spy, every government and every individual in the world.

“Oh, so that makes it okay?” Billy asks. “To lie to your mates?”

“We lie all the time!” Casey snaps.

Not like this,” Billy says. “Don’t sit there and pretend like you haven’t been in the wrong here.”

“I never intended to have a team at all,” Casey says. “I was going to be solo.”

“Then why did you stay?” Billy asks.

“Because I liked having a team,” Casey shoots back. He sighs, giving a helpless shrug. “I thought the bad paperwork would keep Michael out of Italy and maybe get him to request a transfer.”

At that, Billy scoffs. “A transfer?”

“I like having a team,” Casey says. “But you’re not safer with me there.”

Billy sits stiffly, still feeling moderately petulant. “That was your plan?”

“It was,” Casey says, sounding weary. “Until you showed up in that alley.”

Chewing his lip, Billy considers this. Casey’s plan had been to go it alone. Which is all well and good except for the fact that he’s not alone. Not when Billy’s sitting right here, nursing a head wound and thought to be dead.

And Casey -- well, Casey is Casey. It would be nice to think he’s different here, but he’s still the same Casey Billy’s known for the better part of a decade. For all that’s changed between them in the last several hours, it occurs to Billy that so much more has stayed the same. This is still Casey, and he’s still Billy.

They’re still doing what they’ve always done.

Steadily, Billy draws a breath, drawing himself until he’s sitting forward. “So,” he says. “What do we do now?”

It’s just one word that matters in that question, and it’s no surprise at all that Casey catches it. He sits back, tweaking his eyebrows. “We?”

Billy shrugs. “What else am I supposed to do? If I show up to work on Monday like everything is normal, your cover is blown.”

“But if you come with me, we’ll compromise our positions at the CIA,” Casey points out.

“Well, after you’ve been deported once, it loses a bit of its sting,” Billy quips.

Casey doesn’t laugh, though. “I’m serious, Billy,” he says. “We can’t even tell Michael or Rick. There’s a good chance we’d end up with arrest warrants.”

“Like I said, I’m already dead,” Billy says.

“I can get you out of the country,” Casey explains intently. “Start you with a fresh identity somewhere fresh.”

“To do what?” Billy asks. “Twiddle my thumbs while the biggest international spy conspiracy goes on without me? This is the stuff heroes are made of, mate. I’m not missing out.”

“This isn’t one your spy novels,” Casey says seriously. “The people I work for--”

“Are nothing,” Billy says. “Nothing compared to the people you work with.”

Casey takes that in with a nod. He draws a breath, rubbing his hands on his knees. “Okay, then,” he says decidedly. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

-o-

One of the advantages to working off the record is that there literally isn’t a record. Honestly, Billy’s not even sure what to do with himself. They don’t have to file any paperwork; they don’t have to attend a single briefing. Instead, they buy tickets with two false IDs and are on a plane out of Dulles within a day.

A day.

This way is far more efficient, but Billy has to admit, he sort of misses his creative writing outlet. He also misses Michael’s plans and Rick’s earnestness and the way his chair squeaks when he spins in circles.

He also sort of misses knowing what the hell is going on.

They’re on separate flights to be safe, and Billy’s got hellish layovers, so it’s nearly Monday night when they finally reconnect in a Shanghai motel room. He tossed his phone in the water back in DC, and the burner he picked up only has one number. He wishes he could call Langley -- Michael will know something is up by now, and Rick will be worried -- but Billy’s in too deep now.

There’s no way out.

For better or worse, Billy’s a part of this thing, and it occurs to him with every passing second that he may be in well over his head. Not only has he effectively burned his life back home, but he’s putting all his trust in Casey, a confessed double agent who has told him very little about what he actually does and who he works with. Billy’s entire fate rests in Casey’s hands, and that’s a hell of a thing. It’s not just death, it’s Billy’s life. His identity, his green card, his everything.

Billy left it all in DC with no promise he’ll ever get it back.

That he’ll ever get anything back.

That he’ll even come out of this alive.

By the time he finds the right room (the elevator’s not working, of course), Billy’s exhausted. On top of the stress of leaving his home under a shaky alias and with no explanation to his friends and employer, he’s also been stuck in airline hell. The only thing that hasn’t gone wrong during his tumultuous flight out of America is lose his luggage but that’s only because he doesn’t have any.

No, Billy didn’t have time to pack, and there’s a good chance he never get to go back and reclaim anything in his flat if this goes wrong. He likes to think that Rick will box it up for him, maybe hoping that he’ll come back someday, unless of course they all actually believe that Billy’s dead, like he’s supposed to be at the moment.

To make matters worse, his head still hurts.

And what does Billy have to show for his troubles?

Casey.

Just Casey.

“About time you made it,” Casey growls as he lets Billy inside the room.

“My flight got delayed out of LAX,” Billy explains, making his way heavily to the bed. “And the bastard on the flight in front of me decided to recline his chair all the way back. You couldn’t have upgraded to business class?”

“I’m trying to keep a low profile,” Casey explains, locking the door behind Billy.

“By torturing me?” Billy asks, collapsing to the bed. It squeaks under his weight and sags precariously. “You already gave me a concussion.”

“You’re being melodramatic,” Casey says.

“Says the man who is literally a double agent,” Billy reminds him with a surly look.

Casey rolls his eyes. “Suddenly the thought of killing you doesn’t sound so bad.”

Billy sulks. “I should have just turned you into Higgins.”

“So why didn’t you?” Casey demands.

“Because you’re my friend!”

“And you’re mine!”

They’re glaring daggers now, all while confessing their loyalty.

Being a spy, it’s a damn strange thing.

Billy sighs first, looking away. “Tell me you at least have a plan.”

“I have a plan,” Casey assures him.

“A good plan?” Billy asks. “That doesn’t involve fast food restaurants?”

“A great plan,” Casey says, starting to smirk. “With just one more fast food restaurant.”

Billy regards him uncertainly.

“Come on,” Casey cajoles. “I know how much you love French fries.”

“And generally hate near-death situations,” Billy says.

“So, a little good, a little bad,” Casey says with a shrug. “This one will be a wash.”

Billy groans and flops back to the bed.

It’s going to be a long night.

-o-

It’s often an inconvenient plot point, how character work through the night heroically to get from point A to point B. Really, it can sound like some grand sacrifice, building the appropriate tension.

Of course, it’s rubbish, naturally.

Staying up all night is a terrible idea, because walking into a volatile situation with sleep deprivation is an invitation to get yourself killed. Moreover, there is no need to build the tension in real life. The tension is already there, and you certainly don’t want to do anything to make it seem worse.

That said, this is the closest Billy has come to the fiction in quite some time. There is a lot to do, and he and Casey take turns stealing short naps throughout the night while they suss out the intel and map out the necessary contingencies.

Contingencies Billy insists on. Casey’s not too keen on them, but he’s more the type to punch first and ask questions never, so Billy figures it’s up to him to be the reasonable one for once. He also knows that Casey’s may know more about this so-called super spy network than he does, which may make him the logical point person on this mission, but Billy’s the one with the perspective they need to stay alive.

To the point, Billy doesn’t trust any of them. It’s hard enough to trust Casey at the moment, so the idea of trusting other super spies? Who may or may not have been tracking him around every McDonald’s in the greater Washington DC area? Not likely.

Because Billy knows how these stories go. He knows the bad guy is rarely the one you expect, and too often, it’s the one you take for granted. He knows that taking a bullet in the back happens ironically -- you never see it coming even when you always should.

Casey spends the night trying to prove who his friends still are.

Billy spends the night trying to prove that they’re all enemies.

Because he knows the hard way: sometimes it’s a hell of a thing to be right.

-o-

“This is pointless,” Billy complains, taking another swig of his lukewarm coffee.

“It’s essential,” Casey replies without missing a beat.

Billy groans. “We’re tracking spies,” he says. “While they’re tracking us.”

“Like I said, checks and balances,” he says. “If we all know we’re watching each other, then we’re safe.”

“Have I ever told you how pointless I think the Cold War was?” Billy asks.

Casey looks from the window, glancing at his phone. “No one asked you to come.”

“No, you just kidnapped me off the street and faked my death,” Billy counters.

Casey pauses with a wry smile. “I guess there is that.”

With another groan, Billy flops back in his chair. Casey’s in charge of confirming the IDs and locations of every member of his super spy network. It’s Billy’s job to record that information and cross reference it against the list to make sure that everything seems to be on the up and up.

He’s a secretary, essentially. Kidnapped; assumed dead; jet lagged. And now a secretary.

“With all your little checks and balances, how do you decide to add new members?” Billy asks. “How do people retire?”

Casey offers him a quizzical look before peering through his binoculars again. “It’s not like there’s a pension plan.”

“All the more reason it’s a relevant question,” Billy says. “I mean, come on. This is the stuff they gloss over in the stories and movies, but it matters. Do you always have the same number of representatives from each country? How do new countries get included? Can countries get excluded? What’s the vetting process? Do you collect dues? Pay expenses?”

“We never appropriate funds,” Casey replies dully. “And the vetting procedure can be...intense.”

Billy snorts at the obvious euphemism. “I imagine getting fired is even more so.”

Casey doesn’t deny it. “Believe it or not, we do good work,” he says. “The world is safer for what we do.”

“So you believe that ignorance can be bliss?” Billy asks.

“I believe that knowledge is power,” Casey replies. “But it requires the most self disciplined in the world to understand that.”

Billy chews his lips, rocking back on his chair thoughtfully. “So it’s never really bothered you? Lying to us?”

“I never lied to you,” Casey says. “I merely omitted the whole truth.”

“You’re mincing words,” Billy objects.

“Truth is an extensive of the narrative,” Casey argues back. “Surely, you of all people--”

“No, no, no,” Billy says. “We’re not going totally relativistic.”

“No, we’re talking about the stories we tell,” Casey says. “Does the story matter if you know all the details? Do the character change if you keep some of it back?”

“In this case, yes,” Billy says sullenly.

Casey puts the binoculars down to look at him. “If you believed that, you wouldn’t be here.”

“You didn’t give me a choice,” Billy pouts.

“Because you didn’t need one,” Casey says. “You should have turned me into Michael the first moment you thought something was off. Hell, with the information you had? You should have gone straight to Higgins and dragged my ass in.”

“I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt--”

“Because you know me,” Casey says. “You don’t know the whole truth, but you recognize the essential truth. That’s the heart of a good story.”

Billy wants to argue that point, but Casey has made it fairly.

Bastard.

Sulking, Billy slumps even more in his chair.

It’s a shame, really.

To realize your best friend has a secret identity.

That’s not a secret at all.

“You should have told me when it got to this,” Billy says finally. “I mean, if I hadn’t followed you, you would be here alone, wouldn’t you? Walking into a trap with no backup at all?”

“Well,” Casey says, picking up his binoculars again. “I did leave a pretty obvious paper trail.”

Billy takes a second to process that. “You mean--”

“I know you, too,” Casey says. “I knew you wouldn’t go to Higgins. I knew you probably wouldn’t even go to Michael.”

“You…wanted me to find out?” Billy asks.

Casey peers at him from over the top of the binoculars. “Do you think a super spy would falsify reports that badly? Just to keep the team out of Italy?”

Billy gapes.

Looking this his binoculars again, Casey is entirely too nonchalant.

It’s ironic, of course. That Casey’s deceptions are, at their heart, all about trust. Billy’s been used and lied to because Casey trusts him.

Billy may lose the plot in everything else, but that’s the thing that makes the narrative work.

It makes them work.

Shutting his mouth, Billy gives Casey the best approximation of a glare he can muster at the moment. “Only you, Casey Malick, could make me hate you and love you all at once,” he says. “You are truly my hero.”

Casey makes a face, looking at some indefinable point on the street. “Your sentimentality is making that nuclear option look more attractive than ever.”

This time, Billy lets himself laugh. “From you,” he says. “I’d expect nothing less.”

-o-

Running recon is never exactly fun.

Running it on a spy network?

It’s self-defeating.

The whole lot of them spends the day watching each other. Billy wishes this were an exaggeration, but it is, most decidedly, the plainest truth ever. All members are present and accounted for, and each of them has a clear vantage point of the rest. No one moves for fear of losing track of someone else, which means they spend the day staring at each other.

Billy dozes on and off, and it’s a testament to how pointless the spy standoff is that Casey lets him.

It’s nighttime when Casey moves, shuffling around the room enough to bring Billy back to full awareness. “What time is it?” Billy asks blearily, tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth.

Casey’s expression is set. “Time to go.”

Billy sobers immediately, sitting up in his chair. “You sure about this? We can still walk away.”

“No,” Casey says, tilting his head. “We can’t.”

Billy sighs. “Yeah, I was afraid of that,” he says, getting to his feet. “In that case, let’s go route a mole.”

“You do know it’s not going to be that easy,” Casey says warningly.

Billy scoffs. “And you think the rest of it has been?”

“I’m serious, Billy,” Casey says. “This could go...badly.”

“I know,” Billy says. “Why do you think I’m going with you?”

Casey doesn’t smile -- he wouldn’t do that, not Casey -- but something relaxes in his expression and his eyes soften just a little. “Because you’re a stubborn son of a bitch.”

Billy smirks enough for the both of them. “Takes one to know one, I guess.”

-o-

As a general rule, Billy likes to play cavalier. It’s part of his persona, the fun spy-guy place he’s carved out for himself on the team. Billy’s always been good about filling in the gaps, about being who people need him to be at any given moment in time. It’s no wonder, then, that he took on the part of the good natured bloke. With a team like his, someone has to be the essential comic relief.

Part of it, however, is also who Billy is. Humor is a coping mechanism, and being overtly social is the best way to keep people from realizing they know nothing genuine about him.

All that said, it is, indeed, an act. Not all of it, of course -- there’s always some kernel of truth -- but it’s a facade. For as much as Billy would like to be cavalier, he’d also like to stay alive, and as a spy, those two things are generally mutually exclusive.

This is what keeps him on his toes during a regular mission.

This, however, is not a regular mission.

This is a mission with no backup, no official documentation, no clear way out. Not to mention a bunch of super spies who are probably going to kill him.

In a situation like this, Billy can’t even play cavalier.

Casey, naturally, is annoyingly calm as they stake out the location of the meet.

“Are you sure about this?” Billy asks, watching as the manager closes the place up, turning off the lights.

“This is what I do,” Casey says. “It’s not like I don’t know these people.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Billy says, carefully watching movement in the other shadows around the building. They’re not the only ones here, not by a longshot. “You aren’t exactly friends.”

“But we’re allies,” Casey says. “That’s even more powerful.”

Billy arches his eyebrows.

Casey shrugs. “Most of the time.”

Mollified, Billy draws another breath. “Besides, you’re going in there looking for a traitor,” he says. “You can’t imagine they’re just going to tell you.”

“It’s hard to lie to a room full of spies,” Casey points out.

“And if they don’t try to lie?” Billy asks.

“Then they better have one hell of an exit strategy,” Casey comments.

“And that doesn’t worry you?” Billy asks. “I’ll be able to clear a path for you out the back, but what if you don’t get that far?”

Casey almost smiles, a hint of fondness in his eyes. It’s not what he would expect from Casey, but then again, he knows Casey. Billy’s persona is cavalier; Casey is a stone wall. Most people can see that, but a friend sees beyond it.

That’s the emotional payoff, in the end. It’s not always something new, but the realization of what you already knew.

A lot has gone unsaid between them.

Now, though.

Now is the time for truth.

“A spy will always have to deal with traitors,” Casey says. “I took that as a given. But it’s only recently that I’ve come to realize how much easier that is to do with friends.”

And that’s it, the turning point. Some stories, they like action and explosion. Some include big reveals and a stellar double cross. There could be red herrings and people coming back from the dead.

But the best stories, that’s not what they’re about.

They’re about the realization between two people. They’re about love in all its many forms.

Sentiment -- it’s awkward as hell, but sometimes you need it.

Sometimes it’s all there is.

Billy manages a small snort. “Now who’s being sentimental.”

“It’s exhaustion,” Casey says. “I’ll deny it in the morning.”

With a half smile, Billy nods ahead. “Another fast food restaurant, though? Really?”

“Low security, easy access,” Casey says. “It was actually my idea, and the group took to it.”

He sounds genuinely proud about it.

“The group of crazy, paranoid spies,” Billy says, by way of clarification.

“You have no idea how hard it is to earn their approval,” Casey snaps. “But you always drag me into those things, and after enough times, I realized their worth. You can bribe those managers to do anything when you need it. Plus, no one looks twice when you leave things...out of order.”

“And here I thought you merely valued expediency,” Billy quips.

“I always appreciated the juxtaposition,” Casey says. “The best with the worst.”

“Harsh,” Billy says. “But fair.”

“You’re just sad that you can’t come in this time,” Casey tells him.

“Well, our dinner was a bit spartan.”

“I’ll make it up to you,” Casey promises. “When this is over.”

The promise is as vague as it is lofty. It’s a lovely idea, though. This, being over. Moving on, moving back. Waking up tomorrow in the United States and reporting to Langley like nothing happened at all.

That’s naive, though. Stories never finish where they start. Stories need change. Characters need to be different, or there’s no story to tell at all. Change is the universal inevitability, the only constant in the chaos.

When this is over, they can’t be the same men that they were before. They can’t pretend this didn’t happen. This, all of it, will make them better.

Or it will leave them in shreds.

Billy wants to believe he knows how this will turn out.

At the very least, he’s too scared to admit otherwise.

He forces himself to smile. “Be careful, okay?”

“I’m walking into a room full of the most dangerous, paranoid spies in the world,” Casey reminds him.

Billy makes a face. “Careful can be a relative term.”

Casey gives him a withering look.

“Oh, bollocks,” Billy says crossly. “You know what I mean.”