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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: Not-So-Secret Identities (5/9)

December 28th, 2015 (02:43 pm)
angry

feeling: angry

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



For all that Casey’s a super spy, he has surprisingly low tech solutions.

More to the point, he has no tech solutions. The borrowed laptop is back at the motel room, burned and scrapped, and while they’re each carrying a burner phone, they have no other communication system. Basically, they’re both working under the assumption that if something goes wrong, Billy’s going to know it.

There simply isn’t time and they don’t have the resources for more.

It’s a far cry from a Michael Dorset plan. And Billy’s always found Michael’s plans to be especially intense, but this bare bones approach is like jumping into shark infested water after dousing yourself with blood. It’s not a question of whether or not the shark will attack; it’s a question of seeing the bite in time to get away.

At first, Billy feels conspicuous on the street. It’s not exactly a busy street, and there are minimal options for good cover. He quickly realizes, however, that getting made is not exactly a concern. There’s no one else around to care. All the other spies, they’re in the meeting with Casey, and apparently super spies have a lot of allies to talk to but not a lot of friends to back them up.

Which is to say that Billy’s the only moron who got suckered into risking his life on an unsanctioned foray into a spy version of the nuke race.

He suddenly feels like such an idiot.

The only consolation is that he’s Casey’s idiot.

Nervously, Billy glances at his watch. No more than five minutes have gone by, and the shadows are still outside. The night is perfectly quiet with the hum of distant traffic under the flickering artificial lights. Billy’s holding his breath without meaning to, palms sweating and heart pounding as the seconds tick by.

This is it, Billy tells himself. This is it.

This is what happens when you trust someone. This is what happens when they trust you. This is what happens when spies become friends, when coworkers become more.

This is what happens.

This is the story people tell.

Not about spies and international plots.

But about two friends, hanging on a moment.

Billy breathes in.

And out.

Fingers clenched, toes wriggling.

In.

Out.

This is the only story that matters.

The inevitable climax.

When gunfire rips through the night.

-o-

This isn’t happening.

That’s the first thought in Billy’s mind.

This isn’t actually happening.

No, Billy’s back in the United States. He’s helping Michael pick up the pieces to the failed Italy mission and convincing Rick that all is well back on the ranch. He’s writing up reports as creative writing assignments and biding his time until the action starts.

Billy’s still in the prologue to this story.

And now, suddenly, it feels terrifyingly like the end.

This first thought is rationally irrational, and ultimately, not very helpful.

His second thought, though.

His second thought is irrationally rational.

Only time will tell if it’s helpful.

Because Billy didn’t start this story.

But he intends on finishing it.

Any way he can.

-o-

Billy’s known all along that there’s no way he can charge in there and play the hero. It’s never been in the cards for this one, not with the way Casey has it set up. A room full of super spies going after each other means that if Billy tries to get in, he’ll only get himself killed for his trouble.

No, Billy can’t go in.

His only feasible goal is to get Casey out.

In this, it is a beautifully simple plan: pick the closest exit, locate Casey and lay down enough cover until they’re both in the clear.

In theory, it should work spectacularly.

In application, it may end with an excess of blood and screaming.

It’s a miracle that James Bond comes by with a squeaky PG-13 rating.

Billy’s got his gun out by the time he makes it to the door, and he has to duck when a few wayward bullets shatter the glass. It’s a powerful deterrent, but Billy’s already come too far to back off now. Instead, he shoots the rest of the glass out, pulling back as best he can to get a visual of the interior space.

It’s a fast food restaurant, so there’s not a lot of open area to work with. In fact, Billy finds it remarkable that so many spies fit in there to begin with. Having so many people on hand means that the meet had to be in the dining room, which is large enough but awkwardly laid out for a large group context.

It is, however, a bit more conducive to a shoot out.

From outside, the blinds are drawn, but inside, Billy can already see the carnage. There are a half a dozen bodies plainly visible, and gunfire rings out from all directions. The volleys are intermittent but with so many of them, the sound of gunfire is nearly continuous. They’re picking each other off, each lobbying to find the best position to do the most damage.

The chairs are turned over and the tables have been transformed into shields. The cheap plastic is splintered, and lights flicker when someone shoots out the menu board. Billy catches sight of various people from time to time -- poking their heads out to take a shot and, in equal turns, getting their heads blown clear off in a horribly gruesome fashion.

This is the stuff of nightmares, and it’s not what Billy’s looking for.

Casey.

He’s come this far for Casey.

It’s possible, of course, that Casey’s already among the dead. That his body is holed up somewhere, riddled with bullets.

Possible.

But not an idea Billy’s willing to entertain.

That would be a terrible end of the story, after all.

There’s another round of gunfire, coming unsettling close to Billy’s head. He curses, pulling back while his heart hammers against his ribs. Michael’s probably had to report him missing by now. Martinez is probably running surveillance on his place. They’re going to figure out he and Casey left together, but they’ll have no idea where.

Unless Billy can drag Casey’s ass back to tell them. They’ll sit down, have a drink, talk it out. Work like a proper team once again.

That’s the ending.

If Billy can get Casey out of this alive, that is.

With a deep breath, Billy inches back toward the door, taking in another long visual sweep again. He spots a dozen shooters and a few more bodies, and then he tells himself to think.

Casey.

He knows Casey.

He knows how Casey thinks.

He knows how Casey fights.

He knows Casey.

He wouldn’t pick the obvious points; no, Casey would pick something contrary to popular notions. Something so obvious that no one else would think of it. Everyone else, they’ve taken up residence on the fringes. One bloke is in a trash can.

So Casey is…

There.

Billy sees him, pulled down low in the very center of the room. In a sense, he’s especially vulnerable to the crossfire but he’s also primed to take out anyone who might see him before they realize what they’re looking at.

It’s so stupid that it’s brilliant.

It’s also a terrible place to lay cover for. Billy has to account for gunfire from all directions, which will be no easy task. Billy will have to shoot wildly to frighten them all into hiding, which of course will only provide them with about ten seconds of cover.

His eyes lock with Casey’s.

Casey nods his head.

Ten seconds is all they need.

That’s the way it is with stories. A slow build.

And in the blink of an eye, the action’s over.

Time will tell what’s on the other side.

Billy pulls the trigger.

It’s time to find out.

-o-

It takes some skill to be a good shot.

It takes nothing but sheer terror to be a bad one.

Billy’s only objective is to shoot a lot in all direction, keeping it high enough to avoid hitting Casey. This is a task he takes to with blind necessity, and he’s still firing when Casey drags him by the back of the shirt away from the door.

Which is precisely when the interior gunfire blows the door clear off its hinges, leaving it mangled and warped on the ground behind him.

“Should I say I told you so?” Billy asks breathlessly.

Casey’s fingers are still fisted into Billy’s jacket. “Later,” he says. “For now, run.

Billy’s never heard such a good idea in his life.

-o-

Billy may not be a runner by nature, but he sure as hell knows how to do it when his life depends on it. But considering how often that seems to be happening this week, he may have to think about taking it up.

Although Billy’s got a good sense of direction, he lets Casey take the lead. This is, after all, Casey’s op, and since Billy’s not the one with super spy connections, he figures he’s better off playing second fiddle on this one.

Better off, of course being somewhat relative.

Still, there’s not much time to complain as Casey leads them through the streets. They take a number of back alleys, switching back directions several times until they come out onto one of the busier streets. Even at this late hour, there’s a steady stream of pedestrian traffic, so Casey slows them to a brisk walk as they duck their way through the horde.

Casey steals them a pair of ball caps, and Billy sheds his jacket and picks up a pair of glasses. Casey turns up his collar as they follow the street to another.

After several more alleyways, Casey takes them into a hotel, but instead of going to the front desk, they simply peel through the lobby and duck into one of the employee maintenance areas. Here, Casey trades out his jacket for something else entirely, and Billy takes the time to switch one stolen ballcap for another. He adds a scarf for good measure while Casey finds a pair of pants and shoes for himself.

They exit through the back, an employee exit that winds them through a seedy back street. Casey takes two sojourns through restaurant kitchens before they end up in a 24-hour convenience store.

Casey puts a bottle of water and a banana into his shopping basket.

Billy throws in a bag of gummy worms.

“Really?” Casey hisses to him.

“If I’m going to die, then I want to eat something I like,” Billy hisses back.

“And so you pick gummy worms as your last meal?” Casey asks.

“Ah, sod off,” Billy mutters.

Casey rolls his eyes. “Not going to happen.”

“You’re really going to deny your only friend left in the world a bag of gummy worms?” Billy asks.

Casey turns back toward him with a knowing look. “No,” he says. “I just have to make sure you live to see another meal after this one.”

Casey’s already turned back, moving toward the checkout line while Billy stares after him, somewhat dumbfounded.

Sentiment.

And humor.

He chuckles, shaking his head.

“Looks like this story’s not over yet,” he says, making his way after Casey. “Not by a long shot.”

-o-

By the time Casey finally settles on a hotel -- surprisingly mid-tier, for a change -- it’s almost dawn. Billy has eaten the bag of gummy worms in transit, but the sugar rush does nothing but make him restless. Tired as he is, there’s no way he’s going to sleep.

After Casey locks the door and checks the window, Billy decides against mincing words.

“So,” he says.

Casey gives him a benign look. “So?”

Billy wets his lips expectantly. “You going to tell me what happened back there?”

Casey’s jaw tightens. “I think you saw it.”

“I saw carnage,” Billy says. “But I’m assuming that there’s more to it than that.”

Sighing, Casey sinks down to one of the beds. “I wish there was.”

Billy gives an incredulous snort. “You wish there was?”

“Nuclear winter,” Casey supplies grimly.

There is no way Billy has the patience for metaphor right now. “Meaning what, exactly?”

“Meaning the whole idea of the cold war was that everybody wanted nukes so everyone would be too afraid to use them,” Casey says. “Dropping one bomb is the same thing as dropping a hundred of them: we’re all dead.”

“So someone pulled the trigger,” Billy surmises.

“And everyone else had to follow,” Casey says with a weary nod.

Billy shakes his head, trying to wrap his head around it. “But that defeats the whole point,” he says. “I mean, it’s the absolute worst case scenario.”

“And all it takes is one shot,” Casey says. “One lousy shot.”

Rubbing a hand over his face, Billy starts to pace. “So who?” he asks. “Who fired it?”

“Does it matter?”

Billy stops. “Of course it matters,” he says. “We went in there to find a mole. So we better well know who fired the first shot.”

“It would be suicide to pull the trigger in that room,” Casey argues. “The mole would have just as much chance as getting killed as anything else.”

“But who else would do it?” Billy demands. “Who else would walk into a room full of spies and pull the trigger?”

“I don’t know,” Casey admits.

Billy throws his arms wide. “You don’t know?”

“I don’t know!

Billy laughs, feeling almost hysterical. “Oh, well, that’s just brilliant,” he says. “Now we’re worse off than we were before, and we still don’t know anything.

“Not necessarily,” Casey says. “The mole -- I don’t think they pulled the trigger.”

Billy frowns. “Then how--”

“Now everyone was there last night,” Casey says. “I accounted for that, but in a room that size, not everyone had the same position. Now, if the mole didn’t pull the trigger, but knew when it was going to be pulled--”

“They’d save themselves an out,” Billy says, a little slowly. He’s not sure he buys this line of thought, no matter how convenient it may be. “So you think he’s still out there.”

“Along with anyone else who made it out,” Casey says.

Billy shakes his head. “So what are you proposing?”

Casey shrugs his shoulders, tilting his head sardonically. “You’re not going to like it.”

“I haven’t liked any of this,” Billy says suspiciously.

“I know,” Casey says, regarding Billy carefully. “So how do you feel about some French fries?”

Billy’s stomach grumbles and promptly drops to the floor.

-o-

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Billy mutters.

Casey puts the bag down on the table, moving around to the other bed. “I got you a large fry,” he says, as if to be genuinely helpful. “And no pickles on the Big Mac.”

Billy looks wistfully down at the bag of food. “I really can’t believe we’re doing this.”

“You said you were hungry,” Casey says.

Billy glares at him. “Don’t act like you did this for me.”

“Two Big Macs?” Casey asks. “Definitely for you.”

“Only because you needed to scope out another fast food restaurant for another ill-conceived meeting of your mostly decimated super spy network,” Billy replies pointedly. “I should reject this food on the very principle that this is a terrible plan.”

Casey sighs. “It’s not a terrible plan.”

“I thought it was terrible the first time you did it,” Billy pouts. “And I was, dare I sound like I’m gloating, right.

Casey rolls his eyes. “It was a necessary plan.”

“And this one?” Billy asks.

“Is a good plan,” Casey tells him. “I mean, think about it. We’re in a spy-based nuclear holocaust, right? Everyone left is the walking dead.”

“And the very air is toxic,” Billy points out.

“Which means,” Casey continues, frustratingly undaunted. “That we need to stick together to survive. Whoever is left out there, they’re going to want answer as much as I am.”

“Except for the one of them that pulled the trigger to kill you all,” Billy reminds him.

“That’s even better,” Casey says, eyes glinting.

Billy snorts derisively. “How is that even better?”

“Fewer suspects,” Casey says with a grin.

“And fewer targets,” Billy argues. “It’s hard to kill a network of spies, but a half a dozen? IT’s fish in a barrel.”

“That’s why we’re doing it during the day this time,” Casey says. “Busy fast food restaurant during the daylight; it reduces the chance of mass bloodshed.”

“Or simply endangers the public,” Billy says.

Casey’s shoulders sag. “I know it’s not perfect--”

“It’s suicide,” Billy says. “And we already survived it once. I don’t see why we’re pressing our luck.”

“But it’s what we have to do,” Casey says. “I have to do it.”

“Why?” Billy asks emphatically, leaning forward. “Why do you have to do it? Your network is gone; your checks and balances don’t exist. You can’t work for a network that doesn’t exist. All we have to do is go back to Langley, come up with a story for Higgins and pass along the intel to Michael and Rick in bits and pieces. The only difference is this time you’re not playing both sides.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“None of this has been simple!” Billy explodes. He pauses, almost laughing. “This started with forged paperwork and telling stories. Last week, I was still telling Rick that everything was fine, and I told Michael that everything would go back to normal. Because that’s what I wanted, really. I wanted closure, I wanted happily ever after. I wanted simple, Casey, and here we are. Halfway around the world from simple.”

Casey presses his lips together, brows knitted. “What we do, it’s never simple.”

“The job? No,” Billy says. “The job’s a mess and always will be.”

“But then--”

Billy shakes his head. “Us, though,” Billy says. “That’s simple. That’s the kind of trust you don’t have to think about. The kind of faith you don’t have to question. Every story needs a constant, and that’s always been the team for me. Always.

It takes something out of him, that speech, leaving him oddly deflated. He’s still exhausted, and the emotion is leaving him raw.

Casey drops his head for a moment before nodding slowly. “You were never going to be part of this story,” he says, finally looking up again. “I didn’t want a supporting cast.”

“So why am I here?” Billy asks. “Why not kill me back in the States?”

“Because people change,” Casey says.

“So walk away,” Billy says. “Walk away now.

Casey’s jaw is taut, the line of his shoulders stiff. “Because I’m not in this for me anymore,” he says. “I can’t go back to being Casey Malick, CIA operative until I close out this chapter of my life. If I do, my work there is forever compromised. Michael and Rick, they’re compromised. You -- you’re compromised.”

Billy swallows hard, feeling a sting behind his eyes.

“Walking way is simpler,” Casey agrees quietly. “But I don’t want simple. I want the team. And this -- this stupid, reckless plan -- is the only way I know how to do that.”

He’s right, of course. Billy grinds his teeth together so hard that it actually hurts. These are things Billy’s known all along, but things he’s wanted to deny. Billy made his choice in this, and he made it the second he caught Casey’s falsified paperwork and didn’t turn him in. The team is simple, but the job is complicated, and if they’re ever going back to the way it was, they need to fix the way things are going to be. Casey’s double life is more than a loose end -- it’s one good tug and the whole thing unravels.

This is what it is, then, to be a spy. As the job gets more complicated, you get simpler. The more lies you tell, the closer you come to the single, essential truth that matters in your life. In the shades of gray, you learn where your stark lines are and which side you fall on.

Simple is the most complicated thing of all, and safety is the most dangerous task you’ll ever undertake.

Billy lets out a breath, the anger leaving him. “Fine,” he says, inhaling to steady himself. “Fine.”

Casey cocks his head. “Fine?”

“Fine,” Billy says, picking up the bag of food. He eats a fry before reaching for the first sandwich. “Let’s go over the plan one more time.”

-o-

For the record, Billy still thinks it’s a terrible plan.

It is, unfortunately, the only plan they have.

Casey is right that making it a daytime meet is probably the smartest move. At Casey’s best estimate, there are no more than ten players still in the game, and that’s a generous estimate. Another late night rendezvous is likely to end in disaster. A daytime meet, however, has a slightly better chance of keeping all parties civilized.

At Billy’s insistence, Casey arranges for it in two days. Though Casey has already done a sweep of the restaurant in question, Billy wants more time to establish a better surveillance pattern. If they can take some extra time, they should be able to plan the exits and put several contingencies in place to further reduce the risk of disaster.

It is Casey’s insistence, however, that Billy remain entirely unseen. To this, Billy object stridently -- the last thing he wants is to be sitting on the outside when all hell breaks loose. But Casey wants Billy to remain out of the picture, as a matter of safety.

Billy only agrees because it does give them one last ace in the hole. An unknown partner could pay off down the line, and Billy has to take whatever advantage he can get, no matter how small.

Because this plan is well and truly terrible.

Which is the only reason why it might work at all.

-o-

Planning an operation is often a long and involved process. Even without the paperwork, there are a lot of necessary steps to ensure its security. Michael spent weeks prepping Italy, and even Casey’s thrown together mission to Nigeria had been piecemealed with years of established intelligence and four full time spies with an entire agency behind them.

Casey and Billy, on the other hand, are throwing this meet together in two days with no concrete intelligence and no support.

It’s almost funny.

At least, when it’s not so damn terrifying.

Either way, Billy’s emotions are all over the map. One second, he feels fully confident in his capabilities and the unshakeable bond between him and Casey. The next, he’s positively going to pieces, convinced in utter surety that they are going to die. He’s jittery, to say the least, and no matter how exhausted he feels, sleep remains very elusive.

It’s a bit like being out of time, Billy decides. Maybe this is what it feels like to ride in the TARDIS. Time is going on without him -- Michael and Rick back home, toiling away like everything is normal -- and here’s Billy, off on an adventure that transcends everything.

Billy yawns, flopping onto his back. He’s starting to get delusional, probably. Sugar and caffeine are not the best tools in a spy’s arsenal, but they seem to be all Billy has to keep going.

Well, that and the undying faith in doing the right thing.

Undying isn’t literal, unfortunately. His faith will end with him, possibly during this mission.

Damn it, Billy doesn’t want to die.

He stares up at the ceiling in their motel room and considers just how much he really doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to die without making amends, at least. Getting back into the UK; seeing those he left behind. Finding Olivia and kissing her one last time. Visiting his mother’s grave.

Sure, dying in a blaze of glory in defense of a friend, it makes for a good story. It might sell millions at the box office. But life isn’t fiction. None of the glorious details matter when you’re actually dead.

It’s always been a possibility, and Billy’s known that. He’s been a spy long enough to understand the reality of it. He knows how well it can be packaged and sold to the masses, but he also knows how hollow it is when it happens to you. He knows what it’s like to lose people in the field; he knows what it’s like to leave a friend behind. No matter how you try to justify it -- no matter what solace you seek -- it always hurts.

Because life offers closure; death never does. If Billy dies here, it’s no help to Casey. And there’d be nothing to ease the pain for Michael and Rick. They’re a team, after all.

They’re a team.

Even when Carson was MIA in North Africa, he was still part of their team. No matter how much they didn’t trust Rick at first, he was one of theirs from the moment he showed up in the office. It’s why Billy’s come this far; it’s why he knows Michael is staying up every night trying to locate them and why Rick is calling in every contact he’s ever known.

That’s what teams do.

That’s why no matter how many times you tell the story, it always resonates. People search their whole lives to find connection like that, to find a place where they belong. It’s a hell of a thing to risk your life for your country.

It’s even more so to lay down your life for a friend.

In the stillness, he hears Casey exhale heavily. Billy holds himself steady, willing himself to sleep even though his eyes stubbornly stay open. After another pressing moment of quiet, Casey breathes again.

“Thank you,” he says.

Billy is so startled that he half thinks he’s dreaming. He turns his head. “What?”

Casey is looking at the ceiling, flat on his back with his hands folded over the blanket. “For coming,” he clarifies. “Thank you for coming.”

“I didn’t really have a choice,” Billy quips.

“Yeah,” Casey says. “You did.”

Billy’s throat tightens at that, and he blinks a few times before looking back at the ceiling himself. “Whatever happens with this thing,” Billy says. “However tomorrow goes down, I want you to know that I don’t care how it started. I don’t care why you joined, and I don’t care why you lied to us all those years.”

Casey is silent, breathing steadily.

Billy nods to himself before he continues. “I just care that, no matter how it ends, it ends with teammates,” he says. “Whatever happens, it ends with the two of us.”

Casey’s voice is quieter still, sibilant on the stillness. “Whatever happens.”

Billy closes his eyes.

Whatever happens.

-o-

In the morning, Billy drinks three cups of coffee and consumes four tasteless energy bars. He pines, quite fervently, for coffee Michael picks up on the way to work and the stash of chocolate Rick thinks he can hide in the bottom drawer of his desk.

This is the best he can manage for the time being, and he tells himself it’s just for today.

And possibly tomorrow.

And probably several days after that while they tie up loose ends.

Not that Billy knows what those loose ends are, but he sort of hopes that this time, they don’t include him.

“You’re nervous,” Casey observes.

Billy laughs, and he notices that he sounds just a touch hysterical. “I’m probably going to watch you get killed today.”

Casey shrugs one shoulder. “You’d be free after that, at least.”

“Free to do what?” Billy asks, incredulous.

“Start a new life,” Casey tells him.

Billy groans. “I liked the life I had, thank you very much.”

“Then I guess I better not die,” Casey surmises.

Billy nods, entirely resolute. “Damn straight.”

Casey smiles.

Billy glares.

That’s not how this conversation is supposed to go.

But stories shouldn’t end the way you think they will.

Not the good ones, anyway.

The trick is if they’re better or worse.

Billy reaches for the coffee pot and fills his cup one more time. “Damn straight,” he mutters to himself as he takes a drink.

-o-

They leave excessively early for the meet, and they take separate routes. Thanks to a few local contacts, they both have tracking devices and synched phones, making it easy to connect with one another in case things go south. Billy’s not a tech expert, but they also managed to set up a bug and remote video surveillance on Casey, with the feed running to Billy’s burner phone.

Not much, as far as ops go, but it’s better than last time.

Of course, if shots are fired, it won’t make much difference at all, but Billy’s supposed to be the damn optimist of the team. If only they didn’t make it hard.

Billy follows his path exactly, tracking around and making several planned stops. By the time he arrives at the cafe across the street from the fast food joint, the afternoon traffic is in full swing. With the smog, there’s no much competition for seating outside, so Billy adjusts the glasses on his nose and readjusts the new hat he’s just bought for this occasion. Then he orders a coffee and a burger, and pulls out his phone.

It’s a bit obvious, perhaps, but considering the fact that there are dozens of other people doing the exact same thing, it doesn’t seem so conspicuous in a crowd. When he slides the earbud into his ear to pick up Casey’s audio feed, he looks just like every other person walking down the street and trying to tune out the world.

Sometimes, it’s easy to envy them. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as the truth. And to be honest, Billy thinks the truth can be somewhat overrated. Knowledge, pure and simple, doesn’t make anyone complete.

But that’s not why he does this.

This isn’t about the truth, not for Billy.

This is about one man, one team.

Billy will lie, cheat and steal if he has to, but he won’t betray his friends.

That’s his story.

He chews his lip, bouncing his leg anxiously as the live feed from Casey’s button cam kicks in.

That’s their story.

Maybe not heroes, but friends.

That’s a consoling thought at any rate as the first man comes into frame and sits, without invitation, across from Casey.

-o-

The man, at first glance, is wholly unremarkable. He’s younger than Casey by ten year or so, and he’s somewhat stockier, but he hardly looks the part of a super spy. His face is round with soft features, and his blue eyes are big and inviting. The blonde mop of hair on his head suggests that he’s Northern European, and he actually smiles as he greets Casey.

“You look a bit too happy,” Casey growls over the line.

The man gives an unabashed shrug. “I’m not dead,” he says in accented English. Definitely Scandinavian. “I am a, how do you say, half glass full?”

Billy can only imagine Casey’s glare. “Unless you were in on it.”

“Ah,” the man says with a chuckle. “Then I would not be so happy, yes? Because if the plan was to kill everyone, it failed, yes?”

“So maybe that’s why you’re here,” Casey says. “To finish the job.”

The man seems unfazed by the speculation. “We are not here for assumptions,” he says. “Everyone who survived knows that we’ve been betrayed, and each of us is just as likely as the last. Consider you, organizing this meeting. You picked the location; you were here first. I can only assume that you have set up your own exit strategy, perhaps set up surveillance or rigged the place.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?” Casey asks cautiously.

The man’s smile is genuine. “I am merely annoyed that I did not get here first,” he says. He glances to the side. “Ah, it is Kia!”

A woman comes into frame. She has a thick figure and unadorned features. Her chopped brown hair is pulled back into a severe ponytail, and she sits down in another chair with a hard look at Casey and the blonde man in turn.

“Kia, I am most pleased to see you!” the blonde says.

“Anders,” she mutters. “And I had hoped you were among the fallen.” She pauses, looking at Casey. “I assume you tapped the surveillance feed? Are you working with Quinn?”

“Ah, Quinn’s dead,” Anders says, sounding somewhat disappointed. “The whole European contingent was wiped out.”

“I lost most of my African contingent,” Kia says. “I thought I saw Chen, though.”

“Chen might cut his losses,” Anders suggests. “He’s good at disappearing.”

“We’re all good at disappearing,” Casey says. “That’s why we have to work together. Whoever is behind this needs to be held accountable. If not for the blood spilled last night, then the power they seek to hold.”

Kia shakes her head. “They can’t make it work without the network,” she says. “Amassing the power will only work for a short window of time. Without the network, the intelligence streams run dry. This coup was self defeating.”

Another figure limps into view, sitting heavily next to Casey. “Not if they build a new network,” the man says. Casey swivels, providing Billy with a better picture of the newcomer. He’s Casey’s age and Chinese by appearance. His face is cut and bruised, arm in a sling. “Think about it: we share our contacts, our assets, our groundwork. Last night was nothing but an attempt to get rid of the middle man.”

“So new assets can be put into place, securing power,” Kia continues.

Anders raises his thick eyebrows. “Same network, new assets,” he says. “They’d have to be well prepared, though. To have that many loyal people in line to fill that need -- that’s not something you put together in a day.”

“No, it’d take years,” Kia says. “That means this plan has been in the works for a long time.”

Casey sighs, blowing out a breath. “More like since the beginning.”

They all look at Casey.

Casey’s stomach rumbles through the wire. “Think about it,” he says. “We all joined because we thought we’d be telling one story, but someone else was writing another the whole time. If you wanted to build a network of this magnitude on your own, you couldn’t do it. And you couldn’t outsource it without exposing yourself to huge liabilities.”

Chen nods. “We thought we were the heroes.”

“But we’re just the grunt laborers,” Casey agrees grimly.

Kia huffs. “So we not only set up our own demise, but we probably set up the biggest threat to safety and peace the world has ever seen?”

“Damn,” Anders says. “You should have picked a bar, Casey. I could use a drink.”

Casey sits forward, hands crossed in front of him. “We don’t need a drink,” he says. “We need a plan.”

“A plan for what exactly?” Kia asks.

“A plan to take this story back,” Casey says. “At any possible cost.”

-o-

Billy picks at his food, but he doesn’t dare eat it. Chewing will minimize what he hears, and besides that, he’s just not hungry.

It’s hard to eat while four of the world’s top spies talk about how they were duped and how they intend to get un-duped. Billy’s not even sure what’s more terrifying: that someone could dupe spies of this caliber or that they want to get back at said someone.

Anxiously, Billy chews on his thumbnail and tries to eat a piece of calamari. So far, the four remaining spies have concluded that there may be others who escaped but did not agree to the meeting. Moreover, they agree that whoever pulled the trigger may not actually be their endgame. In fact, there’s no way to know just how many members of the network were already compromised.

Essentially, they suspect everyone could be guilty.

It’s a somewhat frustrating conversation to listen to since it rules no one out.

It’s even more frustrating that after exactly 15 minutes, they decide that this location is no longer secure and that they will meet again tomorrow, this time at a location of Anders’ choosing. Rotating the responsibilities, is the theory, should keep them in check.

From across the street, Billy watches them leave, each scattering in his or her own direction. He glances down as Casey turns down the street away from him, moving in the opposite direction of their hotel.

That’s Billy’s cue to follow.

Without following at all.

Instead, Billy flags down his waitress and asks for another drink, a whiskey this time. Because he sort of agrees with Anders on this one.

It’s a hell of a good time for a drink.

-o-

Despite the fact that Billy left later, he still beats Casey back to the motel. On some level, this is probably suspicious behavior, but Billy’s come too far on trust to start indulging his paranoia now. At least, not where Casey is concerned.

He needs that, his one true thing, to make the rest of this mess make sense.

“So,” Billy says.

Casey meticulously locks the door behind him. He turns toward Billy looking pleased. “So.”

Billy is hoping for more, but Casey apparently isn’t going to make this easy.

This shouldn’t be surprising.

“Only four of you?” Billy says.

“A few others probably cut their losses,” Casey says, walking across to check the window. “One or two may be holed up seeking medical attention.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?” Billy asks.

Casey shrugs, pulling the curtains tight again. “If the mole survived last night, they’d probably stay in play,” he says.

“You’re risking a lot on probably,” Billy observes.

“Not as much as it seems,” Casey tells him, checking the lights for bugs. There are none of the electronic variety but a few of the insect variety scurry away much to Billy’s displeasure. “The play’s the same either way.”

Billy works to stay calm, because the play. Casey talks like it’s a good one. “You’re relying on possibly compromised intel.”

“And very good intel,” Casey says, sitting down on the bed opposite from Billy. “Look, four sources, right? That means three are good, one is bad. It balances out.”

“Until they kill you,” Billy points out.

“They didn’t kill me today,” Casey argues.

“So they want you alive longer for some reason,” Billy says. “They’ll still kill you.”

“They’ll try,” Casey says. “But in the meantime, I’ll know what they know.”

“And they’ll know what you know,” Billy says. “Do you not see the problem here?”

Casey frowns, nonplussed. “I see the problem,” he says. “But I also see the solution.”

“Run and hide?” Billy asks, half hopefully.

Casey rolls his eyes. “You’re still forgetting, I’ve got something they don’t.”

“Insanity?” Billy ventures.

“You,” Casey says, unflinching. “I have backup they don’t know about. Backup I can count on. That will make a difference. Mark my words.”

Billy groans, flopping back on the bed. “Damn sentiment.”

Casey is smirking. “Now you know how I feel.”

-o-

On the bright side of things, there is plenty to do. With only the two of them, there is no shortage of tasks to be performed, and Billy finds that he appreciates being busy.

It keeps him from thinking about what the hell he’s actually doing.

And all the things he isn’t.

Still, it isn’t easy. He wishes Michael were here to help with the planning, or that he could borrow Rick for his unwavering stamina and dogged sense of justice. The investigation into his disappearance must be taking its toll on them back home now, and it’s a near certainty that his teammates have both been faced with pressing questions about it, not just for their own benefit.

No, it’s very likely that suspicion is being shifted to them as well, which makes Billy feel just awful. He and Casey leave without a single word, and now his teammates will have to deal with the fallout. Personally and professionally, that’s not fair.

Billy taps the volume on his phone, making it a little louder as he makes a notation in his writing pad. This is the third meeting in just as many days. They’re not particularly fair, either. Long and tedious, Billy has spent the last few days recording the name of every operative and the site of every critical mission around the world over the last six months.

At night, when the meeting is over, he’ll have to add the names, dates and places to the map and continue to cross reference all the critical points of interest in hopes of finding something.

What, exactly, Billy doesn’t know. Casey doesn’t know.

That’s one problem with being a spy. You can never know enough.

He sighs, chiding himself mentally for the thought. It’s not right to complain about his workload when he knows what he’s left for his mates back home. They’re all in their own kind of mess.

Billy scribbles another name down, marking it with a date.

He glances up, taking a sip of his lukewarm coffee. He trains his eyes on the exterior of the building, looking for signs of weakness just out of habit. Casey owes him, not for risking his life or giving up his happiness, but for being his bloody secretary.

Guns, peril, espionage -- that’s all well and good. But the minutia.

Billy needs a team leader to pawn it off on or a rookie to talk into it.

Not this time, though.

Billy quints up the street, taking it in again. This one is a bit quieter than the rest, but that’s not saying much. There’s been no abnormal patterns in the traffic, and the exits are clear. Except for the bloke smoking in the nearby stoop--

Frowning, Billy takes a closer look.

The man is half bathed in a shadow, collar drawn high. He glances back and Billy catches sight of his profile before the man flicks the cigarette and stumps on the butt. He starts down the street without looking back.

Maybe he is paranoid after all.

Billy writes down another name with a few associated notes.

Casey so owes him.

-o-

Casey brings back takeout while Billy lays out the latest. Three days, dozens of missions. This is old style spy work, which is only to say it is slow and tedious and done entirely by hand. He compiles the data, mapping it out on the wall so they can get a visual guide to all the destinations the network has tracked and the ultimate outcome of those missions.

Sitting back, Billy takes a bite of sesame chicken forlornly.

"It'd be easier to map where you haven't been," he mutters.

Casey crunches a pork roll. "We just need more data."

Billy scoffs. "All we have is data. We're looking for a needle in a haystack and keep adding more hay. Not to mention, we don't even know what the needle looks like. We're just trusting we'll know it when we start to bleed."

“You’re being unduly negative,” Casey comments.

“Ugh,” Billy groans. “And you’re being unduly positive! We’ve been here for days now, and all we’ve learned is that the nuclear option doesn’t actually work.”

“It’s not all good progress, but we’ve made progress,” Casey says.

“Being more aware of a threat doesn’t actually make it less of a threat,” Billy says. He gestures to the makeshift map on the wall. “There are more missions here than we know what to do with. It’s all random.”

“It’s a pattern we haven’t found yet,” Casey says. “Whoever is behind this, they’ve been orchestrating something based off the missions.”

“But with this many missions, we have to know at least one of the other variables in order to make any progress,” Billy says. His shoulders slump. “For all we know, we’re looking for a variable that we haven’t even controlled for yet.”

“So we keep at it,” Casey says.

“But we don’t have time,” Billy argues. “You said it yourself, the time frame here is limited. We don’t have time, we don’t have manpower, and we don’t have resources. The chances are that we’re helping your mole more than we’re helping to stop him. The only reason you’re not dead yet is probably because you still seem useful.

Casey sighs, and for a moment, his cool exterior wavers. Billy is upset and frustrated, but he can’t be totally oblivious to the toll this is taking on Casey, even if Casey wants him to. “I’m not saying you’re wrong.”

Billy purses his lips. This isn’t just about him. It’s about Casey. Casey’s the one in the line of fire on this one, and Billy’s no more okay with that than he is anything else. There’s the right thing, and then there’s the thing that matters. “Then what are you saying?”

Casey holds his gaze, steady and sure. “It’s a story, right?”

Billy makes a face. “What?”

“You tell stories,” he says. “In your reports. That’s what you do.”

“I don’t see--”

“And they take you forever,” Casey tells him. “Why is that?”

Billy shakes his head. “I don’t--”

“Because you can’t cheat the rising action,” Casey finishes for him. “The building conflict is essential to the payoff. You can’t get to the end without going through the middle.”

Billy draws his mouth closed, cheeks flushing. “Don’t talk about the story to me.”

“I’m just using a metaphor I know you appreciate.”

Billy fumes. “Well, don’t!”

Casey lets out a heavy breath. “Then what do you want me to do?”

Getting to his feet, Billy runs a hand through his hair. “I want you to tell me it’s going to be okay!”

Casey, who has been so certain about everything, is surprised at that.

Billy starts to pace. “I want you to tell me that we’re going to get through this.”

“We can stop them--”

Billy shakes his head, turning back toward Casey fervently. “It’s not just about that,” he says. “I want to hear that we’re going to get through this. That we’ll go back to Langley. That we’ll plot missions with Michael and play pranks on Rick. That I’ll still have that date, and that we’ll be able to make amends.”

Casey’s shoulders finally sag. “Billy--”

“I need to hear it,” Billy says, voice lower now.

“You’re not a child--”

“No, but I am your friend,” Billy says. “And I followed you this far. You owe me.”

Jaw working, Casey thinks for a moment. “I can’t promise you that.”

Billy frowns. “Which part?”

“Any of it.”

Billy’s frown deepens.

“I can’t promise we’ll get back to the United States, or that we’ll be able to provide enough intel to stay on at the CIA,” Casey continues. “I can’t promise you we’ll see Rick or Michael, or that this won’t come back to haunt them in some way. I can’t even promise that we’ll successfully stop this or live through the end.”

Billy is truly vexed now, stomach knotted. “This isn’t much of a pep talk, mate.”

Casey doesn’t stop, though. “But some stories, they have to be told, right?” he says. “That’s why you followed me. Because when we start a story, we have to finish it.”

Closing his eyes, Billy tries to remember to breathe. It’s not easy; none of this is easy.

But that’s Billy’s problem, then, isn’t it? He tells a lot of stories, but in his real life? He never finishes them. Sure, it’s easy enough to add the flourish to a report, but he’s led a life full of half finished novels. He’d left home without a proper goodbye, and he’d let Olivia slip through his fingers with very little fight. He’d left MI6 in utter disgrace, and even now, he rents a motel room for a flat and makes dates he can’t keep.

These are stories he wants to finish, ones he tells himself he’ll get to eventually. But there’s only so much time in life, a fact which becomes more relevant when you realize there you may be running out.

Billy can’t be sure he’ll finish any of those at this point, but he can finish this one.

He has to, really.

Or all the rest, it’s not worth anything.

He gathers a breath and lets it out with a nod. “Okay.”

Casey hedges somewhat. “Okay?”

Billy shrugs. “Okay,” he says. “We’ll finish the story, you and me.”

The edges of Casey’s mouth turn up, just a little. Just enough. “No matter what.”

Billy inclines his head with a grim nod of solidarity. “No matter what.”