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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: Not-So-Secret Identities (6/9)

December 28th, 2015 (02:46 pm)
aggravated

feeling: aggravated

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



-o-

More meeting; more intel.

More questions.

Fewer answers.

Billy’s doing everything he can.

Even when he knows it may not be enough.

-o-

“Michael would see it,” Billy says, shaking his head. He scrubs a hand over his face. “Michael would see it.”

Casey stands stiffly next to him, eyes trained on their intelligence wall. “Michael’s not here.”

“Rick would think about it differently,” Billy continues, absently wondering if he’s remembered to shave in the last few days. It’s been a week since they got here. A week. “He’d see it, too.”

“Rick’s not here, either,” Casey says.

Billy groans, starting to follow the well worn path he’s cut across the room. “That’s the problem.”

“Don’t think about problems,” Casey advises. “Think of solutions.”

That’s rich at this point. They’ve charted hundreds of missions, so much that they’ve had to pay off the maid service to ensure their privacy and Billy’s pretty confident that they’re going to have a hefty fine for all the pushpins they’ve put in the walls. “Did you try asking them?” Billy asks finally.

“Asking them?” Casey asks quizzically.

“Just see if they’ll tell you which one is the mole,” Billy says. His fingers flit through the air. “Unconventional, but you have a fifty-fifty chance, I reckon.”

“That’s a terrible plan,” Casey tells him.

“Oh, since this one is so stellar?”

Casey shakes his head, moving back toward the wall. “Can we sort them by asset? Maybe see some connections there?”

Billy picks up the notes, flipping through. “Why not,” he mutters. “It’s not like there’s anything better to do.”

-o-

As a testament to how worn Billy is by this process, he starts ordering ice water and salad when he does his surveillance. His stomach is unsteady, and the last thing he needs is a trip to the bathroom while Anders is talking in detail about his missions with the Russian mafia.

The coffee just makes him fidgety.

It’s not like he needs to be more on edge.

As it is, he can’t stop bouncing his knee and his handwriting has become a near-illegible scrawl. His finger is so sore from holding his pencil that he’s actually had to start holding it incorrectly to keep up with it all.

And with all the intel, there’s still the question of the mole.

Anders is likeable, which is why he is suspicious. Billy knows from experience that good natured people are often the shiftiest of all. Kia is manipulative in the most subtle ways, which also makes her a viable candidate. Chen reveals so little about himself that Billy has reason to doubt him as well, and they all seem to suspect Casey, which means their true motives are going to be hard to place.

For all Billy knows, the whole lot of them are traitors, stringing Casey along for reasons unknown.

Still, Billy can’t help but like them. He likes Anders jokes, and he is drawn to Kia’s strength. Chen’s careful reservations make him reliable. In all, they’re good complements for Casey.

They could make good team.

So it doesn’t seem fair, really.

That someone has to be the traitor.

Billy finishes a note about a mission in Athens when he visually marks the doorway again. This fast food restaurant is in an upscale part of town, busy and popular with young families. Billy is watching a woman pushing a stroller -- he’s relieved to see the blanket move, confirming that the infant is real -- when he sees the shadow again.

A man in the dark of the doorway. Stepping on a cigarette butt.

He turns, glancing through the window before looking down the street. His eyes pass over Billy before he draws up his jacket and starts of again.

It’s a common enough sight, but there’s something about that man.

Billy’s seen him before.

It’s the same man.

In his week of observation, Billy’s seen countless people, too many to remember. But that outline stands out; that profile stays with him. Spies don’t believe in coincidences, and Billy’s willing to give his teammates the benefit of the doubt, but strangers on the street in Shanghai? In front of two -- and possibly more -- fast food restaurants? With a team of super spies trying to take down an international threat inside?

Coincidence doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Problem is, Billy’s not sure what does.

-o-

There’s no time for that, though.

“Paranoia is an indulgence,” Casey reminds him.

Billy pushes another paper into the wall.

“Paranoia is a distraction,” Casey says as he studies the latest addition.

Billy blows out a breath. “If you say so, mate.”

-o-

One week, and Billy imagines Michael being investigated by an internal probe. All their missions would be drawn into question, and Michael would be tasked with finding them or joining them. Fay would remind him that he doesn’t have to go down with the ship, but there’s a reason Michael’s divorced.

And Rick, well, Rick’s started to grieve. He’s been dead set on finding them, but a week has given him room for desperation. For anger and frustration. And Billy imagines he cries sometimes, and lets Adele hold him while she reminds him the nature of the game.

The pretty girl probably has a date with someone else, maybe that bright eyed IT kid.

It’s funny, how many spies fear being a star on the wall.

Billy’s scared he won’t even get that, though.

That his story will just end.

And no one will know it at all.

-o-

Anders picks a fish place in one of the suburbs, and Billy orders sushi across the street. The team argues today, about relevant factors and Billy only gets a handful of notes to add to the wall.

“We’re out of time,” Kia says in a gravelly voice.

“Maybe now is the time to cut our losses,” Anders suggests.

“I knew coming back was a mistake,” Chen says.

Casey is shaking his head, though, his button camera bobbing unevenly. “And admit defeat?” he asks. “Is that how our story ends?”

“You really think we get to choose?” Kia asks.

Casey voice is cool like steel. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

-o-

Billy takes a shortcut back, minimizing his back tracking and moving toward the public transit line. He starts down the alley toward the bus stop, when he hears it.

He turns, but there’s no one behind him except the people passing by on the busy street behind him.

He starts off again, checking his watch. At this rate, he’s still going to be late.

Then he hears it again, a faint sound, enough to raise the hair on the back of his neck.

For a moment, he has a split second of indecision.

Fight or flight.

He slows his pace, closes his eyes.

And listens as the movement closes in on him--

Then, abruptly, stops.

Grinning, he turns, watching with some satisfaction as Casey holds a man against the brick building. The man is restrained by one arm, which is wrenched painfully behind his back. Casey is using his other hand to smash the man’s face against the brick.

“You know, this is far more amusing when I’m not the one being restrained,” Billy observes.

Casey snarls, unamused. “I wasn’t going to kill you.”

Billy rounds a bit, trying to get a better look at the man who’d been following him. They didn’t have time for paranoia, but coincidence wasn’t something they were about to ignore. And picking up a tail at a time like this?

Casey had been more than eager to suss it out.

Though Billy suspects he may have just needed a good outlet for his rage.

To Billy, it’s really all the same. “And this bloke?” he asks, nodding to him.

“Him?” Casey asks, pulling back on his arm a little tighter. “Him, I might kill.”

From this position, Billy has a better look at the man. He’s caught glimpses all week, and though his face is currently smashed against the bricks, Billy can still make out enough of the features to recognize him.

Dark hair, rich complexion.

Billy leans closer.

“Wait,” he says. “You’re the one I saw back home.”

Casey snarls again. “He’s the one who was going to kill you.”

Billy’s jaw drops a little bit. “Weren’t we supposed to lose him when we dropped my so-called body into the Atlantic?”

“We did,” Casey says, adjusting his stance as the man writhes a little. “But he must have picked it up again when we got here.”

“And how’s that?” Billy asks.

“Because he’s one of us,” Casey says, shoving the man harder. “At least, I thought he was.”

“You mean,” Billy starts. “He’s one of you guys? A super spy?”

Casey rolls his eyes. “I told you not to call us that.”

“Not the point,” Billy returns. “This guy works with the network?”

“And he was there the night it went down,” Casey affirms.

“And he skipped out on the second meet?” Billy clarifies.

“And started following us instead,” Casey says.

Billy nods, eyes wide. “So, that’s suspicious.”

“You think?” Casey growls.

The man winces, forcing a breath out through his nose.

“Tell me,” Casey says, leaning in a little closer. “One reason I shouldn’t kill you.”

“Because,” the man says, voice surprisingly defiant for being held in such a compromising position. “I’m not the mole.”

“And why should I believe you?” Casey asks.

The man glances back as best he can. “Because if I was, your friend here would already be dead,” the man says. His voice is thick, but not as accented as Billy suspects. He’s not a native speaker, but he’s clearly spent some time with the language. “I came here, same as you. For answers.”

Billy clenches his jaw, shaking his head. “How can we believe him?”


This time, however, Casey hesitates.

On the one hand, hesitation might be a good thing. Billy’s got his hands dirty before, but outright murder in a Shanghai alleyway is not really his cup of tea.

On the other hand, hesitation means that this isn’t simple.

Billy could really go for simple right about now.

“Casey?” Billy asks, expectantly now.

Casey eases his grip, releasing the man but staying close. “Because,” he says. “Gregor was my partner.”

The man turns slowly hands up. His posture is placating, but his expression is still guarded. “I was more than that, I thought.”

“You were,” Casey says. “But I couldn’t trust anyone on the inside.”

“But you trust him?” the man -- Gregor -- asks with a look of disdain toward Billy.

Billy’s chest puffs up defensively. Because, yes, being a spy is sometimes like being 13 again. The damn cliques are just as exclusive -- and a lot more deadly.

Casey doesn’t waver. “Implicitly,” he says.

Gregor chuckles coldly. “So all our years together, they mean nothing?”

“They mean something,” Casey says. “They mean enough to give you exactly five minutes to explain what the hell you’re doing.”

Gregor cocks his head, dark eyes betraying little. “Or?”

“Or I kill you,” Casey says. He lifts one shoulder in an indifferent shrug. “I’m okay either way.”

-o-

In the long list of overwhelming revelations over the past week, Billy has to admit, this one probably shouldn’t be very high on the list. Of course Casey’s worked with other partners. He’s been, more or less, a double agent. And, on some level, it’s somewhat reassuring for Casey’s humanity that he’s able to make friends outside the ODS.

All the same, Billy could have done without this particularly friend.

“Wait a second,” Billy interjects. “I saw this guy in the restaurant back home. You were working together back there?”

“Passing intel,” Casey says.

“Coordinating intel,” Gregor confirms.

“So you were working together,” Billy continues. “Up to the point where Gregor wanted me dead?”

Casey sighs a little, as if this is an explanation he’d hoped not to need. “I told you, I had allies more than friends,” he says. “I was willing to use those resources as long as I could.”

“Until you went off book,” Gregor accuses.

“Because you were posing a risk to other people,” Casey says, glaring at Gregor. “Our real life correspondences, they’ve always been off limits.”

“He was following you,” Gregor says. “And I did my homework. Former British spook with no other American ties? He’s a prime candidate for a double agent.”

At this, Billy actually laughs. “You thought I was the double agent?”

“Actually, he has a point,” Casey says.

“See,” Gregor says. “I was trying to help you.”

“But I know Billy,” Casey says. “And you should have trusted my judgement.”

“And you should have told me the truth,” Gregor argues.

“I wasn’t about to compromise third parties--”

“That’s why you dragged him all the way here to Shanghai?”

“Like I was going to leave him there so you could put a bullet in his head,” Casey says.

“I’m not the bad guy,” Gregor says.

“Aren’t you?” Casey returns.

“I could say the same thing to you,” Gregor tells him. “You’re the one organizing all this, and you’re the only one who’s bringing his own personal backup to the table. But you haven’t told them that, have you?”

“I have to protect--”

Gregor tilts his head. “The greater good, I thought,” he says. “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?”

Casey locks his jaw, eyes glinting.

“From where I’m standing, you look like the mole to me,” Gregor says mulishly.

“I’m not the one skulking in doorways,” Casey says. “If you think I’m the mole, why haven’t you told the others? Why would you let them risk their safety?”

Gregor is incredulous. “We all know what risks we’re taking,” he says. “People have never come first.”

“Well, maybe they should!”

Billy’s reeling, honestly, and this is escalating beyond what he has anticipated. Billy’s getting kind of used to playing a third wheel in Casey’s spy games, but this is a little much.

Though, to be fair, Billy’s not sure what this is.

Granted, it’s a spy appropriate twist.

The questionable new face, who may be a harbinger of good or evil, only time will tell. He may save them or doom them. Either way, he’s a convenient plot contrivances, a necessary stumbling block to divert the action.

“Wait,” Billy says.

“Have you actually been brainwashed?”

“At least I still have a conscience--”

Wait,” Billy says again, louder this time.

“Conscience is not something we can afford--”

“Because the internal checks and balances worked so well--”

“Wait!” Billy all but yells, voice hitching loud enough to bring to an awkward stop. They’re looking at him now, and Billy tries to still the shaking in his hands long enough to speak. He looks at Gregor. “How did you find all the meets?”

Gregor doesn’t flinch, doesn’t blink.

“How did you find every single meet without talking to anyone on the inside?” he asks.

“Maybe I followed you,” Gregor says.

Casey shakes his head. “Not possible,” he says. “I planned Billy’s route, and I swept the perimeter every night.”

Gregor shifts this time. “Maybe you’re not as good as you think you are.”

Billy whistles. “And you were doing so well.”

Casey steps forward, menacing now. “I’m going to give you one chance, because you used to be someone I trusted,” he says, slow and dangerous. “One chance to tell me everything you know.”

Gregor lifts his chin, attempting defiance. “And if I don’t?”

Casey smiles mirthlessly. “Then we’re back to square one,” he says. “And you don’t get out of this alley alive.”

-o-

Action and intrigue keep the audience invested.

If Billy’s honest, he could do with a little less investment at this point. He’s not even the one being threatened this time around, it still makes him want to piss himself.

Gregor mutters a curse, closing his eyes. When he looks at Casey again, the defiance is gone. “Chen,” he says. “I’m working with Chen.”

Billy does his best not to be surprised.

Gregor shakes his head in disappointment. “We made it out together and when we got your message, we figured it’d be best if we had a man on the outside, just in case.”

“I’d be impressed if I hadn’t thought of it first,” Casey muses with a glance at Billy.

“Your bragging doesn’t make you seem less suspicious,” Gregor advises.

Casey rolls his eyes. “And you’re sure you can trust Chen?”

“And you’re sure you can trust this one?” Gregor asks, nodding at Billy. “Chen’s the one who got me through Guatemala. I took three to the chest, and he could have left me behind, but he didn’t. Bastard risked his cover to see me through it. You don’t forget something like that.”

“Even bad guys can protect their own,” Casey argues. “Liars can have integrity, contrary to popular belief.”

“Yeah, I’m getting that,” Gregor says with a cool look at Casey.

“It’s a fair point,” Casey argues.

“We’re a bit past fair, I think,” Gregor snipes, though he’s visibly relaxing. “I knew I should have blown off this big pow wow and just gone to Italy.”

“Italy is quite popular this time of year,” Billy observes.

This time, it’s Casey who stops short.

He furrows his brow, cocking his head.

“Casey?” Billy asks.

“You thought of something?” Gregor presses.

“No,” he says, starting down the alleyway, leaving Gregor and Billy to follow. “But I think maybe you did.”

-o-

Billy keeps hoping that Casey will stop, but at this point, Billy should know better. Casey’s going to do what Casey’s going to do, and all Billy can do in return is trust him.

Since, you know, that’s worked so well for him.

As it stands, they end up back in the motel room while Casey searches frantically through Billy’s notes, leaving Billy to make awkward small talk with the man who had onced tracked him down and planned to kill him.

It is, to say the least, uncomfortable.

“So,” Billy ventures for the lack of something better to do. Casey’s intense behavior leaves no room for argument, and Billy’s never been one for long pauses. He rocks back on his heels. “Is he this intense for you?”

To his credit, Gregor seems both completely at ease and entirely on alert. His hands are in his pockets to suggest repose, but Billy suspects he’s already thought of fifteen ways to kill Billy should the need arise. “I was going to say he’s mellowed a bit for you.”

“He’s not usually the mastermind, to be fair,” Billy comments as Casey mumbles to himself and lays out several pages on the bed.

“He does like to hit things, doesn’t he?” Gregor says.

“A bit, yeah,” Billy agrees. “Though, meeting you, I can see why.”

Gregor looks up at him. “I was about to say the same thing.”

Their mutual disdain is matched only by their mutual respect. It’s not an easy thing to work with Casey Malick.

It’s even harder to be counted as an ally.

And a friend?

Well, ask Casey, and he’ll deny it. He’ll even threaten to kill you in lonely alleyways. But the proof stands for itself.

Thankfully, Casey manages to collect his thoughts enough to spare Billy from more poorly executed pleasantries.

“Italy,” Casey announces, waving the files at them. He points eagerly to the bed where more papers are lined out. “Italy.

Billy waits, hopeful. There is surely more. With all the pomp and circumstance, there is surely more.

It’s Gregor who rocks back on his heels. “Yeah, and that’s why he’s not the mastermind,” he says to Billy.

Billy closes his mouth, looking at Casey quite seriously. “Italy?”

Casey waves the papers again. “The answer is Italy.

Wincing, Billy shakes his head. “I don’t see--”

“I know,” Casey says, moving past Billy and going to the wall. He jabs his finger at the Mediterranean. “You don’t see anything. Because there’s nothing to see in Italy.

Billy follows Casey’s finger, noticing for the first time the gap in pushpins. Every country in the vicinity is marked, some more than once. Africa, South America, Asia -- hell, there’s been missions in Canada -- but Italy.

It’s not impossible, of course. Italy’s not the biggest country, and though it has interesting organized crime connections, it’s not a known hotbed for terrorism. There’s a reason the ODS jumps at the chance to go there -- mostly because it doesn’t come up often.

“We’ve spent all this time looking for connections between the places we have been,” he says, pointing at Italy again. “But we’re not looking at where we haven’t been.”

“A pattern not of inclusion,” Billy muses.

“But exclusion,” Gregor finishes for him.

Billy wants to be annoyed, but he’s still processing this latest revelation. “It might make sense.”

“It does,” Casey says, moving back to the bed. “The last successful mission we documented to Italy was six months ago. Since that time, only three other missions have gone there.”

“Why aren’t they up here?” Gregor asks.

“They were dead ends,” Billy supplies, picking up one of the sheets. “Operative went in, never came out.”

“We’re a wide network with high risk missions,” Casey says. “Three losses in six months isn’t unheard of, so it never raised any red flags.”

“But three missions to the same country,” Gregor says. “That’s...something.”

“That’s more than something,” Billy agrees.

Casey all but beams. “That’s a pattern.”

“Who was the last one in?” Gregor asks.

Casey holds up the notes. “Chen.”

“Well, that’s convenient,” Billy says.

Gregor is already shaking his head. “Chen’s clean.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Casey says. “But that’s why we need to talk to him.” He levels a look at Gregor. “Both of us.”

“If I show up now, they’re not going to trust me,” Gregor says.

“They weren’t going to trust you anyway,” Casey points out.

“I’ll tell them about your set up here,” Gregor threatens. “About your friend.

“My friend is your friend,” Casey says. “If you’re clean, then Billy’s an asset to you just as much as he is to me, and he’s worth more to both of us on the outside.”

“You do remember that I’m still here, right?” Billy asks.

Gregor’s expression cools. “Then why shouldn’t I stay out?”

“You really want to hang out with him?” Casey asks, jerking his chin toward Billy.

“Yeah, still here,” Billy says.

Gregor sighs. “Point taken,” he says.

Billy glowers for a moment. “Honestly,” he mutters. “I should just let you both die.”

-o-

At the next meeting, no one is particularly happy to see Gregor.

It is worth pointing out, however, that none of them are surprised either.

“And we’re supposed to trust you?” Kia asks, rightly skeptical. “Take you at your word?”

Anders shrugs, taking a drink from his soda cup. “Honestly, he’s probably the only smart one here.”

“And you,” Kia grunts with an accusatory glare at Chen. “You knew?”

Chen’s look is impassive. “I know Gregor well,” he says. He passes a cool, judgmental look at Kia and Anders. “You two, not so much.”

“It was a tactical decision,” Casey interjects, voice firm over the comms. “And not a bad one. At this point, any of us could be the mole, and I’d prefer to keep the options close to the vest.”

Kia settles back in her chair begrudgingly.

Anders shrugs diplomatically. “Order me another sandwich,” he says. “And would be willing to give all of you the benefit of the doubt.”

Kia huffs in annoyance. “And we are truly the best the world has to offer?”

“Now you understand my hesitation,” Gregor says.

Kia’s look is deadly. “I still may kill you before this is over.”

“Sandwich first,” Anders reminds them.

“Yeah, and save the world,” Casey says pointedly. “That’s a close second.”

-o-

Billy is fortunate that there’s a park next door to the restaurant today, which means he doesn’t have to force himself to eat today. The bench has good visibility of the entrance, and with the wind going in the right direction, he doesn’t even have to smell food. He never would have imagined that a week of prolonged fast food would break him of the habit.

The fact that he now associates fast food with death and international conspiracy is only a small aside.

Earphones in, Billy has his notebook primed. Preemptively, he scrawls a title across the top of a fresh page: Italy.

Michael would be proud -- or jealous.

Rick would appreciate the closure.

Billy just knows it’s time for answers.

Whether he’s ready for them or not.

-o-

“All the missions, we’ve tried to craft a narrative about where we’ve been,” Casey explains. “But we’re missing where we haven’t been.”

“Omission can be just as useful as inclusion,” Kia says, thoughtful. “It could make some sense.”

“Then why not Antarctica?” Anders asks lazily, munching on another bite of his new sandwich.

“Because none of us were ever going to Antarctica,” Gregor snaps.

“And each of us had a mission planned to Italy,” Casey says, turning to look at each one. “And each of us aborted the mission before it started.”

Kia considers this, starting to nod. “I had intel about four months ago,” she says. “Suggested that there was possible some activity out of Italy -- something about smuggling ties -- but it was too vague. The risks associated outweighed the benefits. I decided it was ill-advised and never went.”

“I had the same intel,” Gregor says. “Smugglers of unknown origin and unknown destination, but everyone who met them ran terrified for their lives. The cost benefit analysis was terrible, so I was actually relieved when the meeting here was called. I thought it would be safer, but I guess everyone has to be wrong sometimes.”

Anders puts down his sandwich, and for once, he seems actually pensive. “Two months ago, I think I followed the same lead,” he says. “Smuggling network, so I believed, but nothing concrete about who or what. Just that it was big. That people were at risk, even if they had no idea why or how.”

“And you didn’t go?” Kia asks.

“I got a tip. A local asset and old friend,” Anders says. “Told me to stay out, if I knew what was best for me.”

Kia’s face screws up. “And that was enough for you?”

Anders picks up his drink again, sipping noisily. “Bravery, it is a trait for the short-lived,” he says. “My life is more valuable if I’m actually alive to live it.”

“Discussions of bravery aside,” Casey says. “Both of you didn’t go to Italy.”

“And you?” Kia asks.

“I saw the risks, just like the rest of you,” he says. “Things are too quiet, and the intel is too perfect. I saw that it was a trap, so I kept my team out.”

“And you would lecture me on bravery?” Anders says with a snort as he stuffs the last of his bun into his mouth.

“I risk my life,” Casey tells him pointedly. “My team is another story.”

“Three examples,” Kia says dubiously. “That’s intriguing but hardly a precedent.”

“Then think about this,” Casey says, sitting forward. His button cam bobs as he crosses his fingers on the table in front of him. “Johnson; Adamek; Ruiz.”

“Operatives who died,” Kia says.

“All on missions to Italy,” Gregor adds.

Kia is still shaking her head. “But they were different missions. Adamek was chasing drugs.”

“Ruiz was obsessed with terrorists,” Anders says.

“And we never knew why Johnson went,” Kia says.

“Exactly,” Casey says, and he lowers his voice. “They all chased a lead into Italy that turned into a dead end. We assumed that was because the intel died with them, but what if the intel was the trap? The nature of our network, what we do, the checks and balances can be manipulated.”

Kia does not looked pleased by this theory. Chen is maintaining passive indifference and even Anders seems to be listening closely for once.

Gregor sits forward, closer to Casey. “Sharing intel has always been our asset, but if someone planted fake intelligence…,” he ventures, shrugging one shoulder.

“But it would take more than one person,” Kia says. “We all use different sources.”

“But where does that intel come from in the first place?” Gregor asks. “It is...like a rumor, yes? We start it and watch it grow.”

“So you think we helped spread it?” Anders says, sounding almost bemused. “That we have been, quite unwittingly, instruments of our own demise?”

“Once intel gets on the ground, it can spread to different sources,” Casey says. “When we start cross referencing those sources, they all confirm it, so we think it’s valid.”

“But it’s all the same intel,” Kia says, understanding growing in her expression.

“And it all comes from the same place,” Gregor agrees, nodding.

“Whoever is behind this, they’re one of us,” Casey concludes. “They used fake intel to keep people out, which means we haven’t had good intel on Italy in months. It’s a blind spot, essentially. One we didn’t even know we had.”

“And we’re certain on the six months?” Kia presses. “That seems awfully precise.”

“Six months ago marks the last time someone went into Italy and came out alive,” Casey says, posture shifting toward Chen.

Chen inclines his head, looking disconcertingly close to the button cam feed. “I had a short mission there, it’s true,” he says. “But it had nothing to do with smuggling.”

“Then what?” Kia asks.

“Nothing spectacular,” Chen intones. “I wanted to check up on an old asset. Once I made contact, I was in and out within 24 hours.”

“Right before Vienna, yeah?” Gregor asks.

Chen nods. “There was no evidence that anything was wrong.”

Kia takes in this information with an expected weight. Anders looks like he’s ready to order a chocolate milkshake.

“So, six months,” Gregor says. “Someone’s been breaking this network down piece by piece over the last six months.”

“And they’ve been using Italy as their base of operations,” Kia concludes.

Anders snuffs at the air, searching his tray for any sign of wayward food. “And I suppose you all think it is up to us now.”

“Well, someone’s going through a hell of a lot of trouble to keep us out of Italy,” Casey says. “So I think it’s time we spare them the effort and find out why.”

-o-

As far as a call to action goes, Casey’s is not exactly the most rousing. It’s not Mel Gibson rallying the Scottish people to rebellion. It’s not even Bill Pullman charging all available pilots to fight aliens.

But this is an unconventional story, and whether or not Billy thinks it was effective is not the point. The intended audience here is four other people. And they’re not the types who are swayed by dramatic speeches and large expressions of grandeur.

They’re drawn in by the cold, hard logic.

There’s a mole; they need to find it.

This is, most naturally, why Billy has to embellish his reports. The reality is always such a letdown.

Especially when Billy is forced to take the red eye out of town.

In coach.

“You know, since it’s well established that spies do not fly in luxury, booking first class tickets is actually the best way to enhance one’s cover,” Billy suggests while they pack up the room.

“Spies don’t fly coach to fit in,” Casey says, stuffing several more papers into the trash. They’re blitzing through their work over the last few days, taking only the things they need and burning the rest in the alley out back. “Spies fly coach because espionage, in its most altruistic form, isn’t very lucrative.”

It’s not that Casey is wrong -- he is, most definitely, right -- it’s just that Billy doesn’t want to admit it. He doesn’t want to admit anything right now, because if he does, he’s going to have to start with the painful admission that he doesn’t want to do this.

That’s the same conversation they’ve had, countless times and countless ways since Billy tracked Casey to the alley over a week before. But this isn’t mere annoyance; no, this is something more than that.

This is the doubt building in the pit of his stomach, settling like fire in his nerves. It’s the voice in the back of his head telling him that this time, nothing he does will be enough.

He’s had this feeling before, a few times in his life. He had it the day his father drank himself to death. He had it the day he joined MI6 and told his mother he’d be back soon but never did. He had it when Olivia left him for deep cover.

And he had it on that last mission, that one that cost him his career, his home and his hope for reconciliation with all the rest.

Paranoia, a sixth sense, trusting your gut: it’s called a thousand different things, but it always feels the same.

Doubt.

Unshakeable and impossible to placate.

The sense that wherever you go next, you’re not coming back.

Not the same way you were.

Maybe not at all.

He hesitates, watching Casey once again.

After a moment, Casey notices. “What?”

“I--” Billy starts, but he doesn’t know how to finish. He’s not going to ask Casey to stop. He’s not going to tell Casey that he has to go alone.

Casey stops, looking at him more fully. “What?”

Billy closes his mouth, forcing a smile. “Just thinking, is all,” he says.

“About what?” Casey asks.

“About how I’m going to write this down in the report when I get back,” Billy says, correcting his posture.

“This isn’t a sanctioned mission,” Casey reminds him.

“All the more reason we’re going to have to document it,” Billy says, voice growing buoyant again. “I mean, if we’re going to clear our way through Higgins’ IA investigation, the report is going to have to be phenomenal.”

“Or accurate,” Casey says, going through another file and sorting through the notes.

“The truth is flexible,” Billy says, flitting a hand through the air. “But the courage and conviction or the main players -- now, that’s how we’re going to sell this thing.”

Casey’s brow starts to furrow.

That’s the only incentive Billy needs. “You, naturally, have to be our dauntless hero,” he says. “Working all the angles to protect mankind, national interest and your brother in arms.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” Casey says, shoving another handful of pages into the trash bag.

“You tireless dedication to the truth made you the ideal focal point, the tipping point that kept a splintered network of would-be enemies on the same side of the greater good,” Billy continues. He gestures broadly. “Your dour disposition, your slight build -- they make you an unlikely candidate. But you prove yourself, in face of insurmountable obstacles. Not just as the foil for evil, but as a leader among men. You issue the rallying cry, and they flock to you. Five distinct people at odds with one another, but you, Casey Malick. You are the glue that holds them all together.”

Casey is all but scowling now. “How long have you rehearsed that?”

Billy rocks back on his heels, crossing his arms over his chest proudly. “Just came up with it now, actually.”

“That’s impressive,” Casey says.

Billy’s face brightens. “Really?”

“Impressive,” Casey continues. “That you can produce such abject stupidity on the spot.”

Billy clucks his tongue, refusing to be chagrined. “Go on with the insults,” he taunts. “The more you insult me, the more flowery language goes into the report. I’m thinking, Casey Malick: Double Agent with One Heart.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense,” Casey mutters.

“Casey Malick,” Billy tries again, using his hands to showcase the idea. “From betrayal to loyalty -- and back again.”

Casey grunts, tying up the latest bag and slinging it over his shoulder. “Keep it up, okay?” he says. “Keep it up, and next time, you’ll be in one of these bags headed toward the incinerator.”

“Casey Malick: on fire for his team.”

Casey presses his mouth into a flat line, charging past Billy to the door. “Have this place cleaned and swept by the time I get back,” he says, opening the door loudly. “Or I’m not kidding about the incinerator.”

The door swings shut behind him, leaving Billy alone. The smile fades from his mouth as he looks back down at the paperwork in his hands. It took a week to build this case, and just hours to take it down. “Casey Malick,” he muses to himself. “A man worth seeing through to the end.”

Billy packs another few papers, sighing as he looks around.

“I hope so, at any rate,” Billy says to himself as he gets back to work. “I really, really hope so.”

-o-

Billy is used to being one step behind for most of this mission, so it’s a strange thing to be flying ahead of Casey this time. Granted, the flights were chosen by Casey and the IDs had been obtained by Casey, but still.

None of that makes it any less weird when he’s scrunched into the middle row of the red eye out of Shanghai, straight to Rome.

As if that’s not enough, he’s not alone.

Casey’s on a later flight in the morning, one that diverts out of the way a few times, but apparently he doesn’t want Billy flying solo.

This might be somewhat nice, in theory, had Casey not booked him a flight with the man who had planned on killing him just a week prior.

“You know,” Billy says, keeping his voice low. The plane is crowded and there’s a heavy set man snoring in the seat next to him. “We could have requested separate seats.”

Gregor flips through the magazine. “I’m supposed to look after you.”

The utter nonchalance does little to assuage Billy’s hurt pride. “I don’t need a babysitter.”

Gregor stops on a page advertising silk linens and a toaster oven. “This wasn’t my idea,” he says with an air of indifference. He turns to the next page. “But for what it’s worth, I could have killed you at least five times back in the United States. So you may not be the best judge.”

Billy scowls. “That’s not fair--”

“No, no,” Gregor agrees. “But that is life.”

It’s not a point Billy likes, but unfortunately it’s not one he can refute. To say he wasn’t expecting Casey to be a double agent is true, but it’s also exactly what Gregor’s talking about. Billy’s a spy, and he’s not a bad one, but he’s not quite like the rest. No, that takes a certain amount of ruthless training and years of honing.

You have to trust, literally, no one.

That’s just not Billy’s style.

Cross, he drums his fingers on his armrest. “I think I’m playing catch up pretty well.”

Gregor shrugs. “You’re not a part of this.”

“I am now,” Billy objects. “And I got the leg up on you the second time around.”

Gregor is disappointingly unphased. “Like I said, I am not making judgements. I just owe Casey a few favors.”

“Casey and Chen, it sounds like,” Billy notes. “I’m not the only one who needs a bit of back up from time to time.”

At this, Gregor sighs, closing the magazine. “Stop being insulted.”

“Then stop being insulting!” Billy hisses.

“See this for what it is,” Gregor ventures.

“Cruel and unusual punishment?”

“Casey cares about you,” Gregor says flatly.

That’s not what Billy’s expecting. Not in the least. “What?”

“I know Casey like you never will. I’ve seen what he’s truly capable of, and trust me when I tell you, it’s beyond what you could possibly imagine,” Gregor explains as he hold Billy’s gaze. “He doesn’t compromise for anything, ever -- except, except, his team.”

Billy blinks, not sure what to say.

“It may not sound like much when I say it,” Gregor says. “But he cares about you. And that’s the smallest thing that makes the biggest difference.”

Billy blinks again, letting out a breath he doesn’t fully know why he’s holding.

“Now,” Gregor says, reaching for his headphones. “The movie’s about to start, so if you don’t mind--”

Billy can’t object. Billy can’t even reply. All he can do is turn his head numbly toward the screen. This feels like his life, suddenly. Watching the action with the volume off. He can see what’s happening, but he can’t hear it. He’s only getting part of the story, no matter how hard he tries.

He might be missing something that could save his life.

But he’s starting to think he’s getting the most important parts after all.