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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: Not-So-Secret Identities (7/9)

December 28th, 2015 (02:49 pm)
drained

feeling: drained

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



-o-

The flight is on time, at least, and he and Gregor part ways without any conflict. On the ground, they don’t need to discuss the importance of maintaining their distance. From the moment they step foot in the terminal, it’s assumed that they’re in enemy territory.

How quaint it is that Billy misses the days when Gregor was the only one who wanted him dead.

You know, a week ago.

Nonetheless, Billy figures at this point, if he’s going to die, he’s going to die. The best he can do is his job. Therefore, he makes his way out and catches a cab. He gives the driver an address and gets out before promptly on public transit to continue on a different route. By the time he finally arrives at the motel Casey specified, it’s almost midday and Billy is jet lagged and run ragged.

When he finally lumbers by himself up to the room, he takes the time to sweep and secure it before sitting on the bed. He checks his watch -- Casey should be in the air by now -- and flops back. He starts at the ceiling for a long moment and blinks his eyes.

This is no time to sleep, not here. Not now. Not when they’re so close to victory or disaster.

He blinks again.

He should stay awake; he should start to lay out the intel once again. He should establish as many checkpoints as he can, just to be sure, just to be safe.

He blinks.

He should stay awake for Casey. He should stay awake for Michael and Rick and the life he’s left behind. He should stay awake because the story’s almost over and every minute counts.

And blinks.

It’s almost over, Billy knows. He can imagine infinite endings.

Blinks.

And he remembers the beginning.

-o-

Beginnings, they’re hard to define sometimes. Hard to pinpoint, at any rate. A story can start a thousand places, which is why authors work so hard to get that first sentence right. The beginning, after all, sets the tone. You can know the end once you know the beginning.

In this, Billy’s never been quite sure where his story starts. Does it start in a cupboard back in Scotland? Does it start in a graveyard under a gray sky when he’s 12 years old? Does it start at university or the day he finds himself recruited to MI6?

Is it his first mission? Is it the first time he crosses the line? Is it when he falls in love with Olivia? Is it when she leaves him with nothing but a scar in his side and the promise that he’ll never get to keep?

Or is it the last time he crosses the line? The time when too many good people die and his own government hands him walking papers and tells him to never come back? Is it when he lands in the United States and joins the CIA with nothing left to lose?

Is it when Michael Dorset hazes him or when Casey Malick refuses to give him the time of day? Is it when Carson Simms takes the time to give him a second chance and lets him find a place to call his own?

Is it when they became a team? Is it when Carson goes missing in North Africa? Is it when Michael starts taking him to work? Or when Casey starts to trust him on a mission?

Is it when Rick shows up? Is it when Michael gets divorced? Is it when Billy finds errors in a few reports and starts unraveling a thread he’s not sure he wants to follow?

Is it in an alleyway with a gun to his head? Is it in a fast food restaurant in Shanghai? Is it in a motel room in Rome and an impossible mission he doubts he’ll live to see through?

A thousand beginnings. A million.

And only one ending.

Billy likes to tell stories when he can. He likes to craft a narrative out of irrelevant details. He likes to add conflict and drama for the sake of it all.

It’s harder to live a story, though.

It’s harder to know that all the beginnings in the world won’t change how it ends.

And maybe -- just maybe -- the ending doesn’t matter. The ending doesn’t negate the things that come before. The ends don’t justify the means, and the means can’t always precipitate the ends you want. That’s the point, maybe. That’s real life.

You tell your own story. You create your own meaning.

And you accept your ending.

Whatever it may be.

-o-

Billy wakes with a start. Eyes wide on the ceiling, his breath catches in his chest. He’s not sure how long he’s been asleep, but he’s suddenly aware that he’s not alone.

This is, at first, unsettling.

But most people who bothered to break into his motel room would have killed him by now. Which meant--

Billy sits up, propping himself on his elbows. “Casey?”

Casey is at the small table in the room, shuffling a few stacks of papers. “Yeah.”

Groggily, Billy glances at his watch, which is a futile effort. He has no idea what time zone he’s in. “How long--”

“I got in a few hours ago,” Casey reports without looking up. “You looked like you needed the sleep.”

Billy swallows, both grateful and embarrassed. “What about you?”

“I didn’t take the red eye,” Casey reminds him.

Billy inches his way to the edge of the bed. “Still--”

“Still,” Casey says, somewhat abruptly. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

“All the more reason--” Billy starts.

“To work,” Casey says, and he finally looks at Billy. His features look older somehow, as though he’s aged years within the last week and a half. “If we’re going to get this taken care of and get back to our lives, then we need to work.”

Billy almost nods, but he doesn’t know why. “You know, if we don’t make it out--”

“We’re going to make it out,” Casey says, face pinched curtly.

“But if we don’t,” Billy says.

Casey’s eyes flash, ready with objections that he doesn’t give voice to.

“I just want you to know,” Billy says. “It’s been a good story, mate.”

Casey lets out a breath, lips almost pulled up in a smile. “The best.”

The emotions rise in Billy’s chest, and it’s all he can do to breathe around the tight feeling in his throat. He gets up, moving to the table. “Okay,” he says. “So what are we looking at?”


-o-

It’s only been about 24 hours since he’s last seen Casey, but the other man has already put together a fairly impressive game plan in his absence. The team all took separate flights and agreed to scatter through Rome, hitting up their familiar haunts but in appearance only. Tomorrow, they’ll have their first meeting to list the full scope of locations their past intel has indicated may be hot in the last six months.

From there, they’ll draw up a list of locations and narrow them down as best they can.

Then, they’ll attack.

“Sounds easy enough,” Casey remarks, looking over his work.

Billy arches his eyebrows. “On paper,” he murmurs. “It always does.”

-o-

The team is optimistic.

Crowded around a small table in a rundown fast food restaurant, that certainly is saying something. They’re an unlikely bunch, this much is certain, all with their own unique styles. While it’s true that none of them would have picked each other for teammates in a fight for their lives, there’s no doubt that they’re up for the challenge.

That’s the power of teamwork, being united to a common cause. They’ve been allies in the past, the affiliation has been loose and based on the threat of reprisal. Now, bonded together as they are, their teamship is based on mutual gain.

It’s the power of positive reinforcement in vivid display.

This isn’t just how a team is made.

This is how friendships are born.

And, perhaps most importantly, how the hardest fights are won.

Even as they’re approaching the end of this thing, Billy is starting to think he’s seeing the beginning of something greater.

“Anders, seriously,” Gregor snipes. “Chew with your mouth closed.”

“I would if I could, but the smell from Kia’s lotion -- it has clogged my sinuses,” Anders complains.

“I do not wear scents,” Kia says. “I believe you are mistaken.”

“Someone is wearing lavender,” Anders declares.

“I smell vanilla,” Gregor chimes in.

“You’re both idiots,” Casey chides, and Billy chuckles to himself as he watches the feed from a cafe across the street. “It’s clearly lilac and cinnamon. And Chen is wearing it.”

They all stop to look at Chen.

Chen, for his part, shrugs. “I like to smell good,” he says. Then he narrows his eyes toward Anders. “If there’s a problem with that.”

“No, no problem,” Anders says, holding up his hands. “No problem at all.”

-o-

Their work is exceptionally thorough -- and fast.

Within a two days, the team has a short list of locations narrowed down to one. Additional low risk reconnaissance supports the conclusion, mostly because whoever is behind this isn’t actually trying to hide.

“It doesn’t seem, I don’t know,” Billy says, trying not to sound fretful at the motel. “Suspicious?”

“Of course it’s suspicious,” Casey says tersely. “We’re talking about someone who hijacked a network of super spies for his or her own ends. Did you expect them to be doing humanitarian work?”

Billy does not comment on the sarcasm. “That’s my point,” he says. “Is it maybe too obvious?”

Casey shakes his head. “This is the only location that is cross referenced in all our intel,” he says. “Anders, Kia, Gregor -- they were all going to hit this place.”

“I recognize it,” Billy says. “It was Michael’s primary target.”

“And the main reason why I worked so hard to keep us out of there,” Casey says. “I knew too much and not enough, all at the same time. I couldn’t risk bringing the team.”

Billy considers this for a long moment, shaking his head. “You were willing to risk alienating your team -- just to protect us?”

“It wasn’t much of a risk,” Casey says.

“How do you figure that?” Billy asks.

Casey shrugs. “Because you’re my team,” he says. “I knew you’d be pissed off and angry. But you’re forgive me.”

“You could be so sure?” Billy wonders.

“You said it yourself,” Casey says. “That’s what teams do.”

Billy gathers a long breath. “That still doesn’t tell us why your mole is being so obvious,” he says, pointing to the photos they’ve collected. “Subtlety does not appear to be his primary concern.”

“It’s probably not,” Casey agrees. “Whoever this is, whatever their endgame, they want people to come after them. They don’t want to hide. They want to lure people in.”

“But why?” Billy asks. “What’s the advantage?”

Casey shrugs. “Everyone who’s gone in to find out hasn’t come back out.”

“Yeah,” Billy says with a sideways glance at Casey. “About that. Shouldn’t we be a little concerned? Three operatives go in and don’t come out? Not exactly a good sign.”

“But a necessary omen,” Casey says. He nods at the papers again. “We have to find out what’s going on there.”

“And what’s going to prevent us from becoming another list of missing names?” Billy asks.

“Nothing, maybe,” Casey admits. “But we do know what we’re really looking for this time, so that can only help us.”

Billy chews his lip. “And if that’s not enough?”

“That’s why we’ve got a team,” Casey says and he looks at Billy. “That’s why I’ve got you.”

Billy finds himself smile. “That’s sweet, really,” he says. “A little terrifying, too, but sweet.”

Casey rolls his eyes. “Imagine how I feel.”

“And there,” Billy says, clapping Casey on the shoulder. “There goes the moment.”

Casey smirks in return. “Thank God.”

-o-

This is all well and good until the team comes up with a plan.

Now, Billy’s accepted that he has a backseat role in this whole thing. He’s not technically part of the team, and his role as backup does not exactly include voting rights. While it’s true that he’s here to save his own life, he’s also here for Casey, and he’s been content -- or willing, at least -- to do whatever the other man tells him.

There’s no reason to expect that he gets any say in how this goes down, and he’s done his very best to be a strong, supporting member.

Until he learns the plan.

“The front door,” Billy says. “Five super spies, the best intelligence cache in the world, and your plan is to go in the front door.

Casey looks exasperated. It’s been a long two days, sussing out the details to plan the raid. No surprise, each member of the team had had different ideas, and Billy’s kept a meticulous notebook of their varied and colorful plans.

Two days, and they’re back in the motel room, going over the final tally.

To Billy’s absolute disbelief.

“There’s more to it than that,” Casey says.

“Oh, really?” Billy says. “Because right here, it says that everyone is going to take as much ammunition as they can carry, shoot their way in and make a beeline for the mark.”

“Our chances are best if we combine our strengths--”

“It also makes you a bigger target,” Billy says.

“That’s why we’re spreading the security out,” Casey. “Leave multiple trails--”

“Oh, right, the part where you’re all going to spend the rest of the week pursuing other, more viable entrances instead of fortifying the suicide mission,” Billy says. “Since it’s not like you want to plan together or spend time devoted to the actual plan.”

“We want them to believe it’s a multipronged approach,” Casey argues.

“Which, by the way, is not a bad idea,” Billy says.

Casey sighs. “It’s too much of a risk.”

“As opposed to shooting up the front door?” Billy asks. He runs a hand through his hair. “And I thought Michael’s missions were out there.”

“This isn’t out there--”

“Separate attacks improves your odds of someone getting inside,” Billy insists.

“And increases the odds of someone getting killed,” Casey returns. “We separate, people are going to die. Maybe not all of us, but some of us. And maybe you think that’s an acceptable loss--”

Casey doesn’t finish, but looks down.

Billy closes his eyes, something clenching in his gut.

Acceptable losses.

Casey’s always been the pragmatist of the ODS; he’s been the one who knows better than the rest of them that someone it takes a life to win a life. You have to be a heartless bastard to some degree to be a spy.

To be a double agent?

Takes more.

That’s Casey’s problem, though.

He doesn’t believe in acceptable losses. Not anymore.

He wouldn’t take the ODS to Italy and was willing to destroy the team’s unity to keep them safe. Now, he won’t let his fledgling band of super spies divide and conquer for fear of losing one of them.

Of all the revelations concerning Casey Malick, this one is the most surprising.

And still somehow the one Billy’s known all along.

Finally, he sighs. “Fine,” he says.

Casey stops, tilting his head. “Fine?”

“Fine,” he says, reaching for his notebook again. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Casey is still watching him, uncertain.

Billy shrugs. “If you’re going to plan a suicide run,” he says, as a matter of fact. “Then you’re going to need all the backup you can get.”

It’s obvious that Casey can’t help but grin.

Billy shuffles through the papers, shaking his head. “And, while we at it,” he mutters. “A whole hell of a lot of luck wouldn’t hurt either.”

-o-

Four more days.

Four operatives to follow.

Honestly, it’s a nice reprieve from fast food restaurants, and Billy doesn’t mind getting to know the members of the new team a little bit better. Casey helps by slipping trackers on each of them, and while Casey maps out the full front assault, it’s up to Billy to keep tabs on the rest.

It’s not easy, one man tracking four people. Not just four people, either. Four random people would be easy to keep track of, but spies? Super spies? Even with GPS tracking, it’s a challenge that leads him through back alley, industrial shipping yard and small merchant shops.

Kia is the one who favors industrial areas, and her contacts are burly men with grotesquely tattooed arms. She often appears half their size, but when she stands next to them, no one can tell. It’s clear that she intends to leverage a shipping angle, perhaps moving in with a delivery, posing as another member of the transit company. Smart, practical and effective: all things that speak to Kia’s strengths in the field.

Anders, naturally, is not so overzealous. When Billy follows him, the blonde frequents bars and cafes, eating a steady diet of eclairs and beer. As for his contacts, Anders deals with well dressed people and envelopes of cash. Whoever the mark is, Anders intends to buy his way in, and he seems to have enough capital to pull it off. Easy, hands-off and audacious: traits that match Anders to a T.

Chen relies on old-fashioned reconnaissance. He’s the one who works the hardest, covering the most ground and making the most connections. Of them all, Chen is the best of the old-world spies, and Billy appreciates that about him. There’s no element of luck in Chen’s approach; success is merely a matter of how good he is. No doubt, Chen will find the weakest entrance and exploit it. No covers; no set up. Clean, efficient, and honestly, a little boring: these are the things that make Chen so good at what he does.

Three spies; three approaches.

That just leaves Gregor.

Under different circumstances, it’s possible that Billy may have liked Gregor. In truth, there is nothing overtly unlikeable about the man, but Billy still finds it hard to shake his distrust. The whole part about being stalked and nearly killed is something Billy still finds distasteful, even if he can almost understand the professional reasons for it.

That said, Billy is loathe to admit that he respects Gregor’s style. He has several contacts throughout the city, but they’re hardly random. No, Gregor has cultivated these contacts and they appear comfortable and familiar with him. Frustratingly, it’s the way Billy would go about it. Curry good favor to gain standing, maybe turn a lower member of the security staff to turn a blind eye. It’s part con, part infiltration: all spywork.

Traditional, refined and just a flair of style: Gregor’s a damn likeable spy, no matter how much Billy hates it.

Unfortunately, Gregor also knows what Billy looks like, making it nearly impossible to maintain a cover. He’s not surprised, then, when Gregor buys him a drink and joins Billy at the dark table in the corner of the pub where Billy’s taken residence for his daily recon mission.

“This is really the best you can do?” Gregor asks, passing the beer off to Billy.

Without missing a beat, Billy takes it. “I’m not hiding from you,” he says, pausing to take a sip. “Keeping my distance is for your sake, not mine.”

“Eh,” Gregor says with another swig. “We’re fooling ourselves if we think that any of this makes us safer.”

“Precautions can’t hurt,” Billy says.

Gregor chuffs sardonically. “You agree with Casey, then? Trying to minimize casualties?”

“I’m all for not dying,” Billy tells him. “It’s a general rule we like to follow.”

“Quaint,” Gregor comments.

“Practical, too,” Billy says with a nod. “No spy is worth much dead.”

At that, a small smile plays on Gregor’s lips. “This is what it is like, then? Your little team at the CIA? It is like this?”

“What?” Billy asks. “Alive?”

“You put each other first,” Gregor says. “You don’t design missions for success first.”

Billy blows out a breath. “Nah, mate,” he says. “We just define success differently.”

Gregor nods in consideration. “So it is good, then? This teamwork of yours.”

“Good?” Billy asks, raising the mug up again. He shakes his head. “No, it’s better.

Gregor studies his drink for a moment, but finally nods again. “I couldn’t understand it before,” he says. “Why Casey would risk it all on the likes of you.”

Billy tilts his head. “And now?”

“Ah,” Gregor tells him, swatting the air. “I may be starting to understand.”

Billy starts to grin. “Really?”

“For the good it will do me,” he says with a snort. “I’m still likely to die here.”

Billy sits forward, intently now. “Not if we can help it.”

“And you think you can?” Gregor asks, both skeptical and amused.

Billy sits back again, shifting his drink from one hand to the next. “I can promise you,” he says. “We’re certainly going to try.”

Gregor wrinkled his nose. “That’s really how you talk, isn’t it? A bit like a movie, don’t you think?”

Billy huffed a laugh before taking a drink. “Give it some time. You’ll get used to it.”

“You assume I want to,” Gregor says quizzically.

Billy downs the last of his drink, putting the glass back on the table. “We won Casey Malick,” he says shrewdly. “With you, it’s only a matter of time.”

-o-

A pep talk for Gregor is relatively easy.

Casey, on the other hand--

Well, Casey’s always been a hard one.

Back in the room, Billy finds him poring over his notes. His dinner is virtually untouched on the table beside him, and Billy hopes that the bottle of water is not the same one Billy put there this morning.

Still, harping on Casey is not the way to go. Under other circumstances, it can be entertaining to needle the other man, but with so much on the line -- well, Billy knows better.

That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s going to stand idly by. Yes, he knows that this is Casey’s mission, and he’s certainly let Casey call all the shots. Because Billy’s backup.

In the field.

And right here, between the two of them.

“They’re all on track,” Billy says without being asked. He does his best to stay neutral, sitting down on his bed. “Had a nice conversation with Gregor.”

“It was supposed to be noninvasive,” Casey says without looking up. “You’re not supposed to get ID’d.”

“Gregor made the contact, not me,” Billy says. “And at this point, if someone is paying enough attention, they’re going to ID me sooner or later.”

“But we have to be--”

“Careful?” Billy asks.

Casey looks up, closing his mouth tautly.

Billy shrugs. “Story’s already in motion,” he says. “What’s going to happen is going to happen.”

“We can’t afford fatalism now,” Casey mutters, looking back at his work.

“And we can’t afford to think we have absolute control over this either,” Billy says. “No matter what you know or what we think we know, we’re still walking in their blindly.”

“Which is why I want to minimize the risk,” Casey says, giving Billy an exasperated look.

“You can only minimize it so much,” Billy says. “Sooner or later, someone has to walk into the line of fire, and I prefer to think that sometimes the best protection isn’t what you know or what you do. It’s who you’re with.”

Casey doesn’t say anything.

Billy sits himself forward. “What you’ve done here, it’s remarkable,” he says. “And I’m not talking about the intelligence or the approach. I’m talking about the fact that you took five people who have lived in a delicate balance with one another and taught them to work as a team. You’ve convinced five lone wolves to essentially join a pack. That’s what’s going to make a difference tomorrow, more than anything else. That is what the story is about.”

Casey loosens the muscles in his jaw. He lets out a breath and shakes his head. “You taught me that, you know? You and Michael and Rick. I already knew how to be the best spy. But you taught me how to be in a team.”

Mouth twitching, Billy does his best not to ruin the delicacy of the moment. “See? No reason to be so worried then!”

Casey’s expressions turns grim again. “It’s exactly the reason to be worried.”

Billy draws his brows together, vexed.

“Because now that I’ve got it,” Casey admits. “I don’t want to lose it.”

There’s nothing to say to that, nothing that can quite match it. There’s no higher praise, no higher purpose. There’s no better reason.

Billy gathers himself, nodding toward the paperwork. “You still thinking about a full frontal assault?”

Casey looks down again. “It’s a bit more nuanced than that--”

“Run it for me,” Billy says.

Casey glances at him, expectantly.

Billy nods readily. “If I’m going to be backup tomorrow, I need to know everything,” he says. “I need to be where you need me to be, any given moment. So I’ll start the coffee, and you run it for me again.”

Turning his papers back to the beginning, Casey gathers his notes. Billy starts the coffee and settles down on the bed.

It’s going to be a long night, Billy knows.

And somehow he doesn’t want to miss a thing.

-o-

They work late, and Casey leaves early. Billy takes enough time to doze for a moment before dawn, when he finally surrenders to the inevitable. Being well rested is not a primary concern; he’s not likely to fall asleep on a job like this.

He showers for no other reason than to give him something to do, and he finds a few energy bars stashed in Casey’s things before he guzzles the last of the tepid coffee and heads out. There’s no need to bring much -- the notebook stays behind, but the phone and the earbuds are musts -- and this time he accessorizes with as much weaponry as he can fit under his clothes.

Thanks to Casey, they’ve amassed an eclectic collection since arriving in Rome, and Billy’s only regret is that he can’t fit more guns underneath his jacket. True, Billy usually relies on gun to make a statement, not to actually use, but in this case, he’s fairly certain that if he pulls a gun, he’s going to be strongly compelled to use it.

Lest it be used against him.

There’s no time to doubt, though.

No time to second guess.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Billy knows for a fact that it can burn in one.

At least, he hopes so.

Heading out the motel’s front door, he really hopes so.

-o-

It seems like a bit of overkill, but Billy takes the circuitous route. While he firmly believes that enough vigilance could have ID’d him by now either way, he also decides there’s no reason to tempt fate.

Especially since, after several blocks, he’s fairly certain that he’s being followed.

It’s subtle, but not that subtle. Concerned, he quickens his pace and backtracks a few times. When he passes through the same alley for the third time, he’s confident that he has two tales. They stay just out of his line of sight, which means they’re good at what they do, but the fact that they’re keeping close enough for him to tell is curious.

If it’s the mark, then Billy half suspects he’d be dead already.

Whatever the case, Billy’s been stalked through enough alleys.

It’s time to turn the tables.

He walks briskly when he turns the next corner, moving as fast as he can before ducking behind a dumpster. It’s not exactly brilliant cover, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to hide him long enough for his pursuers to come around the corner.

Billy pulls a gun, priming himself.

The footfalls come faster now. Closer and closer.

Billy takes a breath.

And lunges.

-o-

The first man goes down hard, taking the butt of Billy’s gun to the head. Billy rounds on the second, punching him hard across the face before grabbing his arm. In true Casey Malick fashion, he wrenches the arm back until he hears a yelp before slamming the man against the wall.

Then, he stops, chest still heaving with unspent adrenaline.

“Rick?”

The figure writhes, turning his dark eyes back toward Billy. “Billy?”

Billy lets up the pressure and turns to the first man, who is getting to his feet. “Michael?”

Michael winces, rubbing his jaw. “Billy.”

-o-

For a moment, all they can do is stare at each other.

Then Billy remembers there’s no time for that.

Grinding his teeth, Billy puts his gun away, reaching out to drag Michael toward the wall where Rick is still recovering. “What the hell are you two doing here?” he hisses.

“Funny, we flew all the way here to ask you the exact same thing,” Michael returns with added vehemence. “You and Casey went AWOL.”

Rick’s eyes are wide as he rolls his shoulder. “FBI is involved by now,” he says. “Rumor has it that you’re working for someone.”

“Well, you know what they say about rumors,” Billy mutters, glancing anxiously down the alley.

“That they’re not true?” Rick asks hopefully.

“That they’re always based on a kernel of truth,” Billy returns.

Rick pales.

“Oh, please,” Billy says. “It’s not like that. Not entirely anyway.”

Michael works to keep his face neutral. “Then tell me,” he says. “What is it about?”

Billy shifts his weight from foot to foot, glancing at his watch. “We don’t have a lot of time,” he says absently. He thinks about Casey and the others, then looks at Michael and Rick. “Look, I’ll answer all your questions, but first, you need to answer just one question for me.”

Michael’s eyes narrow.

“Just one, I promise,” Billy says.

“Fine,” Michael says. “One question.”

Billy nods, grateful. “Before we do anything else here, I have to know, just one thing,” he says, looking from Michael to Rick and back again. “Do you trust me?”

Rick hesitates and looks at Michael, but Michael’s gaze never leaves Billy. That’s because this is the hardest question Billy could ask.

And, somehow, the easiest one of all.

“If we didn’t trust you, don’t you think we would have showed up with the local authorities to take you into custody?” MIchael asks.

“Don’t you think we would have told Higgins and that he would have kept us as far away from Italy as possible?” Rick ventures.

Billy smiles. “Just remember that,” he says. “Because you’re going to need it when I tell you the rest.”

-o-

For once in his life, Billy gets straight to the point. It seems like it should take longer -- that the two weeks he’s spent with Casey on the run have been a lifetime -- but Billy manages to bring the abridged version down to about three minutes.

It’s an impressive feat, if Billy has to say so himself.

Michael and Rick, for their parts, are dumbfounded.

“A super spy network?” Rick asks.

“And you arranged a mission to take down the head?” Michael clarifies.

Rick makes a face. “Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Billy says. “If we had time, I could should you our intel--”

“I think I’ve seen it, haven’t I?” Michael says. “It’s the same intel that made me plan the mission to Italy in the first place.”

“And the same intel that made Casey sabotage you every step of the way,” Billy says. “He wanted to keep us out of this.”

“That’s why he falsified the reports,” Rick realizes.

“It wasn’t just falsification, though,” Michael says. “It was a trail.”

Billy frowns at that. “What?”

“A trail,” Michael says. “Aren’t you at all curious how I managed to track you down here?”

Billy cocks his head.

“I had nothing in your apartment, nothing in Casey’s apartment. Both of your desks were clean,” Michael says. “All I had was Casey’s fake reports.”

“We looked for patterns in his inconsistencies,” Rick says. “It wasn’t about what he put in the report.”

“But what he left out,” Billy muses. He clucks his tongue. “The clever bastard.”

“Times, dates, names,” Michael says. “Led me right to your motel and we’ve been tracking you here ever since.”

“But Casey didn’t figure out we needed to be in Italy until last week,” Billy says, his frown deepening.

“Well, it’s like you said,” Michael says. “We have to ask one question: do we trust Casey?”

The sudden revelations leave room for interpretations, and there will be questions to ask later, Billy knows.

But the answer is still the same for Billy.

“Of course,” he says, rallying his resolution. “Which is why we have to move.”

“How, though?” Rick asks. “Even if we trust you, we don’t know any of the parameters.”

Billy thinks for a second. “How did you get Higgins to approve a mission to Italy anyway?”

“Recon,” Michael says. “I said your trail led here, and I convinced him that I could pick up more clues.”

“And you have backup?” Billy asks.

“Higgins insisted we stay in daily contact with the Rome station,” Rick says. “And we have local law enforcement on speed dial.”

“Good, good,” Billy says, pulling out his phone.

“No, that’s not good,” Michael says. “If we call them in, they’ll see you and Casey and this is over before it starts.”

“You’re not going to bring them to the meet,” Billy says. “The mark, he has a vast network, right?”

“Sure,” Rick says slowly.

“He’s got eyes all over Rome,” Billy continues as the pieces fall into place.

“That’s what you’ve said,” Michael agrees.

“Casey’s going in blind,” Billy tells them. “So maybe we should return the favor.”

Rick’s still not quite getting it, but understanding is coalescing in Michael’s expression. “Take out his local contacts.”

“No charges have to stick,” Billy says. “But if we can pull them off the streets--”

“Then we can make Casey’s approach easier,” Rick says.

“We can definitely do that,” Michael says. “But it’s still going to leave you guys pretty vulnerable when you make your approach. We could go with you.”

It’s tempting, honestly. Billy likes working with a team; he likes having people he trusts at his side.

But he understands it now. He knows why Casey’s asked him to stay back.

Because it’s hard enough to ask a friend to die for a cause they believe in. To ask them to die for something they hardly know anything about? To ask them to die, in the simplest terms, for trust?

That’s a damn hard thing to do.

Billy shakes his head. “We’ve got it covered.”

“Two more sets of eyes--” Michael starts.

Billy shakes his head again. “The team is good, they’re ready,” he says. “Besides, they’re not big on outsiders.”

Michael lets out a long breath while Rick fidgets.

“Look, I know it’s a lot to ask--”

“You think?” Michael asks. “If Higgins finds out--”

“We’ll take the fall, I swear to you,” Billy promises.

“That’s not what we’re worried about,” Rick blurts.

“We didn’t come to sell you out,” Michael explains.

“We came to bring you back,” Rick says.

Michael lifts his chin a little higher, squaring his shoulders. “No matter what.”

Billy’s chest clenches. “Then we’ll see you when this is over,” he vows. “You have my word.”

Finally, Michael reaches out and offers his hand to Billy. “I’ll hold you to that.”

Smiling, Billy takes the hand. “I’d expect no less.”

Rick reaches out, pulling Billy into a quick hug. “You still have a lot of explaining to do.”

Billy pats Rick on the back, holding him for a moment. “When Casey finally tells me everything, you’ll be the first to know.”

Stepping back, Billy steadies himself. He looks at Michael and Rick, his team. “Well,” he says with a chuckle. “You did want a mission to Italy.”

“Yeah,” Michael says. “I guess I did.”

“It goes to show,” Billy comments. “Be careful what you wish for.”

“Nah,” Michael returns. “It goes to show, your team always comes through.”

“That it does,” Billy says, bittersweet in this. It’s not a goodbye, he promises himself, but it feels like one. God help him, it feels so much like one. Foreshadowing, you might call it. Damn literary elements. “Just not always how you expect.”

-o-

The team, it’s a damn impressive thing. Within fifteen minutes, Michael and Rick are on board. They’re armed with more questions than answers and a list of names to run through local law enforcements. It’ll be timed just right, coinciding with the time Casey has specified to make the initial approach.

Timing is everything in cases such as this. In order to maintain the element of surprise, however scarce it may be, no one can coordinate in advance. The mark has to believe that a multi-pronged attack is going to happen until it’s too late to appropriately scramble his forces to support the full frontal attack that actually occurs.

With Michael and Rick in play, there should be even less backup coming and even less risk of the alarm being sounded. In short, it tips the odds in their favor.

Not that that’s saying much.

As Billy takes up position across the street for the location, he’s all too aware that they’re badly outmanned for this mission. He’s done his homework, after all. At first glance, it certainly doesn’t look like much. The street is lined with businesses, catering to the foot traffic of the nearby business center. It’s not hard to miss, however, that while one side is fully developed and bustling with activity, the other is decidedly vacant. The storefronts are raised off the ground, presumably to make room for the garages underneath, but at least half the block is unoccupied with darkened doorframes and shuttered windows.

The only exception is the building in question, though at first glance it is impossible to tell what services might be offered there. The sign says Triplet’s but there are no hours listed and no open sign in the window. In fact, were it not for the weekly shipments that ran through the place, it would appear just as vacant as the rest of the block.

This is what made the security system all the more noteworthy. The location is well fortified with plenty of external security and very few visual points of access. While they have plenty of recon based on the exterior of the building, there is little to suggest the interior design and reinforcement. But if the bullet proof glass windows and armed guards are any indication, it’s a formidable.

Officially, the building is owned by a Japanese corporation, based out of Tokyo. However, the line of credit is couched in multiple other front businesses, which can be traced back to no less than a dozen prominent names in international crime. They were able to rule out a few of the players from previous intelligence, but there was no way to know who was there or what they were doing exactly.

This is what has attracted attention from every spy agency around the world.

But without concrete intelligence on the ground, no one has been able to identify the mark or their business.

There’s nothing quite like taking on a dangerous target -- that you know nothing about.

Billy frets, trying not to look too conspicuous as he orders a glass of water and pulls out his phone. It’s not a good storytelling technique, fighting against an unknown enemy. The audience likes to know who they’re up against; there has to be a face to the danger in order to up the stakes appropriately and keep everyone engaged.

Stories are rubbish, though.

There’s no lack of engagement when facing an unknown enemy. It’s left Billy entirely on edge, hinging on the unknown. True, it could be far easier than he expects, but Billy’s not often lucky in these sorts of things.

He checks his phone, bringing up the GPS tracking. He sees the coordinates from each of Casey’s new team. Chen and Kia are already in position. Anders is getting there now. Gregor’s five minutes out.

Casey’s been there all along. Billy can see him, reclining against the stoop of a building in the shade not far away. He’s the only team member he has a visual on, and it’s all he can do to keep from staring anxiously.

Billy texts Michael the go signal.

Gregor finds his spot and stops.

Billy checks the time again, watching as another minute passes.

Holding his breath, he watches. Five dots on the screen; primed, ready.

Toes wriggling, Billy swallows hard against the butterflies in his stomach. He reaches unconsciously, feeling for the gun and extra ammunition in his jacket.

Michael texts back, we’re a go.

Billy looks to Casey again, who meets his eyes for a split second.

The minute changes.

On cue, all five dots start moving and it’s all Billy can do to keep his eyes open.

It’s time to find out how this story ends.

-o-

Casey leads the charge, crossing the street quickly. Billy spies Anders and Kia down the street while Gregor makes his way up out of one of the adjacent alleyways. Chen comes from the opposite direction, and Billy can already see him start to pull his gun.

There are only two guards at the door.

Two guards, five operatives.

Those are good odds, at least.

Casey approaches first, undaunted. The guards start to look at him, and that’s when Kia shouts.

At first, Billy fears the worst, but then he sees her, slapping Anders across the face. She yells at him this time, well inflected Italian laden with curse words.

Anders objects just as stridently. “I didn’t sleep with her!” he insists.

Her voice rises, even more infuriated.

It’s a ruse.

It’s a distraction.

The guards turn to watch, and one chuckles as Kia hits Anders again.

That’s when Casey climbs the steps and takes out the first with two hits. The second one turns on Casey, fumbling to get his gun, but Gregor is already there, quickly disarming him while Casey turns and clocks him hard. Gregor follows up and the man goes down in a heap.

Anders and Kia are there, quickly pulling the guns and ammo off them as they move toward the front door.

In all, Billy’s impressed.

It’s the best possible start they could have hoped for. Two guards down, easy access in the front door with no alarms.

So Billy is, understandably, surprised when gunshots sound out and the whole thing goes to hell.

-o-

Billy hears the first crack and knows.

He hears the second and sees Anders fold to the ground, blonde hair flopping forward as he sprawls to the pavement. The third, and people are screaming, A fourth and glass breaks as civilians start to scatter.

He loses track between the fifth and the sixth, and by the time the first clip is spent, Billy’s caught up in a small stampede from the cafe’s outdoor sitting around. Just past noon, they’d missed the lunch rush, but there’s enough terrified people to make it impossible to stay wholly focused.

A fresh set of gunfire -- two guns now, at least -- and Billy’s on his feet. Before he can get very far, someone runs into him -- hard -- and he’s sent off balance. He tries to steady himself, but someone else crashes into his table, and everything goes down.

The gunfire is being returned in steady volleys, and Billy hears someone shriek as more people scamper past him on their way to cover. The sitting area is cleared now, and he sees a few people scattered down the street, a few running, others ducking for cover.

The overturned table is actually something of a convenience, and Billy looks over just as another round of gunfire starts up.

Despite everything, Billy is immediately relieved when he sees Casey across the street. His teammate has taken cover behind a covered bus stop alongside Gregor. They’re ducked low, alternating shots in turns, even as bullet holes have started to crack the plexiglass exterior that they are currently depending on to save their lives.

Billy’s eyes dart, looking to the side of the stoop where Kia is holed up. The nook is well protected but has limited visibility. No one can shoot her there, but she also can’t shoot them. Chen is hunkered down on the other side, equally fortified.

Anders, though -- Anders never made it to cover. He’s still on the pavement at the bottom of the stairs. It’s impossible to see exactly where he’s hit, but there’s enough blood to know that it’s bad.

The whole thing is bad.

Except one, salient detail that Billy can’t overlook.

The front door.

It’s wide open.

It’s such a perfect damn metaphor that Billy loves it and hates it instantly. He’s ready to tuck tail and run, but the door’s still open.

The mission is still in play.

There’s time left for one more heroic plot twist.

And Billy knows exactly what it is.