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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: (Love or) Fear of the Cold 2/3

September 12th, 2011 (07:12 am)

Notes and all in part one.



-o-

The manor is more impressive the farther from the banquet hall they get. There is no stop to the splendor, and ever the nooks and crannies are fully attired in the best of culture and refinement. It’s all she can do to keep from gaping in wide-eyed wonder.

He leads her through several corridors and when he opens one, she doesn’t hesitate to go in.

It doesn’t take her more than a second to realize it’s a bedroom.

It’s only another second to realize it’s his bedroom.

Her hesitation is instantaneous, but as Richard lopes in, she has no time to indulge it. “Forgive the quarters,” he says. “I figure the only room safe enough for my private work is one where most people never go.”

That’s when she notices the walls. Like the rest of the home, they’re full of art. But unlike the classical pieces throughout the house, these are different. Modern and impressionistic, ranging from surrealism to bold realism.

It takes her breath. “You did all these?” she asks, in total disbelief.

“In my free time,” Richard acknowledges.

She looks at them, moving from one to another in awe. When she finally pulls away, she realizes that Richard’s not looking at the art; he’s looking at her.

Swallowing, she laughs. “I have to say, I’m impressed,” she says, trying to deflect her awkward uncertainty as best she can. She has to focus on the job. Focus to get it done.

His gaze doesn’t waver. “Me, too.”

With purpose, she swallows and walks around him widely. There had been a time when she would have considered Richard, a time back in college when she maybe wanted something like this. And maybe now, if things were different. If this wasn’t a mission, if she’d been honest about anything since seeing him.

As it is, this isn’t what she wants. For herself or for the mission.

Richard moves, turning around. “I’ve missed you, Fay,” he says, and there’s such longing that she has to stop and turn around.

He’s still looking at her. Intense and knowing. Like Michael does, only without the subtlety and affection. There’s just want.

That’s when she realizes that she’s not the only one pulling a con. All of Richard’s friendly overtures, all of his polite moves to move Billy into a business meeting--it’s not just Richard’s friendly nature. It’s that he has his eyes set on something else.

He has his eyes set on Fay. Literally and figuratively and it doesn’t take a spy to put those pieces together; all her defenses are rising and mission or no mission, she wants a way out.

Backing up, she presses her lips together in a smile. “I think I gave you the wrong idea,” she says, easing her way toward the door.

Richard still advances. “This connection between us--it’s always been meant to be. Just like in college.”

“You were dating my best friend,” she reminds him.

“And as soon as you were gone, I never looked at her again.”

Fay feels flushed, heart thudding in her chest. She works to remember her cover. “I’m married.”

“And you’re not happy,” he says readily. He’s close enough now that she can smell him, the faint smell of his after shave, the tinge of alcohol on his breath. He’s buzzed, and Fay remembers too late that he can’t hold his liquor. “I can see it in your eyes.”

“We’re making it work,” Fay says, feeling desperate now as she gets to the door. “And I respect that--”

Her fingers close on the handle and Richard closes the distance between them, leaning his weight against the door to keep it shut. “You’re far too beautiful to live lies anymore,” he says.

The irony is not lost on her. She laughs hotly. “And you know the truth.”

“I know you want this,” he says, and he moves in, pressing his lips against her.

It’s so sudden that she squirms, trying to pull away. Richard presses hard, moving his body closer and the alcohol is heavier than she expects it to be.

Feeling panicked, she remembers that she’s not a field operative, but she’s still CIA. More than that, she lives in DC and she knows how to take care of herself.

With effort, she twists away, slamming her heel into his vulnerable instep.

He breaks off with a yelp, keeling over.

She doesn’t wait for him to recover, opening the door in a rush and hurrying back out. In the hallway, she’s breathing heavily, trying to make sense of where she is. She remembers the corridors, but they all look the same. Everything looks the same.

Suddenly the door opens behind her. Richard is there, fuming. “That’s no way to treat an old friend,” he seethes.

“I was your friend,” she says. “But clearly I’m not anymore.”

Something flickers in his eyes, and Fay starts off in a jog before he has a chance to react. Her heels click on the marble, and he’s following suit. She struggles to breathe, to think, to focus--she turns hard at a corner, her desperation mounting, and runs straight into Billy.

His arms cushion her and her relief is instant.

“Now, there you are,” he says, and his voice is calm and ordered.

Richard stops short. He’s still a little disheveled, face red.

Billy easily tucks her to the side, stepping slightly in front of her.

“I thought you had business,” Richard says darkly.

“Business is important,” he agrees. “Other things are more important. Something which I think you know, since you ducked out of the meeting and instead made a pass at my wife.”

Richard’s face contorts.

“Not exactly good form, mate,” Billy says.

“She came onto me,” Richard insists.

Fay’s going to protest but she doesn’t need to. “And if that were the case, I’d respect her wishes. But a lady in retreat speaks for itself.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Richard spits.

“And you don’t know how to be a gentleman,” Billy returns.

Richard’s face darkens again and this time he lunges. Fay yelps, stumbling backward, but Billy holds his ground. He meets Richard’s advance with an easy punch that puts Richard on his back.

“I think our business and our pleasure here is done,” Billy says. “We’ll see ourselves out.”

Richard sits up. “You son of a bitch,” he says. “I opened my home up to you.”

“For the wrong reasons,” Fay snaps.

Richard just shakes his head, mouth twisted into a grimace. “You want to humiliate me?” he asks in accusation.

“I think you’re doing well enough yourself,” Billy tells him and he’s turning toward Fay. Their eyes meet and she nods. He starts to walk, but he doesn’t get a step when Fay sees the movement. But there’s no time to yell, no time to move. No time to move anything as Richard attacks from behind.

Billy still handles the hit well, though they both go rolling. Fay scampers to the side in shock as Richard keeps swinging, even when he’s down. Billy pulls himself clear but as he gets to his feet, his movements are slower and heavy.

Even so, when Richard moves in for another attack, this time Billy doesn’t hold back. It’s almost frightening how short the fight is. A few hits and a kick, and Richard’s sprawled, unmoving, on his back.

Breathing heavy, Billy presses his finger to his ear even as he moves toward Fay, an arm around her waist as he ushers her down the hall. “We’ve had a snag, south wing,” he says. “We are going to need to neutralize Richard, although I don’t think we have anything to hold him on. But he will be trouble for the rest of the meet.”

“Copy that,” Casey says. “On my way.”

“You need to get back to the meet,” Michael’s voice come. “I’m only a minute out.”

Billy nods, turning another corner. Fay is struggling to keep pace with his long legs, but he doesn't slow down, leading her through one hallway after another until they all look the same to Fay. Still, he seems to know where he's going, and Fay is so focused on getting out that she doesn't think to question. So when he comes up short, she’s surprised.

“Shouldn’t we keep going?” she asks, looking back. “The mission...”

Billy is leaned against the wall. When he looks up at her, his eyes are wide and bright. “Just a small snag,” he says, almost apologetic. “Tell Michael it’s all in place. We just need to...to execute.”

He’s heaving now, face pale and sweaty.

She frowns. “But, I don’t--”

She’s going to say she doesn’t understand.

But then she does.

Because a drip of blood splashes to the ground and Billy’s entire shirt front is red. He has one hand pressed tight against it, but red still seeps through his fingers at an alarming rate.

She doesn’t know if she should scream or cry but she does nothing.

Billy smile. “I’m sorry,” he says as his eyes roll up in his head and his body goes slack, sliding down the wall and landing in a heap on the floor.

-o-

For a moment, time is frozen. Fay’s standing, still in her evening gown with earrings that cost more than her entire yearly salary. The immaculate hallway stretches in both directions around her, the copious art almost dwarfing her entirely.

It’s a pristine and exquisite backdrop to such a macabre scene. Because in the midst of all the grandeur, Billy’s lying on his side, slumped against the wall, mouth open and face pale, with a spreading patch of red on his shirtfront that's starting to pool on the floor.

Fay tries to understand. Tries to understand that somewhere the mission went wrong. In her mind, she re-tracks the steps, tries to figure out how they got here, but it’s hard. The disparate pieces don’t add up. She’s flying to Paris against her will and telling lies to someone she thought was her friend. She’s making chitchat and resenting Michael. She’s keeping her cover and she wants to go home and Billy’s handling the rest and Michael’s playing backup.

She’s talking about art and wondering what could have been.

She’s keeping Richard busy and he’s making a pass.

She’s running and Billy’s there.

Now she’s standing still and Billy’s bleeding on the floor.

The sound of footsteps shatter the stillness and she gasps in fear until she sees Michael. Their eyes meet and the concern is plain there--panic, jealousy, fear.

All she can do is stare back, tears in her eyes she doesn’t know how to shed.

Then Michael’s eyes tear away, moving to Billy.

“What happened?” Michael asks, breaking the silence.

It takes a moment to find her voice. “Richard made a pass,” she manages, eyes trailing after Michael as he goes to Billy’s side. “Billy showed up and they fought.”

“I heard that much,” Michael says, and he’s on his knees now, pulling Billy away from the wall. The Scotsman doesn’t resist, his body limp as Michael positions him flat on his back.

Fay swallows hard; she'd forgotten about their comm links. “Richard must have been armed,” she says, because it’s the only thing that makes sense. And even that is pretty hard for her to believe.

Michael grimaces a little, ripping away Billy’s shirt to reveal the ragged wound underneath. It’s not too big, but it’s jagged, cutting a deep gouge just under Billy’s ribcage. Dark blood pours from it, spilling across Billy’s now exposed stomach with frightening speed.

For a second, Michael doesn’t talk. Instead he focuses on ripping a strip from Billy’s shirt, fashioning a makeshift bandage, which he presses hard into Billy’s side. Billy stirs a little, forehead creasing as he whimpers, but he still doesn’t wake.

“What kind of crowd did you exactly hang out with in college?” Michael asks, and when he looks at her, he’s not being cruel, but it still hurts all the same.

“I didn’t know,” she says, and she’s aware that she’s rambling, her voice pitching slightly. “I didn’t think--”

Michael’s expression softened. “None of us did,” he says. “There’s nothing in his file to indicate this.”

It’s meant as comfort, but it feels cold. Because Billy is still bleeding and Michael’s hands are covered with blood and Fay is just standing there, still trying to make sense of anything.

Suddenly, Rick skids around the corner. He stops short and gapes. “I came as soon as I could,” he says. “No one suspects; the meet is still going down.”

Michael nods curtly and barks into his comm. “Is Richard secure?”

Casey’s voice echoes back through the secured line. “I just need to know what to do with him,” he says. “Son of a bitch was carrying a blade.”

“I know,” Michael returns grimly, eyes on Billy. “We’re going to need a transport to take Billy to the hospital.”

Rick has moved closer, but stays clear of Billy’s blood, which is still pooling. “What about the meet? Billy didn’t have a chance to finish.”

Fay blinks. “You mean the mission's not over?” she asks.

They both look at her. “No,” Michael says, averting his eyes. “Billy excused himself when we caught wind of what was going on with Richard. I told him to stay put--”

“His position was closer,” Rick interjects, and his implication is clear. There’s no telling what would have happened between Richard and Fay and a knife.

It’s too much to process.

Michael sighs, adjusting his position but keeping his pressure hard on Billy’s stomach. “It doesn’t matter now,” he says, pragmatic as ever. This is the voice he used when the house needed repairs or they’d spent all night arguing. It makes sense here, though. “I need you and Casey to secure Richard and get Billy help. I don’t care where we put Richard, I just want him out of the way until this is over.”

Rick looks young--younger than Fay thinks he should. She can’t believe she made a pass at him his first day on the job. He swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing convulsively. “And what about you?”

Michael’s expression is grim but unyielding. “We’re going to finish the mission,” he says and his eyes move to Fay and stay there. “We’re too close now to back out.”

Fay wants to protest, but it’s too late for that. She’s never been a wilting flower when it comes to relationships, but somehow, in this context, she doesn’t know how to question. Because Billy is bleeding, Rick looks like he’s twelve, and Michael has a plan, and nothing Fay is thinking makes any sense in the face of that.

“Are we understood?” Michael asks and his eyes finally leave Fay, looking at Rick.

Rick nods and blinks. His eyes are wet. “Understood.”

And Fay can only think that at least that makes one of them.

-o-

It happens quickly. Michael moves aside and Rick takes over, leaning over Billy with stiff arms as he presses down. The blood is still flowing, still pooling, and Rick looks ashen in comparison.

Michael is on his feet, barking orders into the comm. Casey grumbles his eta and says he’ll bring a car around to stash Richard and transport Billy.

Fay’s just watching--she’s not sure what else to do--and Michael wipes his hands on a handkerchief as he moves up to her.

“We need to move,” he says. “Do we know where the nearest bathroom is?”

It’s a simple question, but Fay just gapes.

“Fay,” he says, looking at her intently. His words are slow and deliberate, his gaze piercing. “We don’t have a lot of time. If the meet ends before we have a chance to get back, then everything we came here for is for nothing. Billy’s sacrifice is for nothing. We need to finish this.”

She shakes her head, struggling to find her voice. “But haven’t we already blown the meet?” she asks. She looks at Billy, who looks even paler now. “Billy’s the contact.”

“Yes, but he’s not the only asset in play,” Michael reminds her.

She can’t help it if she gapes, trying to understand.

“You’re Billy’s wife,” he reminds her, not unkindly but firmly. “We show back up at the meet and convince them that you’re the brains behind this operation, not him.”

“But I can’t--”

“You can,” Michael says, cutting her off promptly. “You’re smart and you’re capable. I know you’re a good liar when you want to be.”

It’s almost an insult, but Fay doesn’t know how to feel the hurt and bring up her rage.

“And I’ll be right there with you,” he continues, and his voice softens, his eyes still meeting hers with a knowing intensity. There’s discernment there, but compassion. He’s not lying to her. Or if he is, he’s not lying to hurt her.

“But how?” Fay asks.

Michael’s lips quirk into a sardonic smile. “For many people, marriage can be a contract of convenience and mutual gain,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that some might still not keep a little extra to themselves on the side.”

“You’re going to play my lover?” she asks, not sure if she should be appalled by the insinuation that she could be unfaithful or the idea that Michael could hold such ideas inside of him.

“It’s not a perfect scenario, but I think we can sell it,” Michael says. “We go back, you tell them that you’ve relieved your husband of his work here and taken this into your own hands. I’m your key financial advisor and I should be able to sling enough numbers and I have access to the right bank accounts to sell this thing. We can make it work.”

He is looking at her, looking at her. Richard looked at her with want and unyielding desire; Michael's look is no less intense, but instead of demand, there's reassurance. There's promise.

“We can do this,” he says again, and she’s heard that before. She heard that when they started dating all those years ago. She heard it when they eloped in Paris. She heard it the countless nights they fought. She heard it every day until she left the divorce papers on the kitchen table and didn’t come back.

She’s stopped believing him. In truth, she’s mostly stopped listening. But she hears him this time; she understands.

And she nods, shaky but clear. “Okay,” she says, and she can only trust that this time it’s not a mistake.

-o-

There’s no time to waste. Like most things with Michael, it’s an all or nothing, now or never kind of proposition. And, just like their courtship and their marriage, Fay is following along, heart in her throat, too overwhelmed to second guess.

The hardest part is walking away. Rick is still on his knees next to Billy, applying pressure and looking vaguely nauseous. Billy doesn’t look better--in fact, he looks like a surreal version of himself, eyes closed and face slack as he bleeds instead of smiles.

She catches a glimpse of Casey coming down the hallway, but Michael doesn’t let them slow long enough to see what happens next. They’ll take Billy to the hospital, keep Richard secure, maybe coordinate some kind of response with Langley before moving in to backup Michael in the meet.

At least, that’s what mission protocol would dictate. She can see the report in her mind. All typed up, neat and simple.

As she and Michael run down the hall, crashing into the nearest bathroom, it’s anything but simple. Michael washes his hands at the sink, blotting at a dark patch on his jacket with a scowl. When he’s done, he looks at himself in the mirror.

These are the details that are glossed over in reports. The parts Michael left out of his stories about missions when they were married.

She understands why. There’s no way to explain it. No way to understand it unless you’re there.

And Fay is there. She’s reminded of that fact painfully when Michael’s eyes meet hers in the mirror. “No turning back,” he says to her.

Fay’s terrified. She’s having all sorts of second doubts. But she steels herself, fights back the feeling in her stomach and nods. “Then let’s do this.”

-o-

Walking away is the hardest part. Walking into a meet to sell illicit uranium, by contrast, is surprisingly easy.

Michael leads them to the location, but it’s Fay who walks inside. She can still hear Billy’s voice, telling her to put it all aside and get the job done.

There’s no room for fear here. No room for doubts or personal misgivings. Just the job.

Just the mission.

Head high, she strides in, Michael a step behind her. The men in the room stiffen immediately, hands going to their hips in a move she knows is for the weaponry they have no-so-subtly hidden. They will shoot intruders--she knows this--but one look at her gives them reason to hesitate.

Fay smirks. “Hello, boys,” she says smoothly, tilting her head slightly.

The man seated closest to her is familiar. He frowns. “Fay Carson?”

Fay looks at him. “Lucas, how good to see you,” she says. “Richard said you would be by, though I think it’s rather rude that you didn’t seek me out for a brief reintroduction.”

Lucas’ forehead furrows and the rest of the men look uncertainly on. Swallowing, Lucas forces a smile. “Just some business to attend to,” he says. “I believe I was talking to your husband--”

“You were,” she says. “And now you’ll be talking to me.”

Lucas shakes his head. “I don’t think--”

She scoffs. “That’s always been your problem,” she says. “Ever since undergraduate poly sci. You just don’t think.”

He looks almost dumbfounded now and Fay figures it’s time to drive it home.

“My husband puts on airs because we all know how much of a boys club these things are,” she says. “But the fact is, our entire fortune is built upon my prowess in business and international politics--not his.”

Lucas looks away, meeting the eyes of his dealers with some uncertainty. They seem to yield to him, trusting in his judgment, which is just one mistake of many for them, as far as Fay is concerned.

“I don’t think you know what you’re getting into,” Lucas says, sounding a little bemused.

Fay’s smile is cold. “You’d like to hope,” she says. “But if any number of international agencies were aware of the shipment you boys are trying to negotiate here, then we all know just how much trouble you’d be in.”

Lucas stiffens. One of the other men seems to reach for his gun.

She rolls her eyes. “I’m not here to bust you,” she says. “I’m here for the same reason my husband was. To get a piece of the action.”

“And so who is he?” Lucas ask, glancing skeptically at Michael.

Fay quirks an eyebrow and looks vaguely at Michael. “My lead financial advisor,” she says. “He can be quite persuasive with numbers.”

The men all share another look.

Fay sighs and moves forward, taking a seat primly and purposefully crossing her legs. Michael follows a step behind, lingering just at her side. “I realize the change in contact is disconcerting,” she says. Then she smiles, leaning forward seductively. “But surely it’s not all bad having a little girl power in the room to help loosen the mood. These kinds of transactions are always so stressful.”

One of the men looks ready to bolt. He’s shaking his head.

Fay glances at Michael, nodding. “If my feminine persuasion still has you doubting, maybe consider the financial backing we can contribute.”

Michael produces a laptop and puts it on the table. A few quick keystrokes and he turns it around.

The men huddle forward slightly, almost skeptically. Then their eyes go a little wide.

Fay smiles again. “So let’s start talking, boys,” she says. “And see where that takes us.”

-o-

It works.

After several minutes, she has the men laughing. After an hour, their dealings are done and Fay shakes hands with criminals and walks out with Michael at her side. She doesn’t look back--doesn’t dare look back--and as they approach the exit, she asks, “Is that it?”

Michael presses closer to her, voice low and hushed. “One call, and we’ll have them tailed. When they go to pick up the uranium, the French will be there to make the bust.”

Fay nods, swallowing with effort. “So that’s it?” she asks again, more needy this time.

Michael’s hand rests on her waist as they move forward in tandem. “That’s it,” he says.

And just like that, Fay remembers how to breathe.

-o-

Getting in took planning and preparation. Getting out requires walking out the front door. Michael hasn’t even cleared the entrance when he’s on the phone, with details and specs for the French to follow.

Outside, the air is cool and the night is clear. Fay stands under the stars and looks up, trying to orient herself. But there’s nothing there but stars amid the blackness, and the twinkling lights seem farther than they ever have before.

Michael comes up close to her. “The French are in position,” he says. “It won’t be long.”

“And Richard?” she asks.

“Secure,” he says. “Once the French have the uranium, our friend Luc has agreed to take him into custody under charges of assault. They’ll make sure he doesn’t know anything about what really happened before putting him into the system.”

Fay nods, her sense of control slipping. She takes a ragged breath, the reality of the risk she just took catching up to her. “And Billy?” she asks.

Michael’s face remains impassive for the most part, but she sees the flicker of fear he’s trying to hide. “I haven’t called Casey and Rick,” he admits. “But he’ll be okay.”

She laughs, rubbing her arms in the cool. “For someone who is such a good spy, you’re kind of a bad liar.”

He stays still, staying where he is. “Lying is easy when you don’t care about the other person,” he says.

Her eyes are stinging inexplicably and her throat is tight. She shakes her head. “And so why is telling the truth so much harder?”

“Because the truth is rarely easy,” he says, stepping closer. “Usually it’s harder than it should be. Harder than I want it to be.”

“You want to protect me?” she asks. “In our marriage, you wanted to protect me then?”

“I just never wanted you to know,” he says, shaking his head. “You read the reports, but you don’t know. You shouldn’t have to know.”

But Fay does know now. Because the truth is in the lies and the lies hold truth and Fay’s standing in Paris with Michael and the mission’s done but nothing is over.

Nothing that matters, anyway.

And she thinks of how much she misses this place and she thinks of Richard’s advances. She thinks of someone she trusted but shouldn't have. She thinks of a life she'd thought she wanted but hadn't really understood at all. She thinks of Billy’s blood and the trusting look on the men’s faces as she led them step by step to their own demise. She thinks about Michael, standing there, lying and telling the truth, and suddenly it’s too much.

This isn’t what she wanted in her life. This isn’t what she thought she’d have at all. Even the alternatives, the what-if's are taken from her now. She'd held up Paris as the ultimate possibility, but Richard has taken that from her with a forceful, drunken pass and left her with nothing.

This was her dream, and now it's her nightmare. The reality is overwhelming as she tries to understand just what happened to her tonight. Richard didn't get his way, but he still managed to take more than Fay had been willing to surrender. If not her body, then her will and mind, and she doesn't know how to get it back.

She doesn't know if she can.

Turning away, her back curves with the first sob that she tries to stifle. The second is harder to keep in and when Michael’s arms are around her, she gives in entirely and lets herself cry for the first time in years.

-o-

When they get to the hospital, Michael’s suit jacket is draped over her shoulders. She’s still shivering, though, when Michael parks their car and leads her inside. It occurs to her as she climbs out that she doesn’t know where the car came from, but it’s an easy question to forget once they get inside.

It’s bright, with glaring artificial light. This time, she trails behind Michael, following him as he approaches the desk and gets directions.

His steps are quick and purposeful, and she finds herself struggling to keep up. Her heels click against the tile and she is suddenly aware of how conspicuous she must look in her evening gown. She’s spent this entire mission trying to blend in, but it’s painfully clear to her now how impossible that really is.

She doesn’t belong here. Not in Paris, not in the field. Not with this team, not with Michael.

And yet, she’s still here. And she doesn’t know where else to be. Where else she wants to be.

Michael leads her to another waiting room and she sees Rick, pacing. His face is taut, hands shifting restless from his pockets to his sides in uncertain intervals. Casey is seated behind him, still and stoic.

When Rick sees them approach, he stops mid-pace and he looks tired. For a second, he and Michael share a look before Rick swallows. “He’s in surgery,” he says. “The worst of it hit his lung, and they’re not sure about one of his kidneys. It might have also hit part of his liver.”

Michael doesn’t flinch at the news and Casey seems to sigh.

Fay blinks. “What’s his prognosis?” she asks, because it seems like no one else is going to.

Rick looks at her, as if he’s almost forgotten that she’s there. “They won’t know until they get in there to see the extent of the bleeding,” he says. “His blood volume was really low when we got here, though, so it’s been touch and go.”

“He was stabbed in the chest,” Casey grunts from his seat. “All things considered, the fact that we got him here without having him bleed out entirely is nothing short of a miracle.”

It’s a bluntness she expects from Casey, but she’s always been inclined to attribute some of his demeanor to exaggeration. This time, Fay knows otherwise and the reality of it makes her shudder.

“And Richard?” Michael asks.

“Hog tied and sedated in the van,” Casey reports.

“We already talked to Luc,” Rick adds. “They’re looking to bust the dealers on the uranium within the hours and they’ll pick up Richard after that.”

Michael nods. “And the ETA on Billy?”

Rick’s face falls further; he doesn’t seem to have the heart to answer.

Even Casey looks down, rubbing his hands absently together. “Could be hours,” he says, head still ducked. He looks up and there’s a vulnerability in his eyes that Fay doesn’t quite recognize. “Hard to say.”

Michael takes the news with a nod. He’s calm when he sits down, sinking into the seat with resignation and determination all at once.

Fay just stares. At Michael, at Casey, at Rick. “That’s it?” she asks.

Rick looks at her nervously. Casey’s expression is banal. Michael shrugs. “Sometimes that’s what field work is,” he says. “Waiting.”

Fay stares, incredulous, but Michael doesn’t move and Casey looks away. Rick starts pacing and Fay realizes she has no choice but to acquiesce.

-o-

Back at Langley, Fay spends a lot of her time in her office, poring over files and putting together notes for briefings. It’s a tedious and meticulous job--one that she’s good at. Over the years, she’s flourished in it, adept at sorting out the minor points to put together a case for something bigger, something better.

And as she sits in a hospital waiting room in Paris, none of it seems to matter. There are so many pieces she’s missed, so many details that she never saw as relevant before but seem to make all the difference now.

Richard's dark side is still a stark surprise to her; she'd never suspected, not for a moment. Her own naivete has nearly cost her everything--it still could cost Billy everything. She thinks back, thinks of any clues or hints, and she comes up blank. She's never wanted to play the victim, but she almost became one against her will.

It's an unsettling revelation that makes her feel sick to her stomach. And she has to wonder, if she missed so much about Richard, what else has she been wrong about? What assumptions does she operate on that have faulty intel at their core? How long has she spent trying to protect herself from the wrong things? What misconceptions is she harboring about her life, herself? The CIA? The ODS? And what is the cost of those wrongs? What price will she pay for holding onto them?

As she struggles to find some truth among the mess, she watches the ODS. She watches them to understanding something, anything.

She watches Casey, hardly moving in his seat. He’s still and stiff, a rigid composition that is designed to suggest indifference but it’s all a carefully composed facade. He’s terrified inside, a dark, jittery fear that would take him over if he let himself move even an inch. Casey has never been approachable, so she’s never tried, but it’s not that he’s too good for the rest of them; it’s that he’s too worried of letting himself show any weakness for fear of losing everything. He’s lost people before, Fay sees now. He’s probably lost more than the rest of them and he carries that guilt, that hurt with him in a way that she never let herself see.

Rick doesn’t know how to hold it in--he still wears it on his face, clearly in his eyes. This is still unknown territory for him. He stands and sits in equal turns, hands in his pockets, at his sides, across his chest. He’s worked hard to get here, built his life on dreams and ideals. He believes the credos and the clichés, not because he’s naive, but because he’s still pure. This place, this job, this life hasn’t broken him--not like the rest of them. Not like her. He’s the only one who believes this can’t go wrong. He’s the only one who has to believe that Billy can’t die. He doesn’t know failure yet. It’s the last lesson he has to grasp before he’s just like the rest of them.

It’s a lesson Michael knows well. Maybe not as well as Casey, but it’s a lesson he’s internalize. Casey refuses to acknowledge his failure; Michael refuses to let his go. Michael believes the weight of the mission is on his shoulders--and for the first time Fay realizes that maybe it is. Because it’s Michael who sees all the outcomes. Michael who sees what might be and accepts those risks, no matter what. Michael who gives the orders, who makes the decisions of life or death that the rest willingly oblige themselves to. Michael plans and works and labors not just for his country, but to bring his team back alive.

And yet, he’s not surprised. He sits in the chair, body bent. His elbows rest on his knees and he props his head up on his chin as he looks out and waits. He’s not sure what news the doctor will bring. He’s gauging it all, the best case scenario and the worst. He’s preparing to hear that Billy’s alive and fine, that he’s going home soon. He’s preparing to hear that Billy didn’t make it, that they’re going home with a coffin instead of a friend.

Fay watches them, apart and separate. They each exist within their own space but are defined by one another. Casey looks at Michael in the corner of his gaze; Rick pauses in front of them both when he paces. It’s a silent communication, one she’s not sure they even realize. But they need each other, and Fay can see that now. They need each other to get through this mission.

This is why the ODS is good at what they do. It’s not their assets or their contacts. It’s not their skills or their experience. It’s this , the bond, the connection.

Because for as much as she can see them all, she can see what they’re missing. She can see how Billy should be there and isn’t. She can see how his absence breaks them, brings them to their knees.

Fay’s been out of place this entire mission, but she’s never felt it like she does now. She’s never known it like she does now.

It’s funny, because she’s resented this team. Respected their skills, but hated the way they do it. She’s thought them to be cocky and arrogant, unnecessarily risky and difficult.

But they’re just a team. Four partners--four friends--whose loyalties are more than protocol and whose aims extend beyond the flag.

And Fay understands. For the first time in a long time, she really understands.

-o-

Night gives way to morning. The dark goes without a struggle, and the daylight seems harsh. Fay’s back is stiff from sitting, and her shoes are beginning to hurt her feet. The edges of her dress have grated on the skin under her arms and she’s feeling the strain of no sleep and too much stress.

She starts to nod off sitting up, her head dipping forward intermittently as she loses the fight to stay awake. After awhile, she wakes up to find herself slumped against Michael.

Sitting up, Fay feels suddenly very awkward. She swallows uncomfortably and tries to get her bearings.

“What time is it?” she asks.

Michael glances at her. “About seven AM.”

Fay nods, blinking away the sleep. She looks around and notices that Rick and Casey are gone.

“I made them go get breakfast,” Michael explains. “It’ll be their only chance before we hear something.”

Michael doesn’t explain it more than that, but he doesn’t really have to. He wants his team rested and fed to cope with whatever may come. If it’s more hours by Billy’s bedside or dealing with the aftermath of his death, none of them are sure, and none of them want to say.

Breathing out, she tries to collect herself. She shifts in her seat and tries not to feel any more out of place than she already does. Then she turns her attention to Michael, who hasn’t moved in his seat, still slumped wearily.

Smiling sadly, she inches closer to him. “So what about you?”

Michael lifts his eyebrows. “What about me?”

“You don’t need food and rest?” she asks.

He shrugs, making a face.

Fay rolls her eyes. “Ever the martyr,” she muses.

His look in return is tired. “They needed it more than I did,” he says. “Besides, you looked too comfortable to disturb.”

Normally, she might make a quip about how that would be a first. Might mention how in all their years of marriage, she’d never been first on his list of anything. But it’s not the time for that, and right now, she’s not even sure her assessment is totally accurate anymore.

Because it is true that Michael was a less than perfect husband. He was gone all the time and he was always evasive about work. He forgot about dates and neglected plans they’d made. He once forfeited their anniversary and never even apologized.

But...

She’s never seen it like she does now. She’s never seen him in the field, making the tough decisions for the well being of his team. He’s never seen him take charge of a situation to get the mission done while saving lives. He’s never seen the way he carries this weight, never even understood the way it holds on him at all.

The ODS isn’t just a job for Michael, not like her job at Langley is a time-consuming paycheck for Fay. It’s more than that for Michael. It’s his entire life--everything he has is invested in the field and the men he serves with. It makes him seem cruel sometimes; it makes him impossible the rest of the time. But when the lie is the difference between life and death and he’s making decisions with blood on his hands, maybe that’s easier to understand.

Pressing her lips together, she shakes her head. “I waited years to hear that.”

Michael’s smile is rueful. “Was it everything you hoped for?”

She laughs, shaking her head. “Not exactly.”

Michael sighs. “I never could win with you.”

“Well you have to admit, you weren’t the greatest husband,” she points out.

He looks sheepish. “I suppose not.”

“But you weren’t the worst, either,” she amends quickly, because she has to. Sighing, she looks at the ceiling for a moment and tries to understand all the things she’s feeling. All the new and conflicting emotions that she can’t make parse. “You know, I wanted to hurt you. I wanted to hurt all of you. You and your team--you put me through such hell during our marriage and I wanted you to feel what I did. I wanted you to feel miserable and alone and frustrated and--” She breaks off, shaking her head. “I just never--I mean, I never--”

Her voice is choked off and tears are stinging at her eyes. She’s too tired for this and her emotions have been strained past the point of control. “I just never knew--”

She has more to say--there’s so much more to say. Things about what it felt like to be at home alone, things about what it felt like to be lying side by side with him in the field. Things about Billy’s sacrifice for her, the way the team accepted her without question into the mission. And despite all her years of preaching about open communication, the reality of this mission makes her throat close up and her chest feel tight.

Michael stays still, moving his hand gently to her arm. When he touches her, she wants to flinch, but the touch is so familiar that she doesn’t. “Hey,” he says, and it’s not much. It’s not anything and normally Fay would ream him out for being oblivious and reserved.

But this time, it’s all he has to say. All there is to say. Fay feels herself breaking and there’s no place safer than Michael’s arms. As she crumbles, he doesn’t move, and his arms around her are steady and unwavering as she starts to cry.

“I know,” he says, the words quiet and soothing. “And you were right to be angry. You’re still right to be angry. I never wanted you to see this. I wanted to explain it, but I didn’t want you to know it like this.”

It’s just like Michael, to protect her in this way. To be the best person in the world for her while also being the worst. If she didn’t hate him so much for hurting her, she’d have to admit she loved him more than ever, but she doesn’t know how to say that any more than she knows how to say anything else.

During their divorce, they had yelled and raged. During marriage counseling, they had argued and blamed. She and Michael had always talked--never stopped talking--about the things that were going wrong, about the things that weren’t right between them.

This time, there are no words left. There’s nothing left, just the two of them, and it’s just like it was at the start. Back when they hadn’t needed words, when they didn’t need to explain. When reason and logic and common sense didn’t matter. When all they needed was each other.

It’s different now, but still the same. Maybe it’s always been the same, but maybe Fay just needed the right lies and the right truth to finally see it after all.

-o-

The team seems to know when Billy’s out of surgery. Michael straightens up, tapping his foot and checking his watch. Casey and Rick show back up and sit next to Michael, perched in identical poses of expectancy as they stare down the hallway at nothing.

It’d be almost amusing in any other context. They look like quite the motley bunch with rumpled clothes and ragged faces. But their waiting pays off, and Fay’s the only one completely caught off guard when the doctor comes to talk to them.

The doctor is a woman, a few years older than Fay but just as weary, and she speaks proper English with a thick accent. “Your friend is still quite ill,” she starts off with a restrained smile, “but he is still alive.”

Fay takes a breath but doesn’t let it out. The rest of the ODS doesn’t seem to move.

“Surgery was longer than expected due to the placement of the blade,” the doctor explains. She motions to her chest. “Though it was not a large wound, it did cause significant damage to several internal organs. We are treating the puncture to his lung with a chest tube, and we expect no further complications from that. We have to continue to watch his renal output; while we did save his kidney, it is unclear to us if it will regain full function or not. He also did damage to his liver, and we removed a small portion while we contained other bleeds in the upper abdominal cavity.”

It’s the kind of thing Fay might read in a report. The basic facts she’d leave in a briefing for Higgins. The cold delineation of facts, the plain truths without any softness or context. But Fay remembers that this is a person they’re talking about--this is Billy. This is the man who came to her aid at the expense of the mission and without regard to his own personal well being. It’s not just about a lung or a kidney or a missing part of a liver. It’s about life and death and blood and so much more.

For as much trouble as Fay has making sense of it, the rest of the team seems to take the news stoically. Michael just nods and asks, “When can we see him?”

The doctor smiles lightly. “Soon,” she says. “But one at a time, please. And I must ask you to keep a proper reserve. Your friend is still in very precarious health.”

At that, Fay almost wants to laugh. As if the ODS needs to be warned to keep one of their own safe.

No one else seems to think it’s funny, though. Which is probably right because when Fay tries to laugh, her voice gets stuck in her throat and her chest hurts.

It seems wrong in so many ways. That the truth doesn’t hurt less than the lie, that as she’s faced with the plain and simple facts, she misses the ambiguity of not knowing for sure.

But it’s just like she always told Michael during the difficult patches in their marriage and divorce: truth is not negotiable, and it’s not supposed to be easy.

For once, Fay hates being right.

-o-

It’s like the mission is never-ending. The team communicates with each other implicitly, organizing and taking turns. Within a few short minutes, they’ve divvied up the tasks to be done, sending Casey to get a hotel room while Rick stops down at the cafeteria to eat again. Fay is ready to stay with Michael, who has promised to take first watch with Billy, but he sends her back with Casey instead to get some real sleep.

Fay is used to following a chain of command, but in her experience, that’s always harder when Michael’s the one giving the orders. Still, she is suddenly aware of how exhausted she is, and by the time Casey gets them two rooms to share between the four of them, she’s already crashed on top of the covers and is sound asleep.

She doesn’t dream--doesn’t even move. When she wakes up hours later, she’s still sprawled over the covers with a crick in her neck and a dry taste in her mouth. When she goes to the next room, Rick is there along with an assortment of food from the vending machine. After eating something and changing her clothes to the mix-matched ensemble that someone procured for her, she has Rick take her back to the hospital.

When he hesitates, she pins him with a look. It’s complicated with Michael, but Rick is still green enough that her glares have the desired effect.

Back at the hospital, they find Michael in the waiting room. If he’s surprised to see her, he doesn’t show it. “You want to sit with him?” he asks.

Fay inclines her head. “He is here because of me.”

“He’s here because of the mission,” Michael amends gently.

With the rest and the food, Fay finds her will asserting itself once again. Yesterday, Richard almost took that from her; today, she won't let that happen. “You can mince words all you want,” she says pointedly. “But you know how it is.”

For a moment, Michael doesn’t respond. But then he nods. “Okay,” he says. “Fay has next watch.”

-o-

When she relieves Casey, the older operative doesn’t say much. He explains that Billy’s still in a bad way--so hopped up on drugs that he’s not even twitching--but that he’s still holding his own. The encouragement isn’t so much for her, though; it’s for him, so Fay accepts it with a grateful smile.

Her confidence wavers, however, when she’s finally alone with Billy. At first, all she can see is the room--the space is crowded with machines and tools, mostly things she doesn’t recognize. It’s all intimidating, intricate tubing and bags hanging with liquids she doesn’t want to identify.

In all of it, she finally sees Billy, whose tall frame is dwarfed by it all. His eyes are shut, face slack, but the tube down his throat is a harsh reminder of all that is still wrong. His arms have been hastily arranged at his sides and his hair is matted oddly to the side. The stubble on his face seems more prominent with the paleness of his features, and Fay doesn’t know quite what to make of it.

It doesn’t seem right. The ODS is always an object in motion. That’s why Higgins hates them as much as he does--he can’t predict them and he can’t rein them in. They’re perpetually plotting and planning, moving and subverting. So to see Billy so still--it’s just hard to make sense of.

Because he’s here because of her. No one blames her--not even Billy--and she knows that. But Fay also knows what happened. She knows that she never wanted to be on this mission and that the ODS had been there for her every step of the way. She knows all her dreams and uncertainties seem like moot points because she doesn’t want them at the expense of anyone else.

But that’s not how it works. The thing with the ODS is that each one is willing to give himself up for the others. There’s no hesitation, no doubts. What they want in life doesn’t matter. It’s a bond that’s deeper than friendship, more powerful than mere teammates. That's what separates them from people like Richard, and it’s something she’s never recognized before, but something she knows now.

Fay knows now.

She knows that a good man isn't so easy to define. Some people can look and talk the part, but underneath, they're only in it for themselves. Other people--people like the men in the ODS--can defy the stereotype, can lie and hurt and frustrate, but ultimately they're the ones who will always do what's right, even at their own sacrifice and peril.

She just knows.

Watching Billy, she knows what it means not just to be a spy, but to be a part of something that matters. It asks for everything you have--from free time to life goals to personal relationships. Because Billy didn’t just put his life on the line for the mission--he put it on the line for her. They all did.

There’s nothing she can do about that, nothing she can do to earn it or make it fair or right.

There’s nothing at all, as Fay settles in next to Billy’s bed, except the pressing need to do the same for them.

-o-

Fay loses track of time. It’s easy to do; the hum of machines is the only metronome she has, ticking by the seconds that she waits in hope of seeing some kind of progress, some kind of change. Billy is still, for better and for worse, his haggard face etched into her mind with a clarity she knows will never fade.

When Michael comes in some time later, Fay is neither surprised nor expectant. She knows he still hasn’t left the hospital--won’t leave, no matter what he tells the others. She suspects he’s spent some of his time on the phone--clearing things with Higgins, crossing his t’s and dotting his i’s--because Michael doesn’t believe in the proper order of things unless it’s for the betterment of his team.

In truth, the thing that probably surprises Fay the most is that he’s waited this long to come in at all. Not just for Billy’s sake, but for hers.

Still, he smiles. His eyes are tired, worried, but they still light up when he sees her. “Hey,” he says, voice soft and measured amid the buzzing of the machines.

Pressing her lips together, Fay manages to smile back. “No change,” she reports dutifully, because it seems like the right thing to say, the proper way to pass this torch, this burden. She looks at Billy again, and it doesn’t seem like enough. “He looks so still.”

Michael moves closer, lingering by her side. He almost touches her, but doesn’t, and keeps his eyes on Billy. “He’s a fighter,” he says.

It’s a cliché, of course, and one of the worst Fay’s ever heard. But coming from Michael, at a time like this, it occurs to her that he really means it.

And, looking at Billy still, she can see why. “It still doesn’t seem right,” she says.

“Spying is dangerous work,” Michael says. “You know that.”

Fay’s gaze lingers; she nods. “I know, but...”

But it’s not the same.

This isn’t the same.

She gathers a breath and lets it out. “He compromised the mission for me,” she says. “If he had stuck to the plan...”

Then the mission would have been over sooner and there’s no telling what exactly would have happened to Fay. If she could have gotten out, if Michael or Casey or Rick could have gotten into position on time.

“Missions are more than the reports we file,” Michael explains. “Our first goal is always the safety of those we serve with. Always.”

He speaks without hesitation, with total resolve.

Fay has to laugh, a short, bitter bark. To think, she’d been right about this, too. That she had always been second in the marriage, that Michael had always put the team first. She remembers the fights she railed about it, how angry she’d been. How she’d told him to go sleep with his team members, since they were the ones who mattered most.

But it’s not the selfishness Fay thought it was. It’s not even Michael being stupid or insensitive. It’s survival. It's the difference between tragedy and success; the sharp separation between safety and compromise.

She nods again, eyes still on Billy, feeling the weight of his sacrifice and knowing why Michael could never shirk this responsibility, even if he wanted to. “At least I get it now.”

“Get what?”

It’s a genuine question, and Fay looks up at Michael. “Why I could never be the most important thing in your life.”

There’s a flicker of hurt in Michael’s eyes, followed closely by a deep regret that he doesn’t try to hide. “It wasn’t like that.”

She just smiles. “Yeah,” she replies. “It was. It had to be. I mean, the things you do out in the field--the risks you take for each other to make sure you all come home--I never understood it.”

“I was stupid,” Michael interjects with a clarity that is surprising. “Selfish. I took you for granted.”

These are the things she’s wanted to hear. The things she’s gone over in her head, accused him of, ranted about. But now that he’s saying them, now that he’s saying there here, she has to reconsider them altogether. Because Michael was a bad husband because he was a good agent. Michael was a bad life partner because she’d only seen glimpses of his life, a life she could never understand, a life she wanted no part of.

“Yeah, well,” she says finally. Her lips quirk into a sardonic smile. “The same goes for me.”

He watches her for a second, their eyes meeting in understanding. It didn’t forgive everything; it didn’t make it hurt less. But somehow, it’s easier to let go. Easier to accept. Just easier.

They stay like that for several second, Michael close enough to touch her, but neither bridging that last distance between them. They’ve been there before and no matter what’s changed, Fay suspects it’s still not enough to make that distance seem any less.

Getting to her feet, she pauses, smiles. She looks down at Billy, still unconscious on the bed before looking back at Michael again. She doesn’t need to leave in a huff, but she still needs to leave, and not just for her. Because she knows that while Michael is there for her, he’s also there for Billy and she can’t begrudge either of them that comfort.

With a small smile, she ducks her head and makes her way out of the room. Michael doesn’t stop her.

She’s almost to the elevators when she realizes that for the first time, she’s okay with that.

-o-

She doesn’t go back to the hotel. Fay knows it’s probably not the safest option, but the team is too preoccupied to stop her. Instead, she goes for a walk, winding through the parts of Paris she knows best, the streets she still misses. She stops in the shops from her college days, lingering at the cafes where she ate with Michael on their honeymoon. She wanders and remembers.

It’s funny, because she started this to stop uranium from getting into the wrong hands. That’s still important, but then again, it’s really not. Because there’s always going to be another shipment of uranium. There will probably always be terrorists. There will always be another important mission for the CIA to complete for the betterment of the country.

The ODS might not always be around, especially if Higgins has his way. Michael, Casey, Billy, and Rick might not always be around because they throw themselves into missions--not blindly, but without second thoughts. They take risks because no one else will.

Fay spent years being angry at Michael for trying to control her life, for trying to arrange the details without even having the consideration of putting her feelings and opinions first. Michael controls because he’s afraid. He puts the team first because their lives depend on it.

He isn't perfect, of course, but then again, nothing really is. Her life in Virginia has its pitfalls and pains, but a life in Paris--the path she didn't take--is no guarantee of anything better. At least, this way, she can trust the people around her with her safety. Here, she's not sure who she can trust at all anymore.

Back at the hotel, Rick is waiting for her. He tries to look nonchalant, but it’s clear he’s been keeping tabs on her. Two days ago, this might have frustrated her, maybe even surprised her, but today she just smiles at Rick, nodding at him as she walks past to the room. For once, it doesn’t seem like paranoia, and maybe she appreciates that someone cares enough to watch her back.

Sleep is long in coming as she stares at the ceiling. When she finally does sleep, it’s cold and empty. When she wakes up, it seems like only seconds have past but looking at the clock, she sees that it’s been hours.

This time, Michael is in the next room. He’s staring at the door as if he’s expecting her.

She frowns, uncertain.

Michael smiles. Not a polite smile; not a strained, reserved smile. A real one.

Her inhibitions falter. “Billy?” she asks.

Michael nods. “He’s awake,” he says. “Still pretty out of it, but the doctors are optimistic. He’s okay.”

She stares at him, trying to believe it.

“He’s okay,” Michael says again.

It’s almost too simple, too easy to be true. But if Michael’s a liar about the details, then he’s fastidious about the big things. He may tell her that it wasn’t him trailing her on her way home from work when it really was, but when he says that he just wants her to be safe, that much is inarguable. He may tell her that their anniversary card got lost in the mail and it’s nothing but sheer fabrication, but when he says that he never regrets marrying her, it’s the most vibrant truth she knows.

Michael manipulates the details, control and lies and coerces, to keep the big picture intact.

Billy’s got a long way to go--she’s sure of that, just like she's sure they all have a journey ahead of them--but when Michael says he’s okay, she knows not to doubt it.

Fay knows.

NEXT