?

Log in

No account? Create an account
do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: An Indirect Proof (AU, 7/9)

October 25th, 2012 (07:27 am)
productive

feeling: productive

A/N: Previous parts in the MASTER POST.




INTERLUDE

THREE YEARS AGO – North Africa

Months of planning, years of intelligence, and it was all for nothing with thirty minutes. They had one chance – make it or break it – and Carson considered himself the realist of the group, but he’d actually thought they’d pull another miracle out of their asses and get it done.

After all, that was what the ODS did. The ODS was a walking impossibility, four disparate personalities, coming together to make one scary-good team. Michael was the brains, Casey was the strength. Billy was the soul, and Carson was the only one among them with a lick of common sense to make sure they didn’t implode on their way to saving the whole damn world.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was damn close. They were good. The best.

It was their last surveillance sweep, and Carson had taken the north face of the compound while Billy ran along to the south. They were going to meet up on the eastern side before heading back to the city for a rendezvous with Michael and Casey before their raid tomorrow.

Easy-peasy, and even if Carson didn’t like the sun, he was moving at a good clip. There was no sign of anything weird, which was good, and he was rounding the last major outcropping when he noticed the glint.

Heart skipping a beat, he pulled hard to cover, flattening himself against the fence line, just in case. Keeping himself still, he eyed his surroundings, looking for anything amiss.

Just open desert, a strong fence and a hell of a lot of sand.

Nothing.

Frowning, he knew he needed to keep moving. All those years with Michael was rubbing off on him; the team only needed one paranoid bastard. Besides, if he hurried he might beat Billy back and show the kid that youth didn’t always trump experience.

Moving along, he picked up his pace, ignoring the trails of sweat running down his shirt. He grimaced. He was getting too old for fieldwork. Getting to old for all this crap, period. Maybe he needed to retire. Michael would have a fit and Casey would stop talking to him, and he’d probably break the kid’s heart, but they’d get along without him all right.

Some things were just meant to be, and no matter what they did, they’d understand.

But first, he needed to get back and shove his time in Billy’s Scottish face.

At a jog, he turned the corner and saw the glint again. His stomach tightened and he pulled himself to a stop just in time to see the movement. He turned, on the defensive, and lashed out, taking the wayward guard out with a single punch.

He had no defense, however, against the next guard. Or the next.

He didn’t know if it was an ambush or just bad damn luck, but the glinting in the distance became clearer – a truck approaching, softly on the sands – and he was forced to his knees as the truck came to a stop and the door opened.

The man who stepped out was clad in white, hair meticulous and smile predatory. “Ah, we have a guest!” he said.

Carson gritted his teeth, and struggled to stay calm, saying nothing. He was a spy, and a good one. He would say nothing.

The man took of his sunglasses, and Simms recognized him from the file. Ernesto Salazar. Upcoming counterfeiter and mean son of a bitch.

He approached, inclining his head. “Next time, you can use the front door,” he said. “I’m afraid I will have to repay your rudeness with a less hospitable turn of my own.”

Carson frowned, confused, and he didn’t see the blow to the head that stole his consciousness away.

-o-

It was days like these that Carson wondered why he had become a spy.

Really.

In the beginning, he supposed it had seemed noble. Fighting for his country, risking his life for some greater good. Plus, he was good at it. He could lie and he could plan, and he had enough common sense to handle high risk situations without getting himself blown to shreds. All in all, it had seemed like a good fit, and he’d spent a lot of time feeling like he’d found his calling in life.

But the things was, it was hard work. And common sense wasn’t always enough. One tough scrape became two, became three, became four. Each mission was more draining than the last, and Casey got a kick out of being a shadow warrior and Michael was too paranoid to ever settle down as a civilian anyway and Billy ran around like it was a lark in order to avoid facing the fact that he actually didn’t have any other choices in life. But Carson wasn’t some shadow warrior. He knew how to turn his brain off and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. And he had options.

Hell, he could make a killing in the private sector. And not even security like too many CIA washouts. Give him a damn cubicle and let him peddle wares and he’d make a killing. People liked him, trusted him. It wouldn’t be too hard to become the office winner, flourishing in a way the CIA never let him.

It wasn’t that he resented his job; it was just that he was tired of it. There was no crime in that. He’d given a lot to his country – years of his life, really – and if he wanted to walk away, there was no harm in that.

No harm at all.

Casey, Billy and Michael, however, would flip out on him, which was probably why he hadn’t brought it up with them. But they’d understand eventually. Because the thing with working with the best was that they had probably figured out that he wasn’t long for this job, sooner than he had.

In case Carson had had any doubts, though, there he was, semiconscious on his knees while armed men poked him with the barrels of their guns.

Their very large guns.

And a smirking counterfeiter stood above him, gloating.

“I had not realized that my operations were large enough to attract such notice,” Salazar said. Simms had only been out a few minutes, so not much had changed. There were a few more guards now, and he was positioned in the middle of a semi-circle, the fence he’d been passing around at his back. Salazar was pacing in front of him casually. “In some ways, I am truly flattered.”

Simms hadn’t survived this long without learning a thing or two. When captured by the bad guy who already pretty much knew who you were, it was time to shut the hell up.

Purposefully, Carson kept his mouth clamped tight, glaring up in the glinting sunlight at his captor.

Salazar shrugged. “However, you can probably understand that it is still something I cannot tolerate,” he said. “We all have appearances, do we not?”

Carson didn’t give a rat’s ass about appearances. Mentally, he considered the possibility of rescue, but realized that it was unlikely any time soon. He’d been moving fast enough to double Billy’s rate, so the kid wouldn’t even be at their meet point yet to know he was AWOL. Even then, Salazar looked ready to take care of business, and Carson was good but he wasn’t sure he could stall that long.

Which meant—

Carson’s stomach clenched. Which meant he was mostly screwed. Dead, at worst. Captive, at best.

A whole flipping career in the Agency, and he was going to end outside some crappy compound in North Africa.

Salazar paused, eyeing him scrupulously. “You look American,” he said. “CIA?”

Carson didn’t say anything; if he was going to get screwed over, he was going to do it with a semblance of dignity – not that it was worth much, but when it was all he had…

“Ah, yes,” Salazar said, clearly bemused. “A spy does not give up his identity, I forget such things. And I can respect that, I can. But if you continue to ignore me, I may have to get more creative in my means.”

Carson made a face, the nonverbal equivalent to go-sit-on-a-stick-dick-wad.

Salazar sighed. “I am new at this,” he said. “And I don’t find it a particularly pleasant sort of thing. Maybe we can come to a conclusion that is mutually beneficial?”

Mutually beneficial for a wanted international criminal. Carson figured he could be forgiven if he was a bit skeptical on that one.

“See, I do not blame your government for being interested in my activities,” Salazar continued. “As I said, I find it flattering. But I am concerned about how I have been compromised. You are doing your job, just as I am. And we can both continue to do our jobs, same as ever, if we just have a simple exchange of information.”

There was an appealing logic to that, because Carson was a practical man. Honestly, Salazar wasn’t a bloodthirsty thug. Killing wasn’t part of his MO. He just financed others to do killing as they saw fit; he was sort of non-discriminating in that way. But nothing had suggested that he had used extensive violence in his own rise to power. So it was entirely possible that he didn’t want to do that now.

Carson just made things awfully inconvenient, being caught red-handed with no ID and no viable cover story for his activities.

Salazar’s gaze intensified. “I think you can agree that such an exchange will be far more pleasant.”

Pleasant. Carson hadn’t joined the Agency to be pleasant.

But he was certainly thinking about quitting it for some variation of that.

He didn’t want to be rich. He didn’t want to be famous. He just wanted to be happy and safe and what the hell—

None of that was going to happen because he was going to get his damn head blown off and for what? A stupid mission that hadn’t gotten them anywhere yet? Salazar was still a small fish in a big sea, and really, what was one more criminal? If Simms had learned anything, it was that no matter how many successful missions they had, it would never be enough. There was going to be evil, just like there was going to be good, and the CIA ran around trying to right the balance in vain.

Carson Simms was going to die for nothing.

And he didn’t have to.

Cautious, he took a breath. “What sort of information do you think I have?” he asked, guarded, confirming or denying nothing.

Salazar looked surprised to hear him speak, but pleased. “Just your case file,” he said. “I want to know how much your government is aware of and where they have gleaned their intelligence. Such information will easily allow me to rectify any lapses in security and to better avoid such infiltrations in the future.”

Essentially, he wanted Carson to give him a get out of jail free card. If he knew the file the CIA had, he would know how to get around it. He would know what assets to burn and where to hide out. Carson would enable Ernesto Salazar to flourish.

Carson shook his head. “No way, man,” he said. “You’re nuts.”

Salazar looked genuinely disappointed. “Pity,” he said. “I am afraid I may have to up my security efforts, then. With my men here, they are leaving other portions of the gate vacant. I can only imagine what they’ll find when they resume a more aggressive search pattern.”

Carson’s heart skipped a beat, and it took all his self control not to flinch. They knew he wasn’t alone. Or, if they didn’t, they’d deduced it well enough. They had Carson, which was bad enough, but if they got Billy…

Salazar smiled. “We are not so bad at security as you think,” he said. “We have been watching you and your companion for some time now. You are working with three other men, yes? And only one is here? Are the others coming for a raid tomorrow?”

Carson’s stomach twisted and he felt violently ill. They’d been compromised. Maybe from the beginning, maybe not. It wasn’t clear how they’d gotten tagged, but ultimately, it didn’t matter. Salazar was onto them, and that meant the entire thing was a damn bust.

He’d walked into a trap. They all had walked into a trap. After Carson, they’d take Billy. Then they’d wait for Casey and Michael and damn it.

It was over. The entire thing was over. There would be no retirement, there’d be no ongoing career. There’d be nothing because he’d be dead – and so would the rest of his team.a

Salazar was watching him. “You can save their lives, you know,” he said. “I do not want to kill them, and you can help me avoid that.”

Carson swallowed hard, and numbly faced the reality that there was no way out. There was no way out.

He took a breath, chest tight and eyes burning. “How?”

Salazar’s smile returned. “The same as before,” he said. “I want the file.”

Carson scoffed. “And how the hell am I supposed to produce something like that?”

“Oh, I know you do not have it on you,” Salazar said. “Which is why I am going to let you go and return it to me.”

Carson stared for a moment. “You’re going to let me go?” he asked, incredulous.

Salazar nodded readily. “Certainly,” he said.

Carson laughed. “And then why the hell would I come back?”

Salazar looked amused again. “We have photos of you,” he said. “Clear ones, that can confirm your identity. We also have photos of your companions. I am sure there are other people who might be quite interested in the identity of CIA agents, this is true?”

Carson ground his teeth together.

“If you do not return, I will sell this information to the highest bidder and let them do what they want,” he said. “Some may be interested in death. Others may like to use you all as scapegoats. There are so many unsavory characters in the world.”

Frustration mounting, Carson shook his head. “So you let me go, and I get the information,” he said. “And then what if I bring back an entire unit to go postal on your little operation here?”

Salazar chuckled. “My information on you has already been secured at an outside source that I will not confirm or deny,” he said. “If you move to destroy me, then I will move to destroy you all.”

The reality of it was almost overwhelming. No, it was overwhelming.

“This is a lot to take in,” Salazar said. “But it does not have to be so bad. You go, find the file and come back. Do not tell your teammates, and they never have to know how you compromised yourself and them. They never have to know anything.”

“It’s going to be kind of hard to not mention the fact when I’m bringing you a file,” Carson snapped.

“Never worry of such things,” Salazar said. “I imagine your raid tomorrow will not go as well as you expect.”

Carson paled, shaking his head. “I’m not leading them into a trap.”

“No, no, of course not!” Salazar said. “Bring them and let yourself get lost in the confusion. Meet up with me on the east side. They are smart and capable; they will get out with no problems and you can meet up with them, with no one the wiser.”

“Except that you’ll have my file,” he said.

“Well, yes,” Salazar said, his eyes bright. “Which will ensure that you never tell anyone about our little…arrangement.”

Carson huffed, but didn’t know what to say. What could he say? What options did he have? He could die here – he could give up his life, just like he always said he would – but for what? So his team could die, too? This mission was a lost cause – they wouldn’t gain any intel from it. If he died, his team would die, too, and for nothing.

Or Carson could survive. He could give Salazar what he wanted and walk away from this. Walk away from everything. Finish this mission, leave the CIA, and let his team go on, none the wiser. Salazar would have his file, but it wouldn’t mean anything to him if he wasn’t an active agent. It wouldn’t mean anything.

The mission was already a wash. They didn’t need to die for it.

They didn’t need to die, period.

Carson took a breath, then another. The decision made, he felt himself calm, looking up at Salazar’s dark eyes. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll do it.”

“Wonderful!” Salazar said. “I believe you have made the right choice.”

Grunting, Carson wished he could believe it. All he knew, though, was that it was really the only choice he had.

-o-

When Carson got to the checkpoint, Billy was already there. There was brief flicker of concern on his features, but when he saw Carson approach, seemingly unharmed, his features lit up with boyish charm.

“Youth wins the day again!” he crowed. “I had you by at least thirty minutes. Took you so long, I was about to scout ahead and make sure you hadn’t pulled up lame or something in the last stretch.”

Carson, stiff and aching, managed a small smile. “What can I say,” he said with a shrug. “I’m just not the man I used to be.”

Billy chuckled. “Aw, don’t be so glum, Carson,” he cajoled. “We still love you, even though you’re somewhat old and crotchety. You’re one of the team, and that still means everything.”

Carson forced a smile, the movement tiny but opening up a yawning hurt inside of him. “I hope so, kid,” he said, feeling weary and old. He squinted behind him, where the sun was starting to descend to the horizon. “I really hope so.”

-o-

Back at the rendezvous, they didn’t expect a thing. They joked; they planned; they talked crap.

And they didn’t know that they’d been found out. That the mission was a wash. That Carson had sold them out to save them.

They didn’t know.

He could tell them. He thought about telling them. Hell, he started the conversation five times but he never got very far. Because Michael was planning; Casey was prepping; Billy was primping.

If he told them, they might lose everything. The ODS was good, but they weren’t as good as they thought they were. If Carson played his hand wrong, Salazar could destroy them.

Of course, Salazar could still destroy them. Carson was placing his trust in an apparent megalomaniac with ambitions for criminal greatness. Not exactly encouraging.

But he could have killed Carson, and he didn’t. He could have captured Billy, and he didn’t.

There was still one chance they could all walk away. Still one chance that the ODS could keep fighting the good fight.

Still once chance that Carson could retire and leave all of this behind him.

Once and for all.

-o-

When they got back to the compound, Michael sounded like he had it all under control. He was thorough and detailed. Casey rejoined with confidence. Billy was even smiling.

Carson had no choice but to go along, but he found himself hoping they’d still walk away.

But they were in too deep now to turn back. Carson understood that. That was why he was still here.

What was about to happen wasn’t Carson’s fault. Salazar had known already; Simms had had no choice but to comply. It wasn’t his fault.

It sure as hell felt like it was, though.

-o-

Inside, Carson had to remind himself to breathe. Next to him, Billy was moving stealthily, looking back at him in concern.

“You okay, mate?” he asked, brow just slightly furrowed.

Carson laughed. “Any reason why it shouldn’t be?”

“You just seem a touch off, is all,” Billy told him, voice low and hushed. “Though I can’t totally blame you. There’s something about this mission…doesn’t seem quite right, does it?”

Billy had no idea. Carson kept close to him, pressing through the abandoned corridors. They were looking for Salazar, and Billy was clearly expecting a confrontation. Carson knew that wasn’t going to happen, though. At least not the way Billy expected it to.

“I mean, we haven’t seen a single guard our entire time in here,” Billy mused. “That’s remarkable. Some kind of luck, I tell you.”

Luck, yes, Carson didn’t disagree. Just not the good kind.

-o-

The empty corridors were starting to freak Billy out. “This doesn’t feel right,” he murmured, pulling around another vacant corner. “Maybe we mistimed this.”

Carson’s chest clenched.

Billy stopped, shaking his head. “Maybe we should go back, check in with Michael.”

Of all the times for the kid to display a semblance of common sense. The empty corridors were a dead giveaway to a setup, and Billy was starting to let his doubts build.

But walking away now wasn’t an option. Hell, it probably never had been.

But maybe it was. Maybe he could tell Billy. The kid would understand. Wouldn’t blame him. He’d help him deal with Salazar, help him fix this.

Billy was watching him, earnest, blue eyes worried. “And you don’t look so good,” he said. “You sure you’re feeling okay?”

Carson swallowed hard, feeling his eyes burn. A lump formed in his throat, and he forced out a breath. “This whole thing is a mess,” he said, wishing this were easier.

Billy cocked his head, questioning. There was just a hint of understanding there, the tendrils of acknowledging that something was wrong. Not just with the mission, but with Carson. With everything.

It was a risk telling Billy, but it was a risk not telling him. Some risks were worth taking. He was already leading his entire team into a trap – they’d rather know the truth. They’d rather know.

Carson swore, ducking his head and rubbing a hand over his forehead. “There’s something I need to tell you—“

But before he could continue, an explosion rocked the building. The force threw him off his feet, sending him toward the wall. He caught a glimpse of Billy slumping to the ground before the world blacked out again.

-o-

Carson woke to the smell of smoke.

Scrunching his nose, he shifted, trying to sit up, and sharp pain flared in his head.

Groaning, he laid there for a moment, feeling the hard floor beneath his head. When the pain subsided to an ache, he opened his eyes again and looked up.

The corridor was still abandoned, but hazy now with smoke. There was a crack in the far wall, and the lights were flickering.

An explosion.

He swore. Salazar wasn’t stupid. Even leaving the facility behind would be a loose end. He had never planned to give the ODS that much. This far away from the source, Carson was mostly safe, but Casey and Michael…and Billy—

Sitting up, Carson squinted. Billy was sprawled not far from him, body folded over and pressed awkwardly against the wall. The force had clearly thrown him head first, and as he scooted over, he saw the blood down the kid’s face.

Wincing, Carson rolled the kid gently, and Billy flopped onto his back, head lolling. He sucked in a breath, but looked past the blood and saw that the wound wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. He pressed two fingers to Billy’s neck, feeling the steady pulse there. Billy had taken a knock to the head, no doubt, but he’d had worse.

Carson glanced down the corridor, remembering Salazar’s orders. If this explosion was any indication, Salazar wasn’t messing around. The blast might as well have been one last warning to Simms to let him know just what Salazar was capable of.

If Simms didn’t show up…

An explosion would be the least of his problems.

He looked again at Billy. He could probably rouse the kid, but he’d just have to ditch him again anyway. No, this was his chance to make a clean break. Hell, he could leave and be back before Billy even regained consciousness. Leaving him unconscious was a risk – the kid was vulnerable like this – but Salazar was packed to leave. There were no guards.

This was Carson’s chance. Telling Billy would have been a mistake. That much was clear to him now. He needed to do this alone.

His eyes lingered on Billy just for a moment more, before looking with determination down the hallway.

He needed to do this.

-o-

The smoke thickened as Carson made his way through the corridors. He couldn’t see any fire, but he could smell it, thickening the ozone until his lungs started to burn. Salazar apparently hadn’t worked much wiggle room into the schedule, probably because he was one cocky son of a bitch.

And because he had everything ready to go, Carson realized. When he turned the corner to the entrance Salazar had specify, it was mostly empty, just a few Jeeps left, geared up and running. Salazar was smoking a cigar, looking out the back garage, his lightweight suit a soft shade of tan and his summer sun hat positioned jauntily on his head.

Carson made a move forward, but was immediately accosted by two guards. Instinct told him to struggle, but their large guns were rather compelling counterarguments.

Glancing over, Salazar smiled. He tossed the last bit of his cigar, grounding it into the cement floor before he walked over, hands out. “Ah, my friend!” he said. “Come, come.” He waved away the guards. “I do not believe such force is necessary. Mr. Simms is a friend now, correct?”

Carson felt stiff as he cast a wary eye at the guards, who stepped back obediently. He kept himself very still, turning a focused gaze at Salazar. “As your friend, I should tell you it’s not nice to set fires when company comes.”

Salazar offered him a look of mock hurt. “Friends are also supposed to use the doorbell,” he said. “And your unfortunate company barged right in.”

Something like guilt roiled in his gut. He shook his head. “If anything happened to them—“

Making a face, Salazar tutted. “You’ll what?” he asked. “Please, the preliminary blasts were not designed to kill. Your friends are smart, correct? They will have plenty of time to get out before the subsequent explosions.”

It hurt to keep himself still, but Carson did. “You’re all heart, Salazar,” he muttered.

Salazar smiled grandly. “I like to think that I am a fair man,” he said. Then he shrugged. “At least, when people keep their word. You have kept your word with me?”

Breathing in, Carson knew this was his last chance. If he held out, Salazar would probably kill him and kill the team and take what he wanted anyway. He thought of Michael and Casey and Billy. They would die for the mission, if given an ultimatum.

But that was why they needed Carson. He was the practical one. Who knew that dying for the job wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

It wasn’t anything at all.

Feeling bitter, Carson reached inside his jacket, pulling out the papers he had tucked there. They were tightly folded. Getting them out of the hotel room without Michael noticing had been the hardest part of the whole mess.

Well, the second hardest part.

The hardest part was handing them over to Salazar, knowing just what he was doing.

He was selling out. For good reasons, maybe even the right reasons, but selling out nonetheless.

Salazar smiled, fingers closing on the papers. Simms hesitated just for a moment, then let go.

Eyeing him curiously, Salazar opened the papers, then glanced down. He read for a moment before he nodded. “Very good,” he said, folding them back up. He smiled broadly at Carson. “So we part as friends, then, yes?”

“I don’t care how the hell we part,” Carson snapped. “I just want to get out of here.”

“By all means, then,” Salazar said, waving his hand toward the exit. “Do not let me keep you. Things are going to get warm in here very soon, though. I would recommend all due haste.”

Carson didn’t have to be told twice. He could feel the growing heat, smell the uptick in the smoke. There was a fire – and it was spreading. It was only a matter of time before the whole place went up in a fireball.

And Carson didn’t want to be inside when that happened.

He had turned around, halfway back to the door when he heard the familiar voice.

“Well, come on now, gents, I think this is possibly one large and very unfortunate misunderstanding.”

Carson’s stomach went cold. Billy.

The last he’d seen the kid, he’d been unconscious in the hallway. He’d hoped to pick the Scot up on his way out, or maybe that the kid would have been smart enough to see himself out.

But maybe he hadn’t gotten that far.

“See, I just got turned around a bit,” Billy continued, his voice audible down the hallway. “I was looking for a friend of mine. Tallish, hair like a silver fox. He’s prone to these fits, you see. Wanders off at the damnedest times, and—“

Or maybe Billy had come looking for him.

And found Salazar’s men instead.

“I’m sensing, though, that perhaps you’re not so concerned about my explanations,” Billy said, voice overly serene in that forced way of his, when he was trying like hell to talk himself out of the impossible. “So if it’s all the same to you, you can just point me to the door and—“

There was a meaty smack and then a sickening thump, and then the corridors went eerily silent again. Carson was frozen where he was, unable to move as two guards with large guns rounded the corner, dragging Billy behind them.

When they saw Salazar, they dropped Billy in a heap, adjusting their stance with their hands on their guns before talking in Spanish.

Carson shook his head, stepping back up. “You said you’d leave them alone,” he said, eyes flitting to Billy, who hadn’t twitched. The side of his face was covered in blood, a large gash opened up high on his forehead.

Salazar cocked his head. “I did not seek your friends out, just as I promised,” he said. He glanced at Billy, shrugging. “It seems your friend was eager to join us, however.”

“He was coming after me,” Carson said.

“Your failure to control your teammates is not my concern,” Salazar said, and he made a move to leave.

“Hey,” Carson said. “So, what? I can take him back with me?”

Salazar stopped, looking back at him. “I said you could leave with your life and your reputation intact,” he said. “I made no other assurances.”

Carson’s brow furrowed. “The kid doesn’t know anything,” he said. “He got worried when I split off. I’ll just tell him I found him in the hall—“

“And you overpowered both guards?” Salazar asked, skeptical. “Come now, Mr. Simms. I can appreciate your sentiment, but you must see that he is an unacceptable loose end.”

For a second, Carson didn’t understand. Didn’t want to understand. He looked at Billy, sprawled and limp on the floor.

Then he looked at Salazar, already talking to one of his men as the last few supplies were uploaded onto the remaining trucks.

He laughed in disbelief and shook his head. “I can’t just leave him here.”

Salazar regarded him coolly. “If you wish to die with him, that is your business.”

“But he doesn’t have to die,” Carson said, almost pleading now. “Come on, I gave you what you want. You can shake every damn spy agency in the world. He’s nothing to you.”

“You are right,” Salazar agreed. “He is nothing. Do you wish to risk your life after all this for nothing?”

It was an ultimatum, veiled in nice speeches and good etiquette. Carson was being given a choice: go or stay. If he went, he could still walk away. Leave this behind. Leave Billy behind to die.

If he stayed, they’d both die. Even if Carson fought for it, he’d never get very far before he was down with a shot to the chest. Salazar would win.

Salazar had already won.

Walking away wasn’t the right thing to do. But then again, it wasn’t necessarily the wrong thing either. Spy work had no absolutes. There was always a gray area. The further along in it Carson went, the grayer it seemed.

The thought of leaving Billy behind hurt. It ached. Because Billy had come back for him, because Billy believed in him, because Billy was as much a friend as Carson Simms had left. Because they were teammates, and that was what teammates did.

Those were ideals Carson had lived by.

Ideals Carson wasn’t sure he wanted to die by.

There was no sense to it. Billy wasn’t dying for nothing.

But Carson dying with him wouldn’t make it better.

Salazar was right. The slimy weasel was right.

Simms didn’t want to risk his life for nothing.

He didn’t want to risk his life at all.

Salazar snapped his fingers, and the guards moved, leaving Billy prone on the floor as they geared up. Carson had the urge to bend over and try grabbing Billy anyway, but Salazar gave him a disparaging look. “Really, my friend,” he said. “You’ll be dead before you pull him up.”

Simms glanced from Salazar to the guard next to him, gun still up.

And he looked at Billy again. Unconscious, unaware. He’d come for Carson.

And Carson was going to leave him behind.

The heat was growing, the smoke thicker. He was out of time; he was out of options. It was time to figure it out, just who he was and just what his priorities were.

The thing was, Simms had known for a while now. It confirmed all his doubts, all his suspicions.

Still, when he turned away from Billy and started to run, he’d never thought it would hurt so much.

Or that he wouldn’t even look back.

-o-

Simms ran.

The fire was growing at his back, and even as he ran, he could hear it. A series of smaller explosions shook the building, but Simms put his hand out, steadied himself and just kept going. The network of corridors seemed long and unforgiving; he thought he might not make it, that he might get lost in his own escape plan.

So when the door came up, he was actually surprised, choking on the smoke as he pushed through it and stumbled into the sunlight.

It was glaringly bright, blinding him, and he found himself hacking.

He still didn’t stop.

He ran until he couldn’t feel his legs, ran until he couldn’t breathe, just ran.

Until he almost ran right into Michael.

As stunned as Simms was, Michael was even more clearly thrown. Simms had to steady him, had to stop him from going back.

Because Michael wasn’t going to give up. The minute Simms told him Billy was gone, the minute Simms said the kid was dead, Michael’s mind was made up. Michael wasn’t going to leave a man behind.

Because Michael was a good leader. Michael was a good spy. Michael was a good person. He’d go back, even if it got him killed.

Simms tried lying; he tried holding him back. He tried.

Salazar did it for him. One last explosion and Michael was thrown to the ground, dazed and disoriented.

And for a second, Simms thought about running. Thought about just cutting loose right now, burn his team and head for a new life, no strings attached. But Michael was still trying to get to his feet and Casey was up the road, in need of help, and Billy was dead.

Simms was the only one left.

Suddenly, there was still some black and white left. There was just enough left to make one last stand. Simms had sold out; he compromised his team; he’d gotten Billy killed.

Simms could maybe justify that, but he couldn’t justify running now. Because there was hope for the rest of them. If he did this for Michael and Casey, he needed to be there for Michael and Casey. He hadn’t wanted to leave Billy behind, but there hadn’t been a choice.

There was a choice now.

And Simms had taken too much for himself. He had to give this much back. He left Billy behind; but he couldn’t leave Michael, he couldn’t leave Casey.

No matter how much he wanted to.

Maybe it was penance, maybe Simms still wanted to do the right thing, maybe it was guilt. But when Simms forfeited Billy’s life, he’d really forfeited his own.

Dragging Michael back toward Casey, getting what was left of his team out, he wondered for the first time if that price had been worth it.

NEXT