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Chaos collaboration fic: Five Lives Billy Never Lived (1/1)

November 21st, 2012 (11:02 pm)
mellow

feeling: mellow

Title: Five Lives Billy Never Lived
Authors: faye_dartmouth and lena7142
Character: Billy Collins
Genre: AU, bit of everything
A/N: Collaboration between Lena and Faye. Many thanks to sockie1000 for the beta!
Warning: AU character death. It's Lena's fault.
Summary: What could have been. Perhaps even what should have been. The options were there, some good and some bad, but Billy would be a liar if he said he didn’t consider them more than he ought.



Billy was nervous.

That seemed irrational, he knew. He'd been trained as a spy, after all. He'd charmed his way through two agencies. He'd been more comfortable in a lie than he had been telling the truth. All the world was a stage, after all, and Billy was certain he’d played all the parts available.

Except for this.

Because there was no alias. There was no cover story. Just him.

"So, Billy Collins," the woman said, looking neatly over the manuscript in front of her. She looked up at him, regarding him carefully. "Billy Collins? Poet laureate?"

Billy smiled sheepishly. "Unfortunately for me, I'm not that Billy Collins," he said.

She smiled wryly. "I should think not," she mused, looking down again. She flipped through to the next page, eyes skimming quickly. "I must say, Mr. Collins, your application is a bit...surprising."

"Oh?" Billy asked, trying to quell the pounding of his heart. "How's that?"

"Well," she said. "Most people don't come to poetry late in life. For the vast majority of my clients, it's something they work with for years. Decades, even. Do you have any other experience in poetry? Or in writing at all for that matter?"

"Well, I did complete an English degree back in my native land," he said. "And I performed a number of small plays -- did an honors thesis on Shakespeare."

"Yes, yes," she said. "But that was...nearly twenty years ago, Mr. Collins. What have you been doing in the interim?"

Billy's stomach churned, his palms getting sweaty. It was rather amateurish, he knew. On the job, Casey would berate him. Michael would roll his eyes. Even Carson...

Billy didn't finish the thought. He wasn't in the field. He wasn't on the job anymore. He wasn't a spy for that matter. Casey and Michael and Carson...

He forced a smile, shrugging. "Lots of odd jobs, here and there," he said. "Spent a lot of time traveling, trying to find my calling in life."

"And you think this is it?" she said, nodding toward the papers. "Aspiring poet at the age of 40?"

"I reckon I've been aspiring my whole life," he said. "Always searching but never quite finding it until now."

"So you have been writing?" she prompted.

"Always," he said.

"Then why didn't you try to submit your work earlier?" she asked.

He blew out a breath, then laughed. "Just waiting for all the pieces to fall into place, I reckon," he admitted. "There was always something more important to do."

"Poetry is the expression of the soul," she said. "More important than that?"

Billy thought about his team; thought about the ODS. He thought about the missions they completed, the lives he saved. Carson had died in North Africa; Casey had got hard. Michael had grown quiet, and Billy had found himself alone. Without his team, he had nothing. He was nothing.

He had to leave.

Because he had failed Carson. Because he couldn't save Casey and Michael. Because he was a damn poor spy to let his team fall apart like that. They said it wasn't his fault, but Billy knew that blame was a fine and delicate sort of thing. He couldn't live through another failure; not with lives on the line. He wouldn't.

None of them could. In the aftermath, things had been awkward. They’d drifted apart, a little more each day. They didn’t know how to trust each other because they couldn’t trust themselves, and when Billy had realized there was no team left to fight for, he’d stopped fighting and just walked away.

With nothing left to face, he’d finally had to come to terms with himself.

It was the most unsettling thing he'd ever done.

Egotistically, he also told himself it was the most important. Such lies were easier to believe with a little alcoholic greasing, as it were, and the more Billy drank, the more he wrote.

He wrote until he filled his flat; wrote until he had no choice but to share. Or he’d drown in the bottle, die buried beneath the papers. He couldn’t save the bloody world, but maybe he could still save himself.

"Importance is relative," he said, smiling slightly. "Sometimes the greatest sacrifice is our soul, not our life, yet it is the one thing we can never truly give away."

She glanced down, reading along with him, "Because our soul is all that defines us. We lie, we cheat, we steal, for good and bad, and the only cost is the one we carry." She paused, nodding. "It's a bit...overt. And you tend to fall back to iambic pentameter more than you should -- your classical training shows -- but...there's something about it."

Billy tried not to look too eager.

She pressed her lips together, wetting them. "Something I like," she said slowly.

"So that means...?"

Looking up, she smiled. "That means I'm willing to take you on," she said, holding out her hand. Billy took it, surprised and overwhelming as she shook it firmly. "Congratulations, Mr. Collins. You are now going to be a published poet."

Billy was excited, of course. Anxious and eager, with more manuscripts to share. But back at his flat, messy and hollow as it was, he just wished there was someone to celebrate with.

Instead, he cracked a bottle of wine open, pouring some for himself and drinking until he was buzzed enough and the words came out -- he came out -- because there was no longer any need to hold any of it back.

That meant everything.

That meant nothing.

And Billy's pen moved ever frantically forward, still trying to find himself in all the words and starting to wonder if there was anything there to find at all.

-o-

“Collins, what’s your position?”

Billy walked with his head down, cap pulled low over his eyes and his jacket-collar rolled up against the autumn chill. “I’m five minutes from checkpoint beta,” he murmured into the cheap burner phone with the fresh sim card he’d picked up that morning for the job. “Is Kovacs there?”

“Negative,” Anderson replied. “He’s probably just running late, but Parks is freaking out–”

“This is just like Marrakesh!” a voice interjected in the background, and Billy smirked.

“Tell Parks that you lot didn’t have me in Marrakech.”

“Yeah, but we had you in Laos and that was still a cluster–”

“Just let us know when you’re in position for the meet,” Anderson concluded, cutting Parks off.

“Will do,” Billy answered, hanging up and pocketing his mobile.

Another day, another gig.

He’d worked with Anderson and his crew on and off over the past few years. And while he didn’t trust any of the buggers as far as he could throw them, Parks in particular, he’d made good money running jobs with them, and had a begrudging respect for Anderson’s ability to plan. So when he’d gotten a call last week asking him if he was up for a job in Budapest, he’d said yes.

Well, that and he was broke as balls.

But mercenary work paid well, and really, it was what he was best suited for. He’d found that out early on.

When Billy had been given the boot from MI6 and cast out into the cold, exiled with the threat of permanent imprisonment and treason charges should he ever return, his options had been limited. He’d offered himself up to other agencies, but the stigma of disgrace that hung around his neck like an albatross made him too risky. He was damaged goods. A man without a home; without a country; without any ties or loyalties.

But a man with a very particular set of skills. And without loyalty or obligation, he took those skills he’d previously used to serve queen and country and auctioned them off to the highest bidder. A mercenary.

He was good at it too.

Initially he’d played much the same part he had as an agent with the British government; he started off the nattering pretty boy who tried to talk his way in and out of everything. It worked for a while. But more and more jobs became less dependent on talking than on being able to handle a gun, and after the roadside bomb in Pakistan tore him up with shrapnel and left him with one good eye, he hadn’t been much of a pretty boy any more. But he learned. He adapted. And the air of danger his scars gave him wasn’t false advertising.

Sometimes it didn’t feel like it had been seven years. And sometimes, it felt like a whole lot more.

This time, they’d been hired to make contact with Andrej Kovacs, a black market dealer of high-end stolen goods, and then help him guard a shipment from Budapest to Munich. Often, Billy would be the talker, making contact and facilitating negotiations in situations such as this (his scars detracted somewhat from his charm, but added to his ability to intimidate), but this time Anderson had Morelli -- a young hotheaded merc from Sicily -- running the meet. Billy was in place to provide back-up and to keep an eye out.

Reaching the plaza where the meet was supposed to happen, Billy headed for the church he’d scoped out the day before, ducking past the renovation sign and sliding through the doors he’d left jimmied open last night. His mobile buzzed in his pocket as he made his way to the back of the dusty nave, and he picked it up.

“Sonofabitch is standing us up!” Parks hissed in the background before yelping as someone presumably smacked him.

“Kovacs is late,” Anderson confirmed. “He might be making us sweat because he’s a jerk, or something might have spooked him.”

“You reckon any of this could be a trap?” Billy asked. He’d reached the stairs and had begun to climb, past the balcony, up into the bell tower.

Anderson sounded skeptical. “He paid us 25% up front, so I doubt he’s setting us up, but if he got made, I wouldn’t leave it past him to forget to give us a warning.”

“Are we aborting?” Billy pressed, pausing at a narrow window and looking down at where Morelli was standing anxiously by the cafe front where Kovacs had been supposed to show.

“I don’t – Shit, got another call coming in, hang on –”

There was a beep as Anderson cut out. Billy shouldered the duffel he had strapped to his back, then began taking the steps two at a time. He was in position at the top of the church tower overlooking the entire plaza when his mobile buzzed again.

“Anyone exciting?”

“It was Kovacs,” Anderson spat. “He’s got a tail.”

“Rivals?” Billy asked, unzipping the duffel and pulling out the segments of his rifle. “Or coppers?”

“Spooks,” Anderson answered.

Billy froze. “Bloody spies. Does he know who it is?”

“Does it matter?”

MI6, CIA, any other myriad intelligence agencies that haunted Billy after all these years... “Probably not,” he conceded. “We pulling out?”

“Of this payday? Hell no.”

Billy frowned. “It’s risky.”

“There’s a reason I don’t give you bastards health insurance,” Anderson retorted. “We help Kovacs lose that tail, the job is still go. You ready?”

Billy snapped the sight in place and balanced the rifle against the masonry. Pulling his cap off, he held it aloft for a moment to gauge the wind. “Yeah. I’m ready. Who am I looking for?”

“He sent us a picture. Six-foot, brown hair, black coat and suit. What’s that? ...Oh. Parks says he’s CIA, ran into him once in Barcelona. Dawson or Dorry or something.”

“Brilliant,” Billy muttered, squinting through the sight. “Only a couple dozen chaps down there fitting that physical description...”

“There’s probably more than one spook too. Kovacs should be getting there any minute.”

And as Billy looked down from his perch like some sort of angel of death, he could see everything. He could see Kovacs, walking a bit too quickly. He could see Morelli, looking ready to bolt. And he could see the man a few yards behind Kovacs, calmly but deliberately following. Billy had been trained as a spy and he knew how to tail a mark, and more importantly, he knew how to spot a tail. He knew how to spot a spy.

Billy aimed.

“I got him in my sights,” he murmured, balancing the phone against his shoulder as he looked down the barrel with his good eye.

At Kovacs’ tail. At the spy.

CIA, Anderson had said. But it might just as easily have been MI6. He could have been looking to gun down a former friend or colleague.

In another life, it might have been him down there, looking to take down a notorious smuggler.

Billy’s finger rested on the trigger. It began to itch.

Everything was coming together. Constricting. Colliding. Kovacs was headed for Morelli and the agent was closing in on Kovacs and Billy needed the order.

Before they ran out of time.

“Take the shot,” Anderson said.

Billy looked at the man through the sight. In another life, it might have been him.

But not this life. This life had hardened him. Left him without loyalties. Without principles. He took orders from whoever paid him, no questions asked.

And Anderson had given him an order.

So Billy pulled the trigger.

He was gone before the police got there, cleaning the church of his prints and sliding out the door unnoticed in all the chaos. He didn’t spare a second look at the dark-haired kid kneeling over the body, and he didn’t look back.

-o-

Collins, Billy Collins.

Cliche, yes. But to Billy, it never got old.

He started out on the job, young and green and eager. It had taken some time, but he’d got better at what he did. In fact, he got damn good at it. Billy was no fool; he knew that most people said he was the best.

And who was he to disagree with them? After all these years, he did have an impressive record, more than most people even knew. He’d traveled the world, he’d assumed countless identities. He’d brought justice, he’d served his country, he’d furthered the advancement of the greater good for the UK and the world at large.

He’d slept with beautiful women; he’d played with dangerous guns. He’d lived a life most people attributed to movies, and he’d done it with a flair.

Sure, there had been close calls and near misses. He’d almost got himself killed more than once, and he’d been laid up in hospital for the better part of the year after the mission in Nigeria went tits up. He’d let some bad people get away, and he’d killed some innocent people as collateral damage. Once, early on, he’d almost lost it all but he’d been given a second chance to prove himself.

And prove himself, he did.

For nearly thirty years, he gave everything he had and became the best agent he could be, the best agent MI6 could ever ask for. No one would remember him as the kid who screwed up only a few years in. They would remember him as dedicated, capable, smooth, and brilliant.

They’d remember him.

They’d have to, because now, after all these years, it was finally over.

Retirement wasn’t what he’d wanted, but he’d come to accept that there was no other option. He couldn’t perform in the field the way he used to. He couldn’t keep up on the foot chases and his body protested the long, hard hours. His eyes were getting weaker, his aim was just slightly to the left, and he couldn’t shake a nagging pain in his right knee when the weather got too cold. Even his liver hurt from all that damn scotch.

He could have stayed, worked as an analyst. He still had wisdom and insight, but playing backup had never been his thing. He couldn’t imagine sitting in the office, planning missions for other operatives to execute. He couldn’t imagine trudging through the halls with the rest of those past their prime, becoming a living relic.

No, Billy wanted to be a living legend.

Walking away was all there was.

To what, he wasn’t sure. But what he left behind...

Well, he liked to think things were better for what he’d done. He liked to think.

Still, his chest hurt as he gathered his things one last time. He pulled on his suit, adjusted his tie and straightened his vest. He smoothed his hair, smiling as best he could to make his way out.

Before he got out, though, the door opened. A young man, at least twenty years his junior walked in, wide eyed and surprise.

“Oh!” the young man said. “I’m sorry, I was told you’d be gone!”

Billy managed a smile. “Aye, and in just another minute I will be,” he said. “No need to apologize.”

The young man still looked flustered, face turning red. “I just didn’t mean to disturb you,” he said, eyes searching Billy’s face. “Sir.”

“Oof,” Billy said. “I suppose I am sir to you. All this gray hair makes it hard to convince anyone otherwise.”

Eyes widening, the boy shook his head. “No, sir, that’s not what I meant!”

Billy chuckled. “Never mind, lad. It’s the truth.”

“No,” the young man said, more adamantly now. “I mean, it’s just. You’re...Billy Collins. The Billy Collins. I’ve heard about you.”

It made Billy grin. “Not all of it is true, I assure you.”

“It was all good things, I swear,” the young man said earnestly.

“Well, they left the best parts out, is all,” Billy said, winking. “Classified.”

The young man laughed nervously, then petered off.

Billy sighed, gathering a breath. “Well,” he said. “I best leave you to it. This will be your office, I take it?”

He blinked, nodding. “I had no idea...”

Billy flitted his hand through the air. “Don’t think much of it,” he said. “I never spent much time in here anyhow. And I reckon if you’re any good, you won’t either.”

The lad hesitated, pressing his lips together.

“Might as well say it, son,” Billy cajoled.

He let out a breath. “I just...I can’t believe it’s you!”

“Ah,” Billy said, tsking his tongue. “To be so young again.”

“I’m serious, sir,” the young man said. “You’re Billy Collins. The best there ever was.”

But no longer the best there is. The distinction was not lost on Billy. His time had come -- and his time had gone. “Aye,” Billy agreed. “And you may be the best to come.”

The lad laughed but tapered off. “Do you have any advice?”

Billy shook his head. “You don’t need advice from the likes of me.”

“But I do,” the young man said. “This is only my second posting. You’ve had years of experience.”

“And those years are the only things that have taught me anything,” Billy said. He inclined his head. “That’s what being a spy is. Using the moment, learning from it. Give yourself to your mission, no matter what it may be. Don’t hold back. Someday, when you’re old and feeble, you’ll look back on these as happier days.”

The young man nodded, chewing his lip. “So it’s worth it?” he asked. “Everything you give up for this life? It’s worth it?”

Billy could only smile. “I’ll let you know.”

The boy nodded again, and Billy made to leave.

“Where will you go?” the lad asked suddenly.

Billy turned at the door, shrugging. “Hard to say,” he said. “I know too many of our motherland’s secrets; it hardly feels safe here. Maybe America. See what trouble I can find.”

The boy hesitated, one more time. “Is it normal to be scared?” he asked. “Because right now, I’m a bit terrified.”

“I certainly hope so,” Billy said. “Fear has a very important purpose. It reminds us that we’re human. Fragile even. It’ll make you a better agent; it’ll keep you alive. Besides, I’m more than a bit scared myself at walking out that door.”

“You’re Billy Collins,” the lad reminded him, grinning boyishly.

“Aye,” Billy agreed. “That I am.”

As he walked out that last time, he could only hope that meant as much as he’d always thought it did with whatever the future had left for him. Time was not kind to spies; retirement was never really a refuge. But Billy had conquered and overcome everything life had thrown at him -- successfully.

He had to believe he could do it one more time.

-o-

Billy stared out at the rain.

He wondered if he’d miss it. He’d spent the last several years griping endlessly about the London weather, and decades before then complaining about the equally miserable Scottish climate. It chilled and it dampened and it hung in the air, suffusing everything with a bleak misery. He’d hated it.

But that was before he’d been told he’d probably never see it again.

It was funny, how much he was realizing he’d taken for granted. London rain. Proper fish and chips. The chance to take the train up to Edinburgh on hols to visit his mum. All soon to be gone from his life.

He’d been in shock the whole time it was happening. He hadn’t really believed, he supposed, that it would happen. That he’d actually be convicted and kicked out. That he would be labelled a traitor and exiled.

That he’d never be able to go home again.

But it had happened. He’d been given the ultimatum to leave Britain or face a life in prison. And now he had a plane ticket in his hand and a bobby waiting outside his door, making sure he didn’t do a runner prior to his escort to Heathrow in the morning.

As if he had anywhere to run to.

He couldn’t stay in the UK. They’d find him, and his punishment would likely prove far worse after the fact. Honestly, getting booted out was probably the kindest fate he’d be offered, objectively. But to Billy’s mind, it was really about the same as a death sentence. Everything he was; everything he loved, everything he cared about – it was all being taken from him. Forever. His mother only sobbed hysterically the first couple times he’d tried calling, and then stopped answering the phone altogether. His mates at the trial hadn’t made eye contact with him, their expressions ranging from pity to outright disgust. And Olivia...

He squeezed his eyes shut at the memory. It had been right after the verdict. The bailiff had brought him out into the hall, and Billy had seen her walking away. When he’d called out her name, she’d stopped, and for a moment, he’d had hope. Hope that she’d understand. Hope that she’d say she knew it was all a mistake, that they’d find each other, somehow.

Hope she’d dashed with a single scathing look, before spitting that she never wanted to see him again.

That had been the cruelest blow, he decided, placing a palm against the glass of the window as he stared out over the city. He wondered if the same cold, drizzling rain was falling on Edinburgh as on London. If Olivia was still in the country, and if she was somewhere looking out at the rain...

He’d messed up. It had been an accident, a mistake, but he had no way of proving that. No one who would believe him. To all but a few, he was a traitor and the scum of the earth. To the ones who knew better, well...

He was a convenient scapegoat.

Everything had gone to hell on that mission, and control needed someone to blame for it. Billy was young and not overly experienced, not terribly lauded. He was an easy sacrifice. And perhaps some of the blame, if not all of it, was deserved. He was in part a victim of fate, but he’d been clumsy. He’d been stupid. And people were dead, if not from his maliciousness, than due to his incompetence. Not that the cause made them any less dead. Or their blood any less red on Billy’s hands.

People were dead and he was a pariah now. Shamed. Worthless. Homeless. He’d brought pain to those he’d loved, and was now going to be put out in the cold.

At least, that was their plan.

But staring out at the rain and feeling his heart ache, Billy found he had his own plan formulating in the recesses of his mind. He stepped back from the window and watched as the foggy handprint faded away.

He hadn’t bought groceries since the mission, so there was little food in his flat save for a half-eaten bag of crisps and some questionably old takeaway. But he still had a well-stocked liquor cabinet that he would not have the chance to enjoy further. So he crossed over to the kitchen and took a highball glass from the cupboard and poured himself a glass of single malt. Placing it on the table, untouched, he walked out of the kitchen.

Olivia had said she never wanted to see him again. It was the last demand she’d ever make of him, and Billy did not intend to disappoint.

They’d taken his gun and his passports and most of the other paraphernalia he’d accumulated for the job. He had a few stashes out in the world, but none he could get to from his flat. But they’d overlooked a few things when they’d cleaned his place out.

Things like a bottle of aspirin tablets in the medicine cabinet that did not contain aspirin.

He’d been issued poison pills before his first undercover operation. He’d scoffed and found the notion overly dramatic, convinced that he would never get caught or need to use them; confident in his own invincibility. But he knew better now, and opening the cabinet and withdrawing the bottle, he shook a few of the capsules out into his palm.

Really, it would only take one.

Returning to the kitchen, he picked up the glass of scotch, then crossed into the living room, back to the window that looked out over the city. He sipped the scotch, letting the liquid pool on his tongue and sear his sinuses before swallowing. It was well-aged and smoky and it tasted like ash.

Ashes to ashes...

For a brief moment, he entertained the idea of a note. But that would presume that there was anyone left who’d be bothered to read it. Or that it wouldn’t instantly become a block of blacked-out, redacted information in some sealed file. No, there was no point to a note.

No point to much of it at all, really.

He had no home. He had no family and no friends. He had no job, no purpose, no life.

At least this way, he reflected, looking down into the amber liquid in the glass, there was a chance they’d let him stay. After all, it’d be cheaper just to bury him here in England. His homeland could keep his bones and his mother could mourn him properly and Olivia would never have to lay eyes on him again.

It was the best solution, really. For everyone.

So Billy took one last look out at the rain, then popped the tablets into his mouth and washed them down with the rest of the whiskey, swallowing hard. It took only seconds for his vision to begin to swim, after which he felt his chest constrict and his knees give out as the world began to spin. He fell to the ground, gasping for breath, the tinkling of breaking glass echoing in his ears as darkness crept into his peripheral vision. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. He convulsed, shuddering violently, then fell still as the darkness moved in and brought with it release.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

And when the flight from Heathrow took off in the morning, it was without Billy Collins.

-o-

Billy was late -- he glanced at the clock. Too late.

He gritted his teeth, cursing under his breath. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t let this happen. It was too important to let this happen.

Still, he couldn’t change the circumstances. The ten mile commute was long, and his car was old, rattling the entire way, shimmying through the tight turns in the road. Billy didn’t slow down, though. He couldn’t. Not now. Not when he’d made a promise.

When he got to the familiar village, he slowed just enough, swerving to miss the potholes as he made his way to the small lane. He came to a stop outside the cottage, killing the engine and looking up.

It wasn’t much to look at, that was for sure. No one else in their right mind would be racing here the way he had. The cottage was one of the poorer ones in Inverness, but he reckoned it might be quaint. The sloped roof had charming dormers, with carefully hung shutters that were painted blue against the white siding. The roof was somewhat patchwork, though, and several of the windows looked cracked even in the darkness.

The garden wasn’t much better. Spacious, but a bit overgrown. The fence tilted precariously in a few parts, balls and bikes strewn throughout the grass.

That was a concern for another day, though. For now, Billy got out, jogging across the uneven gravel of the drive and approaching without stealth. The stairs on the front stoop creaked, and at the door, he finagled the lock and burst it open--

To chaos.

It was worse than he’d imagined; almost worst than he’d ever seen before. Somewhere, someone yelled and there was a bang and a sudden racket before a small figure ran past him, suspiciously naked.

“About time! I was worried that England’s best operative would fail at his most important mission!”

Billy turned, grinning. “Well, my fair lass, I would hate to disappoint.”

She sauntered up, and Billy wrapped his arms around her snugly. “Good,” she said. “Or I reckon I might have to see if James Bond was available.”

Billy snorted. “James Bond is smart, sexy, suave and very talented, I’ll grant you that. I admit, I can’t compete.”

Her eyes widened. She was somewhat worn, hair done up in a sloppy ponytail and graying around the edges. Her glasses were smudged and her clothing a bit too big and stained with something unidentifiable and green. “Pity,” she said. “I’d hate to settle for second best.”

“Aye,” Billy agreed with a commiserating nod. Then he tweaked his eyebrows, leaning down mischievously. “But I have one thing that James Bond doesn’t.”

“Oh?” she asked.

His smiled widened. “A cozy cottage in Inverness with three adorable children and the most beautiful wife in the world,” he said, leaning down to kiss her firmly.

She returned the kiss, and when they parted, her eyes were bright. “Well, forget James Bond, then,” she said. “But oh, you should know the roof is leaking again. And the kids are not ready for bed. But I am. So...”

Billy chuckled. “Collins, Billy Collins, on the job, miss.”

She demurred. “Are you sure you’re not a spy?”

“It’s just one part of many, I’m afraid,” he said. “And only through the end of the month.”

“Well, thank God for that,” she said. “The commute on this job is killing us.”

“But the pay is good, love,” he said.

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah,” she said. “You’d think after all these years I’d be used to being married to a working actor, but I swear, it just gets harder the longer we go.”

“Should be easier now, though,” he said. “I’ve got that teaching job lined up for the fall. That’ll make all the difference.”

“Steady hours,” she mused.

“And steady paychecks,” he reminded her.

She laughed. “James Bond has nothing on you.”

There was another crash from upstairs and a shriek.

Billy inclined his head. “I do believe that is my cue.”

This time, she didn’t hold him back. He couldn’t blame her. Emma had the hard job, he knew. She’d given up all her options to stay home with the kids, and with his irregular hours, he couldn’t imagine all she put up with. He loved her for that -- and so much more.

And besides, this was what it was all for. All the odd acting jobs, all the English tutoring on the side for snobby rich kids who couldn’t discern Shakespeare from Chaucer -- for this.

He found his children in the bathroom. At ten, Nell was already dressed, brushing her teeth at the counter. Stephen, the six-year-old, was still in the bathtub, lining up a row of rubber ducks on the ledge while splashing a boat through the tepid water. And there was baby Olivia, not much of a baby now at three, streaking through the hallway and yelling at the top of her lungs.

It was a daunting task, but one Billy was up to. He stopped, putting a hand on Nell’s head as she looked up at him, smile wide. “Daddy!” she squealed, mouth still full of toothpaste. “You made it back!”

“Of course I did,” he said. “I promised you I would be.”

“Because you are an intrepid hero!” Stephen exclaimed, splashing hard enough in the water that it sprayed across the floor.

“Indeed,” Billy said, snagging a towel, and throwing it across the floor to mop up the mess in the small space. “And you, good sir, are becoming a wrinkly pirate, so I do believe it is time to come back to shore.”

“Awww, Da-ad,” Stephen whined, face scrunched up.

“The life of a pirate is a challenge, that’s for sure,” Billy commiserated. “But if all hands will come ashore, I promise a rousing tale before we all get some much needed shut-eye.”

“A story!” Nell exclaimed. “Will it be one with a princess, Da?”

“Nah, not a princess,” Stephen said. “Knights, though. And a dragon. With fire! And can there be fighting! And killing!”

“Ah,” Billy said. “What has your mother told you about that?”

Stephen looked crestfallen. “But that’s what knights do.

“Well, perhaps we will see if we can weave a tale that will satisfy the fair and the brash among us,” he said. “But come on, come on. Hurry it up.”

Nell scrambled out toward the bedroom, and Billy leaned over, lifting the drain while handing Stephen another towel. The boy toweled himself off while Billy made his way back to Stephen’s room, wading through the mess of toys to find a pair of clean pajamas.

On his way back, he encountered the running blur again, and this time reached down to snag her.

Olivia flailed, grunting in protest, but it turned quickly to giggles as he hefted her high. “And how is my baby girl tonight?”

She giggled again. “I’m not a baby!” she insisted. “I’m three!”

“Ah, yes, my mistake,” Billy said, shifting her over to rest her on his hip while he handed Stephen his clothes. “And a beautiful three year old you are.”

Olivia smiled, snuggling close while Billy took her back to the room the girls shared, finding a nappy and a pair of pajamas. She jabbered while he dressed her, going on about her day, about bathtime, about the soldier Stephen had lost down the vent in the hallway.

And when they were all dressed, he pulled them together onto the double bed Nell shared with Olivia. He found the worn book on the bedside table, carefully opening to a familiar page while they each cuddled under the covers, pressing close as he started to read.

He read with inflection, using voices and hand motions, and by the second page, he was off script. The words were guidelines, the pictures suggestions, and Billy created a tale bound by no page, a story hindered by no expectations.

He told them of heroes and foes, noble deeds and good versus evil. These were things that had always mattered to Billy, more than he could ever tell them. Things he’d planned to spend his life combating.

Things he’d planned, though, rarely happened.

None of this, for example -- the acting, the tutoring, the wife and the kids and the cottage -- had ever been his intention. Everyone had always expected great things from him, and he’d been ready to take an offer from MI6 after he graduated from university.

When Emma had got pregnant.

It had been an accident, of course. One small slip, one positive test, and Billy’s life had never been the same. There was no way he could be a spy, not with Emma and the baby. There was no way he could go off and leave them, not even to save the world.

The years that followed hadn’t been easy. His literary degree had not made him readily employable, and he told himself he’d find something more permanent while he took acting jobs in the meantime. It had been enough, for a while, and he admitted, he loved the thrill of the stage. But when Emma got pregnant again, when they needed the cottage, Billy needed more income and picked up the tutoring on the side.

It was a lot of work; it was inconsistent and hard to predict. Some months, they barely made it.

And sometimes Billy thought about what could have been. He thought about MI6 and a life of mystery and intrigue. He thought about traveling the world, about making a difference, about being someone better than he was. He had so much potential, he knew, and he barely tapped it here. He didn’t seem to do much of anything at all.

Billy would be a liar if he said that sometimes he didn’t pine. If sometimes he didn’t wonder if he’d made the wrong choice.

But then Nell laughed; Stephen’s eyes went wide; Olivia snuggled closer; and Emma was waiting for him in the bed.

It wasn’t national security, but Billy still made a difference. If not for the world, for these four people. It wasn’t exciting. No one would write stories or make movies, but it had a simple poetry all its own. He would have had quite the life in MI6.

Here, though, with his family, he got to live.

Billy found that there was nothing more he wanted than that.

-o-

And the one he lived.

The mission had been rough, there was no denying that. They’d cut this one close -- too close, really -- and the fact that they were all walking away in one piece was a miracle in and of itself.

Not that the ODS believed in miracles. Such things were for the regular folks, for the weak and superstitious. For old men who drank too much and talk too freely; for heartless bastards with no other hope to cling to; for happy-go-lucky types where nothing goes wrong; for those who don’t have time to think about second chances; for those whose second chances are all there are.

The ODS was different than all that. It wasn’t luck, nor fate, nor choice. No such things alone defined them. It was hard to say what it was that kept them together, but after a mission like that, Billy saw no reason to question.

He did, however, see every reason to get drunk.

He was the one who brought up the idea, but his mates had readily joined in. And as he raucously ordered the first round at the local watering hole, they were already laughing and jovial. By the third round, Billy was telling stories of his glory days in Scotland, Casey was glaring dangerously, and Michael was eased back, tipped in his chair as relaxed as he’d ever was.

It was Rick who turned somber, sloshing his beer around for a long moment in a stillness before he said, “We almost didn’t make it. For a second there, I mean. I thought...”

The silence lingered, and Billy found himself sighing. “Aye,” he agreed. “Such things are always a distinct possibility in this line of work.”

“It’s not meant to be predictable,” Casey said. “That’s the very reason why it’s the only line of work I find satisfying.”

“And if we don’t do it,” Michael said, shrugging a little. “Who would?”

“And besides,” Billy said, scooting close and draping an arm around Rick’s shoulders. “We saved lives. Countless people are going home to their beds tonight, sleeping snug and secure because of what we did.”

Rick nodded, but his frown deepened. “I know,” he said. “And maybe that’s part of it. Everything just barely worked out. If one thing had gone different...if any of us had done something different...the entire thing could have changed.”

“It’s entirely possible,” Michael conceded.

“But what-if’s are a waste of time,” Casey said. “Reality is the only factor that matters.”

Rick’s shoulders drooped a bit.

Billy nudged him. “It’s a normal thing to consider,” he said, leaning down a bit to look Rick in the eyes. “We very nearly lost our lives back there. We very nearly lost everything. I’ve wondered more than once who I might have been if the cards had been dealt differently.”

Rick looked at him earnestly. “And?”

“And I realize there’s not much point to wondering, aye?” he said. “We’re here. We’re together. We’re alive. We fight the good fight. All the rest -- all the what-ifs and near-things -- doesn’t change the good we do or the good we have.”

Rick held his gaze for a long moment before nodding slowly.

Billy grinned, removing his arm and lifting his bottle, finishing the last of his beer with a flourish before slamming it on the table. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “Now, I have one very important last question for you gents.”

“Oh?” Michael asked.

Smile widening, Billy cocked his head. “One that involves our very destiny.”

Casey scowled. “I knew I should have stayed home.”

Billy chuckled. “Aw, fear not,” he said. “I’m just wondering if anyone is interested in another round. On me, this time.”

Michael lifted his eyebrows. Casey inclined his head with interest.

Rick laughed. “Really?”

“This is a night of celebration, is it not?” he asked, pushing his chair back and getting to his feet. “Of life. Of friendship. Of purpose.” He winked at Rick. “Even of destiny.”

Rick’s expression steadied, and Michael seemed to be grinning despite himself. Casey shook his head, rolling his eyes. “Spare me the melodramatics and make sure the airhead waitress gets me a chilled bottle this time,” he said.

Billy nodded dutifully. “My pleasure,” he said, moving through the crowd back to the bar. It was something to consider, he thought briefly, glancing back at his friends. What could have been. Perhaps even what should have been. The options were there, some good and some bad, but Billy would be a liar if he said he didn’t consider them more than he ought.

But ultimately, the questions didn’t matter. The what-ifs weren’t important. Because what he had here -- with the CIA, the ODS, his mates -- was good and right and important. He missed his home; sometimes he wondered about a family. But he knew that without the CIA, he might have ended up a lesser man -- a dead man.

No, this wasn’t the best fate perhaps, but it also wasn’t the worst. As Billy ordered that next round, he reckoned it might be just enough of both.

Comments

Posted by: Evil Insane Monkey (eviinsanemonkey)
Posted at: November 22nd, 2012 03:07 pm (UTC)

This fic! THIS FIC! It's brilliant! (if depressing...) Pardon me while I go through life by life (odd phrasing is odd...)

+ POET BILLY! ♥ I like the bittersweet feel of this one - how Billy's coming from something hard, but how there's still this hope in him.

+ OMG YOU KILLED MICHAEL! Hardened Billy is kind of terrifying. And by kind of I mean extremely.

+ AWWWWW This one's nice. Billy gets to be a legend :)

+ *is sobbing*

+ This one is REALLY FREAKING ADORABLE!

+ And of course the one he lived. ♥

This whole fic is just. It's fantastic. Well done.

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: December 15th, 2012 01:46 pm (UTC)
billy content

I'm so slow with some of my replies -- sorry!

It's always interesting to me to think about how a life can veer in a different direction dramatically by key events. Those what ifs are usually my favorite to explore, so this fic was sort of a natural extension of that. In a life like Billy's, that can quickly be much happier or much sadder.

We had fun writing it, so I'm glad you enjoyed reading! Thanks!

Posted by: sophie_deangirl (sophie_deangirl)
Posted at: November 25th, 2012 05:05 pm (UTC)
Sigh and wow...

I loved these AMAZING views on how Billy could have lived, could have ended up. My two favorites were the darkest and brightest lives.

The darkness was so black and disparaged that you feel Billy's hopelessness, that you understand why he surrenders to the allure of the escape that death invites to him yet, you want to reject that a positive, full of life, Billy would ever consider ending his life. His despair so deep in that life you've drawn that he can't find any reason to survive, that he sees no other option but suicide. It was heartbreaking! I felt his desperation, his loss, his pain, it was all palpable and how you work up to it, was also painful. He delays with each movement he makes toward it where you hope he changes his mind and yet he can't stop the momentum then he does it and it's too late. *swallows the lump in my throat. Then you paint his death throes so amazingly painfully that I felt every part of it. I was torn between enjoying the h/c, the mini deathfic nature of it and yet feeling shortchanged at the completely unheroic way that he is dies, that it goes against his nature.

And of course, I reveled in the the "happily ever after" family life that so suits Billy in every way. I loved how you inserted James' real and fictional life into it with Nell, Stephen and Olivia. I love that he becomes a teacher and actor. It was just a delightful read. It was Billy to the most pleasurable other extreme from his dark life.

Fave parts:

So Billy took one last look out at the rain, then popped the tablets into his mouth and washed them down with the rest of the whiskey, swallowing hard. It took only seconds for his vision to begin to swim, after which he felt his chest constrict and his knees give out as the world began to spin. He fell to the ground, gasping for breath, the tinkling of breaking glass echoing in his ears as darkness crept into his peripheral vision. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. He convulsed, shuddering violently, then fell still as the darkness moved in and brought with it release.

--still sob every time I read it!

But then Nell laughed; Stephen’s eyes went wide; Olivia snuggled closer; and Emma was waiting for him in the bed.

It wasn’t national security, but Billy still made a difference. If not for the world, for these four people. It wasn’t exciting. No one would write stories or make movies, but it had a simple poetry all its own. He would have had quite the life in MI6.

--Awwwww!!!!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: December 15th, 2012 01:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Sigh and wow...
billy considers

It's very interesting to me that Billy's life could have been much, much worse given some of the key points in his history -- but also that it could have been much, much better. It makes the life he is living a bit more bittersweet, even if that's probably how it's meant to be.

And I could resist throwing in a reference to James' real life :)

Thanks so much!

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