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Chaos/Primeval: Absolute Truths (3/4)

December 22nd, 2012 (06:32 am)
sleepy

feeling: sleepy

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR



PART THREE

The thing with having all the information was that he now had time on his side. He had power again; control. He didn’t need to force situations; he could let them play out and find just the right moment. Billy’s past was pressing, and he would deal with that, but now that MIchael had all the cards, he’d play them in any order he damn well pleased.

Starting with this: the mission.

He pulled out a sheet from his jacket, holding it out. Instinctively, Martinez adjusted his flashlight to illuminate it in the darkness.

“This report just came in from the closest ranger’s station,” he said. “They found a body, badly mauled. Officials are calling it a likely bear attack, but the photos--”

Billy’s face went pale as he flipped through the sheets. “That’s one hell of a bear.”

“That was what I thought,” Michael said. “The only thing is that this happened two nights ago--”

Billy’s nose crinkled. “That’s about 24 hours before we had control of the site.” He paused, chewing his lip. “It makes sense, though. Also explains why the creature from earlier was still alive. The predator got distracted by something else.”

“If this thing is like most big predators, it may not need to eat again for a few days,” Rick suggested.

“So we may have bought ourselves a little time,” Michael added, feeling a little smug. He hadn’t found this lead, but he’d helped put it together. He’d been the one to point out the implications of the timing, charting the general location and confirming that it seemed like the predator had contained its movements to a rather small area. “We can also probably narrow our search grid, get some more men out here, flush it out in the morning--”

But Billy shook his head. “No, the tracks -- this thing is bigger than that,” he said.

“So?” Michael asked.

“So,” Billy said. “A creature that size wouldn’t be satisfied with a meal so small. That’s why there’s fresh signs of movement. It’s still hungry, and it’s still out there, probably closer than we think.”

Michael felt his teeth start to grind. It wasn’t that Billy was necessarily being unreasonable. Under normal circumstances, he’d probably welcome the Scot’s feedback.

Except, he wasn’t even the Scot. Billy’s file had been more than a little insightful, and if Billy had had any credibility after his confession in Higgins’ office, he’d just about lost it now.

Just about.

It was just the mission...the mauling confirmed the presence of a predator, and Billy had tracked the first creature. When Michael looked around in the dark, he didn’t see much to follow.

And according to Billy’s file, he was the man for this job.

Even if Michael hated it.

And he really did hate it.

Still, Michael would surrender this much, but it was still his game to control. The big picture, he reminded himself. It was all about the picture.

Finally, he forced a smile. “Okay, then,” he said with false sincerity.

Billy regarded him skeptically.

Michael gestured out to the woods, and Billy nearly flinched at the movement in his direction. Michael just kept smiling, daring anyone to second guess him now. His eyes were locked with Billy’s. “Lead on.”

-o-

Billy led, but Michael dogged his every step. In the dark, the beam of the flashlight helped narrow his vision, allowing him to see what Billy saw. The details became vividly clear; every rock, every broken branch, every indentation in the ground. In theory, that might have made it easier to trust Billy’s instincts.

In application, it just gave Michael more ground to question him.

Just small things. “You sure about this direction?” and “Maybe we should double back and check again?” and “You may want to slow down in case you miss something.”

Billy’s shoulders seemed to tense with each comment. At Michael’s back, Rick and Casey didn’t dare speak a word, though, and it seemed Billy was out of jokes.

This mission was proving that Billy was out of a lot of things, as far as Michael was concerned. Michael would follow, but he wouldn’t submit blindly.

So when Billy stayed crouched longer than normal, Michael straightened and sighed. “Don’t tell me your internal GPS has finally gone offline,” he said. He quirked a dark grin. “Or is that why they canned you? Because you only worked for so long before you just stopped?”

Billy, to his credit, didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, he stood, pointing his own beam down the path before them with a nod. “It’s been back this way multiple times.”

Michael shrugged diffidently. “So?”

“So,” Billy said. “That makes the trail especially hard to follow. We have tracks on top of tracks.”

“So you are at a dead end,” Michael surmised, trying not to sound gleeful. Well, trying not to sound too gleeful.

This time, Billy looked at him. There was a new weariness in his eyes, but he still had no comeback. Instead he gestured in the other direction. “Maybe,” he said. “But I think that’s a good thing.”

Michael scoffed. Loudly. “We’re supposed to catch this thing,” he said, and it maybe it was a low blow, but Michael found he couldn’t stop himself. It was all he could do not to overplay his hand. He had things he wanted to say -- no, things he needed to say -- but not yet. Still, he wasn’t going to let this go. “Not let the Agency finance a camping trip for the sake of your nostalgia.”

Billy’s face went almost painfully blank. For a second, Michael almost felt guilty. Billy was his friend, after all. And now that he knew more about the man’s past, he knew that this whole mission couldn’t be easy for him. In fact, it had to be pretty damn hard. Michael had stood by Billy through a lot -- and Billy had stood by him just as steadfast -- and Michael still knew Billy well enough to know when there was more going on underneath the surface.

Of course, in the past, he’d had no idea just how much there was.

That was why they were here. Because Billy had lied. Because Billy hadn’t trusted him with the truth. If this hurt, it was Billy’s own doing, not Michael’s.

When Michael didn’t yield, Billy smiled slightly. “Well, this would be a bad place to camp,” he said.

Michael’s face screwed up. “Why’s that?”

“Because we found its lair,” Billy told him.

That...wasn’t what Michael had been expecting. For a moment, his control slipped, and he glanced over Billy’s shoulder to the trail he’d pointed down. In the darkness, it was a little obscured, but the thickening of brush into a thicket was evident. It was well protected, well hidden, and with the multitude of tracks that even Michael could make out at a glance, the deduction was good.

He closed his mouth, breathing through his nose for a moment while he gathered his wits again. It was harder this time, and the weight of his knowledge tempted him to speak.

But not yet.

Not until the mission was over. Michael would clean up this anomaly mess...

And then clean up the rest, too.

Garnering his self control, he nodded. “So you think it’s coming back?”

Billy shrugged. “Nothing suggests that it is a nocturnal creature,” he said. “It should be back this way to rest.”

“Unless it hasn’t eaten,” Casey offered wryly.

“Well, that is a possibility,” Billy said. “But it won’t feel safe in the dark. It’s unfamiliar terrain. It will seek out the familiar.”

“So you want to wait here in the dark for a hungry and scared predator?” Rick asked.

This time, though, Michael agreed with Billy. “We do what we have to do,” he said, replying to Martinez but keeping his eyes on Billy.

Billy was stiff, his lips pursing slightly at the implication.

Michael followed up with a wan smile. “I, for one, am ready to finish this,” he said, refusing to look away from Billy’s tense blue eyes. “What about you?”

“I was ready before this started,” Billy replied, voice low, words calm.

Michael smirked. “I’ll bet you were.”

-o-

They settled in to wait.

Even if nothing else was familiar about this mission, there was a certain predictability in this. Things were strained on the team -- Casey was bored, Rick was unnerved, and Billy was...well, Billy was a lot of things Michael didn’t want to think about -- but they still knew what to expect when in the field.

Casey settled down in a prime offensive position, refusing to sit but instead nestling himself amid a thicket of trees. Rick hunkered down not far from him, the whites of his eyes visible in the dark and the glint of his gun as he held it out in front of him, almost as if he refused to put it down. Casey was never much for conversation, so his silence was to be expected, and Rick still seemed enough out of his element to speak up.

That was probably for the best, Michael knew. Especially if a large predator really was going to come back this way.

Even Billy seemed oddly familiar in this. He sat, facing the trail. He had his gun, but it wasn’t drawn, instead lying across his legs as he waited. His position had a good vantage point, and he sat with his shoulder slouched. Usually, Michael might attribute that to boredom or discomfort -- Billy was one to complain about creature comforts when given the chance -- but now Michael reconsidered that -- along with everything else.

Even Billy’s silence was actually not so surprising. Billy had found his place on the team with his tongue, but he’d always known when to shut it up. While he might offer a story on a stakeout or a quip in a gunfight, he was never prone to jeopardizing a mission when peril was at hand.

For a moment, Michael could almost believe that things were normal. That no matter what the mission, this was still his team. He could still predict the outcome and control the variables.

But as he looked from Casey to Rick and finally to Billy, he couldn’t quite buy the lie. Because Billy’s silence didn’t mean what it used to. Now when Billy was reticent in the face of danger, Michael knew why. He knew too well. It changed things.

It changed everything.

“I don’t mean to pry,” Billy said suddenly, startling Michael just a little when he realized the other man was looking back at him, “but may I suggest keeping your eyes out to the trail. And your gun pointed in another direction.”

Michael looked down, almost surprised to see his gun, though lax in his grip, pointed in Billy’s general vicinity.

Quickly, he tucked it away, shifting himself just enough to point in another direction. He glanced back down the trail, into the stillness of the night. They’d put away their flashlights -- they’d just spook the creature -- and aside from a faint rustling in the trees, there was no other movement.

Just the four of them. Michael had believed that meant something before. That there was nothing they couldn’t face and overcome. This was what Casey meant when he talked about two percent, though. This weakness, these oversights.

Michael swallowed, eyeing Billy again. “Can’t be too careful,” he quipped.

Billy hummed quietly in the night. “With something like this, I reckon not,” he murmured.

Michael watched him. Sitting there, he was Billy. He was the man Michael had grown to know so well over -- and not.

Michael had staked his team, his mission, his life, on false pretenses and a fabricated history. He’d never pretended that his team was perfect, and he’d certainly never harbored the delusion that they were purely virtuous, but he counted on knowing them well enough. On the truth being in the things that mattered. Maybe Michael had gotten lazy; maybe Michael had become too trusting. Maybe Michael had let the title of paranoid bastard go to his head, and this was some way for the universe to bring him down a notch or five.

It was all hanging precariously now -- the shredded remnants of the life Michael had trusted so much just a day ago. His control -- was gone. His team -- was broken. His life -- was hardly recognizable.

And now Billy had the audacity to sit there and make light.

Maybe it wasn’t the time to make a point about that, but Michael had let it lapse so long. He’d looked the other way, trusted when he should have pushed, and now the burning failure of those past mistakes was roiling in his gut. The words were tight in Michael’s throat, heavy on his tongue as his chest nearly burst with the weight of the secrets. “You’ve done this before,” he said, posing the words carefully, not quite a statement, not quite a question.

Billy nodded absently, eyes still turned outward toward the trees. “Aye,” he said. “More times than I’d like to recall.”

Michael’s gaze narrowed, watching Billy’s expression for any hint of breaking. He stayed stoic, though; unwavering.

He just needed a push.

“So you really think the thing is just going to traipse back here?” Michael pressed. He nodded toward Casey and Rick. “It’s a little risky for the team.”

“Riskier still is letting this thing loose in the woods,” Billy said.

“Which is maybe why we should track it,” Michael suggested.

“We did,” Billy said, a little more emphatically this time. His gaze flickered to Michael briefly, face creasing with concern. “This is where all the paths lead.” He paused, his eyes hardening. “Trust me.”

Michael had been ready to let it go. He’d told himself that now wasn’t the time or place. He’d learned the truth, but if he’d learned anything as a spy it was that the truth was best used carefully. It had the power to do a lot of things, but only if leveraged properly. He’d counted on finishing this mission, on filing some paperwork, and confronting Billy with his host of sins as the grand finale.

Priorities were still priorities, after all. He had a mission, and he had men to protect. Even if this was Billy’s fault -- in more ways than one -- Michael couldn’t compromise those things. He’d deal with Billy back at Langley, back where the facts would be glaringly plain and the solutions close at hand. And he didn’t know -- maybe things would be different after the mission was over. Maybe he’d find some better clarity to know exactly what to do with Billy and his false history. Michael wasn’t impulsive; he was a planner. He had intended to see this thing through before settling on his decision.

That had been Michael’s plan anyway.

But another thing he’d learned at the CIA: plans rarely went off without a hitch. Especially in the ODS.

Especially for Michael.

Especially when Billy was asking for trust.

The irony.

Michael couldn’t help it. He snorted.

Billy’s gaze lingered on him warily. Across the thicket, Casey was watching with interest, and Rick was tense with anticipation. Michael realized for the first time how thick the tension was, how ready they were to just snap--

Or maybe they already had.

Michael’s heart quieted, his stomach settling. He was possessed with a clear and calm resolve.

He smiled, feeling almost giddy with emotion. If it wasn’t rage, it was calculated aggression, reigned in just enough to be dangerous. “Trust you, huh?”

Billy’s brows knitted together. “I do have some experience.”

“So you say,” Michael replied, his voice even as he watched Billy carefully.

Billy cocked his head. “I thought we’d at least established that much as fact,” he said. “We’re back to the doubt?”

Shrugging, Michael’s composure didn’t waver. Billy was the charmer, but Michael was just as good under pressure. “Well, we know you can run around the woods at night and fire a gun,” he said. “I mean, the rest -- you said you were, what? A lab tech?”

Billy bristled a little, but remained surprisingly calm. “That’s right.”

“That hardly makes you an expert on, well, anything,” Michael said, working to sound casual now, the easy tone belying the situation at hand. “I mean, you fiddled with microscopes and did paperwork, right?”

“And ran tests and collected and analyzed specimens,” Billy supplied for him, a hint of defense in his voice. “I have enough scientific experience to make me well informed about these things.”

“But not an expert,” Michael pressed, more insistent now. “I mean, did you even finish your PhD program?”

Billy visibly flinched in the dark, and Michael knew he’d hit a nerve. Still, he drew a tight breath, swallowing awkwardly. “Well, I knew enough to keep up,” he said. “And I was more of the hunter and tracker--”

“Right,” Michael said, too agreeably. Then he paused, making a face. “I mean, everyone has to have their niche. They trusted you to subdue the animals.”

Billy was warier now, body tense, though he didn’t speak.

No one spoke -- Rick was twitching nervously and Casey had a look of barely-there restraint -- and Michael didn’t stop. He kept his head high, gaze unmoving, eyes locked with Billy’s, daring him to look away. “So is that why on the second call your team got, you went in against orders?”

Billy’s face went white, his entire body freezing. Across the thicket, Rick seemed to have stopped breathing and Casey arched his eyebrows curiously.

It’d been a card he’d been holding off on, but now that he’d played it, he was all in. He’d never been one to leave a job half done; he committed and followed through, no matter the cost. “A brave gesture, maybe,” he said. “And one would think that you’d be the most qualified.”

Billy’s breathing had increased, his shoulders visibly rising and falling as he pushed out air desperately through his nose. Casey’s gaze intensified; Rick looked a little sick.

“Too bad you got stung by -- what was it? -- a poisonous centipede?” Michael asked. He made an expression of mock concern. “They had to drag you out of there half dead and an entire team had to go back in to get the venom needed to save your life.”

Billy’s eyes were bright now, his frame trembling.

“But, hey, we all make mistakes sometimes,” Michael said with a callous shrug. “Some of us more than other, though, right? I mean, you got a civilian killed by that sabretooth cat. Oh, and you almost let one of your teammates die trapped in the past because you wanted to do things the slow way.”

In the dark, Billy was colorless, his jaw locked so tight that it looked like it hurt. But he didn’t protest; he didn’t disagree. He didn’t do anything.

And Michael felt his own stomach churn with actual anger now. Because he was right, and of all the times to be right. And Billy didn’t even try to defend himself, because he couldn’t and they both knew it. Michael had read the file. There was no defense. And that fact was almost paralyzing, blinding all sense, all reason, all sympathy. “But then, none of that really means much in the big picture, does it?” Michael asked, his heart starting to resound loudly in his ears. “None of it compares to the time you compromised the entire ARC and the human race.”

It was below the belt, but Michael had decided from the outset that there were no holds barred. Not now. Not anymore. He’d always fought on common ground with Billy, but now that there was none of that left, nothing was off limits. The cold, barren truth was all there was, no matter how much Michael hated it.

And Michael did hate it. He hated every detail in the file, every lie Billy had told. He hated that there was no bright side to soften this, that Billy had given him no other recourse. He hated that this was how it was, how it had to be, because all there had been was lies and the truth hurt.

The truth hurt.

Michael’s eyes burned, his chest feeling tight as his palms started to sweat and his mouth went painfully dry.

“I guess it was an accident, though,” he said. “You didn’t mean to almost destroy the ARC and kill countless people. You just wanted to help people.” He paused for a moment, his silence meaningful.

Billy’s expression turned just a little desperate, the hint of pleading in Billy’s eyes. Asking him not to say this, not to expose this secret.

Michael could have respected that at one point. If Billy had told this story from the beginning, Michael would never have begrudged him this omission. But Billy hadn’t told this story. He’d left it to Michael -- he’d passed the buck and taken the easy way while he could -- and now the consequences would be what they were.

For Michael to deal with. For Michael to clean up.

And this was the only way Michael knew how.

Hardened, Michael continued. “And get a little action,” he said, smirking purposefully. “You said Helen Cutter was a good professor, but you never mentioned just how good. The official report doesn’t say, how long were you sleeping with her while she was still your instructor? And how many years didn’t you tell your mentor and best friend that you had an affair with his wife?”

There it was. Rick’s mouth fell open, and Casey had gone from surprise to contempt. Billy seemed to deflate just slightly, his breath leaving him audibly and his face threatening to crumble.

But there was no way to stop now. There was no mercy to find. The nagging doubts he’d felt when Higgins called them in had been justified. Eight years he’d trusted Billy; eight years.

And this.

And this.

Michael was a paranoid bastard, and he’d let the biggest liar of all set up shop right under his nose. The deception was long, it was purposeful, and it was over. His team was his family, he’d given up everything for them. Risked his life, lost his marriage, because he’d believed they were worth it. He’d believed...

The thought nearly choked him, turning his stomach so violently that he tasted bile.

Face contorted, Michael almost spit the words. “The details were a little vague about what happened in the cage room and how you even survived, but it seemed like the ARC was pretty keen to get rid of you once you finally recovered,” he said, and he was trembling too now, the rage and the pain and the emotion almost too much to contain. “And really, who can blame them? Even if it wasn’t technically your fault, you still helped Helen. Research was lost; people were killed. You were a verifiable security risk. Hell, you even helped Helen get away, whether you meant to or not.”

Billy’s expression was tremulous, but he didn’t budge. He didn’t even seek a reprieve. He took it, because he knew he deserved it.

He deserved it. For the risks the team had taken, for the violated trust. Brothers in arms -- betrayed.

Michael’s jaw seized up, his throat constricting almost too much to speak at all.

“Though even with all the lies, I guess we can see that at least one thing was true about your cover story,” he said. “Stephen Hart was a disgrace. Billy Collins is no different. They didn’t send you away for your benefit or for the sake of national security. They create this special little backstory and a whole new life for you because they didn’t want to deal with you. It was better for everyone if you just died in that cage room. You weren’t worth fitting back into the program. They wanted you as far away from their program as possible, even if it meant foisting your sorry ass on their allies.”

Casey was glaring dangerously now; Rick looked visibly pained.

Billy pressed his lips together, unblinking.

Michael laughed bitterly, refusing to blink as his own emotions threatened to show. “You could have done the right thing and found something different for you life,” he said. “But instead you took it like a coward. You took their fake life and undeserved second chances and lied and now all these years later, we’re paying for it. Haven’t you hurt enough people? Did you really need to risk our lives, too?”

Michael didn’t think of himself as cruel by nature, but he would always do what needed to be done.

And this, after all this time, needed to be done.

There was no other choice. Billy had left him with no other choice.

Billy had left him with nothing.

“So, no, Billy,” he said, seething now, the blood rushing in his ears so loudly that he could hardly hear, hardly think. “I don’t trust you. And can you blame me?”

Billy took a staggered breath, chest hitching and a noise strangled deep in his throat. “I--” he began, but cut off. He cleared his throat, gaze dropping. He looked up, eyes wetter now, mouth open before he paused. He cocked his head, thoughtful.

“Come on, don’t disappoint me now,” Michael cajoled. “Eight years of whoppers, surely you can muster one more.”

“Michael,” Billy said. “Listen.

“Oh, that’s rich,” Michael jeered. “As if anything you say means anything--

“No,” Billy hissed getting to his feet, fingers on his gun. “Listen.

Michael tensed, lifting his own gun and bringing around toward Billy when he heard it, too--

Faint at first. A leaf blowing; a branch creaking; a heavy gust of air--

And then the thunder of footsteps, coming from behind. Michael whirled, pulling his gun up, but he was too slow.

It was too late.

Because standing there, looming above him, was the predator. Mouth open, eyes gleam, ready to strike.

-o-

Just like that, time stopped.

Michael had been flush with confidence; he’d wrested control back and wielded it doggedly. He’d been trying to make a point, that this was his mission, that this was his team, and that Billy’s disrespect of that was the key problem.

And it had been the key problem.

However, Michael realized as he looked up at the snarling creature, it hadn’t been the only problem.

Yes, there were lies and implicit betrayals that had to be reckoned with, but Michael’s original impulse to complete the mission first had been a good one. A smart one.

Though, if this mission had proven anything, it was that Michael didn’t always have things as together as he thought he did.

Case in point, he was about to have his head bit off because he’d been too busy throwing a hissy fit to notice its approach. No matter how righteous the hissy fit was, dying wasn’t really the outcome he’d been hoping for.

Yet, it seemed like the only thing left. He had a gun, but he found himself paralyzed, staring up and gaping and wondering if his team would stay together long enough to save themselves.

There was no time left for that, though. No time left for anything.

If he’d known these were his last minutes, he thought maybe he would have spent them differently. Maybe chewing out Billy wasn’t the last thing he wanted to do on this earth. But then, he hadn’t wanted his broken team to be the only legacy he left behind. He’d wanted more, he’d wanted better, he’d wanted--

Nothing.

Michael could only accept the fate. Maybe it had been inevitable. Maybe he’d seen it coming and just didn’t want to think about it. Maybe...

Then, teeth bared, breath hot, the creature lunged.

And Michael closed his eyes.

The bite never came.

Instead, Michael found himself hurled to the ground, landing painfully on his arm and jarring his shoulder as his ribs protested. His legs tangled, and something seemed to shift unnaturally in his ankle. Dazed, he opened his eyes again, trying to make sense of the noise and light in the darkness around him. He’d bit his tongue when he fell, and the bitter taste was overpowering as he struggled to find his feet--

Just in time to be thrown to the ground again as a gunshot ripped through the night.

He landed on his bottom this time, ducking down further as a wrenching howl shuddered through him. He squinted out in time to watch as Casey ran past him, waving his flashlight wildly. It seemed to be a stupid move, but in the dancing beam he saw a familiar figure standing in front of the beast, bobbing wildly, its mouth open in pain as it growled with determination at the smaller figure dwarfed in front of it..

Billy.

He was moving frantically, face composed with the utmost concentration. He was ducking, weaving as the creature lashed out with its massive jaws, hitting the ground and rolling.

Casey’s beam danced, stilling as he lifted his gun to fire--

The creature roared again, flailing and lashing out, its body charging at Casey, who had no time to move as it head butted him, lifting him clear off his feet and to the darkened trees nearby.

Then Michael saw Rick, who was shaking as he fired his gun, the shot going wide as the creature turned back around on him, gnashing its teeth as it flailed--

Rick stumbled in retreat, and the beast charged, ramming into Martinez and sending him flailing into the night. Rick was out of the equation now and Michael was still too far away and Casey was gone--

Struggling, Michael got to his feet but with a single step, his ankle gave way, sending him to his knees as he cursed in agony.

But Billy was there. He’d recovered his footing and stood in front of the beast with his shoulders squared and his aim leveled. He didn’t hesitate.

The first shot was a direct hit, tearing at the thick skin on the creature’s underbelly. The second shot hit its shoulder, making the beast wail in anger as it turned on Billy.

Billy didn’t waver. Didn’t flinch as he fired -- again and again and again and--

The creature connected at full speed, landing on top of Billy as they both went falling. In the dark, it was hard to make out much beyond the movement, a horrible scuffle. Then, a human yell -- wrenching and pained -- a lancing howl -- and then a last, resounding gunshot.

Before stillness, hollow and encompassing, was all that was left.

-o-

Michael had spent years learning the finer parts of teamwork. In truth, he’d started in the Agency with a preference for solo work, leaning toward in depth, undercover missions. He had a knack for that sort of thing, keeping track of the details long enough to hold a cover and bring a mission to fruition. He could spend years honing and tracking until a puzzle was completed.

Working with a team was different. When Ray Bishop had recruited him, he’d been reluctant, but he’d quickly seen how effective a team could be. There were more pieces to play, which meant better coverage, more intelligence, and higher rates of success.

More than that, it was like conducting an orchestra. All the parts had to come together, and Michael took to manipulating those parts with a flourish. As team members came and went, Michael had stayed. Michael had learned. Michael had found his niche.

He was a natural leader, and when he finally became the head of the ODS, it had seemed like it was long overdue. Then the men were his to choose; the missions were his to plan.

And he did.

He recruited Simms and Casey. He flipped Martinez until the kid was just like them.

He took in Billy.

He found the disparate pieces no one else wanted and made them something greater. This was always Michael’s greatest pride, more than any given mission, his team. The way they worked together, the way they meshed. It wasn’t a machine, it was a living, organic thing, impossible to replicate and essential for success. No one outside the ODS understood it -- hell, Fay had divorced him for it -- but no one could deny it either.

Michael had something that worked.

And now it was broken.

Figuratively --

And Literally.

Because Billy’s past had torn them apart, his secrets had proved more than Michael could account for. Instead of trust, there was doubt. Instead of synchronization, there was discord. It had thrown them off, just a little.

Just enough.

Because standing there, listing to the side, Michael was the only one still upright. He’d lost his flashlight, but he could still see his team. Casey, sprawled by a tree. Rick, lying still on the ground.

Billy, lost under the massive form of the creature.

Michael’s team.

He’d been so set on throwing that away, but now that it might have been taken from him...

For the first time since this began, Michael was willing to admit, he didn’t know what to do.

The problem was, it seemed there was no one left to listen.

-o-

Then, something moved.

Michael tensed, half expecting the predator to rally, but the rustling was accompanied by a groan. He turned his head, searching the dark until he saw Casey, blinking owlishly in the dimness. His face was pale, blood staining one side, but when he looked at Michael, his eyes cleared and his mouth settled into a terse line.

“For the record,” he said, enunciating the words with care, “I’m a human weapon. There is no training regimen that I know of designed to take on primordial predators.”

Michael felt the knot in his stomach unfurl just a little. He managed a grin. “I don’t think it was the predator that got you,” he quipped. “But that tree did some damage.”

Casey got to his feet. Making a face, he felt the blood on the side of his face, wiping it with disdain on his jacket. “Yes, but it was a big tree,” he said, moving toward Michael. The older operative gave him an appraising look. “What’s your excuse?”

Michael shrugged, wincing just a little. “Got bowled over, I think,” he said. “Bumps and bruises.” He shifted gingerly on his feet. “Maybe a sprained ankle.”

“Well, given how hard Billy tackled you, I’m not surprised,” Casey commented.

Billy. Of course it had been Billy. Because with all the things that were different, that would be the same. Billy was always the cautious one until there was actual peril present -- then he threw himself at whatever was coming in his teammate’s stead. Casey had called it a martyr complex, and Michael had always thought that was a bit of an exaggeration, but now...

“Where is he?”

Michael startled, blinking as he tried to regather himself. “Who?”

“Billy,” Casey replied. “Or Rick for that matter.”

The knot tightened again, and Michael had to swallow stiffly. “I...the predator...”

But Casey wasn’t listening. He was already moving, stepping over the broken tree limbs and debris. Limping, Michael followed, almost stumbling, trying to catch himself on a shattered tree stump until--

A body.

Casey went to his knees and Michael came to a teetering stop above him. Below them, Michael could see Rick. The younger operative’s eyes were closed, his face an unnatural shade of gray. His face was turned away, his body crumpled, and he looked bad, he looked--

With a steady hand, Casey reached down and Michael found himself holding his breath.

And Rick shifted. His face scrunched up, and he twitched. There was an uncertain moment before Rick jolted up, eyes blinking rapidly and mouth hanging open. When he saw Casey, he startled, jerking backward so hard that he nearly fell over, scrambling and failing to get to his feet before hissing in pain.

Casey snorted. “You should have saved moves like that for the predator.”

Rick’s eyes were wide as he looked at Casey. “Is it--?”

Michael’s eyes turned into the darkness, and it wasn’t hard to see. The massive frame was looming in the darkness, no more than ten feet away.

“Billy?” Rick asked, his chest still heaving.

Billy.

The predator.

Michael could still see the words in the file, detailing the life of a man Michael had never known.

But he could also see Billy luring the creature away, taking it head on, doing what had to be done to protect his team.

Michael had been so focused looking for the lies on this mission that maybe he’d missed the truth about Billy.

“Where’s Billy?” Rick asked again, a little shaky as Casey helped him find his feet.

Casey looked grim. “I didn’t make it far enough to see that part.”

“He came running just as it was about to get me,” Rick said. “I -- I didn’t see...”

But Michael had. Michael had seen everything. Michael was the only one who knew the big picture. But it wasn’t just the facts that mattered; it was how you used them.

How you acted. If you harbored resentment, if you went in for the kill.

If you tried to understand.

If you saved a life--

Michael’s feet were moving before he made a conscious choice. The pain flared in his ankle, but he ignored it, hobbling his way over the ground to the hulking body. A shiver went down his spine as he approached -- it seemed even bigger here, laid out on the ground, its leathery skin smelling foreign and stale. There was something else, though. Something that smelled like copper, fetid in the cool night.

Behind him, Rick and Casey weren’t far behind.

Squinting in the dark, Michael wished he had his flashlight, but there was no time to look for it. He rounded the animal, looking for the head, looking for--

He stumbled, coming face to face with its snout, large teeth visible and gleaming. Michael froze, heart stuttering, until he realized the thing’s eyes were closed. More than that, it was still, no sign of breath coming from its parted jaws.

Then he saw the puddle. It was black and shiny, spreading out from the still body, starting to pool by Michael’s feet and soak into the grassy knoll of its makeshift den.

Then Michael remembered the gunshot. Billy must have hit it -- more than once, probably. But the last shot had done it--

The thing was dead.

Billy had saved them. Michael had humiliated him, and Billy had done the impossible and felled a prehistoric predator that Michael could never have conceived.

Without Billy, they’d all be dead.

Without Billy...

Michael remembered. Billy had been under the creature. He’d screamed before the gunshot. And then the stillness. Even now, the creature was down and no longer a threat and where was Billy?

“Michael?” Casey asked.

“Is he--?” Rick followed up, coming to a halt by Michael’s side, inhaling sharply at the sight of the unmoving corpse.

“He was right here,” Michael said, nodding toward the predator.

Casey’s face hardened. “Well, he couldn’t have gotten far.”

“We’ll fan out,” Rick agreed.

They were moving, spreading out away from the head, scouring the brush, looking for any sign of Billy. There was an irony in that; looking for Billy. Michael had spent most of this mission looking for the real Billy and now that he’d found him, he’d lost him all over again. This time, maybe irreparably.

This time...

Michael believed facts. He believed what he saw.

His last image of Billy was going down with the predator. He’d fired the shots; there’d been a howl and a cry and no other movement. Which meant...

Michael looked in horror at the creature.

Which meant that Billy was still under there.

Pulse racing, Michael swallowed back nausea, moving as fast as his bad leg could carry him as he made his way closer to the creature. Getting low, he tried to look under, tried to peer into the crevices made by the dead weight. It was hard to see in the dark, hard to see with all the blood.

Cursing, he moved around, limping to the back of the head. This time, he got down on all fours, trying to get a better look. He reached out, pushing into the skin, trying to get a better look--
And there--

A flash of white. Pale skin. Closed eyes.

Billy.

Not just words in a file. Not just spoken lies and uncovered truths. A living, breathing member of his team.

At least, Michael hoped he was living and breathing.

The weight of the creature was sizable and Billy was trapped, almost engulfed by the skin and muscle mass. There was no sign of movement -- no sign of life--

Michael could be too late.

Except, Michael wasn’t a quitter. When he committed to something, he didn’t stop until it was done. He’d tackled the mystery of Billy’s past with unfettered tenacity. He’d gone through with the reveal without holding anything back.

Now, he would get Billy out of this. He’d get his team out of this.

No matter what.

-o-

Gritting his teeth, Michael forgot about the fact that his ankle was sprained. He didn’t think about his bruised ribs or his jarred shoulder. He didn’t even think about the fact that this was actually a creature from another time. He spared no thought for the fact that Billy was a liar.

He just lifted.

He was no human weapon, but he wasn’t a weakling by any stretch of the imagination. When he bared down, he used all his weight to hoist the creature upward. He grunted, straining his back, and the muscles shifted, the skin giving way but to no real avail.

Exhausted, the creature slumped back and Michael felt himself bowing in defeat.

He couldn’t do it.

There were footfalls, though. And Rick asking, “Hey, you found him?”

Michael couldn’t do it. Alone.

With his team...

Determination renewed, he nodded. “He’s under here,” he said, leaning down to lift again. “I need--”

Help, but he didn’t have to ask for it. Rick was already there, helping him lift. Together, they struggled, moving the creature more than before, lifting far enough to see the length of Billy’s body, intact but still under the massive weight.

“If we could get under there,” Michael said, arms burning as they put the body down again. “We could--”

“I’ll lift with you,” Casey interjected, needing no further instruction. “Rick, you pull--”

They didn’t count it off, but Michael and Casey lifted together. This time, with Casey’s added strength, the cleared more space between the ground and the corpse and Rick slid under, reaching out and hooking his hands under Billy’s armpits. Michael heaved just a bit more, getting better leverage as Rick yanked, dragging the unconscious man out from under the suffocating weight.

When Billy’s feet had cleared, Michael and Casey let go, and the dead weight shuddered as it collapsed back to the soiled earth.

Michael didn’t hesitate, he turned, moving toward Billy. Rick was leaning on the other side, and when he looked up, his expression was grim.

Looking down, Michael could see why.

Billy was covered in blood. The gore was spread across his shirt, staining his hands and soaking his pants. With his pale face and his flaccid form, he looked dead.

In all this, Michael had been looking for a fight. Billy had been looking to get the job done. In the end, he’d let Michael win.

He’d surrendered.

And now, Michael feared, it might actually be too late.

Sometimes the big picture wasn’t all that Michael thought it was cracked up to be. Sometimes the truth didn’t help anyone.

Sometimes--

Billy shifted, his brow furrowing. Rick nearly yelped in giddy surprise, and even Casey seemed to visibly relax. Michael could only stand there, still frozen as he watched.

Slowly, Billy moved, curling in slightly as his eyelids started to flutter. Rick was right there, hands on his shoulders, coaxing him awake. Even Casey dropped down, a steady hand on the bloody shoulder as Billy came to.

There was a second of disorientation visible in the other man’s eyes. He seemed confused when he looked at Rick, surprised when he looked at Casey, and they could only smile.

Then, his eyes settled on Michael.

Michael hadn’t listened before, but he was listening now.

But Billy’s jaw worked. After a long moment, he asked, “Is it dead?”

Michael’s body went numb, his head feeling light. He nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good,” Billy said. He staggered, getting to his feet.

“Hey,” Rick protested. “You’re hurt.”

“I’m fine,” Billy replied shortly.

“But the blood--” Rick said.

Casey gave him a critical look. “The creature?”

On his feet, Billy looked down. “Most of it,” he said, grimacing slightly. He took a step, wavering slightly, but shaking off Rick’s hands as he moved toward the creature again. “We’ll want to call for backup to transport this out.”

Michael followed him, a step behind.

“We’ll always want a unit to clean and contain the area,” Billy continued, without missing a beat. “It’s unlikely, but any cross-contamination--”

Michael reached out, snagging Billy by the arm and turning him so they faced each other.

Billy’s face was surprised for a second, then blank once more, the question implicit in his eyes.

“That’s it?” Michael said. “That’s all you have to say?”

Billy looked back at him, unblinking. “Seems like we’ve said everything else,” he said, voice even and steady. Then he pulled away, extracting his arm from Michael’s grasp. “Now, does anyone still have a radio?”

Michael let him go. It seemed wrong, but he had no cause to hold him. After everything, Michael had no right to it anyway.

And really, maybe Billy was right. Michael had said everything he had to say. He’d had his choice; he’d made it.

There were no more accusations. There were no defenses.

Maybe there was nothing left at all.

Comments

Posted by: kristen_mara (kristen_mara)
Posted at: January 12th, 2013 08:32 am (UTC)
Old Fashioned Stephen


Ahhhh, boys!!!!!!!!!

Michael does need to pick his times better...

Eeek the fall out has me rivitted. Poor Stephen can't catch a break, no matter what life he's living.


Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: February 3rd, 2013 01:41 pm (UTC)
stephen cutter distance

This really did become a retake of the Stephen/Cutter S2 fallout...hopefully with a better ending!

Thanks :)

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