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Chaos/Primeval: Absolute Truths (4/4)

December 22nd, 2012 (06:34 am)
ecstatic

feeling: ecstatic

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR



PART FOUR

This time, when Billy took charge, Michael offered no resistance. He let the other man call in for backup, let him organize the recovery of the corpse, and fell easily into line while they all took the transport back to camp. Michael expected a debriefing, but the commander seemed so preoccupied with the massive predator corpse to press the issue for the time being. After all, Michael and his team weren’t really here. There would be no paperwork to finish.

As it was, Billy was preoccupied with orchestrating the transfer of the animal, talking with the military staff about what to do with the live prey they’d caught earlier and how to handle the transfer of the corpse to an offsite location for further study. He seemed to know what he was doing, and he certainly didn’t seem intent on asking Michael for help, so this time, Michael gave him the space without complaint.

Eventually, Michael would have to call Higgins, but he had had his priorities checked seriously on this mission. It wasn’t just the mission that needed to be finished -- it was his team.

So Michael didn’t hesitate to flag down the medic, directing him toward his team. Casey didn’t look thrilled but he didn’t resist when the medic shone the penlight into his eyes, palpating the gash in his forehead, concluding that he probably didn’t have a concussion, but that he still might want to take it easy. Some stitches were optional, a hospital might insist on them but the medic would let it slide if Casey wanted.

“And let you butcher me?” Casey asked with a snort when the medic had offered to do the procedure. “No thanks.”

The medic seemed nonplussed. “You might want some painkiller, too,” the medic said. “Looks like you’re going to have a killer headache.”

At this, Casey glared. “You think?”

The medic had already moved toward Rick, lifting the younger man’s shirt with a frown, running his hands up Rick’s ribcage. “Just bruising,” he said, noting the massive welt forming over Rick’s solar plexus. “Knocked you a good one, though, huh?”

Rick winced, pulling his shirt back down self consciously. “Yeah,” he said, cheeks flushing a little. “Never quite lost consciousness, though.”

The medic nodded, offering Rick a smile. “Ibuprofen should take the edge off.”

Rick inclined his head in tacit understanding.

Back on his feet, the medic came back to Michael. “What about you?”

Michael waved a hand through the air. “I’m fine.”

The medic lifted his brows, kneeling on the ground in front of where Michael was perched.

“Just a little sore,” Michael continued with an exasperated sigh. “It’s nothing--”

But then the medic touched his ankle and Michael hissed involuntarily with pain. Looking up, the medic didn’t try to hide how smug he looked. “You were saying?”

Michael gritted his teeth while the medic rotated it, feeling the puffy flesh through Michael’s sock. “Just a sprain,” he said.

After a moment, the medic let go and stood up. “You’re not a doctor, but I think you’re right. For the pain--”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Painkiller, I get it,” he said.

The medic smiled. “Great. Looks like your team is good to go.”

“Wait,” Michael said, glancing toward Billy again, meaningfully this time. “That’s not all of us.”

-o-

Contrary to appearances, Billy had always been a hard worker -- when hard work was warranted. True, he fiddled around the office and was prone to spacing off during briefings, but when the task at hand was pressing, Billy had self discipline that rivalled Casey’s. Michael had always known this, but it had never been like this.

Watching Billy work was something else. The steadiness of his decisions, the weight of his considerations -- Billy usually hid such things with a quick smile, but now, he seemed too tired to try.

Or maybe he’d just run out of people to try to fool.

Or maybe Billy had just stopped caring.

Whatever the case, it was becoming increasingly clear to Michael that Billy would work until there was nothing left for him to do, even at the detriment of his own health and emotional well being. Michael wasn’t sure they were ready to address the emotional fallout of this mission, but the physical ramifications were things that he couldn’t let slide. As team leader, it was still his responsibility.

Plus, it wasn’t clear to Michael if Billy was okay at all. Michael had always prided himself on being able to read Billy. He could tell when the other man was worried or tired. He could usually see when he was nursing an injury. But stripped of his emotions, Billy worked like an automaton that defied his grisly appearance.

So Billy could be okay. Or he could be so hyped up on adrenaline that he had no idea he was about to crash. Michael had let enough things slide. He wouldn’t let this be one of them.

Still, Billy protested when Michael dragged him aside.

“I told you,” he said, huffing as he was sat onto a cot in the medical tent. “I’m fine.”

The medic set to work immediately, scrunching his nose in obvious concern as he picked at the sodden clothes Billy was wearing.

“Most of it isn’t mine,” he reiterated, giving the medic a perturbed look as he peeled away the shirt.

It was hard to see with the drying and congealed blood, but the medic seemed taken aback by the scars on Billy’s stomach. Michael had seen them before -- just a few times, though -- and the medic, at least, was a professional as he turned his attention to the actual wounds.

“No, but he was crushed underneath the creature,” Michael said.

Billy’s face darkened but he didn’t deny it.

Wincing, the medic fingered a series of gashes in Billy’s side. “Did it try to take a bite out of you?” he asked.

Billy looked down, as if seeing the wounds for the first time. “Well we were trying to kill it,” he said. “What would you expect?”

Michael frowned, tilting his head to get a better look.

The medic looked concerned, using his hands to feel Billy’s ribs now. When Billy gasped audibly, the medic made another face. “You’ve cracked a few ribs,” he said, moving over to the other side. “Make that a lot of ribs. How are you even moving?”

“It’s not so bad,” Billy said, but his posture had stiffened, his jaw hardening.

The medic looked more than a little dubious. “I’m not clearing you to leave here without knowing you’ll go get an x-ray,” he said. “A few of these could be breaks.”

“Fine,” Billy said, trying to get up. “I’ll get an x-ray--”

The medic put a hand on his shoulder, keeping him in place. “That’s just for the ribs,” he said. “We have to clean and irrigate those wounds. And I’m pretty sure you’re going to need some stitches.”

Billy sighed. “Can it wait?”

“You were bitten by a prehistoric predator,” the medic said. “The rules on biting are pretty clear. You have to clean the wounds really well or the risk of infection is really high. That’s just for modern creatures. Who knows what could be lurking in the mouth of that thing? Do you really want to take that chance?”

The question was simple, but Michael realized it was easy to make it so very complicated. Michael had taken chances, too many on this mission. He’d gambled, aired all of Billy’s dirty laundry, and nearly lost his entire team. He wouldn’t take any more stupid risks on this mission.

“He’s staying,” Michael said, inching forward just enough. “We’ll make sure of it.”

Billy glanced up at him, surprised.

Michael’s heart skipped a beat and he swallowed convulsively. “We have to stick this one through, Collins,” he said. “It’s all we have left.”

For a moment, Billy only stared at him. “You think?” he asked.

“Sure,” Michael said. “I mean--”

Billy shook his head. “No, really,” he said, a bit stronger now. “Do you really think we have that left?”

“We’re a team--” Michael began.

Billy shook his head. “Billy Collins was your team,” he said. “We all know now that that’s not the case.”

The medic looked uncertain, glancing up at Michael for help. Michael had no help to give, though, his cheeks flushing as he stood with his feet frozen on the ground. Behind him, Casey and Rick were equally stiff, no one daring to move, no one daring to speak.

Billy’s breathing hitched just slightly. “You said it yourself,” he continued. “I’m Stephen Hart, and I reckon it’s about time I claim that.”

Michael worked his jaw. “Billy--”

Stephen,” Billy corrected.

“Come on,” Michael cajoled, a little desperately now. “This isn’t the time--”

“I’ve told myself that for years,” Billy said. “It didn’t get me very far. You know most of it now, anyway; I might as well tell you the rest.”

Part of Michael wanted to protest, wanted to say that wasn’t the point, but maybe it was. This was what he’d wanted, this was why he’d tracked down Billy’s file, why he’d dragged out all the details for the entire team to hear.

Billy took a purposeful, restrained breath. From the emotion or the pain, Michael couldn’t tell. “I was young and indecisive in school,” he said. “I could have done anything, and I wasn’t ready to make a commitment. That was okay, I thought. That was what being young was all about. And then I took an Evolutionary Biology course. The course itself didn’t matter much, but Helen Cutter was the most impassioned teacher I’d ever met.”

That sounded a little like Billy; indecisive and flitting from one thing to the next. Falling hard for attractive women was another facet of his personality that had carried through.

“I’m sure it says in the file that I had an affair with her, but it’s leaving out all the best parts,” he said. “It’s leaving out how she put me on the fast track to graduate, how she helped me write all my papers. It’s leaving out how I graded all her tests and knew her schedule better than she did. By the time she kissed me, I’d already been besotted for months, all of the conventions be damned.”

That was different, anyway. Billy held his heart close; it seemed now he knew why.

“It was wrong, though, and I was young and stupid but I still knew better.” Billy’s face twisted, a little bitterly. “When I tried to break it off, she stopped talking to me. Then, she disappeared. I was going to quit -- that’s probably not in the file -- if Helen Cutter is the hardest person in the world to walk away from, Nick Cutter is the second most. He was a worse teacher than Helen, but a much better friend. I can’t tell you how many times I started to tell him, but the truth seemed like it didn’t matter.”

Michael’s stomach churned.

Billy’s smile turned sad. “But the truth always matters, doesn’t it?” he said. “And it never stays hidden, aye?”

Michael’s cheeks burned.

“Helen wasn’t dead, and when she showed up, she outed me,” he said. “Nick might have forgiven me if I’d told him on my own, but coming from her, it was too much. He said we could get over it, but we couldn’t. And the truth also changes everything. It rips apart friendships, undermines teams. What we had at the ARC -- it had been slipshod but it’d worked. It worked. Until my damn secret starting tearing everything apart.”

The facts had been in the file, and the insinuation had been clear. But it hadn’t spoken to the regret, the alienation. The loss.

Billy swallowed, his voice sounding strained. “I had made a lot of mistakes, and I wanted to start fixing things. I thought the truth could set me free, as it were, so when Helen came back promising answers where everyone else promised lies, I thought it might be worth it.” His smile was rueful. “I thought since I wasn’t so young, I might not be so stupid, but I was wrong. Stupidity, clearly, knows no age. I didn’t trust Helen, but I thought she might have a point. I’m sure the file was pretty clear in all the ways I was wrong.”

Michael’s chest hurt now, and he shook his head. “Billy--”

Billy just shook his head, his eyes gleaming. “You wanted the truth, Michael,” he said. His eyes flicked to Casey and Rick. “You all deserve the truth.”

There was a painful, pregnant pause.

“When I finally learned the truth -- when I finally realized what Helen was doing, what my team had been keeping from me -- I knew I had to make it right,” he continued, voice thick and heavy. “Such things all sound well and good, but when you’re talking about deadly prehistoric creatures, it’s not so easy.”

The file had told Michael most of the details, but some had been omitted even from the start. Michael knew about Helen’s infiltration of the ARC, Leek’s betrayal. He knew that the entire project had nearly been destroyed and that people had died because of it. He knew that Stephen had been implicated for his complicity, even against his will.

Then, the file had been blank. It was almost a year later when Stephen Hart had been given a deal and been shipped off to the United States. Stephen Hart was given a gravestone; Billy Collins was given a second chance.

Billy’s grimaced, almost as if to hold back a bout of nausea. “There were creatures, you see, worse than the bloke you met earlier,” he said. “They were going to get out into London unless we closed a door that locked from the inside.”

It took a moment, but the implications started to settle over Michael.

“There were three of us there,” Billy said, and he looked down now at his hands. “Nick volunteered, and Helen would never do it. I--” His voice cut off, strangled. He took a few ragged breaths. “I figured if anyone deserved to die, it was me.” He looked up, face blank again. “I had nothing left to lose, no way of earning it back. The ARC thought it was a heroic act apparently, but to me it was nothing except suicide by predator.”

The revelation was stark. Unguarded as it was, Michael realized that the facts could never do it justice. The facts could never capture it; the truth was subject to the emotions of the people living it. Michael had been so angry about what had been kept from him that he never stopped to think about why it had been a secret in the first place. That it wasn’t just national secrets and disclosure agreements. He’d always known Billy carried scars -- even though he tried to hide them as much as possible -- but he’d never realized just how deep they went.

Everyone was entirely still. Rick and Casey and the poor, confused medic; and Michael too numb to even see them anymore. Billy’s eyes burned, locked with his.

“I died on that mission,” Billy continued, the words fraught with more emotions that Michael could place. “I still remember every rip, every bite until one of the bloody things finally slashed my heart.”

The image made Michael physically ill, but he couldn’t even move to cope with his nausea.

Now, Billy looked down again, suddenly smaller somehow. His shoulders were low -- defeated -- and his posture sagged. “I still don’t know how or why I came back,” he said. “I showed up through an anomaly, and the ARC can only assume it was Helen’s doing.” Billy sighed. “Maybe she loved me after all; maybe she just had plans. Maybe the whole damn universe just has a wicked sense of justice.”

When Billy looked up again, he looked spent and wrecked. There was none of Billy’s suave charisma, none of his effusive personality. He was just a tired, broken man. Maybe he had been all along, and Michael had been so busy being mad about the secrets to see the toll they’d taken on Billy.

Billy’s mouth twisted into a pained smile. “Everyone was glad I was back, because death has a funny way of making things seem different. They were glad, but I didn’t fit in. When they offered me a way out, I took it because I didn’t have anything else and I’d bothered them enough as it was,” he said. He let out an agonized breath. “And there was nothing to stay for. Because I betrayed my best friend, almost destroyed my country, and I still got a second chance when my best friend died before I could tell him the truth.”

Michael felt his heart stutter.

“Nick had already died,” Billy told him, the name cracking. “When I was finally ready to tell the whole, bloody truth, it was too late. The truth didn’t matter after all. I was never going to make it up to him, so I didn’t even try. I took the ARC’s well wishes, and came here. I memorized the file, made up the details, and forgot everything that had made me who I was. I laughed and I smiled and I told damn stupid stories because I didn’t know what else to do. I needed to be the opposite of who I was before if I was going to survive at all. I needed to create a new person because Stephen Hart’s body came back from the dead but his soul was still dead. He had to be dead. Otherwise it’d be too much -- the predators, Helen, Nick, all of it -- it would be too much.

By the time Billy finished, his breathing was visibly strained, chest hitching in painful gasps. His eyes were full, his entire body trembling. The truth had stripped him of everything, and the man who sat in front of Michael was vulnerable and hurt.

Michael had wanted Billy to pay. He’d wanted to hurt Billy back in the woods. But this...

Michael didn’t want this. This didn’t make anything better.

Yet, now that he had all the facts, now that he had the big picture, Michael didn’t know what to do. Michael just didn’t know anything.

Except that he’d been as right as he was wrong about Billy. Except that his team was broken and a lot of that was his fault. Except he wanted to make it better -- and he didn’t know how.

Swallowing painfully, Michael forced himself to breathe. “Billy--”

Billy shook his head, a small sound in the back of his throat. “I didn’t tell you the truth for comfort,” he said.

Rick came up behind Michael. “It doesn’t matter--”

Billy laughed, the noise almost hysterical. “Yes,” he cried. “Yes, it really does. If it didn’t, would we be here?”

“Mistakes are inherent--” Casey started.

“No,” Billy said, raising his hand, his emotions rising again. “No. You know the facts now, but you don’t know me. Now, more than ever, you don’t know me. So go call Higgins, go file the paperwork, just go.

“Come on,” Michael said, reaching out.

But Billy jerked away. He got to his feet hastily, the movement nearly knocking the medic over while Billy wavered precariously on his feet. “I don’t want your pity,” he seethed.

“Billy--”

“No!” Billy snapped, tilting now and the medic reached out to steady him. Billy tried to pull away, flailing at the contact, and only proceeded to fumble, stumbling back into a cabinet and hissing with pain.

“Look,” the medic said, positioning himself between Billy and the others. “He needs to be treated. So maybe this isn’t the time.”

Michael looked at Billy, curled defensively in on himself. He’d shut down again, mouth pressed together tightly, blue eyes clouded and guarded. His entire disposition was shielded and suddenly introverted, and he looked like a desperate prey backed into a corner.

Which made Michael the predator.

He sighed, wetting his lips and nodding. “Yeah,” he said. His eyes settled on Billy, who steadfastly refused to make eye contact. “We’ll be right outside.”

The medic smiled gratefully, but Billy gave no indication that he’d heard Michael at all. Michael lingered, but finally turned, jerking his head to Rick and Casey, who looked ready to protest. Michael just shook his head and kept walking.

No matter how much he wanted to, Michael forced himself not to look back.

-o-

Outside, the night was giving way to dawn. Michael hadn’t realized how much time had passed, but as the dark started to recede, he began to feel the weight of this mission deep in his bones. From the moment he’d gotten the call from Higgins to everything that followed -- it seemed like a lifetime ago.

A better lifetime.

Here, in the pale yellow dawn, everything was different. The anomaly still twinkled, splinters of light encasing the glowing opening. Soldiers milled around, their guns ready as a team prepared to move the herbivore they’d caught earlier. The carcass had been moved onto a covered flatbed, and there were hurried efforts to fit the body in a way that would preserve it and still keep it hidden from sight.

This was top secret, after all. The biggest secret Michael would probably ever keep -- paired with the greatest truth he’d ever had cruelly shown to him.

Next to him, Rick was moving gingerly, and he breathed heavily. “Of all the things I thought I’d do in my time as a CIA agent, this wasn’t one of them,” he admitted.

“One secret is the same as the next,” Casey said, coming up on Michael’s other side.

Michael’s chest ached. He watched as the guards rotated around the anomaly; watched as someone moved the remote control buggy to take the prey back through. “You think so?” he asked, the words thin through his tight throat.

“Truth is a commodity,” Casey said dryly. “I only crave it because of the power it gives me. The fact is, once we have it, it rarely means what we think it does.”

Rick’s brow was furrowed, but he nodded. “I think you’re right,” he said.

“Of course I am,” Casey replied.

Rick shook his head. “No, I mean, think about it. All this--” He nodded to the scene. “It may change science textbooks and working theories, but the day to day stuff -- it’s not so much. And Billy--”

The words trailed off, and Martinez looked down.

Michael found himself going stiff again. “And Billy,” he agreed.

“I had no idea,” Rick said, fumbling a little bit for the words. “I mean, not just that he knew all this, but what he went through. That he--”

Died. That he made mistakes and paid for them with his life. That he’d been ripped apart and put together like a puzzle with a few pieces still missing.

Maybe that justified the lie; maybe it didn’t. It was hard to trust someone who kept so much hidden, but if the situation had been reversed, if it were Michael’s secrets--

They weren’t, though. Michael hadn’t made those mistakes and he hadn’t kept those secrets. He’d simply judged Billy and cut him off for them.

“I don’t know,” Michael continued finally, filling the silence between them awkwardly. “The truth may change a few things. More than we want it, too.”

“Only if we let it,” Casey said.

Michael turned, looked at the older operative. “It doesn’t bother you?”

Casey made a face. “You mean that Billy didn’t tell us the truth about his past?”

“That he lied about being MI6,” Michael said. “Even with all he’s been through, I think that has to change this team.”

“Why?” Casey asked, sounding genuinely perplexed.

“Because how can we trust him,” Michael said. “Hell, with what he just told us now, there’s no way in the world he should have passed a psych evaluation. He basically survived a suicide attempt--”

Casey sighed. “Has he screwed up on missions? Yes. Has he been annoying and difficult and generally a pain in the ass? Every day. But is he a good operative? I will have to begrudgingly say yes.”

“I never would have thought it, either,” Rick admitted. “I mean, when I first showed up, I thought he was a joke. I thought there was no way he could actually be anything resembling a spy. But that’s part of what makes him so good. He’s not what you expect, and maybe that’s the point.”

Maybe that was the point. Michael had lost the point on this mission. Between the revelations and the anger and the nearly getting ripped apart by dinosaurs -- Michael was still trying to find the point.

“I wish it were that simple,” Michael said, chewing his lip. He laughed. “I wish I had never seen his damn file at all.”

“But you saw it in the beginning,” Casey pointed out. “We both did.”

“No, we saw a redacted file with everything but his name and MI6 blacked out,” Michael countered.

“Exactly,” Casey said. “And we still took him on.”

Because the ODS sought the truth, but rarely did the make decisions about it. Michael planned and processed and implemented, and let someone else deal with the consequences. He didn’t decide where to make treaties and when to cut ties. He created a world of truth and lies; someone else dealt with the consequences.

But not this time.

Not with anomalies and prehistoric creatures and Billy Collins...

Stephen Hart.

Whoever he was, he was still Michael’s fourth man. His teammates, his carpool mate, his friend. A brother in arms. Michael had never needed the truth in that, not when the day to day said enough.

Even with everything, Billy had saved his life. He’d saved his team.

Now, maybe, it was time for Michael to do the same.

-o-

Even if rifts in time didn’t end up being as earth-shattering as one might as expect, they were pretty labor intensive. Before Michael had the chance to deal with any more of the emotional fallout, he was quickly ushered into a tent and put on the line with Higgins while Rick and Casey were immediately given paperwork to start filling out.

By the time Michael was done, he’d talked with Higgins, a member of the State Department, the Vice President and several other people he was sure had a much higher clearance level than he did. He was so exhausted that he barely had time to argue when he was driven back to the airstrip and put back on a plane. Casey and Rick were already there, strapped in and ready to go. When he asked where Billy was, one of the pilots said he’d probably gone home on an earlier flight.

That wasn’t the answer Michael wanted, but then, he was getting pretty used to that on this mission. Ultimately, he was too tired to fight it -- too tired to do anything. As soon as they were airborne, he nodded off to sleep.

The flight was short, but Michael’s dreams were fraught. Of anomalies, of the past. How the truth could come out roaring, ready to devour them all. The thing was, it didn’t belong there. It belonged in the past, and Michael worked and he shoved and he labored but he couldn’t fit it through. The anomaly started to fade, started to dim, and Michael moved faster but to no avail.

And when it blinked out entirely, Michael was left with a truth too big to ignore.

Staring at it, it was an awkward and inconvenient thing, but he thought, maybe he could make it work.

He startled awake when they touched down, blinking blearily in the daylight.

At any rate, Michael had to think it was worth trying.

-o-

The last thing Michael wanted to do was to go back to work. And if it were just for the briefings and the meetings and the paperwork, he probably wouldn’t have bothered and just gone home and slept and dared Higgins to call him on it.

But...as comfortable as his bed was, as much beer as he had in his fridge, that wasn’t what he needed. He wouldn’t be able to enjoy any of it anyway until he made things right.

So when he they disembarked, Michael asked for a ride back to Langley. He looked to Casey and Rick, sitting next to him.

“You can go home, if you want,” he said.

“That would assume that I’d tell you where I live,” Casey said.

Rick was resolute. “You’re going to find Billy, right?”

“That was sort of the plan,” Michael admitted.

Weary and bruised as he was, Rick still smiled. “That’s the best one you’ve come up with yet.”

A tight smile on his lips, Michael just hoped he didn’t prove Rick wrong.

-o-

When they got there, it was late afternoon. Michael hurried through security, keeping his pace steady but fast as he moved through the halls. As he neared the ODS office, his heart started to beat faster, the palms of his hands starting to sweat. He wasn’t much better with emotions than Casey was, and yet he was pretty sure that some actual honest feelings would be needed to resolve this.

It wasn’t what he wanted to do. But considering he’d done what he wanted and made things worse, he was ready to do what was needed.

Bolstering his courage, he took a breath, squared his shoulders and opened the door.

To an empty office.

Behind him, Casey and Rick moved in, Rick almost shoving Michael aside. “Is he...,” he trailed off with a frown. “He’s not here?”

He wasn’t. There was no sign of Billy. His desk looked untouched, the messy piles still askew on the floor even with the painfully neat stacks arranged on top.

The stark juxtaposition had seemed unsettling before, but it made sense now. The top of the desk was probably Stephen; the mess on the floor was Billy. They seemed so different, but they were the same.

And at this point, Michael would settle on finding either of them.

Casey grunted, moving past them for his desk. “He was probably smart and went home,” he grumbled, sitting heavily in his chair.

“He did look pretty tired,” Rick agreed reluctantly.

That was true, and on any other mission, Michael might believe it. But there was doubt niggling at the bottom of his gut, and he’d let too many other things go unchecked to let this one pass.

“Rick, call his hotel,” he said. “Casey, try his cell. If you don’t get him on the line, keep calling until he picks up.”

“Since I don’t have anything else to do,” Casey groused.

Michael didn’t stop, though. He nodded to Rick. “If either of you hear anything--”

“We’ll let you know,” Rick promised. “But where are you going?”

Michael’s stomach flipped a little. “Just making sure he’s not someplace in the Agency,” he said. “You know how Billy is. He likes to roam.”

Rick looked dubious, but he nodded, and Michael didn’t stay for questions. Because Billy did like to roam, but that wasn’t why Michael was worried. He’d seen the look in Billy’s eyes last night. He’d see the raw hurt, the broken admission. Billy had given up all his secrets--

Billy had given up.

So if Billy wasn’t in the office; if he wasn’t at home--

There was only one other place Michael could think of. He hoped he was wrong. But really, he just hoped he wasn’t too late.

-o-

There had been a lot of times in Michael’s career when time was of the essence. Planning could take weeks and years, but execution usually had a slim window of opportunity. Michael knew when to put in the extra effort.

But never like this.

He didn’t run -- running in the halls was discouraged in places where national security was determined, apparently it made people nervous -- but he moved with a single-mindedness that nearly eclipsed all other rational thought. He may have glared at Blanke; he may have knocked over one of the new tech guys; he may have even willingly walked past a party in the break room; he didn’t care.

When he got to Higgins’ office, he didn’t stop to ask for an appointment. He didn’t stop at all. He walked right up to the door until the smarmy assistance came squawking up after him. “You can’t go in there?”

Michael pulled up short as the man literally threw himself in the way, using his body to shield the doorknob. “I think I can,” he said.

“No, you can’t,” the assistant said, inhaling deeply, hands fluttering uselessly at his suit jacket as he appeared to gather his wits.

“I just completed a mission so secret that not even you, in your pencil pushing curiosity, have been made privy to,” he said, looming a bit. “I think I can go in if I damn well want to.”

The assistant’s eyes went wide and he seemed to shrink. But still, he shook his head. “I know,” he squeaked. He cleared his throat. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. The Director got called into the White House this morning for a private briefing with the President.”

Michael stopped, cocking his head. “He’s not here?”

The man shook his head. “Hasn’t been all morning. He’s been handling details on his cell, but even that has been off since noon.”

“So he hasn’t had any meetings here, then?” Michael prompted.

“Everything was cleared.”

“No walk-ins?” Michael asked.

The man sighed with a melodramatic flair. “He got called in by the President!”

“So that’s a no?”

The man looked positively apoplectic. Normally, Michael might play with that a bit, but he had just spent the last day tracking dinosaurs through the woods. He was tired.

Plus, he had more pressing issues.

Without a word, he turned, moving back out.

“Hey,” the man called after him. “Did you want to make an appointment?”

Michael rolled his eyes, moving ahead and into the hall where he almost ran into someone.

Focused as he was, Michael was set to keep on walking. But then he saw that it was Fay.

“Hey,” he said, a little surprised.

“Hey,” she said back, sounding just as surprised. “Didn’t expect to see you guys in today.”

Michael shrugged. “It’s the job.”

“Yeah, but I heard you guys had a top secret mission,” she said. She quirked an eyebrow. “I have to admit, I’m intrigued. There aren’t even any hints about this one, and usually I can pick up something good on the grapevine.”

She was being friendly for once -- downright amenable. There was almost something flirtatious going on.

And Michael didn’t have the time -- much less the energy. “Yeah, well,” he said. “It was...intense.”

“I’ll bet,” she said. Then her face got serious. “I heard about Billy.”

Michael almost startled. “About Billy?” he asked, going over the possibilities. Maybe getting Billy’s file had been a bad idea; maybe his source hadn’t been so confidential, maybe the medic had talked, maybe--

“His resignation,” Fay said, sounding apologetic now.

This time, Michael was pretty sure his heart did stop, the blood draining from his face and his head going light.

Her eyes widened. “He didn’t tell you,” she realized.

Michael felt himself start to tremble, so he pressed his lips together and forced himself to breathe through his nose for a moment. “Did he say why?”

“No,” she said. “He didn’t say anything. He tried to get in to see Higgins and was about to be arrested for making a scene when I came by. He looked like hell -- bruised and bloody and dirty -- but he calmed down long enough to give me his letter.”

“What did it say?”

“Just that he quit,” Fay said, shrugging feebly. “Effective immediately. There was no reason, no long story, just simple and the point.”

Michael’s face contorted for a second before he regained control. “And did you ask why?”

“Michael, by the time I’d read the paragraph, he was gone,” she said. “What happened out there? He didn’t even act like Billy.

Because he wasn’t Billy. It wasn’t Billy Collins who had turned in his resignation -- it was Stephen Hart. And Michael had to change it.

“Look, whatever you do, do not give that letter to Higgins,” Michael said, turning to leave.

Fay shook her head. “Michael, I don’t understand--”

“Just hold the letter unless I tell you otherwise,” he said, starting to move faster down the hall.

“But where are you going?” Fay called after him.

Michael turned back, just for a moment. “To find my team.”

-o-

When Michael got to Billy’s place, he didn’t bother to knock. He’d had a key for a few years now, when Billy finally conceded that trying to keep Michael out if he wanted to get in was a moot point anyway. He hadn’t used it often, but when it had, it had been nothing short of an emergency.

Just like it was now.

He wasn’t sure what he expected. Maybe a deserted room, stripped bare and empty. Maybe a ransacked mess, with everything broken and tattered with the windows left open to the breeze.

Instead, there was Billy. He was at the couch, tossing a few items into his open suitcase. His back was to the door, and he paused, picking up a book. Flipping through the pages, he threw it in the trash.

Michael had no doubt Billy heard him, but the other man made no indication to acknowledge Michael’s presence. He kept packing, going through the stack of books, letting one after the other fall into the waste bin.

Finally, Michael stepped forward and let the door close. “Going somewhere?” he asked.

Billy didn’t flinch; didn’t turn. His fingers lingered over the open page of one of the books before he closed that one, too, letting it drop into the trash.

Michael took a shaky breath, moving a few steps forward. “Because it’s not like you to try spring cleaning.”

At that, Billy paused. He exhaled, turning back with the hint of a smile. “Jokes already?”

Michael shrugged. “Just trying to speak your language.”

Billy’s lips twisted wryly. “Billy Collins’ language, perhaps,” he said, turned back to his work. He threw another book -- a large anthology of Shakespeare -- into the trash.

“So should I call you Stephen now?” Michael pressed.

“Stephen is dead,” Billy replied, a little harsh. There was no trace of the Scottish accent now, just tired, weary words.

“And Billy?”

Billy hesitated that time. “Billy Collins doesn’t exist.”

Michael moved his way around the couch, coming until he was closer, until he could see Billy’s downcast face. He’d showered, so the blood was gone. The bandages were clear underneath his thin t-shirt. He was wearing jeans, and he seemed to have showered, with the blood and grime gone and his hair was still wet, skewed on top of his head.

“I don’t know,” Michael said. “Seems pretty real to me.”

Billy sighed, looking up and meeting Michael’s gaze plainly this time. “Let’s not do this.”

Michael’s brow crinkled. “Do what?”

“Pretend like things are like they used to be,” he said. “We can sit here and play nice. Maybe we can even make up, but we both know that things have changed too much to be like they were.”

Michael sighed. “Things may change, but that doesn’t mean--”

“Yes,” Billy said, cutting him off flatly. His voice was different, the accent subdued, his tone tired. “It does mean. It means that I don’t belong on this team anymore. It means that if I stay, I’ll just make things worse. It means that trust has been violated and we can say we forgive, but we’ll never forget.”

Michael’s self control started to erode, his insides twisting uncomfortably. This wasn’t his sort of thing. He didn’t know how to do this. At making amends; at giving second chances. At admitting that his anger was more about his hurt feelings than anything else.

Swallowing, he wet his lips. “I know things got kind of crazy last night--”

Billy gave him a look.

“Okay, really, crazy,” Michael amended self consciously. “But that doesn’t mean you have to quit.”

“You said you couldn’t trust me, Michael,” Billy replied, the words taking an edge now, the emotion coming out stronger. “You didn’t drag up my past because you thought it’d make for good storytelling. You wanted me gone. So I’m not going to be stupid enough to make the entire team suffer by staying.”

“Last night--” Michael cut off, frustrated. “Last night was just a lot of things, you know?”

“I do,” Billy replied. “We were too preoccupied to be bothered with pretenses. We all told the truth for the first time.”

“The truth?” Michael asked. “The truth is that I was pissed, okay? I was pissed and I was angry and I was hurt. You lied to me, Billy. You lied about everything. I thought I knew you, and I didn’t know anything at all.”

Billy paled, shuddering briefly, even though he didn’t try to stop Michael.

Michael took a step forward. “And maybe I had a right to feel that way -- maybe I didn’t. It’s just -- it’s going to take some time.”

Billy’s shoulders fell a little. “Time without me,” he said.

“No,” Michael countered, his annoyance flaring. “Just time.”

Billy shook his head, mouth turning up sardonically. “I’ve heard this before,” he said. “Hell, I’ve done this before. I’ve betrayed my best mate before. You know the story now. I haven’t learned from my own bloody mistakes. The first lie destroyed my life and got me killed. The second lie, and here I am. At least I’m mostly in one piece this time. And who knows? Maybe the third time’s a charm.” He bent over, pulling the flap shut on the suitcase. “I reckon the only good quality I have left is that I’m consistent. If I make a mistake once, I’ll make it again and again.”

The self loathing was evident; the regret almost hurt.

Michael sighed. “You can’t leave.”

Billy met his eyes again. “I have to.”

“Why, because you can’t face the truth?” Michael shot back. “You want to bail on us without giving us a chance.”

“If I stay, I’ll make things worse,” Billy said. “Trust me.”

“Not necessarily,” Michael said.

“I can’t be on a team that doesn’t trust me.”

“Well, we can’t have a team without you,” Michael returned. “Look, when things got crazy last night, we still came together. We still did what needed to be done. When you went down under that dinosaur -- when I thought you could be--” Michael’s voice cut off for a moment, and he swallowed the emotion back. “When I thought we might have lost you, I knew none of the rest mattered. The details -- they don’t matter. Who we are as a team -- that’s what matters.”

Billy was watching him, eyes locked and unblinking. He shook his head. “You say that,” he said. “And maybe you want to believe it--”

“And maybe it’s true,” Michael said. “We’ve both told our share of lies, Billy, but this one’s the truth. We don’t want you to leave.”

Billy worked his jaw, eyes filling precariously. “It’ll be different.”

Michael dared to take another step forward. “Sure,” Michael said. “And maybe different is better.”

Billy shook his head.

Michael took a breath and steeled himself. Because there was one last truth, one last revelation. It hadn’t mattered last night, but it mattered now.

It mattered more than anything.

“There was one more thing in the file,” Michael continued, softer now. Carefully.

This time, Billy did flinch, his entire body nearly crumbling as he struggled to hold his resolve.

Michael didn’t back down. “It was a note,” he said. “From Nick Cutter.”

Billy’s countenance quivered.

“Most of his account of the attack had been blacked out already, but the parts that were still there -- well, they told a different story.”

Billy didn’t move.

“I didn’t think about it much, because it didn’t fit with the bigger picture at the time, but I think it makes sense now,” he continued. “Cutter wrote about Stephen’s sacrifice. His commitment, his steadiness -- his friendship. He said Stephen Hart was a hero, who’d proved himself beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Billy’s head dropped forward, his body shuddering with a controlled sob.

“You talk about making the same mistakes, well you’re doing it now,” Michael said. “You’re accepting the end of a friendship when it doesn’t have to be. With Cutter, you never got the chance. You came back, and he was already gone. But if he’d been there -- if he’d still been there -- I know he’d want to make things right. I know he’d want to give things a second chance. This report -- it wasn’t written out of hate. It was written by someone who cared about you and who regretted how things ended up just as much as you did.”

Billy didn’t look up.

Michael sighed. “Don’t walk away from this a martyr, Billy,” he said. His own shoulders sagged, his exhaustion giving way to desperation. “Let’s not make the same mistakes again.”

Finally, Billy’s head lifted. His eyes were red, his cheeks wet, but when he met Michael’s eyes, there was a steadiness Michael had always recognized. It had always been there -- and Billy Collins or Stephen Hart -- it would always be there if Michael looked.

Billy nodded. “No,” he said. “I reckon maybe it’s time to make new ones.”

For a moment, Michael didn’t understand. But as comprehension dawned, the tension split and he laughed. “Okay,” he said. “That sounds like a good place to start.”

Epilogue

The fire raged and consumed, the flames licking at his skin and the smoke filling his nostrils. The blood on his hands was thick and cloying, and even with his eyes closed, he could smell it. Soaking. Burning. Death.

Then it was cold, stark and vast and empty and--

Pain, bright and dividing, and--

Movement, surreal and detached, and--

Light.

Blinking, his eyes were open. Blinking again, he saw trees. Somewhere, a squirrel skittered across a tree branch, shaking the leaves while a wispy wind flitted through the tree trunks. He breathed -- in and out -- surprised as the air filtered through his seemingly undamaged lungs. Looking down, there was no blood and the soot-covered clothes were gone, replaced by something cleaner. Jeans and a t-shirt he didn’t recognize.

He looked up. Because he did recognize this. The Forest of Dean.

And behind him, the glittery gateway, oscillating and refracting, the yawning light pulling at his back. The anomaly brightened, surging once before coming to a close in a spectacular burst of light that seemed to fold in on itself and disappear.

He waited -- for what, he wasn’t sure, but he didn’t know why he was here. He didn’t know how. He remembered the fire and the gunshot and the clone -- and the goodbye before things had slipped and his mind had lost tractions, drifting to other things, other people, other regrets...

He shuddered, drawing himself up and breathing again. Because he was alive. Somehow -- impossibly -- alive.

More than that, he realized, looking around the Forest of Dean with new wonder, Nick Cutter was home.

Comments

Posted by: blackdog_lz (blackdog_lz)
Posted at: December 26th, 2012 11:09 pm (UTC)
Stephen Anomaly

I absolutely love this crossover and the way you connected the two series.

Stephen and Billy are two vastly different characters and your reasoning why is wonderfully logical.

Also am amazed at the parallels you drew with the lies Billy/Stephen told and how Michael acted kinda like Nick in the moment everything was revealed and how Dorset didn't act like Nick when it counted.

And the end! You do know that now I kinda need a sequel, right?

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: January 1st, 2013 03:44 am (UTC)
stephen goodbye

I probably shouldn't have set up the sequel but once I got the notion in my head, I had to. It may be a while before I write it, though. I should try to get the prequel polished and posted sooner rather than later since I have that one written :)

And it is sort of a tricky mental leap to turn Stephen into Billy, so I'm glad you thought I pulled it off!

Thanks!

Posted by: Evil Insane Monkey (eviinsanemonkey)
Posted at: December 29th, 2012 09:00 pm (UTC)

This fic is so wonderfully brilliant! The way you connected the series is great, everything fits together so well. And Michael's reactions, and the team coming together, and the realization that it doesn't matter.

And Billy! ♥ and Stephen, of course.

And you know with that epilogue there needs to be a sequel, right?

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: January 1st, 2013 03:45 am (UTC)
stephen broken

Yeah, someday there will be a sequel. There will probably be a prequel first, though. Mostly I need more time!

I know it wasn't as crossover-y maybe as the prompt requested but I'm glad you still enjoyed it :)

Thanks!

Posted by: kristen_mara (kristen_mara)
Posted at: January 12th, 2013 08:59 am (UTC)
Blurred


*flails*

Yay for the epilogue!! And for Michael managing to convince Billy/Stephen to stay, that he does have a place after all.

The relevation of Nick's note on the report was so bittersweet...

I will wait patiently for the sequel *G*

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: February 3rd, 2013 01:40 pm (UTC)
billy watches

LOL, you will have to wait very patiently, I'm afraid.

Thank you for reading, though! Your enthusiasm always means a lot!

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