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Chaos fic: The Wisdom to Know the Difference (1/5)

November 29th, 2013 (06:24 am)

feeling: drained

Notes in the Master Post.



In truth, it’s a job well done. Michael’s used to taking on the hard cases, but this one has been especially trying. It’s required the long game from the start, and the choice to send in a man undercover is never one he takes lightly -- especially when months are involved. Initially, Michael had slated it to be a two-month operation, but it’d quickly spiraled to a five month gig.

Five months with Billy undercover, ingratiating himself to the worst and most notorious drug dealers in Central America. Five months of separating his team, reducing the rest to monitoring and support while Billy lived and breathed the world of drug trafficking.

Michael has to admit, he’s not sure who took it the worst. With the long term nature of the assignment, he had to rotate his men out, virtually reassigning Rick and Casey to other tasks back at Langley while he stayed and provided on the ground support for Billy. Rick angsted about that, calling in continually and finding excuses to make a trip overseas. Casey, though he wouldn’t admit it, was sullen and withdrawn, and Michael noticed the uptick in his casualty count during the interim.

And Michael didn’t exactly enjoy it. It’s a quiet, isolating life, playing handler to an undercover agent. It’s never a role he’s fancied for himself, but he does his due diligence. Because Billy’s the one undercover, but this is Michael’s mission. His choices matter. He dictates how long this lasts and when they pull the plug. The buck stops with him.

Ironically, Billy takes it best. He flourishes with a role to play, and it’s uncanny how naturally he fits in with criminal types. He smiles and charms, and he talks the talk. It doesn’t take long for him to get a good foothold, but the instant Billy starts relaying information back, it becomes clear they’ve underestimated the scope of the operation. It’s Billy who told him they had to keep going.

But it was Michael who approved it.

It was Michael who made the call.

It was Michael.

So no one is more relieved than him when the time is right. He’s damn grateful to organize the raid, and takes a personal interest in seeing every drug dealer arrested and questioned, charged with irrefutable evidence.

The team is congratulatory. Rick is beaming; Casey stands unusually close to Billy and tells him he’s pleasantly surprised that he didn’t screw it up. Billy grins back and says he’s no hero; he just did what had to be done.

Michael’s just glad it’s over.

After five months, it’s finally over.


It takes five months of relentless work. Five months that drag, that stretch on interminably. For all that, though, the operation ends fairly quickly. Although the ODS spearheaded the operation, the majority of the tactical maneuvers were performed by Navy SEALs in conjunction with the local authorities. For an operation this scale, there really hadn’t been another choice. Normally, Michael doesn’t like to give up control but he does appreciate being able to slip into the background when all the gunfire is over. As it is, it’s going to take a while to sort things out on the ground, which is why Michael can’t go far.

“Think of it as a working vacation,” Michael tells his team with a smirk when they finally are cleared by the military to leave the scene.

“You know, I always considered oxymorons to be an appropriate name,” Casey gripes, even as he lingers closer to Billy than normal. “You’re a moron for using them.”

Michael chuckles. “I know this is no Paris--”

“But there’s actually a lot of fascinating local sites,” Rick says, trying to be helpful. “I’ve always wanted to visit the Mayan ruins.”

“You don’t even need an oxymoron to sound stupid,” Casey snarks.

Rick glares. “Well, what are you going to do?”

Casey smiles, somewhat predatory. “I have a few contacts in the area,” he says. He shrugs coyly. “If we have a week, I may be able to get reacquainted.”

Rick’s brow is furrowed in apparent confusion, and it’s only then that Michael realizes that Billy is being uncharacteristically silent. The military had cleared them to leave, which had included a short visual confirmation that everyone appeared to be in good health. Billy would be given a thorough once-over back at Langley, both physically and psychologically, but it occurs to Michael that maybe there’s a more pressing need.

“How about you?” Michael asks, nudging the Scot gently.

Billy seems to take the cue, and smiles accordingly. It’s very typically Billy, and if he looks more weary than normal, Michael supposes he’s entitled that. “As fun as all that sounds, I think I’ve had enough of the local sites and people,” he says. “I may reacquaint myself with my normal clothes and a few books.”

“You sure?” Rick asks. “I’m pretty sure I could get us into some great places.”

“I may even be able to find a...friend for you,” Casey offers with an unusually magnanimous tone. Rick and Casey don’t want to say it out loud, but they’ve missed Billy.

Michael’s missed Billy, so he knows how they feel.

Yet, Billy’s the one who did the hard work on this one. If he wants to lay around in his hotel room and read, that’s his business.

Billy looks appropriately impressed. “I’m actually not sure I’d have the stamina for one of your friends,” Billy quips. And he looks at Rick earnestly. “And I promise, next time we’re in a country with fascinating cultural history, I will let you take me wherever you want.”

Rick looks a little disappointed, but he nods. “We could stay in with you,” he suggests. “Charge some pay per view movies to the hotel bill, eat a little room service.”

Billy chuckles fondly. “Lad, I’m right knackered,” he says. “Five months undercover -- I need five days to re-acclimate myself to, well, me.

Casey rolls his eyes. “Meaning I should savor this moment.”

Rick shoves him a little. “It’s good to have you back,” he says.

Billy smiles. “It’s good to be back,” he says, and he hesitates, looking unusually serious. “I...you have no idea.”

It’s honest, which is maybe why it catches Michael so off guard. In all the years he’s known Billy, the man has put up one front after another. The moments of raw emotion, of true Billy, are few and fleeting. It’s suddenly unsettling to realize he’s witnessing one now. That these five months were enough to strip Billy down, to take him apart, and what’s left--

He’s overthinking it.

Billy’s grin widens, and there’s the familiar mischievous gleam in his eyes. “I reckon taking a week off is as much for you as it is for me,” he says. “A week until you’re stuck with my singing, my paper airplanes, and my coffee cups in your car.” He winks. “I’ll make you think twice about pulling me out yet.”

Casey scoffs. “You already are.”

Rick laughs. “Never.” He pauses. “You sure we can’t do anything for you?”

Billy looks genuinely grateful. “You’ve done enough,” he says.

“In that case,” Casey announces. “I’m off.”

“Yeah,” Rick says with a reluctant shrug. “I guess I’ll let you get back to it.”

Billy nods. “I’m counting on pictures,” he says.

“Of course!” Rick says.

“I was talking about Casey,” Billy snarks.

Casey turns back with a smirk, even while Rick frowns. “You wish,” Casey says.

When they’re out of range, Billy sighs, seeming to deflate slightly. Michael nudges him again. “You sure you’re okay?” he asks, eyes narrowed as he looks at his teammate again. It’s not just the physical weariness; there’s something else. Something just off that Michael can’t place.

Billy gives him a long look. “I’ve been better,” he admits. “But nothing a little R&R won’t cure.”

“Do you want to stop by and see a doctor?” Michael suggests.

Billy shrugs. “I’ll be poked and prodded enough back at Langley,” he says. “I just want a bit of privacy.”

It’s not that Billy’s being unreasonable -- it’s just...Michael’s not sure what it is, but it is something. “You just don’t look great,” he finally says.

“I don’t reckon you’d be at your best after five months with a drug cartel,” Billy jokes. “But if it’s all the same, I do think I may be coming down with something. Terrible timing, I know.”

“The medics are still here,” Michael says, nodding back toward the military personnel patrolling the area.

“It’s a spot of the flu,” Billy says dismissively, even as he shifts restlessly from one foot to the other. “I’d much prefer to suffer in peace, if I could.”

Michael can’t begrudge him that. “You know where to find us. You’re not doing this on your own.”

“Aye,” Billy says, raising his hand to scratch the back of his neck. “I never have.”

“Come on,” Michael says.

Billy is ready to protest. “Michael--”

Michael rolls his eyes, clapping Billy on the shoulder. “I’ll give you a ride back to the hotel,” he says. “Unless you intended on walking.”

Billy flushes slightly, scratching at the back of his neck again. “I reckon I have missed carpooling.”

Michael grins. “I can’t say that I have.”

“Spoken like a true friend,” Billy says.

Michael inclines his head, starting toward his rental. “And don’t you forget it.”


The ride to the hotel is unusually quiet. Billy generally makes car rides go quickly, but Michael figures the Scot probably doesn’t want to talk shop after five months undercover. There’s no doubt Billy will have grand stories to tell, but Michael knows better. He’s the one who was Billy’s contact more often than not. He knows all the work Billy did -- the unglamorous, ethically questionable work. He knows the gut wrenching agony of making friends with lowlifes and learning how to profit off of death and addiction.

Billy will tell stories about grand heroics and humorous moments amid the drama. But for now, Billy needs to recuperate.

That’s what Michael tells himself, anyway, as he steals uncertain glances at his unusually reserved teammate. Billy had started out his stint undercover verbose and upbeat. He’d been the one who painstakingly cajole Michael’s spirits when he wanted to pull the plug. The last month had been different, though. He’d counted on Billy regaining his vigor when his cover was revoked.

He just needed time.

And space.

Which was why Michael promptly booked Billy his own room under a new alias.

“Here you go,” Michael says, handing him a key. “For now, you’re Jamie Randall, on vacation.”

Billy takes the key, smiling gratefully. “And good riddance Theodore Everett,” he says in reference to his undercover identity. “You will not be missed.”

“Well, just remember that we expect Billy Collins back at Langley in a week,” Michael reminds him.

Billy nods, lifting the key in the facsimile of a salute. “And Billy Collins you shall have in a week,” he pledges. “For now, however--”

“Yeah, yeah,” Michael says. “Be sure to call me if you need anything, Mr. Randall.”

Billy winks. “You know I will.”


And that should be that. Michael’s room is on the first floor and Billy’s is on two, so he sees the Scot to the elevator than trudges the familiar route to his own room. Inside, everything is how he left it -- his files and his surveillance equipment -- and he idly sets about taking it down.

It’s over, he has to remind him. This one is finally behind them.

Still, packing up five month’s worth of work is no small task. Michael is meticulous in his record keeping, which means things may be well organized but the paperwork is copious.

This is part of the job, though, and not even part that Michael hates. It’s closure.

It’s time to move on.

Michael feels like he should be relieved.

He’s not sure why he’s not.


Several hours later, his hotel room is almost immaculate. He’s shredded the extraneous paperwork and neatly filed the rest in a series of locked briefcases. He’s about ready to order some room service, when his phone chirps.

Curious, he pulls it out. Then he grins as he answers. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” Fay’s voice came on the other end. “I thought you were going to call.”

“Worried about me?”

Fay made a sound of contempt. “I need some of your confirmation numbers in order to continue processing the file.”

“If that’s what you need to tell yourself,” Michael says with a smirk.

He can’t see Fay, but he knows she’s rolling her eyes as she sighs. “Right,” she says. “I’m getting an earful from Higgins that you haven’t checked in yet.”

At that, Michael winces. “He’s unhappy?”

“Unhappy?” Fay asks with incredulity. “How could he be unhappy? The military says that it’s working well with local law enforcement and that charges are pending on nearly fifty people rounded up in the raid, including two of the most notorious drug criminals in Central America. Higgins is thrilled.”

“So why’s he bothering you?”

“Because he’s waiting for the other shoe to fall, I guess,” Fay says. “He’s convinced that there’s something you’re not telling him.”

“Well, I can honestly say that this went by the book,” Michael tells her, laying back on his bed and watching as the ceiling fan spun lazily above him. “Perfection.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell him,” she says. “I think he won’t believe it until he sees all of you back at Langley and has the chance to put you through a formal debrief.”

“Well, that sounds enticing,” Michael says sardonically.

“Seriously,” Fay says. “When do you think you’ll be back?”

“You that anxious to see me?”

“Michael,” Fay says, a hint of warning in her voice.

“Right, right,” Michael says. “We’re going to use the week to make sure everything is squared away.”

“A week?” Fay asks. “Isn’t that a little excessive?”

“A week,” Michael affirms. “Like you said, there’s nearly fifty suspects in lockup. If they’re going to finalize charges, we can help them out with that.”

“Surely you can do that remotely,” Fay says.

“You really do miss me.”

“Michael,” Fay says again, harsher now.

“This cost my team five months,” Michael tells her in all seriousness. “Give us a week.”

She hesitates, but Fay’s not as heartless as she wants to seem. She’s also not as clinically detached as she’d like people to believe. She cares about Michael; she cares about his team. She’s generally a good person -- the best.

“Fine,” she concedes. “But expect frequent calls from home.”

“I look forward to it,” Michael says with a grin.

“I’ll bet you are,” Fay muses. Then she pauses again. “Seriously, though. Good work on this one. You should be proud.”

“Yeah,” Michael agrees. “I should.”

As she hangs up, he can’t say for sure why he isn’t.


Michael sleeps on it. He’s got good instincts, but he’s also pretty aware that he’s a paranoid bastard, so sometimes he tries to rein it in. This seems like one of those times.

Except he doesn’t sleep all night. He stares at the ceiling and goes over everything.

He still remembers Billy, before all this started, saying it had to be him. “This is a role of finesse. Casey would be ill suited and Rick’s too green.”

“Hey!” Rick had objected.

“He’s right, Martinez,” Michael said. “You’re a no-go.”

“But I’m the only native speaker,” Rick protested.

“We’re pulling the foreign investor angle,” Michael reminded them all. “We already let you get shot to hell by one cartel; we’re not doing it again.”

“Thank you,” Billy said.

Michael had trained his eyes on Billy. “That doesn’t mean it has to be you,” he said. “I can be downright charming when I want to be.”

Billy had smiled, that small smile of his. “But we need you running the operation,” he said, because he’d anticipated this conversation all along. “None of us can do what you do. And I can make this cover work. I can do this.”

“This isn’t a short-term thing,” Casey interjected. “You have to have an attention span that outlasts a flea for once.”

The insult had been a veil for concern, and they all had known it. Billy shrugged easily. “My endurance may surprise you,” he said, then he winked. “In all things.”

“I don’t know if I like it,” Michael said. “Maybe there’s another way.”

“I can’t say I like it,” Billy said. “But there is no other way. Trust me, Michael. I’ll get the job done. No matter what.”

No matter what.

Those words haunt Michael now. He’d replayed them in his head often over the last few months, justifying every added day he kept Billy undercover. Just one more day, he’d always told him. Just a little more intel. Just a little more time.

Five months isn’t a lifetime, but it’s long enough to change a man. It’s long enough to make no matter what mean something.

But what?

What have they sacrificed? It can’t all be a win, can it?

Is Michael just a paranoid bastard?

Or is he a tactical genius?

What’s he missing?

Nothing, he reminds himself. His team is safe; his team is whole. He has everything.

And the night wears on.


In the morning, Michael is ready at the dawn. He’s not well rested, but he’s pretty used to that. He hadn’t made a habit of sleeping much; he always found it hard to turn his brain off when an op was in play, and after five months...

Well, Michael is a functional insomniac now.

While this may not be entirely healthy or psychologically viable, it does have its perks. He’s ready to go whenever need arises, and he does get a lot done. He’s showered, shaved, dressed and on his third cup of coffee when it’s finally late enough to check in with the others.

He calls Casey first and doesn’t comment about the multiple female voices he hears in the background. They make simple contact, but when Michael asks if he’s seen Billy, the human weapon goes uncharacteristically sullen. “I texted him to see if he wanted breakfast, but I never heard back,” Casey says. “Bastard has been out for less than 24 hours and he’s already a pain in my ass.”

It’s said with malice, but Michael knows better. He knows that Casey doesn’t like social meals most of the time, and the mere invitation to breakfast was Casey’s way of reaching out.

Michael sighs. “Well, he was pretty tired,” he offers. “Maybe he slept through it.”

“I guess,” Casey says. “But if he thinks my random acts of generosity are going to last--”

Chuckling, Michael shakes his head. “Like that’s a lesson Billy’s ever learned.”

“Point taken,” Casey grumbles. There’s a small hesitation. “Do you think we should go over there?”

“He was feeling under the weather,” Michael says. “He just needs some rest.”

It sounds so reasonable. It is reasonable.

Casey has no counter-argument. “Well, if you talk to him, tell him the offer is rescinded unless he’s paying,” he says tersely. “I waited five long months for his sorry ass, and I’m not waiting any more.”

“Fair enough,” Michael says before he hangs up. He’s hardly had a second to think when his phone rings. Frowning, he glances at the screen then answers promptly. “Martinez?”

“Oh, Michael,” Rick says faltering awkwardly. “I, um. You answered fast.”

“Yeah, I do that on missions,” Michael tells him with a small roll of his eyes. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I--” Rick hesitates again, as if he’s trying to figure out what he wants to say. “I just...I was wondering about Billy.”

Michael’s annoyance dissipates with a pang of sympathy. They’re all feeling protective of their recently returned teammate; Rick’s just the only one who doesn’t know how to mask it. “I haven’t checked in with him yet.”

“Oh,” Rick says, and it sounds like he’s disappointed.

“Something wrong, Martinez?” Michael presses.

Rick collects an audible breath. “Not really,” he says. “I mean, I called him and he didn’t answer.”

“Well, the man just spent five months with a drug cartel,” Michael reminds him. “I think he’s entitled to some sleep.”

“But it just kept ringing,” Rick says.

“So, he slept through it,” Michael concludes.

“I called him four times within fifteen minutes,” Rick finally confesses.

The concern is obvious, and Michael can’t lie, it raises flags for Michael, too. Billy’s notoriously fond of his phone, and he’d been more than somewhat eager to reclaim it from Michael when the operation ended. Michael’s cussed Billy out more than once for sending pointless text messages at all times of the night, and somehow the Scot has a knack for calling at the worst possible times.

But the practical part of Michael’s brain wins out. “He might have it on vibrate,” he says. “Hell, he could be taking a shower. We have no reason to think anything different.”

He can almost see Rick posturing. “I know, but...”

But it’s been five months. But it went too well. But Billy’s usually the first one to buy drinks. But something feels wrong.

Michael can’t base decisions on feelings. There are facts to consider. Compelling, hard to argue facts.

That’s what Michael has. That’s what he needs to stand on now.

“But nothing,” Michael says. “Just give it a few days. By the time we get back to Langley, everything will be just like it was five months ago before this mission started.”

Rick sighs. “I know,” he says, sounding dejected. “It’s stupid, I guess. It just feels like we’re waiting for the other shoe to fall.”

“Well, maybe this time there is no other shoe,” Michael says. “We’re entitled to some good luck every now and then.”

There’s another hesitation. “So you think it’d be bad for me to go to his room?”

“Let him rest,” Michael says. “When he’s ready, he’ll call you. You know Billy.”

“Yeah,” Rick says, but his voice lingers as if he wants to say more. “You’ll call me?”

Michael rolls his eyes again. “Go on your sightseeing tour, Martinez,” he says. “There’ll be nothing to call about.”

He hangs up with a flourish and looks at his phone. His fingers scrolls through his contact, hesitating on Billy.

Then he tosses his phone on the bed.

He needs to take his own advice -- and let it go.


So Michael does what Michael does. The mission isn’t active, but there’s still plenty to do. When he has his own files attended to, he knows there are still loose ends to tie up on the ground. He brokered this week off mostly for his team’s benefit, but he certainly does have things he needs to do.

He doesn’t feel like calling home again, so he puts that off. As much as he’d like to talk to Fay, he knows he won’t avoid a patch through to Higgins, which is really just not high on his list of fun ways to start his day. Instead, he decides to verify his handiwork and make sure that the military personnel in charge of the site don’t have any lingering issues they need help sorting out.

He locks up his room and glances at the elevator on the way out. Billy’s just one floor up. He could stop by...

But he told Casey and Rick and everyone else that Billy needed to rest. Michael needs to listen to his own advice.

Even if he doesn’t want to.


It’s not exactly a short drive out, and he’s pleased to find the site well guarded and thoroughly contained. He’s granted access and follows the leader of the operation back to the temporary holding area.

“We’re still trying to work out positive identifications while we transfer them over to Guatemalan authorities,” the commander explains. “Needless to say, they’re not being very helpful.”

“Go figure,” Michael says wryly. “How much longer are you going to hold them?”

“Not much,” the commander says. “A few of them may need to be extradited to other countries based on oustanding warrants, but I hope to have this place sealed and shut down within two days.”

Michael nods his approval. “And the evidence?”

The commander takes a moment to look impressed. “Best we’ve ever scored in this region,” he says. “Your man was right on target with this one.”

For five months, Michael should hope. “Anything you need me to do to finish this up?” he asks instead.

“Yeah, there is one thing,” the commander says. “The leader has conflicting arrest warrants in several countries, which is why we’ve still got him under full guard while officials figure out where he’s going to be sent.”

“So?” Michael asks.

“So, we’ve been trying to get him to talk to us while we sort out his extradition,” the commander says.

“I’m still not following--”

“He wants to talk you,” the commander says.

Michael frowns.

The commander holds up his hands. “We haven’t told him anything,” he says. “But he’s not stupid. He knows the only way this went down is with an insider. American military raid -- he’s thinking American intelligence pulled one off.”

“I can’t go in there,” Michael says. “You know that.”

“Of course,” the commander says. “Which is why I said he could talk to a member of our legal team, especially since one of his warrants is in America.”

Michael is skeptical.

“It’s our only shot at getting him to tell us anything else,” the commander says.

Considering this, Michael draws a long breath and lets it out. Although he’s pretty sure it goes against direct protocol in this case, he’s also pretty sure that he’d love to take a crack at this guy. That’s sort of how Michael operates -- if there’s a source, Michael wants to tap it. He restrains himself more often than not for the sake of his safety and the safety of his team, but if he’s being offered a working cover and the chance to confront one of the most notorious cartel members currently in operation--

Well, it’s hard to resist.

He nods. “Okay,” he says. “Am I going in as a friendly?”

“More like a neutral party,” the commander says. “You’re there to explain the legal ramifications. You’re not authorized to offer him anything, but if he happens to say something...”

Michael smiles. “I think I know what I’m doing.”


The confidence is no bluster. Michael has planned, orchestrated and executed this operation from the get-go. He’s not the only one who can take credit, but it’s no stretch to say that he’s the mastermind of it all.

And it feels pretty damn good, really. To see one of the region’s most wanted criminals handcuffed and idle, with armed guards nearby. This man has killed countless people. He’s ruined so many lives. Michael sacrificed five months of Billy’s life to capture him, and for that moment, the gratification of seeing him in custody is worth it.

He smiles as he sits down. “Mr. Ortiz,” he says. “I hear you’re not being very cooperative.”

Guillermo Ortiz scowls, face twisted with something akin to rage and hatred. “Were you with the one who turned on me?” he asks in heavily accented English, his dark eyes glaring at Michael vindictively.

Michael raises his eyebrows, playing it entirely cool. “I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says with a shrug. “I was sent here because I was told you have some questions about the legal charges against you.”

“I do not care about the charges,” Ortiz spits. “I only care about who betrayed me.”

“Well, you work with criminals, if the outstanding arrest warrants for your cohorts are any indication,” Michael says. “They’re not exactly known for their honesty.”

“Do not play with me!” Ortiz snarls.

Michael lifts his hands. “Aggression will get you nowhere at this point, Mr. Ortiz.”

“This is the Americans doing, yes?” he asks. “So where is the CIA? They could be anywhere.”

Michael chuckles, even though Ortiz is dead on. “Pointing fingers at fictional ghosts isn’t going to lessen the charges against you. But if you’re willing to talk--”

Ortiz shakes his head. “It has to be a new hire,” he says. “Someone from the merger six months ago.”

“I’m not sure I’m the one--”

“Garcia is a longtime associate, and he vouched for the men on his side of the operation, but I had my doubts,” Ortiz continues, watching Michael carefully. It’s clear what he’s doing -- he’s listing names to get a reaction -- which is why Michael sure as hell isn’t going to move now. “Rodriguez is the most obvious choice, which is why I think him to be innocent of this betrayal. Edwards is also likely, since he is the only American on my payroll, but I am not sure you are that stupid.”

Michael sits back and crosses his arms over his chest.

Ortiz doesn’t stop, his gaze narrowing even farther. “I think Janssen is also possible, but maybe it is more sinister. Maybe you turned one of my own. Recarey, perhaps? He has always seemed weak. Or Castillo -- he is so young.”

“Mr. Ortiz--”

Ortiz’s doesn’t seem to hear him, eyes boring into Michael with uncomfortable clarity. “None of those, then. I have considered others. I have thought about Pena. And also Mr. Everett, who is so fond of talking.” He pauses, tilting his head. “But then, Mr. Everett is fond of many things, yes?”

Michael doesn’t flinch at the mention of Billy’s alias. It’s a moot point now, but there are people out there who could still technically ID Billy by that alias, and Michael’s not leaving anything like that to chance. He can’t -- he won’t.

But his momentary silence does not escape Ortiz’s notice. The man is smart; the man is good. That’s one reason why Michael went after him specifically -- that’s why he was willing to let Billy stay under that long. Because Ortiz was worth it.

The sly smile across the man’s face is predatory and unsettling. “I do hope it is not Mr. Everett,” he says. “Because he will have many things to account for if he returns home. Traitors always get what is due to them.”

Michael raises his eyes. “If you’re making threats against some of the other prisoners--”

“No threats,” Ortiz says. “Please, I am an incarcerated man, due for extradition and a long court battle. My lieutenants have already started dismantling the rest of the network. They will serve justice as they see fit, and they will not fall prey to the likes of you again. But traitors--” He stops, eyes almost gleaming now. “Traitors throw rocks at glass houses. Traitors call out the speck in their brother’s eye without removing the plank in their own. Mr. Everett has many planks, and he will find that others are not as forgiving of such things as we are.”

Michael flattens his mouth, and refuses to let his emotions show. Ortiz is grasping at straws; Ortiz is throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. Michael’s not going to tell him if he’s right or wrong.

He’s not going to tell this son of a bitch anything.

Collecting a breath, Michael forces a smile as he gets to his feet. “I don’t think you need legal advice, Mr. Ortiz,” Michael says.

“Oh?” Ortiz asks.

“No,” Michael says. “You need a psychologist. Or an executioner. I guess I’ll let the legal system decide -- wherever you end up.”

“This does not end so easily!” Ortiz called after him. “Not for you or for your little traitor.”


On the outside, Michael is in a hurry to leave. His chest feels tight, and he’s starting to sweat. He’s almost out, when the commander stops him. “No luck then?”

Michael blinks, and remembers himself. “No,” he says. “Bastard’s pretty determined to make this harder.”

The commander sighs. “Well, his testimony will be inconsequential,” he says. “You guys got all the evidence that will be needed.”

“Yeah,” Michael says. “Is there anything else?”

“For me? No,” he says. “But if you want to check in with the local authorities--”

Michael nods. “Will do.’

The commander hesitates. “Everything go okay in there?”

Michael looks up, almost in surprise. “Yeah, of course,” he says, the words on repeat now, sounding weaker and more hollow every time he says them. “Everything’s perfect.”


On the way back, Michael reminds himself that Ortiz is a criminal. He’s not just any criminal, he’s a smart, sadistic bastard. He doesn’t just know how to evade the law; he takes pleasure in his criminality. It’s not just business for him. It’s a way of life.

In some ways, Michael can respect this. That’s his own approach to the job -- he just doesn’t know how to separate it. Like Michael, Ortiz knows how to work people. He knows how to put the details together to make a big picture. That’s why Ortiz wanted to speak to someone in the CIA -- and it’s the same reason Michael took the chance.

They’re pretty similar.

Except Ortiz is a drug dealing murderer, and Michael’s committed to working for the good of his country.

Logically, he tries to tell himself that Ortiz’s words were nothing but a psychological ploy. People react different ways when faced with failure and imminent downfall. Ortiz is clearly one who believes that the best defense is a good offense. His guess about Billy was luck -- pure and total luck.

And yet, the details he’d divulged...

Michael’s hands tighten on the steering wheel.

Traitors call out the speck in their brother’s eye without removing the plank in their own. Mr. Everett has many planks, and he will find that others are not as forgiving of such things as we are.

Maybe bold words; maybe just words designed to entice and provoke. But the best enticements -- the greatest provocations -- always start with the truth.

It’s stupid to think about that, though. Billy was undercover as a drug dealer. Michael had added some of the more colorful turns to Billy’s cover story himself. Theodore Everett had to have some serious issues or Ortiz would never have taken him on.

But Michael can’t shake it. He can’t shake it any more than he can shake the silence from Billy this morning. The way he ignored phone calls and texts. The way he went to bed without so much as a celebratory drink or story. The way he looked, the way he walked, the way he was.

Like he isn’t quite Billy anymore.

Long term undercover ops are hard, and they put pressure on operatives. That could be all this is. Billy needs some time to acclimatize.

Or it could be something else.

Michael knows logically that he’s reading too much into this, but this time he can’t ignore his gut.

He won’t.

With new resolve, Michael presses down on the gas and speeds back to the hotel.


When he gets there, Michael goes straight to the stairs, jogging up them two at a time. His heart is pounding when he reaches the top, and he tells himself it’s just from the physical exertion.

This is stupid, he tells himself, even as he walks down the corridor toward Billy’s room. This is paranoia at its worse. He’ll knock and Billy will let him in and they’ll laugh about how badly this mission has warped them both. Michael will take Billy out for lunch and joke about how they need to get back to Langley so things can go back to normal.

That’s what will happen.

That’s what has to happen.

The thought bolsters his optimism, but he still knocks, knuckles rapping on the door. He glances down the hall, waiting for the inevitable reply.

When several moments pass with no response, Michael tries again, this time calling, “Billy?”

Billy’s a light sleeper -- he’s a spy, that much is a given -- so Michael fully expects an answer. There’s no reason for Billy not to answer.

Trying again, Michael says, “Hey, Billy. You in there?”

Unless Billy’s not in there. Maybe he went out. Obviously Billy knows he has to keep a low profile, but the Scot’s good at being innocuous when he wants to be. He could slip into the hotel bar with no questions asked.

With that in mind, Michael pulls out his phone and dials, lingering by the door with another wary eye down the hall. It’s starts ringing, and Michael is thinking of a snarky answer when he hear something from inside the room.

Turning back toward the door, he leans closer. “Billy?” he asks. Then he hears it again.

Billy’s phone. It’s ringing.

Which means Billy is inside -- and not answering.

Frowning now, Michael almost pounds on the door. “Billy!” he says. “Open up! Or I’m coming in.”

It’s a bit presumptuous -- or a lot presumptuous -- but Michael is team leader and Billy’s his responsibility, and he just spent five months having no viable means to check up on his operative whenever he wanted to. Now that he does have such a luxury, he’s sure as hell not going to be stopped by a door.

Besides, it’s not like ODS hasn’t made a habit of breaking into each other’s homes. Michael considers it a worthwhile pastime, and Billy’s returned the favor more than once.

This is fair game.

At least that’s what Michael tells himself as he pulled out his key. Since he booked the room, he has the backup copy. This was never explicitly stated, but it was surely assumed. There is no such thing as privacy in the ODS.

The light flashes, and Michael turns the knob, letting himself in cautiously. He doesn’t get far before he has to step over the first article of clothing. Glancing inward, it’s obviously that the place is a mess. This isn’t unusual for Billy, of course, though usually it takes him more than 24 hours to accrue a mess of this size. It looks like the Scot has taken everything in his suitcase out and flung it around, which gives Michael some trepidation.

Still, there’s no furniture overturned, which makes an altercation unlikely. But Billy seems to have taken objection to the ice bucket and plastic cups on the dresser, because they’re in a scattered mess at Michael’s feet.

Even as he mentally tells himself it’s nothing again, Michael finds himself reaching unconsciously for the gun he’s carrying. “Billy?” he calls out.

There’s a small, wretched noise from the bathroom. Michael’s pulse leaps in his throat. Billy.

Quickly, he makes his way through the debris on the floor, hesitating with his hand on the knob for the briefest of moments. “Billy?”

There’s a noise, ragged and human -- almost like a sob. It’s hard to tell, though, with the sound of the shower and the running water from Michael can only assume is the shower. He’s about to consider giving Billy some privacy after all, when he hears the noise again, louder and more distinct this time -- definitely a cry.

All hesitations aside, Michael swing the door open, hand on his gun as he steps in.

The bathroom is just as much of a mess as the rest of the room. The toiletries are scattered all over the floor, and whole rolls of toilet paper are floating in the toilet. The sink is running along with the shower, which is making a puddle on the floor from where it’s splashing around the half open shower curtain.

And that’s when Michael sees Billy.

The Scotsman is curled up in the shower, still dressed in his slacks and undershirt from the night before, though his dress shirt and vest are gone. His knees are against his chest, and he’s got himself pressed against the tile with his head buried in knees while he visibly shivers.

“Billy, what the hell?” Michael hears himself exclaim as he crosses the tiny bathroom and reaches into the shower to turn the water off. He almost flinches as he fumbles with the dial -- the water is ice cold.

The hair on the back of his neck prickles, and he wonders just how long Billy has been sitting there under the deluge.

“Billy?” Michael tries again, looking at his operative, whose wet hair is plastered to his head even as his fists grip the soggy fabric of his pants.

“Nooo,” Billy moans -- a plaintive, almost inhuman sound. He twitches a little, shoulders balling up as his body seems to curl in tighter on itself.

Michael’s concern is quickly turning into fear. “Billy,” he tries again, reaching out to touch his friend. “It’s me, Michael--”

But the second Michael’s fingers brush against Billy’s arm, the Scotsman recoils, jolting violently as his head comes up and smacks against the tile.

“Billy!” Michael says, trying to make his order not sound like the plea it is.

Billy’s eyes are squeezed shut and he shakes his head in what appears to be agony. “Michael, Michael, please, no,” he groans, the words slurring together almost unintelligibly. “I need, I need -- oh, God -- they’re under my skin!

The last words are practically a wail as Billy begins to scratch frantically at the skin of his exposed arms, leaving red trails with his nails over the goose-pimpled flesh.

“Easy, Billy. Calm down--” Michael says, nearly pleading again as he tries to grab ahold of Billy’s hands while he thrashes. Blood is starting to well up in earnest now, smearing with the moisture on Billy’s skin to look even worse than Michael logically knows it is.

Either way, this is bad enough.

This is bad.

Billy is almost incoherent -- and he’s starting to scare the hell out of Michael. How long had he been like this?

“They’re crawling,” Billy cries, twisting with more strength than he looks capable of right now. “They’re crawling all over. Get them off!”

Whatever the issue is, it can’t be solved in the bathroom. Not with Billy bleeding and raving and God knows what else. “There’s nothing there, Collins,” Michael says in his most authoritative voice. He doesn’t pull rank often -- it’s not usually necessary -- but he can and he will. “Collins, look at me.

With the order, Billy finally seems to hear him. It takes a moment -- a long, painful moment -- before Billy manages to lift his head and turn his eyes toward Michael, Michael almost wishes he hadn’t.

Because Billy’s eyes are red-rimmed and bloodshot. His cheeks are pale, almost gaunt with the thickening stubble. There’s recognition, at least, but it’s clouded by something wretched -- something haunted -- in the younger man’s countenance.

Billy’s broken somehow. Michael’s not sure of all the details of Billy’s undercover work, but he can’t deny the possibility that something more sinister happened. And he wouldn’t put it past Billy to hide it from him. In fact, there’s no doubt he would.

Michael had worried about Billy, but he hadn’t seen any signs. At least, no signs that he couldn’t explain away. That he couldn’t justify. He’d thought Billy was okay -- or that he would be. He’d thought that if they could just finish the operation, everything would go back to normal.

Except now Billy’s clawing his skin in a cold shower.

And it’s Michael’s fault.

Because this was Michael’s operation. Because Michael made the call to send Billy in. Because Michael made the call to keep him there for five months.

It’s Michael’s fault.

“You’re bleeding,” he finally says dumbly, if only because that was probably the only thing in this whole damn mess that he could actually deal with. “I’m going to get a towel and some bandages and clean this up, okay?”

Billy says nothing but curls up even tighter, his gaze drifting off as he shivers.

Michael swallows, stifling a curse. The Scot is showing no signs of moving -- hell, he barely seems cognizant. Michael is going to have to haul him out of that shower and manhandle him into dry clothes at this rate.

But first things first.

Gingerly, he gets to his feet. The bathroom is a mess, but he finds a relatively clean pair of washcloths on the floor. Carefully, he kneels back down in front of Billy and begins drying off his arms. Billy doesn’t resist as Michael takes his wrist, stretching out his arm and mopping up the oozing blood. He’s relieved to see that the scrapes aren’t deep -- they should heal quickly, with no further problems.

But that’s when Michael sees something else.

The marks are different from the rest, closer to the elbow. Michael wipes away the blood again, leaning closer to get a better look.

At first, he’s not sure what they are. They’re like punctures, small and round -- but there are a whole series of them. Almost like...

Michael’s stomach drops.

Track marks.

Michael doesn’t want to believe it, but there’s no denying what the marks are. And there’s no denying the implications.

Traitors call out the speck in their brother’s eye without removing the plank in their own. Mr. Everett has many planks, and he will find that others are not as forgiving of such things as we are.

The implications of Ortiz’s words are suddenly painfully clear. Because Billy was undercover as a drug dealer. Drug dealers aren’t junkies, but they are known to sample their product. It’s all part of the business. Normal and expected.

And Michael had kept Billy with that cover for five months.

While they shipped cocaine.

Michael’s stomach turns, and for a moment he wants to be sick. Billy’s got track marks. Billy spent five months with drug dealers around cocaine. Billy’s incoherent in a shower, trying to scratch his skin off.

He knows what this means. He knows and he doesn’t want to admit it. Because Michael’s planned for a lot of things, but he hasn’t counted on detoxing Billy from a drug addiction among them.

Looking at the Scot, still curled up and wretched, it’s pretty clear that’s what he’s going to have to do.

Then, Billy trembles, shuddering violently a few times as he whimpers and turns his head away, as if to block out some imagined horror. Numbly, Michael continues drying Billy’s arms before finding the meager first aid kit from Billy’s travel bag. He treats the wounds carefully, lathering them with out of date antibiotic ointment before wrapping them in gauze.

All while trying not to look at the weeping holes in the crook of Billy’s elbow.

He grits his teeth together, treating the last of the wounds. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” he asks, his throat tight.

He doesn’t actually expect Billy to answer, but the Scot moans, shifting beneath Michael touch. His head presses further to the side, almost as if he’s trying to melt into the tile. “Thought...I could handle it...myself...”

The words are wheezing and desperate, a ghost of Billy’s normally confident rhetoric.

Billy’s face screws up, and he shudders again. “Wanted the mission to be perfect,” he all but cries, fresh tears leaking from his closed eyes.


It had been perfect. Everything had gone just like planned, like clockwork. Everything had been enacted without a hitch.

Except for the operative who picked up a drug habit undercover. A drug habit Michael didn’t see but should have warned against. A drug habit that probably saved the cover.

After all, Michael had sent Billy undercover as a drug dealer. And Billy had nailed the mannerisms and the lingo -- and the extracurricular activities.


As he finishes wrapping Billy’s wounds, Michael has never hated the cruel irony of perfection more.


Michael says nothing as he finishes up, and by the time he helps Billy to his feet, the Scot seems to have come back to his senses. His eyes are open, if scared, and he allows Michael to help him out of the tub and move back into the main room.

With the mess, Michael’s not sure what’s clean and what’s not, but at this point, he’ll settle for something dry. Billy doesn’t resist as Michael forcibly takes his soaked t-shirt off, snagging a towel to pat his torso dry. It’s awkward as hell, and he can’t help but notice that Billy’s lost some weight. He’s not emaciated or anything, but his ribs are more prominent than they should be, and Michael is more than somewhat eager to get a shirt back on the other man so neither of them have to see it.

He finds a new shirt on the floor, lifting it up over Billy’s head before the Scot finagles his too-skinny arms into the holes. When Michael finds a new pair of boxers, Billy sheepishly takes them. “I can do this part, I reckon,” he says, his head ducked, as if he’s afraid to look Michael in the eye.

“You sure?” Michael asks, uncertain about letting Billy out of his sight.

Billy lifts his head, giving Michael a self-deprecating smile -- at least, that’s the intention. It almost looks garish on his face, a poor approximation of Billy’s normal joking demeanor. “It’s the bathroom, Michael,” he says plainly.

That’s not an overly compelling argument.

Billy looks down again, clearly embarrassed. “If I had any drugs, I would have taken them by now,” he says almost feebly.

That’s a much better argument, and Michael guiltily concedes the point. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll be right here.”

Billy says nothing, turning and hobbling unsteadily back toward the bathroom. The door snicks shut, and Michael finds himself lingering closer, listening to the small sounds of movement as Billy presumably undresses his bottom half.

For the first time since Michael showed up in Billy’s hotel room, he has the chance to think about what’s happened. It’s shocking on one level. But it also makes sense, like the last piece of the puzzle finally coming into place.

That’s the crux of it, really. Michael should have seen this. As Billy’s primary contact for five months, he should have seen this.

Because Billy’s in detox. Hell, Billy’s a drug addict.

It’s harsh to think of it like that, but Michael can’t wrap his mind around it any other way. There are plenty of logical reasons for why this happened, but none of it changed the consequences. Billy can’t go back to the CIA hooked on cocaine. They’ll take him off field duty in an instant. Billy knows that, which is why he’s locked himself in his hotel room to ostensibly fend it off.

But it never should have gotten to this point. Michael’s stomach twists, this time with a flair of anger. It was so stupid -- Billy knew better. He’s cavalier in a lot of things, and he’s certainly not one to consider his body his temple, but Billy knows better. He may drink too much, and he certainly doesn’t eat the most balanced diet, but he’s never been so stupid as to turn to drugs.

Even on a mission, Billy could have found ways around it.

For a few months, maybe, anyway. Longer than that...

Michael closes his eyes. Longer than that and Billy would have no choice. No wonder Billy’s entire disposition shifted. After a few months, he’d gotten himself addicted to cocaine. And Michael can’t even be sure if Billy’s desire to stay under was all noble anymore. Not necessarily that Billy wanted to stay in that kind of life, but he probably didn’t want to face reality.


Detoxing by himself in a lonely hotel room, suffering in silence to protect his career, his friendship -- his dignity.

Suddenly, the door opens, and Michael steps back, looking expectant as Billy shuffles back out. The wet clothes are gone now, and he doesn’t look up as he makes his way past Michael and sits gingerly on the bed.

Michael watches him, taking in the guarded mannerisms, the uncomfortably introverted behavior.

He sighs. “You want to tell me what happened?” he asks finally.

Billy swallows, glancing up only briefly before his gaze veers off again. He shrugs one shoulder.

“Billy,” Michael says with as much patience as he can muster. “You’re addicted, right?”

“I didn’t take a shower with my clothes on just for the sheer fun of it,” Billy admits dejectedly.


Billy nods.

“Anything else?”

Billy’s eyes dart up. “That’s not enough?”

Michael works his jaw. “How long?”

Looking down again, Billy seems to slouch further. “Two months,” he says. “I was able to avoid it for the first month and a half, and for a bit after I got by with only partial hits from time to time. But I was there so long...they were starting to notice.” He looks up at Michael again, his eyes gleaming. “You have to believe me, Michael. I thought it’d just be once or twice and then I’d be out. But the mission didn’t end, and they were starting to talk about it. I kept thinking it’d just be one more day, one more time -- and I wouldn’t get addicted. I promise--” His voices breaks, and he cuts off with a sob, looking back down again.

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Michael asks, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice.

“It wasn’t part of the operational guidelines,” Billy says. He shakes his head miserably. “It didn’t change anything.”

“Except it left you compromised,” Michael snaps, more harshly than he intends. He holds back the urge to swear. “What if you overdosed? Huh? What if you took too much and died undercover? What would you have done then, huh? Where would our mission have been then?”

Billy looks up, eyes wide. “I was careful--”

Michael slams his hand against the wall. “Bullshit!” he exclaims, the anger peaking uncontrollably. “You’re addicted to cocaine, Billy. There’s nothing careful about it.”

The look on Billy’s face is nothing short of devastation. He looks like he’s been kicked in the gut, and all the fight -- whatever little he had -- just leaves him.

Just that fast, Michael’s anger dissipates. “Billy,” he tries again, more gently this time. “You should have told me--”

Billy blinks rapidly, closing his mouth and looking away. “I did this on my own,” he says, voice taut. “So I can fix it on my own.”


Billy shakes his eyes, and when he looks at Michael, his blue eyes are hard with pain. “I’ve made it this far on my own.”

“Yeah, and look how good that’s gone,” Michael quips despite him.

Billy’s face screws up with pain, but he blocks it quickly. “Just give me the week,” he says. “One week, and I can kick this. I promise you, Michael. I will do this or--”

Michael snorts. “Or what? You’ll die trying?”

Billy nods. “If I have to.”

Michael rolls his eyes, running a hand through his hair. “And I’m just supposed to walk away?”

This time, Billy’s eyes flash with resentment. “That is what you do, isn’t it? Make the plans and leave someone else to do the dirty work?”

The jab is sharp, and Michael stiffens. “You know what, fine,” he says. “You did do this to yourself, so don’t come crying to me when you’re crawling out of your skin.”

“I haven’t yet,” Billy returns.

It’s stupid. It’s all so stupid, and Billy’s being stupid, and Michael can’t take the stupid anymore. In fact, he can’t take anything at all.

“Fine,” he says, moving decidedly for the door. Because he’s had enough; he’s done his part and he wants this to be over -- one way or another.

He opens the door with such a flourish and closes it so soundly that he almost doesn’t hear the muffled, strangled sob from inside the room.



Michael only makes it halfway down the hall before he just stops. He slumps against the wall, sinking down and burying his head in his knees, wondering how the hell perfect became a nightmare so quickly.


Michael’s not sure how long he stands there, because suddenly time doesn’t really mean anything at all. Five months, five minutes -- it’s all too long, and Michael doesn’t want to walk away any more than he wants to go back.

He just doesn’t want it to be like this. It can’t be like this. They’ve never screwed it up this bad, except when Carson got blown to hell in North Africa. Michael doesn’t let stuff like this happen. After Carson, Michael had promised himself he’d be in control of everything, that nothing bad would happen to his team.

But now Billy’s a cocaine addict.

Michael has to tell himself that again and again, just to make himself believe it. It doesn’t seem possible. It doesn’t seem real. It doesn’t even make sense. Billy’s not that stupid. He can’t really be that stupid.

But what was he supposed to do? Five months undercover, what was Billy supposed to do? It wasn’t a purely recreational choice. It was part of the character. Billy might have fudged it for a few weeks or a month or two, but five months? Someone would have needed to see him take a hit or everything would have fallen apart.

And Billy doesn’t let things fall apart. That’s why he’s the guy for those kind of missions -- because he keeps a cover and he keeps it so completely that there’s never any room for doubt.

It’s not Billy who was stupid. It was Michael.

No matter what Billy says, this is Michael’s doing. No matter who slid the needle into Billy’s arm, this is Michael’s fault.

This is Michael’s mission, and he has to see it through.

He lifts his head and looks back down the hall.

Even to the bitter end.